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California's record almond harvest begins

The only unhappy almond growers are those in Northern California around Arbuckle, Calif., who lost their crops (an estimated 15 million to 20 million pounds) to frost in the spring. However, barring another disaster, they should share in continued strong prices next year when the crop almost certainly will be smaller because the state’s 530,000 bearing acres this year will be taking a rest from producing what is projected to be 980-million-pound record this season.

Growers are expecting to average $1 per pound for their 2002 crop. Producers like the Baker Family of Baker Farming Co., Firebaugh, Calif., are pleasantly surprised at the prospects of profitable season from a huge crop.

It was only a few years ago when a big increase in plantings had more than a few industry naysayers predicting a crop the size of this one would create huge reserves, send prices plummeting and break many producers. However, continued sharp increases in sales due to enhanced promotion efforts are proving California can produce one billion pounds of almonds and sell them at a profit to growers.

U.S. per capita consumption has increased by 57 percent in the past five years, and shipments have increased by 54 percent, proof enough that the industry can sell and people will consume California’s No. 1 tree nut crop in record volume.

Both up, down

The Bakers farm 4,000 acres of almonds and are benefiting like their peers in one of the bright spots in California agriculture today. On the other side of the economic equation, the Bakers also farm 1,200 acres of wine grapes, which are going through another down cycle because there are too many vineyards planted for the market.

However, the vines have been profitable in the past, enough so to weather this down cycle.

Family patriarch Marshall Baker started farming in Western Fresno County in Westlands Water District in 1974. His sons Barry and Byron and daughter Sharla farm with him today. The family was originally from Chowchilla, Calif., in neighboring Madera County.

Like most of those drawn to Westlands and its then abundant water supply, the Bakers farmed cotton, tomatoes and other row crops initially, slowing involving into higher value crops like orchards and vineyards to offset increasing water costs.

However as Barry likes to say, "there are no permanent crops. Trees and vines can come out just like any other crop, if they do not pay."

Fortunately, the almonds have paid well, and the future for the tree nut looks good, believes Barry.

One reason for his optimism is that California almond production has grown to where end-users, especially industrial buyers, can be assured of a yearly almond supply at reasonable prices.

Free market

It also is a free market; no reserve this year, despite the record crop "Almonds have become inexpensive enough to build markets, and now we have pretty much a free market," Baker said.

Baker’s oldest trees are 13 years old and in their prime production years. The Bakers’ largest block, 2,000 acres, was planted in 1990. "Anyone with any sense would not plant that many almonds in one year," he said. However, it has proven a decision that’s paying off.

Baker estimates that his family’s orchards will average something more than 3,000 pounds per acre this year. He started shaking trees Aug. 3. Yields will be considerably more in individual blocks, up to in excess of 5,000 pounds in older plantings. "We still have some young trees so our average will not be that high," he said.

About 3,000 acres are planted on 24 by 12-foot spacing or 150 trees per acre. The remaining 1,000 acres are the latest plantings, and they are 23 by 18.

He has eliminated hand pruning, preferring to hedge every two years "I also would like to top the trees more often, but removing the brush from the center of the tree is expensive."

Hedging the sides puts the pruning in the middles where they can be easily gathered and hauled out of the orchard.

‘I do not do a lot of hand-pruning — like opening up the middles of the trees," he said. ‘I think that creates an imbalance on the limbs. When you do not prune inside, the tree is more in balance and you do not get much breakage when there is a big crop." Even with his huge crop, there were few broken limbs evident in a tour of the Baker orchard just 10 days before harvest was scheduled to begin.

Management changes

The Bakers have made management changes as their trees have matured. One has been eliminating middle cover crop.

"Some people grow weeds and call it cover crop," laughs Baker.

"Three years ago we started spraying everything from tree line to tree line to kill the weeds — none of this low rate to make weeds sick," he said.

He applies Fire Power, a premix of Roundup and four ounces of Goal. He used the same combination before in two separate product applications, but the rate of Goal was higher (one gallon per acre) when he used it alone. He did not like using the higher rate of Goal for fear of stunting tree growth.

"We are using less material overall now than when we were strip spraying," he said. "After two years we are starting to see fewer weeds because you are taking out the weeds before seeds set."

Like most all orchards planted over the past decade, Baker’s orchards are watered with low volume irrigation systems. Six hundred acres of Baker’s almonds are drip irrigated; the rest is micro sprinklers.

Therefore, the only weed-germinating moisture for weed growth outside of the tree line is winter rain.

"I will likely put on a berm spray after harvest to control weeds there and then wait until rains germinate the weeds in the winter. We usually get rains by December, and I will spray when the weeds are small and hopefully all up. Then I’ll come in about bloom time and spray again," he said. "It is cheaper to spray than to mow."

Two Randall spray rigs apply the herbicide. He also spot sprays with ATVs.

Shade middles

Older trees will quickly shade the middles to halt weed growth. Until they mature, younger orchards may require six or seven herbicide treatments during the season to control weeds.

One of Baker’s biggest concerns in going to totally clean orchard floors was his annual use of predator mites. Cover crops provide habitat for beneficials.

"I have never sprayed for mites. I use predators, applying 1,000 per acre in about April and followed three weeks later with another 1,000 per acre," he said.

Baker has continued to have good predator activity without a cover crop. "With close spaced trees, the predators move from tree to tree and do all right finding a food supply," he said.

Baker’s biggest pest problem is Navel Orangeworm (NOW). It takes an aggressive spray program at hull split as well as dormant sprays.

"I have had pretty good luck with Guthion and Lorsban. I will spray two or three times per season at hull split to keep navel orangeworm down," he said.

"With the newer, tighter plantings you are going to have a few more mummies than you would with wider spacing. It is tough to get trees clean in the winter, so you have to keep on top of NOW sprays at hull split," he said.

His biggest farm management challenge is water. He uses 150 acre feet per day in the height of summer, and his costs can be as high as $150 per acre foot. The trees use four acre feet per season, and he gets only one acre foot from Westlands.

Buys from others

That means he has to purchase from other farmers three-fourths of his water supply.

Westlands has been hit the hardest of any irrigation district in California in the water reallocation scheme where fish and wildlife gets more water than farmers. It has been probably been a decade since Westlands has received its full water allocation.

"I compete with other farmers for water. I have no choice," he said.

"As long as you are growing a crop that makes more money than some other guys, you can pay for the water," he said. "Cotton guys cannot buy the water like almond producers right now."

He is making every drop count at those prices. Three years ago he installed a bank of 21 new high efficiency variable speed pumps to direct water from the canal to the vines and trees. Manifold together, they total 5,000-horsepower of pumping capacity. They are computer programmed by Baker to meet irrigation schedules in each block. "I am tied to the farm because I am the only one who can program the irrigation system. In the future, I hope to set it up so I can access the irrigation system on-line," he said.

Moisture monitors

Those irrigation schedules have been taken to a high efficiency level with wireless soil moisture monitors in the orchards. "We bought three of them last year from Western Farm Service and added more this year for a total of 14," he said.

They are connected to Baker’s office computer, recording soil moisture every 15 minutes. He uses the information to schedule waterings. "It’s not the 110-degree days you have to worry about. When it gets that hot, the trees shut down. It is when the temperature is 85 to 90 degrees and the wind is blowing. That is when they use the most water," he explained.

The moisture sensors have already paid for themselves with savings. "I can already see where I save at least a day’s pumping requirements," he said. You do the math: 150 acre feet of water times $100 to $150 per acre foot.

He and four neighboring growers are partners in West Valley Hulling, which handled 26 million pounds of almonds last years.

The Bakers market through Hughson Nut Co. "We bought a part of Hughson about three years ago to give more security to our marketing future. Hughson does a lot of things with almonds (slicing, dicing, roasting, blanching) and sells to a lot of different people," he said.

Before buying into Hughson, the Bakers sold to the highest bidder. "You worry about buyers going broke in this business," he said.

"I think all the marketing people are in pretty good shape right now — not a lot of panic selling. When the big crop estimate came just a few weeks ago just ahead of harvest, the market went down maybe 10 cents per pound. But it has come back up," he said.

That once-dreaded one billion pound California almond crop is just around the corner, maybe not in 2003, but it will be there before the decade is out. However, almond producers are not overly worried as long as the industry continues to successfully promote and sell California’s premier nut crop.

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