The 125 acres of Butte and Padre almonds, planted in 2005 and 2006, were Pikalok Farming’s first venture into permanent crops.
It was a good decision with no regrets, says family member Gary Martin — but, he might make some changes if he were to do it over.
The trees are part of the crop mix on the 1,500-acre family farm, which also includes cotton and alfalfa and, occasionally, wheat and corn silage.
He says almonds offered a faster economic return than pistachios, another option he had considered. Also, because of the farm’s particular soil types, almonds were a better choice than another popular permanent crop alternative, pomegranates.
“If I had to do it over, I’d still go with almonds,” Martin says, but he says he would replace the Padre with a different variety if he could do it over.
Among the advice he received when planning his almond diversion was to go with the two hard-shell varieties. That would simplify management of the trees, he was told, and would avoid some of the pest challenges that occur with soft-shell almonds.
“I don’t think the pest threats we’d have with soft shell varieties would be significantly more challenging than what we already have with our Buttes and Padres,” Martin says. “Also, a Padre tree doesn’t grow into a nice, strong structure the way a Butte does. It takes a lot of rope to keep the Padre limbs from breaking with a good size crop.”
During their second year, his Padres suffered from botryosphaeria canker, which either weakened the limbs, causing them to break, or killed the trees. The disease was traced to spores in dead branches of cottonwood trees on the banks of the San Joaquin River, which borders his almond orchard.
“The Buttes weren’t affected,” Martin says. “But, we had to remove and replant a lot of the Padres.”
He plans to eventually increase the almond acreage, and when he does, he’ll probably plant a mixture of soft shell varieties, which tend to be worth more in the market.
The next time, he’d also keep a much closer eye on crews planting the bare root trees.
“When they were planting the trees, they tended to prune the roots back too much so they wouldn’t have to dig as big a planting hole — and that can really hurt growth of the trees.”
The decision to install micro-sprinklers instead of a drip irrigation system was a good one, due to the variability of the soils, he says. The orchard’s lighter soil requires replenishing water storage at a higher volume and faster rate.
The sprinkler pattern also helps prevent cracking of the orchard floor where soils are heavier.
Buying a sprayer instead of hiring a custom applicator has also paid off, Martin says. The equipment features smart sprayer technology with an electric eye. In the first three years, it reduced the amount of materials applied, both foliar and pesticide applications, on first-leaf trees by 75 percent and by about 20 percent on third-leaf trees.
Plus, by having his own sprayer he can be more timely with foliar sprays.
“With just 125 acres, I can get the spraying done when I want,” he says. “Also, a lot of the custom applicators probably wouldn’t be interested in a relatively small job like this.”
However, his 125 acres of trees didn’t justify buying his own harvesting equipment. “It’s been good to have someone harvest who knows more about that than I do,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from them about the trees and when the nuts are ready to harvest.”
Martin has also learned that being a tree farmer can be a pleasant experience.
“As a row crop farmer, having a permanent orchard is new to me. Watching the trees grow and put on a crop each year, you get attached to them. Maybe it would be different if I had hundreds of acres of almonds, but I enjoy spending time with the trees, checking their health.”