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California Almond Yield Prediction at the Orchard Level With a Machine Learning Approach.


California's almond growers face challenges with nitrogen management as new legislatively mandated nitrogen management strategies for almond have been implemented. These regulations require that growers apply nitrogen to meet, but not exceed, the annual N demand for crop and tree growth and nut production. To accurately predict seasonal nitrogen demand, therefore, growers need to estimate block-level almond yield early in the growing season so that timely N management decisions can be made. However, methods to predict almond yield are not currently available. To fill this gap, we have developed statistical models using the Stochastic Gradient Boosting, a machine learning approach, for early season yield projection and mid-season yield update over individual orchard blocks. We collected yield records of 185 orchards, dating back to 2005, from the major almond growers in the Central Valley of California. A large set of variables were extracted as predictors, including weather and orchard characteristics from remote sensing imagery. Our results showed that the predicted orchard-level yield agreed well with the independent yield records. For both the early season (March) and mid-season (June) predictions, a coefficient of determination (R 2) of 0.71, and a ratio of performance to interquartile distance (RPIQ) of 2.6 were found on average. We also identified several key determinants of yield based on the modeling results. Almond yield increased dramatically with the orchard age until about 7 years old in general, and the higher long-term mean maximum temperature during April-June enhanced the yield in the southern orchards, while a larger amount of precipitation in March reduced the yield, especially in northern orchards. Remote sensing metrics such as annual maximum vegetation indices were also dominant variables for predicting the yield potential. While these results are promising, further refinement is needed; the availability of larger data sets and incorporation of additional variables and methodologies will be required for the model to be used as a fertilization decision support tool for growers. Our study has demonstrated the potential of automatic almond yield prediction to assist growers to manage N adaptively, comply with mandated requirements, and ensure industry sustainability.

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