Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Kahal Farms operations manager Mallvinder Kahal tries to get a taste of his almond crops. He has also expanded to producing almond butter with his sister Amandeep.
The grocery aisles in California are filled wall-to-wall with a seemingly endless variety of spreads, almond butter included. Since California is the primary location of almond orchards, most people have no difficulty buying locally. However, there is a catch.
Kahal Farm’s operations manager Mallvinder Kahal and Amandeep Kahal, Mallvinder’s sister, noticed that most of the locally grown almond products being sold were packaged outside of California. Therefore, despite their California labels, the almonds were processed and packaged outside of California, then sold back to local stores.
“As farmers, you see that, and you see a lack of accountability, because we put a lot of effort into growing a quality crop,” Kahal said.
Kahal Farms, founded in 1985, is a family-owned farm in Madera County. What once started as a wine grape vineyard, expanded to 1,200 acres of primarily almond orchards spread out between Madera and Merced.
Amandeep had been producing almond butter from some of the almonds on their family ranch for family and close friends. Yet, after realizing a need for a completely Californian almond butter, they decided to invest in larger machinery and made a home kitchen.
“The whole goal is ‘Let’s sell Californians a butter that doesn’t leave California,’” Mallvinder said.
Kahal, who had recently graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s in environmental science, saw this as an opportunity for a different form of education. It was during his time at UCLA, that Kahal realized how fortunate he was for having been raised on a farm.
“Halfway through college, I realized how special my background is, how unique it is, and how a smaller and smaller amount of Americans grew up the way I did,” Kahal said.
He then combined his past knowledge with his sister’s almond butter to co-found Better Butter.
“I thought to myself, instead of going to business school, ‘Why don’t we start our own new business from scratch? It’s uncharted territory for me, personally. And I am sure I would have a lot more to learn from that than from school,’” Kahal said.
So far, the business has been a learning experience. As of now, 300 acres of Kahal Farms grow the Butte Padre almond variety, which are used to produce Better Butter.
According to Kahal, Better Butter came about during Amandeep’s residency in Fresno for family medicine. Since it was founded, they have partnered with Sierra Food Group and no longer is it made in a home kitchen. However, they still believe in an all local, all natural product.
“We control the flavor by controlling the crop, which is why we don’t add anything, we don’t add any extra salt, no sugar, no preservatives, nothing,” said Kahal. “We find that the almond has its own nuances and taste and there is really nothing more to add for the product we are trying to deliver.”
Improvements in irrigation systems and spraying techniques have contributed to more accurate and precise measurements of water and crop protection.
“Technology is allowing us to be more exact and thorough. Whereas farmers, in a way, have always had the resources to grow big crops, but it’s always been force fed. Now we can spoon feed with technology,” said Kahal.
Along with providing nutrients and protective sprays for the trees, Kahal said, scheduling is a key part of producing quality almonds. Being that almonds are a year-long crop, farmers have to stay ahead of schedule and be prepared for roadblocks in order for a good harvest season.
“Especially with almond farming, every month is a different thing from the last month. So I am never doing the same thing. It’s a different thing, it’s a different deal, and every year brings new challenges,” Kahal said.
Challenges range from parts breaking in the harvesting machinery to differing weather patterns. Being in the center of “almond country,” Kahal has noticed a mix of the north and south almond farming techniques.
“Your weather and geographical location affects stuff like when you’re expecting rain and when you’re expecting the nuts to fall out of the tree. I think being in the middle gives you an overall perspective of the entirety of the almond farming culture in California,” Kahal said.
During harvest, however, one of the largest aspects of farming is maintaining machinery.
Kahal Farm’s outsources their harvesting to Singh Farming Company, which is owned by Kahal’s older brother, J.T.
Singh Farming Company is a machine operating company that started by servicing Kahal Farms. Now they provide harvesting machines, such as shakers, sweepers, and harvesters, for other almond farms in the area as well.
In one way or another, Kahal said, all his siblings and cousins are involved in farming of their own, if not Kahal Farms.
“When my family and I get together we are literally talking about farming, half the time. And we have a really great support network between however many uncles I have, all my cousins that are my age are farming. So, in between fantasy football, we are talking about farming, or what we are going to eat,” Kahal said.
In the future, Kahal is looking to have Kahal Farms be run by solar power. He is also hoping to expand Better Butter to local stores. However, with harvest right around the corner, Kahal is focused on producing a quality crop.
“You really want to keep a culture where you and your employees are doing your best. You’re really trying to give [the crop] the focus that it deserves and not trying to take shortcuts. And if you have the proper culture and work ethic the other things will be easy to keep up,” Kahal said.