There's a whole lotta shakin' going on in the Central Valley, as orchard crews knock the first of a projected 2.25 billion meat pounds' worth of almonds out of their trees. If achieved, that number would be a slight bump up from last year, when California farmers produced 2.14 billion meat pounds of almonds on 971,000 bearing acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bearing acreage this year is estimated at 1 million. (Left) Almonds are shaken loose from a tree in one of Stewart & Jasper’s orchards near Newman last week. Some Central Valley almond farmers began harvesting this year’s crop last week, although it’s too early to know how good the yields will be. Ray Henriques, manager for Stewart & Jasper, says he thinks production will be up 3 to 5 percent from last year. Photo/Kevin Hectema
This harvest, of course, follows a very wet winter and spring. "It was nice to see that," said Ray Henriques, manager of Stewart & Jasper Orchards in Newman. "Looks like the crop this year's going to be harvesting seven to 10 days later than last year, but everything so far looks good."Henriques said he thinks the farm's production will be up 3 to 5 percent from last year—about in line with the statewide projection—but it's too early to know for sure. He said his orchards yielded close to the statewide average last year, which was 2,280 pounds per acre, according to the USDA. The summer of 2017 has been a hot one, but "as of right now, it doesn't look like it's had a detrimental effect on the crop," Henriques said, adding that his orchards have had no significant insect or disease pressure.
He may be fortunate in that regard. Around this time of year, "we tend to see a few more mites starting to pop up, especially with the long, hot July that we had that added to the stress of the trees," said David Doll, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Merced County. Doll said he also is concerned about navel orangeworm, but so far hasn't had too many reports of this pest."Until the processor reports come in, no one really knows they have a problem," Doll said, adding that the summer heat likely expedited the pest's development. Farmers need to manage for navel orageworm from the beginning of the year, he said, starting with removal of the mummy nuts—those left behind on the trees after the shakers have done their work. "The mummy is the only food source between this year and hull split next year," Doll said. "By cleaning those mummies off the tree, you're reducing the overwintering food source for navel orangeworm."
Also, anyone planning to stockpile almonds on the farm until they're ready for hulling and shelling needs to manage for the pest, he said. "Navel orangeworm is a storage pest, and some people believe that they can't spread within piles. But navel orangeworm can reproduce very quickly and cause a lot of damage within stockpiles," Doll said. The only major almond disease concerning Doll right now is hull rot. "That always tends to be a bit of a problem," he said. "Generally, the things I always start asking about are irrigation practices, as well as nitrogen-management practices. Both those strongly influence hull rot."
Nonpareil remains the leading almond variety, representing 40 percent of California's almond production, according to the USDA. But other varieties, especially those capable of self-pollination, are gaining ground. "The tendency in the industry today is to move to (a) self-pollinating variety, mainly the Independence variety, which doesn't need any bees for pollination," Henriques said. He described Independence as a heavy producer that's been well received in the marketplace. The attributes of almond varieties are a hot topic at the Almond Board of California in Modesto. "There's a lot of focus right now on which varieties are going to work best in the marketplace," said Julie Adams, the board's vice president of global, technical and regulatory affairs. "Obviously, what's going to work best for growers is a big consideration," she said, along with what's important for customers.
A wide range of factors comes into play, she added. "Flavor and roastability, and when you think of new products, do they want a larger kernel or a smaller kernel? Is it about greater uniformity?" Adams said. "There are, I think, a lot of these elements that all come into discussions about what varieties to plant." These can be tough calls to make; growers will have to live with their planting decisions for the next 25 years, she said.
Also, for the first time, the board has a working group focused on byproducts, Adams said. Almond hulls often end up as dairy feed, and the shells become bedding for livestock. Increasing almond production means more hulls to deal with, leading to the research on additional byproducts. "We're starting to look at, what are some of those new byproducts?" Adams said. "Can we look at sugar extraction from hulls, and using that for other purposes?"
Other ideas revolve around integrating woody biomass into an orchard to boost nutrients in the soil and exploring export opportunities, she added. Also on many people's minds: trade. Seventy percent of California almonds are exported, and Adams said the Almond Board will be watching closely as North American Free Trade Agreement discussions begin this week in Washington. She also said almond marketers were disappointed in U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have lowered tariffs in Japan.
Alicia Rockwell, communications director for Blue Diamond Growers, said the cooperative continues to advocate for progress on trade agreements with the Trump administration, USDA and the U.S. Trade Representative. "There is concern that as other countries confer on bilateral agreements, including the 11 TPP countries continuing to meet, that U.S. ag will be competitively disadvantaged," Rockwell said. "We still remain hopeful that Secretary (Sonny) Perdue, Ambassador (Robert) Lighthizer and the administration are working to ensure global trade is protected."