California Department of Transportation's electronic signs along Highway 99 warned in mid-February that Interstate 5 over the Grapevine between Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley was closed indefinitely because of heavy snows.

Good news — not bad — for thousands traveling down the main thoroughfare that dissects the San Joaquin Valley. They were the farmers and agribusiness people enroute not to Los Angeles, but to the World Ag Expo in Tulare, Calif.

The Sierra Nevada mountain range paralleling the highway was smothered with snow from recent storms. The white blanket that hung low toward the valley floor served to validate the highway warning signs.

California producers always worry about their irrigation water supplies. Until the pre-farm show storms began sweeping across the state the week before the biggest farm show in the world, 2001 was not looking very promising for adequate water.

There's now snow aplenty to fill reservoirs and groundwater basins. The only worry left is whether they can afford to pump it from the wells and canals.

“If we could figure out a way to gravity flow the snowmelt from the mountains to our fields, we would really be happy with all the snow we have now,” said Richard Stadden, a Tipton, Calif., farmer who like all his peers is bewildered about what California's energy crisis will do to his bottom line in 2001.

The Tulare County cotton producers is better off than many counterparts. “We don't have big pumps…the biggest is 50 horsepower,” he said. It will cost him more for electricity this year, but not as much as those with higher horsepower pumps. He is still debating whether it would be cost effective to switch horsepower providers.

Bob Ferguson was displaying live floor over-the-road trailers for hauling bulk ag commodities. He said people stopping to see his products were happy about recent downturns in diesel fuel costs — as much as 50 cents less than what it was just two months earlier.

Staying competitive

“They were happy about the drop in diesel prices. What they were talking mostly was staying competitive in a marketplace with such low commodity prices,” said Ferguson, whose Ferguson Farms Inc. from Leesburg, Ind., was exhibiting for the first time at the Tulare show.

“A lot of them were talking about the loss in sugar beets in California and what that will do to the farm trucking business,” he said.

“A hay grower from Northern California was talking about energy prices, but he also said he loved all the dairy cows you guys now have here and would like to see more of them,” he added.

California now has more dairy cows than any other state, but some of those other states are trying to entice them away to where there are no rolling blackouts and cheap land.

Several exhibitors mentioned that Midwest states were actively trying to lure dairymen out of California and away from the energy crisis. Some had booths in the dairy pavilion, offering relocation and others services to dairymen willing to move.

Ferguson admitted he was surprised by the effort. “The winters are tough in places like South Dakota — lot tougher than California. And we have some of the same problems with urban sprawl in the Midwest as you do in California. The Indianapolis area is growing and crowding out farms and dairies.”

Strathmore Equipment salesman Mark Thompson of Strathmore, Calif., said farmers were interested in his products, especially a large rotary harrow used to manage dairy lots.

“But, I have noticed this year that people were doing more looking than buying,” he said.

Milt Most is a retired Barstow, Calif., hay grower who now lives in Tacoma, Wash. He farmed in California's high desert for 50 years.

“I put in one of the first center pivots in California…in 1963,” said Most. “It's tough to farm now. I was talking to a grower here who said he bought diesel and over the four-day period the loads were delivered it went up four cents per gallon. I may have gotten out of farming at the right time.”

The expo formerly known as the California Farm Equipment Show attracts farmers from throughout the nation and one of those was producer and custom harvester Brent Hearn from Stafford, Kansas.

Energy concerns all

“We read all about the energy crisis in California,” he said with a chuckle. “We may not have to worry about the lights going out like we hear you do in California, but the cost of other energy sources is of concern.”

Improving cattle price are bolstering corn prices in the Midwest, but final corn acreage will be determined by the cost and availability of natural gas-based fertilizer and natural gas to dry Midwest corn. “Right now people wondering how many soybeans will go in instead of corn,” he said. This talk is bolstering corn prices, but driving down soybean prices.

“People are talking about $3 (per bushel) corn and $3 soybeans,” he said.

MacDon equipment salesman Floyd Cochran from Colusa, Calif., said Northern California growers are concerned the electricity crisis will deprive them of irrigation water this summer.

“They are afraid their irrigation water will be used to generate electricity rather than be available to them for their crops,” said Cochran.

Wayne Scott of Visalia, Calif., is a farm real estate broker. He has been involved in agriculture since 1962 and has attended most of the Tulare farm shows.

“Business is pretty flat right now. There are not a lot of bright spots among the crops and with the energy crisis, it is making it even tougher,” he said. “Commodity prices are what they were 30 years ago, but tractor prices are not what they were 30 years ago.”

“All growers are trying to do is make it through another year — some will and unfortunately, some will not,” he said.

Regardless of the mood of farming or the snowpack in the mountains, Tulare always attracts big crowds. It's a welcome respite, especially if the sky is blue, and the Sierra is covered with snow.

“A lot of people told me that they have been coming to Tulare for 15 or 20 years. When February rolls around, they head for the farm show…regardless of the state of the farm economy,” said Ferguson.

E-mail: harry_cline@intertec.com