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California almond crop could actually fall, despite welcome rains

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Heavy rains in California do not necessarily promise a bumper almond crop, producers are warning.

Observers are chewing over the possibility that heavy rains in California, although much-needed given the preceding drought, may have disrupted pollination during the crucial bloom period which runs from late February to early March.

"Controversy hangs over the potential 2017 crop due to the heavy rains experienced over the bloom period," said Australian almond producer Select Harvest, referring to conditions in California, which is by far the world's top almond growing region.

"Optimistic growers place the crop potential at 2.3bn pounds, and the pessimists at 2.0bn pounds," Select Harvest said. The US crop was 2.15bn pounds last year.

Select Harvest forecast stable almond prices, within a range of around Aus$7.70 - $8.20 a kilogram for the Australian crop.

'Famine to feast'

Early this month Sunny Verghese, chief executive at the Asian food and ingredient giant Olam, warned of just such a development.

"For six years we have had a drought," Mr Verghese said. "The water table receded, massive water shortage".

"So there was severe stress on all Californian agriculture over the last five years, six years."

"Now, from a situation of real bad drought conditions, we have now had just the opposite."

"We've had some massive rains, high heavy snow packs, dams being and reservoirs being full," Mr Verghese said. "So from famine to feast."

It all comes down to the bees

Ample water is good for almond production, but rains can also disrupt pollination during the three week bloom period.

"In that three-week period if there's rains, then the bloom gets impacted," Mr Verghese said.

"If there are rains, the bees will not fly," Mr Verghese said, "If the wind speeds are above 15 miles an hour, the bees will not fly."

"If it is cloudy conditions, the bees will not fly."

Nonpareil blooming hurt

Two weeks ago the US growers' group Blue Diamond warned about "less than idea," conditions during the blooming of the Nonpareil variety, the most common type of almonds in California.

"Weather was very poor during the Nonpareil bloom, with heavy rainfall and significant winds in the early bloom," Blue Diamond said.

"The Northern and Central parts of the state were most impacted."

"Bloom conditions improved later in the month, particularly for the late blooming Butte and Padre varieties," said Blue Diamond.

"As spring approaches and the nuts mature, the industry will begin to get a better idea for the 2017 crop outlook," the group said.

By William Clarke

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