Tree nurseries keep eye on water situation
By Steve Adler
Employees at Sierra Gold Nursery in Yuba City sort recently harvested bareroot cherry trees that will soon be shipped to waiting farmers.
Bareroot cherry trees are harvested at Sierra Gold Nursery in Yuba City. This crop of 2014 trees is filling orders that were placed several months ago.
Growers throughout California are following through with plans to establish new orchards despite their concerns about the state's continuing drought.
Interviews with representatives of commercial nurseries confirmed that the planting boom is continuing this year, and orders for trees for 2015 planting continue at a record pace. But nursery representatives said they believe the demand would be even higher, were it not for water worries around the state.
Nursery spokesmen noted that the actual picking up and planting of trees is the final step in the development of an orchard that has been ongoing for as much as a year. Preparatory work such as land leveling and installing an irrigation system must be done first.
"We have not had any cancellations because of the drought. Since the trees are one of the last components in an orchard development that has probably been months in progress, growers are obliged to get contracted trees planted," said Jack Poukish, president of Sierra Gold Nursery in Yuba City.
Ron Boone, field representative for Burchell Nursery in Oakdale, and Dennis Tarry, CEO of Dave Wilson Nursery in Hickman, also reported no cancellations as demand for nut trees—almonds, walnuts and pistachios—remains strong.
"Right now, the demand for trees for next year is extremely high and it would probably be even higher if there wasn't the concern about the water situation," Boone said. "Everything is kind of up in the air and nobody knows what is going to happen. Unless we get some rain, the interest could drastically diminish."
Tarry noted that sales of nut trees really reflect the continuing growth in the worldwide consumer demand for nuts.
"In addition to the market demands for almonds and walnuts, the lack of sustainable water allocation to the hundreds of thousands of acres on the Westside has forced lifelong farmers to move operations to ground where the supply of water has been more reliable. Both are catalysts for increased demand for orchard trees," he said.
Tarry said he believes that plantings will continue long-term, but not at the current pace.
"The availability of ground with water will be a significant bottleneck in the future. Growth will likely only come from the conversion of already existing crops that have suitable allocations of water," he said.
That view was supported by Boone, who said, "There is a lot of talk about lack of water, but we've already received a fair amount of orders for 2015. I have talked with some people who said they would like to plant for 2015, but because of the water situation, they are putting the brakes on and it is a wait and see."
But most growers don't seem to be slowing down, he said.
"I've been with the nursery for 33 years and I have never seen a demand so high," Boone said. "I think that starting with 2013 sales, the demand was very high and steadily increased. We were very quickly selling out for 2014 plantings and it seems for 2015 it will be even quicker. There is extremely high demand. The health benefit has made a big difference for driving the consumption worldwide. So growers are making good money on their nut crops, which therefore is increasing our business."
This is one of the busiest times of the year for wholesale nurseries as they dig their bare-root trees and begin their deliveries.
"For our bare-root crop, we are almost done with the harvest/grading season, and we have been shipping for the past three weeks or so," Poukish said. "We have had a very efficient harvest season, due to the dry conditions. We are now at the height of the shipping season and there are lots of trees being planted out there, with lots of people having to irrigate due to the lack of precipitation."
Boone said there has been fairly brisk activity from growers coming to the nursery to pick up trees, but he is somewhat surprised that more people haven't come in.
"My guess is maybe it is because the ground is so dry that they are waiting for rain so they have a little bit of ground moisture, then they might start thinking about planting. Some of them don't want to spend the extra money to tank-water their trees right now. They are just waiting for the rain," he said.
Lack of water is also having a direct impact on the nurseries as they produce the trees needed to meet all of the orders that are coming in.
"We have been forced to irrigate our production fields the past several weeks, and this is a time when we should be experiencing lots of rainfall. It's January. This is typically when we get most of our rainfall, and instead it is sunny and clear every day. We had one day with light showers. That was nice, but it doesn't really get you where you need to be," Poukish said.
"We've had to rent more pipe, run pumps, and this is increased expense for us, along with the labor to move the pipe from field to field. And I see a lot of this happening in the orchards, too. A lot of guys have been forced to irrigate just to maintain a certain profile of moisture in their ground. And you would never see that normally in January," he said.
(Steve Adler is associate editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.