Amid challenges, almond farmers accelerate harvest


Issue Date: August 19, 2015
By Christine Souza
Farmer Kent Stenderup of Arvin checks the quality of the almond crop as the Nonpareil variety is being harvested at his Kern County farm. He said yields look good so far, even given the drought.
Photo/Cecillia Parsons
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the almond crop will reach 1.8 billion pounds this season and those in the almond sector say they believe that figure is achievable, even with the drought.
Photo/Cecillia Parsons

They've faced a variety of challenges this season: the drought, which led to water shortages, removal of orchards and close scrutiny of their irrigation practices, plus concerns about chill hours and, in some cases, an uneven bloom. Now, California almond growers are accelerating harvest and advancing their opinions about whether the crop will meet its preseason estimates.

A close observer of the almond business, David Doll, a University of California pomology farm advisor in Merced County, said the drought has taken a toll.

"There's heartache associated with (being a farm advisor) because you care about farmers and really enjoy farming and you see issues with orchards that were beyond the control of the farmer," Doll said. "We're in a natural disaster and I think so many times we forget about that."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated farmers would harvest 1.8 billion pounds of almonds this season, down 4 percent from last year, and Almond Board of California President and CEO Richard Waycott said the estimate "seems to be a pretty good number."

"The outlook for the season's crop is for a pretty stable supply situation, a pretty stable market situation and probably, a pretty stable pricing situation," Waycott said.

As this year's almond harvest ramps up, farmers in the state's different growing regions report varying observations of yields and drought impacts. Some farmers have had to remove trees to divert water to more productive blocks, whereas other growers' orchards are relatively unaffected.

Growers who have been severely affected by the drought, Doll said, "are relying on poor-quality water and those issues are starting to catch up with them."

Younger almond trees that are now bearing a crop might be able to supplement volume lost from older trees that have been either abandoned, removed or have reduced yields, he said.

"Based on the physiology and the water stress, I speculate that we'll probably have smaller-than-normal (kernel) sizes. The flip end of that is we have a lot of new orchards coming on, and young orchards tend to produce larger kernel sizes due to the vigor that is associated with those trees," Doll said.

Kern County farmer Kent Stenderup said his almond trees look good, although it is too early to determine overall yields. There is added pressure from navel orangeworm and some hull rot, he said, but the kernels he has seen are of good size and quality.

Regarding drought impacts, Stenderup said he faces some salinity issues and last year had to lower several wells.

"We've changed cropping plans, but I have not fallowed anything yet," said Stenderup, who represents the Blue Diamond Growers cooperative on the Almond Board and who grows row crops as well as almonds. "For row crops, we double-crop sometimes, but as a result of the drought, we are not double-cropping. I've redirected so that I have enough water on my almonds."

To the north, almond grower Dan Cummings of Capay Farms in Chico said his almonds are in good shape, "with yields better this year than last year."

David Phippen, almond grower and owner of Travaille and Phippen Inc. in Manteca, is processing almonds for growers to the north and south and said the crop of Nonpareil almonds from those areas "looks to be off."

"Early reports aren't good," Phippen said. "A lot of us are hearing 15 percent off on the Nonpareil. I was hopeful that it wouldn't be, but I'm not real surprised."

Phippen said his almond trees received enough water during the season and experienced a good bloom, so he is having trouble understanding what happened to the crop, saying he "can't tell what is causing the Nonpareil not to set."

Some growers suggested the problem relates to a lack of chilling temperatures needed to set a crop, known as chill hours—a concern shared by farmers and UC researchers early in the year.

For almonds, which require between 400 and 600 hours of chill, Phippen said, growers recorded 500 hours of chill, yet daily temperatures during the winter sometimes escalated rapidly, from lows in the 30s to highs in the 70s. Researchers say warm daytime temperatures in winter and spring may have canceled out a portion of the chill hour benefits.

Doll pointed out that harvest is about 12 days earlier than usual. Orchards in some parts of the state experienced a scattered bloom, he said, which makes for a more challenging harvest.

"Since bloom was long, ripening is now uneven and that creates a whole myriad of issues," Doll said. "Harvesting is more challenging because you have to wait longer to harvest and the nuts that split earlier are more susceptible to (navel orangeworm), hull rot and those types of concerns."

At the Almond Board, Waycott noted a slight shift in global demand in July consumption figures. Traditionally, 70 percent of California almonds are sold to export markets and 30 percent for domestic consumption, but numbers shifted slightly to 65 percent for export and 35 percent domestic. Sales to Russia have declined as a result of that nation's embargo on Western food products, Waycott said, whereas markets for almonds remain strong in India and stable in Western Europe.

"We don't consider any market even as close to mature. We see the whole world as an opportunity, especially with the healthy snacking habits around the world," Waycott said, noting that almonds have been the No. 1 nut used in new-product introductions worldwide.

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

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