Almonds racing toward record crop

With California’s almond harvest set to begin in August, the crop is steamrolling toward a banner year, with very few pest or disease problems to slow its progress.

The USDA/NASS Almond Board of California objective measurement survey pegs the 2007 crop at 1.3 billion.

Bearing acreage is now 616,000 and is expected to reach 740,000 in the next five years, according to Richard Waycott, president of the Almond Board of California.

Growers have mostly skated through this season insofar as disease or pest pressures — problems that have plagued them in past years just haven’t materialized. Where two to three fungicide sprays are common each year, one has been the norm for 2007.

“Leaf-footed plant bug has been an absolute no-show this season,” says David Haviland, Kern County UCCE farm advisor. In the past two seasons, it caused major crop losses.

“Weather conditions this winter — very cold weather and lack of rain — have had an impact on this pest. Several growers this year thought they saw leaf-footed plant bug damage, but in 100 percent of the fields I visited the damage was actually from stink bugs.”

The only major production problem this year has been the availability of irrigation water in some areas. “Water districts in Kern County are doing more groundwater pumping,” says Blake Sanden, Kern County farm advisor. “This worries some users, especially in the Semitropic Water District in northwest Kern County. Some wells in that area have high sodium and chlorine levels, which isn’t good for almonds.”

Water management is critical at hull split and post-harvest, according to Sanden. “Don't play around with the almonds. You can decrease hull rot if you have a chronic infection problem — which some orchards do — by doing a 50 percent deficit for about three weeks at hull split. But if you go too far and increase stress during harvest, it can rob your deep moisture and cause a slight drop in nut weight.”

After harvest, it’s all about next season. “Almonds must be irrigated post-harvest to maintain fruiting spurs for next year,” Sanden says.

Almonds need about nine inches of post-harvest irrigation water to make a normal crop the following season. Research has indicated that without that water, the 2008 crop could be reduced by 50 percent.

As crops reached peak water summer water demand, almond producers served by the state and federal water districts watched in horror as the Delta pumps were playfully turned off and on by the state. Demand quickly exceeded supply before the federal government turned them on again. Later, the pumps were turned off during the evening hours.

The water crisis created panic among permanent crop producers and sent water auction prices soaring as high as $500 per acre foot as growers scrambled to get enough water to finish out the almonds, pistachios, grapes and other permanent crops.

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