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Valley farmers hit hard by dry spell

RAY MULAS demonstrates the dry soil in a field that should have oat hay growing nearly half a foot tall. Don Frances/Index-Tribune

RAY MULAS demonstrates the dry soil in a field that should have oat hay growing nearly half a foot tall. Don Frances/Index-Tribune

By Don Frances INDEX-TRIBUNE NEWS EDITOR

“We shouldn’t be able to drive where we’re going to drive,” Ray Mulas said Monday.

It was another sunny December day on his dairy farm off Highway 121 – sunny, crisp and dry, dry, dry.

The drive wasn’t far – maybe a hundred yards from the covered corral where Ray Mulas and his brother Mike keep their cows. Around this time of year, on a normal year, these depressed areas are muddy, if not outright flooded with rainwater, and new sprouts are shooting up amid the old ones.

That combination of new and old grass is an ideal blend for cows, and normally the Mulas brothers would be letting their livestock roam by now – “over hill and dale,” as Ray Mulas put it.

But not this year. Due to the drought, it’s only dry grass out there, or dry dirt with no grass at all – easy to drive a truck on, but no good for pastureland. So local dairy farmers are keeping their cows in the feedlot.

“It’s forcing farmers to buy hay rather than rely on grass. And that’s costly,” Mulas said.

He added that the lack of rain “affects the watershed and the water requirements in the Central Valley for the guys who grow the alfalfa.” Similarly, cows are fed “byproducts from rice growers, wheat farmers, the cereal companies. … When other farmers suffer, they don’t have a crop, then there isn’t any residue, there isn’t any byproduct, and feed values start to climb.”

Consequences like these add up, resulting not only in greater demand for feed, but more expensive feed.

“Definitely everybody’s very worried,” said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar. “I mean, I’ve been working in ag in this area on the North Coast for the last 15 years or so, and I’ve never seen it this bad.”

Linegar confirmed that drought conditions already are hurting certain farmers, with dairy farmers among the hardest hit. Grain, hay and silage growers are suffering too, as are poultry farmers who “are having to haul in water, and it’s getting very, very expensive.”

Grape growers, he said, tend to do better in drought conditions due to the drip irrigation systems they use.

That’s somewhat reassuring for the county’s bottom line: Wine grapes are by far the largest crop in Sonoma County, with an annual yield worth $582.9 million in 2012, according to the county’s 2012 Crop Report. Milk and poultry took and second and third place at $85 million and $46.6 million, respectively.

But that’s little comfort to growers not working with grapes. As for the Mulas brothers, they have diversified their farm somewhat, and do grow grapes – something Ray Mulas said he was thankful for.

And while he’s enjoying not having to deal with the annual flooding of his property, he’s still plenty worried about the dry weather.

“Everything should be green,” he said on Monday, gesturing out the window of his truck. The sprouts, he said, “should already have come up.”

He drove out into a 140-acre field of what should be oat hay standing four or five inches high. Although tiny sprouts were there, peeking through the dry soil in neat rows, it was not clear if anything would grow high enough to be of use to the cows.

Climbing down from the truck, Mulas picked up a handful of soil and let it fall in a dusty cascade. “This should be sticking to your boots,” he said.

Norm Yenni, another longtime local farmer who grows hay, wheat and straw on 2,300 acres at Sears Point, said production was way down due to the dry spell.

“This last season, in 2013, the crop that we just harvested was probably about two-thirds of the normal crop,” he said. “I will tell you that right now I have the lowest inventory that I’ve ever had for this time of year. And the hay prices are as high as they’ve been, period.”

One might think that Yenni – who Linegar described as “probably our biggest grain and hay farmer in the Valley” – would welcome high hay prices. But he said he hated the current situation.

“I would rather have bigger volume and a reasonable price, so my customers don’t get killed off with the higher prices,” he said.

Yenni said he’s trying different techniques to compensate for the weather – putting in seed early, for one, which gives it a longer period to grow.

“Normally I would plant in February or March, and I would plan on using the rainfall to that point to grow up the weeds and kill them off. And I’m going forego that (this year) because I think the chances are we’re going to be real short on rainfall.”

Another technique he’s trying, called “vertical tillage,” is intended to keep more moisture in the soil.

“Every year is a different thing, and you adjust your practices back and forth according to the weather,” Yenni said. “And I’ve never seen weather like this, and we’re doing things we’ve not done in the past. Having never been here I just hope we’re doing the right thing.”

Mulas said much the same thing, wondering whether the farmers’ current actions were the right ones.

“I don’t know when the day is that we can say, ‘Oh OK, it’ll be alright,’ or ‘It’s too late.’”

He noted that he’s seen other winters with bone-dry Decembers followed by “27 days of rain in January.”

For this year, current long-range forecasts predict possible rain sometime in late January. But Mulas doesn’t put much stock on long-ranch forecasts.

“That’s like predicting your chances at the casino,” he said.