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Almonds surpass grapes in crop report

POSTED October 26, 2012 7:31 p.m.

The California crop report coming out in November is expected to reflect a shake-up as almonds take the number two spot in the state’s top agricultural commodities.

In 2011, for the first time ever, the value of the California almond crop surpassed the state’s grape industry to move into second place, behind dairy, according to a new report from the University of California’s Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources.

Almonds are already Stanislaus County’s number two crop, behind dairy. In 2010 the county was third in the state for almond production, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Mechanization, improved irrigation efficiency, advances in insect and disease management, pruning research and fertilization studies have fueled explosive growth in the almond industry, which has seen the per-acre productivity almost double over the last 20 years.

Farmers in California’s Central Valley now tend 760,000 acres of almond trees, producing about 2 billion pounds of shelled nuts a year.  The crop, which represents 100 percent of U.S. almond production and 75 to 80 percent of world production, was valued in 2011 at $3.87 billion, surpassing table, wine and raisin grapes, which were valued at $3.86 billion.

“Even with this record production, we have more demand than we have supply,” said Bob Curtis of the Almond Board. “The driver behind that is nutrition studies that show almonds are a healthy food and snack.”

New innovations in irrigation have had a tremendous impact on the crop’s output, as numerous almond growers have switched from flood irrigation to micro-sprinkler or drip irrigation systems.

“New irrigation practices have made for the most profound difference, especially with almond crops,” said Wayne Zipser, executive director for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and a Turlock almond grower. “The micro-sprinkler system delivers water more efficiently and the trees are sufficiently watered. For example, 25 years ago the marginal soils in the foothills weren’t good for growing, but now with the new irrigation that area is now growing high yield crops.”

In addition to changing irrigation methods, new research has led growers to curtail pruning and abandon the traditional wide spacing between trees.

“A lot of farmers who are now growing almonds had experience with fresh fruits, where you do need to prune to get light on the fruit for good color. In almonds, more canopy generally means more yield,” said Bruce Lampinen, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis. “Today, most almond growers only prune when branches are growing in the way of tractors or other equipment.”

UC research also found that orchards planted with traditional wide spacing between the trees weren’t making the most efficient use of sunlight on the farms. Older orchards had 60 to 70 trees per acre. Today, almond orchards are planted at an average density of about 110 trees per acre.

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