Long days are typical for almond and walnut farmer
Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Almond and walnut farmer Roger Poythress hangs out with his dog Abby in one of his orchards.
Waking up before the heat, Roger Farmer begins to prepare for a 12-hour day full of machinery, dust, and almonds.
Harvest season, almond farmer Poythress said, is the busiest time of the year. On-and-off from mid August to October, almond farmers shake trees and watch a year’s worth of work pay off.
“Its nice to see all the equipment running and satisfying to see the crop come in, but the absolute favorite part is seeing that last load going off to the huller,” Poythress said.
Harvest season begins depending on each individual farmer. Poythress intends on beginning harvesting his nonpareil almonds in early August.
Prior to harvest, around mid-July, evenings hum with the sound of spraying in order to protect the crop. Around that time, the crops become partially exposed due to what is known as “hull split,” the opening of the almond shell.
“We spray for a couple of weeks right at hull split trying to minimize the navel orange worm damage. But even with that, there can be years, just due to different circumstances, when worm damage will affect up to 10 percent of the crop, which could be a significant hit,” Poythress said.
On average almond trees produce upwards of 2,000 pounds of almonds per acre. Therefore, if 10 percent of the crop are affected, 200 pounds per acre could be compromised, pricing out to be a loss of about $500 per acre.
Fortunately, pest control advisors and improved spraying techniques prevent this loss from being a frequent occurrence.
Poythress’ orchards span 280 acres, most of which are filled with almond trees. However 70 acres of walnut trees remain from his father’s time spent farming. According to Poythress, once the walnut trees age out at around 30 years old, he will replant the orchard with more almond trees.
“Most almond growers, are done by the first through the eighth of October, but with walnuts, that is just when we are starting,” Poythress said. “If you need to rest, you can rest in November.”
Prior to almonds and walnuts, when Poythress was growing up, his family farm was a mix of row crops, such as cotton and corn, and a pasture for beef cattle.
“We started out with row crop and cattle and in the 1970s, my dad sold out the majority of the operation. The beef cattle were all that was left and we were only clearing about $100 an acre and that wasn’t enough to make a living off hardly,” Poythress said.
In the late 1970s, Poythress’s father began planting walnuts and, over the years, Poythress transitioned to almonds.
“Out of the 37 crops that we’ve taken in, if you counted them starting with 1980, the almonds have outperformed in returns over the walnuts, except for about two or three years,” Poythress said.
All in all, nut crops have seemed to remain steady, especially in the last 10 years, according to Poythress.
“I actually enjoy the trees. They don’t kick and they don’t charge you, because the cattle used to do that,” Poythress said. “The trees, they might end up slapping you in the face if you’re not being careful, but they are more friendly most of the time.”
In 1994, when Poythress switched from flood irrigation to drip irrigation, he saw a difference not only in water cost but also in his crop.
“You get better crop reduction. If things are uniform you have better tree growth and a good process to distribute fertilizer, you can do that through the water lines, so you get two jobs done at once,” Poythress said.
However, even with conservation efforts, the drought has played a large part in affecting tree growth and ability to produce. Since almonds are a year-long crop, one year affects the years to come.
Madera County has been greatly impacted by the drought because it is, what Poythress called, a “severely overdrafted groundwater basin.” This means that many farms centered in Madera county are pulling from the same ground water.
The State Groundwater Management Act, implemented in 2014 by Governor Jerry Brown, states that overdrafted basins, such as Madera County, must show progress towards water conservation within seven years.
“You don’t want to plant an orchard and say, ‘I hope we will be able to irrigate next year.’ And so I have a feeling in the long run, we will see fewer acres of permanent crops like almonds and more open ground that you can farm on wet years only,” Poythress said.
Like most farmers, Poythress was grateful for the high levels of water seen this year. However, if water continues to be an issue in the future, he foresees cutting back on his farmed acreage.
Until then, Poythress remains thankful for those who have supported his farm.
“I am thankful for many things, the abundant water God has given us this past year, thankful for good neighbors — we have multiple neighbors who are very helpful and always willing to lend a hand, and thankful for good companies to work with,” said Poythress.