There used to be a bit of romance in almond orchards around pollination time. Esthetically, trees were in full bloom, resplendent in their natural beauty. On good years, temperatures were balmy, breezes were light, and the drone of busy bees provided a musical background as the conceptual magic took place.
Now, with the arrival of self-fertilizing almonds, a lot of that romantic aura is disappearing.
Since the self-fertilizing variety Independence entered the market a decade or so ago, it now occupies an estimated 2% of bearing almond acreage with 24% of non-bearing acreage. Compare that to the largest planted variety, Nonpareil, with 39% bearing acreage and 37% non-bearing.
“Although the last data shows somewhat of a plateau, previous years have seen a steadily upward climb in Independence acreage. There will be a lot more of it in the market in the next two or three years,” says University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser Franz Neiderholzer of Colusa County.
Another newcomer, Shasta, is also making its mark with 3 percent of non-bearing acres by recent count.
Modesto-based Roger Duncan, who directs UCCE in Stanislaus County with more than 200,000 acres of almonds and wine grapes, says fertile varieties aren’t really new. “They’ve been around for quite a while, most commonly in Europe, but appearing in California some 20 years and starting to get more attention in recent years.”
More varieties coming
Among growers who’ve planted self-fertilizing varieties is Donny Hicks of Hughson, Calif., who harvested over 4,000 pounds per acre from his eighth-leaf Independence trees in 2021. Hicks said last fall he also harvested just under 2,400 pounds in his adjacent fifth-leaf Shasta variety orchard without any rented bee colonies.
While Independence and Shasta are the two varieties commercially available at present, “Others are being rolled out, some we probably haven’t even heard of yet that will be rolling out very shortly,” Duncan says.
“This is a somewhat new concept for California almond growers and things like this take time for people to pick up on the idea. A few early adventurers will take the risk and plant varieties like this and if they are successful, then the dam breaks and their neighbors join in.”
Even with the release of new record almond crop numbers under current conditions, experimentation represents a way to the future --- “larger variety, more diversity,” says Duncan. “There’s a desire to spread the season out longer and some of the newer varieties may allow that, but Nonpareil is still the gold standard and gets the best price, a cornerstone that already exists.”
The self-fertile concept is appealing in that it requires less of a need for bees to pollinate. “We might be able to get by with 25 percent or so of normal bee practices of hives-per-acre, and with that being one of the largest single expenses of almond farming, reducing bee costs by 75% or more is a pretty significant way to save money.”
Adds Niederholzer: “Less-expensive-to-grow is always a popular phrase among almond orchard owners and if you can cut back on bee expenses, that would be a plus. Because Independence needs only one trip to harvest as they arrive earlier, so do problems with Navel Orangeworm. But there is a grower-driven movement to see the value in these varieties.”
Popularity has increased
Self-fertile varieties represent the number two or three planted variety over the last five years, so its popularity has increased although it has not surpassed top-seller Nonpareil Monterey. “But the new varieties will change the landscape in the next several years when all that new production comes on-line. This movement is way past the experimentation stage and I expect it to be a major player in the industry as the larger growers climb on that growth wagon.
“The number of acres in the ground right now are substantial. For small holders of 20 acres or so, it doesn’t pay to have two or three varieties. Even if I had 100 acres, I’d still probably go with something I know is a winner. But if you have 500 acres or so, I could easily see 100 acres of it planted with a non-fertile variety as another tool in the toolbox instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.”