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Due to thefts: Almond crop hit with loss

I hope they catch the thieves,” said Scott Phippen of the people who stole two, 40-foot ocean containers carrying 88,000 pounds of almonds ready for export valued at $260,000 from the Traivalle and Phippen facility in Manteca, Calif., on July 1. “Our policy was no loaded containers in the yard,” said Phippen, the company's president. “We did it just one time. It got us.”

The nut theft was one at least four agricultural heists this year in California's almond and walnut industries. Total losses are estimated at about $2 million, according to Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department media relation's officer Royjindar Sing.

“Our theory is that an organized group from overseas is behind this,” said Sing. “We are trying to follow the same crime patterns of similar groups.”

In the Traivalle and Phippen theft, each container on two-axle trucks were loaded June 30 and stolen on July 1 during the long July 4th weekend. The trucks were parked on the backside of the facility out of view from passing traffic. Security cameras were aimed toward the front of the property and out of sight of the loaded trucks. The thieves hot-wired the trucks, drove down the road and then transferred the containers to street legal three-axle trucks.

“Who would ever think when you're out in the middle of nowhere that something like this could happen,” said Phippen. “In the country, usually a four-wheeler or gasoline is stolen. I'm 99 percent sure they (the sheriff's department) will not find the almonds.”

Was he insured? Phippen thought so. The reality was yes and no. He had insurance but unbeknownst to him, it was not replacement coverage. But a grateful Phippen said his insurance company, Nationwide Agribusiness, covered the total loss minus a $10,000 deductible. Phippen has been open with the media about the theft to bring it to the almond industry's attention and to encourage others to make sure insurance coverage literally covers everything.

“You can't run your business in this day and age with E. coli, thefts and other threats. You have to make sure everything is covered.” He now has replacement coverage. “I have learned a valuable lesson. I'm glad I only lost $10,000.”

Post harvest almond news

Now that harvest is complete, Marsha Venable of the Almond Board of California said higher statewide yields of 15 percent should stretch total crop numbers to a 1.05 billion pound finish, despite a slightly smaller sized nut compared to last year. Almond acreage has increased 13 percent in the last five years, she noted.

Rick Kindle of the Gold Hills Nut Company, who is an almond grower, buyer and processor in Ballico, Calif., said Central California came on a little stronger supply-wise this year than the southern almond-growing area. He predicted a state crop of 1.05 to 1.1 billion pounds.

Despite more acreage, higher insect levels in the latter part of the season were a problem even for growers who have been historically good producers.

“We have seen some really high insect and disease damage as high as 15 percent to 20 percent which is a first,” Kindle said. “This is true in the central and southern part of the state. There has been a cross section of pests including a lot of navel orangeworm, a lot of pinhole damage from ants, peach street borer, and a little bit of damage from the new leaf-footed bug. We haven't seen too much of the bug here as it's been located more to the south.” He pegged total insect damage at 3 percent of the total crop.

Two late-season rains more statewide than normal led to longer crop drying times.

“A lot of the growers got excited and harvested their crop when they probably could have left it on the ground. At the time they didn't know whether it would continue raining or not so they brought it in,” Kindle said. “Right now we're drying nuts in the 10 to 15 percent moisture range which increases costs. The drying capacity in the state is limited so everything can back up. If they have to sit in the bin with that much moisture, the nuts will begin molding in two to three days. If it gets real bad, they get dumped.”

He said it's the growers' responsibility to deliver dry nuts. “Just because they deliver them to the handler doesn't mean they are no longer responsible,” he added.

Kindle suggested that growers spend post-season time cleaning up the fields. Clean off the mummy nuts and get the old nuts off the trees to reduce the development of aflatoxin, a problem he pegged as a larger issue than salmonella.

He said the primary aflatoxin comes from insect-damaged almonds. Nuts left on the tree will eventually be infested by insects such as navel orangeworm, that can lead to aspergillus mold that in turn yields aflatoxin.

The University of California and others highly recommend cleaning up mummies from trees and orchard floors to prevent over-wintering navel orangeworm.

Aflatoxin is a growing concern, Kindle said, as about 70 percent of California's almonds are exported. Kindle said one of California's largest customers, the European Economic Community, has a very low aflatoxin tolerance.

Central California Almond Growers Association President and Chief Executive Officer Mike Kelley said almond quality was exceptional.

“Everyone was really happy with the Nonpareil variety. It yielded like a son of a gun. The turnouts were unbelievably high. Our average Nonpareil turnout was in excess of 25 percent and that was just outstanding. It has been a great year,” Kelley said.

Normal turnout is about 22 percent. The largest sheller/huller in the world, the CCAGA is expecting to handle 70 million pounds this year.

Kelley echoed Kindle's summary of navel orangeworm problems. Some of the pollinators were susceptible to the late flight of the orangeworm that caused more damage than the handlers like to see. In the early season, Kelley was concerned about potential damage by the leaf-footed bug but that all changed.

“The leaf-footed bug dropped off the radar screen when everyone realized how much damage there was late in the season from the navel orangeworm.” Ant-caused pinhole damage was about average this year, a problem usually worse in older orchards.

Kelley said rain and green harvested nuts have not made the best combination. His greatest fear is hull fires in the winter and spring in the hull piles. “That is our bread and butter. If we had hull fires out there, it would really be a disaster.”

Hull piles are monitored closely. Dry material containing 2 percent to 3 percent moisture content is blended with the hulls to soak up hull moisture, Kelley noted. “The goal is to mix it and create a good, saleable product for the dairies.” The mix is shipped out daily.

The CCAGA, which shells and hulls for 452 growers, handles 7 percent to 8 percent of the state's almond volume.

Frank Roque, general manager of the almond shipper Panoche Creek Packing in Kerman, Calif., reported spotty insect damage early on and mainly from navel orangeworm. “As the season went on, almonds either stayed on the tree or stayed on the ground for quite awhile. Even in cleaner areas, we saw the amount of serious defects go up on a percentage basis because almonds had to stay on and the flight continuing of the navel orangeworm.”

He said growers' proactive actions on ants minimized the pinhole damage and that new ant bait products have done a great job. He reported late season rainfall of up to six-tenths of an inch resulting in moisture problems.

“The problem with a dry hull on an almond in the field is that when you get it wet it's like a sponge and just absorbs moisture. Once the hull is wet, the meat also stays wet. Almonds must be under seven percent moisture when they come in to prevent mold,” said Roque. If over 7 percent, it has to be dried. On average, almonds come in at 5 percent.

“Every year has challenges and every year is different. This is just part of harvest and being an almond farmer. Moisture during harvest is not good for anybody — the grower, huller, processor or the end user.”

He said the challenge is that everyone must deal with it equally. “We've been very proactive with our growers at Panoche by offering the service of testing moistures for almonds in the field so growers know actual moisture levels so they know when to harvest. This is a big advantage for us.”

Roque offers post-season advice to growers to minimize troubles with next year's crop. As far as navel orangeworm, he said be very proactive with wintertime sanitation.

“When it's time to start trapping for navel orangeworm, know the populations in the field. Don't settle for one spray, as several may be needed. Check traps throughout the harvest season. It's a long harvest season and there are many flights for navel orangeworm. The later flights can be just as devastating as the early flights,” said Roque.

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