Almond blossoms vulnerable as temperatures rise
Faced with a shortage of cold winter weather, the buds in many of California’s almond orchards are starting to swell and an occasional blossom is opening up—a sign that pollination season is right around the corner.
In the Central Valley’s Merced County, Ballico almond grower Dave Passadori said his trees are just days away from bloom.
“We are almost ready for almond bloom. The buds are just starting to swell so we are doing field prep work and bloom sprays,” Passadori said. “Bloom will be a little earlier this year because of the warmer weather.”
Bloom, when snow-white almond blossoms transform the rural landscape into a winter wonderland, is a critical time of year for California’s almond growers.
“If we have beautiful days from here on out, bloom can extend into March,” Passadori said. “If we have rainy weather at bloom, that could just blow the buds right off.”
Mel Machado, a field representative for Blue Diamond Growers, has observed a scattered bloom so far.
“With the Sonora and Ne Plus varieties, we are seeing a scattering of flowers in many orchards in California—Chico, Modesto and Bakersfield. There is a scattering of some nonpareil, but nothing is close to full bloom,” Machado said. “The bloom appears to be a little early and obviously you have increased exposure and increased time where you are going to have some inclement weather.”
In the northern part of the state, Dan Cummings, a Chico almond grower who also operates a beekeeping business, expects bloom to emerge fairly soon.
“The trees look good. We have the potential for a good crop as long as we get nice weather at bloom,” Cummings said. “Those areas where we had the heavier crop last year, the varieties this year may be a little lighter at bud set. We had good crops on Carmel, Monterey and Fritz last year, so bud set of those varieties is not quite as heavy, but the nonpareils are clearly better.”
While growers keep an eye on Mother Nature, beekeepers from all over the country are placing beehives in California orchards in preparation for pollination.
“We started moving hives into the orchards, but almond growers have different preferences,” Cummings said. “Some like to move them in at the last minute or when there is actually a little bit of bloom going. It also depends on if you are putting on dormant sprays, and those in flood-prone areas might wait until later.”
Almond growers say about 1.2 million bee colonies are needed to pollinate this year’s crop, 50 percent of which are provided by California beekeepers. Out-of-state beekeepers provide the remaining hives.
Growers say there is an ample supply of beehives for the almonds this year.
“We are going to have extra bees. We’ve gone through such a radical change in pollination structures and prices the last few years that it is going to take a little while to settle out,” Cummings said. “We’ve had back-to-back 50 percent raises in price, and I think we are finding a price now that will clear the market and effectively draw bees all of the way from the eastern seaboard. Bees are coming in from North Carolina and Florida at the current prices.”
Currently, the per-hive price ranges from $100 to $150.
Reputable beekeepers expressed concern that some beekeepers are renting “boxes of bees” to unsuspecting growers that do not contain queens or enough bees to sufficiently pollinate the trees. Almond growers must make sure that the hives ending up in their orchards contain the proper hive strength.
“A lot of ‘junk’ hives are coming out here from the East Coast. Some of these hives have low populations of bees or no bees,” said beekeeper Shannon Wooten of Palo Cedro in Shasta County. “Some of these bees have been sitting here for 90 days. Bees are flying around but they are not producing because they are not being managed.”
Growers unsure about the strength of hives placed in their orchards may contact the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office for an inspection.
“In many cases you get what you pay for,” said Eric Mussen of the University of California, Davis Department of Entomology and member of the California Farm Bureau Federation bee advisory committee. “If they wait and get less expensive bees, they will probably not be the same quality as some of the people who already have their bees lined up.”
Last year, the rental price for beehives reached approximately $125 per hive after some colonies were destroyed due to the varroa mite, an external parasite of the honeybee whose population increases until it kills the entire colony. With no reasonable form of control available to combat the varroa mite, last year the industry suffered a bee shortage resulting in higher prices for hives and concern that almonds would not be sufficiently pollinated.
Solutions to the varroa mite problem, Mussen said, are few and far between.
“We have to continue to either make better selections of bees or come up with something because those mites are resistant to just about everything we are throwing at them,” Mussen said.
Chris Heintz, director of production research for the Almond Board of California, said the varroa mite is a top priority and the organization therefore sponsored a number of research proposals to find solutions.
“We are going to lick this one,” Heintz said. “There is some work going on with essential oils and naturally occurring compounds. The industry hopes to have at least one new product out in the coming months.”
While growers anticipate the approaching season, some are apprehensive about the fact that almond prices have slipped.
Growers and brokers report that last fall, California almonds sold for more than $4 per pound and prices have fallen by about half as buyers pulled out of the market. They are reportedly waiting for the decline to hit bottom. This comes after two years of soaring almond prices.
David Phippen of Travaille & Phippen, growers, processors and shippers of California almonds in the Ripon-Manteca area, said this downward trend can be reversed once sellers regain the confidence of buyers.
“During the harvest period last fall, some traders consummated trades regarding almonds at lower prices than the prevailing price at the time, which started a downward trend,” Phippen said. “From that trend, California suppliers, in their quest to keep product moving into channels, have sold for less than the peak that we had hit in late summer/early fall.
“This has eroded buyer confidence. What is happening is buyers are just covering what they absolutely have to do and normally they would be loading up their warehouses. But they don’t want to load up their warehouses with what could tomorrow be considered high-priced product.”
Phippen said that suppliers in California have to stop offering a lower price tomorrow than they offer today.
“When that happens, buyers can then be confident that they can buy tomorrow for the same or more, but not less,” Phippen said. “This takes a concerted effort by all sellers in California and, of course, is hard to do.”
The Almond Board of California reports that the volume of almonds in storage as of Dec. 31, 2005 is 568 million pounds. Of that amount, 378 million pounds remain unsold. This is 30 percent more than the unsold inventory that existed in 2004.
Although consumption is down slightly, Phippen said, there is no reason to worry.
“The amount of unsold inventory is not alarming. If you compare it to last year, the supply situation is very similar,” Phippen said. “Consumption is off very little in the U.S., but overseas it is where it is off the most, but it is not bad. Supply has to fill demand between now and the new crop, and new crop can’t get overseas until October. If you divide the available product over the months between now and September/October, it is not too much of a supply.”
(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.