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Shaking the “L”!

“Sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t.” So goes the well-known jingle for a famous candy bar. Well, this time of year, we’re all feeling a bit nutty as it’s harvest time for California’s number one nut – the almond.

Almonds are the state’s number three crop, according to the 2018 statewide crop report. In Fresno County, almonds are now the number one crop, surpassing long-time leader grapes for the fourth year in a row.  Why are there so many almonds planted in California, the San Joaquin Valley in particular?  Notwithstanding that California almonds supply 100 percent of the U.S. supply and 90 percent of the world supply, this versatile nut has become a solid value-added product that lends itself to many consumer uses – snack nuts, almond butter, almond “milk”, almond flour and more – making demand strong and leading to its being an economically viable option for most farmers. The hand labor is actually much less than what’s required for fresh market crops like peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries, table grapes, raisin grapes, and many vegetable crops.

The harvest of almonds is done almost entirely by machines. A large low-profile machine uses outstretched metal clamps to grip the tree’s trunk, shaking it vigorously to release the almond hulls which contain the shell and protected nutmeat inside. The almonds fall to the ground, are swept into windrows in the center of the furrow, then picked up by a large vacuum-like machine and dumped into gondolas for transport to the almond huller facility. At the huller, the hull is separated from the shell, which is cut open to get the nut meat.  Nothing goes to waste. The hulls are used for dairy feed because of their high protein content and the shells are used for livestock bedding or converted into energy at a co-gen plant.

We’re always asked how to properly pronounce almonds. Is it “all-monds” or “aan-monds?” Well, around here, we call them all-monds when they are on the tree and aan-monds when they are off the tree, because you have to shake the “L” out of them!  (A little country humor!)

At both Collective Conscience Salons we’ve held together, we talked about the water consumption of almonds compared to other crops. It has been flagged as a high water-use crop, but actually it’s not that different from most other orchard crops, including peaches or walnuts. Almonds have been singled out because large acreages have been planted in typically water-short regions of the Valley’s west side simply because it is one of the few crops that provide an economic return that can sustain the high surface water costs in those areas. In our area of the Valley, almonds are gaining favor because of their low labor inputs. In an environment where the cost and availability of labor is challenging at best, almonds provide one of the few alternatives that growers can farm to stay economically viable. We are transitioning into almonds on our farm because of increasing labor costs, lower returns for our fresh tree fruit, and limited availability of crews to harvest perishable crops.

As the supply of almonds grows because of increased acreage coming into production, it remains to be seen just how long almonds stay profitable. The price to growers is beginning to drop this year with the expectation of a record crop. We may be totally nutty to have planted almonds.  We’ll let you know in three-to-four years when we begin to harvest them. Until then, reach for those candy bars -- WITH nuts, please!

Liz, her husband Earl, their grown children and their families make up Hudson Farms, a fifth-and sixth-generation family farm in Sanger, CA.

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