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Merced County almond farmers face uncertain season with wet weather, unlimited surface water

A honey bee moves from flower to flower as almond trees bloom on a farm off of South Bear Creek Drive in Merced, Calif., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017.
A honey bee moves from flower to flower as almond trees bloom on a farm off of South Bear Creek Drive in Merced, Calif., on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Between the weather and the prospect of having unlimited irrigation water, Merced County farmers and agriculture experts aren’t sure what to expect from this year’s almond crop.

“It’s a little early to tell,” said David Doll, a farm adviser with the Merced County UC Cooperative Extension. “I do think this year will be an interesting year. I don’t think anybody has a good idea where the crop is going to come in.”

In the 2015 crop report for Merced County, the production and commodity price for almonds fell, in part due to the drought. Almonds are Merced County’s second highest commodity and top crop.

“During the drought, we have seen production go down in places that have less-than-adequate water,” said David Robinson, Merced County’s agriculture commissioner.

In recent weeks, rain stripped almond trees of new blossoms or flooded orchards, said Bob Weimer, owner of Weimer Farms in Atwater.

“Right now, everyone is sitting and watching what’s going to stick on the tree,” he said. “We’ll see what kind of impact the rain did have.”

The rain and cool weather also reduced the number of hours bees could pollinate the trees, Doll said. This season, farmers have reported only getting about one third of the bee hours they got in the last couple of years. Farmers who invested in stronger hives likely experienced better pollination, he said.

In isolated areas, some almond orchards were flooded. Depending on how long the water stood, the trees were at risk of dying.

“Up until last week still, farmers were having trouble getting into orchards to do some of the cultural practices,” Weimer said.

The rainy season isn’t over, and the probability of more wet weather will not fare well for almond crops, Doll said.

But, the possibility of an unlimited supply of surface water is a positive sign by all accounts.

“If the drought had continued, it would’ve continued to create an impact not only from the water shortage, but also from a water quality problem,” Weimer said.

More surface water means farmers who are customers of an irrigation district likely will pump less groundwater, he said.

Doll said the swinging pendulum that is California weather is nothing new. “That’s California at its finest,” he said. “It’s always been the land of extremes.”

Robinson said the abundance of surface water is a good sign: “I’ve got to expect that’s going to affect production in a positive way.”

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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