More than 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown and harvested in California’s Central Valley, and late summer to early fall is the busiest time of year for almond growers and their employees. Harvest is not only important to the almond community, but growing, harvesting and processing almonds contributes to the economic vitality of California, according to Dr. Gabriele Ludwig, Director of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs at Almond Board of California.
“Among the multiple types of jobs within agriculture, over 104,000 jobs are created specifically by almond production,” said Ludwig, citing a 2014 study from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.1 Of those, 97,000 jobs are located in the Central Valley.
The annual almond harvest involves a three-step process: shaking the nuts off the tree onto the ground where they dry for several days, sweeping the almonds into rows and picking them up off the ground to be transported to a local processing facility.
Throughout July and early August, when the almond kernels have grown to full size and are nearly ready to greet the world, hull split occurs. Up and down the Central Valley almond hulls, the fuzzy green covering that surrounds the almond’s shell, begin to split open, exposing the almond shell and allowing it, and the almond kernel inside, to dry. Once the hull, shell and kernel have adequately dried, tree "shakers," machines with an arm that resembles a crab’s claw, initiate the harvest process by clamping onto the trunk of the tree and vigorously shaking the almonds to the ground.
When almond growers develop and plant a new orchard, they typically plant each row in a rotation of two or three different varieties, which is necessary for cross pollination. Each variety is then harvested separately, so in most orchards the overall three-step harvest process – shaking, sweeping and picking up the nuts – occurs two-to-three times. As almond growers juggle the three-tiered harvest process across multiple almond varieties – and often multiple orchards – they are also careful to time harvest activities to avoid rainfall, protecting almonds that may be on the orchard floor. Rain at harvest can be costly – in both damage that affects crop quality as well as additional expense for mechanical drying.
Because harvesters shake almonds to the ground to take advantage of the natural power of the sun to dry almond kernels, the harvest process naturally creates dust. But almond growers are proactive in taking steps to minimize that dust which can affect their local communities.
Almond Board of California has invested in nearly a decade of research that has established practices almond growers can use during harvest which are proven to reduce dust. Additionally, newer almond harvest equipment is specifically designed to reduce dust. Said Cliff Ohmart, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at SureHarvest, “Manufacturers are now supplying growers with state-of-the-art equipment that promises to reduce dust by over 50 percent.”
Fine-tuning and adjusting existing harvest equipment to match orchard conditions can also reduce dust, as can reducing speed or strategically planning the equipment’s path up and down orchard rows.
Nearly 100 almond growers and industry members gathered on July 7 and 8 to discuss and learn about harvest practices. On Thursday, July 7, Fresno State orchard manager Robert Willmott and his student staff hosted a workshop at the Fresno State campus farm. Exact Corporation’s Doug Flora and Jason Bayer and Flory Industries’ Mike Flora and Darren Harper demonstrated innovative harvest equipment designed to reduce harvest dust, and improve air quality in the Central Valley. The next day, Flora and Stuart Layman, also from Flory Industries, gave a similar in-the-orchard demonstration at the Nickels Soil Lab in Arbuckle using harvest equipment by Flory and Jessee Machine Works, and also educated growers on tips for harvest safety and environmental stewardship.
Toney Tillman and Alexcia Everhart of the USDA National Resources Conservation Service offered insights into incentive funding that is available to almond growers who use low-dust harvest equipment. Other presentations were given by Ludwig on harvest dust reduction strategies and Ohmart on the California Almond Sustainability Program and online tools to support almond growers.
As leaders in California agriculture, almond growers use sustainable farming practices and act as stewards in taking care of everything in the orchard, from the trees to the air.
“By devoting its efforts economically, behaviorally and emotionally, the almond community continues to prove that its commitment to sustainable practices is substantial,” said Ohmart.
1University of California Agricultural Issues Center. The Economic Impacts of the California Almond Industry. December 2014.