The month of February wrapped up in an unforeseen manner for almond farmers throughout the Central Valley. An unprecedented stretch of freezing night time temperatures found many adjusting from watering the unseasonably dry ground, to utilizing water to adjust orchard temperatures.
Oakdale residents and fourth generation almond farmers Janie and Nick Gatzman were one such family. A partner of TAP (Travaille And Phippen), Inc. based in Manteca, Nick manages most of the farming for the company. The responsibility found Nick and his team tending to over 15 orchards through the night for approximately eight days focusing on frost protection.
The trick being to get the water running before the freeze began. This creates a slight warming effect to the air surrounding the trees, also known as frost protection.
“Everything that was pollinated froze,” Nick said, “but it’s hard to tell what percent of that is.”
Janie shared anything pollinated, which held a nutlet at the base of the flower, died during the freeze. An implication which might send some to assume the orchards are done, perhaps sooner than can be told.
With harvest not happening until August and spring not yet fully started, Nick feels it’s too soon to tell what the ultimate outcome of the freeze will be on the 1,500-plus acres of almonds he manages.
“I personally think with the exception of the one ranch that got down to 22 degrees, I don’t think there’s going to be much effect,” Nick said.
In addition to the farming Nick manages for the company, he and Janie lease 170 acres of almonds, as well as own a 20-acre parcel in rural Oakdale. A parcel, which of all the land they tend to, sits lower than most and was hit hardest by the freeze as temperatures dipped to 22 degrees.
“I really think this crop is going to be okay,” he continued. “It happened early enough that we have a lot of bloom left to pollinate. The trees are naturally going to shed most of the flowers and nuts that are on there. They’re only going to keep 15 to 20 percent anyway.”
Facing a winter unlike one experienced in recent history, opinions of the outcome vary from devastation to little effect. The Gatzman’s believe it’s the coming weather which will truly determine the outcome of harvest, noting that frost concerns typically exist through the end of April.
“It’s really hard to quantify where we’re at,” Nick admitted.
According to the farmer, bloom came out early and fast. The drop in temperature extended the bloom out, slowing it down.
“Usually that’s good,” he said. “You get a longer time to cross pollinate all the varieties. To me it’s been a pretty extended bloom, which is good.
“We can all go out and find damage,” he continued, “but to know what the percentage of the crop is going to be … you just can’t tell.”
As the only almond growing state in the United States, the ultimate effect could have a huge impact, if the season goes differently than he anticipates. The Central Valley is home to that United States production.
“California produces over two billions pounds a year of almonds,” Janie, a self-employed farm appraiser, stated. “The U.S. is the largest single country that consumes what California produces. However about 80 percent of the crop is exported every year to the all other countries out there. No single country is a greater consumer than the U.S., but taken all together they’re (other countries) about 80 percent for California almonds.”
As fourth generation almond farmers, the couple shared this is the toughest season they’ve seen thus far. Janie, however, recalls her father working through the night to save crops when she was younger. Now, facing the notion that their personal 20 acres may yield nothing the question is raised, why continue on in the unpredictable farming business?
“Farmers are crazy,” Janie said, beaming through her laughter. “The hours are terrible. That’s what we do.”
Husband Nick echoed her sentiments showing no remorse or discontent with the nature of the business he continues in.
“I’m optimistic,” he said, “but we just won’t know … we just won’t know.”