The promising almond crop consultant Mark Anderson was seeing in the orchards on the San Joaquin Valley’s West Side at the end of March belied the deep concern he and his clients share about production prospects for the rest of this season and beyond.
A CCA and PCA based in Fresno, Calif., he works with tree nut and row crop growers in an area stretching from the Mendota area in Fresno County south to Bakersfield, in Kern County. Most of his work is in the Westlands Water District, which is expected to receive no surface water from the federal Central Valley Project. Last year, growers here received just 20 percent of their normal allocation.
“Right now, the almond trees, for the most part, look good,” says Anderson, who has been serving growers here for three decades. “Many orchards have set a pretty nice crop. Some are really heavily loaded and look like they could produce 3000-plus pounds per acre or more.”
The Butte-Padre trees just finished setting their crop, but Nonpareil and other early varieties are well on their way, he reports.
“Some guys say their Nonpareils don’t have as many nuts as the pollinators, like Fritz, Butte and Monterey. I don’t know if I agree. I’ve seen some really good-looking Nonpareil.
Currently, he notes, the nuts are still sizing. He’ll have a better idea of this year’s set by the middle of April. That when nuts, now hidden from view by leaves, should be big enough to view more easily.
Insect pests have shown up earlier than usual this season, Anderson reports. However, mite pressure is much less than a year ago at this time. About 1.25 inches of rain in the first week of March washed some early mites off the tree leaves. He’s expecting them to return in another month or two.
Meanwhile, Anderson has been trapping early flights of peach twig borer and navel orangeworm. He put the NOW biofix, the date he began seeing a consistent increase in egg laying on traps, at around March 25. That’s pretty typical timing. He’ll use that date plus accumulated degree-days to determine when to time the first hull-split spray.
Currently, mite pressures are lower than at this time last year. But, Anderson suspects that PTB and NOW pressure could be a problem this summer.
No reason to smile
Normally, this kind of start to the season would be reason to smile. Not this year.
“The single biggest issue my growers and everyone else involved with agriculture around here face is how much water will be available for the rest of the season,” Anderson says. “Nothing else even comes close.”
Still, between the amount water carried over from last year, well capacities and any water purchases, he expects his growers should have enough to get their trees through this season.
“I know there are quite a few other growers out there who have no water this year,” Anderson says. “It will be a real disaster for them.”
Growers, with almonds and other permanent crops who would otherwise be growing row crops, like tomatoes and melons, have fallowed those fields, diverting water from them to their trees and vines.
In fact, he attributes the 45 percent drop in his business this year to the amount of row-crop ground that has been left fallow this season.
Adequate water is especially critical for almonds, he notes, at two times during the year, – from now until around early June, while the nuts are sizing, and again after harvest. “The trees can get by with 50 percent of ETc from June until harvest,” Anderson says. “But, without enough water after harvest, yields next year could be down as much as 20 percent to 40 percent,” Anderson says.
However, it’s not just the meager amount of available water this year that concerns Anderson and his growers. It’s also the quality of that water. The water that growers are pumping from the grounds contains much higher amounts of salts, like boron, sodium and chloride, than surface water. Without adequate irrigation to flush these salts out of the root zone, trees can take up toxic amounts of them.
In addition to burning the leaves, too much of these salts could also damage bud wood, reducing potential yields next year, Anderson notes. In severe cases, excessive salt accumulation in the tree could lead to defoliation,
His growers have been taking various steps to reduce soil pH levels to the 6.0 to 6.5 range. Some banded gypsum under their trees last fall or have installed machines to add gypsum to their irrigation water. Some are injecting sulfuric acid into their irrigation systems at their water filter stations. Others, who are getting some surface water are blending it with their well water.
“Some growers are pumping 100 percent of their water this year,” he says. “Unless they have really good quality well water, they’re probably going to have same salt problems this year. We’re not seeing any symptoms of salt toxicity yet. But, it’s still early in the season. It takes time for salt levels to build up in the tree and get released into the leaves.”
In voicing his frustration with what little, if any, surface water growers in his area are likely to receive this season, Anderson points to the substantial investment they have made in the last decade or so in precision irrigation technologies. They include installation of inline drip and micro sprinkler systems in their orchards and underground drip tape in their row crops.
“Growers know how to save water,” Anderson says. “They’re working really hard to stretch what water they do have to, at least, get by. But, you can only deficit irrigate for only so long before yields really take a hit. Growers are reaching the limits of how much water they can save and still keep their trees alive.”
While acknowledging nature’s role in California’s ongoing drought, he puts much of the blame for current water shortages on elected officials.
“Are they trying to destroy California’s agriculture?” he wonders. “The water situation is as bad as I’ve ever seen it. But, this didn’t have to happen. It’s the result of how the state’s water resources are being managed. If growers don’t get the water supplies they need next year, it will be a really tough deal. It will also impact everyone associated with agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. It’s kind of scary.”