When people start talking about the spectacular growth in California's almond production and the marketing miracle that has kept almond prices around $2 per pound for the past five years, Lyndol Swartz just smiles.
Swartz, an almond grower from Live Oak, Calif., is happy about the fabulous success he and other producers have enjoyed. But he's also smiling because he knows more than many, just how far California's almond industry has come.
“Years ago, when I first started out here, if we got 500 meat pounds per acre, it was a pretty good crop,” says Swartz, who came to Live Oak in 1960. (Swartz wasn't there when they were planted, but some of the almond trees in the 550 acres he grows are close to 100 years old.)
Today, Swartz says, 2,500 to 2,600 pounds per acre is a “real good crop” for the area north of Yuba City where his orchard is located, although he notes 1,800 pounds is more the norm.
That 1,800 pounds may not sound quite as dramatic as the 3,500 to 4,000 pounds some growers in the San Joaquin Valley reportedly have been harvesting with new orchards over the past five to 10 years. But it's pretty good for the cooler, more rain-prone climate of the Sacramento Valley.
The fact his yields are four to five times the levels of 40 years ago is a testament to Swartz's willingness to adopt new innovations developed by the University of California and others.
Swartz, for example, has been following the trend of planting more trees per acre to improve to boost yields — but only up to a point.
“I've increased them up to about 136 trees per acre and that's about as many as I'll go,” he says. He uses a 20 × 16 pattern; planting on 20-foot rows with 12 feet between the trees.
That's in contrast to a 24 × 24 square planting pattern that he employed when he first began putting in new trees. Later, he went up to a 30-foot square before he and other growers began the trend of narrowing the separation.
Swartz has observed more problems with shothole, brown rot and other diseases with the closer spacing, as he expected. But he still believes the narrower planting pattern is paying off.
“On a 16 × 20, I do believe it helps. When you get much closer than that, I think it can be a problem. I know one guy that has a 12 × 20 orchard, and, a few years ago, he sprayed six times for shothole. He finally said, ‘That's it. I can't afford anymore.’”
Nowadays, he says, he would probably plant trees a little wider — 22 × 18 — than the 20 × 16 pattern he's been using.
Swartz was asked what he would put in, and in what row spacing, if money were no object. “I would probably plant Padre, Butte, and Missions on a 22 × 18 because we're coming into a time where they're taking our navel orangeworm sprays away and those three mean less worms.”
He's also looking for ways to reduce red-wing blackbird damage in his orchards. The blackbirds, which are a protected species, can cause 50 percent crop loss. “You can't afford to have a crop if the blackbirds are going to eat them up.”
For now, Swartz said his Carmel varieties trees are looking good, along with his Nonpareils, Butte, Padre, and Missions varieties.
“The crop looks good,” he says. “It's not a limb-breaking crop, but it could be a good crop.” (The latest forecasts put California's average yield at 2,160 pounds, which would be a record. USDA's latest crop estimate is for a 1.3 billion pounds.)
A good pollination season got the crop off to a better start than 2006, when a bone-chilling, mid-February freeze shook the industry. “The weather was very cooperative,” he said. “We had basically no frost this year and no heavy rain during blossom. We had good bee activity.”
One of the keys to the success of Swartz's operation over the years is that he has been able to overcome the challenges of growing almonds in Northern California and produce a crop every year.
“Even on a bad year, we'll still get 1,000 to 1,200 pounds,” he said. “We have more tendency for frost up here, more chances of bad pollination weather. We have rain, though a lot of times the rains will hit the Sutter Buttes nearby and split and come around us. We'll have sunshine here and the bees can work.”
Bee prices have been high this year, in part due to the problems that have caused many bee colonies to collapse. Swartz paid $135 per hive, which was cheaper than what it cost some orchard owners, but substantially more than the $25 per hive it cost five years ago.
“Next year, they're talking $200 per hive,” says Swartz. “When it gets this high, it's almost too expensive. You have to reduce the number of hives per acre.”
One of the wild cards in this year's crop production forecast is the amount of almonds that could come from young orchards. Industry observers estimate 45,000 acres of young orchards could produce as much as 1,000 pounds per acre.
Swartz understands the need for growers investing in new orchards to begin receiving a return as soon as possible, but he also doesn't believe in pushing trees too fast.
“I think that if you overcrop trees when they're young — I'm talking 10 to 12 years — they'll only last about 15 years,” he said. “You don't want to overcrop them and get limbs breaking.”
The same holds true for very young orchards. “This last orchard I planted — I think it was about three years old — I got about 500 meat pounds per acre off of it,” he noted. “That's just my own theory — establish the trees and allow them to get their structure first.”
Another change that Swartz believes has paid off is the switch to permanent sod in his orchards. “It's better on the trees,” he says. “We used to put the disk right up close to the tree, and you cut the roots off. Now that we've gone to permanent sod we don't disturb our roots anymore.” He flail mows the middles just ahead of tree shaking to make it easier to pick up the almonds.
Most growers will spray a 4 to 8-foot strip down tree lines — with a mixture of Roundup and Goal in Swartz's case — to keep the grass away from the trees. “In the rest of it, you leave the grass 1.5 to 2 inches tall — to hold your predators, the mites and so forth.”
He doesn't believe in leaving bare ground for frost protection. “I realize there's some controversy there, but out here if you keep the ground bare, usually you'll be a degree or so colder than if you have strips with grass.”