There’s a whole lot of shaking going on in California’s almond orchards as the state’s 6,000 almond producers move into high gear harvesting the fourth statewide crop of 1 billion pounds or more in the past five years.

It’s not just the tree shakers doing the shaking. It is also the handshakes and high fives from growers and handlers who are gathering the crop looking at mighty handsome harvesttime prices; $2.45 cents per pound for Nonpareil and $1.90 for California varieties.

Between 70 million and 80 million pounds of this year’s crop will be hulled and shelled through one of the five hulling/shelling plants operated by Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA) in Kerman, Calif., and Sanger, Calif. CCCAGA is the largest huller/sheller in the world and will process $200 million worth of almonds by Thanksgiving.

The association is opening this season with a new state-of-the-art $9.5 million huller/sheller in Kerman to handle a large portion of the crop delivered by the association’s 453 members harvested from 50,000 acres or orchards in a service area stretching from Pixley, Calif., to Chowchilla, Calif., in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

California’s 2006 estimated 1.05 billion-pound meat pound crop is 11 percent above last year’s 915 million pound crop. It is not a record, but it is remarkable.

Madera, Calif., almond grower Don McKinney, and chairman of the CCAGA Board, is surprised by the crop set in spite of low chilling hours resulting in a early bloom; a frost that hit some early varieties and wet cool conditions through the spring that inhibited bee pollination. The all-important Nonpareil variety representing about 40 percent of the state’s crop set well and looks good.

“Personally, I am off 10 percent from last year, but I have all Padres and Buttes,” said McKinney. These varieties are early and suffered from unfavorable early bloom weather.

“Growers I have talked to are individually all over the board. Some say they are better off than last year. Others say yields are worse than last season. Overall, I think we have a pretty good crop,” he said.

However, he believes some growers may be surprised at leaf footed bug damage this year. This pest surfaces about every 10 years in almonds and has been particularly troublesome the past two seasons, said McKinney.

“You can sort of tell how much damage you have had by the number of nuts on the ground. If you look there for damage this year, you are kidding yourself because probably 50 percent of the damaged leaf footed bugs nuts are still stuck on the trees,” said McKinney.

When almonds stung by the leaf footed bug go to the sheller/huller, there is no marketable meat inside the shell.

“I don’t think it hurt the overall crop, but everyone has some damage. Some may be severe,” said McKinney.

Kelley has received a report from a Pixley area grower who estimates he has lost 70 percent of his crop to the insect that inflects its damage by puncturing the hull before it hardens. It often oozes a gummy residue from the hole, but not always.

“The leaf footed bug is hard to find. You watch and watch. You really have to be patient accessing the situation and ask yourself is it worth $60 per acre. Is the damage that bad?” said McKinney.

Unfortunately, by the time the damage is readily apparent, the insect has moved out of the almond orchard to wood piles, old lumber, pick boxes and other wooden structures where it overwinters.

Regardless of insect damage, McKinney believes the USDA/NASS office has a “very good handle” on acreage, and therefore yield forecasting.

McKinney believes the surprising 1 billion pound crop in the wake of all the early problems is a combination of more young acreage producing above average yields and a good crop on some varieties.

California is the only state in the nation producing almonds and no other California crop has seen the meteoric rise in acreage, yield and prices like almonds over the past decade. While the unprecedented demand for almonds has many growers and handlers wealthy, it also has attracted thousands of new acres. This is making more than a few growers and handlers nervous about the future when bearing acreage is expected to reach 750,000 acres – 200,000 more than is producing now.

CCGAGA President and CEO Mike Kelley knows full well what his members are planning. Within just three years, there will be 10,000 more acres arriving at the plants he operates.

“We’ll be basically maxed out with the new plant online,” said Kelley.

This is McKinney’s 35th almond harvest. He says he has farmed through at least four almond production/price up and down cycles.

“There have always been those who were scared to death we could not sell 500 million pounds, then we’d never sell 750 million pounds and when we got to 1 billion pounds, everything would collapse. We have now sold virtually five straight 1 million pounds at record or near record prices for growers,” said McKinney.

Prices will eventually moderate from the stratospheric levels of the past two seasons, McKinney admits, but he does not see the sky falling. “The future does not scare me. This industry is in good shape with organizations like the Almond Board, Blue Diamond and strong independent handlers. The Almond Board has done a terrific job of creating demand. There are so many bright, energetic people in this business, I think the future is very positive,” he added.

Kelley points out that the market has grown at a steady annual rate of 5.4 percent since 1980.

As statewide production numbers climb toward that 1.5 billion pound mark, McKinney is realistic enough not to predict prices like growers have seen the past few years. The market cannot continue to bring $3 per pound like it did last season. Prices that high, claim marketers, actually hurt the market.

“We need at least 1 billion pounds per year now just to meet market demands. As longs as Oprah (Winfrey) keep talking about how good almonds are; as long as the heart association and doctors keeps talking about how healthy almonds are, demand will be there,” he said.

“Oprah has done so well for almonds I actually forgive her for what she did to the cattle business,” laughed McKinney, who is also a cattleman raised on a ranch in eastern Madera County and still operated by his family.

However, as total production skyrockets over the next decade, there will be changes other than prices. Gone will be the older orchards, which are still in production producing 1,000 pounds or less per acre when prices come down from current heights.

“If a grower is pulling 1,000 pounds from old trees and getting $2 per pound, why pull them out if it is costing him only $1,400 to $1,500 per acre to produce them and the land is paid for?” McKinney asked.

The average yield for CCAGA members is 1,470 pounds per acre.

The high yielding orchard of a few years ago netted 2,000 pounds per acre, but for more recent plantings, the average is closer to 3,000 pounds per acre to 3,500 pounds per acre.

“When I first started growing almonds, spacings were 24 feet by 24 feet. Now we have orchards with 18 feet wide rows and tree spacings 10 to 12 feet down the row; almost hedgerow,” he said.

“Early production from these orchards is phenomenal, but we do not know how long these orchards will last with the shading issues as they get older.”

McKinney sees only one thing that could derail the California almond juggernaut: a food safety issue.

“We have had two incidents in the past five years with salmonella and we do not need any more. We have seen what issues like Alar and Mad Cow can do to a commodity. We do not need that in almonds.”

Food safety has become a major issue in the industry and that is why Kelley said CCAGA has initiated a very aggressive food safety program in all its hulling and shelling operations.

“What we are doing at the sheller/huller is the same thing that is done at the processors. We test everything that comes in and we will take sample swabs throughout the plant. If we find anything, anywhere in the plant, we will shut down that part of the plant immediately and sanitize,” said Kelley.

McKinney added however, that it is the grower who must be the first line of defense in food safety.

“Everyone needs to do their part and the first thing a grower can do is to say no to the use of compost of manure in orchards,” McKinney said.

It is tempting because of the growing dairy industry in the Valley and free nitrogen source from compost and manure, he admits.

“The temptation is great to use that source of N,” said McKinney. “We are asking growers to just say no for their sake and the sake of the industry.”

Rodent control in orchards is another key element in the aggressive food safety campaign funded by the Almond Board.

“We love the dairy industry. It buys our almond hulls. It is the reason we exist. We even like to say the reason those dairy cows on television are so happy is almond hulls,” said McKinney, “However, we cannot afford as an industry to use manure and compost in orchards.”

CCAGA started in 1954 from the old Clovis/Sanger Co-0p cotton gin on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley where growers were switching from cotton to almonds, a process that continues today throughout the valley.

CCAGA started as a hulling cooperative. Growers pooled their resources to get rid of what they thought would be an unwanted byproduct. However, that byproduct soon became a desirable feed ration in dairies and today the cooperative generates $10 million per year in income from almond hulls sales at $90 per ton and $28 per ton for almonds shells for animal bedding.

It not only pays for hulling and shelling, growers get checks at the end of the season.

Thirty four percent of the CCAGA meats go to Blue Diamond and 22 percent go to Panoche Creek Packing, which is located just a few miles from the CCAGA’s Kerman plant. The rest goes to other handlers. CCAGA does not market almonds.

Nevertheless, Kelley said the association has stepped up its quality goals this year with the new plant, said Kelley. This includes reducing broken meats even more; reducing even more foreign material delivered to handlers and higher meat turnouts.

“We are a huller/sheller cooperative, but the almonds meats are worth a lot more than the $90 per ton we get for hulls. We want to return every pound of meat possible back to the grower for delivery to his marketer,” said McKinney.

“We are an association that generates $10 million per year in income from the sale of almond hulls and shells, but more importantly, we are responsible for the value of $200 million worth of almonds for our growers,” said Kelley.

Growers can do their part to enhance quality by delivering almonds at the right moisture content. That is a desirable 5 percent.

Kelley said high moisture was a problem last season and he is expecting a similar situation this season because of the recent hot spell that accelerated hull split. However, meats may not be dry enough.

“A lot of people also get in a hurry to harvest and that causes moisture problems. We also see moisture problems after the first rain,” said Kelley.

McKinney also said some moisture problems can be traced back to reliance on custom harvesters. “Because there are so many operations in harvesting almonds, harvest can be a race against time using custom harvesters and scheduling what needs to get done to get the almonds into the trucks and to the huller/sheller,” said McKinney.

Just because the hull has split does not mean moisture content of the meat is acceptable for harvest and delivery.

“Growers expect high turnouts and good results form their huller/sheller, but you cannot get that delivering high moisture almonds,” he said.

Receiving stations have miniature huller/shellers for sampling meats growers can use to measure meat moisture.

“Another way you can tell if an almond is ready to harvest is what I call the snap test. Pull back the hull and snap it. It is breaks off quickly, chances are good the meat is at the right moisture content. If you are not sure, take a sample to the huller and let them check,” he said.

The new huller/sheller is part of that renewed commitment to quality and getting grower product to the handlers as soon as possible.

“We want to keep the huller/sheller runs to under 120 days. Taking longer than that takes a toll on the equipment. We started this year the third week in August and want to finish by Thanksgiving,” said Kelley. “This will also get growers’ almonds delivered to the handler quickly.”

There are 220 acres available at the Kerman plant for stockpiling almonds. McKinney said the directors’ goal is to reduce the time almonds are in those piles awaiting hulling and shelling.

The new plant is expected to produce 25 to 30 million meat pounds per year in a 70- to 80-day run. The new plant will process 36 loads. (414.000 meat pounds) in a 24-hour period. This represents the elimination of the need for 9 stockpiles per day or 300 to 325 per season.

Lewis M. Carter Co., Donalsonville, Ga., a major peanut processing equipment manufacturer, built the new Kerman plant.

The plant was constructed as a closed-air system. Air is a major component of hulling and shelling at the new Kerman plant which has a closed air system where 75 percent is re-circulated through the system after filtration, thus resulting in a reduction of emissions.

e-mail: hcline@farmpress.com