Rain brings questions for almond crop

February 20, 2017

 

almond blossomsMODESTO — First, area almond farmers were plagued by water shortages and drought. Now more water than anyone has seen in decades threatens to hamper the 2017 crop.

“I think the forecast is for it to dry out so we can get equipment in there,” said Almond Board of California President and CEO, Richard Waycott. “As long as machines can get in the orchards, it should be fine.”

In February, the immediate issue farmers faced was the threat of fungus forming on new blooms. Those blooms started appearing in mid-February.

“We will have to deal with fungus,” said Waycott. “As long as we have good temperatures, we should be able to get in and deal with that.”

Tim Pelican, the San Joaquin County agriculture commissioner, said it was too early to tell what the effects of the rains will be on this year’s crop.

“It has been so long since we have had a normal rain, it’s hard to tell what the result will be,” said Pelican. “They are going to need to use more fungicide once they do get into the fields.”

One of the key consequences of five years of punishing drought has been that growers have learned to grow more product with less water. Seventy percent of almond orchards use micro-irrigations or drip systems which have reduced water usage by 33 percent.

“We haven’t had to apply water early,” said Pelican. “So, that has helped.”

A positive result of heavy rains and snow this winter could be the ability to recharge what have become dangerously depleted groundwater reserves.

It is unknown how the increased rains may affect production.

“The only real unknown is how some of the orchards will produce now that we have more water to put on them,” Waycott said.

The Almond Board expects to see approximately 200 million additional pounds of almonds grown this year. That is in addition to the 2.1 billion pounds regularly produced in the state. Increased production is a trend that is likely to continue as innovations and increased efficiency are expected to boost crops by 25 percent in the next three years.

Despite the robust supply the board does not expect a glut to push prices lower.

Nonpareil almonds reached a high price of nearly $4 per pound in 2015. The price dropped to between $2.76 to $2.80 per pound by August 2016. The reasons for the price drop included reductions in Chinese consumption and instability in the market in India. Last year’s West Coast port dispute didn’t help, either.

Growers in California produce about 80 percent of the world’s almonds. The 2015 crop was valued at $5.33 billion. Lower global prices could have a major impact on agriculture throughout the state.

“Prices got high and that trend existed for three to four years,” said Waycott. “We got some resistance on the demand side. The prices caused buyers to balk. Buyers didn’t want to pay those prices so they held back on what they bought.”

He said that some buyers put fewer almonds in their products and tried to reduce their consumption. Prices have stabilized in the last six to 12 months, however.

“We look to be in great shape this year,” said Waycott.

If the rains continue, one area that could be impacted is pollination.

“Basically, one of the issues we are having is with people getting the beehives in the field,” Pelican said.

If conditions cooperate, growers shouldn’t have an issue getting access to hives, according to Waycott.

“We have had some concerns about bee health,” he said. “In the past few years, bee health has been improving.”

He attributes much of that improvement to the industry’s development of better practices regarding pesticide use and bee management.

As the bloom gets into full swing, there is one non-weather related issue that could impact the success of the sale of the crop. The industry is closely watching President Trump’s policies. He has already axed Trans Pacific Partnership trade talks and has threatened to pull out of NAFTA.

“We export so much of our crop that anything they do will have a big impact on us,” Waycott said.

Approximately 70 percent of California’s almond crop, worth $2.5 billion goes over seas.

Immigration could also have a major effect on the industry. Trump has promised a crackdown on illegal immigration and a wall to stop the flow of people across the border from Mexico.

“I think all we want is a reasonable and sound policy that allows our industry to bring in the workers we need, and that allows a path to citizenship for our workers that have been with us for years,” he said.

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