Earlier this year, Merced County almond handler and grower Dave Long took a photo of the first almond tree he saw in bloom and e-mailed it to a friend.
That was Feb. 14. Thirty days later he took another picture of that same tree. It was still blooming.
“That’s the longest bloom I’ve seen in 30 years in the business,” says Long. “The temperatures never got too warm or too cool. As a result, flowers stayed viable much longer than usual.”
The extended pollination and fertilization period goes a long way in explaining the record 1.75-billion-pound crop forecast by the California NASS office. That figure — 6 percent higher than last year’s 1.65-billion-pound crop — is the agency’s initial subjective forecast, released May 5, for the 2011 California almond crop. The forecast also estimates bearing acreage this year at 750,000, up 10,000 acres from 2010.
Long, a former director of the Almond Board of California, is president of Hilltop Ranch, Inc., at Ballico, Calif. He and his wife, Christine, started the company in 1980.
Currently, their integrated operation annually hulls, shells, cleans, grades, sorts, sizes and processes more than 25,000 tons of almonds, which are shipped to buyers in more than 65 countries.
The subjective forecast also reports heavy sets on several varieties. That matches Long’s observations, too.
“The nut set this year in the central part of the state is the heaviest I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Because of last year’s light set, the trees were stronger going into bloom this year.”
The anticipated record crop is good news for almond growers, processors and consumers, Long notes.
“Over the last 10 years annual shipments of almonds have grown at a compounded rate of more than 9 percent,” he says. “We need a 1.75 billion pound crop this year to meet increased consumption worldwide, especially in China and India, our fastest growing markets.”
Meanwhile, his almond trees look healthy and have nice crop of nuts, following a bloom where disease pressure was minimal, despite the unusually wet weather. Cooler temperatures, he says, limited development of any fungal diseases.
However, the bright picture for this year’s almond crop isn’t without a cloud or two. Along with fertilizer costs, fuel expenses have shot up significantly in recent months. Last year, for example, Long paid an average of $2.35 for a gallon of diesel; now he’s paying more than $4 per gallon.
To reduce fuel costs, he is routing trucks as efficiently as possible. He also invested in seven new trucks, each equipped with the latest low-emission, fuel-efficient technology. Each truck burns 10 gallons less per day than the one it replaced.
At current diesel prices, Long says, the value of the fuel saved by represents about half the loan payments he’s making on the trucks.