West Side agriculture, in all its many forms, is heading into another year with both the optimism typical of farmers and the challenges that agriculture faces all too many times. Mother Nature blessed California almond growers with near-perfect weather during the crucial bloom and pollination period a few weeks ago, potentially setting the stage for another bumper crop when late summer rolls around.
But growers in federal water districts such as the Del Puerto Water District which runs along the I-5 corridor from Vernalis to Santa Nella, again face sharply curtailed water supplies. Increasing production costs are a concern for producers of many commodities.
And the impact of the COVID-19 virus, which has upended virtually every aspect of everyday life across California and the nation, remains to be fully seen in the ag community. The almond pollination period has been a highlight of recent weeks, but that element of the ag industry has also been tempered by a decline in market prices. Jim Jasper, president of Stewart & Jasper, said the recent bloom and pollination period was ideal. But, he noted, almond growers have seen a decline in prices in recent weeks. Grower returns may be down from last year, Jasper said, but “that will be okay if they get a bigger crop.” Almonds, a leading California commodity, could be heavily impacted by the COVID-19 virus, he added. “This hit China first and foremost, and they have been taking a lot of almonds,” Jasper said of the pandemic. “As of this moment they are pretty much not taking anything.” He anticipates that sales to other countries hard-hit by the virus could also curtail imports, and that other commodities may be impacted by the crisis.
“There are so many uncertainties. We don’t know if this will last a month or four months,” Jasper commented. “It is a time that we have never encountered before, so we don’t know what to expect.” The pandemic has prompted Stewart & Jasper to implement a number of policies at its operation, including social distancing practices which provide separation between employees. The company has also implemented strict protocols aimed at keeping its employees healthy. “The food is fine,” Jasper emphasized. “We’re concerned about our workforce and keeping a good environment.” Rural Gustine farmer Tim Gomes said he is hopeful that any impacts of the virus will prove to be short-lived rather than lasting. Gomes, who grows a mixture of row crops and almonds, said the ag outlook appears to be mixed.
“The almonds are still looking like they are going to be profitable. The almond board is very confident that they will be able to market this year’s crop at a profitable price,” he said. “The row crops don’t look real promising right now, but that can change.” He and fellow row crop grower Patrick Cerutti, president of Cerutti Brothers, cited rising production costs as a concern facing farmers. “What we are selling (crops) for has not moved as rapidly as the cost of production,” Gomes commented. “Labor is a big one. We are competing with construction and other industries for labor.” “Every year it seems like expenses go up,” Cerutti commented. “You hope to get some kind of an increase (in prices) to cover your rising expenses. That isn’t always the way it happens.”
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