San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

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Later-blooming almond varieties, such as Butte and Padre, experienced conditions more conducive to pollination than earlier blooming varieties, including nonpareil. Photo by Vicky Boyd.

By Vicky Boyd

San Joaquin County almond producers experienced the gamut of conditions during bloom this year – rain, sun, cold, warmth, calm, wind and even some "nasty." 

"It started out moving fairly quickly because overnight temperatures were 48-52 and as high as 55," said Mel Machado, director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers in Salida. "Wind and rain really beat up the first half of the bloom, and then the skies cleared and it got cold and the bloom slowed down quite a bit. The cold and nasty started just in time for the bloom – it wasn't pretty."

Dave Phippen, an almond grower and handler near Ripon, agreed.

"I'm very pessimistic about the early bloom and very optimistic about the late bloom," he said.  Of particular interest is nonpareil, the most widely grown variety in the state. It flowered during the first half of bloom when storms pelted the state. Later varieties, such as Butte and Padre, encountered clearer skies and less rain — conditions more conducive to bee activity and pollination.

Phil Brumley, who grows almonds and walnuts near Escalon, said it appeared the effects of the rain were variety dependent.

"In the early varieties, we had a lot of rain," he said. "I have some very early blooming almonds, the Sonora variety, and from the first day they started opening up, we had inclement weather and we had quite a bit through the nonpareils. We did have some hours where the bees actually got into the crop. But the (later) Buttes and Padres experienced good pollination. At this point, we will just have to wait and see what stays on the trees." Despite the weather challenges during bloom, Matt Visser, a Ripon area almond grower, said he remains hopeful. "Early in the season, it was cloudy and rainy when the nonpareil were coming out – maybe the 10-25 percent bloom stage," he said. "We had really good 10- to 12-frame bees and there weren't that many sunny days. But when the bees came out, they were pretty strong for those few hours. I think we have a decent set even though the weather was pretty lousy early on."

It will be at least several weeks before the almond industry can begin to gauge how the weather affected this year's nut set and crop.

"That all takes a while to figure out," Machado said. "Everybody wants to know what the crop is going to be like." Phippen said he also is unsure how successful pollination was.

"Common sense tells us this is one of the less optimistic blooms we've had in the last five years, but the results of it nobody could know just yet," he said. 

In discussing bloom-time pollination conditions with a couple of beekeepers, Phippen said their opinions varied widely. "But they weren't real enthused, either," he said.

Many growers apply at least two fungicide treatments during bloom to protect the flowers and developing nutlets from fungal diseases.

Visser said he typically times the first application for pinkbud through 10-percent bloom. Seeing a forecast of rain, Visser pushed it up a few days to pinkbud to ensure he could get the fungicide protection on before the storm. About 1 1/2 to two weeks later, he applied the next fungicide at full bloom. By then, the weather had improved and wasn't an issue. Because his orchards are on lighter soil, Visser also was able to use a ground rig both times. "I'm looking at the trees right now, I don't see any jacket rot or any other disease," he said in mid-March. But some growers with orchards on heavier ground weren't able to run airblast sprayers for fear of causing ruts or getting stuck, Machado said. Instead, they turned to aircraft if the pilots weren't booked up.

"The wet orchards precluded a lot of people from getting into the orchards, and aircraft were very busy," he said. "But there are orchards around the valley that didn't get covered very well because they couldn't."

Brumley was among those who turned to aerial application for both bloom sprays because his orchards are on heavy ground formerly planted to rice fields. Even after leaving rice, he maintained a good relationship with his crop duster.

"The saving grace for me is we have a company we have worked with for many years," Brumley said of Hawk Aviation of Oakdale. "When we saw the weather, we gave them a heads up."

The wet weather also may be responsible for an usually high amount of bacterial blast disease this year, said Brent Holtz, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser and county director.

Almond orchards on very sandy soils typically have higher ring nematode populations, making them more susceptible to bacterial blast. Not only can the bacterial pathogen infect and kill buds or blossoms, but in severe cases it also can cause bacterial cankers that may eventually kill tree scaffolding.

"In most of the orchards where we're seeing it, it's blast on the flowers and buds, and those trees will recover fine next year but it will impact this year's crop," Holtz said. "This is one of the worst years we have had in some time so the rains must have made it favorable."

Moving forward, he said scab and rust are two fungal diseases that also remain on his radar.

"If we continue to get pretty big storms coming in in the spring, we're likely to see a higher incidence of scab and rust," Holtz said.

What also has Machado worried is how several weeks of standing water in some orchards on heavier ground may have affected tree health.

"One concern is about Phythophthora on these soils that were so saturated for so long," he said. The aggressive fungal pathogen is responsible for root and crown rots of almond trees that can cause rapid canopy collapse and tree decline. The micro-organism thrives during prolonged periods of saturated soils and cool temperatures.

The industry will get its first official glimpse at this year's almond crop potential when the National Agricultural Statistics Service issues the subjective almond forecast, May 10. It is developed by surveying producers and asking them to rate their crop. 

The objective measurement report, scheduled for release July 6, involves counting nuts on trees in representative orchards to develop a crop estimate.

Statewide, the 2016 almond crop appears to be shaping up to be about 2.13 billion pounds, and Machado said demand continues to remain strong.

In San Joaquin County, almonds were the top crop in 2015 with a farm-gate value of $433 million, according to the agriculture commissioner's annual crop report. The county's growers harvested 62,400 tons, or 124.8 million pounds, that year.