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Rain in the forecast worries Kern's late-harvest grape, nut growers

Almond Orchard

A blooming almond orchard is seen.

Don't assume local farmers are thrilled about the rain expected to fall on the southern Central Valley this week.

Nervous that early-season precipitation could bring mold and rot to still-unharvested nuts and grapes, some Kern County growers are weighing their options in case lingering moisture threatens to lower the quality and price of their crop.

Grower Kyle McClintock said he still has almonds hanging in orchards and lying on the ground across nearly half of his 250 acres in the Mettler area. He's hoping the nuts dry out quickly after the storm passes but, just in case, is considering paying big bucks for a mechanized drying service.

"It doesn't take a whole lot of rain to really damage a crop, whether it's almonds or pistachios or grapes," said McClintock, who in anticipation of rain has postponed shaking his unharvested almond trees and delayed sweeping up fallen nuts, in hopes they will dry faster where they lie.

Wheeler Ridge table grape grower Mark Hall is also anxious about the rain. He resisted covering his vines with plastic tarping this year, mainly because of the $1,000-per-acre expense but also because coverings can blow away in the wind.

Instead, Hall is applying fungicides before and after the rain, and plans to spray a "dry-out" dusting of lime and sulphur to speed up the process of removing moisture that every year takes a bite out of his crop.

"It's every year, to some extent," he said, explaining that a wide range of factors determines how many grapes are lost to rot and fungus. His big hope is that the weather doesn't turn warm too fast after the rain, because bacteria "love warm and wet."

This year's harvest is mostly but not entirely complete in Kern grape vineyards and almond orchards. The two crops have led the county's gross receipts in recent years.

Some varieties of each commodity mature late in the year, which can help growers trying to take advantage of better prices later in the season. But that timing strategy can come with a risk of rain damage.

"It's a gamble," Hall said.

Mohammad Yaghmour, an orchard systems advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Bakersfield, said rain is usually a bigger concern when it comes during the almond bloom in the early months of the year. By this time of year, he added, most almond varieties have been fully harvested, largely removing the threat of mold.

"For almonds, luckily, most of the harvest is almost over," he said. "I don't anticipate seeing much effect."

That's not necessarily the case with pistachios. Craig Kallsen, a pistachio and citrus advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in Bakersfield, said nuts remain to be harvested in local pistachio orchards.

If moisture lingers, he said, the nuts' hulls can shrivel, and mold can set in. But he doesn't anticipate much damage, simply because of historical weather patterns.

"It's probably going to dry out really rapidly," he said. "That's the nice thing about the hot, dry environment we live in."

The southern valley has experienced almost no precipitation since May, when rain amounted to just 2/10ths of an inch. Last month tied for the driest September on record. Rain doesn't normally fall in the valley portion of Kern until mid-October.

Kallsen said the ideal situation for farmers is when rain and snow fall only in the mountains, giving the valley water that can be more easily harnessed for irrigation.

"In general, on the valley floor, if it's raining, somebody's going to get hurt," he said.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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