Merced County almond orchards were reaching the full bloom stage in the last week of February and many growers found themselves in a dilemma.
They wanted warm, sunny weather for a successful pollination season yet they could also benefit from wet weather to replenish soil profiles following a dry winter.
“Growers are praying for good weather and rain at the same time,” says David Doll, University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Mercer County.
In many of the county’s Nonpareil orchards, bloom had advanced to the popcorn stage by the third week of February. That’s about a week later than normal.
Doll can’t explain the delay.
“I’m stumped,” he admits. “Last year’s crop was a little weak, leaving more energy for bud development this season. With the really nice bud set and enough chilling hours this winter according to the model, we were expecting a timely, short bloom. But, it doesn’t look like it.”
The demand for honey bees to pollinate California’s 800,000 acres of almonds has exceeded the supply this year. “Some growers around here are getting six frames of bees per hive instead of the eight they would like or they’re getting fewer hives per acre than they want,” Doll says. “And, some growers couldn’t find any bees to pollinate their trees.”
Although the county received about .2 to .3 inches of rain in the third week of February, total rainfall this winter hasn’t been enough to fill soil profiles. Sandy soils have enough water for the trees down to about 5 to 6 feet, Doll reports. The depth of moisture on the clay loam and other heavier soils is much shallower. That means growers could start irrigating soon, depending on when the trees leaf out. That would be about two weeks sooner than usual, he adds.
The second straight winter of below normal snowfall in the mountains isn’t helping things, At mid-February, the snowpack stood at about 60 percent to 70 percent of normal. Doll notes. “Right now the reservoirs appear to have enough water to get us through this season,” he says. “But, what if we don’t have enough water for next year’s crop? That’s why some irrigation districts are taking a wait-and-see approach in deciding whether or not to curtail deliveries this season.”
Dry weather during bloom reduces the threat of fungal diseases like brown rot, shot hole and jacket rot.
“If the weather stays nice and sunny through pollination, some growers with varieties that tolerate brown rot, like Nonpareil, might not need to spray a fungicide,” Doll says. “But, if they hold off on making an application, they better be ready to pull the trigger if rain moves in. The blooms will need some kind of coverage for protection.”