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Almond growers reported a near-perfect bloom and pollination season for their crop this year. Above, local farmer Mannie Rose inspects a tree in an Upper Road orchard. The Rose family farming operation is among those featured in the 2020 Salute to Agriculture, a special section in this week’s editions of the West Side Index and Gustine Press-Standard.

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.”

Farmers, Cerutti said, must be diligent in their management practices and spending to be as efficient as possible.

And water, seemingly always an issue facing California agriculture growers, has emerged as a major concern once again.

While growers in the Central California Irrigation District expects to receive a full allocation this year because of CCID’s senior water rights, those in the neighboring Del Puerto District have been given an initial allocation of 15 percent.

That equates to about five inches of water per acre, said district General Manager Anthea Hansen.

The district did have some carryover supplies, and is continuing to bring in water for its growers through an innovative program which recycles treated municipal wastewater.

She said the district will continue to seek out supplemental water supplies on the open market, and predicted that some growers will turn to their own groundwater wells to nurture fields and orchards.

Some growers, she said, will leave open ground fallow as they concentrate their water allocations on permanent crops such as almonds, which require about 36 inches of water to grow.

“Nobody is going to throw beans and tomatoes in (the ground) at a 15 percent water supply,” she said.

Del Puerto continues to look into options to improve the reliability of its water supply, Hansen said, including a study into the feasibility of creating an off-stream reservoir in the Del Puerto Canyon in a joint project with the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority.

“We need to plan forward and have as many tools available to us as possible to capture water when it is available, and to manage it in a way that we can avoid these disastrous ups and downs,” Hansen said. “No one strategy solves all the problems. You have to employ as many strategies as possible.”