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  • Drought stress weighs on almond crop

    Aug 27th, 2015

    California’s annual almond harvest is running at full throttle, and area growers are busy collecting the crunchy brown nuts that comprise San Joaquin County’s No. 2 cash crop behind only wine grapes.While generally good growing conditions were reported for this season, initial indications are yields are down from previous years.Phil Brumley, an Escalon almond grower, said some of his more mature orchards are showing signs of water stress.

    “It appears the crop is a little bit lighter than the last couple of years,” he said.Brumley said deep-soil moisture, below the five-foot depth his irrigation provides, is lacking after years of drought. And mineral salts are also building up.“I really think that’s affecting the trees,” he said. “We have not had enough, in the last 4 years, winter rains to flush out the top soil, basically, to push some of the salts back down.”Dave Phippen, a principal of Travaille & Phippen in Manteca, counts himself lucky.With a modest water cutback from the water district serving his orchards and well water to make up the difference, he said, “Our trees don’t know there’s a drought.”Still, his yields from the nonpareil variety — now being harvested and which accounts for 35 to 40 percent of all California’s almond crop — may be down 15 percent from a year ago.

    “My crop, my trees are off,” he said. Based on that and reports from other areas in the state, Phippen said the statewide harvest will likely be short of the 1.8 billion pounds forecast July 1 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and well off from the more than 2 billion pounds collected in both 2011 and 2013.Mel Machado, director of grower relations for Blue Diamond Growers, said the drought is having a more severe impact on almond growers in the southern San Joaquin Valley than in the north. But even in the north, in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, he said, “This thing is down more than it should be.”Late-maturing almond varieties could help make up the shortfall in nonpareil yields, but that is yet to be seen.“We don’t have enough (information) to chew on,” Machado said.The market for California almonds, which account for about 80 percent of the world supply, is expected to remain strong.Global demand exceeds even the 1.8 billion pound forecast, Machado said.“The 1.8 (billion pounds) is a low crop. We need a lot more than that,” he said.Reports of a slowdown in the Chinese economy and the recent devaluation of China’s currency, making U.S. products more expensive there, were not seen as major factors. “We all wondered about China,” Phippen said. “My sense is the demand that was there is still there.”Currently, both sellers and buyers seem to have stepped back from the market, waiting to see what the current harvest may produce.But Phippen, whose company grows, processes and wholesales almonds for itself and other growers, noted that prices coming into the new crop were at record high levels.  “I don’t think the California sellers are going to be anxious to sell for a lower price than we had at the end of the ’14 crop,” he said.