Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Touring the Delta

So I hope you are sitting down as there is a lot to cover today.  The title says I'm touring the Delta.  But there are no Dixieland bands playing here, for I am in the Delta region of California.  This is a region formed by the convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries and covers some 738,000 acres.  Back in the late 1800's, using mainly Chinese immigrant labor from building the railroads, a system of levees was built to drain and control the water in the Delta, giving rise to thousands of acres of rich farmland.  It is also a wildlife habitat.  And most improtantly, and controversly, it is a supply of clean water.  There is already diversion of water all the way to Los Angeles, and pressure is on to divert even more. It's a mess.  But anyway, around a hundred of attendees to the California Alfalfa & Grains Symposium in Sacramento loaded three big busses and started our all day tour of the Delta. 
First stop was at the Lima Ranch near Lodi.  It is a family owned dairy farm that produces milk for cheese.  Below the owner talks about the operation of feeding the cows based on where they are in life (i.e. heifer, cow, dry, hospital, beef).  He also described how they flush the cow corrals, allowing the manure to settle and then composting it.  The composted manure is used for bedding and also a fertilizer source for area vineyards.
Below is some of the different components of their mixed rations, including alfalfa silage and hay, corn silage, distillers wet and dry grain, cotton seed, canola pellets, corn grain and almond hulls.  Now that is complicated for sure.  But they seem to have it down.  He said that diet is important, but what really increased milk production was having good bedding in the stalls.  They want the cow to be either eating, being milked or lying down comfortably.
His wife gave us a tour of the parlor.  She too said that comfort in the stalls was key to getting good milk.  Remember the dairy ad on TV that said California cows are Happy Cows?  Well she told how PETA brought a lawsuit to stop that because it is misleading since it couldn't be proven.  I found that hard to believe and looked it up.  Sure enough they did, but just last September a sane judge threw it out.  (So it must be true since it said so on the internet.)
So it's good to know that the CA cows can be happy again!
Next we went to an processing plant for compressing hay for export.  It was owned by ACX company and
this is their Stockton location.  (Hmmm.  Isn't there another famous facility being built in Stockton?)  They export hay to countries in the Middle East, Japan and China, plus some others.  These countries either don't have the water resources to devote to growing hay (like Saudi Arabia), or the land (like Japan) or the quality (like China).  So a business opportunity was born and is under management by the third generation of the founders family.  (That sounds familiar.)
These are some of the guys who manage buying hay from farmers.  There are several quality checks that are performed.  If it is a regular supplier who is known by foreign buyers, they will post a picture of it on the internet and it can be sold right there.
The hay is brought to Stockton and then tarped until it is brought in for processing.  It is usually dry there anyway, so they don't really have to worry about spoilage.
It is brought into a barn next to the presses and sorted.  Here we are shown some sudan grass.  This particular variety is of high quality and in demand.
A customer will say what he wants his hay mix to be, like part sudan and part alfalfa.  Or if the price of alfalfa is high, like it is now, they may mix it with something else like rice stalks.  But the machine below is the hay press.  The bales are ground up and mixed and then carried to the press.  Look at the size of those hydraulic hoses needed to generate 5000 psi of compression force.  The pressed bale comes out and is wrapped at the lower left in the back.
This one is just out of the press.  This bale weighs around 1000 lbs and is really solid now.  That's what you have to do to ship it around the world. 
We had lunch at the Robinson Farms Feed Company, also in Stockton.  This company was started back in the 1930's when they built the big feed mill on the second level in this barn.  It mainly blends alfalfa, grass and molasses.  It is some sweet feed.  Their top selling brand is their All-In-One Mix. The current operator is the son of the founder and he told us all about how the state is trying to take their water away.  They are already taking more than their own study said was safe to do.  In fact, with the export of so much fresh water, there is salt water coming in in stronger concentration from the ocean.  He got pretty worked up and I feel bad for this battle of farmer against the government. 
Last stop was pretty interesting, as they all were.  But the 1000 miles of levees have formed islands, and the largest one is called Staten Island.  Below is a waterway in a levee.  Looks normal enough. 
But in the picture below, that is the levee on the left, and the farm ground on the right.  So there is about a 10 feet or more difference.  We were told that most of the farm ground in the Delta is now below sea level.  This is because after drainage, there was settling.  And also there was shrinkage as tillage oxidized the organic matter, causing some of it's loss as well.  So this is common in the 100+ years of farming here.
It is still necessary to pump water out, especially in the spring.  And other times of the year water is pumped back in for irrigation.  Here is a pipe for that.
Now as I understand it, the Nature Conservacy bought this whole island some time ago, but still allows it to be farmed to mostly corn.  They bought it to prevent development and other crops like tree crops and vineyards.  But a main goal is to use this as a demonstration on how farming and nature can co-exist.  The farm manager said this isn't a charity project as they are expected to make a profit, and use crop protection chemicals and GMO traits.  But every fall after harvest they flood portions of fields for wildlife habitat as seen below.
The most numerous bird was the Sandhill Crane.  They were all over the place, and flying as well.
So it was a good experience to learn about an important agricultural area that I had not even heard of before today.  Plus I understand the many challenges faced by area growers are more than just planting and harvesting.  And it is in the backyard of our soon-to-be production plant, so heads up everyone.