If there’s an apt description for this year’s California almond harvest that would be “mixed bag.”
Early reports as almond growers begin shaking trees range from positive feedback about the harvest of five-year-old Independence variety nuts in Tulare County to reports of trees in some orchards being removed for lack of irrigation water in other parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
Almond harvest began a few weeks earlier than normal for some in California though volume was generally too slow in the beginning to start processing plants right away. The crop largely benefitted from favorable conditions during bloom, though that is where the benefits ended.
Surface irrigation supplies were curtailed to California farmers for a second consecutive year, forcing them to tap deep into aquifers to keep trees alive. In many cases it was not enough water to meet the needs of the trees. Some growers lost that battle and were forced to remove orchards.
For some that underground water was too salty, robbing yield, and in severe cases, pushing trees to the brink of death, according to University of California Farm Advisor David Doll.
Doll is already advising growers to ensure adequate post-harvest irrigation and nitrogen applications take place in a timely manner to help trees recover and begin the process to create nuts for next year.
Growers will want to ensure that 20 percent of their annual nitrogen budget is added in August and September, post-harvest. Do not apply more than 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre at this time as days will be getting shorter and less water will be pulled from the soil into the trees.
Typically, growers are urged to use higher-quality surface water for these irrigations to help leach salts past the root zone, but this year, as with the last, surface water was curtailed to California farms. Water testing will be important to monitor salt loading in the soil.
Growers continue to hope for heavy winter rains to push soil salts beyond the root zones.
Similar water quality issues plagued almond growers in western regions of the San Joaquin Valley and the Sacramento Valley, according to farm advisors.
Doll said “ground-zero” for the more severe salt problems in the San Joaquin Valley was likely western Fresno County, where reports came in that growers opted to remove orchards and replant under more favorable conditions.
Michael Kelley, president and chief executive officer of Central California Almond Growers Association, a huller and sheller cooperative, said harvest for his member growers began in late July and quickly ramped up during the last week of the month. Kelley figures enough product will have accumulated by Aug. 5 to turn on processing equipment.
Kelley said he would have a better handle by mid-August of how the crop faired this year, but he’s already hearing stories of smaller almond meat sizes, which could dampen early projections of USDA’s 1.8 billion pound crop estimate.
Water issues extended statewide, and like parts of the San Joaquin Valley, the western portions of the Sacramento Valley’s growing region also saw soil and water toxicity problems.
Franz Niederholzer, farm advisor for Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties, says soil and water toxicity was troublesome for growers in western Colusa County. Chilling hours in the Sacramento Valley appeared not to be an issue for growers, he said.
Pest pressures were rumored to be troublesome for growers as a warmer winter led to an additional generation of Naval orangeworm, according to University of California officials. University Integrated Pest Management specialists advised growers with any chance of shaking trees ahead of a third NOW generation hatch to do so as a means to mitigate worm damage.
Niederholzer said NOW appeared to be a larger problem for growers in the southern Sacramento Valley than in the past. Growers who typically try to harvest their Nonpareil variety before the third generation of NOW hatches couldn’t because of heat units and the hatch of new generations.
Tulare County almond grower Josh Pitigliano seemed pleased overall with his Independence variety as he began shaking his five-year-old trees on July 18. A quick visual survey of the trees revealed no worm damage and what could be a good yield in that orchard.