We wanted to share a lighter read with everything going on. Our colleague, Catherine Bowlus, recently spent time with the Athwal family that runs TriNut Farms and is our partner on the El Nido almond orchard deal. Unlike in cities, life in farming is as busy as ever and farmers are getting ready for spring. This is Catherine’s journey journal as well as an easy-to-digest 101 on almond farming.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know the father/son team that runs TriNut Farms (one of our partners) and see how the sausage is made (or rather, how the nuts are grown and harvested). While I didn’t make it out to El Nido - the property of ours that TriNut manages - Nav, the son in the operation and my California guide for the day, took a friend and me around some of their other, predominantly almond, orchards within Stanislaus county for what turned into almond (and tree nut farming) 101.
First and foremost, farming is a business, right? You’ve got to know the basics of the trees’ lifecycle to even begin planning (or planting):
On the first question, while the trees will produce nuts after a couple of years, you aren’t making money until the fourth or fifth leaf. That means between the cost of the land, the trees, the irrigation, the water, the fertilizers, etc. it’s still a few years before you’re turning a profit. These days, you can get a development loan to tide you over until you have almonds to sell, paying for your operating costs. After about twenty years, your trees won’t produce economically viable yields anymore, which means tearing them out and starting the process over.
Left to right: Newly planted almond trees from the nursery; fourth leaf trees in an adjacent orchard; a mature orchard close to the end of its economic life
On the second, variety matters a lot. Virtually all almonds trade at a discount to Nonpareil, though Nonpareil almonds can’t produce nuts without pollination from a different variety, like Monterey, which means planting alternating rows and hiring bees when the time comes. Some varietals, like Independence, are self-fertile, though don’t necessarily fetch the same price as Nonpareil. Trees are also apt to put on twenty to twenty-five pounds - pretty close to a real human baby - before they’re ready to harvest, which means for the younger trees you need to tie up the branches to keep them from breaking off under the weight.
Like any other plant, almond trees need water to grow but how you do that and how much is required depends on the soil, time of year, plant maturity, and water district. Drip irrigation, for example, - check out the black lines running along rows in the photos above - lets you pretty precisely control the amount of water plants are getting by controlling the flow, the spacing, etc. and adjust for the plant maturity (younger/smaller trees need less water) and season. Soil-type impacts how you water your plants, too. More clay-like soil will retain water where sandier soil won’t, which means making the requisite adjustments among orchards even in the twenty or so mile radius where Nav showed us around.
Here you’re optimizing for a few different things when you’re pruning your trees throughout their life. You want to make sure that your trees are getting good light as they’re growing and that you’re developing an orchard that’s easy to harvest when the time comes. You need to create a thick base - just look at the sturdiness of trunks in the top right photo above - by keeping shoots, which will also suck up a lot of the water as the tree grows, off the bottom 30 inches. This is also key to the tree withstanding any adverse weather, not bending in high winds, as well as the space you’ll need for the shaker to come in at harvest. Any branches that cross over another branch or are less than thirty degrees off the main scaffold will also need to be pruned off.
Truth be told, I was too late arriving in California to witness almond harvest this year, though I happened to pass through Arizona just in time for an unusually late pecan harvest, which happens to be remarkably similar. Up until recently, I had no idea that the Southwest (led by New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Texas) produced pecans at all. Actually, in part due to Hurricane Michael destroying orchards in Georgia, New Mexico produced the most pecans of any US state this past season.
Sarb - the father in the TriNut Farms operation and my Arizona host - walked me through the pecan harvest as it happened. I missed the first step, where the intuitively-named, shaker comes in, grabbing the tree, and shaking the nuts off, but watched as those are then swept into rows; leaves and sticks are blown out (left); in-shell nuts are picked up (right); and loaded into trucks headed to the huller and processor. Luckily, for the purpose of my education, almond harvesting works the same.
Farming is both art and science, which Sarb (the father) and Nav (the son), provide a near-perfect personification of and, in that way, make a great team. Nav’s almond tour included discussions of the analytical oversight process for the various orchards, including its myriad testing - soil, tissue, hulls, etc. - with different frequencies and how technology for agriculture has developed and enabled the oversight. He also mentioned lessons learned on how to not plant three varietals in future orchards or particular varietals they won’t plant again. Sarb’s pecan tour, on the other hand, centered more around his future vision and his outlook on life. He’s clearly proud his son decided to join him in the family business and told me a few times, “Catherine, there is gold everywhere here, you just need to look and work for it.”
If you're as excited about almonds as we are, check out our other article dedicated to almonds - A Brief History of Almonds where we share about the rich history of these fruit trees.