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Kern almonds may dodge brunt of frost damage

9 mar 2022

Freezing temperatures late last month have damaged an undetermined share of Kern's almond crop, though the county appears to have dodged the worst of a situation that may or may not affect a worsening oversupply in the market

Preliminary reports suggest northern parts of the Central Valley got hit worst with frost on consecutive nights just at the most sensitive time, when fertilized buds were forming into nutlets. Orchards in the central and southwestern parts of the valley have reported more limited damage.

It's too early to tell how extensive the losses are, or even if there will be any damage at all, given that almond trees shed 20 percent to as much as 40 percent of their least healthy nuts starting around next month.

The uncertainty itself lifted prices a little bit recently. But when viewed in the wider context of the drought, shipping bottlenecks and trade disputes, frost damage is just one more problem for California's almond industry to wrestle.

Kern County farm manager Martin Hein said he has seen some damage in low elevation parts of Kings County, and he has seen pictures of harm to nutlets further north — but not enough problems in Kern to be significant.

"I think we were lucky that we were at the onset of bloom" when temperatures dipped the lowest, Hein said. He added that the recent uncertainty improved the market for a couple of weeks as confectioners and foreign buyers put in orders so as to avoid potentially higher prices later if the outlook darkens.

Wasco-area grower Geoffrey King said cold set in at his orchards but probably not enough to cause damage. He said it may have helped that he plants later-blooming varieties.

King worries other growers may see damage at lower elevations in Kern, such as in the Wheeler Ridge and Mettler areas. When asked, though, he acknowledged that one grower's loss may become another's gain if a resulting drop in supply leads to higher prices.

"That's what typically happens in agriculture," he said. "Some guy's bad luck turns into somebody else's good luck." He added a better outcome for everyone this year would be a solution to the industry's ongoing logistical challenges.

The damage an almond bloom or nutlet suffers during a frost event depends on the timing. Most of the harm occurs when nuts are forming, said Mohammad Yaghmour, a local orchard adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Some of the orchards he has visited since the coldest temperatures recently did show a little damage, he said. But he added: "It's not extensive."

Yaghmour is aware of reports of more substantial harm elsewhere in Kern but he said he has not seen the damage firsthand. He was able to say with certainty there was no damage in southeast Bakersfield, and there was limited harm to some trees at the UC's ag station in Shafter.

The last time he could recall having seen significant frost damage locally was in 2018. In this case, he said, there may end up being no damage at all because of the coming nutlet drop.

Rarely has the office of the Kern County Agricultural Commissioner had to file a disaster declaration because of frost damage to almond orchards. Cherry, citrus and pasture growers see those declarations more often, and they simply allow growers access to low-cost recovery loans.

Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser said it's conceivable such a disaster could be declared this year, depending on reports his office will gather from local growers in the weeks ahead. For the event to qualify as a disaster, the crop damage would have to amount to 30 percent or greater than the average of the previous five years.

A widely disseminated note by Brian Noeller, regional manager of member relations for Blue Diamond Growers, stated the northern region of California almond country sustained the heaviest damage, with some farmers reporting "almost total losses in colder areas."

"The week of freezing temperatures has changed growers' outlook on crop potential," Noeller wrote.

A spokesman for the Almond Board of California, Rick Kushman, said by email the recent frost damage appears to differ "region-by-region and, in fact, orchard-by-orchard." He had no estimates to offer and said the question won't be settled until an initial federal forecast comes out in May.

Senior analyst and Vice President David Magaña at RaboResearch Food & Agribusiness said by email it's hard to know the extent of the damage at this point and that the price outlook is complicated by many factors.

"A lot of moving pieces on the price outlook side, given supply-chain issues, geopolitics (and the impact on inflation and global demand), water (and deficit irrigation from last year) and now freeze damage," Magaña wrote.

Andrew Moore, editorial director for Stratamarkets in Houston, said he has seen reports of damage of between 2 percent and 20 percent on the western side of the central and southern Central Valley. He said he doubts it's actually worst than 10 percent but it's premature to say.

If actual damage comes in on the low end of that range, Moore said, it won't significantly impact the market oversupply, which swelled this summer with a record surplus last year of 600 million pounds of almonds. He noted this year's crop looks to be coming in above initial estimates.

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