Kept off-step by a warm winter and the drought, Kern’s almond crop is being harvested even earlier this year than last and yields are down — meaning consumer prices probably will go up.
In September, the 2015 California Almond Forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted a 4 percent drop in national production, from 1.87 billion pounds in 2014 to 1.8 billion this year.
Nationally, it’s still expected to rank as the fifth largest crop in history, an Almond Board of California spokeswoman said.
But local almond farmers, some of whom have already harvested their crops, say actual national production could be as low as 1.7 billion pounds.
In 2014, Kern County almond growers produced 402 million pounds of almonds — a weight that only includes the nuts, not the shells.
This year, yields in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where winters can be warmer than northern parts of the state, could be down anywhere from 15 percent to 22 percent, a grower said.
The trend isn’t expected to bump Kern County’s second top-grossing crop in 2014 to third place, a Kern County Department of Agriculture staffer said.
But it’s big news for one of the county’s most profitable crops, which last year posted a jump in revenue of 53 percent to $1.488 billion.
Almonds’ decline could be reversed next year if Kern has a wet winter, said Kern County Farm Bureau President Greg Wegis, but only “if we get this El Niño to come through, and hopefully it’s not too warm of an El Niño.”
California’s fourth year of drought hasn’t just been dry — it’s also been hot.
Almond trees need at least 400 chill hours during the winter, when temperatures drop below 40 degrees, according to local grower Richard Enns, who farms 500 acres west of Bakersfield.
Without this cold time, their yields can drop and crops can mature more quickly. This past winter, Enns estimated trees only got around 380 chill hours.
As for reasons for the warm winter, he said, “you can talk about global warming. People talk about that. We haven’t seen the rainfall we normally see or the snowpack.”
The drought has hurt this year’s almond crop, too. Groundwater farmers have used to water their trees has sometimes had higher salinity levels, which stresses out trees and can make their nuts smaller and off-color.
In a wet year, farmers could rely on rain to wash any salinity down below their trees’ root systems, but of course in arid 2015 that hasn’t happened.
“These water wells have been just overused — not overused, but they’re just working harder than they ever have and they’re getting down really low so the quality just isn’t there like it has been in the past,” said Cerise Montanio, an agricultural biologist for the Kern County Department of Agriculture.
Almonds have also faced increased infestations this year from the navel orangeworm moth, growers said.
The exact financial impact of this year’s early crop won’t be known for months, but Wegis, a fourth-generation grower, said because almonds are fewer, farmers will likely command from $3.80 to $4.30 per pound when they sell their crops.
Last year, almond growers averaged $4.05 per pound.
Higher costs would probably be passed on to consumers around the world.
If there’s any good news from an early harvest, it’s that crops won’t suffer rain damage.
“Ours is already done,” said Enns, who had driven to the coast to attend a birthday celebration. “In a way, it’s a relief. We don’t sweat weather damage.”