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Almond Production

An almond orchard in the early 1900s.
An almond orchard in the early 1900s.
Almonds were first planted in California by Spanish padres near their newly erected chain of Franciscan missions in the early 1800s. When the California Gold Rush brought new settlers called the forty-niners who mined for gold, they also became interested in the fertile soil and began experimenting with various crops like olives, grapes and almonds. Almonds had only been commercially grown in the Mediterranean-like climate of Italy, Spain and other minor regions.

The first U.S. almond appeared at the California Fair in 1854. For the next 50 years, growers experimented with locations and varieties. They learned about frost, blights, insect pests, moisture control, harvesting and selling to buyers who would visit individual growers by horse and buggy.

Some horticultural experts, notably A.T. Hatch of Suisan, experimented with scientific cross-pollination. Today, the leading variety is the Nonpareil, a Hatch variety. The isolated growers had little opportunity to exchange ideas about growing almonds. They frequently planted on marginal land and often as a single row of border trees to mark boundaries of land ownership. It took years for growers to understand the importance of planting in the valleys versus the hillsides (originally favored to escape frost) where irrigation could be practiced.

Many growers continued to cultivate varieties randomly selected by their own experimentation. Their profitability was also at the whim of a speculator schooled by traditional trading. Not until the growers organized a cooperative they called the California Almond Growers Exchange in 1910 could they begin to protect their investment of five years in cultivating their almond crop.

Prior to 1910, growers organized through local receiving sheds, which pooled their almonds for greater bargaining power with speculative dealers. In 1910, 230 growers representing nine local pools met near the state capitol in Sacramento and formed a federation they called the California Almond Growers Exchange. The total annual crop was 2,000 tons of unshelled almonds. At the time, almonds were shelled by European hand laborers at minimal rates and sold in the United States.

In the early years of the cooperative, the local association of growers was the member, and the local groups did not mingle their almonds with other districts. The growers hand-harvested and removed the fuzzy green-gray hull from the shell and hauled them by horse-drawn means to their local receiving shed. There, with little or no processing beyond bleaching, they were combined with almonds of his neighbors according to variety and shipped by rail directly to market.

Soil, time of ripening and other factors made variability in appearance and quality a growing problem among buyers. In 1913, T.C. Tucker, the first manager of the Exchange, leased a warehouse in Sacramento. This was the first step in central blending and processing.

Harvesters began with placing canvas 'sheets' under trees to catch falling nuts.
Harvesters began with placing canvas "sheets" under trees to catch falling nuts.
From the beginning, the growers experimented to mechanize every aspect of harvesting from devising a rig that eliminated dragging "sheets" from tree to tree to catch the falling almonds, to various hulling machines designed to remove the hulls mechanically. In 1922, the Exchange began communicating not only about its plant operations and marketing and sales reports, but also how to improve cultural practices through the Minute Book, the Exchange's bi-monthly newsletter.

Production after World War I increased dramatically as prices for food escalated. California almond production increased from an average of 3,500 tons from 1910-1919 to 9,440 tons from 1920-1929. Growers began to mechanize to compete with hand shelling and very low wages in Spain and Italy. They also joined the Exchange directly in 1922, instead of through their local associations, to gain more access to credit from banks to finance their payments through the cooperative.

Growers were encouraged to select a few proven varieties instead of the 70 varieties grown commercially for many years. This was drastically reduced by the 1960s to seven varieties. Since its inception, the quality of almonds delivered to the Exchange was an obsession. Yield per acre was also a concern. George W. Pierce, a founding director, a president (now called chairman) and an innovative grower wrote a farmer's guide for growing almonds. In an effort to help growers increase yields and quality, Exchange manager, T.C. Tucker, hired Professor R.H. Taylor from the pomology department at UC Davis to help growers improve their cultural practices.

In some areas of almond production, growers were only getting 300 pounds of almonds per acre - Tucker wanted 1,000 pounds to the acre! Taylor worked directly with growers to improve their production and their costs. This knowledge was used in important testimonials about tariff protection for California almonds.

Taylor was hired by the Exchange as head of the production department and spent the rest of his career working with growers to improve production, advocating for scientific studies to improve growing practices and providing extensive production information about international production practices. When the depression years hit, many almond orchards struggled to make a profit, which resulted in cultural practices that did not improve yields or quality of almonds.

In the late 1930s, the crop quality was at its lowest. The culprit was the peach twig borer (PTB), which had affected 10,000 pounds. The Exchange salvaged 70 percent of the crop through innovative techniques and new use of equipment. This led to more emphasis to growers on cultural advice in Almond Facts, a bi-monthly magazine that replaced the earlier Minute Book, about pest detection, leading to spray programs that advanced cultural practices.

By now, there were 90,000 acres of almonds planted in California and yields were averaging up to 561 pounds per acre. The Texas Prolific variety of almond first propagated by J.P. Dargitz of Acampo was re-named to Mission and new markets moved it from an inshell product to a shelled product demanded by buyers.

The end of World War II unleashed a pent-up wave of modernization on the farms throughout California. Many harvesters were designed and operated by various growers in the 1940s.
The end of World War II unleashed a pent-up wave of modernization on the farms throughout California. Many harvesters were designed and operated by various growers in the 1940s.
During the war years of the 1940s, American farmers were short on equipment and parts, causing them to innovate with less labor, less machinery and less materials. One Butte County farm adviser advocated for less winter pruning, timed spraying, smoothing the orchard floor to reduce wear on harvesting sheets and using nitrogen fertilizer instead of potash and phosphates.

By the 1950s, rationing had unleashed a pent up wave of modernization on the farm. A cultural revolution began with labor and water-saving sprinkler systems which replaced flood irrigation in many orchards; mechanical knockers, sweepers and harvesters took back-breaking labor out of harvest; wind machines instead of hand-placed and tended smudge pots warmed delicate buds during frost; and powerful fan-driven sprayers driven by a single worker versus hand-held nozzles applied by crews of workers were now the norm. A new era of mechanization for every aspect of harvest had begun to revolutionize the industry. Yields climbed, production and labor costs went down and as the industry worked even closer with the University of California to solve production challenges, new almond plantings forged ahead. By the late 1970s, almonds had become California's largest tree crop and largest food export!

That legacy continues in 2010 and beyond as 1.5 billion pound crops continue to break new consumption records. By 2000, the industry was spending more than a million dollars annually on improving cultural practices and the environment for a more sustainable agriculture. Almond growers never gave up their drive to be stewards of the land as they continue to produce more with less.