By John Holland
Dust rises as machines harvest almonds up and down the Central Valley. Except on 10 acres southwest of Modesto, where a new method is getting a look.
Billy Lyons created a test plot that is not harvested the conventional way, with one machine shaking the nuts to the ground and another picking them up. The work is done by a modified olive harvester that strips the almonds from the branches and tosses them into a gondola without hitting the dirt.
“Very little dust — that’s the driver on this,” said Bob Curtis, director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board of California. He was among the observers at a demonstration of the method Wednesday.
Lyons is part of the family that owns Mapes Ranch, a large expanse of cattle and diverse crops along Highway 132. His father is Bill Lyons Jr., former food and agriculture secretary for the state.
Billy Lyons planted the test plot with dwarf trees at high density so it would be suited to the olive harvester, which reaches into the canopy and knocks the crop off as it moves along.
Almonds are among the biggest crops in California, with $6.77 billion in gross income to growers in 2014. About a third of the volume is in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.
Excessive dust from the August-October harvest can irritate sensitive people and even cause vehicle accidents. The problem is much reduced from decades past, thanks in part to Modesto-area equipment makers that have refined the shake-and-pickup method.
Lyons’ trees were planted three years ago at about 900 per acre, compared with about 120 in a conventional orchard. He said the smaller canopy allows for pruning by machine rather than hand tools, and the reduced root zone means less water and fertilizer.
“The whole idea is to try to cut costs,” Lyons said. He expects yields to be similar to those of almond orchards in general.
Growers also have to rent bee colonies for pollination each winter, but the test plot has an advantage here, too. The trees are self-fertile, meaning some of the pollen is transferred from the anther to the stigma within the same flower. Bees are still needed to move pollen from bloom to bloom, but at a lower number.
Zaiger Family Genetics of Modesto created the self-fertile variety, Independence. It was grown for the test plot by Dave Wilson Nursery of Hickman, using rootstock from Agromillora California Nursery in Butte County.