A springtime drive along Interstate 5 through the West Side of California's San Joaquin Valley is a 200-mile palette of colors that painters dream about.

Orchards of contrasting hues of pink-blossomed fruit trees are interspersed with dominating blankets of blooming white almonds seemingly stretching to the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the valley's East Side.

The beauty makes it difficult to keep your eyes on the road.

This I-5 corridor from Stockton, Calif., to Bakersfield, Calif., is “Almond Alley,” and is visual testimony to one of the most rapidly expanding crops in the state. Almond growth has increased by 300,000 acres in less than 15 years, with an estimated 730,000 acres presently in the ground.

The California almond industry is headed toward an annual production of 1.5 billion pounds or more. Almonds are likely to become California's third most economically significant agricultural crop, and could take grapes out of the No. 2 crop spot in a few years. The dairy industry is No. 1, but almonds play a significant role, with hulls as a popular ration for cows.

The majority of the orchards along the I-5 corridor are young, and already filled with high-producing trees, spawning a need for more hulling and shelling capacity.

The newest huller-sheller in the state, Superior Almond Hulling Company LP, is the largest commercial facility built to date. It is strategically located near California Highway 33 and I-5, and is scheduled to go into operation this season.

The huller-sheller is a partnership between six of the largest almond growers on the West Side of the valley and Panoche Creek Packing Corp., the largest independent almond handler in the state. The 25-year-old Panoche Creek Packing now handles more than 70 million pounds annually from crops that have averaged 1 billion pounds annually for the past five years.

The plant, on 80 acres, is expected to process 25 to 30 million pounds of almonds during its first year of operation, increasing in annual volume until it reaches capacity of about 60 million meat pounds per season.

Panoche Creek general manager Frank Roque and one of the grower partners, Michael Gragnani of Cantua Creek, Calif., said the $11 million huller-sheller is state of the art.

The Superior plant will focus on handling sizable runs by large acreage growers to maximize efficiency and achieve the highest possible turnout of premium, high quality almonds.

“When we say high quality, we are talking about contamination-free dark nuts with no chips or scratches,” said Roque.

The California almond story is an incredible account, with basically five seasons averaging a billion pounds or more, and growers seeing record and near-record prices of well over $2 per pound.

“What is amazing is that people were tearing out almonds in the 1970s because prices were so bad,” recalled Gragnani. “People could make more money then on tomatoes and garlic.”

Now the tables have turned. “We are getting out of the row crop business after 30 years. I planted my first almonds 12 years ago, and even I thought we had missed the boat on almonds.”

Gragnani did not miss the boat. Since the early 1990s California almonds have taken the world by storm through aggressive promotion from the industry-funded Almond Board of California and other handlers like Blue Diamond.

The six grower partners at Superior represent about 10,000 acres of crop destined for the new huller-sheller. Roque said these growers will utilize about half the plant's capacity.

“The other half of the tonnage handled by the new facility will come from outside growers. We have had a good reaction from growers in the area. We think we are in just the right spot to service the West Side of the valley,” said Roque.

Panoche's general manager said Superior will have its own trailers and will manage its own trucking to bring in the crop for more efficient handling of each customer's product.

Brad Craven, former Anderson-Clayton northern operations manager for five cotton gins, is the general manager of the new huller-sheller.

Beeler Industries of Salida, Calif., designed the facility. Much of the processing equipment came from Lewis M. Carter (LMC) Manufacturing in Donaldson, Georgia, a major designer of peanut handling equipment, which has found a niche in California's almond hulling industry. The general contractor is ICC from Madera, Calif.

“We have been very pleased as the contractors have worked diligently to see that this project will be completed by Aug. 1,” said Roque.

New almond orchards have been planted at breakneck speeds for the past five years or so, but that is slowing down, Roque and Gragnani said.

“We are looking at 2007 almond crop prices at less than $2 per pound for the first time in four years,” said Roque.

“The water shortage situation this year on the West Side has also been a wake-up call and has definitely slowed plantings.”

Farmers in many of the West Side irrigation districts faced a major water crisis this year. After a very wet 2006, when farmers received all the surface water they needed from state and federal water projects, 2007 has been a dramatic opposite with a much reduced winter snowpack.

For example, growers in Westlands Water District received only a 50 percent allocation and in late May the state turned off its Delta pumps to protect fish. It was 13 days before water deliveries resumed and in the interim growers were scrambling for water, even paying $510 per acre foot for open market water.

Still growers are uncertain if they will have adequate water to finish the year. Some have abandoned row crops to ensure the availability of water in order to finish high value crops like almonds, which are harvested starting in August.

“When you start planting orchards where there was once row crops, you really have to think about the water supply situation. You cannot fallow an orchard,” said the Cantua Creek farmer.

“I think we will have plenty of water to mature this year's crop, but there is some concern about post-harvest irrigation water, which is critical for next year's crop,” said Gragnani.

Many growers have wells, which will allow them to protect their orchards. However, Gragnani said many West Side wells are high in boron, and almonds have little tolerance for boron.

In a year like this, however, the third generation farmers said growers will blend canal water and well water to provide for the almonds.

Almonds are one of the keys to the economic future of the valley and farmers will do all they can to protect that investment. Gragnani, his grower partners, and Panoche Creek are investing even more on the future of almonds with the new huller-sheller.