Sunday, October 2, 2011
I recently got a tour of some Cali Central Valley almond farms from the Almond Doctor.
The nuts were in the process of being harvested. The first step is to shake the nuts off the tree with a machine that grabs them around the trunk (here's a video*). One way you can tell almond and peach (both Prunus species) orchards apart is to look at how low the first branches are. Almond trees are trained to branch higher above the ground to give the machine room to grab them. Peach trees are trained to branch almost immediately above the ground to help most of the canopy stay low enough to be reached without ladders (due to the increased chance of injuries). Maximum canopy height is more rigorously limited in peaches for the same reason.
Step two is to let the almonds dry on the ground. At this point every edible almond nut is surrounded by a hard shell (like a peach pit), which is itself surrounded in a somewhat green, rubbery hull (like the fruit of a dried up peach).
Step three is to blow the almonds into windrows and collect them for transport to the local processor.
Almond hulls and shells used to just be burned or thrown away, but now they're used to supplement the feed of local dairy cattle and assorted other uses. The hulls are sweet, which the cattle love and are pretty healthy for them. The shells are basically wood and can be used accordingly - from adding fiber to the cattle's diets, to use as their bedding to manufacturing fiberboard.
The Almond Doctor pointed out how much modern farmers rely on other industries (like animal ag) to support their operations through the purchase of byproducts. It's also much more efficient and sustainable to feed your scraps to another industry than to burn or bury them. Agriculture is very industrial and very BIG in the Central Valley, which certainly helps every farmer and processor get the most of their products and byproducts.
It also is interesting to drive north on a highway lined with processors; smelling first onions (from the onion dehydrating plant), then wine (from some kind of raisin processing plant), then cattle (less pleasant of course...). I mentioned to him of my friend who lives near the Nabisco plant in Paterson, NJ. Every time it rains, it smells like chocolate chip cookies...
Finally, here's a picture of a chopped up melon weed out in an almond test plot. I never knew that melon species could be weeds...
* "Industrial ag" has a negative connotation to most, but I think the increasing presence of crazy machines and robots is pretty cool.