Water efficiency credited for big almond crop during drought

Tim Hearden/Capital Press Bulk-purchased organic almonds from Northern California have been loaded into a bag to be weighed. California almond growers are expecting a big crop this year, as yields are expected to significantly exceed last year's.

SACRAMENTO — An almond industry group is crediting growers for their water efficiency while cultivating what is expected to be a big crop this year.

California’s 2016 almond production is expected to be 2.05 billion meat pounds, up from the 2 billion pounds projected in May and up nearly 8 percent from last year’s yields, reports the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The agency cites several factors for the improved crop, including more precipitation and chill hours than last year and a quick and uniform almond blossom.

But Almond Board of California President and CEO Richard Waycott also credits growers’ efficiency in their use of water during a fifth straight year of drought.

“This year’s almond crop growth … reflects growers’ commitment to innovation and sustainable new technologies that reap the most from every drop of water while simultaneously safeguarding precious natural resources,” Waycott said in an email. “Since 1994, almond growers have reduced the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent.”

Almonds are expected to be harvested from 900,000 bearing acres, up from 890,000 in 2015, according to NASS. The agency reported this spring that the 1.1 million-plus overall acres planted in 2015 was 6 percent more than the previous year, even as about 45,000 acres of trees were removed from orchards.

The Nonpareil variety, which accounts for 38 percent of California almonds, is forecast at 780 million meat pounds, up 7.4 percent from last year’s deliveries, NASS reports.

For the almond board-funded measurement survey, NASS scientists use a formula in counting nuts on randomly selected trees. In all, surveyors sampled 1,746 trees in 873 orchards between May 23 and June 23 and found an average nut set per tree of 6,159, up nearly 5 percent from 2015.

Nonpareil almonds showed an even bigger improvement in yields as their average of 5,583 nuts per tree was up 6.6 percent from last year’s set of 5,239, according to the agency.

The average kernel weight for all varieties sampled was 1.48 grams, up 3.5 percent from the 2015 average weight of 1.43 grams, NASS reported. Nonpareils’ average kernel weight was 1.65, up 2.5 percent from last year.

The almond board has fought diligently in the past couple of years to rebut critics who charge the industry places too much of a burden on the environment. Last summer, the board set aside $2.5 million for research into water efficiency, honeybee health and best practices.

Most nut growers have switched to drip irrigation or micro-sprinklers to save water, and many use technology such as pressure bombs to determine their trees’ need before irrigating.

“While growers have made significant advances, as an industry we collectively recognize the need to take a leadership position on pressing issues facing both California’s residents and agricultural industry,” Waycott said.

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