Timing this year may keep crops safe from late winter weather
By TIM HEARDEN
REDDING, Calif. -- Fruit and nut trees are blooming in California just as the state is getting perhaps its last big shot of winter weather for the season.
Balmy, 70-degree temperatures in the Central Valley in recent weeks have put plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines and cherries in full bloom, while almond pollination is already close to 90 percent finished.
However, an abrupt weather pattern change this week has brought chilly rain and low snow levels that may stay awhile, or at least for the next couple of weeks. More than an inch of rain was expected to accumulate in some valley areas by this weekend.
"Realistically, going out two weeks is pretty good for us," said Kathy Hoxsie, a National Weather Service warning coordinator in Sacramento. "I wouldn't be surprised if we didn't get a third week out of it, though. ... At this point, all bets are off because the patterns are not fitting anything we're used to seeing."
Hoxsie said the models show periods of steady rainfall punctuated by breaks, which should allay fears of flooding from swollen creeks.
The rain will help the state's reservoirs remain close to capacity while providing a much-needed addition to snowpacks, which were still only 32 percent of normal for this time of year as of March 13, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
Enough rain and snow could prompt the DWR and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to reverse their recent decisions to cut back agricultural water allotments because of the dry winter.
However, inclement weather at blossom time has hampered crop development in the past. Last year, cold and wet conditions during the bloom led to a delayed harvest of many crops and helped cause the fourth busted table olive crop in six seasons.
Fortunately, this year's timing may be better. Almond orchards have already seen good bee activity and the bloom has been long, although growers have seen some weakness in the nonpareil bloom, said Dave Baker, director of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers.
"There's been a decent overlap" of varieties, Baker said. "It's been a little strange from the standpoint of a long, strung-out bloom. We were waiting for it to hit the big peak, and in a lot of areas it didn't seem to do that. It just took its time getting there."
Palo Cedro, Calif., bee breeder Shannon Wooten is noticing a good nut set on almond trees. He also has bees on blueberries, whose blossom started fairly well, and on plums, some of which have yet to start blooming, he said.
"I think the ground got so cold this year that it's just now starting to warm up," he said.
Plum trees grown for prunes in the northern Sacramento Valley will likely start blooming in mid-March, said Rick Buchner, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Red Bluff. The blossom should proceed well as long as it doesn't get too hot, he said.
"Most of us feel that we set a better crop when it's more moist and cool," Buchner said. "The coolness helps a little bit, and the moisture keeps the flower from drying out."
USDA NASS California Crop Weather: http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/Publications/Crop_Progress_&_Condition/20120312crpw.pdf