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How to Earn Top Dollar: Tips on Maximizing Your Crop Returns

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There's no question abut it. Quality pays. And at Blue Diamond®, high quality grower meats paid very well for 1993 and 1994 crop deliveries.

In 1993, for example, the Nonpareil base rate was $1.95 per pound. When final returns were mailed last November for 1993 crop almonds, the average return, including premiums, for all Blue Diamond® members totaled $2.00 per pound. However, members whose deliveries qualified for High Quality Grower meat Program (HQGMP) premiums averaged $2.05 per pound.

In 1994; 79 percent of members' Nonpareil meat deliveries qualified for the HQGMP, earning growers over $3 million in premiums on Nonpareils alone.

How did they do it? A delivery has to score well on three critical tests to earn the maximum HQGMP premium: reject levels, foreign material, and chipped and broken. Qualifying for the HQGMP grades is not difficult, but it takes attention to detail on the farm and at the huller/sheller. And it requires clear communication between grower and huller/sheller.

For tips on maximizing high quality returns, Almond Facts talked with grower Merlyn Garber and huller/shellers Ron Piazza and Joe Kollmeyer. Here is what they had to say.


MERLYN GARBER

Merlyn Garber is a long-time Blue Diamond® member from Modesto whose deliveries consistently score at or near the top in quality. In fact, he admits to becoming "very concerned" if his rejects for the year exceed one percent. The management program that earns Merlyn a steady stream of "Q1's" year in and year out is based on three objectives: mummy removal, worm control, and timely harvest. This is how he describes his program:

Rejects

Worms: "Probably the most important thing we do is cleaning up the mummies in the wintertime. We shake them off, blow them into the middles and chop them up with an orchard mower. If you destroy the overwintering navel orange worms' food supply, you just about have your NOW problem solved.

"Second, we time our spring sprays to control peach twig borer. If we stop the twig borer, any navel orange worms that might be around won't have an entrance into the almonds. We've been experimenting with B.t.'s for several years for environmental reasons. We've applied B.t. at bloom without a May spray in one orchard. The results have been comparable to our conventional spray program. In an older orchard where the pressure is great, we use B.t. at bloom followed by an insecticide in May. In the rest of our fields, we use an insecticide in May, only. We don't spray at hull split. There hasn't been a need for it. The spring spray program is doing the job.

"Third, we harvest as soon as we can do a good job of cleaning the nuts off the trees. We let them dry on the ground for about a week and haul them to the huller. If we can't deliver to the huller, we stockpile the almonds until we can."

Merlyn takes nothing for granted. He requests a reject analysis for at least one delivery for each orchard. "It's an effective way to see how we are doing in managing our orchards," he says. "It's interesting to note that I'm not finding much navel orange worm or twig borer damage. But I am finding problems with ants, especially in my sprinkler-irrigated fields. We've had to start spraying for ants in those orchards."

Foreign Material

"We start with a clean orchard floor. From there on it's up to the huller to do the job," says Merlyn. However, Merlyn notes that older orchards can cause problems with an excessive quantity of sticks. Also, he adds, in short crop years, such as this year, a normal amount of sticks becomes proportionally greater compared to the crop. Damage to the nuts can occur as the pickup car augur tries to move the almonds through a mass of sticks, he explains.


RON PIAZZA

Ron Piazza is a Blue Diamond® member, director from District 6, and owner-operator of a huller/sheller near Denair.

Rejects

Worms: "History shows that 90 percent of rejects are due to worm damage. So anything and everything that a grower can do to keep his worm count down will contribute to higher returns. Apply a good quality dormant spray in December and January to control overwintering peach twig borer and do a good job of winter sanitation to lower navel orange worm levels. Then apply a May spray or hull-split spray in July, or both, to control worms."

Ants: "Keep ants under control. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether meat damage is from ants or worms, but the test room people know, so when they say it's ants, that's what it is."

Chipped and Broken

"This is an area where huller-shellers have a great opportunity to do a lot of good or a lot of harm. However, there are a few things that growers should keep in mind while they're harvesting."

Hull Moisture: "The leading factor, in my opinion, that determines how much chipped and broken you will have is the condition of the nuts when they come to the huller-sheller. If the product is thoroughly dried, we can put it through the plant, brush it lightly with the rollers, the hull and the shell will fly apart, and the meat will come out undamaged.

"On the other hand, if a grower gets in a hurry and knocks too green or doesn't give the nuts enough time on the ground to dry thoroughly, the product will come to the shelling plant too wet. The hulls will be leathery and we will have to sit on them hard with the shear rolls. Instead of just brushing the nuts to remove the hull and shell, we will have to tighten down and actually squeeze the meat out. And the harder we squeeze, the more meats we scratch and the more embedded-shell problems occur."

Stockpiling: "It is getting to be common knowledge that almonds that have been stockpiled for two or three weeks run better through the huller-sheller than does product straight from the field, which usually is a mixture of green and dry. With stockpiling, the moisture equalizes and you have a more uniform product for processing, but make sure the almonds are dry enough to stockpile."

Mixing Varieties: "Some growers blend their California varieties, which is permitted, but the more different varieties you have in a delivery, the more different sizes and shapes you are going to have, and that can lead to a higher chipped and broken percentage when the almonds go through the sheller."

Foreign Material

"In my experience, foreign material in both inshell deliveries and meat deliveries is about 99 percent hulls. That's usually because the product is too wet, and the green, curled up pieces of hulls are hard to separate from the inshell and meat product. So my advice is make sure your trees have reached at least 95 percent good hull split before you knock them, and give the product enough time on the ground to let the hulls dry. then we can brush the hulls off and separate them out, and virtually eliminate the foreign material."

Communication

"Of course conditions are not always optimum in the field. That's when the grower needs to be up front with his huller-sheller before processing begins. I've had growers bring a delivery in and say to me, 'Ron, I know that these things are not quite ideal for processing, but I had to get them out of there...' He'll have a valid reason why: Ants were working on them or his trees were dry and he needed to get the water back on between harvests or squirrels were eating the nuts faster than he could sweep them up. Knowing that helps me do the best I can for him."


JOE KOLLMEYER

Joe Kollmeyer is manager of Cortez Growers in Ballico. He advises, "The first step toward earning a high quality premium is for the grower to follow sound cultural and irrigation practices." As for the hulling and shelling aspects of the crop, Joe comments:

Chipped and broken

"Hull moisture makes a big difference. A hull can be too dry as well as too wet. If it is too dry, it can increase chipped and broken, because you have a lot of small pieces of hull going through the shear rolls with the meats. While they will separate, there is a tendency for the pieces of hull to gouge or chip the almonds as they go through. But when you have a hull that comes off in two large pieces, it is separated easier and doesn't go through the rolls with the meats.

"On the other hand, if the product is too wet, the almond meats themselves become puffy and in that condition they will skin very easily. We have to tighten down on the rolls to remove the hull, but at the same time the meat is swollen, which makes it more susceptible to chipping, breaking and embedded-shell problems.

"We do moisture tests on samples that our growers bring in and charge our growers on the basis of hull moisture. There is a penalty if they bring them in too wet. We basically shoot for 15 percent hull moisture, but a slightly higher percentage doesn't hurt.

"Our advice to growers is to, under normal circumstances, allow the almonds to lie under the trees for a sufficient amount of time to reach the target moisture before windrowing them. Don't push the harvest too fast. If it rains and the nuts get wet, have patience. Let them dry out before you take them in.

"How long it takes for the nuts to reach the optimum moisture level depends on the orchard, irrigation practices, the type of soil, and age of orchard. In a young orchard, a lot of sunlight reaches the ground and the nuts dry faster. An older orchard takes longer."

Stockpiling: "You don't want to stockpile almonds if the hulls are too green. Here again the optimum hull moisture is 15 percent or less. If the nuts are much wetter than that, they tend to mold or develop heat. You have to let the nuts reach the optimum moisture level before you pick them up, period."

Foreign Material

"Orchard sanitation practices have a lot to do with foreign materials. Also good cultural practices and orchard age. The older the orchard the harder you have to shake them and the more spurs you get in the delivery."


What their advice boils down to is attention to detail at every step in the production and harvesting of a crop - care that pays off in higher returns through Blue Diamond's® High Quality Grower Meat Program.

Numbers Game

Short crop increases bug damage potential

"Growers striving for high quality meats will have to take into consideration the size of their crop this year," cautions Rob Kiss, Blue Diamond® field supervisor and technical advisor. "Even if pest populations are no greater this year than last, their effect could be significantly greater because the 1995 crop is considerably smaller. It's a numbers game."

With fewer nuts for them to chew on, ut control becomes more critical, he adds. "The most important thing a grower can do in a year like the one we are in is to make sure that the pest levels in his or her orchard are kept to a minimum," Kiss advises.

The Big Three

Kiss recommends focusing on the three leading cause of pest damage to nut meats: navel orange worm (NOW), peach twig borer (PTB) and ants.

"The biggest problem that we have had to fight in recent years, according to our nut samples, has been NOW," he observes. "In some areas of the state, PTB has been the primary culprit, but generally, NOW causes more damage."

His advice is to be diligent with pest monitoring and follow the pest control practices that have proved most effective in your orchard. "Pest control is orchard specific," Kiss notes. "Do what you know works best in your situation."

If you are on an IPM program and haven't had to treat for NOW in past years because the predator base has kept NOW under control, stick with that formula, but be more diligent than ever with your monitoring, Kiss counsels. "The predator-prey ration can change from year to year," he explains," And in a short crop year that ratio is even more critical."

For those who follow a more traditional program of spray control, he advises considering using different materials this year or different combinations of sprays in order to get the results you are after. "The effectiveness of various chemicals changes over time," explains Kiss. "Pests become resistant to certain chemicals, and this is not the year to take a chance on that. Consult your PCA or farm advisor as you plan your spray program."

Ant Angst

And don't forget ants. You can do an excellent job of NOW and PTB control but lose your chances for top premiums because of ant damage. This pest is on the increase and with a short crop poses a bigger threat this year than last, again because of the numbers game. Consult your PCA for the best ant control program for your orchard.