Winter rains, early dam releases and optimistic water delivery allocations by federal and state irrigation water providers point to an exciting year for California producers.

So do high prices for cotton and grain. Like most growers, Alan Sano of Sano Farms, Firebaugh, Calif.,  is optimistic about this upcoming growing season. However, he is cautious in outlining this year’s plan for his 4,000-acre central San Joaquin Valley farming operation.

A decade of meager water allocations to Westlands Water District has him hedging his bets as well as the constant risk that environmental litigation will shut down the Delta pumps again.

“It’s great to get a good allocation, but the main thing is whether they’re going to let the pumps run,” he notes.  Or maybe it’s just hard to believe that the state may finally be floating out of the latest drought cycle.

Even with the relatively abundant surface water allocation, Sano will still blend the saline, boron-rich water from his three wells with high-quality canal water to nurture his 1,200 acres of almonds, which perform below their potential on groundwater.  An early, deep irrigation across his farm will also help push salts far into the soil profile, allowing him to take advantage of more plentiful supplies to build up subsoil moisture and clean out his root zone at the same time.

Fewer processing tomatoes

This would be a great year to put some fields in cotton. However, Sano sold his cotton harvest equipment about five years ago and isn’t inclined to invest in the necessary machinery to chase the current prices. He will continue to focus his annual crop acreage on tomatoes.

However, Sano says he will be planting fewer acres than usual in 2011 to processing tomatoes.  He pulled hundreds of acres out of tomatoes over the past few years to build up his almond orchards and 300 acres of pistachios and pomegranates, which fare well on relatively saline water.  He planted wheat last fall on part of his tomato ground to rebuild the soil, and he and partners have been building a fresh market tomato business that accounts for still more acres in Firebaugh and on a farm Sano is managing in Merced.

Water efficiency is at the heart of many of Sano’s decisions – even in Merced, where water is far more plentiful than on his home place.  Last year, his second season managing the Merced market tomato fields, he installed buried drip lines to improve his management efficiency.  He’s even irrigating half of his wheat with buried drip tape running down the center of last year’s 66-inch tomato beds.  And his commitment to cover crops and conservation tillage saves moisture as well as money.