Standing in his Butte and Padre blocks on March 10, it looked like snow had blanketed Mike Schafer’s central San Joaquin Valley almond orchards. That’s how quickly petal fall from these two varieties built up after the trees had reached full bloom the previous day. A day later, plenty of wood was visible on the trees and green leaves were pushing.

Mike and his brother, Steve, grow 1,700 acres of almonds along with 2,100 acres of wine and raisin grapes and 120 acres of pomegranates near Madera, Calif.

As with many California almond growers, the Schafers’ trees began blooming later than usual this year. The first to bloom for them was Sonora and Nonpareil on sandier soils. They began showing blossoms on Feb. 16-18, Mike recalls.

“Once it started, the bloom was over very quickly in all our varieties,” Mike says. “Some years, the trees stay white for a long time. This year, the bloom went from, maybe, 10 percent one day to 20 percent the next and then jumped to 50 percent and then 100 percent just a few days later. “

By the start of the second week of March, an estimated 90 percent of his Nonpareil and the other varieties had finished blooming.

Only one day of rain marred the good bloom weather. Still, after more than three decades of growing almonds, Mike’s not sure how the weather during this stage of crop development will affect final yields.

 

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“I’ve seen some good crops follow good weather during bloom,” he says. “And, I’ve seen some great crops in years where it seemed to rain every day during bloom. Two years ago, for example, we had rain throughout the bloom, and we had our biggest crop ever.”

Despite reports of a shortage of bees and high prices for hives, Mike had plenty of strong, healthy bees this year. He’s worked with the same local beekeeper for the past four decades.

“I got all the bees I needed for $150 a hive,” Mike says. “The bees were exceptional. Most of the hives had at least eight trays.”

He puts out 2.25 hives per acre in his highest-producing blocks. The rest are stocked with two hives per acre.

Even with the good weather and active bees in his orchards, Mike doubts this year’s bloom was as good as last year. And, it wasn’t nearly as good as the 2011 bloom, either, he adds.

Surface water cutbacks

“I don’t see a great crop for us this year,” Mike says. “The Nonpareil bloom wasn’t as good as it could have been. There’s a lot of bare wood out there. Because of the good weather during bloom, I’ve got a feeling that, in our case, we’ll have a really nice crop. It just won’t be a phenomenal one.”

Last year, his almond yields ranged from 2,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds per acre, depending on the block. This year, Mike expects his trees to produce better than 2,500 pounds but less than 3,000 pounds per acre this year.

Just before the one rain fell during this year’s bloom on March 7, he used a ground rig to spray every other row with fertilizers plus a fungicide to protect against brown rot. The nutrients were a blend of zinc, calcium, boron, nitrogen, phosphorus and humic acid. Starting with orchards showing the most leaf surface and progressing to those with the last trees to bloom, it took five days to complete the treatment.

Mike plans to wait for more leaves to push before coming back with another foliar application of nutrients and, if necessary, fungicide to treat the remaining rows.

His sprayer applies 60 gallons of solution per acre. “Because there’s not much foliage to restrict the spray pattern at this time of the year, I can get about 85 percent to 90 percent coverage of the trees using my ground rig to spray every other row,” Mike says. “That’s much better than aerial applications, which usually put on no more than 20 gallons per acre.”

He uses this same alternate-row approach when spraying his trees at hull split.

While the bloom was ending, Mike’s crew was following up a post-harvest spray of contact herbicides to clean up grasses and other weeds in the row middles and berms with a second post-emergent herbicide application.  Bare ground helps with frost protection, if necessary.

“After planting trees in a fresh field, it takes a while to get all the weeds killed,” he says. “By the time the orchards are seven or eight years old, they’re mostly weed-free. I don’t spray much Roundup in the summer. Once the trees start shading in, the weeds don’t grow. I like clean fields.”

However, Mike doesn’t like the news he’s getting about cutbacks in surface water deliveries this year. Most of California’s key storage reservoirs were above or near historic levels in early March due to November and December storms. However, in early March water content in the mountain snowpack – which normally provides about a third of the water for California’s farms and communities – was well below normal.

Surface water for irrigating the Schafer Ranch is provided by the Madera Irrigation District. The district delivered water for111 days last year. This year Mike expects to receive surface water for no more than six to seven weeks. He’ll make up the rest with groundwater.

“Right now we don’t have a problem getting groundwater,” Mike says. “But, the situation is still serious, because the water table is dropping about five feet a year. We’re probably five to eight years from being at the bottom of our oldest wells before we’ll have to do something to get more water.”

This report on the almond bloom is from Tree Nut Farm Press, a twice-monthly electronic newsletter published by Farm Press during the growing season. If you would like to receive Tree Nut Farm Press go to the bottom right of this page and sign up for it and other Farm Press electronic newsletters.

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