The warm-weather storms that have pelted California, triggering floods and mud slides, have also grounded all-important honey bees just when the state's big almond crop, now in bloom, needs them most for the crucial act of pollination, agricultural specialists reported Tuesday.
"It is safe to say that the crop has been very significantly affected," said Stephen Heinrichs of the California Almond Growers Exchange, "but it's too early to 'guestimate' a number."
Winter storms are not new to the state's agricultural areas, but the severe back-to-back rainstorms that have pounded the almond growing region this winter may not abate in time to save the crop.
Almonds will not grow without cross-pollination between different species of almond trees, and the weeklong string of storms has kept bees in their hives during a critical 10-day period--when almond trees are ready for pollination. The U.S. almond crop, all of which comes from the central valleys of California, earned more than $470 million last year and ranks as California's ninth most important crop.
Bees were busy during the lull between storms last Wednesday and Thursday, but "they've stayed home since Friday," when the storms that plagued the long holiday weekend struck, said Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.
A number of other budding tree-fruit crops--including apricots, peaches, nectarines and apples--also may be threatened as a result of the storm. However, Napa Valley's prized vineyards, which are still slumbering in winter dormancy, were spared.
Such was not the luck of almond growers, who were just beginning to see better times ahead for an industry that had been troubled for years by oversupply and a stagnant market. The storm-related losses come just as the industry had ended its oversupply problem through aggressive marketing both at home and abroad.
Recent major sales to the Soviet Union by the California Almond Growers Exchange, which sells under the Blue Diamond label, have virtually cleaned out what had threatened to become bulging--and price-depressing--surpluses.
The Soviet sales were sparked by a disappointing hazelnut crop in Turkey, which has traditionally supplied the Soviet Union with nut meats for candy. Blue Diamond persuaded the Russians to try almonds instead. Should the U.S. almond crop now fall short, the marketing advantage could just as quickly pass back to the Turks.
The rain's effects will vary greatly from orchard to orchard, depending on the earliness of the bloom and how many "pollination days" were available between storms, Heinrichs said. Almond trees bloom at different times but only once in a season and for no more than 10 days, he said.
"You have one shot at the bloom, basically," he said. "Once the bloom span is gone, that's it for the year."
Elsewhere in the state, the heavy rains have delayed planting and such normal early season orchard chores as ground spraying. In Fresno County, the state's agricultural leader, seasonal rainfall climbed to 10.39 inches, far above the 6.77-inch level that is normal for the date, said Larry Hawley, the county's supervising agricultural biologist.
Those farmers unable to complete fungicide operations were keeping aerial sprayers busy in the area Tuesday in an effort to ward off brown rot and other agricultural diseases, he said.
"We think we have some problems, but how extensive they are we won't know for awhile yet," Hawley said.
In Yolo County, west of Sacramento, apricot grower Stan Lester described budding orchards in the Winters area as "a disaster," and predicted a light crop.
Still farther west, the pedigreed but still dormant rootstock in Northern California's vineyards slumbered soundly through the storms, apparently unharmed by the rainfall. However, Sutter Home winery reported that its new facility on the banks of the Napa River near St. Helena was filled with "a few feet of water."
In Monterey County, where planting goes on virtually all year, no crop damage was reported. February is "about as slow a month as we get," said Richard W. Nutter, the county agricultural commissioner. Strawberry growers in the sandy hills bordering Santa Cruz County have so far successfully fought off erosion, though the harvest is still several weeks off.
To the south, where strawberries already are starting to be harvested in San Diego County, field operations slowed. But the area's avocado growers cheered the rain as they shut off the costly irrigation pumps they have run through much of a drier-than-normal season.