Drought leads to early removal of almonds


Issue Date: February 26, 2014
By Christine Souza
Fernando Salceda, an employee at Baker Farming Co. in Firebaugh, stands in an orchard the company has uprooted and shredded due to water shortages.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons
The blooming almond orchard at left stands in contrast to the removed orchard at right, both farmed by Baker Farming Co. Water shortages force farmers in the Westlands Water District and elsewhere to remove blocks of almonds earlier than usual, because of a lack of water to irrigate the trees.
Photo/Cecilia Parsons

Faced with severe water shortages, growers of nut crops such as almonds, walnuts and pistachios are making tough decisions that include removing orchards, using just enough irrigation to keep their trees alive, or taking their chances with growing a crop.

An almond farmer in the Westlands Water District who expects no surface water, Barry Baker, said he is destroying 1,000 acres of almond trees and has earmarked another 1,000 acres for removal.

"I don't know what else to do," said Baker, who farms west of Firebaugh. "The trees are between 20 and 24 years old, but we still got close to 3,000 pounds to the acre on them last year and at $3.50 a pound, you definitely wouldn't pick now to pull them out if it wasn't for the drought."

Baker is not the only one. He said a neighbor has removed 300 acres of almonds and may pull another 300.

"It's pretty serious," Baker said. "I think a lot of these guys are going to hold out as long as they can, but I think you are going to see a lot more trees come out next year, because a lot of them aren't going to make it all of the way through."

Farmer Don Davis of McFarland said some almond growers who are without water will use this year to accelerate removal of older trees and get a jump on planting new orchards.

"I'm seeing people who have trees that are 18 or 20 years old, they've got another seven years of production left, but to make use of this year they can bulldoze the orchard, deep rip it, put soil amendments on, fix up the irrigation system and get it all prepped and marked, and then next winter plant baby trees," Davis said. "Yeah, you get no crop and it's premature to knock down an 18-year-old orchard, but it is something you can do without water that moves the ball forward."

In other cases, farmers use a technique called deficit irrigation, which keeps the trees alive but without producing a crop.

"They've decided to stress the trees, so instead of watering every 10 days, they may be watering trees every 40 days, which will kill the crop, but it won't kill the trees," Davis said. "What the grower is doing is he is giving up on this year's crop, but he's not giving up on next year."

For his own almond crop, Davis said he is hopeful that the groundwater in the Delano-Bakersfield area will hold out.

David Doll, a University of California pomology farm advisor in Merced County, said farm advisors generally recommend that if growers were planning to remove blocks of trees in the next two years, they do that now and divert water from those blocks to younger, more productive trees.

"If they have a water deduction due to the drought this year, there's a considerable hangover effect into the second year. If they are only able to apply 50 percent of the water this year, they are going to see crop reduction this year, but even into next year, they will see even a steeper, dramatic reduction and that is mainly due to the fact that they are not redeveloping any new canopy or any new vegetative growth," Doll said. "That is why it may be best to divert that water to a more vigorous, younger block."

Doll said California almond growers generally cycle through 30,000 to 40,000 acres of replanted trees each year, which is between 4 and 5 percent of total acreage. Because of severe water shortages this year, he estimated removals could increase to 50,000 to 60,000 acres, or 6 to 8 percent.

Doll advised almond growers not to dehorn trees, cut off scaffolds or dramatically thin the crop in order to save water. This changes how the sugars are allocated in the tree, increases vegetative growth and increases the tree's water usage, he said.

When it comes to irrigation, Doll recommended that growers spread the water out evenly throughout the year. If a farmer only has 50 percent of the water, he should irrigate at 50 percent consistently.

He also recommended that farmers covered by crop insurance meet with an agent before proceeding.

"Many will provide coverage for a drought, but one aspect is the grower has to maintain general, recommended orchard practices," Doll said.

Regarding walnuts, new acreage has been on the rise due to strong demand. Jack Mariani, a partner in Mariani Nut Co. of Winters, said his farm has doubled its walnut plantings in the past 15 years, yet he remains concerned about the drought's impact on the future.

"It's certainly not as drastic at the moment as almonds are, but we're still very concerned," Mariani said. "The majority of the walnuts are grown in areas where the water supplies are a little bit better, but with walnuts the deep roots need that deep water penetration for optimal health. Our concerns are probably more long-term than short-term right now."

Some concerns exist in walnuts, Doll said, because they are not drought-tolerant and do not handle water stress well. He said walnut trees that don't receive enough water would likely show reduced yields both this year and next.

Pistachios are the most drought-tolerant of the state's nut crops, yet Doll said consecutive drought years make the situation more problematic.

At a recent meeting of the American Pistachio Growers, Executive Director Richard Matoian said water shortages would likely delay growth in pistachio production that had been estimated to reach 1 billion pounds between 2018 and 2020.

Retired UC farm advisor Robert Beede said that, because a pistachio kernel grows in stages with the shell produced first and the kernel then filling the shell, there are times when growers can reduce water usage, and times when they shouldn't.

"We have learned that we can deficit irrigate, but starting at the end of June to early July, when the meat or the kernel actually fills the shell, we have to meet full (evapotranspiration) to have this kernel grow at a sufficient rate to break the shell," Beede said.

UC studies conducted by Beede and others showed that pistachios can survive three years of drought, but this does not address the tree's ability to produce a crop.

For more information about responding to drought, go to the University of California drought management website at http://ucmanagedrought.ucdavis.edu/.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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