It has been a touch and go bloom season for almond growers around California this year. Last year’s crop was seriously mitigated by the unprecedented rains that showered orchards continuously during the bloom season and prevented bees from flying about to carry out their pollination duties. All of a sudden August rolled around and a jar of almond butter cost $15. And worst of all, for customers at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, Rusty Hall’s beloved almond brittle was available one selling day only. Rusty’s Paso Robles almond orchard yielded just enough nuts for one batch of the brittle which had become a holiday mainstay at his stand along with his almond flour, fresh and roasted almond meats and creamy almond butter. Last October, all of the Paso almonds went into one glorious batch of brittle, which sold out in an hour. Everyone turned their gaze to “next year,” the mantra of the ever-hopeful farmer, the season of better harvests.Next year is here and it is raining, and a recent cold snap followed an unseasonal hot spell some weeks ago that caused almond trees to begin blooming early. Rusty Hall has been watching his 90-acre orchard in Paso Robles closely, walking the land and studying the white blooms on his centenarian trees. His almond ranch is one of the few remaining original planting of almond trees in the Paso Robles area. From about 1914 to the 1940s, Paso Robles was the almond capitol of the world; now only about a thousand acres of almonds remain. Almond plantings had been brought to the California coast by missionaries, who left a trail of almond orchards along the route of their settlement sites from Los Angeles to Chico. Typical of the old orchard plantings, Rusty’s almond trees are dry farmed and spaced sixty feet apart. They are never irrigated, and rely on natural rainfall and less competition for ground water to survive each year. Extremely dry years can also affect the trees’ production, as happened some years ago at the end of a long drought cycle. But last year’s rains really brought his almond production to a halt. Still, farmers noted that since the trees did not bear fruit last season they would be rested and primed for a big harvest this year. Everything was looking good – there was a long dry spell and the blooms were excellent. Then frost. Now rain.The non-pareil (French for “without equal”) almond is the most popular almond grown, comprising 35 percent of the entire state’s almond crop, and it is now in full bloom. Rusty’s orchard consists of mostly non-pareils, a few ne plus ultras, some missions and a very few bitters, which restaurants prize for their intense almond flavor. The early blooming ne plus were wiped out by the frost, but as of this writing the bloom on the rest of the orchard is intact. The bees were brought in early to finish pollination, so the bloom set was excellent, and hopes were high for a good harvest. Rain and frost can damage the blooms and the emerging nuts, however, and the real crop assessment will take weeks to come into focus. Almond growers in the San Joaquin Valley from Bakersfield up to Chico are also waiting to see what the weather will wreak on their precious crop this year. Almond plantings in California moved from the Paso Robles central coastal area to the central valley in the nineteen forties when the huge fruit orchards were put in. Today there are 6,000 almond growers in California cultivating 585,000 acres of almonds. Almonds are the largest export crop in California, bringing farmers $3 billion in on-farm sales – multiplied by a factor of 5 for the processing and handling that almonds bring to the rest of the industry. Recent health news about almonds has been very good, and acreage under cultivation is increasing. So almond growers and consumers are anxiously waiting out the recent rainy spell in the state, looking to the sky and looking up the coast to see what will be left in the orchards once the rains pass. Farmers’ market customers know that a cozy rainy day at home can have an effect on the crops they are hoping to buy later in the week. Another year of no almonds would be tough to take for Rusty Hall and for almond farmers everywhere in California. Farmers’ markets have made farmers of us all. Together we are watching the weather reports and hoping for the best.For more information on California’s almond crop, farmers, and health benefits of almonds, visit the website of the California Almond Board: www.almondboard.com.
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