Three huge crops in a row would typically be economic back-breakers for just about any farm commodity, particularly one with no government price support underpinning.

But not for California almonds. With sales up 15 percent overall from last year, handlers want all they can get to keep growing markets supplied.

It was but a few years ago that nay-sayers were prognosticating that the sure-to-come one-billion pound California almond crop would topple the almond industry like trees in a muddy orchard in a 100-mile-per hour wind storm.

That huge crop arrived few season earlier than anyone expected — last year to be exact and the industry rocketed past the 1-billion-pound mark so successfully that it didn't have time to blink. Handlers were too busy with record almond shipments worldwide to stop to notice what was supposed to be their demise.

This year handlers want more of the same, saying growers need to produce the second largest crop in history, 850 million pounds, just to keep up with demands on a continual record pace.

Almost ideal bloomtime weather conditions in the state's 550,000 acres of bearing orchards did not present a stumbling block to that goal. However, many of the state's orchards are tired from producing three big crops and growers may be hard pressed to deliver 850 million pounds.

Nonpareils off

An indication of what is likely to be delivered this season beginning in August is that the most dominant variety in the state Nonpareil may be off 30 percent to 40 percent from last year.

“Bloom time weather became a non-factor with this year's crop,” according to Bill Krueger, Glenn County University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) almond farm advisor. “What will determine the size of this year's crop is what kind of crop an orchard had last year and whether a grower has young or old trees.”

It is still a bit early to make a firm crop estimate. Immature nut drop has yet to come, and orchards are still not out of frost danger. However, it is a sure bet there will be no back-to-back one billion pound crops.

“It would be almost impossible to expect another year of big yields in 2003,” said Kern County UCCE farm advisor Mario Viveros. “We have had two big crops in 2001 and 2002.”

The first official crop estimate will be out May 9 with the initial subjective projection followed a month later with the objective crop estimate.

Farm advisors and handler fieldmen report widespread variability between orchards and within orchards. While there are some strong set Nonpareils, most will be off significantly from last year, according to farm advisors and others.

While pollinizers and late bloom varieties have average or better crops this season, it is the Nonpareils that carry the load, accounting for about 40 percent of the state's total production.

Sparse sets

“There are a few orchards that have decent sets, but they may be the exception,” said Viveros of the Southern San Joaquin Valley crop. “In some orchards the set is so sparse that you need a flashlight to find the nuts.”

It was an early bloom statewide, but in Kern County it did not last long. “Almost as soon as the flowers opened, they started shedding petals. We went from white to green seems like overnight. It was one of the worst blooms I've seen in Kern County,” said Viveros.

Most farm advisors indicate that older Nonpareil wood in the middle and lower portions of the tree did not set much of a crop. The heaviest set is in younger wood on top.

Fresno County UCCE farm advisor described the bloom in his county as extended, producing varied nut sizes on trees. “Many of these smaller nuts will probably drop later with the hot weather,” he said.

Stanislaus County UCCE farm advisor Roger Duncan said soil texture and orchard care played a key role in return bloom in 2003.

“There is no question the crop will be lower than last year, especially Nonpareil,” he said. Bloomtime conditions were good, but the smaller crop is due to few flowers on trees.

“Some orchards look very light while others look average,” he added.

Irrigation concern

The biggest problem growers may face is having enough water for irrigating the crop, said Don Harcksen, manager of the Northern Merced (County) Hulling Association.

Irrigation water is growing increasingly scarce and expensive with increased demand by urban users and environmentalists coupled with a below average snow pack.

“Overall, the crop seems to be average or better than average for everything except Nonpareil,” said Harcksen, adding that the typical “June drop” is ahead and “we are not out of frost danger until May 1.”

Krueger said there was frost early in Glenn County, but only early blooming varieties like Peerless were showing buds when frost settled. “Nonpareils were still in the bud and protected. The early frost did slow down the early bloom,” he said.

“While Nonpareils will be down, pollinators look pretty good. Later blooming varieties like Mission, Buttes and Padres all look like they have pretty good crops,” added Krueger.

In Madera County, Calif., UCCE farm advisor Brent Holtz agreed that Nonpareil will be off 40 percent this year, “although there are some pretty good looking orchards.

“It looks like Buttes have a pretty good crop, and I have seen a few Carmel orchards that look good,” he said.

Northern california

Joe Connell, farm advisor in the Butte County-Chico area of Northern California said nut set is “generally moderate. Nonpareil and some of the pollinators had a notable lighter bloom. I would expect a lighter crop this year than last year,” he said.

Cold temperatures retarded bloom in the mid and late varieties, which spread out the bloom period, reducing the varieties bloom overlap, said Connell. Cold temperatures and slow daytime warm-up minimized bee flights, he added.

“This may explain a lighter crop set, even though weather appeared clear and sunny,” he said.

Cold weather during bloom also contributed to significant bacterial blast in some orchards, said Connell, especially in Peerless and on other pollinators on Marianna 2624 plum root stock. “Fruiting and leafy spurs have been killed and some defoliation occurred as a result of blast leaf lesions,” he said.

Domestic shipments of California almonds through February were up 23 percent while exports were up almost 13 percent.

Blue Diamond president Douglas Youngdahl said the California almond industry “crashed through the once-whispered and feared” one billion pound barrier with confidence with the 2002 crop and at prices higher than the smaller 824-million pound crop of 2001

“Thank goodness for the billion-pound crop were the words heard echoing from markets worldwide,” said Youngdahl.

“Given the uncapped growing demand for almonds throughout the world, another large crop is needed in 2003,” he added.

With three large crops in a row and growing demand, the question is when will there be another big surge in plantings. The answer is 2004.

Most industry observers say nurseries are sold out for new trees for next year's planting.

“The race is on,” lamented Viveros.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com