Three pairs of father-son California Almond growers came to the Almond Industry Conference in December to share their experiences and observations working together as family farmers, and to take a look into the future of the almond industry. They participated in a panel discussion entitled, “Growing Advantage-Generational Perspectives.”
Chico-area growers Ben (father) and Berton (son) Bertagna, who farm as Bertagna Orchards Inc., represented the northern end of California’s almond-growing region. Ben’s great grandfather, grandfather and father were also almond growers, and now three generations of the family farm together. Berton observed that some of the biggest changes in farming are the mechanization that began during his dad’s generation the 1950s and ’60s. “There was a huge revolution from early tree knockers to shakers, but the many generations of refinement in harvest equipment in my lifetime are amazing.”
Advancements in technology were high on every participant’s list of changes they’ve adopted in their farming practices. Thanks largely to university and UC farm advisor research and extension efforts supported by the Almond Board of California, all three families cite more-intensive production practices as major innovations that allow them to farm more efficiently. They highlighted closer tree spacing, moving from furrow and flood to micro-irrigation and more-intensive fertilizer programs as examples.
“In 1901 we planted on 20-foot spacings and our Nonpareils to pollinators were 1:1,” said Ben Bertagna. “In the ’50s we planted on 30-foot spacings. Because we wanted more Nonpareils, we planted them 3:1, but we never got almonds out of that middle row. Now we’re back to closer planting and 1:1.”
For D Billings and his son Matt, of Billings Ranches in Delano, the biggest change they’ve seen is in irrigation practices. “We went from flood to drip and spitters, and our studies showed this increased yields by 30 percent,” D said. Before there was research to refine irrigation practices, “we used to look at what the neighbors were doing and did a little bit more," he said. "But now it is more scientific." We used to prune heavily, but Mario [Viveros, retired Kern County farm advisor] told us not to prune. Matt and Mario always won and we have changed progressively to minimal pruning.”
How well do these families work together? “It’s a lot of fun working with my son, and we don’t disagree,” said Arvin Boersma. “We range from one extreme to another, but take a balanced approach,” Brent Boersma added. And D Billings said, “Working with my family is a pleasure. We work well together. Blood is thicker than water.” The challenge ahead for all of them is universal — letting go and how and when to make the transition. In the meantime, wisdom from the senior generation blended with technology more familiar to their sons has helped these multi-generation California Almond farming families thrive.
“Farming is still hands-on,” observes Berton Bertagna. “The information we gather using technology is signifcant, but you still have to be out there.”