Apr 11

What’s shakin’? Almond harvesting near Shandon

Almond leaves and nuts fall to ground as Fernando Tabin operates mechanical almond tree shaker near Shandon. ©The Tribune/Larry Jamison

Technically you wouldn’t be nuts if you referred to almonds as a fruit. Almonds are the edible seeds of drupe fruits. The genus prunus includes plums, cherries, peaches, apricots and almonds. In fact where they are irrigated many almond trees grow on peach rootstock.
You wouldn’t be nuts if you referred to Paso Robles as the Almond City, just out of date.
At one time Oak Flat almond groves were the largest in the state. According to a February 22, 1971 Elliot Curry story one of the pioneers in almond planting, processing and marketing was Frank Slate. After World War II almond production in the state expanded exponentially. In 1940 the state produced 14 million tons and only 2 decades later harvest stood at 146 million tons. More almonds were exported to West Germany in 1970 than the entire production in 1940. A December 9, 1977 story told about the Tenneco West plant in Paso Robles processing 30 million pounds of almonds at the corner of Spring and Fourth streets.

Yet local production of the nut, er, fruit has been on the decline.
The Farmer’s Alliance building in Paso Robles was built in 1922 as an almond processing and storage facility. It was later converted for grain processing by the Farmer’s Alliance. After decades of sitting unused it is being converted for use as by Derby Wine Estates into a winemaking and tasting facility. The life of this building is a measure of the ebb and flow of agriculture in the area.
Mechanized harvests and irrigated trees in the central valley would prove to be too competitive for largely hand picked production here, though trees still bloom on the rolling hills above Paso Robles and a handful of ranches still sell.

December 27, 1974ß

Indian Springs Ranch near Sandon uses mechanical harvester on almond trees
‘Untouched by human hands’

by Linnea Walz
Staff Writer

Almond trees on the Indian Springs Ranch near Shandon receive different treatment at harvest time than those anywhere else in San Luis Obispo County. They’re untouched by human hands.
When mid-fall approaches, ranch manager Ken Pollard gets out an assortment of equipment.
Dusted off first is the shaker, a giant clamper which fastens itself around each tee trunk near ground level and vibrates nut and leaves from the tree. Sand filled cloth bags on each side of the clamp come in direct contact with the tree bark.
“The sand is replaced frequently, as it pulverizes rather quickly, losing its protective qualities,” Pollard said.
Following the shaker is the sweeper, which pushes the almonds into rows. The pickup machine moves over each windrow, lightly lifting the almonds and some leaf material onto a conveyor belt.
As the belt moves past a blower and side opening in the machine, leaves and dust are blown out while the nuts continue on the belt to the field trailer.
Full field trailers are pulled by tractor to a vertical conveyor, which unloads
railers and loads transport trucks in one operation.
Almonds are hauled to the California Almond Orchards (Cal-Al) processing plant in Paso Robles.
Pollard said at least a month is required for ground preparation before the crop can be harvested mechanically.
“Since there are no sheets put down for the almonds to fall on, as in the hand method, the soil under the trees and between the rows must be clear,” he said.
In the normal cultivating practices at the Indian Springs Ranch, ground under trees and between rows is strip-strayed. Before harvest starts, crews go into the orchard to remove weeds or foreign material.
The soil is planed smooth, rolled and sprinkled at least twice to harden it, Pollard said.
Famco, the corporation which owns Indian Springs Ranch has 330 acres near Shandon planted to almonds, and 500 acres near Paso Robles. The Shandon orchard is irrigated, the only such operation in the county. All others are dry land farms.
Pollard said the Shandon orchard is planted with two varieties of almonds, Non-pareil and Merced.
“We’ve planted one row of Merceds for each two rows of Non-pareils. The two varieties must be planted together because each tree is self-sterile. Each variety pollinates the other without mixing,” he said.
“We have 160 acres at Shandon planted seven years ago, and 170 acres with six-year-old trees. Our yield this year at Shandon averaged 800 pounds an acre.”
In discussions on the merits of mechanical versus those of hand harvesting, the farm-method experts generally favor the mechanized the techniques, considering them easier on the trees.
In hand harvesting, individual branches are shaken and clubbed to knock the almonds loose from the limbs on which they grow. This sometimes causes either breakage or severe injury to the branches.
Complicated soil preparation required before mechanical harvesting is eliminated in the hand method, which uses sheets spread under trees to gather up the nuts.
However, while the initial investment in machinery is high, mechanical harvesting is considerably faster and less crew is needed.
Famco’s pioneering start of a mechanized almond harvest could spread throughout San Luis Obispo County, if enough orchards become convinced of its value.
Famco is owned by F. Daniel Frost of Los Angeles. Pollard is vice president of the corporation and general manager of ranch operations at Indian Springs.

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