Pistachio and almond growers are navigating uncharted waters this year as far as the drought, and how water cutbacks will affect the overall crops and individual kernel sizes remains unknown.
“We just never have gone through this before at this kind of level, so we’re dealing in no-man’s land,” said Dave Baker, director of member relations for Sacramento, Calif.-based Blue Diamond Growers.
“We’re trying to figure out how to get water from one place to another.”
Baker, who was with Blue Diamond during the severe droughts of 1976-77 and 1987-93, said a number of factors make this one more severe.
The state has several million more inhabitants as well as additional irrigated agricultural acres production.
“But the thing that didn’t catch us in the 1977 drought is all of the environmental regulations and laws that have been put in place,” he said.
“They have taken a lot more water from the flows and directed them into the (Sacramento-San Joaquin River) delta, so there are a lot of differences between that era and now.”
Growers are resourceful, Baker said, citing how neighbors are moving water between themselves while others are fallowing row-crop ground to divert water to permanent crops.
Still others are drilling deep wells. In fact, Baker said he knew of one large grower who was midway through installing 11 new wells.
In a 66-page presentation prepared by Paramount Farms Inc., the Los Angeles-based company examined the current California drought and its effects on the state’s agriculture — specifically, pistachio and almond production.
Based on an examination of current water measurements, the report rated 57% of California’s 190,543 pistachio acres and 44% of the state’s 631,400 almond acres planted south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta at risk for water supplies.
In Kern County, the figures are even more dire, with 75% of the 80,500 pistachio acres and 75% of the 167,000 almond acres at risk.
The report cited a number of factors for the ratings: rainfall that’s 55% below normal; snowpack, 75% below normal; water allocations, 80% below normal; reservoir storage, 39% below normal; and forecasts of higher-than-average temperatures. The result: A “very bad situation for California agriculture.”
The effects of reduced irrigations as well as boron or salt toxicity from poor quality water should probably begin showing up in almond orchards in June, Baker said.
“That’s when you’re going to start kernels that are shriveling as the tree pulls moisture back out of the nut,” he said.
“I think that’s the other thing that’s going to happen. We’ll probably have a smaller size kernel like we had in last year’s crop that tended toward the smaller sizes.”
He based his prediction on samples of developing almonds taken from orchards.
“When you’re cutting the almonds taken in the south, you’re starting to see a little bit of air gap in the early varieties, which means they will probably harden off sooner than normal,” Baker said.