Water better, but still a concern for farmers
John Rieping/the Madera Tribune
Standing water near almond orchards are still a concern for farmers, however, they are happy with the amount of rain received this year.
With the abundance of rain this year, the word “drought” has been forced away from the public’s view, but there is still concern over the groundwater and storage, according to Creekside Farming owner Jay Mahil.
Mahil is the president of the Madera Farm Bureau’s board of directors and part owner of Creekside Farming.
“It’s great to have all this rain, but we still need more,” he said.
Mahil and his three family partners own Creekside, which has 6,000 acres of wine grapes, almonds and pistachios. They have been farming in Madera since 1996.
“We’re very fortunate this year,” he said. “It’s beautiful. We’re five inches above typical. It’s great.” The Madera Tribune caught up with Mahil to go over concerns about water, labor and his recent trip to the World Ag Expo in Tulare.
Tyler Takeda: What do you go to see at the World Ag Expo? Jay Mahil: We usually go there to look at new innovations. I go every other year. It seems to be a pretty good break for me. Technology was the main thing to see. This year, the amount of people with drone technology was huge. I saw it two years ago, but there were a few vendors. There was much more this year.
TT: What do you do at the expo? JM: For me, it opens my eyes that something is available. We’ll grab a card or brochure and contact them after the show. There’s a lot of people we business with and catch up with, a lot of Midwest and East coast guys that you don’t see on a daily basis. It’s always interesting. There’s always new stuff. We do so many different things in farming so it’s good to find something new.
TT: With all the rainfall we’ve had, what still concerns you? JM: Sometimes I wonder if it’s coming down too much, too fast. We’re in flood release right now and see the canals and rivers flowing. It’s a shame that we have to let a lot of this water go to waste and can’t capture more of it. We’ve always complained we need more dams and more storage. People have told us we don’t have enough to store. Just look out your car windows as you drive along the freeway, there’s plenty of water to be stored. The other great thing was had a very good snowpack. Hopefully, we can keep that back and stay cool enough that it doesn’t melt off too fast for us to use that late in the season. Everybody needs the rain and the snow. No matter what industry you’re in, it’s going to be beneficial to you.
TT: What do you think when you see all of the rain we’ve had? JM: It’s kind of a great thing to have with all the rain. Rain is a great thing. Last year was good, but this year is whoa. To have two years like this with rain and having a great rain year this year, it’s going to be tremendous for groundwater recharge. Hopefully, our aquifers will bounce back. I don’t see them bouncing back 20-30 feet, but 5-10 feet, I’ll take that. That’s something we’re putting away in our banking account to use later. Hopefully, we don’t have to use it like we have in the past few years and we can keep banking it away. It’s going to help out our underground aquifers. As a grower, it will really help neutralize our soil. We’re able to leach out all the salt accumulating in the soil from the past few years over the drought. We haven’t been able to get that stuff out of the root zone. I can look at this year’s crop year a pretty good crop year. They usually they heavy years are the heavy years because it’s because of the moisture cleaning out the soil.
TT: What do you also worry about with all the rain we have been getting? JM: Not too much trees falling over, unless we get some high winds. Most guys have been prepared for these storms. Farmers are not irrigating to keep the water out of the fields. One thing farmers are worrying about is that the almonds are in bloom, disease pressure is very high. Wet fields can cause root fungus to happen in almonds. We’re going to have a little more disease pressure going into this year in losing trees to mortality to disease. The rain also hurts the blooms. It washes the pollen out and doesn’t allow the bees time to pollinate the almonds. Most almond growers are on pins and needles to see what will happen. Most almonds are in 30-60 percent of bloom. We’re right in the middle of bloom. California almond growers are watching, as is the world. Eight-five percent of almond production is here in California.
TT: The citrus farmers are having to pick and are right in the middle of their harvest season. How are they having to deal with all of the moisture, especially on the ground? JM: They are having problems right now. Crops are mature and need to be harvested. Getting in and out of the fields are difficult right now. They are trying to get in the best they can to harvest the crop before it goes bad for them. It’s been an issue. They are doing the best they can. Most guys prepare for it and have equipment to get in and out of the wet fields. Not to say it’s not difficult on the employees to get around the field. Citrus is hand harvested. California agriculture comes to the call when you’re dealt with something. They usually find a way to get by.
TT: What else is worrying farmers? Is the presidential change worrying? JM: A lot of rumors are there that there will be more ICE raids and immigrants deported back. The way I understand the policy, I may be incorrect, is that President Trump will have a intermediate plan ban on immigration. To be able to call a time out to see how we are letting immigrants in and out of the country. As far as deportation, they are looking for immigrants who are here illegally committing crimes. Those that are here working and are a part of the community, I don’t think administration has a problem with that. People that are here illegally causing problems are the key targets the administration is going after under this ban on immigration. Obviously, you have seen how this administration has been under scrutiny from Day 1. I think it’s unfair. Anything this administration does in the first 100 days is going to be under a microscope. I say let’s give them a chance to see what they can do. If we go into a spiraling drop, then we make a change. If things start to change for the better, let’s go with it.
TT: One of the big issues last year was the overtime law. How are farmers dealing with it? JM: It’s a state regulation, along with the minimum wage law. As a grower, I feel sorry for our laborers. The overtime law is going to hurt the laborers. Going along with a 40-hour work week, eight-hour work day, the seventh day is a mandatory day off. We get one just cause to work a seventh day in case of an emergency in a span of 60 days. During the normal part of the season, that seventh day is not an issue. We can work around it. During harvest time, when Mother Nature is coming in with storms or crops are ripening too quick and need to work that seventh day is when it’s going to hurt California agriculture. In talking with my employees, we’ve never really worked them to where they can’t work. It’s always been the opposite. Most every worker out there wants to work extra hours. The type of work they are doing, most of the work has been changed that it’s not as tiring as it used to be. I can understand 20 years ago hand-picking grapes, working 12-14 hours a day, you couldn’t do it. Now, machine picking, driving a machine harvester is not as hard as picking for 12 hours. It’s going to hit the employees in the pocketbook and they are going to suffer. It’s a trickle-down effect.
TT: Who else gets hurt by the law? JM: When this law was written, lawmakers assumed that the farming companies would pay the two extra hours of overtime. That’s hard to do because our margins are thin. Minimum wage has also gone up as well as all the regulations we have to deal with. This is a world market we are competing with. We don’t set our prices. We’re told what prices work. We have to make it work within that. I have to pay at least minimum wage and meet all the labor regulations. I also want people to understand that it’s not just minimum wage that is going up. Now my middle wage earners want more money and high wage earners want more money because the floor is coming up. They still want that separation and pay accordingly.
TT: What else has been coming down the pipe that has been beneficial? JM: With all the rainfall we have gotten, I want to commend our irrigation districts. Both Madera and Chowchilla irrigation districts have turned on their water systems early to be able to capture as much of this rainfall as we can get. Not only for the agriculture side of it but for the community. All the canals are flowing. The reservoirs are full. They’ve been filling their recharge basin. That’s going to help everyone in the community. The water table should be coming up. What those two districts have done for the community is great. They moved on a swift moment and did the best they could to be able to capture as much of the rainwater they could, rather than see it flow right by us, to keep it within our county. I wish our water bank was up and running because this would have been a year to put all of this water away. These water ways are flowing and which way is it going? To the Pacific Ocean. As much of that we can stop and keep in the county, it’s a blessing. What we can keep in the county, it will be a benefit for us.