Monday, September 17, 2018

Almond Harvest a Nutty Time of the Year for Growers

The almond harvest is in full swing as summer gives way to autumn this week.

California almond growers are poised to set another record-breaking year, harvesting 2.45 billion pounds from more than 1 million bearing acres, according to predictions earlier this summer by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. The haul is a 7.9 percent increase from 2017.

Field scout Jenna Mayfield points out growers were worried the winter freeze would reduce yields this year. However, that hasn’t been the case.

“There hasn’t been a lot of pest pressure this season,” Jenna says. “Some growers will be harvesting into late October.”

Sweepers often work larger farms first over smaller farms.
Jenna points out growers plant at least two different almond varieties for cross pollination and each variety will mature differently – thus an encore tree shaking.

In California, growers produce 30 different almond varieties – although 10 varieties make up 70 percent of the state’s production.  All varieties fall under three general classifications – Nonpareil, California and Mission.

Right now, growers aren’t ready to relax. There is a lot of work left to do. And there is a lot to worry about before the last nut is picked up and sent off to the processor.

Normally, after the almonds are shaken off the trees the nuts will remain on the ground to dry for about a week. Growers try to pick up the nuts as soon as possible to avoid pest damage. Jenna says the heat and humidity trapped under the orchard canopy can prolong the drying process on the ground, leaving the almonds vulnerable to pest damage.

Ants are a problem when nuts are drying on the ground.
Currently, some growers are grappling with ants parading around nuts on the orchard floor, Jenna says. The longer the nuts are on the ground to dry, the more ant damage can be expected. But these growers operate small orchards and must wait for equipment operators to schedule a sweeper to collect the harvested nuts. “The large operations either have their own harvesting equipment or take priority over the smaller farms,” Jenna explains.

Almond processors will grade the quality of harvested nuts.
Meanwhile, Jenna joins UC extension advisers in espousing the benefits of taking harvest samples. “How do you know the true effectiveness of your pest management program when 4-5% of damaged nuts may be removed by the harvest process?” Merced County UC Cooperative pomologist David Doll writes in an Almond Doctor blog post. “Collect nuts from the ground after shaking but before windrowing and pick-up.”

 For several years, Jenna has collected almond samples for growers. She will crack open the nuts to check for pest damage and report her findings to growers. These harvest samples will let growers know what pests are in their orchards and compare these results with the nut damage results from the huller. The information helps growers prepare next season’s orchard management strategy.

UC Integrated Pest Management recommends taking 500 nuts from each orchard block as a representative sample. Jenna tries to collect nuts quickly, trying not to leave them on the ground too long. Otherwise, ants might get to some of the nuts and skew the findings. 

Almond samples collected from an orchard.
Here is how UC Integrated Pest Management describes pest damage:
       * Peach twig borer (PTB) and navel orangeworm (NOW) often like to infest the same nut. But NOW bores into the nut and PTB doesn’t. The NOW damage will cover over the PTB damage. NOW damage is represented by webbing and powder-like remnants.
  •       Ant damage is evident by the big bites taken out of the kernel – like something took a miniature melon ball spoon and took a scoop out, according to Jenna.
  •     Leaffooted bugs will leave dark spots on the kernel.
  •    Peach twig borer leaves shallow channels and groves on the surface.
  •   The Oriental fruit moth also produces shallow channels and surface groves.
“Knowing the damage that occurs provides the ability to develop the most cost-effective way to manage orchard pests,” Doll writes in his post. “

Monday, September 10, 2018

Cut-out Is a Sign of Maturity for Cotton Plants In the Valley

Around cotton country, there are signs the harvest is just around the corner.

Fall is a little more than a week away. The fruit on the plants have reached maturity and new terminal growth has pretty much stopped. And many growers have put a stop on irrigation.
Cotton growers are ending irrigation for the season.

Field scout Damien Jelen says we can officially say cotton has reached cut-out – the final stage of plant growth before the bolls open.In fact, Damien did spot one field in which bolls were starting to crack open.

For cotton, cut-out takes place when plants are at three to five Nodes Above White Flower (NAWF). Cut-out means cotton bolls are mature and about 95 percent of the crop has been set. This is an important barometer for growers because cut-out provides a good indication about the cotton yield during harvest time.

“Growers were thinking we were going to have an early season. But the cool weather lately slowed things down,” Damien says, pointing to temperatures in the low 90s and high 80s at the end of August. “Cotton likes the heat.”

As a result, Damien says, cotton gins are preparing for a normal harvest season in October and early November in some cases.

Lygus bugs are no longer a threat to cotton.
Meanwhile on the pest front, lygus is no longer a threat. Normally, growers stop monitoring for lygus about 10 days after cut-out. Their attention now turns to aphids and whitefly, which can lead to sticky cotton.

So far, the good news is aphids and whitefly are under control. “The counts are all down,” Damien says about his pest findings during his sweeps in the cotton fields.
In alfalfa, growers have wrapped up another harvest and are irrigating their fields again. Many will continue cutting through October – with a few trying to squeeze in another harvest in November, depending on the weather.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Cotton Growers Still Grappling with Nasty Soil Disease

Over the years, Bob Hutmacher has visited countless cotton fields across the Valley.

He’ll field a call from a grower asking him to come check out a problem with the crop.
I feel like the grim reaper when I walk into a field and they ask if they have Race 4 fusarium wilt,” he jokes. 

This season, the University of California Cooperative extension specialist at the Westside Extension and Research Center has visited 10 cotton fields and found they have lost 5 to 15 percent of their stands due to the soil disease.

UCCE cotton expert Bob Hutmacher
“It’s going to be a continuing battle. It’s difficult to contain,” he told growers attending a recent cotton field day in Mendota. Identified in 2001 in Fresno-Kings counties area, the nasty soil disease was identified in four different locations in the San Joaquin Valley within three years. It has steadily spread northward to the upper San Joaquin Valley. 

Recently, Race 4 fusarium was discovered in West Texas cotton fields around the El Paso region. Hutmacher suspects it could be infecting fields in Arizona – although nothing has been confirmed by agriculture officials.

Race 4 is a fungus in the soil. It can infect plants and cause a vascular wilt in a number of cotton varieties. The spores can be spread through regular farming practices such as irrigation and cultivation.  It can cause damage in a variety of soil types. Over time, it can spread through an entire field and ultimately cause widespread plant losses and stunted growth, adding up to a costly loss in yield.

“It could be a couple years when you detect anything or it could be 10 years.”

Hutmacher says seed companies have developed resistant cotton seed varieties and continue to look for improvements. Researchers in California and Texas are exploring crop rotation practices that could limit the spread of the disease.

Race 4 fusarium will wipe out sections of cotton plants.
In the 10 fields Hutchmacher inspected this season, about half of them were in the second or third season in cotton. Some of the worst cases, though, were in fields planted in melons or tomatoes the previous year.

“We still don’t know of a crop rotation that knocks down its survival,” he says. However, the disease appears to be controlled the year after the field has been left fallow the previous summer. “That actually knocks down the problem.”

Hutmacher says public research institutions, government ag agencies and private ag firms need to continue working together to come up with a solution. 

Cotton plants will wilt and die from the soil disease.
“Until you get a perfect resistant variety, the solution is a really resistant cultivar along with a kind of chemical treatment that is affordable. That will reduce down the infection rate. I don’t think it will need to be perfect,” he says. 

Hutmacher urges growers to contact UC farm advisors if they see any problems in their fields.

Once growers know they have an infected field, they can take steps to slow the spread of the disease. That includes cleaning soil from equipment, limiting the movement of soil and plant debris from the infected field and planting resistant varieties.

“People have been very good about working with their PCAs, seed companies and consultants to try to get answers to know what they are dealing with,” he says.

Monday, August 27, 2018

It’s Time to Get Shakin’ in Valley Almond Orchards

With September around the corner, it’s time to shake, dry and sweep in Valley almond orchards.

Field scout Jenna Mayfield says the almond harvest is finally picking up after getting off to a slow start this season. “Growers are shaking away, knocking the nuts off the trees.” 

Shakers use big claws to grasp on the tree trunk.
Almonds are havested by mechanical shakers outfitted with crab-like claws that clamp onto the trunk of the tree and vigorously shake the almonds onto the grounds.

Jenna notes growers plant at least two different varieties of almonds for cross pollination and each variety will mature at a different time. That means growers will send the harvesting equipment to shake the mature nuts off the trees again. After the nuts are collected off the ground, they are taken to a processor to remove the dried green hulls, crack the shells and separate the meat.

Sometimes, there will be a third shaking if growers believe there are enough left over nuts to make it economical to harvest again. It’s quite a juggling act for growers, especially small farms that need to schedule outside harvesters to bring their equipment into the orchards.
After shaking, the almonds will dry on the orchard floor.

You might call the almond harvest a marathon rather than a sprint. This year, though, growers may wind up sprinting near the end of the harvest. Here’s why: Jenna points out that some growers started the almond harvest as early as July 22 in 2017. This year, the earlybirds began around August 10.

The nearly three-week difference could push the harvest into Halloween or even later for some. That could make it tricky if the weather changes and wet storms hit the area. Rain will hurt the quality of the meat and run up costs for mechanical drying. Jenna says the threat of rain could trigger around-the-clock harvesting.

Another worry for growers: Ants. The longer the nuts are on the ground the more susceptible they are to ant damage. “Growers need to be vigilant about ants.”

Growers worry about ants damaging almonds on the ground.
At the same time, growers are mindful of air quality and are investing in equipment to keep dust down during shaking and sweeping operations. Farm advisers recommend growers adjust harvest equipment to match orchard conditions, following simple steps such as reducing speed or planning the machine’s path up and down the rows between trees.

Growers try to minimize dust during the mechanical harvest.
As a rule, growers will shake about two weeks after the last irrigation to minimize bark damage during the shaking. The timing depends on the type of soil. Sand requires less time to dry out while clay requires more time.

In orchards with sand and other soils that don’t hold water very well, growers may need to irrigate between harvesting the different varieties.  Proper water management is important during harvest time.

Yes, the harvest may have started, but it’s a long way to the finish line.

 Happy shaking.