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Tourists flock to almond bloom, sometimes over growers' objections

To stumble across the local almond bloom on the internet is to awaken to a magical, fleeting phenomenon some writers insist is best beheld in person despite the risks and what is for many a long drive to Kern County.

Illustrated blog posts marvel at orchard colonnades dropping bright petals like snow. Some urge visitors to exit their vehicles so they can experience the fields up close and snap photos before the weather turns and spring's majesty is swept away by wind or rain.

The almond bloom has become one of the southern Central Valley's favorite tourism attractions over the years, a somewhat unpredictable delight found almost nowhere else in the world. It is frequently compared to other natural wonders, such as New England's autumnal changing of the leaves.

But if local almond growers don't promote the event as a tourist attraction, and they generally don't, there's a reason: Visitors and selfie photographers who often venture into local orchards can pose a liability to commercial agricultural operations.

On top of that, it's usually best if people anxious to witness the bloom stay seated in their vehicles, for their own sake. Thousands of bees are likely working in the orchard and spraying of potentially harmful pesticides might not be far away.

SPREADING WORD

Some who promote the bloom as a tourist destination understand that and make sure visitors do, too.

David Lyman, manager of Visit Bakersfield, the city's tourism bureau, fields questions about the bloom every year, usually around this time. He touts glorious views while also urging visitors to stay out of orchards.

But there's an added complication owing to the event's transience. As few as two days can pass between full bloom and petal fall, and because temperature affects the timing and inclement weather can end it prematurely, it's hard to know what to tell tourists.

"The views can be quite spectacular," Lyman said by email. "The 'when' is always uncertain, due to weather. If it is warmer, the bloom is earlier. If it rains, the petals end up on the ground rather than on the trees."

IRRESISTIBLE VIEWS

Last year, California food blogger Clair Aucella shared with her readers the beauty of the almond bloom, with its mountain vistas and sometimes green landscapes. She wrote that the event reminds her of childhood trips to Washington, D.C., to see the region's cherry blossoms.

Aucella made sure to warn visitors about the abundance of bees, and told readers not to touch or swat at them because they have an important role to play in the trees' pollination.

She urged bloom tourists to bring their allergy medicine, noting there's pollen and dust everywhere. She also noted the orchards are private property but stopped short of warding people off.

"I always feel like I'm trespassing whenever I take pictures, but I do it anyway and so far so good," she wrote.

Local almond grower Ed Kuykendall said he gets a lot of that — people stepping onto his orchards to take pictures — and he told a story about why he now has his work crews order visitors to "leave the property, zero exceptions."

GROWER LIABILITY

In the late 1980s, he managed a block of grapes in the Coachella Valley and an older man stopped to ask if he could pick a few leftovers still clinging to the vine. Kuykendall saw no harm in it and said he'd look the other way.

"Two months later we received a claim letter stating that he broke a hip while picking grapes, that I approved," Kuykendall wrote in an email. "We settled the claim out of court for a little less than $50,000."

The problem now isn't that people want to pick their own almonds, he said, but that they want to post a nice picture on social media.

"I would love to share bloom with our community, kids, visitors and guests but the reward is not worth the risk, especially with bees in the orchards, not to mention ongoing operations," he wrote.

PINKER ALTERNATIVES

At least one local farming operation welcomes visitors onto its organic orchards to experience springtime blooms. But the organization doing that, Murray Family Farms, doesn't grow almonds and so, instead of walking among the nuts' white blossoms, customers get to enjoy the pinker hues of peach, nectarine and cherry blooms.

This year has limited such opportunities because of the coronavirus pandemic but the Murray family is occasionally opening its orchards as it did on Valentine's Day to allow sweethearts to enjoy a sack lunch in the field.

Proprietor Steve Murray noted several fruit tree varieties on the property are about to blossom. Visitors can check on upcoming opportunities to see them, including an annual day for dog visitors, at https://www.murrayfamilyfarms.org/.