Nut yields may be reduced by drought


Issue Date: October 29, 2014
By Christine Souza
Madera County nut grower Larry Lowder stands in his farm’s newly planted orchard of drought-tolerant pistachio trees. Lowder says his almond yields declined about 10 percent this year but his pistachios performed well, and he remains optimistic about the future despite the drought.
Photo/Christine Souza
Fernando Huerta, a longtime crew leader at Larry Lowder’s farm in Madera, prunes almond trees as part of his postharvest responsibilities.
Photo/Christine Souza

Enduring a drought that has lasted several years, growers of California's primary nut crops—almonds, walnuts and pistachios—are finishing this year's harvest and planning for what Mother Nature may or may not bring in the coming year.

"Location, location, location" proved critical to almond and pistachio crops in particular, and seemed to be the determining factor in whether trees had enough water and the required number of chilling hours.

Some farmers were luckier than others, including Larry Lowder of Madera. A grower of almonds and pistachios, Lowder said he was "very fortunate where we live and this year we were able to produce a crop, where others didn't have that luxury." He said his farm is located in a microclimate that received sufficient chilling hours during the winter, something that was lacking in other parts of the Central Valley.

Dealing with a surface water allocation of zero, Lowder said he had to rely on deep wells, and he saved as much water as possible by using drip irrigation, microsprinklers and upgraded wells.

Even with a relatively favorable situation, Lowder said his almond yields were down by about 10 percent, although pistachio yields were much better.

In some California pistachio and almond orchards, the drought resulted in a shorter crop and a higher incidence of "blanks," when a shell lacks a viable nut or kernel.

"Some growers, who had the effect of poor pollinization as well as lack of water, their crops were significantly off and there will be crop insurance claims filed," said Richard Matoian, executive director of Fresno-based American Pistachio Growers. "One grower said the orchard looked like it had 3,500 pounds per acre, but ended up with 800 pounds of nuts to the acre."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated this year's California pistachio crop at between 485 million and 500 million pounds, Matoian said, which is smaller than expected because it was to be an "on year" for pistachios. New figures from the Administrative Committee for Pistachios have increased the estimate to 515 million pounds, which Matoian said was "larger than expected in midsummer but certainly lower than original expectations."

Many pistachio growers purchased emergency supplies of water, Matoian said, paying as much as $3,000 per acre-foot. Reports from the almond sector showed some growers paid between $1,200 and $2,200 per acre-foot.

Reflecting on how almond growers negotiated the drought, Mel Machado, assistant director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers, said some orchards were either removed or abandoned, and water was moved from older blocks of trees to younger blocks.

"Growers have learned a lot about how to manage the water they have, but even with good technology and good application, there are orchards that definitely had increased stress this year," Machado said. "You can see it in the lack of growth of the trees."

Farmer Stan Wilson of Shafter grows almonds and other crops, and said he made it through this season on well water, but had to reactivate old wells, add extensions to pumps and install an underground pipeline so that he could move water from one field to another.

"We made it through the year. We had no surface water at all, so the only water supply we had was from wells. It is the first year we had zero deliveries," said Wilson, who fallowed about 160 acres of row crops as a result of the drought.

With harvest drawing to a close, Machado reported that this year's almond crop is hovering at around 1.85 billion pounds, down from the earlier government estimate of 2.1 billion pounds. Machado said he has seen higher levels of rejects in the almonds produced, but there were problems in addition to drought that played a part, such as varying degrees of stress and salinity issues.

"Quite frankly, we needed the 2.1 billion pounds. A lot of people look at orchards planted over the past few years and say, 'What are you going to do with those when they come into production?' Well, we're going to market them. There is demand out there for the product. We're still in a demand-exceeds-supply situation," Machado said.

With just a few more weeks left of harvest, California walnut growers expect a crop that is 545,000 tons, which would be a record, said Dennis Balint, CEO of the California Walnut Commission. No official production figure will be known until harvest is complete, but Balint attributed the expected increase to newly planted orchards and young orchards that are coming into production with higher yields.

He, too, reported continued strong demand.

"Traditionally, we've been the ingredient nut, but demand for walnuts is strong and health benefits are starting to drive demand for walnuts. We are seeing more snacking, which we are pleased with," Balint said.

Marketers said the increasing demand for California nut crops in domestic and global markets is good news for growers. There are 200,000 bearing acres of pistachios in California, and 100,000 acres are non-bearing, Matoian said. For almonds, USDA reported there are 860,000 bearing acres, with 80,000 non-bearing acres. There are an estimated 280,000 bearing acres of walnuts in California, and 45,000 acres that are non-bearing.

For the almond business, Machado said, "the limitation on the crop is going to be water. Water is going to be the competing factor for the almond crop, just as it is for just about every other crop in the Central Valley."

As winter approaches, nut growers said they are hopeful that the state's water situation changes for the better, although, Matoian said, "Even if we have a good rain year, we are going to have a lack of water available to growers; that is inevitable. That is what we're being told by water regulators."

(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.