Nurseries say tree, vine rootstock sells fast

Issue Date: October 31, 2012
By Steve Adler
Employees at Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman pull support stakes from a plot of almond trees that will be sold in the next few months for bare-root plantings.
Photo/Steve Adler
Robert Woolley, company president, checks on one tree prior to the dig-out.
Photo/Steve Adler
A one-row corn-topping machine imported from Europe goes through a plot of bare-root trees, cutting the tops and making them all uniform in size.
Photo/Steve Adler

As more San Joaquin Valley growers transition from row crops such as cotton and tomatoes to permanent tree and vine crops, commercial nurseries feel the impact.

An informal survey of major California nurseries reveals that for trees including almonds, walnuts and cherries, the availability of new purchase for plantings this winter is non-existent and orders are filling fast for plantings the following year.

John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery in Hughson, said sales are going to be up 40 percent to 50 percent from the previous year, and that sales next year are being projected to increase another 40 percent to 50 percent.

Other commercial nursery owners report similar gains.

"Sales have been remarkable—it is another stellar year. We are currently sold out of most varieties, especially almonds, walnuts and cherry trees," said Katie Amaral, marketing manager for Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman.

Nancy Fowler-Johnson, president and general manager of Fowler Nurseries in Newcastle, said the nursery sells out of bare-root trees every year.

"Growers would be wise to order early to reserve the preferred rootstock and varieties for their particular growing conditions," she said.

Robert Woolley, president of Dave Wilson Nursery, agreed, saying that planning ahead is always important, especially considering the current wave of new plantings going in for virtually all varieties of tree crops.

"Traditionally, we used to count on selling about a third of our stock pre-bud and offering a pre-bud discount. Another third was sold during the growing season and the final third was sold during the dig-out (when bare-root trees are prepared for shipment). That would be the old model," he said. "Now, you better get your order in pre-bud to secure planting stock for the following winter. After the budding season is past by mid-June, it is catch as catch may."

Woolley cited walnuts on the popular Paradox rootstocks and self-pollinating almonds on hybrid rootstocks as two examples of trees already sold out for this winter and next.

It's the same story for Duarte, who said his nursery is currently taking orders for 2014 for almonds, walnuts and pistachios.

"On most crops, we have been keeping a waiting list for customers. If we don't have anything available in a window that a customer wants, we oftentimes find that we can fulfill it—but the buyer may have to wait for awhile," he said.

The improvement of rootstocks, which now are designed to thrive on poorer soils and resist destructive pests and diseases, has helped accelerate planting of permanent crops. For example, salt-tolerant and drought-tolerant pistachios have allowed for the proliferation of plantings on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

"The clonal rootstocks are giving significant improvement in productivity and uniformity and resistance. We have highly salt-tolerant selections," Duarte said.

Walnuts are another tree crop that can be more widely grown because of rootstock improvements.

"We have walnut selections that are more adapted to wetter soils or weaker soils. We no longer have to see walnuts only put into the perfect river-bottom ground. We can move walnuts into some areas where they are less historically known to grow," Duarte said.

Blowovers, when high winds combined with wet soils result in almond trees being uprooted, have been a problem for years, but new rootstocks have allowed growers to plant trees with stronger root systems, Fowler-Johnson said.

"The roots themselves have amazing strength that tremendously reduces blowover. It adapts to various soil types, is grower-friendly and has outstanding yield statistics," she said. "We are seeing similar game-changing advances in rootstock adaptation to alkalinity, lower quality soils, replant disorder and other environmental challenges."

In addition to trees, Duarte produces grapevines, which he said are also registering brisk sales. Duarte's trees and vines are container plants, rather than bare-root, which gives growers a broader planting window, he said.

"We are still booking some grapevines for 2013 delivery. I suspect that we will keep booking for 2013 as we go through production next year and have good results. We will probably be releasing vines all through next spring and summer," Duarte said.

The design of vineyards, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, is undergoing a shift that results in huge increases in production. New vineyards have gone from the traditional 440 vines per acre to closer to 800 to 1,000 vines per acre in some of the more dense vineyards, Duarte said.

"We are seeing enormous jumps in productivity per acre. Wineries are now starting to understand that growers need maximum productivity out of that land," he said.

Current trends of orchard planting density are also changing, observed Stacy Anderson of Dave Wilson Nursery.

"The thought when planting an orchard today is quick returns. This interprets to more trees per acre as well as different growing and pruning techniques," Anderson said. "The idea is to fill the orchard floor with fruiting wood as soon as possible. Growers are seeing good returns on young orchards and are becoming more aggressive in planting density."

Fowler-Johnson said growers across all commodities are more adept at modifying their spacing based on the soil, training techniques, rootstocks, varieties and latest research data.

"In general, tree crops are providing positive cash flows for hardworking growers and allowing them to move forward during this general economic downturn. Growers remain mindful that the tide may change at any time," she said.

(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.