Veteran producer continues learning lessons about growing a successful almond crop

Even though Mike Schafer has been growing almonds since he graduated from high school 32 years ago, his crops continue to teach him a thing or two.

Schafer Ranch at Madera, Calif., which he, his dad, Corky, and his brother, Steve, own and operate, grows 1,700 acres of Aldrich, Butte, Carmel, Monterey, Nonpareil, Padre and Sonora varieties. The orchards include trees they own and those they manage for other owners. Counting their wine and raisin grape operations, they farm 3,800 acres.

“Every year I learn something about almonds,” says Schafer, whose father planted the family’s first almonds in 1969. Last year, for example, he learned what the leaffooted plant bug can do to yields.

“We hadn’t seen it before, but it came on really heavy. In all our years of farming, it was the first time we had to spray for it .In some fields it caused as much as 30 percent loss in production. This year, we’ve had only a few of the bugs; they came really late and couldn’t get through the hulls to damage the nuts.”

The annual production cycles continue to offer lessons in controlling other pests, as well.

Hot weather the first part of August caused a slight mite flare-up in some of his younger orchards. That’s when he started spot spraying higher pressure areas, like the row ends, with soaps and oils.

Schafer began harvesting, starting with Nonpareil, Aug. 8, about a week earlier than normal. So far, he reports little, if any, damage from navel orangeworm, which he credits to good orchard sanitation and dormant sprays.

“Ants are probably our biggest insect concern during harvest. They can cause as much, if not more, damage than navel orangeworm. Once, we put half a dozen ants in a jar with an almond nut — they ate the whole nut overnight.”

Each summer, he treats the orchards about 30 days prior to the start of harvest with one of two growth regulators — pyriproxyfen or abamectin. For heavier infestations, he spreads one product 30 days before harvest and the other two or three weeks later.

“Either way, by the time the almonds hit the ground, the mounds are empty of ants,” Schafer says.

Like a number of other Madera County growers, he is also learning now how the March freeze affected his crop. “The Nonpareils look like they’ll be about 20 percent off of last year’s production. But yields, where frost hit the hardest on some of our fifth and sixth leaf orchards, are down by about 50 percent. Overall, our pollinators look like they’ll be producing 10 percent to 15 percent less than last year in the orchards that got no frost.”

In fact, Schafer expects that this year’s almond crop will be a little less than the California Agricultural Statistics Service’s objective forecast of 1.35 billion meat pounds, announced at the end of June.

“What I’m hearing as the harvest gets under way is that production is down a little more than growers thought it would be,” he says. “Our almonds started out with a huge hull, so we believed size would be very large. But, that’s not the case; I’ve seen a few orchards on the West Side, and I don’t see the production and nut meat size that’s needed to get to a 1.35 billion pound crop this year.”

TAGS: Tree Nuts
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