Months will pass before local almond farmers know how much a double whammy of weather conditions impacted their bottom line. As wicked storms blew up the Central Valley, almond trees were so bright and cheery it looked like the video game Farmville. Next came buckets of rain and roof-rattling wind, both which kept bees huddled in their hives.
Next, growers were ready with frost control. Yet, temperatures hovered just above the degree where damage is done. Weather is nothing new, and sometimes just enough nice weather can make everything turn out just fine. Other times growers are not so lucky.
Almonds are pollinated by bees, which stay in their hives if the weather is below about 55 degree or the wind is more than a breeze.
“You don’t need them to all be pollinated” explained Franz Niederholzer, a tree farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Colusa County. A pollination rate of 40 percent would be a great year. Twenty five percent will produce a decent crop.
The weekend of Feb. 11-12 were sunny, as was Saturday the 18th, said Louis Mendoza, Butte County Agricultural Commissioner. Those were good days for bees to fly.
Almond trees come in different varieties, which bloom at slightly different times. The trees also require pollen from a different variety of tree in order for nuts to form. To hedge against weather fluctuation, growers have trees that bloom early, late and in the middle, over an approximately three-week period.
The gusts that prompted a wind advisory by the National Weather Service earlier this week resulted in some trees falling in orchards. Mendoza said trees die every year for a variety of reasons.
Almond trees are grafted. The top portion produces nuts, and the bottom portion has a good root system. In the past, peach trees were used for the roots. If you look at a peach pit, it looks very similar to its plant cousin, the almond.
In the past decade, most growers in this area have switched to Krymsk-86 rootstock, which is more stable, farm advisers said.
The very high winds of January 2008 caused heavy damage in areas in Butte and Glenn County.
Those same storms also brought heavy rain, still visible in orchards. Mendoza said farmers will hustle to pump water off the land.
All that water turns to mud, and mud makes it difficult to move heavy equipment into the orchard to spray with an anti-fungal spray, explained Danielle Lightle, Cooperative Extension Farm Adviser in Glenn County. Farmers watch the weather and spray before rains appear. If they rain continues, they may need to spray again.
After the winds came and went, the cloud cover cleared and night temperatures dropped. When temperatures reach 28 degrees at night, damage can be done to bloom, 30 degrees for developing nuts.
Thursday night the weather called for a dip down as low as 26, which put farmers on a weather watch, tracking the temperatures as well as the dew point.
The varieties that bloomed earliest and are already pollinated could be at the “nutlet stage,” where the center is still liquid, and susceptible to freeze.
Raising the temperature just a few degrees can make all the difference. Some growers turn on sprinklers as a precaution. In other areas this was not needed. Other frost control options are wind machines and use of helicopters to mix the air and raise temperatures.
Farmers who have been in the business for a while know that the golden rule is to “control what you can and let go of what you can’t,” Lightle said.