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Stewardship tour highlights almond industry innovation, challenges
Drought impacting global export, says local grower
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Jim Jasper of Stewart and Jasper Orchards speaks about the companys solar powered almond huller and sheller.

Hundreds of almond orchards flank the entrance of Stewart and Jasper, an almond processing facility on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. Follow the long drive and eventually those almond orchards are replaced with a more unique crop: solar panels.

The Stewart and Jasper almond hulling and shelling facility is fully solar powered after the installation of a $5 million project several years ago which has reduced the company’s $350,000 electricity bill to virtually nothing. This cutting edge technology is just one reason that Stewart and Jasper was selected to play host to the Almond Board of California’s 11th Annual Environmental Stewardship Tour on Friday.

The Almond Board is a Federal Marketing Order that represents over 6,000 almond growers and addresses not only industry compliance issues but market development, research, advertising and more. The annual Environmental Stewardship Tour affords legislative officials in the air, water and pest control industries the opportunity to step out of their offices and into the orchards to better understand and experience the inner-workings of the agriculture industry.

As well as being pioneers of progressive environmental efforts, Stewart and Jasper was selected to host the annual tour due to its well known retail brand and family-run business. The company also relies almost entirely on service water from canals thus not affected by California’s ground water issues that has gained international attention during one of the worst droughts in recent history.

“There is a perception of water issues in California that’s driving up market price,” said Jim Jasper of Stewart and Jasper, noting that the concerns have affected demand in major countries — especially those with elastic markets such as China and India. “The world knows what’s going on in California quicker than we do. The concerns began at harvest last year and I guarantee this year the focus will be on 2015.”

In the forward thinking industry, a ripple of concern has haunted California growers as lack of rainfall and increased temperatures has threatened the quality of almonds. Wes Asai, pest control advisor for Stewart and Jasper, noted that the drought could possibly contribute to sticktights, which is where the almond hull does not split to reveal the shell that contains the nut. This in turn may contribute to a decrease in the quality of almonds produced, complicates the hulling and shelling process, and may decrease quality of the almond.

The lack of water in the state has affected more than the actual almonds, as the dryness of the land between the rows of almond trees, known as tree middles, plays a part in the overall quality of the orchard. Many farmers typically allow cover crop to grow, which contributes to the overall health of bees that cross-pollinate between the trees — something that is vital to the almond’s growth from bud to nut. However, due to the drought, many growers have allowed tree-middles to dry up into weeds thus affecting the natural ecological process that exists within an orchard, particularly the bee’s role to pollinate the almond blossoms.

“An almond orchard is not a single variety. We need bees to move within flowers of trees to cross pollinate between the Nonpareil and the Fritz and the Monterey varieties for example,” explained Gabriele Ludwig, associate director of Environmental Affairs for the Almond Board. “We would not have almonds without bees. It’s a synergistic relationship.”

With the lack of ground cover on the almond orchard floors, which threatens the health of the bees that are integral to almond production, the Almond Board is now encouraging farmers that have enough water to plant crops outside of their orchards which serve as natural beneficials for almond production.

While industry trends do affect farming practices unique to each grower, the tour also touched on one universal aspect that affects all producers: legislation.  With stricter mandates, such as those from the California Air Resources Board, that pose emission regulations, tractor companies are now paying more to create compliant products which in turn means growers pay more for tractors.  Larger operations, such as Stewart and Jasper, typically purchase new tractors and own significantly more equipment than smaller operations so they especially feel the pinch.

Ray Henriques, ranch manager at Stewart and Jasper, noted that the company recently purchased the lowest pollutant emitting level tractor, or Tier 4, and said that it is not any less expensive to operate and maintain than traditional tractors. With increased prices, many are concerned about the appreciating costs that new requirements enforce upon producers.

“When you add it all up over time it’s a burden,” said Henriques.