Ferocious January winds fell Sacramento Valley almond orchards

Northern California almond growers, relatives, friends, and neighbors armed with arsenals of chainsaws, chippers, and shredders were entrenched in almond orchards in California’s Sacramento Valley in mid-January. The beehive of activity was the result of devastating wind gusts up to 100 miles per hour that unearthed hundred of thousands of almond trees during a Jan. 4 Pacific winter storm.

“Some of these orchards look like a war zone,” said Dave Baker, director, member relations for Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, Calif. “It looks like a bomb went off in the orchard.”

Nearly 300,000 almond trees were blown over in Glenn County alone, according to Mark Black, county agricultural commissioner. The toppled trees represented from 16 percent to 18 percent of the county’s almond tree plantings. Butte County also suffered major almond trees losses with fewer losses found in Colusa and Yolo counties.

At press time, only Sutter County had filed for an emergency disaster declaration with an estimated $13.7 million in crop losses and $2 million in physical losses, said Greg Renick of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES). The signed request was forwarded to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Counties which plan to file disaster declarations have 90 days from the date of a weather event, and must provide supporting documentation to OES within 60 days. To qualify, a 30 percent agricultural loss is required.

In Butte County, preliminary financial farm losses to the almond, dried plum, and walnut sectors climbed to nearly $70 million in the wake of the storm, according to county agricultural commissioner Richard Price.

“The preliminary damage assessment for crops includes: almonds, $65,137,000; dried plums, $2,225,850; and walnuts, $1,963,000,” Price said. “The estimate includes the potential loss of production until replacement trees can come back into production, replacement tree costs, and removal costs of the damaged trees.”

The estimate does not include damaged infrastructure such as irrigation systems, fences, out buildings, or wells. Some Butte County almond orchard tree losses were a staggering 90 percent.

Blue Diamond Grower members in the northern Sacramento Valley reported winds in excess of 80 mph. A 25 percent to 50 percent tree loss was reported in individual orchards near the Sutter Buttes.

“For those growers impacted it’s a disaster,” Baker said. “Economically it’s very difficult to remove those trees and replant with that kind of devastation. Many of the orchards that sustained that kind of damage will be totally removed and the grower will start over again.”

The immediate priority facing growers across the Sacramento Valley is removing downed trees to clear the way for bee hive deliveries and ground bloom sprayers, said Daryl Brun, Blue Diamond field supervisor who serves the lower end of the Sacramento Valley.

“The cleanup operation is a huge task — there are thousands of trees down,” Brun said.

Timely tree spraying is dependent on available labor to clear orchards. Some of the cost of tree removal can be recovered by wood sales, but Baker said, “I think growers would rather have the almond market than the wood market.”

While ag commissioners tally up the immediate financial impact, the long term impact is that growers will lose income for at least the next five years in what is anticipated to be an overall solid almond market.

Unfortunately, crop insurance is good only for production related crop losses like frost and rain, but not wind-downed trees, Baker said. Blue Diamond Growers is pursuing state and federal disaster assistance for growers who experienced higher losses.

“It’s tough financially for the individual grower who may have lost 25 percent to 50 percent of their livelihood in six to seven hours,” Baker said.

About 15 percent of California’s 2007-2008 almond crop was grown in the Sacramento Valley, or about 65 million pounds. Top wind gusts clocked in the Sacramento Valley surpassed 100 piles per hour north of Chico. One almond grower in the valley witnessed 80 mph on his wind-measuring instrument before the wind destroyed it.

California’s major almond-producing counties in the Central Valley escaped the boldest winds and significant tree losses. Winds clocked at 55 to 60 miles per hour blew through Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.

Baker said the Sacramento Valley losses could reduce the state’s potential bearing acres by about 10,000 acres or more in 2008. Prior to the storm, almond-bearing acreage was expected to jump from about 615,000 acres this crop year to 650,000 acres in 2009.

One of the difficult, impending decisions faced by Sacramento Valley almond growers was determining if “tree leaners” were salvageable. In the northwest quadrant of the southern buttes, winds upended roots from wrist to thumb size, most caused by winds instead of structural tree problems like heart rot.

Accurately determining when a tree’s broken roots lead to the tree’s demise is a perplexing call. “If you can see broken roots and the tree is on its side, it’s generally done,” said Franz Niederholzer, University of California Cooperative-Extension (UCCE) farm advisor, Sutter and Yuba counties. “Yet I’ve heard of some young blocks, second and third leaf trees, that were laid over by winds before, then were stood and staked up, and survived.”

‘Leaner trees’ can be a harvest hazard since harvesters may fail to gain a solid clamp for shaking. Trees should be straightened up or removed, Niederholzer said. Yet a grower’s decision to replant also depends on multiple factors including cash flow, orchard age, and how an orchard fits into the grower’s overall orchard portfolio.

Clearing clogged orchards of debris is crucial to pave the way for essential fungicide bloom spray applications. “If a grower can’t get the trees out of the way for ground spray rigs, growers will be forced to apply products by more costly applications by helicopters and airplanes,” Niederholzer said.

Those opting to replant will likely find some nurseries out of replant stocks.

The Padre and Monterey almond varieties suffered heavy damage from the January winds. Joe Connell, UCCE Butte County farm advisor, said damage varied by location, orchard age, and rootstock. “Higher losses occurred in almond orchards on peach rootstock. Fewer losses occurred with plum rootstock due to the better anchored, smaller trees.”

The last major wind storm to blow through the Sacramento Valley tree nut industry was in March 1995. Afterwards some almond growers switched to plum rootstock while others gravitated from almonds to walnuts.

In almonds, Connell is urging growers to apply fungicide sprays by ground whenever possible. “You get the best coverage with a ground spray application. We recommend solid sprays of fungicides using a ground rig if at all possible. Solid spraying by ground is an important component in minimizing resistance development to fungicides,” Connell said.

Orchards that faced the most problems from the 2008 winds were those planted in an east-west direction, said John Edstrom, UCCE Colusa County farm advisor. The January storm blew in from the south, and east-west plantings provided no alleyways for the wind to exit. Edstrom was most surprised by how well the Marianna 2624 plum rootstock tolerated the winds.

“Few Marianna-based orchards lost any trees from the wind unless the trees were decayed terribly from diseases like heart rot or crown gall that weaken trunk strength,” Edstrom said. “Marianna is a plum-type that’s fairly disease and nematode resistant but produces smaller trees so growers shy away from it. Growers won’t get top yields per season with Marianna but it would be very interesting to conduct an analysis over an orchard’s 25-year life to determine total yields.”

The major differences between the March 1995 and January 2008 windstorms – in 1995 trees were in bloom with some leaves and the orchard floors were wet. The 2008 winds happened during tree dormancy and drier ground.

County damage breakdown — compiled from county agricultural commissioners:

Glenn County (Mark Black) – “Growers are looking for chippers and shredders — the whole (almond) world is looking for the same thing right now,” said Black, who also serves as county air pollution control officer. “We’re asking growers to make smaller burn piles and dry wood as long as possible to reduce smoke and its impact on air pollution in towns.”

About 30 percent to 35 percent of Glenn County’s orange crop (mostly Navels) was lost. About 20 percent was blown to the ground while fruit remaining on the tree was battered with some broken skins.

Colusa County (Harry Krug) – Only almonds were affected by the storm, with losses of $5,414,000 on 14,400 almond acres (about half of the county’s acreage). The worst hit area was Arbuckle along Interstate 5.

Tehama County (Rick Gurrola) – Tehama County lost about 15 percent of its almond trees that will cost $4 million in losses in 2008, Gurrola said. One percent of the plum trees were lost ($182,638 value) and 0.5 percent of the walnut trees. Winds at the Redding, Calif. airport topped 80 mph.

Yuba County (Louie Mendoza) – Prunes and walnuts are Yuba County’s largest tree crops (10,000 acres each). Prune tree losses amounted to 1 percent to 5 percent. Almond trees losses were estimated at 5 percent. Moderate damage to agriculture was estimated at $10 million in trees, outbuildings, and packinghouses.

“We were fortunate that we had not received a lot of rain this year so when the winds came the orchards were not at soil capacity for moisture,” Mendoza said. “If the soil had been saturated, it would have been more devastating.”

Solano County (Janet Jessen, deputy ag commissioner) – Rain of 2.5 inches was beneficial, and the single reported agricultural loss was a tomato greenhouse.

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