SHAFTER — Kern County Farm Adviser Mohammad Yaghmour stood in a seven-acre orchard teeming with almond blossoms just north of this farming community.
He pulled a cluster of young, newly developing nutlets from a flower-covered branch and carefully sliced into it with his pocket knife.
"This looks fine — green," he said.
Indeed, the tiny flesh that develops into a mature, delicious almond — weather and water permitting — appeared light green, plump and healthy.
But it was a different story when the almond expert cut into another.
"You can see the browning," he said, looking at the desiccated flesh. "You can see the nutlet is dying."
Frigid overnight temperatures swept into the San Joaquin Valley last week after a cold and dry air mass dropped down from Canada and Alaska.
Temperatures below 28 degrees for as little as 30 minutes can damage the tender almond nutlets. Minimum temperatures last week held for several hours.
Beatris Espericueta Sanders, executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said the freezes “primarily impact any commodity that has begun to bloom at this point in the year."
Almonds — Kern County’s No. 2 crop, worth $1.3 billion in 2016 — cherries, stone fruit and other commodities are vulnerable.
“A freeze after a flower is on the tree can hurt the ovule and actually destroy the fruit," Sanders said. "Some reports from farmers so far has been that they have surveyed a number of trees after the frost and it appears there is, in fact, some long term damage for this year’s almond crop."
Longtime grower Steve Murray, founder of Murray Family Farms, was returning from New Zealand on Wednesday, but based on reports from employees, neighboring growers and friends, he said much of the farm's cherry and blueberry crop may have dodged a bullet thanks to its higher elevation at General Beale Road off Highway 58.
"The cold air settles in the low areas," he said.
And with the General Beale block at 915 feet, about 600 feet higher than the valley floor, Murray's foothill-grown cherries and blueberries may have had an advantage over a block of cherries he grows near Interstate 5 and Copus Road, several miles south of Bakersfield.
Murray doesn't grow almonds, but he's worried for those who do.
"It's almost impossible that this freeze wasn't significantly devastating for almonds," he said. "I've heard in Hanford, 70 percent of the flowers are brown."
Indeed, Yaghmour has heard reports from pest control consultants that some almond groves in the McFarland area suffered as much as 90 percent damage. Others are reporting damage as low as 10 percent.
"Different orchards have different scenarios, different situations," he said. "But it's too early to determine the extent of the frost damage."
Yaghmour works closely with growers to help them maximize product quality and yield. And he feels it when things go south.
"The job of a grower is not an easy job," he said. "Such events are not easy. When a grower gets hit with 90-percent frost damage, imagine the loss — and it's not just almonds."
This year's early springlike weather accelerated the maturity and flowering of some commodities, making them more susceptible to a late winter frost.
"Everything was running two weeks early," Murray said.
As bad as it seems, Murray is holding out hope for the best outcome possible.
"Sometimes miracles happen," he said.