Fifth-generation Buttonwillow, Calif., grower Greg Wegis saw his season-long hope for an average to larger 2012 almond crop vanish this summer as early harvest tallies revealed a 20 percent to 25 percent shortfall in Nonpareil variety yields.

Wegis’ Nonpareil yields this fall ranged about from 2,000 pounds to 3,000 pounds per acre, compared to last year’s record production of 3,500 pounds to 3,800 pounds per acres. About 50 percent of Wegis’ 2,100-acre almond operation is planted in Nonpareil.

“The lower Nonpareil yield caught us by surprise,” said Wegis, a partner in the family’s 7,800-acre farm, Wegis and Young, www.wegisandyoung.com.

The Nonpareil nut quality on the family ranch looks good.

In addition to almonds, the crops grown include pistachios, wheat, cherries, processing and fresh market tomatoes, bell peppers, plus corn, triticale, and milo for dairy silage.

“Typically when you have a smaller almond crop the nut size is typically larger. We’re not seeing that this year. Everyone is kind of baffled,” Wegis said from his pickup truck in early September as he managed harvest operations in the Wasco area.

The truck interior is Wegis’ communications center on wheels including a mounted laptop, tablet computer, and smart phone for instant hands-on access to farm data.

“This arrangement helps me be more efficient with my time,” Wegis said.

Why is the Wegis’ Nonpareil crop lower? He believes the culprits are back-to-back large crops over the last two years, combined with freezing temperatures this spring on the lower areas of the valley floor.

“I believe last year’s large crop took a lot out of the trees.”

The Wegis and Young operation harvested its first Nonpareils Aug. 13. Harvests of the California varieties are expected to wrap it up in mid October – weather permitting. Early harvests figures for the Padre, Butte, and Mission varieties suggest an average crop to a 10 percent reduction in yield.

Wegis hopes a smaller-than-projected California almond crop might bolster grower prices.

“Three dollars a pound would be great,” Wegis said.

The California Agricultural Statistics Service in late June predicted a record 2012 California almond crop at 2.1 billion meat pounds. With lower Nonpareil yield tallies across the southern San Joaquin Valley (SJV), the NASS figure may head south.

Wegis and Young grow almonds in the Buttonwillow, Wasco, and Shafter areas of Kern County. The county is the southern-most tip of California’s 760,000 bearing acre almond industry. Production stretches north into the far reaches of the Sacramento Valley.

Almonds are California’s top exported crop. California growers produce 99 percent of the nation’s commercial almond crop. California cash receipts from almonds totaled $2.84 billion in 2010. Kern County is the third-largest almond producer in the Golden State.

Bone dry

Greg Wegis’ great-great-grandfather started farming in the late 1800s when he moved from Germany to Buttonwillow. The elder Wegis’ son bought the Buttonwillow farm in the 1920s.

For the most part, Wegis says almond growing conditions were good all year including the critical pollination period except for the freezing temperatures in low spots in the late spring.

“It’s been a great growing year for the most part,” Wegis said. “The trees appear healthy.”

Harvest time weather conditions were good and dry in early September.

“This year everything is just bone dry,” Wegis explained.

Wegis and Young have the almond crop hulled and shelled at the Farmer’s Cooperative Almond Huller in Buttonwillow. The crop is marketed through Treehouse California Almonds, SunnyGem, and Supreme Almonds of California.

The primary pest-disease issue on the Wegis and Young almond ranch this year was alternaria leaf spot. Several fungicide treatments provided good fungus control.

According to the University of California IPM website, alternaria appears as a one-half to three-quarter inch diameter brown spot on leaves during the early summer which eventually turn black. Alternaria can almost completely defoliate a tree.

The problem is more commonly found in the southern SJV than in the northern areas of the Sacramento Valley.

Fertility management was right on target for the family’s almond crop. The trees were fed about 235 units of nitrogen and about 185 units of potassium.

“All leaf tissues indicated these rates were in the optimum ranges,” Wegis said. “We’ll stick with a similar fertility program next year.”

The trees received about four acre feet of irrigated water this year; about average on the ranch. The district water allocation was about 65 percent. Good-quality groundwater was fed first followed by district water to finish off the irrigation season.

Wegis says the family does a good job managing its farm inputs in a timely manner.

“We water the almond trees at the optimal time and have invested in technology to aid us using moisture sensing probes with the PureSense real-time water monitoring system. All irrigations are documented and recorded.”

Pest and disease sprays are also timely.

Wegis said, “We have a good group of people working with us – consultants, pest control advisers, partners, foremen, and employees – who get things done at the right time.”

Cost-effective hedging

Next year, Wegis and Young will fine tune its tree hedging program – hedging every row and every year but a little wider cut. Hedging will expand from 32 inches this year to 44 to 46 inches next year to allow more sunlight and air movement in the orchard.

“It is very cost effective to hedge prune versus hand prune,” said Wegis. “Hand pruning crews clean out the centers of trees; one to two cuts per tree.”

Almond plantings are on the dense side with six-year-old orchards planted 24 feet by 16 feet apart (114 trees per acre). This compares to more conventional populations in California of 100 trees per acre.

“We are growing for early returns and plan to manage our way through the later years the best we can,” Wegis said.

Other family members in the operation include Wegis’ father, Rick Wegis; his brother-in-law Joe Etcherry; uncle Richard Young; and cousins Mike and Jeff Young.

Of Wegis and Young’s almond acreage, about 1,850 acres are bearing and 250 are non-bearing.

Wegis and Young Property Management LLC will plant about 1,000 acres of almonds in March in western Kern County for outside investors. The company manages 10,000 acres of crops in the Blythe area and 1,000 acres in the Lake Isabella area.

cblake@farmpress.com