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Could California weather damage cause lower almond yields?

Todd Fitchette Downed almond trees
Wind damage in almonds can be seen in Kern County, Calif.
While it's too early to tell the impacts of wet, cool and windy conditions during almond pollination, some think this year's nut crop may suffer significantly.

As California’s epic winter rain and snow continues, farmers are assessing damage from floods and wind.

The impacts of the 2016/2017 winter will not be solely seen in the flooded farm fields and wind-toppled orchards, though those will be included in the tallies. A big question mark right now is just how bad the springtime pollination period was for California’s largest crop - almonds.

It may still be too early to tell, but almond growers may face poor yields come harvest due to conditions that kept bees from pollinating the trees and other weather-related issues.

Dani Lightle, the orchard systems farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Glenn County, says she is not optimistic about this year’s almond crop, based on what she has seen.

A combination of cold, wet, and windy days hampered bee flight hours in northern California orchards. The same basic conditions were seen in Kern County where almond trees at full bloom on a nearly cloudless morning had virtually no bees working because the temperatures were too cold.

Crop damage

Visible tree damage was seen in Kern County, likely the result of heavy winds that pushed over larger, older almond trees. In some cases, tree roots were pulled up indicating wet soil conditions. In others, trees appeared snapped off at ground level. According to Lightle, this could be from a condition known as “heart rot,” a wood-rotting fungus that tends to be a secondary pathogen affecting almond trees, leaving them susceptible to damage.

Upon closer inspection of almond trees still upright, Mohammad Yaghmour, tree nut farm advisor in Kern County, says it may be too early to tell just how impacted almonds will be this year from the weather and lack of pollination, but in one orchard he says things didn’t look good.

Brad Higbee, field research and development manager with Trécé, Inc. in Kern County, seems less optimistic about the almond crop this year. Still, he says he’s been surprised in the past by good almond yields in years where weather conditions did not appear favorable for a good almond pollination, so the jury may still be out on the California almond crop.

At Benden Farms in the northern California county of Colusa, about 1,000 acres of farmland is underwater. Though much of this is rice ground, Ben Carter of Benden Farms says he still has significant acreages of alfalfa, prunes and walnuts underwater. His wife Denise says though the Sacramento River has receded slightly, it remains at “monitor” stage, meaning levee patrols are ongoing and the Moulton Weir near her home is still open to relieve pressure on the river.

Ben is concerned about his prunes and walnuts. The prunes are just now waking up from dormancy and this is the time of year is when they experience a flush of root growth. Because the flood waters have pushed oxygen from the soils, this could have a detrimental impact on prunes.

“We’ve lost all of our cover crops we planted and may lose some alfalfa,” Carter says. About half of his alfalfa acreage has been under water for 21 days so far.

Though over half the Carters' farmland remains under water, their old home along the Sacramento River has been spared as the levee between their house and the river continues to hold.

As an elected member of the Colusa County Board of Supervisors, Denise has seen and is privy to damage elsewhere in county, which sits at the southern end of the Sacramento Valley. The town of Maxwell on the county’s west side was inundated by flood waters earlier in the year, damaging homes and businesses.

Though the winter flooding of rice fields is a normal procedure, Ben says he should soon be looking to drain those fields and begin ground preparations ahead of rice season. Under current and forecasted conditions it’s anyone’s guess when rice farmers will be able to drain fields and do the necessary preparations before reflooding their fields and planting seed by aircraft.

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