IN THE ORCHARD
California’s most valuable crop thrives right next door, in the hot sun of the Central Valley
Story and photography by Elaine Hesser
Dominic Mercurio is known for the seafood he serves at his Monterey restaurant, Café Fina. He is less well known as a farmer. But as Mercurio’s Ford pickup descends into the flatlands around Los Banos, a Merced County town just beyond Hollister and the Pacheco Pass—he settles comfortably into his other passion, raising organic vegetables for his restaurant, and, on a much larger scale, growing almonds.
From Sacramento to Coalinga and beyond, the Central Valley’s climate provides an exceptional growing region that some Monterey Bay farmers take advantage of for growing heat-loving crops, like mel- ons and heirloom tomatoes.
The Central Valley is also particularly well suited to almonds, and as a result, an astonishing 82% of the world’s almonds are grown along this corridor, on farms large and small, more than 6,000 in total. What’s more, a full 70% of the crop is exported overseas. In 2012, exports reached $2.5 billion, making almonds California’s largest agricultural export—two-and-a-half times larger than the next biggest agricultural export, wine.
Over the last year, I made several stops near Los Banos, witnessing the almond orchards through the change of seasons, observing the almond’s journey from blossom to bag and meeting some of the farmers who grow them.
It’s no wonder that almonds thrive in the Central Valley, as the area’s cold winters and hot, dry summers are similar to their native Middle East. Spanish missionaries brought almond trees to coastal California in the 1700s, but they didn’t do well in the cool, damp weather. Then in the late 19th century, plantings farther inland took hold, and modern varieties of almonds were bred.
Over the last 20 years, the acreage of land under almond cultivation in California has doubled, and in just the last five years, the price of almonds has nearly doubled.
Mercurio says it was his passion for duck hunting along the Pacific Flyway and his love for the Central Valley that led him to buy an orchard there with co-investor John Madden in 1997. Madden, the football legend, is the “J” in his company’s name, JD Almond Farms.
Almond growers rely entirely on bees to pollinate their orchards—so many bees that they must rent and ship in hives from across the country for the brief February–March span when the pink-and-white blossoms open. In fact, the period when blossoms blanket the Central Valley is thought to be the largest managed pollination event in the world, and the humming of millions of bees fills the air. (See EXPLORE box on p. 51 for travel information.)
After pollination, the almond petals fall like snow, and the trees sprout a leafy canopy, filtering the hot summer sun. The almonds begin as gelatinous green seeds—and technically remain seeds, rather than nuts—that develop inside a fuzz-covered hull, much like their close relative the peach.
Almond trees don’t like too much water, and too much humidity also leads to fungus, which can sound a death knell for an entire orchard. But they need a certain amount of water, and the current drought is a huge concern.
“Our biggest challenge right now is water,” says Jason Jasper, a third-generation almond farmer who with his father, Jim Jasper, now runs Stewart & Jasper Orchards, a thriving diversified almond grower, processor and distributor started by his grandfather 66 years ago.
Stewart & Jasper’s 2,000 acres of almonds are located in Newman, within the federal water district, and Jasper says the drought has contributed to a rise in water prices that will soon exceed 10 times the usual cost.
As a result, all of the farmers I spoke with use water conservation techniques—Jasper, microsystems irrigation; Mercurio, dual-line drip irrigation; and Anderson Almonds, an organic almond grower in Hilmar, about 30 miles north of Los Banos, gravity-fed flood irrigation from the Tuolumne River.
Mercurio frequently visits Los Banos to tend his more than 400 acres of almonds and also his pluot trees, figs and the single-acre plot of vegetables he grows for Café Fina. Last spring, various members of his extended restaurant family (and the odd journalist) were enlisted to help plant seedlings and harvest vegetables in exchange for lunch at Wool Growers (see related article, p. 50) along the way. Although he uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides in raising his vegetables, he says the ga den is too near the conventionally farmed almonds to be certified organic.
September brings controlled chaos to the otherwise peaceful orchards. The almond hulls have gradually dried and split open as the shells within them hardened, and now each tree’s trunk is shaken violently by a specialized harvester. Nuts explode off the trees and fall to the ground. A sweeper moves the nuts into the center of the rows, and, along with a fair amount of debris, they are vacuumed up and trucked to a processing plant a few miles away.
Almond processing is astoundingly noisy. Much of it is done by mechanically shaking the harvest to remove hulls, stones and twigs. Pressure is used to shell the almonds before they’re sorted and packaged.
Since 2007, the USDA has required commercial growers in California to pasteurize almonds to counteract possible salmonella contamination from their fall to orchard floors.
Anderson sells fewer than 100 pounds per day to any single customer, so he’s exempt from that requirement. He laughingly says that for two years he and his wife hulled the nuts at the kitchen table —but even with only a few productive acres, that was a painful exercise.
Anderson says that as an organic farmer, his yields are about a quarter lower than if he grew them conventionally, “but the product is quite reliable,” and organic almonds command one-third more in price than conventional. Organic practices also cause minimal harm to people and the environment, in particular the bees that almond growers depend on. (See the Summer 2013 issue of EMB for more on the implication of pesticides in the spread of devastating colony collapse disorder.)
Growth in global demand for almonds in recent years has been driven largely by consumers interested in their health benefits: Almonds are extremely nutrient dense, containing more protein, fiber, vitamin E, calcium and other minerals than other tree nuts. Studies have also found them to have a positive impact on regulation of blood sugar, cholesterol and weight. (Almond milk has also become popular with the lactose intolerant and almond flour, with those who can’t eat gluten.)
But in something of a surprise, the health conscious consumers that have driven up both the price and production of almonds don’t seem to have had much impact on the amount of organic almonds produced in California. Today, organic almonds account for less than 1% of overall California almond production, right in line with the break- down of organic and conventional cropland in the U.S overall.
“In a perfect world, we’d do it all organically,” says Jasper, whose farm is a model of sustainability, using solar energy for power, for example. Stewart & Jasper has also been growing a portion of its crop organically for nine years. But Jasper says that growing almonds organically is difficult, and while the company has found a market for some 50 different varieties of almond products and customers like Stewart & Jasper’s ability to control quality by growing, processing and packing its own nuts, he still does not see a lot of demand for organic almonds. As a result, the company farms most of its acreage conventionally.
After watching the almond harvest mark the end of the season, Mercurio loads his truck with crates of heirloom tomatoes, padron peppers and eggplant from his garden for delivery to Café Fina.
Mercurio chuckles when he says that when he started farming, the locals thought he was a “city slicker,” but it’s clear he’s proud of his orchards and cares deeply about the land.
“I’d like to try doing a few acres organic, just to see,” he muses.
The pickup passes Casa de Fruta, and he checks his watch for the first time since leaving for Los Banos. Agriculture doesn’t run on human timetables, but Monterey restaurants do.
Back at Café Fina, the packages with the JD Almond Farms “Proprietor Grown” label sit prominently on a shelf, but Mercurio gets back down to the business of being a restaurateur.
Meanwhile, the almond business grows, hidden in plain sight along the Interstate.
Elaine Hesser is a lifelong foodie who has been cooking since she was six years old. She loves to educate others about seasonal, local food choices.
Los Banos is a small town, and Wool Growers is its unique institution. The Basque-influenced restaurant has been around since 1890, according to Colette Iturbide, whose family has owned it for the last 39 years. The two-story white building was also once a boardinghouse, and the name came from local ranchers. According to Iturbide, “There were a lot of sheep men in the area. Immigrants could always find someone here who could speak Spanish or Portuguese.”
Eating at Wool Growers is an utterly unpretentious experience from start to finish. You open the front door and step into a hall. To your right is the bar; straight ahead, the dining room door swings open into what looks like a reception hall with rows of communal tables covered in red-and-white checked vinyl tablecloths. During duck season (October to January) they’re jammed with hunters seeking a hearty meal.
And that’s what they find. There’s no menu, no wine list, no special orders and it’s cash only. Service is brisk, smart and friendly. A bottle of slightly chilled red wine will be served, along with a plastic pitcher of ice water and glasses. You’ll be asked what meat you want (the choice is usually chicken, lamb or pork at lunch, which is served 11:30am–2pm), and then food just starts arriving, family style. That’s large, extended, third-cousin-once-removed family style. A bowl of vegetable soup with a side of beans comes out with bread and little pats of butter. Iceberg lettuce with an addictive lemony cream dressing follows. Savory lamb stew’s up next, followed by your juicy, perfectly seasoned quarter of a chicken, three lamb chops or pair of pork chops. (Iturbide boasts that just like in the old days, the lamb is from California, not imported.) There’s the occasional variation: You might get locally sourced vegetables like corn on the cob or maybe a plate of spare ribs. But count on a plate of hot, crisp French fries balancing on top of the salad bowl as the table fills up.
Neighbors and friends sit together and banter with the staff; there’s enough good-natured ribbing to tell you who the regulars are and that everyone’s comfortable in their own skins.
As if food would still be on anyone’s mind at this stage, sticks of Monterey Jack hit the table and, unbelievably, the server asks if you’d like dessert. Say “yes,” and you’ll get a cardboard cup of vanilla ice cream with a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
Oh, and the check? At lunch it’s a modest $16 per person; at dinner (served 4:30–8:30pm) it’s $20, but you’ll have a choice of up to seven entrées that can include prime rib or tri-tip.
Whether it’s a stopover on a long drive or the exclamation point at the end of an almond blossom tour, a meal at Wool Growers is an adventure unto itself. —EH
Wool Growers • 609 H St., Los Banos • 209.826.4593