While rain is usually a welcome sight for California growers, almond farmers throughout the Central Valley are worried that wet weather during the recent pollination period will result in a less-than-stellar crop, as bees have hunkered in their hives to escape the storms.
In Turlock, pollination season for almond orchards normally begins around Valentine’s Day, according to almond farmer Christine Gemperle of Gemperle Orchards. By that time this year precipitation numbers were already well past the historical average for the month, and by the end of the month had reached more than double the amount of rainfall the area received in February of last year.
The rainfall came throughout the pollination season in February with little reprieve, save for a few days here and there throughout the month. This gave bees in Gemperle’s orchards, as well as bees in orchards throughout the state, little time to pollinate what blooms were left on the almond trees after the wind and rain had swept through.
“The bees may have gotten one full day of pollinating in this season, and on other days they may have only gotten two to four hours,” Gemperle said. “But in those few hours that the bees can get out, they do what they can do. It seems like they try extra hard.”
The heavy rainfall could impact the 2019 almond crop, she added, as less pollination ultimately means less nuts on the tree. But, this isn’t the first time in recent years that rain has thrust the crop’s future into uncertainty.
In 2017, a record amount of rainfall swept the region, leaving farmers unsure if their blossoms would be washed away before they could be pollinated at all. Despite the uncertainty, the result was a crop full of almonds — 2.26 billion pounds to be exact, compared to 2.135 billion in 2016 and 2.25 billion last year according to the Almond Board of California.
Despite the surprisingly ample almond crop following 2017’s heavy rains, Gemperle isn’t as optimistic that this year will yield the same successful results.
“I think this year is almost worse, because that year we actually had some breaks in between the rain where the bees could get out and fly,” she said. “Although we have had a few breaks this year, those days weren’t good days — they were either cloudy, cold or windy.”
Bee behavior is affected by temperature, among other factors. They rarely work when the temperature is below 57 degrees, and high winds typically keep bees inside the hive.
“They like no wind and sunny weather,” Gemperle said. “The kind of weather we like. We have more in common with bees than you might think.”
The rain this year has also swept through the Valley as different regions and different varieties of almonds were entering their blooming season, Gemperle said, affecting the entire state a s a whole. California produces 80 percent of the world’s almond supply, meaning that the state’s crop size typically controls the industry’s market value each year. This control of the market can make years with smaller crops economically bearable for farmers.
“If we have a bad crop then the price just goes up and we somewhat even out,” Gemperle said.
Despite the pollination troubles that come with the amount of rain the area has received recently, Gemperle would rather deal with a little bit of water than watch her orchards suffer through drought years again, she said.
“I have to say as a farmer who’s been through a couple of droughts…I would much rather go through the stress of having a smaller crop one year and dealing with these storms than having three years of dealing with no water.”
As pollination season comes to a close, Gemperle and other farmers throughout California now play the waiting game until July, when harvest begins. Final production numbers for the 2019 almond crop won’t be known until the end of the calendar year.
“I’m very curious with the limited amount of bee hours what the outcome will be,” Gemperle said.