The shakers began rolling into Rod Stiefvater’s pistachio orchards Sept. 7 — earlier than most growers will begin.

“We tend to push the early side of harvest,” he says, “because we want to minimize navel orangeworm damage without doing a lot of spraying to control it. Other growers figure they get better nut removal, better quality, more splits and fewer closed nuts, if they wait longer.”

Based in Madera, Stiefvater manages substantial pistachio acreage in Kern, Madera and Tulare counties. More than half the trees are non-bearing. For most of the bearing trees, it is an on-year.

“It’s been a good on-year for production, but it certainly hasn’t been a record breaker,” Stiefvater says. “I haven’t seen a lot of test results yet, but the quality of the nuts in the bin so far looks good.

He reports average nut size — not many early splits, and a low level of navel orangeworm infestation. He’s had more blanks and closed nuts that normal, which he attributes to some very hot days in July and August, including several days of 110-degree temperatures.

“Those high temperatures probably stressed the trees a bit,” Stiefvatere says. “I think the higher number of closed nuts and blanks are the result of that. The nuts are little more difficult to shake off the trees than normal, and that usually means more blanks and green nuts.”

Winter weather might have contributed to the less than excellent crop this year, he says.

“We had quite a few hours of temperatures below 45 degrees in December and January, but we didn’t get the long, cold foggy days that we got five to 10 years ago. The quality of the chill may have affected the bloom a bit, especially on the young trees, which didn’t set a particularly good crop this year.”

In late August, Stiefvater sprayed his Kern County orchards to control botryosphaeria panicle and shoot blight, something he’d never done before. Usually, the fungal disease is a problem farther north in the more humid areas of the San Joaquin Valley and in the Sacramento Valley.

“For the first time, we had a pretty good outbreak in Kern County,” he says. “We don’t know what kind of a long-term problem it will be, if it persists here.”

His biggest production challenge this year has been providing trees with adequate amounts of water.

After the two previous dry years, Stiefvater began lining up more sources of water last fall in case 2009 was another year of short supplies. “We knew that the pump and well-drilling companies were booked up well in advance and that there would be delays in getting electrical service to run the pumps,” he says. “We’ve had to scramble to put in more wells and make transfers from water banks.”

The new wells, along with purchases from other farmers, got Stiefvater the water he needed.

“Getting that water was an absolute necessity,” he says. “When everything is riding on your orchards and one harvest a year, you’d better make sure it happens. It looks like providing enough water for our trees will be very significant long-term challenge for us.”