Over the past three decades, Steve Schafer and his brother, Mike, have combined individual skills, talents and interests to expand their Madera County, Calif., family farm into an enterprise that now encompasses 1,700 acres of almonds, 2,100 acres of wine and raisin grapes and 120 acres of pomegranates. That includes orchards and vineyards they manage for others.

Their father, Corky, who still keeps an eye on his sons, started farming in the early 1950s on 40 acres of rented ground near Biola, Calif. In 1969, he planted the family’s first almond trees.

Today, Mike is in charge of the almond side of the Schafer Ranch operation, while Steve looks after the grapes and pomegranates. Meanwhile, Mike’s son, Brian, is the third generation of Schafers to farm. In addition to helping with much of the field work, he tends 40 acres of his own almonds, which he planted two years ago, and manages 60 acres of Thompson seedless grapes for a neighbor.

Mike, who recently completed his 34th season as an almond grower, continues learning how to produce, harvest and market the crop. The topic of this year’s lesson was a better way to handle almonds when wet weather hits during harvest. “Every year I learn something about almonds,” he says. “This year I learned that it’s better to stockpile them on the ranch rather than wait for trucks when rain is coming. After three-quarters of an inch of rain, my uncovered (almond field-stored) pile was delivered within five days with no moisture issues.”

In early October, the weather forecast called for rain to move into the San Joaquin Valley in the next few days. As a result, growers scrambled to get the nuts off the ground, loaded into trailers and hauled to their hullers before the rain started. However, with the harvest going full steam, there weren’t enough trailers available to transport the Schafers’ crop to their huller.

Mike had two choices; leave the shaken crop on the orchard floor during the storm. That would mean waiting as long as two weeks for the ground and the nuts to dry before going back into the orchards to sweep, pick up and lay the nuts back down again and remove wet leaves and debris to help speed up the drying process. Or, he could get as many of the downed nuts out of the field before the storm hit and stockpile them until trucks became available to haul to the huller. Mike chose the latter.

“We picked up the nuts as hard as we could, running the harvesters late into the night,” he explains. “We got the nuts cleaned out of the fields and piled in the yard before the rain began. We ended up with a 3- to 5-inch thick layer of moist hulls on the outside of the pile. But, five days later, we scooped these wet nuts into the trailer where they blended in with the dry nuts and became a non-issue.

“While other growers were out in their fields after the storm and working the nuts, we hauled 27 loads into the processors. Our almonds went through the huller without any problems.  They were beautiful.”

Dozen wine grape varieties

Under Steve’s direction, the Schafers also grow a dozen wine grape varieties, including Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Grenache. In 2005, Steve began expanding the operation, establishing San Joaquin Wine Co.

As a past chairman of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers, he promoted the concept that for growers to receive the full value of the grapes they produce they have to make the end product, wine.

“To be the best wine grape grower possible, you have to complete the circle and also become a vintner,” says Steve, who also serves on the board of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

After crushing grapes at an outside facility for three years, the Schafers opened their own winery in 2008. The wine is bottled under the Moody Press Cellars label.

About half of the Schafers’ raisin grape acreage — Fiesta and Thompson Seedless — are dried on the vine and mechanically harvested. The other raisin grapes are also harvested mechanically and dried on continuous paper trays.

The Schafers harvesting their first pomegranate crop in 2008.

“We wanted to reduce some of the risks with almonds and grapes and we think that, because of their agronomic and health attributes, pomegranates are a viable and promising crop for our area,” he says.

The Schafers sell both the fruit and the juice and eventually plan to switch from picking the crop by hand to machine harvesting.

This past season, they lost most of the production from an 80-acre field to an untimely spring frost. “The trees were in a low-lying area and were close to leafing out when the frost hit,” he says. “That’s when they’re most susceptible to freezing temperatures. The frost burned about 50 acres of trees and they looked dead. After pruning them back, the trees leafed out. However, they didn’t produce a crop this year.”

The weather this past season also created problems in some of their almond orchards. An usually wet winter and spring lead to development of hull rot and rust. “We’ve never seen rust before,” Mike says. “It showed up in late July and the trees lost half their leaves. There wasn’t anything we could do about. But, I doubt it will affect production next year.”

At the same time, few if any problems with mites or navel orangeworm, helped lower pesticide bills.

Minimizing irrigation costs

To minimize irrigation costs, the Schafers irrigate their orchards and vineyards with either microsprinklers or double-line drip systems. The double-line drip systems are used in orchards which can be flooded prior to harvest to harden the floor and minimize the amount of dust generated by harvesting activities.

In addition to Nonpareil, the Schafer’s almond varieties include Aldrich, Butte, Carmel, Monterey, Padre and Sonora varieties. Almonds production tends to drop the year after a large crop. To reduce such variations, Mike strives to supply the trees with optimal levels of nutrients throughout the season. “If the tree isn’t lacking for food, it should be healthy and strong and able to hold whatever crop it pollinates,” he says.

Based on results of petiole analysis in the spring, mid-summer and during harvest, he gives the trees all the fertilizer they need, when they need it, but no more.

“The trees are responding by producing new growth each year, which means new buds and new fruit wood and that is helping to maintain a more consistent crop size from one year to the next,” he says.

On-farm storage for three semi-truck loads of liquid fertilizer allows him to buy supplies ahead of any expected price increases.

Like many of California’s almond growers, the Schafers harvested a nice 2011 crop. “We had about a 3,000-pound crop over all our varieties, and the quality of the nuts was outstanding,” Mike says. Their Nonpareil yields were up over last year. They averaged about 3,200 pounds per acre, ranging from 2,600 to 3,800 pounds. Average yields of the pollinators were closer to 3,400 pounds, he reports.

“Some of our Monterey yields weren’t as good as last year but our Aldrich and Butte varieties did very well,” Mike adds. “In one field, they produced 4,800 pounds per acre.”

As he’s done for a number of years, Mike plans to market about half of this season’s production through a yearly pool. Under this arrangement, a processor finds buyers for the Schafer’s almonds. The processor makes all the selling decisions and growers receive several payments for their crop over the course of the marketing year, which ends on July 31.

Marketeing the crop

Some growers sell all of their crops this way. However, Mike prefers to market the rest of the crop on his own. In this case, he decides when and at what price to sell the almonds. Mike works with two different processors who keep him updated on the latest prices and buyers. When he finds a price he likes, Mike calls the processor who completes the sale.

“Over the long run, the yearly pools offer higher returns,” he says. “Usually, you won’t get the highest price that way but you probably won’t get the lowest price either. Selling almonds on my own has meant more headaches and I’ve sweated it out a lot at times. But, I like having the little bit of control over my own destiny that it gives me.”

He’s also learned to live with his selling decisions. Those decisions, of course, are complicated by ever-changing market conditions.

In early 2009, for example, prices for the 2008 almond crop were continuing to decline. Following bloom, it was apparent that the trees had set a fairly large new crop. So, rather than putting the rest of his 2008 almonds in cold storage and selling them later at a higher price should the market improve, he decided to selling them that spring for 70 cents a pound

“I didn’t see anything that would make the 2008 almonds more valuable,” Mike explains. “However, my advisors and I didn’t foresee the big jump in demand that occurred later in the year.”

As it turned out, prices toward the end of the year continued to rise even as growers harvested a bigger crop than they did the previous year.

So, in December 2009, Mike sold some of his new-crop almonds for $1.75 a pound. A month later the price had risen to $2. “I wish I could have had that extra 25 cents, but I made money at $1.75. When the market goes down, I don’t cry about it. I use the best information I can get at the time, make my decision and don’t look back.”

Despite concerns about the possible impact of the economic turmoil in Europe on the worldwide demand for almonds and uncertainty over long-term water supplies for California farmers, Mike remains optimistic about the prospects for the state’s almond growers.

In his case, for example, Mike estimates that as much 90 percent of the work in the Schafers’ orchards is done mechanically. That leaves them much less vulnerable to labor availability and liability issues than with their vineyards, Mike notes. Another plus is that, unlike grapes and other fruit and vegetable crops, almonds are non-perishable. That’s not all.

“The industry is doing a good job of marketing our crop,” he says. “We’re selling all that we’re producing and I’m making money. Right now, almonds are a good business to be in.”