Weather taunts almond crop, but damage unknown
The tipping point between winter and spring is always a time of concern for California farmers. Cold snaps, high winds and drenching rain can all add up to difficulties—particularly for almond growers looking at orchards in bloom.
With the state's almond plantings at more than 650,000 acres and the overall crop valued at more than $2.2 billion, the weather events of the past few weeks have almond growers scanning the skies and biting their nails. The 2005 almond crop came in short due to weather conditions last winter, snapping a three-year run of crops that topped 1 billion pounds.
Experts say another short crop would make it difficult to meet global demand and expand markets for almonds. Farmers in California's Central Valley are responsible for more than 75 percent of the world's almond production.
The problem last year—just as it is now—is the vulnerability of the crop at bloom and the inability to determine losses until well after weather problems have passed and the trees leaf out. Experts say other tree crops weren't in bloom and as vulnerable as almonds during this year's damaging weather shifts.
Temperatures dipped as low as 22 degrees in parts of the Central Valley in mid-February. This was followed by a brief warming trend, and then intense rain and wind—alternating between warm and cold storms.
"It will be two or three weeks before we can see the damage," said Richard Price, Butte County Agricultural Commissioner. "If an almond tree is dormant, it's hard to see damage from the cold. If it has damaged green tissue, it's hard to see that until the tissue starts drying out.
"But, with the cold, followed by warm tropical rain, followed by freezing rain, the fungicide dealers are having a heyday right now," Price said.
"We're not hearing a lot of concern about adequate pollination. There have been some good warm days between the cold and the warm. The problem is the bloom has been scattered over a longer period of time, which makes it hard to judge the effectiveness of pollination across the growing region."
Evaluating damage and pollination is important in Butte County, which has about 40,000 acres of almonds with a value of $108 million, representing about a third of the county's total agricultural production.
"But, it's hard to tell about future crop loss with almonds," Price said. "I never second-guess that crop. We've had lousy years where we couldn't get two days of pollination and we'd still make a crop. I've seen years with zero chilling degrees and we still make a crop.
"This year's crop is really one for white-knuckling it," Price said. "The early varieties are the ones growers are most worried about—Peerless, Sonora, southern nonpareil. It's just too early to tell."
Although the U.S. Weather Service reports that the nation had its warmest January on recordmwith an average temperature of 39.5 degrees, which is 8.5 degrees above the 1895-2005 mean of 31 degrees—it would have been hard to convince farmers in the northern Central Valley in mid-February that they were experiencing a warm winter. Growers turned on sprinkler systems to keep orchard temperatures up and hired helicopters to move air around to prevent prolonged freezing.
But, the warm storms that followed aren't good news either. Price said the semi-tropical storms that hit earlier in the week are the ones most inclined to bring increased disease pressure along with the rising temperatures. The wind also is an issue for blossoms, with many of the state's almond orchards in bloom.
"It has been the good, bad and ugly scenario here in Butte County," said Tod Kimmelshue, whose family grows almonds there. "Early in February, we had some excellent pollination weather and the almonds were early to bloom. Then we had a cold spell, which we think will cause some losses because of the frost.
"We won't know the extent of damage for about four weeks when the almonds start to size up on the trees," said Kimmelshue, who is a director of the California Farm Bureau Federation. "This is the ugly part. The warm storms can cause diseases such as shot hole and brown rot to form on the new nuts.
"The only thing that can be done to protect the crop right now is apply fungicide to the trees," he said. "Most farmers on top of their management practices have done that. In this area lately, when you go to bed at night you can still hear sprayers going and helicopters flying."
Kimmelshue said the problems with the almond crop aren't restricted to the northern almond growing regions.
"From what I'm understanding, the subtropical storm earlier this week came from the south and moved up the state. The entire state almond crop could be faced with weather-related issues this year."
Mel Machado, Blue Diamond Growers field supervisor, agreed there may be widespread damage to the almond crop, but cautioned that, "it's going to be really hard to tell the impact of these weather conditions. There have been a lot of pollination hours lost since the freeze. We know there'll be an impact, we just can't say how much."
Machado said chill, followed by rain during bloom, inevitably has an impact. But how this will play out across the state's almond growing regions remains to be seen.
"There's a lot of variability in bloom between almond varieties and geographic areas," he said. "With lower chilling, this bloom is very much spread out. Some orchards are at peak bloom, some are beyond, some aren't even close."
Earlier in the week forecasters issued flood and wind advisories for many parts of the state, including the far northern counties, as well as warnings that both the Napa and Russian rivers, which flooded in January, could top their banks.
Forecasters said they expected minor flooding of agricultural land near St. Helena, as well as along some roads in Calistoga, St. Helena and Yountville.
Many areas of the state saw from 3 to 5 inches of rain earlier in the week, followed by colder rain storms later in the week. More than 7 inches of rain were forecast to fall in Marin County during the week's storm events.
(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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