“We just hit the halfway point this week,” reported Carl M. Navarra, a fourth-generation Tracy area farmer, on Wednesday. “This is the earliest — ever.”
Navarra was standing in an orchard on Koster Road southeast of Tracy talking over the almond harvest with Bill Koster, who farms almonds nearby on the road named for his family.
They both agreed that this year’s harvest, in the third year of severe drought, is 15 to 20 percent below the normal average yield of 3,000 pounds of meat — the edible center of the nut without hulls or shells — per acre.
“This year, we expect to harvest something close to 2,500 pounds per acre,” Navarra. “It’s a light crop.”
Koster noted that as the almond crop continues south along the west side of the valley, more and more almond shells are coming up empty of meats. They are “blanks.”
“When there is less water from rainfall and then from a shortage of water, the salt content of the soil is higher and that affects the nuts,” he reported.
Navarra said the pollinating period in February came all at once, and not all varieties pollinate at one time, which probably added to the decline in yields.
Nearly all the almonds harvested so far are of the Nonpareil variety, a standard in almond growing for years. A smaller acreage of the new Independence variety that is self-pollinating was also harvested early.
Other varieties, many important for cross-pollination, will be harvested next, with the total harvest expected to be completed by the end of September, also a record.
Almonds from the Navarra farm are processed at the Salida Huller and then sent to Blue Diamond for marketing.
This year, more than ever, water for irrigation has been the major concern of growers. Almond orchards farmed by the Navarra family are within several irrigation districts. The Del Puerto Irrigation District relies solely on Delta-Mendota Canal water, and only an unused allocation from last year provided some water, far less than normal. The Banta Carbona Irrigation District, which pumps from the San Joaquin River and also has some carryover allocation from the Delta-Mendota Canal, has been less impacted.
“We are relying more on our four wells this year than in the past,” Navarra reported. “The aquifer level has been declining by 60 to 80 feet this year, and we have had to drill deeper for our water.”
Because of drought restrictions, the Navarras are not double-cropping this year and planted safflower, which requires less water than other row crops, along with oats and beans.
When the Navarra family moved to the Tracy area from Canoga Park in the San Fernando Valley in 1952, their major crops in this area were tomatoes (for the local H.J. Heinz Co. processing plant), apricots, alfalfa and beans. A move away from those crops has been accelerated in recent years by prospects offered by almonds.
Why almonds? The question has been answered by many Tracy-area farmers who have replaced row-crop acreage with rows upon rows of almond trees.
“Almonds require less intense growing practices, fewer employees and generate more income per acre,” said the 40-year-old Navarra, who works with his father, Carl B. Navarra, in the family farming operation.
The price to growers has steadily increased to $3.25 per pound of meats, which provides a level of income attractive to growers.
In the past three years, an estimated 5,000 acres of almonds have been planted in the Tracy area. And more are believed to be on their way.
Today, the Navarras farm close to 1,000 acres of almonds, amounting to nearly all of their total farming operation.
One growing attraction of almonds for local growers has been the development of the Independence variety of almonds. The trees are self-pollinating, eliminating the need to hire bee hives at $150 each time and the also the necessity of farming smaller acreages of a number of almond varieties for cross-pollination of Nonpareil trees.
“Independence almond trees mature quicker and have large yields,” Navarra pointed out, “We have 220 acres of Independence trees, and the 2-year-old trees already are producing almonds.”
Because Independence trees are more compact, they can be planted 160 per acre instead of the normal 120 trees.
“We plan to plant more Independence trees, and I’m certain and number of other growers will, too,” Navarra said.
With the growing worldwide demand for California almonds staying strong — California produces 82 percent of the worldwide almond crop — and with new varieties offering streamlined farming operations and greater income per acre, almond growing should continue emerging as an increasingly important segment of Tracy area agriculture.
• Contact Sam Matthews at firstname.lastname@example.org or 830-4234.