Keeping a grower cooperative thriving for 50 years takes a single-minded business acumen. Building it into the world’s largest sheller and huller facility for almonds takes lots of nuts.

When the Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA) began in 1963, almonds were far from the commodity of choice for Central California growers. The forward thinking of a few like-minded cotton farmers in and around Fresno and Madera counties changed that with the idea that almonds could be commercially grown on the arid rangelands of Central California.

 

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This year marks the CCAGA’s golden anniversary. The cooperative serves about 400 members from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV) communities of Merced to the north to Pixley in the south. Those members represent nearly 43,000 acres of almonds.

The milestone was highlighted at the organization’s annual meeting in June with good news of solid fiscal solvency and near-record net returns paid to members from last year’s crop. Reports of last year’s processing total of more than 101.4 million pounds of meat equivalents was the second largest in the association’s history.

In 2011 the association processed a record 104.2 million pounds of almonds.

“These volumes are nearly double from those we saw when I was hired by the association eight years ago,” said Michael Kelley, the CCAGA’s president and chief executive office.

Humble beginnings

Prior to June 3, 1963, when the association approved a simple policy statement “to maximize the member’s return in almond production capabilities,” California’s commercial almond production was primarily limited to the Sacramento Valley. Areas once predominantly planted in cotton in the SJV now grow a cornucopia of commodities, including almonds.

Almonds are now grown throughout the Central Valley, making shelled almonds the number two cash commodity in California as of 2011, and the top commodity grown in Fresno County.

According to Denis Prosperi, CCAGA board chairman and a Madera County almond grower, getting the association off the ground in 1963 first required Fresno County Supervisors to rezone 32 acres of land in the Sanger area so the association’s first almond huller could be constructed. The land was previously owned by Producers Cotton Oil Company and was zoned strictly for cotton ginning.

A year later, Clovis Sanger Cooperative Gin manager Bob Hines recommended to the fledgling CCAGA board of directors that the gin co-manage the new hulling association. This led the hulling association to hire Hines as the CCAGA’s first full-time manager.

“He did an impeccable job of leadership in growing this operation into what it is today,” Prosperi said.

The association succeeded in part since very little change at the top occurred during its 50-year history. While Hines managed the organization from its inception to about 1993, Michael Kelley was hired by the board in 2005 as the association’s president and chief executive officer.

“I came over here from the cotton industry,” said Kelley, whose experience includes work with the National Cotton Board and the Farmers Marketing Cooperative in Phoenix and Yuma, Ariz.

Throughout this period, Kelley says the association has never lost sight of its six prime objectives, which include:

  1. Producing the highest value of products consistent with the cost of creating value.
  2. Hulling members’ almonds at the lowest practical net cost.
  3. Hulling in coordination with the growers field operations to minimize members’ total cost of harvest and hulling.
  4. Providing hulling facilities to handle members’ product in a reasonable period of time to minimize exposure of almonds to field and weather hazards.
  5. Producing a product that meets industry standards.
  6. Securing research and information on almond production problems.

Only four men have served as CCAGA board chairman over the last 50 years: the late Bill McFarlane of Clovis (inception to 1993); Chuck Nichols of Hanford (1994 to mid-2002; Don McKinney of Madera (mid 2002 to 2009); and current chairman Prosperi of Madera

Forward thinking focus

Prosperi says the success of the organization is attributed to the close-working relationship between staff and board members.

“We are very satisfied with our achievements,” said Prosperi.

While the first year of operation included 800,000 meat pounds of almonds hulled at the Sanger facility, it would be a matter of time before the association outgrew capacity. In 1981, the association expanded with an operation south of Kerman. The first sheller came online at the Kerman location in 1983, effectively doubling the association’s processing capacity.

Today, CCAGA owns three shellers at the Kerman site and one shelling facility at the Sanger location east of Fresno, with a combined processing capacity of about 125 million pounds.

While consumers previously wanted almonds separated from the hulls and later the shells, the value of hulls and shells later became a significant cash crop for the organization through sales to local dairies as feed, and later as a bedding source for cows.

Today, 90 percent of the association’s income is from the sale of hulls to valley dairies.

“This is huge given that almond hulls had little significant value when the association began 50 years ago,” said Kelley.

New challenges continue as the California almond industry now produces about two billion pounds of almonds annually. Kelley wants to open markets for hulls beyond California’s borders.

With the current financial concerns facing the California dairy industry, Kelley is looking ways to transport hulls into other dairy areas in the U.S.

“Some of those dairymen in other states used to be here in California,” said Kelley. “They really wish they could get almond hulls right now, but the cost of shipping hulls there is currently cost prohibitive.”

Kelley is considering the options and sees opportunities ahead.

“Now is the time to search out new markets and determine workable methods to ship almond hulls beyond California,” Kelley said.

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