The limbs on Gary Coleman’s six-year-old Nonpareil almond trees were already sagging in late April under the surprising weight of their 2010 crop. He is also wondering if double tying his Carmels’ scaffolding would be enough to keep them from breaking under the weight of the rapidly maturing nuts.

Those are the telltale – and welcome – signs that there is a sizeable crop in Coleman’s orchards. They are particularly pleasing developments for the Kerman, Calif., producer because this past spring was one of the wettest and coldest for California almond growers in recent years. A nasty February, March and April like California almond growers experienced this year normally means more fungicide sprays.

“I sprayed only twice; once by ground with Tilt and later with Rovral by air ... because I was watering when one of the storms was moving in,” he said. He does not cultivate the middles, and did not want to rut the orchard running a spray rig on wet ground. “I have gravelly soil and when I cultivate it, it brings up rocks. My huller does not like rocks,” he laughs while visiting with Mike Kelley, president of his huller/sheller, Central California Almond Growers Association.

Two fungicide treatments are normal for the almond producer who also farms 60 acres of Thompson seedless grapes just west of Fresno. “The most I have ever sprayed is three times, so twice is about normal.” He treats for shot hole without fail. “I have seen orchards that were not treated and they have almonds all over the ground in April.”

The cold, wet spring was a double-edged sword. It may have precluded giving the industry what it wanted; a record crop to meet record demand. However, the uncertainty over the crop due to the poor weather bolstered crop prices. Nonpareil almonds are already quoted at more than $3 per pound. California varieties are about $2.20 per pound.

“California varieties were 70 cents a pound not too long ago,” he added.

Doug Youngdahl, president of Blue Diamond Growers, said the El Niño weather “overshadowed the 2010 bloom and dampened hopes for another record crop to feed the rapidly growing global market for almonds.” Crop uncertainty from the less than ideal bloom and subsequent supplies forced prices up.

“Given the current 2010 crop outlook, higher prices will become the mechanism for allocating available supply. How high levels will rise will be dependent upon the developing 2010 crop.”

The dynamics of the 2010 market will become clearer with the NASS subjective crop estimate on May 6.

Short bloom year

Growers like Coleman are calling this season a “short bloom year.” The trees began blooming on time about Feb. 15 and bloom lasted for a month. However, for Coleman, weather suitable for bloom pollination accounted for only a few days of that month.

“All told, when it came right down to it, we had maybe a week of good pollination days. It got so bad I was starting to count the hours of sunshine each day when the weather got real bad,” he said.

Coleman and several of his neighbors combined orchards to attract a local beekeeper and they benefitted from strong hives. Asked if he saw signs of colony collapse, he said, “I saw quite a few dead bees around some hives; nevertheless, the bees were working the orchard when the weather was good. You could hear the hum of the bees in the orchard when they were working.”

Coleman explained Carmel and the bees synced perfectly. Carmel blooms three to four days after Nonpareil and bloom conditions were good for that California variety. “The Carmel crop is so big I am not sure the trees can hold it. I am already seeing nuts crowding each other off the trees. The Butte and Padre bloom was unbelievable.”

Clovis, Calif., agronomist and PCA Eli Akel consults with growers in Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties and he said the bloom overall was spectacular. However nut set is mixed among his growers. “In some Monterey and Fritz blocks you couldn’t even see bark on the limbs because of all the blooms,” he says. “The showy bloom had some Nonpareil producers expecting a lot more from their trees, but the resulting nut set didn’t measure up.”

Fritz and Monterey bloomed earlier than Nonpareil. “So far, the trend is the reverse of last year, when Fritz didn’t have a good crop, the Monterey crop was average and the Nonpareil had a decent crop,” Akel says.

In some cases this spring, hard shell variety growers saw a wide variation in the bloom pattern. In one block Akel checked, Buttes were at 90 percent bloom while only half of the Padres were at or near full bloom. On the same day in a different block, Butte bloom was 100 percent compared to just 30 percent Padre.

Aldrich, Padre and Nonpareil varieties did not set well. Nonpareils had a higher nut set with pollinators such as Avalon, Monterey and Wood Colony, but a lower set if the third pollinator was Aldrich.

“That kind of variation between varieties, which results in poor overlap and poor pollination, can occur with a short bloom cycle,” Akel says. “Poor pollination can also occur during a short bloom, if you don’t have enough bees. For example, some growers who stocked 2.5 hives per acre this year probably would have benefitted by having 3.5 hives.

Hive strength vital for yield

“For short bloom cycles, bee hive count and hive strength are imperative for high yield. Some growers say their young trees exhibited a higher set than older, larger trees, because bees had a smaller volume of trees to deal with.

“Colony strength was a key factor this season. Blocks where colonies averaged above 12 frames have a record crop, while growers with colonies that were split into less than an eight frame average prior to being moved into the orchard had a fair nut set.”

Coleman agrees with Akel that the overall crop set may not measure up, but Nonpareil nut and even California varieties are large nuts.

“Carmels are as big as you’d expect Nonpareil to be this time of year, and the Nonpareil nut is huge. I expect what I may lack in set, I should make up on tonnage,” he predicted.

Kelley said the large nuts are very desirable on the marketing side of the equation.

“Some growers say a short bloom makes a better crop. I have had long blooms in the past and have been disappointed,” he said.

Coleman says overall, “the crop is okay … nothing to write home about, but with the current price structure we will be fine.”

Coleman does all his spraying and mowing. “When you are driving a tractor, you just keep on going and don’t really pay that much attention to the crop size. However, when you walk the orchard, it looks different,” he said.

Oddly enough, the best way to evaluate crop size is at night.

Older growers told Coleman that when you shine a light on the trees at night the nuts glow silver and separate themselves from the leaves. “You can really get a better idea of how many nuts are on the trees at night,” he commented.

Kelley said his board recently estimated the crop the association will hull and shell this year at 70 million pounds, about 5 percent more than last year.

The association with plants in Kerman and Sanger is the largest almond huller/sheller in the world.

The crop is late due to the cold weather, but Coleman and Kelley said it could make up the week it is behind with a hot summer, “that is what the weatherman is predicting.”

Coleman has been farming for 30 years. He has three orchards, eight, six and four years old. “It is my second go-round with trees. I took out two orchards that were 26 and 31 years old and replaced them with new trees.” One new orchard was not in trees previously.

His pollinators are Carmel, Butte and Padre. He would select Monterey instead of Carmel to do it over. Although Carmels are a good pollinator, they suffer from what is called crazy top, dead limbs on top of individual trees.

“You get a lot of crazy top in dry years, and we have had dry years for the past two to three years before this spring,” he said. “You can have one good Carmel tree right next to one with crazy top. It’s genetic. It does not make a lot of sense.”

Coleman is pleased with the growth of his young orchards. He attributes it to a Simplot fertilizer blend, 21-7-14. “Almonds are a big user of nitrogen, but they need the other elements. I attribute a lot of the strong growth on my young trees to that.”

Concerns over water future

Coleman has a good water supply, but he is very concerned about California’s overall water picture where farmers are losing trees due to water shortages, especially on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Issues like cutting off water supplies to protect fish are driving West Side growers into the East Side of the Valley where they are buying vineyards, noted Coleman.

“One big West Side grower bought 220 acres of grapes not far from me last year — did not even harvest the grape crop before pulling out the vines and planting almonds,” he said.

Prominent Westlands Water District producer John Diener of Five Points, Calif., predicts there will be no almonds in Westlands in 10 years due to water uncertainty.

“I bet it will be less than that. I would not be surprised if it was not five years. It is going to hurt the almond industry because of lost production. Those guys on the West Side can pump out 3,500 to 4,000 pounds per acre. It is prime farm ground.”

“I bust my butt to get 2,500 pounds per acre. It takes two acres in this area to get what they can on the West Side. It’s tragic and it will hurt the supply of almonds in the long run,” he said.

“The federal government is so deceitful. The feds say the farmers are to get a 25 percent water allocation and then they cut it back 10 percent to protect the fish. How is someone expected to invest in farming with that kind uncertainty,” he says.

Kelley expects the 2010 crop will begin arriving at his huller/sheller about Aug. 15.

Coleman is more confident now that he will deliver a good crop to his huller/sheller since the crop set. Frost and hail are his primary concerns the rest of the way.

“Overall, I am pleased with what we have this year. What we may not have in terms of total nuts we will make up for in tonnage with size. This crop will produce premium almonds.”

Kelley added that hull prices have firmed up in recent weeks after a downturn due to poor economic conditions in the dairy industry. They bottomed out at about $92 per ton. They have inched back up to the $110 per ton range. That is also improving the economic outlook for his members.

“We are looking forward to a good year for our 462 members. Almonds are doing well for farmers. The board just voted to do some improvements on our older Sanger plant east of Fresno. We are seeing grapes continue to come out in that area and be replaced with almonds because almonds have been pretty consistent economically over the years,” Kelley said.

Five years ago the association opened a new state-of-the-art $9.5 million huller/sheller in Kerman to serve producers west of Fresno.

hcline@farmpress.com