As citrus trees bloom, ‘dismal’ water year looms
By Kate Campbell
Tulare County citrus farmer Larry Peltzer prepares to top navel orange trees as a strong spring bloom subsides. He says topping trees makes management and harvest easier and safer, as well as reducing trees’ water needs.
A citrus worker secures netting on flowering mandarin trees. The netting is required to prevent bees from pollinating the trees and creating seeds in a fruit variety consumers prefer seedless. When bloom is over, the netting is removed.
Blooms are popping open in California citrus groves, putting on a show with one of the strongest flowerings in recent memory. But farmers caution the early showing doesn't necessarily translate into a large crop at harvest. Many variables come into play—and growers say an adequate water supply is their biggest concern right now.
"This year there's a heavier bloom around the entire circumference of the trees," said citrus farmer Larry Peltzer of Ivanhoe. "We call it a 'popcorn bloom' because flowers are popping out everywhere, engulfing the entire tree."
Like many California farmers, Peltzer said lack of water is his biggest worry. His operation buys surface irrigation water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Friant Division through the Ivanhoe Irrigation District. The district received a zero water allocation from the bureau, but will provide farmers with 0.18 acre-feet per acre from the Kaweah River, at a cost of $400 an acre-foot.
"That's not enough to make a difference and we're not counting on getting any more water," Peltzer said, adding that it takes 3.2 acre-feet a year to sustain an acre of citrus trees. "We have wells, but some of them are weak and the water levels are dropping. We've been told we'll have a 90-day run of water from the Kaweah River, but if it gets hot this summer, it won't help us much."
To prepare, Peltzer is now harvesting as much of his valencia orange crop as possible, to take the load off the trees.
"Everybody in our area is facing the same situation," he said, referring to the 10,000 acres of citrus crops within the district. "It's dismal."
Peltzer said he's using moisture sensor probes and monitoring irrigation schedules very carefully.
"Our trees are in great health, so if we can get through this summer, we can bring the 2014-15 crop to fruition," he said. "That's our goal."
Citrus has been grown in the San Joaquin Valley for more than 100 years and production for the 250,000 acres of citrus trees statewide is valued at more than $2 billion a year.
This year's drought comes on top of a freeze in early December 2013, when seven consecutive nights of subfreezing temperatures hit San Joaquin Valley citrus trees. California Citrus Mutual estimates valley citrus growers collectively spent $49 million to protect the 2013-14 crop, with Kern County citrus suffering the greatest amount of freeze damage. In addition, the organization said, the navel orange harvest will likely end in mid-May—more than a month earlier than usual—because of freeze damage.
The cold December weather may also have affected the spring citrus bloom.
"This year's bloom is strong and early," said citrus grower Rod Radke of Sanger. "I'm attributing some of that to the chilling hours we got during the freeze. While causing some serious damage, the extreme cold probably had the effect of resetting the trees."
Radke said citrus growing conditions have been "ideal" so far this spring.
"I'm not a proponent of drought, but dry conditions mean we've been able to control things in the groves a little better, and we're ahead on our pruning and trimming work," he said.
"If we set 6 percent of the blossoms on the trees this year, it would be a huge crop," Radke said. "But remember, these trees are very sensitive to fluctuations in the environment and a number of things can cause the tree to drop the fruit."
The precise application of water to citrus trees is a moving target, he said, adding "we monitor all the time to stay within ranges related to temperatures, humidity and evapotranspiration to determine how much water to apply and when. It's an area where science and art overlap."
Radke said the trees are going into the spring with a robust look, but said he worries about the outlook for water.
Noting the strength of this spring's bloom, California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen said the sticking point is whether growers will have sufficient water to allow the immature fruit buds to stay on the trees.
"The existing zero water allocation for the east side of the San Joaquin Valley has the potential to put about 50,000 acres of citrus out of production," Nelsen said. "That means navels, mandarins and lemons."
After petal fall, he said, growers irrigate to ensure the immature fruit buds affix to the trees. A lot of the need for irrigation water depends on temperature: Hot and cold spikes can cause early fruit losses.
"A lot of factors come into play when you're trying to produce a crop," Tulare County citrus grower Keith Watkins said. "Ask me how things are going the first of November and I'll be more confident about my answer.
"If we end up with an inadequate water supply—and the bigger the fruit, the bigger the demand on the trees—then some growers are talking about a late pruning to take crop off," Watkins said, adding, "It's going to be challenging to make it through with nothing but well water, and not all farmers have access to underground supplies."
In Tulare County, the state's largest citrus-producing county, citrus bloom has been officially declared, meaning that Agricultural Commissioner Marilyn Kinoshita has advised all citrus growers, pest control operators and beekeepers that bee-protection measures must be observed. County inspectors check the bloom in groves to determine when protections can be safely lifted.
(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She 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.