PARTNERS

By Vicky Boyd


Rains early in the bloom kept bees,
such as these east of Stockton, in
their hives. Photo by Vicky Boyd

Although spotty rains and cold weather limited bee activity during the early part of the almond bloom, industry leaders say they remain optimistic about this year’s crop.

“I’m looking out right now and I see sunshine and it’s over 50 degrees,” said Dave Phippen, a partner in Manteca-based Travaille & Phippen Inc., which grows and handles almonds. “That’s OK. We’re rocking today (Feb. 20) – we’re making nuts. Obviously, the bloom has another five to eight days to go. But it’s hard to think we’ll have as good a bloom as we did last year, except for that frost.”

 

Mel Machado, director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers, shared a similar cautiously optimistic outlook.

“The bloom, as far as the bud set, is strong with numerous flowers per tree,” he said on Feb. 21. “The bloom is just getting started. The cold weather has slowed the progress down considerably, but it’s really too early to tell what’s going on.”

Machado also pointed to the effects weather between now and the end of March will have on the flowers that were pollinated.

“The first clue about what’s going to stick doesn’t happen until the last week in March, and even then you don’t really know,” he said. By mid-April, growers should have a better idea about how the crop is developing.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service plans to release its first almond crop estimate – a subjective report based on surveying growers – May 10.

Based on the number of acres planted and tree age, the state could have potentially produced an almond crop of up to 2.7 billion pounds of nut meats under optimum conditions this year. Many in the industry have backed off on that but say they still hope for a crop size similar to 2018’s.

Last year’s crop was originally forecast at 2.45 billion pounds but will likely shake out to be slightly less than 2.3 billion pounds.

Busy as bees

Most almond growers hope for sunny, calm weather with temperatures of at least the high 50s or low 60s to encourage bee flights during pollination. Much below 55 degrees or during strong winds, and the bees retreat to their hives. During much of the early pollination period, temperatures hovered near that threshold in San Joaquin County.

Phil Brumley, who grows walnuts and almonds near Escalon, usually checks his orchards each afternoon during bloom. And he liked what he saw.

“The bees I’ve got are working – I’ve got some good bees,” he said Feb. 19. “Yesterday afternoon, they were really working well.”

Like Phippen and Machado, Brumley said it was too early to forecast this year’s crop.

Night time temperatures in a few locations dropped below freezing during mid-February without significant injury. Phippen said the thermometer dipped to 28 degrees in some of his Ripon and Manteca orchards on Feb. 18, but they only remained that cold for about 2.5 hours. Most of the flowers hadn’t opened yet, and he had yet to find any damage despite searching for it. 

As the bloom progresses, the flowers become less tolerant to cold temperatures. After petal fall, nutlets in the jacket stage can be damaged by 32 degrees, Machado said.

Temperatures slow disease

Not only have the cooler temperatures affected the bloom, they also have slowed disease progression, giving growers time to apply fungicides. Growers typically make two sprays to protect the bloom from disease, and recent rains have forced some to change their plans.

Phippen said he was able to use a ground sprayer for his first spray in orchards on lighter, well-drained soils without worrying about the heavy rig getting stuck. For orchards on heavier soils, he hired a helicopter to apply a bloom spray by air.

Brumley’s orchards are planted on old rice ground, which is heavy and drains slowly, so he planned to use an airplane to apply at least one bloom spray. 

“Rather than try to fight it and get in there and make a mess out of the orchard, I’ve figured it’s much more effective to fly it on and follow with a ground spray for the second spray if we can get in,” he said. 

The same company, Hawke Agriculture Aviation of Oakdale, that used to seed and treat his rice fields by air now spray his trees by air.

“They do an excellent job flying material on,” Brumley said, adding that owner Steve Sperry also is an almond grower and familiar with trees.

Market rebound

Like most commodity markets, almonds are subject to the law of supply and demand. So, the status of the current bloom and more importantly, the estimated crop, can affect what buyers will pay. The marketing year runs from Aug. 1 through July 31 of the following year.

That proved true in 2018, when news of a forecasted 2.45 billion pound crop drove down prices at harvest. As the 2018-19 marketing year progressed, realization of a smaller-than-expected crop helped shore up prices, Phippen said. 

Concerns about increased tariffs and their effects on almond exports to China – the largest foreign market for California almonds – also lessened as the marketing year progressed, he said.

Through the end of January, California had shipped more than 100 million pounds to China and Hong Kong compared to about 121 million pounds for the same period through January 2018, according to the Almond Board of California’s position report. Demand elsewhere remained strong, and January shipments this year exceeded those during January 2018.

“Overall, we’re ahead of last year’s numbers, so I’m pretty pleased,” Phippen said. “With an estimate of 2.45 (billion), that in itself pushed prices down when they think your supply is that big.

“We gave some away that we didn’t have to do, but overall we were at profitable levels. I think we have a right to be celebrating. To me looking back, we’re in a lot better position than we could have been.”

Based on current shipments, the Almond Board projects an ending inventory July 31 similar to last year’s, keeping prices firm for the 2018 crop, according to the Feb. 22 Blue Diamond Growers’ crop progress report.