Tree crop advisor Franz Niederholzer likens supervising an almond orchard to either managing a retail business — or perhaps playing a baseball game.
The University of California Cooperative Extension agent and chair of the AgNetResources Almond Group Association says, "I’m told it’s far easier to manage a business when you have sustainable income you can plan on versus having unexpected ups and downs where really good years might be followed by ones with significantly less income — big years followed by off years and no dependability.
"It’s like that in an orchard where you want consistent production and sustained high yield. In my baseball analogy, it’s better to be a consistent hitter that gets regular base hits versus always swinging for the seats," he says. "Stop focusing on hitting those infrequent home runs and pay constant attention to successfully managing your orchard without any strikeouts."
With a doctorate in soil science and a northern California responsibility for some 60,000 acres of almonds in Colusa, Yuba, and Sutter counties, Niederholzer says there are some things growers can do to make sure they stay in the game.
First and foremost, "You want to build an orchard structure that supports light interception, capturing energy at the highest level you can, like 80%," he said. "So you want a large canopy to establish your yield. That’s your ante into the game.
"And that structure needs to handle the appropriate root stocks and varieties that will return a reasonable income. You set yourself up for success by having proper root stock and variety, planted in the proper density, and once established, properly fed to maintain the health of the canopy throughout the season."
To wit — proper bee activity, proper nutrition to bloom, then feeding the crop and canopy with adequate moisture and crop protection management throughout the growing season to minimize disease and insect damage. "That’s a sustainability plan that can work for growers," he says.
A barrel with different length staves
He likens it to a barrel that has been assembled with different length staves. "If they’re not the same height, you can’t fill the barrel all the way up. The different staves represent management programs, the different components of a farm program, and when they’re all equal, that barrel can be filled properly and will hold water."
There may be a short stave in some regions of the state where a particular pest is a big deal or a particular nutrient is a localized challenge, but overall it’s a level playing field for growers anywhere in California when it comes to adequate supply of good irrigation water.
"Get your irrigation dialed in across your acreage, evenly distributed, of good quality, and applied in a timely manner," Niederholzer said. "There are times you can ease up a bit, but providing sufficient water to develop a full-size canopy goes a long way towards successful almond production."
Looking ahead are both lingering and developing issues like navel orangeworm management and sustained light management across an orchard. "Every orchard you walk into you could find something that can be improved, but each of the issues is like a large family of children — all of them need the same amount of attention, neither excessive nor deprived. Treat them all equitably and equally."
Depending on how much risk growers are willing to take, there are new and untried varieties that hold promise.
"What are you comfortable with, a bird in the hand or possibly two in the bush," he asks. "Caution is a constant and you don’t want your reach to exceed your grasp."
Although crop prognostication is not in his job description, he feels comfortable in noting, "Production acreage has been going up every year and I suspect the 2020 crop, at least in my little corner of the world, will be a very good one."
For more news on tree nuts as reported by growers and farm advisors, subscribe to the Tree Nut Farm Press e-newsletter.