Tradition has been a byword of the California almond industry for nearly a century. But as air quality issues rise to the forefront of public concern, it is the industry's well-established knack for innovation that is helping to produce practical solutions.

On the surface, growing almonds appears fairly routine, notes the Almond Board of California. The growing cycle doesn't change-from the development of the tiny bud in the fall, through its winter dormancy, until the first warm weather of February coaxes the first buds into bloom. The harvest season, which lasts from August to October, has evolved from the brandishing of large wooden poles to knock the nuts from the trees to today's impressive array of mechanized harvesting equipment. Mechanical tree “shakers” knock the unshelled nuts to the orchard floor, where they dry before they are swept into rows by “sweepers” and then hauled off in carts to be towed to the hulling operation.

This efficient form of mechanization is invaluable at harvesttime. But as the state's vast Central Valley, nestled between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Pacific Coast Ranges, faces increased concern over air quality, the California almond industry's harvest equipment manufacturers and the Almond Board of California are turning to innovation to meet the challenges posed by high velocity discharge emissions.

One of the almond industry's innovators is orchard manager Doug Flora of Golden Valley Ag, headquartered in Stanislaus County. He is farming the same acres his great grandfather farmed and plans to pass on the same opportunity in California agriculture to his children. Notwithstanding this tradition, he helped start create Exact Corp., a company that designs and manufactures innovative harvesting equipment that will reduce orchard dust. Exact Corp. has developed a harvester with a patented regenerative air system that eliminates high velocity discharges by recirculating the air that is often at the root of orchard dust problems.

Better stewards

“Our generation strives to be better stewards of the land so we need machines that are as effective as the old system but more efficient and with less environmental impact,” says Flora. “We've put considerable financial resources and 25 years of farming experience into the research and development for this equipment and farmers are very excited about the improvements.” Flora explains, “Our developments in harvesting machinery do not require a change in cultural practices in the orchard. Farmers can continue to farm successfully if we give them innovative and effective tools to farm with.”

Several manufacturers are working with the University of California, Davis and other agricultural universities to develop more environmentally progressive machinery and to measure the results with scientific data.

Larry Demer, general manager at Weiss McNair Ramacher in Chico, Calif., is quick to point out that concern for the environment is not a new focus. For over 20 years Weiss McNair Ramacher has been developing patented systems that address dust issues. According to Demer, “The challenge for today's harvesting machines is that they need to handle greater capacity and at the same time create less dust.” In addition to developing machinery, Weiss McNair Ramacher works with growers on implementing growing and harvesting practices that limit dust.

Address challenge

Flory Industries, a harvesting equipment manufacturer in Salida, Calif., has been producing nut-harvesting equipment since 1961. “Flory Industries and the almond industry have addressed the challenge of dust control in nut harvesting equipment long before regulations were a reality,” says Norm Layman, engineering manager at Flory Industries. “Beginning in 1994, we and several other manufacturers participated in an industry advisory group to begin considering ways to reduce dust in harvest. Our engineers have always developed improvements based on input from farmers and end users who have first hand experience with the challenges.”

Says Layman, “The industry needs to continue to work with farmers to deliver tools that are environmentally sound and at the same time allow them to keep up with the demands of harvesting.” Gene Beach, a Merced County grower and president of the Almond Hullers and Shellers Association, says he enjoys working in the almond industry because the farmers are constantly working to improve their operations. “I get such a charge going over to a grower's farm and having him show me his latest improvement that will reduce dust or improve crop quality,” he says. “There is a very real and personal commitment growers make to these improvements because they and their families live here and are concerned about the air they breathe.”

Thirty years of research, funded by assessments paid on every pound of almonds harvested, has led the almond industry's innovations over the years. “For this crop year, the Almond Board has approved nearly $500,000 for research programs dealing with a wide variety of environmental issues,” points out Chris Heintz, the board's director of production research and the environment. “This industry is very strongly committed to the concept of gathering the scientific data needed to deal with today's complex environmental issues.”

Harvest equipment manufacturers have made presentations to the board's environmental committee to keep it informed of their innovative approaches to dust control, notes Heintz. “By partnering with growers and harvest equipment manufacturers, the board and the industry are taking solid steps to find innovative solutions to the air quality concerns that we all have,” says Heintz. “The almond industry has been an important part of the Valley throughout this century and is looking forward to helping growers pass this land on to the next generation for its enjoyment.”

For more information on the Almond Board of California or almonds, visit www.AlmondBoard.com