Almond Growers Check Effects of Rain at Bloom

Aria Wilcox Nuts & Grapes, Tree, nut & vine crops, Weather

Effects of Rain
Frequent rains and wind caused a few hurdles for California almond growers, whose orchards could have benefited from more calm weather to encourage fly time from honeybees to pollinate and set the 2017 crop.

As farmers evaluate their orchards in advance of the first official government estimate, they say the almond crop looks good, all things considered. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is due to release its initial, subjective estimate of California almond production on May 10. The department’s objective measurement will be released July 6.

“I’m hearing about a good statewide crop, but certainly not a record crop,” said Franz Niederholzer, University of California Cooperative Extension orchard systems farm advisor in Colusa. “The weather was rotten during early bloom and much of the nonpareil bloom, but cool weather helped stretch out the bloom that was to follow. The nonpareils don’t look great, but they don’t look awful in the blocks that I’ve seen.”

C.C. “Skip” Hubbard, president of Chico Nut Co., which grows, harvests, processes and sells almonds from Peterson Ranch in Arbuckle, said pollination during bloom and fungicide applications were key to setting a successful crop this year.

“The nonpareils bloomed in the rain, and the latter half of the nonpareil bloom was generally during better weather, so we are seeing more of the crop in the tops of the trees than the bottom of the trees. It’s very uneven,” Hubbard said. “Overall, this crop looks similar to last year’s. It’s a good crop.”

Farmers and farm advisors reported that the nonpareil—the state’s top almond variety, representing almost 40 percent of production—was most affected by rains during bloom. Nonpareil bloomed during middle to late February, with flowers out after the first week of March.

Although there was a lot of rain, Niederholzer said, a prolonged bloom “may have helped us with the overall crop.” Other varieties, including Fritz and Monterey, bloomed ahead of the nonpareils and fared much better, he said.

“At the Nickels (Soil Laboratory) estate at Arbuckle, there were a low total number of bee hours. There were three or four days where there were no bee hours at all, and there were some days where there were six to eight consecutive hours (of bees flying),” Niederholzer said. “We had a couple of nice days, so if you had good bee populations, it might pay for itself.”

Gordon Wardell, director of pollination operations for Wonderful Orchards in Kern County, agreed with that assessment.

“There was some rain and cooler weather, but it is a year that the growers who paid a higher price for the bigger colonies got to see the benefit,” Wardell said.

The average honeybee colony for almonds is an eight-frame hive. For anything over that, growers pay a premium. Wardell said growers who paid for premium hives, such as those with 10 or 12 frames of honeybees, are seeing a return on their added investment.

In his area, Wardell said, “we had enough windows of flight that we got a good almond set. The bees had enough flight hours most days.”

In San Joaquin County, Bill Koster of A&B Farms in Vernalis also noted that his early almond varieties were hit by rain, which affected pollination, but fair weather that followed benefited later-blooming varieties.

“It is going to be a large-kernel year. The water has helped out a lot, and overall I think the average is going to be fair to good as far as production,” Koster said. “A dry spell helped later varieties; the Buttes and the Padres have an exceptionally good crop.”

Roger Duncan, UCCE pomology and viticulture farm advisor in Stanislaus County, described the crop in his area as “highly variable,” with different outlooks “from orchard to orchard and variety to variety.”

“In general, it was very windy and rainy during the first half of almond bloom in the north San Joaquin Valley and this affected bee activity,” Duncan said. “The earliest-blooming varieties were affected the most. The crop is actually pretty good on many of the pollinizer varieties and also the self-fruitful varieties.”

Duncan and other farm advisors across the state said the wet conditions in the orchards resulted in bacterial problems including bacterial blast, which results in blighted blossoms and some crop loss. Farmers had to spend more this season for both ground and aerial fungicide applications.

Despite the timing of the rain during bloom, Hubbard said 2017 should be a good year for almonds “because everybody’s got water. The trees are responding well. It’s an up year, definitely.”

He noted that more almonds will be coming into production during the next few years, and said people in the almond business will need to “build consumption to take care of that increase that is coming.”

“A long time ago, we were concerned with what we were going to do when we hit 1 billion pounds of almonds. Then, we hit 2 billion pounds and went through that,” Hubbard said. “The almond industry is very strong, very sound.”

Statewide, last season’s almond crop is shaping up to be about 2.13 billion pounds, Hubbard said, which is based on 900,000 bearing acres.

Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com. Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.