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Irrigation water concerns cloud prosperous almond industry

Mark Turmon owneradministrator of Sierra Valley Almonds at the companyrsquos processing facility near Kerman Calif
<p> Mark Turmon, owner/administrator of Sierra Valley Almonds, at the company&rsquo;s processing facility near Kerman, Calif.</p>
Despite a slow start, due to unusually cool growing conditions earlier in the year, Friedenbach/Turmon Farms&rsquo; almond trees fared well this past season. Overall, the 2011 crop was about 10 percent larger than the year before, although nut size was a little smaller. Nonpareil yields, which were down in 2010, were outstanding this season. Vertical integration means that he and his partners can control the quality of the almonds and improve efficiencies along each step of the way, from planting the trees to getting paid for delivering the final product. What he like best about this business, though, is the farming.

Mark Turmon was raised on his family’s Thompson seedless raisin vineyard in Fresno County near Caruthers, Calif., and like many of his peers moved down a different farming path in adulthood to California almonds.

Turmon today grows 1,600 acres of almonds on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley and hulls, shells and markets almonds worldwide from growers throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.

Such vertical integration means that he and his partners can control the quality of the almonds and improve efficiencies along each step of the way, from planting the trees to getting paid for delivering the final product. What he like best about this business, though, is the farming.

“That’s the exciting part,” he says. “You never know when the year starts what kind of crop you’re going to have when the season is over. It’s fun to watch the crop grow and to see what the yields are at harvest.”

Turmon, who graduated from California State University, Fresno in 1983, began his career as an agricultural banker. Later, he went to work for a cotton company, processing cotton in California and Arizona. In 1998, he had the opportunity to buy into a farm on the West Side where he learned to grow almonds.

Turmon is now the managing partner in that business, Friedenbach/Turmon Farms. Located within the 600,000-acre Westlands Water District in western Fresno County, this operation also includes 1,200 acres of organic processing tomatoes along with the almonds. Two years ago Turmon got back into the cotton business when the partners planted 300 acres of Pima cotton.

In 2006 he helped establish Sierra Valley Almonds, along with two other partners — Dean Nelson and Michael Friedenbach. Drawing on his lengthy experience in accounting, financing, operations and personal management, Turmon is the company’s administrator. Nelson, a leader in the almond industry and a former chairman of the Almond Board of California, has a long history in sales and marketing as well as almond processing. He’s in charge of selling the almonds. Co-founder Friedenbach made some of the first-ever almond plantings on the West Side more than 30 years ago. Also, he helped start an earlier almond processing company and an almond huller and sheller company.

In addition to buying almonds from growers, Sierra Valley Almonds cleans, sizes, sorts, packs and ships the processed nuts at two facilities — one near Kerman, Calif., the other in Madera, Calif. Together, the two plants employ about 85 workers. Another 30 employees provide custom hulling and shelling services for almond growers at the company’s Sierra Valley Hulling plant near Firebaugh, Calif.

Productive year

Despite a slow start, due to unusually cool growing conditions earlier in the year, Friedenbach/Turmon Farms’ almond trees fared well this past season. They suffered little, if any, damage from navel orangeworm, and diseases weren’t a problem, either, Turmon notes. The orchards responded, for the most part, with higher yields.

“Production in some of the pollinators, mainly Carmel and Monterey, was off a little from 2010,” he says. “But, overall, the 2011 crop was about 10 percent larger than the year before, although nut size was a little smaller. Our Nonpareil yields, which were down in 2010, were outstanding this season.”

Other growers also enjoyed a productive year. When the books are closed on California’s 2011 almond harvest, the industry is likely to have hulled and shelled nearly 2 billion pounds of meat. That’s a sizeable jump from last year’s record-breaking production of 1.65 million meat pounds. What’s more, growers are selling these nuts at prices similar to those they earned for their 2010 crop. In the case of Nonpareils, that’s at about the $2.10-per-pound or higher range, depending on size and grade.

Normally, Friedenbach/Turmon Farms starts harvesting almonds around Aug. 5. However, because of delayed crop maturity, the 2011 was about three weeks later than normal. The last of the nuts were picked up in mid-October. That was after rains fell early that month on some of the Monterey fields and after the other varieties had been harvested.

“2011 harvest was similar to 2010 when we had rain at the tail end of the harvest,” he adds. “Only this year, the nuts were slightly wetter going to the huller.”

Those rains hampered work in the field and at the huller. Because wet almonds dry faster if they are hanging on the tree, crews stop shaking the trees when the rain starts. Wet weather slows drying of nuts already on the ground, increasing the threat of mold and more rain. Rain can also discolor almond shells, rendering them unacceptable for the in-shell market, which usually offers growers a higher price than when sold as kernels.

Rain adds to costs

Rain during harvest adds to grower costs, too. Normally, Turmon says, it takes about five days for almonds to dry on the orchard floor before they can be hauled out of the field and to the huller. This past October that was taking about two weeks. His crews had to re-roll the windrows to dry down the nuts more in the field. Shorter days and more dew in the morning only compounded the challenge of getting the nuts dried out.

Nuts with more than a 5 percent moisture content must be run through a dryer, at a cost to growers of about 5 to 7 cents a pound, before they can be processed, Turmon adds.

Wet weather at harvest also slows the hulling operation by requiring more time and effort to handle stockpiled nuts waiting to be hulled. “You have to cover and fumigate the nuts,” Turmon says. “Then, when the weather turns sunny, you open the tarps to let the nuts dry. At night you put the tarps back on to protect the nuts from any rain or dew.”

Even though the industry had, for all practical purposed, sold out of the 2010 crop before the 2011 harvest even began, Turmon and other growers were hoping for a lot of movement early in the current marketing year to sustain attractive prices for the large new crop. So far, these hopes are being met.

For example, the Almond Board of California reports that last November, both domestic and export shipments broke records for the third month in a row, with more than 200 million pounds of almonds shipped for October and November. Domestic shipments for November were up 18.2 percent and exports up 19.2 percent compared to November 2010.

In early December, the Almond Board of California released shipment figures for the first four months of the 2011 marketing year, which began this past Aug. 1. They reveal significant growth in demand from several countries in the Asia-Pacific market. For example, almond shipments to China were up 23 percent from a year earlier and those to India increased 25 percent. Meanwhile, Vietnam bought 510 percent more almonds than during the same time frame in 2010.

“Here in the United States we shipped 7.3 percent more almonds through the first four months of the 2011 marketing year than a year ago time, and we shipped 12.6 percent more overseas,” Turmon says. “Combined that represents a 11.1 percent growth in shipments for that time frame.”

The majority of the Friedenbach/Turmon Farms almonds are sold in-shell. Currently, those nuts are selling for about 12 to 15 cents a pound more than kernels. In fact, the Sierra Valley Hulling plant is designed to enhance nut value. “We equipped our hullers with electronic sorting features not only to produce great kernels with high turnouts but also high-quality in-shell product,” Turmon says.

China and India, the primary markets for California almonds, are also the two major buyers of in-shell almonds. “The Chinese like to add flavors to the shell to alter the taste of the nuts,” Turmon says. “In the case of India, because of tariffs, it’s cheaper for buyers there to import in-shell almonds than kernels.”

Through the first four months of the 2011 marketing year, 29 percent of California almonds shipped overseas were in-shell, the rest went for kernels. That compares to the same period a year earlier, when the mix of California’s exported almonds was 25 percent in-shell and 75 percent kernel.

“The Almond Board of California has done a great job of promoting almonds overseas,” Turmon says. “However, continued weakness in the world economy could pose some problems for selling our large crops in the future.”

Water concerns

Turmon is also concerned about having enough water in the coming years to irrigate California’s almond orchards, especially those on the West Side. “The water situation is always in the forefront of every California grower’s mind,” he says. That concern has been heightened for 2012 following one of the driest Decembers in history.

Several years ago, because of tight supplies of surface water, he paid $400 an acre-foot to carry water over from the previous season for his 2009 almond crop. He also spent $600,000 in the winter of 2008-2009 to drill a 1,500-foot well to supplement his surface water deliveries. In 2010, he was able to provide enough water for all of his crops, except for one field, which he left fallow. Thanks to the drought-breaking snows last winter and the rains this past season, Turmon had all the water he needed for his 2011 crops.

“Concerns about California’s water supplies have been going on for years, but the state hasn’t built a dam or reservoir for more than four decades,” he says. “This past year all the reservoirs were full. If we had additional capacity, we could have saved a lot of water that ended up in the ocean. And now, we’re hearing talk of putting meters on our wells to regulate how much groundwater we can pump.”

The situation continues to impact his cropping and farming decisions. “Because we don’t have a stable supply of water, we haven’t made any permanent plantings for the past five years,” Turmon says. “If we’re going to take the risks of producing a crop, we need some assurance that will have a reliable water supply for the long term.”

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