Don Curlee: Almond growers' choices start with nut variety
A recent conference for almond growers emphasized the large number of choices all farmers have in running their farms, choices that nonfarmers seldom dream of.
The conference featured University of California researchers who are experts in the evaluation of the 40 different varieties of almonds that growers can plant. Some of the varieties have been developed recently; and others, which have been around for many years, form the bulk of California's 800,000 acres of producing trees.
In the case of almonds, balancing the number of pollinizer trees with the main production variety has been one of every almond grower's primary choices. Close behind is the pattern and spacing of the trees in the orchard. Soil characteristics, climatic conditions and just plain personal preferences are important factors in making this decision.
But, in today's highly volatile marketing arena and its major league economic demands, growers of all crops need the latest and best information they can gather in regard to all aspects of production. Commercial nurseries play an important role because they must be ready to supply the types of trees or other plants that growers choose.
In the case of an almond grower wanting to add trees to an existing orchard, the choices he has already made come into play. Will the new plantings complement and support the varieties presently growing? What varieties and how many does he need to balance his deliveries?
Nonfarmers probably tend to think of fruit and nut growers and their orchards as permanent income producers requiring minimum upkeep. Not only do permanent plantings need continuing care, but new methods of distributing irrigation water and applying weed-control materials or other chemicals become available continually. Orchardists have to decide if they can or want to make additional investments to improve efficiencies.
One of the major surprises to nonfarmers is that trees in production don't live forever. For almonds, 25 years is considered a reasonable maximum lifetime. Beyond that, yields decline, trees become more susceptible to disease and stress, demanding decisions by growers in regard to replacement. It's a difficult decision to bring in the bulldozer to push out trees that have produced well over their lifetimes.
Another surprising reality that nonfarmers seldom consider is the fickleness of markets. Citrus provides a current example. For the past 10 years, the mandarin types (tangerines in general) have generated heated demand among consumers. A grower who planted a picturesque navel orange grove 15 years ago was just beginning to enjoy the returns from his trees when market demands turned to mandarins, leaving him with lower returns than expected.
If he chose to "ride it out" with his oranges and wait for a market comeback, he did well. Navel oranges seem to maintain a perennial grip on the market, even when challenged by newer and more exotic types of citrus fruit.
The way crops are harvested is also a basic decision faced by growers. One reason for the recent (since the mid-1980s) popularity of almonds, pistachios and some other tree and vine crops is the potential for harvesting them by machine. The reliability and availability of hand harvesters continue to be in question.
Even after some of the "permanent crops" are established and producing, those who own and maintain them have choices to make, almost on a daily basis. Although the challenge to farmers who specialize in perennial crops is easier to perceive, those growing permanent tree and vine crops have a heavy schedule of choices and decisions to make.
The biggest choice of all — and the one most misunderstood by urban residents — is the decision to become a farmer in the first place.
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org