Mother nature is having the final say this week as the almond bloom brightens up Kern County orchards despite an abrupt change in weather that, had it been more severe, could have cut into this season's yield.
The closely watched annual event was likely accelerated by temperatures that reached 80 degrees Monday in Bakersfield, then dropped to a high of 58 Tuesday. The cold front that passed through brought not just chill but, in some places, sprinkles and wind, none of which are considered helpful for the economically critical pollination.
Reports suggest the system did not damage a significant number of local almond blossoms or keep bees from doing their work. Hopes are that tolerable conditions will persist for the next couple of weeks even as colder than average temperatures and gusts are forecast to coincide with the middle to late part of the bloom.
Wasco-area grower Geoffrey King said he isn't seeing blooms blowing off trees this week. Plus, he could tell the pollination was going well because of how many bees were bouncing off his windshield as he drove through the Shafter area Tuesday.
"They're out," he said. "They're working."
A local orchard adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, Mohammad Yaghmour, said he didn't spot any problems this week while driving around Kern County orchards. He noted Tuesday's storm didn't push temperatures too low or bring much rain.
The bloom actually began Friday, though it's more of a rolling start because different almond varieties flower on different schedules, Yaghmour said. Looking forward, he said cool temps shouldn't be a problem, though he wonders just how cold the area will get.
"So far," he said, "things are good."
The almond bloom is notoriously sensitive to weather. Bees are known to become less active when temperatures dip below 55 degrees. Almond buds themselves remain safe as long as they don't get colder than 25 degrees.
Wind brings its own pollination complications because bees find it harder to work in gusts. Wind can also damage almond flowers, and rain can bring disease to the trees.
California almonds have suffered tough market conditions lately, largely because of international shipping bottlenecks that have depressed prices paid to local growers.
The state's almond industry has entered the year with supplies down 6 percent from the year before, which would seem to bode well for prices. But senior analyst and Vice President David Magaña at RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness said by email California almond shipments in January were down 16 percent year over year as exports have plummeted, keeping prices down.
While it's too early to say how well this year's bloom will go, Magaña said, water may also be a significant factor in this year's crop. He added that deficit irrigation in some areas last year may have left bud damage.
Meteorologist Brian Ochs at the National Weather Service in Hanford said Wednesday there's an elevated chance of cooler than average temperatures during the next week or two. Some gusts could come with that, he predicted, but there probably won't be much precipitation in the southern Central Valley.
King, the Wasco almond grower, said his orchards aren't in full bloom yet but that they probably will be soon.
He recalled the wind Tuesday but didn't notice it being too strong. He was more concerned about international shipping problems and what they will mean for supplies.
King declined to speculate on what an imperfect bloom might mean for prices.
"We'll see what the crops do," he said. "You never know from one year to the next."