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Beyond Beauty: Almonds Are Vital to Central Valley’s Multibillion-Dollar Ag Economy
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By The Merced Focus
Published 2 months ago on
March 4, 2024

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More than a captivating canopy of white blooming flowers blanketing the Central Valley, almonds are a multibillion-dollar industry in California.

Christian De Jesus Betancourt

The Merced FOCUS

Fresno Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen knows those snow-like acres of blossoms are an economic juggernaut, supplying almonds to consumers in much of the nation and world.

“Those blooms represent more than just beauty. They are truly the economics of the San Joaquin Valley agricultural community right now,” he said.

The short-lived blooming window – usually about three weeks around February and March – is crucial to an industry where millions of bees are brought to the Central Valley to help cross-pollinate the crops that will be ready for harvest in August, said UC Cooperative Extension Orchard Crop Farm Adviser Cameron Zuber.

The economics of almonds cannot be understated in Merced County, where almonds accounted for more than $482 million in production value in 2022. More than 172,000 tons were produced during 2022.

The crop brings in even more elsewhere in the Valley, as showcased in the 2022 Fresno County Agriculture report, which indicates a production value of $1.14 billion in 2022.

Stanislaus County produced more than $752 million in almonds during 2022, a drastic drop from 2021 when almonds accounted for almost $1.1 billion of the production value.

Madera County produced a value of about $503 million in 2022, making it its top production crop.

A Worldwide Protein Source

Jacobsen, an almond grower himself, said almonds have been present in the Central Valley for quite some time, but have grown in popularity in the past three decades due to consumers focusing more on buying healthy foods.

It is a “shelf-stable portable protein source, he said, “They’re not just California’s snack, they’re also a worldwide snack.”

Another factor for the nut’s growing popularity can be attributed to its increased incorporation into various other products during the last two decades.

“You go back a few decades ago, and you had maybe a dozen or two items that had almonds in them,” he explained. “But today, you can probably find hundreds of different products with them.”

An uptick in the price of almonds in the previous years motivated various growers in the area to add the crop to their agricultural portfolios.

“In Merced County, 20 to 25% of the almond growers are new to growing almonds,” said Zuber. “That doesn’t mean they’re new to agriculture. They might have grown other things or done other stuff prior.”

Up until six years ago, Jacobsen mostly planted grapes. He said he added almonds to his portfolio while looking for a new challenge and opportunity.

“Almonds in California, for the most part, have a 20-25 year lifecycle,” he said. “From the time you plant a tree to the time you get your first crop is about year four. From there, production continues to increase, and you get prime production in year seven or eight.”

That top production will continue until about year 15-18, when production slowly declines until the tree is recycled after it is 20-25 years old, depending on climate and soil conditions.

The yield each year depends on various factors such as climate events and how pollination goes as “you’re dealing with Mother Nature,” said Jacobsen. “Right now, things are looking promising.”

Paul Parreira, a partner with Rpac Almonds near Los Banos, California, is shown. (KVPR/Ezra David Romero)

Bees Play a Crucial Role

Almonds can handle weather events as long as there are not many high winds and short durations of rain, said Jacobsen.

A bed of flower petals between the orchards is not necessarily a bad thing, explained Zuber, since the interior of the flower is what ends up becoming an almond.

“Even though the petals get knocked off, there’s still a chance that it can be pollinated, and once it is, petals falling off is perfectly natural and normal,” he said. “Rain, if it’s very heavy and frequent, can cause issues not just for impacting the flower itself, but just impacting the bees’ ability to provide a successful pollination.”

Bees play a crucial role in the reproduction of almonds in the Central Valley, with more than 2 million hives coming to the area to cross-pollinate the orchards.

“Since almonds only bloom at a certain part of the year, these bees need forage throughout the year,” said Zuber, the UC farm adviser. “They’re typically moved around a lot of different states.”

Jacobsen estimates that about 90% of bees in the nation are in California during the almond bloom window on a contract or rental basis.

Most orchards, such as Jacobsen’s, will have rows of different almond types next to each other to adequately pollinate and yield the desired nut.

“On my orchard, I have two varieties of almonds,” he said. “To the untrained eye, the blooms are very similar. There are some minor differences between the flowers. The bees going back and forth is what allows me to have the fruit that I want.”

It takes about one to two beehives to pollinate each acre of almond orchards.

Public Asked Not to Take Photos in Orchards

The most critical part of the pollination process takes place while the blossoms are at their most beautiful stage. Jacobsen suggests those wanting to use the natural beauty of the blossom as background for their social media pictures to respect others’ properties and livelihoods.

“We ask that they don’t stop on the side of the road and walk into an orchard for the simple fact that it is a very critical time of the year for us,” he said. “There are other dangers too. There are tractors.  We want to make sure folks are as safe as possible. But at the same time, we recognize the beauty of what’s going on right now.”

Almonds have been such a significant driver of the economy for the last two decades,” said Jacobsen. “It’s a true success story for what it’s been able to do for the Valley. It’s an extraordinarily healthy snack and an extraordinarily important part of the diet not just here domestically but throughout the world.”

Advancements in the Industry

The amount of water used to grow almonds in California has attracted no shortage of critics over the years, particularly when the drought was at its peak. Some environmentalists and others have accused the industry of using excessive amounts of water at the expense of residents.

Zuber said advancements in micro irrigation helps provide almonds with the water needed to thrive without utilizing excess water, with some suggesting that it takes up to 3.2 gallons of water to grow a single almond.

“That might be true broadly, but it’s not necessarily reflective of the water use here in the Central Valley,” said Zuber. “I don’t have a specific number, but there has been a lot of advancement in the type of production done in California, which, compared to other industries, is a little different.”

Zuber said that new technological advances and techniques and the work of experts such as himself working together with ranchers have made using the water to grow almonds more efficient.

Workers are shown at Rpac Almonds. (KVPR/Ezra David Romero)

Almonds From a Worker Perspective

Once fall comes, the mature almonds will be ready for harvest. The steps include shaking the trees and blowing the nuts between the columns of trees, where they are picked up by a harvester and put into a bin that is, in turn, taken to a processing plant.

One of those operators is Esmeralda Garcia, who has come a long way since she first worked in an almond field when she was 14. In 2007, she would take a plastic mallet and hit the trees to get the almonds to fall out.

Garcia started working in the fields since it was more accessible to get a job. When working under contract by pieces collected instead of hours worked, she had an opportunity to make more by working more.

“Since I was 14, it was easier to work in the field than in a store,” she said. “The first thing they took me to pick was almonds.”

She has worked other crops, but for the last four years,  the 31-year-old has been able to find work year-round at the almond orchards.

“Harvesting lasts about three months starting in August,” she said. “Right now, we’re working with the bees for the next couple of months. Then, we spray about four times before harvest season. We take care of the irrigation lines, and we do pest control. All year round, there’s something to do. Except in the winter.”

Although there is work year-round, not all activities pay the same. Garcia said her hourly rate ranges from $17-19.50 depending on the activities she’s involved in.

“During harvest, we make the most, and we also put in the most hours, about 12 hours per shift,” she said.

Garcia became the first woman in her orchard to be trained to use heavy machinery such as shakers, harvesters, and sweepers.

“It’s tough to get that far,” she said. “Four years ago, there were only men operating those machines. It’s a privilege to know what I know and that they gave me the opportunity to learn. It takes a lot of courage to drive those machines.”

At first, she said her bosses hesitated to let her jump into the heavy machines and enter a male-dominated field.

“At the beginning, they thought I was crazy since I’m a very short person,” said Garcia. “Later on, they took it more seriously and saw that I was able to do it.”

Garcia didn’t keep the knowledge to herself as she pushed for other women, some family members, to join her crew and start working the machinery alongside herself.

“At the beginning, it was hard because you’re afraid to try on new things,” she said. “I was tired of working the fields, carrying a ladder, and rushing through the work.”

Knowing that she could do less physically demanding work as a woman motivated her to learn and teach others.“Esas son cosas que te motivan a no regresar alli – those are the things that motivate you to move forward,” she said in Spanish.

“Now you see a lot of women working on this type of machine. When I started, that wasn’t the case.”

About the Author

Christian De Jesus Betancourt is the bilingual communities reporter at The Merced FOCUS, a nonprofit newsroom covering Merced. The Merced FOCUS is part of the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.

 

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