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Warm, dry bloom conditions give hope to local almond growers

If not for a certain nagging doubt, this year's nearly perfect almond bloom would be cause for celebration among local growers.

The weather has been warm and dry since the bloom began about a week and a half ago — by all accounts ideal for the billions of honey bees trucked in from across the country to pollinate Kern's No. 2-grossing crop.

"It's the best pollination season we've had in a really long time," said grower Holly King, chairwoman of the Almond Board of California.

Experts say there's a good chance the strong conditions could result in a record crop. But because frost could still threaten the nutlets being formed in the coming months, King added, "we aren't out of the woods yet."

CONFUSING SIGNS

Then there's the matter of last year's crop. It followed a bloom so wet and ostensibly difficult for bees that growers were worried it would lead to a small yield.

Instead, there was a bumper crop that appears to have set a new record in California.

Shafter bee broker Mike Mulligan admits he doesn't know what to think.

"It will be interesting to see if perfect weather conditions equal a better crop," he said.

Even Arvin almond grower John Moore III, president of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said last year's bumper crop was confusing. If anything, it shows how hard it is to make predictions about agriculture.

He said by email he hesitates to judge the size of this year's crop based on the bloom, simply because harvest is so far away, but that "based on the year so far we are hoping for decent yields."

HIGH HOPES

The region's largest grower, Los Angeles-based The Wonderful Co., is also expecting a good almond crop this year.

Rob Yraceburu, president of the company's Wonderful Orchards division, said by email this optimism stems not only from "ideal spring conditions" but also from its orchards receiving sufficient chill hours, meaning time spent in the cold temperatures seen as necessary for good nut production.

Final, official figures aren't in for last season's almond crop but it's believed to have been a larger yield than had been expected, possibly setting a new record, noted David Magaña, a senior analyst at Rabo AgriFinance specializing in fruit, vegetables and tree nuts.

"Under normal conditions during the rest of the season, California almond production is likely to set a new record, again, in 2020/21," he said by email.

Another good sign is the size and quantity of this year's bee deliveries.

BEE SUPPLY

Bee health has been a big concern for almond growers for at least a decade. Beekeepers have reported losing 40 percent or more of their bee populations because of a variety of threats, including drought and diseases carried by mites.

Mulligan and others said bee supplies were tight but adequate this year as almond orchards received sufficient deliveries of largely healthy, active bees.

"Overall, the bee strength looks good this year," said Alan Townsend, owner of Idaho-based Alan's Bee Inspections. "It's definitely as good if not a little bit stronger" than normal, he added.

There may be some minor concern about reports that almond blooms in some areas were somewhat less dense this year than in years past, said orchard systems adviser Mohammad Yaghmour with the UC cooperative extension in Kern County.

He added that, if the weather does turn cold enough to threaten almond nutlets, farmers should be in a good position to be able to combat any diseases that might develop.

But as the bloom enters what may be its final week, the good news is that bees are happily pollinating local orchards in need of the service.

"There's plenty of sunny, warm time for the bees to be active," said David Haviland, an entomology advisor at the local UC cooperative extension. "You couldn't ask for more right now if you're an almond grower."

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf. Sign up at Bakersfield.com for free newsletters about local business.

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