It was an unusually wet, windy season in the almond orchards at Terranova Ranches on Fresno County’s West Side, including storms in April and May which broke limbs and toppled trees, says grower Don Cameron.
Cameron is the general manager of the 7,000 acre vegetable, wine grape, and tree nut operation, which includes Prado Farms. About 70 percent of his 860 acres of almond trees were planted in the last five years.
His 2016 almond crop is developing a little faster than last year’s.
“Overall, it looks pretty good,” Cameron says. “The younger orchards look real nice, especially the Monterey (variety) which appears to have a heavy crop load.”
Cameron says older trees have a good, consistent crop load, except for Nonpareil which could yield fewer nuts than last year.
With deliveries of any surface water from the Kings River shut off for the fourth straight year, Cameron continues to rely solely on groundwater for his double-line drip irrigation system. While the water quality remains good, he says the water table continues to drop.
“So far, we’ve been able to keep our trees happy,” says Cameron.
To hedge against uncertain supplies of water, Terranova Ranches is participating in a project to capture flood water that could threaten municipalities downstream, and use the water to directly recharge his fields and irrigate his crops. This would help maintain the aquifer below the farm.
Currently in the design phase, Cameron expects to break ground on the project next spring.
In the meantime, Cameron is focused on making the most of the available water supplies. He’s tightened up his irrigation schedule.
“We don’t want to over irrigate,” he says. “We’re saving us much water as possible in each irrigation for use later when we really need it.”
This year, Cameron began experimenting with aerial cameras using infrared and other sensors to assess water and other stressors in the orchards.
“So far, we’re happy with it,” the grower says. “It’s amazing what you can see, even down at the individual tree level.
With the technology, Cameron noticed several areas in the orchards where the trees just didn’t look right. The aerial imaging detected the trees were short on water.
“As a result, we corrected it. This technology is reinforcing what we’re doing right and identifying the management areas which need attention.”
Due to drier, windier conditions, disease pressure in the almond orchards tend to be lower than areas further east in the county.
“With the last four years of drought, we haven’t been worried much by disease,” he says. “We had a little bit of shot hole earlier this season and we sprayed for it. By watching for outbreaks, we’ve been able to keep the trees clean this year.”
Mites, however, can be a major concern in the orchards, especially in newly-planted blocks which are more susceptible to this pest. He keeps a close eye on the trees, applying an insecticide early in the season if needed, and treating again later in the season at the first sign of a new threat.
After this year’s harvest, Cameron plans to remove an 80-acre orchard where yields from aging Nonpareil, Butte, and Carmel trees have continued to drop in recent years.
The big drop in almond prices which began last fall no longer justifies keeping the trees, he explains. Assuming prices remain lower compared to recent years, Cameron says tree removal should reduce the impact of lost revenue before the replacement trees planted this year come into production in three years.
The 80-acre orchard is being replaced by 150 acres of Independence trees. Cameron says the self-pollinating variety should reduce his biggest expense at bloom - bees for flower pollination.
Without the need for pollinator varieties in the Independence blocks, he expects to reduce spray and harvesting trips down the tree rows by having just one bloom, one hull split, and a single pass down the row to shake the trees and sweep up the nuts during harvests.
Cameron planted one of his two Independence blocks with 15-foot spacing between trees within the rows. The other block was planted 14 feet apart in the rows.
“Since the good soils in these blocks tend to produce larger trees, we wanted to prevent shading problems once the trees mature,” he says.
The between-row spacing of 22 feet, the same as his other orchards, is designed to accommodate equipment.
“Along with our other varieties including Nonpareil, Monterey, and Wood Colony, the Independence variety should provide good balance,” said Cameron.