Almond, fruit growers count losses following weekend storm

The Bakersfield CalifornianMay 7, 2013
By James Burger

Sunday’s fierce, day-long wind storm hit Kern County’s stone fruit and almond growers hard over the weekend — stripping cherries, peaches and plums off trees, ripping through almond orchards and uprooting thousands of the shallow-rooted trees.

The blow to almond growers, who produce Kern County’s second-largest crop, could be a major, long-term handicap.

It isn’t uncommon to lose some almond trees to the wind, said Glenn Fankhauser, a deputy director with the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards. The trees have shallow roots. When they are heavy with almonds, they are vulnerable to being blown down.

But Sunday’s wind was a big one. It came from the wrong direction and did more damage than usual, he said.

Almond growers plant their trees so that they angle into the prevailing winds. But Sunday’s wind came from the opposite direction, blowing at the trees where they were weak.

A single almond orchard lost 1,500 trees over the weekend, Fankhauser said.

Almonds are a $727 million business in Kern County, he said. It can take years — as much as a decade — to get a new tree into production.

“It’s a really big disaster for one of our biggest crops, Fankhauser said.

Cherry growers were also unhappy, especially because the wind and rain followed a week of hot temperatures that had pushed the fruit to the edge of harvest.

Many growers had plans to harvest this week, and they were taking extreme measures Monday and Tuesday to protect the crops and get crews in to the orchards to pick.

“If you talk to a cherry grower it’s a big deal,” Fankhauser said.

Greg Wegis of Wegis Ranch, who farms 2,000 acres west of Wasco, said he didn’t see as much damage to his almond crop — though he heard growers to the south and east around Arvin had been hit hard.

But he was worrying about his cherry crop.

Wind blew some fruit off the trees and causing bruising on remaining cherries. But the rain, so close to harvest, threatens to split the fruit, Wegis said.

He had planned to start his harvest this week.

“They’re just turning red. We were going to start today,” Wegis said Tuesday. “We’re trying to blow the water off them.”

So far, the weekend weather has made a small to moderate impact on him.

Grower Steve Murray, of Murray Family Farms, said much of his cherry crop was protected because he invested in windbreaks for his orchards.

But the wet weather has caused him problems as well.

Murray said he was using helicopters to air out his cherries and was able to pick on Monday and Tuesday.

The Ranier variety of cherries — a blush-colored fruit that was nearing harvest — is estimated to have taken a 40 percent to 50 percent loss, according to Fankhauser.

Murray said that high fruit loss could trigger some growers to abandon their crops on the trees because the cost to pick would outweigh the value of the fruit in the packing house.

The full damage to other varieties of cherries won’t be known until harvest is complete. Wind bruising and abrasion is harder to see on the darker fruit of those varieties, he said.

Murray said that in most cases the fruit will be picked and taken to the packing house, but the turnouts could be reduced.

With Kern County’s cherry crop valued at an estimated $227 million, Fankhauser said, the economic impact from the weekend wind could be substantial.

Kern County’s peach and plum crops, each valued at $11 million, could also see significant damage. But, as with cherries, growers will need to wait to find out where they stand.

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