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Drought, rain aren’t driving area almond growers nuts

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POSTED February 25, 2009 4:33 a.m.
RIPON – Merlin Mohler takes his work out at his family’s ranch on the east side of Ripon seriously.

As a third generation farmer, he starts and ends his days literally steps away from where his grandfather first planted what would become a combination of almond orchards and row crops. His days typically start without a trace of sunlight and end the same way.

And while the dry winter that Central Valley farmers have been experiencing thus far isn’t good – signaling a sure drought and raising concerns about getting the irrigation water necessary to keep mature trees healthy during the hot summer months when harvest is at its peak – it isn’t something that Mohler is losing a lot of sleep over either.

“When you do this for as long as I have, you get used to seeing things like this – all it will take is a magical March and we’re set for another year,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen and it’s definitely unlikely, but regardless of the weather we just keep doing what we know.”

With Ripon’s 47th Almond Blossom Festival getting ready to kick-off this weekend, residents and guests alike will be lining Main Street and pouring into the Mistlin Sports Park – ironically a one-time almond orchard – to pay tribute to the tree  that has historically been the town’s financial lifeblood.

Even though only some of the trees around town have started to sport the familiar white blossoms that form picturesque scenes throughout the rural regions, the festival will go off with weather expected to be cloudy with a chance of rain Saturday night for the tens of thousands that will visit for the weekend.

But while the water that falls now and can knock the buds off of the trees once they form is a welcome sight to farmers – thanks to anti-fungal sprays that can help them prevent damage to the seedlings – it’s the water that comes during the summer that really affects their annual yield.

According to South San Joaquin Irrigation District President Dave Kamper – who farms about 250 acres of almonds in Ripon – it’s the shrinking water table that really prevents the trees from growing to full maturity and being able to produce their full potential year after year.

For Mohler, the problem is so severe that he uses sprinklers to spray down the area when the mercury starts to rise in August and September on top of the water that they already receive to make sure that what he calls the “water wall” doesn’t dry up beneath the surface.

And that can have major financial implications on a small family-run operation that is already barely getting by.

But just like Mohler, Kamper says that there’s only so much that you can do in a given year to prepare yourself for the season before Mother Nature and the elements take over and you just react to the cards that are being dealt.

“It’s just a different type of animal when you get into January,” Kamper said. “We’re still going to school when it comes to dealing with things like this – every day is different and you just react and go with what you’ve got.

“Surely the rain is an issue when the buds are out like that, but we can live with it – we’re just waiting for those consecutive days when it’s sunny and the bees can come out and pollinate.”

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