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FoodPaths - September 2011
All Over Almonds
Jerry Chicca: Twin Farms

Jerry ChiccaIf you live in California, or are passing through, you will inevitably find yourself on I-5, the state’s main North/South thoroughfare known for never-ending construction, mega traffic tie-ups, and virtually nothing but farmland on either side of the road. It is harvest time in the Central Valley. I am on the way to meet Jerry Chicca, 4th generation grower, who farms, with his brother, Terry, nearly 3,000 acres in the fertile soil of the southern San Joaquin Valley. About one-third is almonds.

Traffic is backed up three exits, I am late. I turn off I-5 seeking a detour. Not so smart. Within minutes I know I am in deep trouble. I know I am somewhere near the Lost Hills exit, but I haven’t seen a road sign for miles. I am not only late, but I am lost looking for Lost Hills. Miles and miles of unmarked green fields and brown dirt. No stoplights. No road markers. No cell phone access. I have resisted installing a GPS in my car. Navigation technology does not fit into my belief that knowing where you are going takes the fun out of “discoveries by detour.” Lots of roadside stands advertise Pastrami Burgers. Is this local name for a Reuben Sandwich? There are no signs for Reuben Sandwiches. My car is covered with brown dust. The almond harvest has begun. I will navigate by following the beige clouds floating over the landscape.

Soon I spot Jerry waiting at the entrance to Twin Farms. It is 103 degrees.

* * *

You will not find Jerry Chicca selling almonds at a local farmer’s stand. You will not be able to buy his almonds direct. Jerry is one of thousands of farmers in the Central Valley that passionately grow food for the world. The growing conditions of the Central Valley produce 80 per cent of the world’s almonds. Its dry climate, soil structure, wind currents, chilling hours during dormancy, and the land to support large orchards combine to foster ideal growing conditions.

If you buy almonds, most likely they have come from here. Almonds are generally acknowledged to be one of the world’s perfect foods. Healthy, with respected medical research confirming them as a major cholesterol-buster, accessible, and priced reasonably, I am here to learn how almonds move from orchard to consumer. If we are entering an era of consumer-driven food systems, how does this perfect food travel from fields through the food production system to our tables?

“Food is not grown in stores,” Jerry said. “Most people have no idea what it really takes to grow and move quality food consistently to markets. Food has to come from someplace and someone’s gotta’ farm it.”

* * *

Shake
Shake

Sweep
Sweep
Scoop
Scoop
To an outsider, an almond orchard during harvest is like being in an airport without a traffic controller. Huge pieces of equipment move like jack rabbits. Coincidentally, the harvester is actually named “JackRabbit.” On the ground, precision rules as harvest follows a three-step process:

* * *

“How were almonds harvested before there cutting edge equipment?” I ask Jerry as the JackRabbit races by, covering us with dust.

“Mallets.”

“Mallets? You mean guys walking from row to row hitting trees with hammers?”

* * *

We watch a run of almonds loaded onto trailers, then follow the trucks to the processor where the hull is removed from the inner nut in a “crack, clean and air” process. An almond has three parts – the outer shell, the inside hull, and the brown nut. Once the almonds are separated and cleaned, they are packed immediately into shipping crates and sent off to brokers who sell them in the open market. The hulls are held back, ground and sold as nutritional supplements for cattle feed. There are only so many hours to move the 2011 Central Valley almond crop from orchard to market. Like any product, the crop must be harvested and processed when optimally ripe. Jerry’s hauler, Farmer’s Cooperative Almond Hullers, will process 500,000 pounds of “meat” in 24 hours; in 2010, the California almond crop yielded 63 million pounds of product, with roughly 50 per cent sold to Germany, Italy and Spain.

For a grower like Jerry, payment is made by size and weight. “Size is important, the bigger the nut, the bigger the check, but I never see the value of the end product until I get the spread sheets,” he offers.

Click here for the “Cycle of an Almond Harvest” photo gallery.

* * *

Back at the orchard, we follow the sweeper as it races up and back through the rows, sweeping more rows of nuts into neat winrows, splitting the outer hull, separating leaves, and blowing debris aside. “You have to get rid of the dirt on the orchard floor,” Jerry states. “We don’t want dirty almonds. If a grower doesn’t manage his pests, he winds up with poop in the crop. The hauler has to red-tag the truck, then red-tag the crop for contamination. That crop is set aside until the very end of harvest to avoid contamination of the processing machinery. It may never reach the consumer. No pest management in the fields means problems in the product. A lot of organic farmers do not treat for disease or pests. Poop is collateral damage. By the way, you missed the shaker. We’ll catch up tomorrow.” 

“Almonds are like little kids,” this father of four explains. “You have to pay attention... nurse them every day...you can’t take your eyes off them.”

* * *

The vast majority of the almond crop is eating almonds – non-pareils -- but there are other varietals. Carmel and Monterey yield bigger nuts; Butte, Mission, Padre and Fritts are better for use in candy bars, cereal and baked goods.”

The trees I am staring at all look the same to me.

Varietals are critical for another reason. Almonds do not generally self-pollinate. For optimal pollination, more than one variety must be planted in the orchard, preferably three. Bees are brought into the orchards after dormancy in the winter months and before the white and pink blossoms of spring bloom. If the temperature is too cold or wet, the bees will not fly and a percentage of pollination is lost. The habits of bees can cost a crop.

“A tree will only hold on to so many nuts, aborting those they cannot support,” Jerry explains. “We need as many of the blooms to set; every tree will drop a certain number of nuts.”

* * *

Like any other crop, a watchful eye over pests and disease is essential. Almonds are particularly susceptible to Blossom Rot, which shrinks and destroys the nut; Shod Hole, a spore that grows and infects a tree because of excessive moisture and wetness; Mites, which suck the juice out of a tree leaving dry, golden leaves, stress the tree, forcing its likely loss; Gophers (and Mice). Growers will mitigate against mites by wetting down the roads for dust control, but with large acreage and constant high temperatures, often well over 100 degrees, this is a battle not easily won. Naval Orangeworm (acronym NOW), is a primary pest of almonds. Found inside the nutmeat, or between the hull and shell, the larvae can consume most of the nut, producing large amounts of webbing. Rapid early harvest, according to guidelines issued by the U.C. Davis Integrated Pest Management Program, is one of two cultural practices that can eliminate infestation.

Ahhhhh. Big Trucks racing through orchards are not only working against the harvest clock, but doing housekeeping and pest control chores.

* * *


Blossom Rot

Shod Hole.

Gopher Mounds

Mite-infected tree

The roots of the Chicca Family were sowed in Lucca, Italy. After a circuitous route via Argentina, Jerry’s great-grandfather landed in San Francisco, working as a blacksmith until a land developer recruited new immigrants to broadcast wheat and till the soil in the Central Valley. With little other than a promise of horses, tillage and seeds to get started, the family relocated to the small town of Buttonwillow. They continue to farm this land.

Jerry’s father, Gino, diversified the business at the beginning of World War II when ordered to remain on the farm to grow cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, and row crops such as lettuce and tomatoes. “I had a little red flyer wagon,” Jerry recalls. “I would pick vegetables, my father would connect a small tractor, and I would drive it to the house, delivering the load to my mother. Pasta with fresh vegetables is still my favorite meal.”

By the time Jerry entered the business formally in 1975, international competition had entered American agriculture, specifically, China and India. “Cotton was no longer a viable crop,” he said. “We had to make a decision.” Two Chicca children, Antone and Alex, would join the business; the family took a step back and planted almonds. “Economically, it simply made sense,” said Jerry. “We are in the right place with the right growing conditions.” It took three years for the first crop to “bear fruit.”

* * *

For a farmer, he or she might do everything right and still have a failure crop. Weather is always the primary concern. Keeping up with technology is sometimes daunting. Water management is a killer. 

“Environmentally, farmers are one of the biggest supporters of clean water,” Jerry offered. “We cannot produce food without water. There needs to be balance in water rights, environmental discussions, a re-building of infrastructure to bring water to where it is needed, and a commitment to putting people to work within the agricultural segment of our economy. Are we going to work together and participate in feeding the world or save tiny fish? The days of workers hitting trees with sticks to bring nuts to market are over.

“To be an organic farmer,” continued Jerry. “land must first go fallow for three years. A huge boundary around any land certified as organic is required. My neighboring grower is steps away from my property line. Is he going to give up his land so I can have an acceptable perimeter? I would rather not spend a nickel on spraying, but eliminating preventive care in the orchards is likely to mean crop loss.” 

“California has the strictest rules and regulations of any state over agricultural production,” he continued. “Paperwork must be filed with the County Health Department indicating an “intent to spray” and listing what I will be using and how much. Until I receive approval, I cannot proceed. Virtually every aspect of my business is monitored. This is protection for us and equally important, protection for the consumer. Growning food is not a one way or the other proposition.”

* * *

Jerry did not offer this information, but I learned that he had recently converted 600 acres of one of his ranches to wetlands, under a conservation program managed by the California Department of Fish & Game. He did offer that he had recently invested in sophisticated drip tape irrigation management that monitors and manages the water and nutrition needs of each tree, downloading real-time information from water meters in the orchards to a laptop-based centralized computer system. This has saved millions of gallons of water, cut fertilizer allocations in half, and allowed for daily soil amendment review and micro-management of nutrients to keep the trees healthy and in balance so that they do not “sugar up,” attracting pests or providing an environment for disease. Cost of each meter runs in the thousands.

For the future, Jerry has his eyes to the ground on pistachios, an ever-bearing nut (almonds have a life span of 25 years) that grows in only a few places around the world. The Central Valley is one of them. With 9-10 years needed for pistachio trees to bear fruit, Jerry expects his first crop to give birth next year. He is keeping his eye on “the babies.”

“Nothing is a sure bet,” he said, “Every year something pops up. The farmer assumes all the risk and we don’t get paid until the crop is sold. There are no guarantees in a land-based business, but the crop will talk to you. If you are not out there walking the fields, how can you know what’s going on? The best fertilizer is your shadow.”

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