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California Considers
Alternative Crops  

California farmers who are considering changing their cropping patterns due to the state’s water shortage are now looking at growing crops that may also help them cushion the impact of the latest fuel crunch.

With diesel prices at record highs, California farmers and ranchers are struggling to find ways to minimize fuel usage on the farm without compromising their production.

One way is to farm crops that require less equipment usage, says Dan Errotabere, a Fresno County diversified farmer who grows almonds, pistachios, processing tomatoes, cotton, alfalfa, wheat and other crops.

Many farmers are favoring safflower because of current high prices and the minimum tillage required to grow the crop.

Safflower may even displace crops such as processing tomatoes and garlic, both of which use more water but typically offer higher returns, he says.

“The price of safflower is up considerably this year, and it was up quite a bit last year,” says Errotabere. “It’s probably driven by the soybean oil market that has seen better prices. The whole oil market is responding much like ethanol has affected the grain complex. So we’re seeing commodity inflations on several fronts and it’s pulled up other commodities along with it.”

Will Crop Acreage Change?

But how big of an impact safflower’s market will have on the state’s acreage remains to be seen, he adds.

“There’s an awful lot of talk about putting in more safflower,” he says.

While he doesn’t normally grow safflower, Errotaberre says he might consider it in place of some of his cotton acreage to cut back on water and fuel usage.

“Those are powerful components to reshuffle the crop mix,” he says.

Another crop that is gaining considerable traction due to higher prices this year is wheat. Kole Upton, a wheat farmer in Madera County, says the higher price is helping to ease the pain of the increased fuel costs. While he has increased his acreage on permanent crops such as almonds for higher returns, this year he’s planting more wheat, mostly because of water limitations but also because wheat requires less tractor work, and that will cut down on his diesel cost.

Upton says over the years he’s been investing in bigger and more efficient equipment to reduce the number of trips needed through the field for land preparation. Wheel tractors with more horsepower and bigger discs have effectively allowed him to cover more ground faster.

“If you’re able to do three times as much with the same amount of fuel, the larger tractor may use more fuel per hour, but you’re getting three times as many acres done, so your per-acre cost would go down,” says Upton.

Trying To Conserve Energy

Many farmers say they have continually changed how they operate their farms to try to conserve energy, and what they could do they’ve already done. What’s left now is they must absorb the higher costs of doing business, says Fresno County farmer Russel Efird.

“I think most of agriculture has already pared down all the fat,” says Efird, who grows grapes, nuts and tree fruit and has a commercial harvesting operation. “My concern with this pinch right now is there’s not any more places to trim.”

He noted that he’s already converted the majority of his irrigation system to drip or micro-sprinklers, which not only helps him save water but also energy needed to deliver water to the fields. He’s also adopted no-till farming methods on all his orchards to minimize fuel usage in tractor equipment.

“Once you’ve done all that, you’ve already cut down on your trips through the fields, so now you’re down to only the necessary trips,” says Efird, president of Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Having already maximized his efficiencies, Efird says if he tries to cut back further, his crops will suffer and that will cost him more money.

Rising Irrigation Costs

For Keith Nilmeier, who farms peaches, apricots, nectarines, grapes and citrus in Fresno County, using drip irrigation has not helped him to save money on fuel because his tree crops require more water.

“With drip, you use less water so it reduces your water costs, but many times you run (the system) longer because you’re using less water and because you’re applying it more often,” says Nilmeier.

To save fuel, he has cut back on disking his fields, which means he has to live with having more weeds.

“When you’re growing weeds, that becomes a problem,” he says.

California Farm Bureau Federation originally published this article.


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