@dmin_westcoastnut, Author at West Coast Nut - Page 2 of 40

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Walnuts, Navel Orangeworm and Ethephon for 2021

Navel orangeworm (NOW) continues to be problematic for California walnut growers. Jhalendra Rijal, UCCE area IPM advisor for Northern San Joaquin Valley, said NOW pressure varies among orchards, but with the drier winter and spring in 2021, as expected there has been increased activity with NOW in walnuts and almonds.

“From a walnut perspective, if you think about navel orangeworm right now (June), the flight may or may not matter too much unless there are blighted or codling moth-damaged nuts in the orchard,” Rijal said, noting that the third and/or fourth flight is a greater concern for walnuts at husk split.

 

Higher Pressures

“I would say that overall, the numbers and then the pressure are higher, but sometimes it may not mean too much,” he said, adding growers just need to wait, and watch, and see how that will relate in terms of the husk split timing.

The dry conditions in 2021 are certainly more favorable for survival of the NOW overwintering larvae whether the walnuts are on the tree or the ground, Rijal said, adding drier conditions probably play a role in overall NOW survival.

“We know navel orangeworm will overwinter in mummy nuts, whether it’s almonds, or walnuts, or pistachios,” Rijal said, adding rain in the wintertime likely has some impacts on NOW mortality.

Codling moth and blight damage in walnuts can leave openings for NOW for the first and second flights. An important management aspect of navel orangeworm in walnuts is to stay on top of these diseases and pests, Rijal said.

Nuts that have been damaged by walnut blight, sunburn, codling moth or have been mechanically injured are the nuts that the first and second flight rely on to build their populations, Rijal said.

“That is definitely the critical factor in terms of building navel orangeworm populations going into that third flight,” Rijal said.

 

Wait to Treat

For walnuts, the first two flights are not as significant as the third flight and the fourth flight for late season walnuts, Rijal said.

The third flight is of most concern, Rijal said, and timing of the flight and husk split is critical, which is why it’s important to track NOW flights.

If there are almonds or pistachios nearby, this can increase the pressure as all of them are hosts for NOW. “They (NOW) can move from one host to another host when they have the opportunity,” he said. “If you have an almond orchard next to a walnut orchard you’ll likely have more navel orangeworm flying around in the area compared to not having that.”

“It is not recommended to apply insecticides against navel orangeworm for the first and second flights,” Rijal said, adding these flights aren’t damaging to healthy walnuts.

“I would say that it’s not worth the money or effort to do an insecticide spray before that third flight,” he said, unless the grower has had consistent NOW pressure and damage in previous years.

Using chemical applications when needed is an important part of preventing resistance from building in all nuts as very limited insecticide active ingredients are available to use, Rijal said.

“We want to save those materials for the late-season window when the walnuts are susceptible,” Rijal said, plus it’s more economical, too, as these aren’t inexpensive materials.

 

Cultural Control

Winter sanitation is the best cultural control option at this point for managing NOW. Going into the season with a clean orchard means there will be less NOW pressure at the start of the season and less in-season, too, Rijal said.

It’s not just the nuts on the tree, but also the nuts on the ground that need to be removed, Rijal said.

“If navel orangeworm could not find mummy nuts or damaged nuts to lay their eggs, they lay eggs on the nuts that are still on the ground,” he said.

“Early harvest is also a very good tool, especially when there is late season harvest and harvest is dragged out for a longer time,” he continued, adding an earlier harvest could protect the nuts from later generations of NOW damage.

For early harvest, Ethephon can be used in walnuts to advance and synchronize the harvest, and it should be helpful when NOW populations are high. Ethephon should be applied at the right stage of the walnut maturity. UC IPM Guidelines recommend applying 10 to 14 days before normal harvest for one shake walnuts (www2.ipm.ucanr.edu/agriculture/walnut/Using-Ethephon/).

An earlier harvest can potentially prevent damage from the third and fourth flights of NOW, Rijal said.

“Ethephon may not be for everybody,” Rijal cautioned, adding if the trees are stressed and are in poor health, or if the variety itself has a synchronized split, then an Ethephon application may not be necessary.

 

Mating Disruption

Mating disruption is also part of NOW management. Rijal and David Haviland, UCCE entomology farm advisor in Kern County, did research on mating disruption in almonds up and down the San Joaquin Valley.

This has helped increase mating disruption adoption in almonds and pistachios, Rijal said.

“We have not seen that level of adoption in walnuts,” he said, adding there could be other factors like price or the fact that walnut trees vary in size and variety, relatively smaller blocks, etc., but mating disruption is an important tool for the integrated management of NOW in walnuts, too.

Sterile insect release is another potential tool that growers might be able to use as a part of their NOW program. All nut crops are investing in research to look at the sterile insect release technique as part of an IPM tool for NOW management. However, it may take several years to develop these kinds of techniques and apply them to a real field scenario.

It’s been said time and time again, but there is no silver bullet to manage and control NOW, Rijal said, and he doesn’t see a single solution for management.
“It still will be part of the integrated pest management,” he said.

With over 2 million acres of almonds, pistachios and walnuts, plus other hosts, and multiple generations of NOW throughout California, we all know this pest is a challenging one, Rijal said.

“With the global warming and the expected increase in temperature, we’re expecting to have a consistent fifth flight in some of the southern San Joaquin Valley counties as early as 2040 based on a recent study.”

For more information, go to sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969720361866.

“We all want a sustainable, long-term industry. The objective of the industry is to keep it sustainable for a long time, and for that, we need to adopt tools and techniques in a combined system so we don’t rely on one tool,” Rijal said.

Cal/OSHA Readopts Revisions to the COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be winding down and the state of California is opening up, the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board voted on June 17, 2021 to readopt revisions to the COVID-19 Prevention Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) on vaccination availability, removal of physical distancing requirements and guidance on face coverings to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and California Department of Public Health (CDPH). These revisions take effect immediately by executive orders signed by Governor Gavin Newsom, which apply to most workers in California.

This ETS process moved fast and furious through Cal/OSHA’s rulemaking process. A petition was filed in May 2020 for an emergency temporary standard on COVID-19 to protect workers in California. In July 2020, it was placed on the Standards Board calendar for review after several public meetings and substantial public comments from employers. Concerns ranged from Cal/OSHA’s jurisdiction for imposed requirements to continue benefits to workers excluded from the workplace due to COVID-19 related reasons; requirements of providing COVID-19 testing at no cost to potentially exposed employees; and the requirements on employer-provided housing and transportation to separate beds by eight feet and require three feet of separation in employer-provided vehicles.

During the November 17, 2020 meeting, Cal/OSHA adopted the emergency temporary rules to strengthen COVID-19 protections for workers and it became effective November 30. These proposed regulations include a written COVID-19 Prevention Plan (CPP), procedures for outbreak requirements, procedures for major outbreak requirements, employer-provided housing and employer provided transportation.

As we headed into 2021, the Standards Board held several meetings to hear public comments on the proposed ETS language for re-adoption, with three public meetings held in June alone. On June 3, the Standards Board held a special meeting to vote on the revised COVID-19 ETS, and after a long nine-hour meeting, the Board initially voted to reject any changes to the current ETS. After the Board deliberated for over an hour, they realized that rejecting would mean the current regulation would have stayed in effect. Therefore, the Board voted to approve the current ETS regulation requiring masks to be worn at all times indoors as well as outdoor less than 6 feet away from others, employers to provide and encourage unvaccinated workers to wear respiratory protection (N95s).

This meant it was headed to the OAL for review and approval, to be effective June 15. But a few days later, CDPH published guidance on June 7 to align the face coverings with the guidance from CDC. Then, Cal/OSHA submitted additional revisions to the ETS, and employer groups continued to ask the Board to consider changes of the proposed requirements for employers to provide N95 respirators for voluntary use to unvaccinated employees and clarification of the recordkeeping requirement for vaccination status. The Board proposed updated ETS from division staff at the June 17 meeting, and the current ETS has removed some of the initial requirements. Below is a summary of the current requirements:

Nothing in the revised ETS prevents an employer from requiring all employees to wear a face covering instead of having a documentation process.

 

Vaccines

Employers may allow fully vaccinated employees not to wear face coverings indoors, but must document their vaccination status. The revised ETS does not specify a particular method but the employer must record the vaccination status for any employee not wearing a face covering indoors, and this record must be kept confidential. Acceptable options include:

Employees provide proof of vaccination (vaccine card, image of vaccine card or health care document showing vaccination status) and employer maintains a copy.

Employees provide proof of vaccination. The employer maintains a record of the employees who presented proof, but not the vaccine record itself.

Employees self-attest to vaccination status and employer maintains a record of who self-attests.

Nothing in the revised ETS prevents an employer from requiring all employees to wear a face covering instead of having a documentation process.

 

Face Coverings/Respirators

Employers must provide unvaccinated employees with approved respirators for voluntary use when working indoors or in a vehicle with others, upon request. Employers may not retaliate against employees for wearing face coverings. Exceptions for unvaccinated persons: When alone in a room or vehicle; When eating and drinking; When an accommodation is required; and When job duties make a face covering infeasible or create a hazard.

 

Physical Distancing

Elimination of physical distancing or barrier requirements regardless of vaccination status with the following exceptions:

  • Employers must continue to assess workplace hazards and implement controls to prevent transmission of the disease. There may be certain circumstances when physical distancing and barriers are necessary in the workplace.
  • Employers must evaluate whether it is necessary to implement physical distancing and barriers during an outbreak (three or more cases in an exposed group of employees.)
  • Employers must implement physical distancing and barriers during a major outbreak (20 or more cases in an exposed group of employees.)
    Where all employees are vaccinated in employer-provided housing and transportation, employers are exempt from those regulations.

 

Ventilation

Employers must evaluate ventilation systems to maximize outdoor air and increase filtrations efficiency, and evaluate the use of additional air cleaning systems.

There are requirements that remain in place from the November 2020 ETS, and those are: Written COVID-19 Prevention Plan; Effective training and instructions on the employer’s prevention plan and employee rights under the ETS; Notification of outbreaks to local public health departments; Notification to employees of exposure and close contacts; Procedures for responding to COVID-19 cases and outbreaks; Offer testing after potential exposures; Implement exclusion pay requirements; and Employer-provided housing and transportation prevention requirements.

In addition, the employer shall develop and implement a process for screening employees for and responding to employees with COVID-19 symptoms. The employer may ask employees to evaluate their own symptoms before reporting to work. If the employer conducts screening indoors at the workplace, the employer shall ensure that face coverings are used during screening by both screeners and employees who are not fully vaccinated and, if temperatures are measured, that non-contact thermometers are used.

Employers are to develop and implement an effective COVID-19 Prevention Program. Be sure your plan includes these updated revisions. Cal/OSHA will move forward with the formal rulemaking process for a permanent regulation.

Will Adequate Labor Arrive for This Year’s Harvest?

Operators of almond and pistachio processing plants are cautiously optimistic their labor force will be adequate in August to handle this year’s crops.

Hullers and shellers as well as processors of value-added products rely on skilled workers to operate equipment and manage incoming loads. There are also numerous unskilled jobs that need to be filled to keep the plants operating at optimum efficiency.

Even though most COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in June, the U.S. Department of Labor reported approximately two million people were still receiving unemployment benefits in California. The California Workforce Association reported in June that fewer job seekers are contacting their office about employment.
As in other industries, nut handlers report challenges staffing their work force. Some plants are offering worker bonuses for referrals, competitive pay and other incentives to attract skilled and unskilled workers this year.

 

Labor Challenges

Ali Amin CEO of Primex, detailed some of the hurdles encountered in processing the 2020 crop and how the pistachio processor would meet labor needs this year.

Primex did have a COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, and the plant had to reconsider operations quickly to protect workers, Amin said.

“We are emphasizing education, and we would like to incentivize all employees to be vaccinated.”

This year, Amin said, the plant is bracing for a tighter labor market and higher labor costs. Primex works with employment agencies and has relationships with farm labor contractors to meet labor needs.

They are reviewing salary ranges to attract workers, but negotiating higher salaries for skilled and unskilled workers will eventually affect the growers’ bottom line.
“We can squeeze our margins, but eventually it will go to the grower. Higher nut prices will help this,” Amin said.

Unskilled labor at Primex does not always remain unskilled, he added. Seasonal workers recognized for their skills and work ethic can become permanent employees, and Primex strives for those long-term relationships with employees.

The reality of a tight labor market is that the plant operations can be maintained at 20% below optimal labor levels, but it can create delays.
“It is a challenge, but it can be done, “Amin said.

Kirk Squire, grower relations manager at Tulare-based Horizon Nut, said labor contractors are reporting that workers aren’t out there this year.

Hullers and shellers as well as processors of value- added products rely on skilled workers to operate equipment and manage incoming loads (photo courtesy M. Kelley.)

He said the labor shortage couldn’t entirely be blamed on the pandemic, but on continuing struggles with drought in the San Joaquin Valley. Both year-round and seasonal workers moved away from the area during the last drought and haven’t returned, he said. Competition with other nut processing plants for labor has increased the cost of labor, Squire added.

Trucking companies that contract to deliver nuts to the plants have also been experiencing a shortage of drivers. An effort supported by Western Ag Processors Association is increasing truck weight limits, which would cut down on load numbers and the need for more drivers.

Looking ahead, Squire said that automation in many areas of Horizon’s plants would be needed to process pistachio crops in the future as technology improves. Sorting is the main area in processing where automation is becoming more common as the cost for hand sorting and need for high labor numbers is on the rise.
“We have been at the tipping point for years with human versus automation,” Squire said.

With planned plant expansions at their three facilities, Horizon is looking at processing 120 million pounds of pistachios in the future. Automation can’t cover all their labor needs and there will be job opportunities, he added.

Mike Kelley, president and CEO of Central California Almond Growers Association said he is optimistic that the four facilities operated by CCAGA will have the necessary workforce in place for this year’s harvest.

“We are down now, but optimistic that numbers will improve in the next two months,” Kelley said.

With a nod to the multiple-plant workforce that powered through the 2020 harvest, Kelley thanked the shellermen, plant operators, stockpile workers, loader drivers, sanitation and office staff who kept the plant in operation.

Labor is the biggest operating cost at the CCAGA plants, the largest huller and sheller of almonds in the world. Kelley said labor accounts for around 50% of their operating costs, up from 40% just five years ago.

The plant depends on skilled workers to operate machinery and manage stockpiles from August through the end of the year.

“A lot of talent is required of our workers. Harvest is fast-paced, and we can’t just put anyone on a machine. If an operator doesn’t show up, we can’t put just anyone in their place.”

Worker safety is a serious issue with CCAGA, and trained personnel are needed for machinery operation. Staffing has to be adequate or the plant can’t operate, Kelley said.

Butch Coburn, plant manager at Hughson Nut Inc., said various avenues to attract workers have been explored. Hughson Nut operates three value-added plants and needs a sufficient labor force to maintain production. In June, he said they had held job fairs and are offering workers bonuses if they can bring in a new employee.

Critical needs are forklift drivers and machinery operators. Like other processors, Coburn said that where possible, they are turning to automation.

As the technology advances, more nut processors are turning to automation and not just in the sorting lines, said Mike Durrant of MPA solutions. As plant capacities increase, the need for labor will also increase. Product quality is also important for processors, he said.

Durrant noted that automation in processing plants is not just about replacing workers with machines or filling in labor gaps, but it can assist with providing the data to assist with management decisions.

Some plants are offering worker bonuses for referrals, competitive pay and other incentives to attract skilled and unskilled workers this year (photo by C. Parsons.)

Farm Equipment Shortages, Backlogs Put Pressure on Machinery Dealers and Growers

At Berchtold Equipment Company in Bakersfield, Calif., Michael Arriola is practicing patience like never before.

“Typically, on a retail order, it would take a month for a new tractor to show up on our yard,” said Arriola, assistant general manager for the 100-year-old company that sells New Holland, Kubota, Bobcat and other equipment brands. “Now it’s taking four to six months. Inventory all over the country is way down.”

Like other equipment dealers across the U.S., Arriola is seeing shortages of new farm machinery, including tractors, forklifts and harvesting equipment. Even parts and materials can be hard to find and are getting more expensive.

“If Berchtold hadn’t over-inventoried last year, we would be facing a definite inventory crisis,” Arriola said. “Some dealers are losing customers because they don’t have the equipment. It’s tough for everybody.”

Inventory has been tightening since 2020’s COVID-19 lockdowns forced manufacturing shutdowns and supply-chain disruptions. Now, as the pandemic eases in the U.S. and restrictions lift, demand is surging for all kinds of goods. But factories can’t ramp up quickly enough, making it harder to source equipment. Steel, computer chips, tires and plastics, all needed to make things like cars, smartphones and tractors, remain in short supply. Labor shortages and shipping delays aren’t helping.

“We ordered $1 million worth of tractors in June 2020,” said Brian Agnetti, president of San Joaquin Tractor Company in Bakersfield. “We’re just getting them a year later.”

Agnetti still has more than a dozen tractors on order for customers. “People were patient in the beginning, then not so much,” he said. “I got three angry calls today from people who are waiting for their orders.”

Buy now or wait? (Left to right) Curtis Tobias, Seth Pierucci, Allen Pierucci and Brian Agnetti discuss a new tractor at San Joaquin Tractor in Bakersfield.

 

Record Equipment Demand

The shortages come as demand for agricultural machinery soars. Improved commodity prices and low interest rates have spurred farmers to make more capital investments in equipment.

“The equipment business has seen three to four years of straight growth,” Arriola said. “From May 2020 to April 2021, the market for this sector rose 23.8% over year-earlier levels.”

That growth includes tractors in the 25- to 700-horsepower range and among all manufacturers, including New Holland, CASE, Massey Ferguson and John Deere.
The largest demand increase, however, is among tractors under 40 horsepower, Arriola noted. That compact-equipment market is especially popular with hobby farmers and labor contractors as are skip loaders, skid steers, mini excavators and back hoes.

White-hot demand in the real-estate market and increasing construction activity is helping raise the demand for equipment and pushing prices higher. Some Los Angeles equipment dealers are getting 5% to 10% over suggested list prices, said Arriola.

“Those construction guys have jobs lined up and will pay what they’ve got to pay to get the equipment,” he said. “It all trickles down to our industry. The competition is on for the equipment.”

Generally, all machinery products are in short supply, said Bill Garton, president of Garton Tractor, which has 10 locations across California. The shortage has meant lower sales for dealers and contributed to climbing equipment prices.

“I’ve seen some manufacturers increase prices several times this year, plus add steel surcharges to the invoices,” Garton said.

Those steel pricing add-ons are the result of shortages in that industry as well. Like Garton, Agnetti is seeing the effect of that too. In mid-June, the San Joaquin Tractor owner ordered four gypsum spreaders for his dealership. There was a $2,600 steel surcharge on the order.

“I’ve never seen that before,” Agnetti said.

Allen Pierucci and his son, Seth, were lucky enough to take delivery of a new orchard sprayer in June. They farm 800 acres of pistachios, cotton and pomegranates near Buttonwillow, Calif.

“But if that sprayer hadn’t been in stock and we’d had to order it, the cost would have been $7,000 higher than what we paid,” said Allen Pierucci.

A backlog of machinery orders has tightened availability among farm equipment dealers.

 

Dealing with Shortages

The lack of availability has created a buyer’s rush of sorts on tractors and other field equipment.

“Everything sells right away,” said Curtis Tobias, Agnetti’s business partner at San Joaquin Tractor. “People are afraid it won’t be there later.”

Dan Kramer, store manager for Kuckenbecker Tractor Company in Fresno, Calif., is seeing the same thing. “We’ve got quite a few tractors coming in over the next three to four months,” Kramer said. “A lot are already spoken for.”

Used equipment is also hard to get, and it’s expensive. “Prior to COVID, high used-equipment inventories were an issue,” said Joani Woelfel, president and CEO of Far West Equipment Dealers Association. “But, by January 2021, used equipment inventory fell to new lows, and prices rose dramatically.”

Repairing existing equipment has become increasingly important, too, even as dealers wait for parts to come in.

“Servicing is key right now,” Arriola said. “People are extending the life of their equipment to get by. If a tractor has several thousand hours on it, we’re working to keep it going.”

But even those efforts can come with delays. “If I have to order replacement parts, it’s a two-month wait,” said Seth Pierucci.

In the meantime, farm equipment dealers are working with friendly competitors to transfer inventory to each other or help out where they can.

“We’re all trying to juggle equipment among locations to be there for our customers,” Arriola said.

 

Long-Term Issue?

The wait to replenish equipment inventories and end the backlogs could stretch into late 2022.

“I’ve been told it will take a year and a half to get back to normalcy,” said Garton. “Many dealers have increased orders for over a 12-month supply of products, based on the assumption that availability will be a long-term issue.”

For Kuckenbecker’s Kramer, another concern has emerged as the equipment shortage sorts itself out and dealers rev up their ordering.

“Sales will continue to be brisk to the end of 2021,” Kramer said. “But I worry that next year, equipment dealers could be sitting on too much inventory.”

Pistachio grower Allen Pierucci tries to decide whether to purchase a new tractor at the San Joaquin Tractor dealership in Bakersfield.

 

Tree Nut Handlers Deal with High Energy Prices

California nut processors are facing soaring energy rates with no relief in sight.

Costs for electricity to operate machinery and light buildings, natural gas or propane for drying nuts and fuel to operate vehicles are assuming a larger share of their operating expenses.

Michael Boccadoro with the Ag Energy Consumers Association told Western Agricultural Processors Association (WAPA) members and guests at the association’s annual meeting what many already knew: commercial and industrial energy rates are twice the national average and rising faster than the national inflation rate. He predicted the trend would continue.

Between 2011 and 2017, Boccadoro said, electricity prices in California rose five times more than the rest of the U.S. California commercial and industrial rate payers are being charged 14.28 cents per Kwh, while in Arizona and Nevada, the rate is less than six cents.

“This puts us [agriculture] in a difficult situation,” Boccadoro said, “but the PUC is focusing more on residential rates.”

 

Current Struggles

Renewable energy goals and expanding climate policies are two of the drivers of the skyrocketing energy prices. Moving to net zero emissions will be costly, and there is a sense of urgency from the government. An ambitious ‘decarbonization’ plan for California will also impact energy costs, he added.

The Public Utilities Commission is not interested in bringing down costs, he said, but is focused more on shifting solutions to air quality goals. Drought conditions in the state and lack of cheap hydroelectricity are making the problem worse.

Utility mismanagement and perverse incentives have also had a huge impact on energy prices, Boccadoro said. PG&E has saved money by doing less system maintenance, but now rate payers are bearing the burden of higher costs as they upgrade systems. Wildfire mitigation and legislative mandates are two more drivers of higher energy costs.

Boccadoro’s presentation showed 10-year compound annual growth rates (nominal) for energy prices.

PG&E electricity is 3.2%, natural gas at 6% and gasoline at 5.4%. Edison and SoCalGas is 3% for electricity, 6.2% for natural gas and 5.4% for gasoline.

Proposed solutions are problematic and pending legislation will exacerbate the problem, he said.

Legislative mandates include using off-shore wind energy, but Boccadoro said that solution is not going to be cost-competitive.

 

Energy-Saving Strategies

There are some emerging opportunities for agriculture, Boccadoro reported. There is increased funding for energy efficiency and self-generation as well as a food production investment program. The agriculture industry has lost much of its clout in this state, he added, but regulators need to be reminded that if agriculture fails, the state fails.

Among nut processors attending the WAPA meeting, strategies for energy conservation abound. Use of solar to offset electricity costs has been a major investment for most processors.

At Horizon Nut in Tulare, a grower-owned processing facility, natural gas is used for roasting. At the facilities in Firebaugh and Lost Hill, it runs the dryers. August through November is the high energy use period.

Kirk Squire, grower relations manager at Horizon, said even with the larger pistachio harvests, the company has been able to cut their total annual energy use.
“Energy bills are huge during hulling,” Squire said.

As many other nut processing plants have done, Horizon turned to solar energy. In 2017, the company’s Firebaugh plant began using solar energy that can be transformed into heat and used in drying, steam pasteurization and cleaning.

Other energy savings come from turning off cold boxes during the winter, use of skylights for natural light and motion sensor lighting.

At Olam-owned Hughson Nut Inc., almond processing consumes the largest share of energy costs.

Outgoing WAPA Chairman Butch Coburn and Hughson Nut plant manager said similar energy saving strategies are used at all three of Hughson Nut facilities.

The Hughson plants are in the Turlock Irrigation District, which supplies power at lower rates than major suppliers, Coburn said. One of the Hughson plants, Verduga, uses solar power.

Huller and sheller Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA) has invested heavily in solar power to supply energy needs at their facilities. The price of energy is increasing, said CCAGA President and CEO Mike Kelley, but those costs are being mitigated by conservation measures.

Five years ago, he said, energy costs consumed 12% of their operating expenses. Today, that figure is 9% due to conservation and use of solar. The plant has also invested in new technologies for vehicles used at the plant. In the future, Kelley said they would look at converting forklifts to battery power.

Pistachio processor Primex was one of the first plants to adopt solar power to meet energy demand in 2010, said CEO Ali Amin. Their solar installation generated 40% of the power at that time, but as energy demand has increased at the plant, the percent is lower.

Primex would install more solar to meet energy demand at the plant, Amin said, but more ground space is needed.

High Moisture Content Delivers Lower Returns, Greater Damage

Dave Phippen has been growing and processing almonds for decades in the Central Valley, an experience that has given him a front-row seat to many of the challenges confronting the industry.

And while water shortages, increasing regulations around pesticide use and other vexing issues often grab the headlines, one recurring problem, which is almost entirely within a grower’s control, is moisture management come harvest time.

Delivering almond kernels with a moisture content greater than 6% to a huller/sheller or processor can create a cascading series of difficulties that affect not only the “wet” nuts but also the nuts around those with high moisture content in stockpiles or even in loads shipped overseas.

“Unfortunately, many times growers know that their product has high moisture content and are just looking for a way to quickly get it out of the field so that they can move on to address other orchard management practices,” said Phippen, a partner at grower and processor Travaille and Phippen, based in Manteca. “They tell me, ‘Just put it in a stockpile. We know the almonds are not dry enough for good hulling/shelling.’ But as we dive deeper into just how moist the nuts are, it becomes evident that they are well beyond the critical 6% moisture threshold. At that point, the blame or loss exposure is transferred from the grower to the huller/sheller.”

Almonds that are too wet when delivered to processors have a higher risk of developing aflatoxins created by Aspergillus spp., the fungal molds that produce aflatoxins. As with most molds, the most significant factor in the growth of Aspergillus is moisture content.

Aflatoxin is one of the primary reasons shipments of almonds are rejected after testing is conducted at ports overseas.

Nuts whose moisture content is too high also have a higher incidence of concealed damage, a condition in which off-flavors and off-colors are revealed after roasting. Concealed damage can significantly impact quality and reduce grower returns, especially in years with late harvests and/or early rains.

Wetter nuts also are more susceptible to having cracked shells embedded in the kernel during hulling/shelling process.

Brad Craven, who retired two years ago after a long career in the processing industry, said California’s ever-expanding almond production may be inadvertently contributing to the problem of wetter nuts.

“In my last few years, I saw an increasing trend in growers delivering wetter nuts,” he said. “With increasing almond volume throughout the state, there may not be enough harvesting capacity to get through that crop before a rain comes. Growers are starting to harvest as early as they can to get things done.”

 

Importance of Moisture Sampling

The first step to effectively managing Aspergillus growth and concealed damage is to ensure moisture content of the almonds does not exceed allowable levels. The Almond Board of California (ABC), based on findings from research in this area, created the Stockpile Management Best Practices, which not only detail the allowable levels but also educate growers and the broader industry on how to prevent aflatoxin and minimize the formation of concealed damage.

To accurately determine moisture levels in almonds, it is important to take a good sample of nuts before sweeping.

“Most hullers have a moisture check machine available for grower samples,” Phippen said. “Growers should make sure their sample is representative of the whole orchard, or, even better, representative of the wettest area in the orchard.”

Phippen recommended sampling early in the day to capture the morning dew that may occur. Research also has shown that nuts on the north side of the canopy next to the tree trunk can have moisture readings as much as 2 percentage points higher than in other areas of the orchard.

Growers should recognize that there is variability when drying on the orchard floor versus drying in windrows. Sampling should take this variability into account; within the windrow, moisture tends to accumulate on the bottom layers of almonds, so samples should be taken from that bottom layer.

Stockpiles at an almond huller and sheller. Clear tarps allow the greatest temperature fluctuations, but can be used on dry, in-hull almonds that are well below the moisture threshold.

 

Understanding Moisture Levels

Once an accurate sample has been taken, growers should determine the overall moisture level of their crop. Before stockpiling, moisture content for almonds should be below 6% for in-shell kernel, or less than 9% for total fruit (in-hull almonds), or less than 12% moisture content for hulls.

As a practical guideline, nuts should not be stockpiled if either their hull moisture content exceeds 12% or their kernel moisture content exceeds 6%.

“A savvy huller/sheller requires a sample before placing the product into a stockpile,” Phippen said. “Once the damp almonds are picked up from the field and placed into a field hopper, the problem gets big. That’s why it’s important for all parties involved to know, as close as possible, the product’s true and actual moisture content prior to picking it up out of the field.”

Phippen also offered this advice to growers worried about moisture levels in nuts.

“If you know that you are on the risky side and picking up anyhow, wait until later in the day after the morning moisture has had a chance to burn off before beginning pick-up operations,” he said. “Even if the operations need to continue into the early evening to complete the field, that is preferable to picking up first thing in the morning.”

Growers who shake nuts from trees too early also run the risk of higher moisture levels in windrows. Shaking early also leaves more nuts on trees. Conditioning to remove debris prior to windrowing will speed up the drying process and deliver cleaner product to the huller/sheller. Growers are encouraged to assess their operation and determine if using a conditioner may work for them.

 

Managing Stockpiles

When considering where to place stockpiles, it is recommended that industry members choose an area where the bottom of the pile is raised or sloped. This encourages any moisture to drain away from the stockpile, further limiting mold growth.

The positioning and shape of stockpiles also contributes to moisture control and helps reduce mold growth. An even, flat top is best for stockpiles to minimize areas where condensation can build up on the underside of the tarp, further limiting the opportunity for moisture.

Finally, stockpiles are best oriented with the long side on a north-south axis. In cases where the stockpiles are oriented with a long east-west axis, condensation and mold growth typically are worse on the north end of the pile.

 

Tips for Using Tarps

While tarps are a necessary part of the stockpile equation, they can increase humidity levels among the stockpiled nuts, heightening the chances of mold growth or concealed damage. Hullers and shellers are advised to keep these factors in mind when selecting a tarp to use:

A white-on-black tarp best minimizes temperature fluctuations, which lead to condensation and eventual mold growth.

Clear tarps allow the greatest temperature fluctuations, but can be used on dry, in-hull almonds that are well below the moisture threshold.

White tarps fall between white-on-black and clear tarps in terms of temperature fluctuations.

Controlling the relative humidity (rH) in a stockpile is also critical to maintain food safety; rH greater than 65% within a stockpile is the maximum allowed for almond storage. In situations when moisture levels become too high in a stockpile, hullers/shellers should open up the tarps in the daytime to allow moisture to escape and then close them at night. They should also monitor the outside of the piles where large changes in temperature and condensation can increase moisture levels.

For more information on how to manage stockpiles, from tips on what kind of tarp to use and monitoring for pests to controlling the rH, hullers and shellers should reference pages 5 and 6 of ABC’s Stockpile Management Best Practices for Hullers/Shellers (almonds.com/sites/default/files/grower_stockpile_management_best_practices_from_abc_2014%5B1%5D.pdf).

 

Don’t Pass the Buck to Processors

Delivering wet nuts to the processor is a headache for everyone, said Phippen, as it requires added cost, time and stress to manage wet nuts that may have been fine if they had a few more days in the field.

“If the product was in a pile that experienced excess moisture for an extended time, concealed damage is always a possibility. And, if for some reason the product slipped past inspection, it could become moldy and fail inspection at the point of sale,” said Phippen. “What’s more, aflatoxin contamination is also likely with wet or damp product, and high aflatoxin levels render product unsalable or in need of costly further processing. And when aflatoxin rejections do occur at the ports, this has the potential to damage the reputation of our whole industry.”

For Craven, the solution is simple.

“Growers have to deliver dry product,” he said. “It has got to dry in the fields. If you don’t dry it in the field, a lot of hullers won’t be able to handle those nuts. It’s important to provide the best product to ensure the greatest, most efficient outputs across the industry.”

Balancing Nutrient Needs after Whole Orchard Recycling

Scientists are finding that applying five ounces of nitrogen per almond tree for the first year after whole orchard recycling (WOR), or two ounces over commonly recommended rates for young trees, is sufficient to overcome the high carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio that the practice creates in soil.

Further, during West Coast Nut’s virtual Almond Day 2021 presentation on June 15, Mae Culumber, nut crops farm advisor for Fresno County, said researchers are recommending that growers spoon-feed the nitrogen in doses of no more than an ounce at a time and, when possible, sprinkle granular nitrogen around trees.
The findings show that growers can resume typical nitrogen application rates in year two, Culumber said.

Culumber, UCCE Pomology Farm Advisor for San Joaquin County Brent Holtz and other researchers have been refining nitrogen application rate recommendations after WOR for several years, essentially since growers started noticing stunting in some almond orchards after WOR. Experiments have involved adding up to three times the recommended rate for early tree growth, and then scaling that down.

“We ended up applying 100 pounds per acre, or nearly 10 ounces per tree,” Holtz said of one experiment. “That is where we started working backward and found that we can get away with five ounces per tree to get the growth we want.”

In recent experiments, including in a trial established at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in 2019, researchers are actually seeing better first-year growth in WOR trees than in trees planted under conventional conditions, according to Culumber.

“We have other trial sites throughout the state where, similarly, we are finding the same or better growth in whole orchard recycled trees when we’ve applied that triple-15 granularly application early on,” Culumber said.

Despite high costs and some preliminary issues with stunted trees, WOR has emerged as a viable alternative to tree removal when replanting almond orchards. Holtz noted that about 400 growers have recycled about 40,000 acres under the practice to date.

In her Almond Day presentation, Culumber addressed the most common questions she gets about WOR: Will the practice benefit soil? The answer, she said, is yes.
“We are seeing increased infiltration, increased water-holding capacity and increased microbial activity in soils from recycled orchards,” she said.

Adding organic matter, such as wood chips, to soil improves the physical and biological properties in soil that influence water retention and the permeability of water through soil, which helps with drainage, aeration and soil structure. Further, adding organic matter provides a source of energy for microorganisms to begin decomposition and produces substrates that act as a sort of glue for soil particles, giving soil the kind of structure and porosity that scientists associate with a better environment for tree roots.

“In some research that I’ve done and in trials where we compared different organic amendments, we saw much higher levels of microbial activity in plots where we amended with wood chips compared to control or just fumigated soil,” she said.

Adding wood chips to soil improves the physical and biological properties in soil that influence water retention and the permeability of water through soil.

 

Increased Soil Permeability

She added that researchers are seeing increased permeability in WOR plots, which allows water to penetrate deeper into soil, allowing it to reach more of an almond root system. And researchers have found better moisture retention in WOR plots. “Coming out of dormancy in a year like this year where we didn’t get much rain, that can make a big difference,” Culumber said.

Another question Culumber addressed is whether a grower should precondition chips with a manure fertilizer before incorporating them into soil. The question has merit, she said, given that researchers estimate in a mature recycled orchard that as much as 45,000 tons of carbon can be added per acre, and only a small portion of that is nitrogen. Adding dairy manure can help reduce the imbalance in carbon to nitrogen, she said.

“Even just adding eight tons of dairy manure, you are going to really drastically reduce that C:N ratio, maybe as much as half,” she said. “But as far as adding inorganic fertilizers, that might be a little more complicated calculation. Applying large amounts of inorganic fertilizer is not necessarily going to be beneficial for tree growth.

“Our recommendation is that probably fallowing for one to two years is going to be the best in promoting that turnover prior to planting,” she said, “but for a lot of people, we realize that is not an option.”

The good news here, she said, is researchers are finding a rapid decline in the C:N ratio under normal irrigation and fertigation conditions, so bumping up the nitrogen application rate for the first year should be all that is necessary.

“In some preliminary results from trials, we are finding that you can return to those normal fertilization guidelines as soon as the second leaf,” she said.

Culumber added that it is important for growers to come in early with their first shot of nitrogen. “We recommend doing that first dose of fertilizer several weeks after the tree put out leaves,” she said, adding that no more than one ounce at a time is recommended.

Targeting fertilizer to the root zone of trees through well-placed granular applications can improve performance, Culumber said, given that when applied through irrigation it can be difficult to get nitrogen to the smaller root diameter of young trees.

 

Wood Decay

Culumber also addressed the potential for wood decay diseases to persist in soil under WOR. In addressing this, she referred to research conducted by UC Davis Plant Pathologist David Rizzo and graduate student Bob Johnson that measured the persistence of Ganoderma inoculum over time in a recycled orchard. At the start, the research showed that 100% of the Ganoderma pathogen was present in the wood chips. Seven weeks later, researchers were still recovering about 50% of the inoculum in the largest of the wood chips, but the inoculum was not recoverable in the smaller sized chips.

“This preliminary evidence suggests that if an orchard has a history of disease, maybe fallowing for a year or two is going to be your best bet to ensure you don’t have problems with it in the future. But to alleviate your concerns about the disease, the size of the wood chips after grinding are generally much smaller than the size of the chips where the disease was still recovered,” Culumber said. “That is just not the size of wood chips that we are seeing with the screens that are used on these manure spreaders now.”

Culumber also addressed questions regarding whether wood chips would interfere with harvest. To address that, Culumber presented sampling she did last year where she analyzed material going into a conveyor belt from an orchard that had undergone WOR. She found that only 2.73% of debris in the conveyor belt was wood chips, while 91% was almond hulls and shells.

“We are finding that where people use some of these compacting tillers, there is good success with prepping that orchard,” she said. “And harvest doesn’t come until three years after you’ve planted, so you’ve got a couple of years of decomposition and settling of some of those wood chips.”

Top 10 Pesticide Violations of 2020

On an annual basis, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CDPR) releases their top 10 pesticide violations of 2020. This information is incredibly valuable in determining the agency’s priorities and where agricultural operations should direct their efforts. It is no surprise that the top 10 list over the years has not fluctuated by much as the industry continues to struggle with the pain points. With that being said, this is an excellent opportunity to assess if your business is meeting regulatory standards, and if not, take the time to fix the issues before CDPR comes knocking at your door.

 

FAC §12973 | Labeling and Permit Conditions

Common violations under FAC §12973 include:

  • Not following the application requirements listed on the pesticide product label.
  • Applying a pesticide to a site or crop not listed on the pesticide product label.

The use of a pesticide shall not conflict with the registered labeling delivered with the pesticide, or any conditions of a restricted material permit issued by the commissioner. All pesticides registered with U.S. EPA have the phrase, “It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.” In other words, the label is the law!

 

3 CCR §6738 | Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Common violations under 3 CCR §6738 include:

  • Not using PPE correctly and for its intended purpose.
  • Using damaged or contaminated PPE.

The employer is required to provide all PPE that is required on the pesticide labeling, regulation and restricted material permit condition. The employer must provide for its daily inspection and cleaning, and repair or replace any worn, damaged or heavily contaminated PPE. Additionally, assure that all PPE not in use is kept separate from personal clothing and in a clean, pesticide-free designated area.

 

3 CCR §6726 | Emergency Medical Care

Common violations under 3 CCR §6726 include:

  • Not taking employees suspected of a pesticide illness to a medical care facility IMMEDIATELY.
  • Emergency medical care information is not posted at the work site or work vehicle, or is missing information.

If the employer suspects that an employee could have a pesticide related illness or exposure, the employee must be taken to medical care immediately. Be prepared to provide medical professionals with the following:

  • The SDS(s)
  • Product name(s)
  • U.S. EPA registration number(s), and active ingredient(s)
  • Circumstances of application or use that may have resulted in exposure

The information is critical in determining the proper treatment for your employees. Ensure this information is readily available to be provided in an emergency.

 

FAC §11732 | Registration in County

Common violation under FAC §11732 include:

  • Performing pest control activities in a county before registering with the County Agricultural Commissioner.
  • Anyone who intends to advertise, solicit or operate as a pest control business in California must be registered annually with the County Agricultural Commissioner (CAC) in each county they provide business services.

 

3 CCR §6678 | Service Container Labeling

Common violations under 3 CCR §6678 include:

  • Not including the signal word on the service container label.
  • Not including the name of the company or person responsible for the container on the label.
  • All service containers are required to contain a label with the following:
  • Name and address of the person or company responsible for the container.
  • The identity of the pesticide in the container.
  • The signal word “Danger,” “Warning” or “Caution” that corresponds with the precautionary statement on the original container.
  • Farmers on their own property are exempt from this requirement, unless they travel on public rights-of-way.
  • The following round out the rest of the top 10 list.

 

3 CCR §6734 | Handler Decontamination Facilities

Common violations under 3 CCR §6734 include:

  • Handlers using wet towelettes in place of soap and single-use towels.
  • Not having a decontamination site at the mixing and loading site and within 0.25 miles from other handlers.

 

3 CCR §6602 Availability of Labeling at Use Site

Common violations under 3 CCR §6602 include:

  • Not having a copy of the registered pesticide labeling covering the use at the use site of each pesticide application.
  • Not having the special local need (SLN) section 24(c) labeling when using the pesticide according to supplemental instructions.

 

3 CCR §6761| Hazard Communication for Fieldworkers

Common violations under 3 CCR §6761 include:

  • Not updating medical information within 24 hours of the change.
  • Grower not informing employees of the location of the pesticide use records before they enter the treated fields.

 

3 CCR §6761.1 | Application-Specific Information for Fieldworkers

Common violations under 3 CCR §6761.1 include:

  • Not retaining the Application-Specific Information (ASI) for the last two years.
  • ASI displayed with missing information (e.g., Restricted Entry Interval (REI) or active ingredients).

 

3 CCR §6724 (b-e) | Handler Training

Common violations under 3 CCR §6724 (b-e) include:

  • Employer not including all pesticides to be handled in the training.
  • Employer not having records of trainings that occurred within the last two years.

If you should have specific questions regarding your pesticide compliance program, policies or best practices, please contact the AgSafe team at 209-526-4400 or email safeinfo@agsafe.org.

The information in the top 10 pesticide violations was provided by the CDPR. To view the CDPR presentation in its entirety, please visit cdpr.ca.gov/docs/license/pdf/pesticide_use_violation_2020.pdf.

AgSafe is a 501c3 nonprofit providing training, education, outreach and tools in the areas of safety, labor relations, food safety and human resources for the food and farming industries. Since 1991, AgSafe has educated over 85,000 employers, supervisors and workers about these critical issues.

Solar on California Working Lands: Share Your Perspective!

A team of researchers at Stanford University is interviewing farmers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley about the opportunities and concerns surrounding solar energy production on their lands. While state and regional planning studies have mapped out where solar arrays should be developed based on transmission lines and avoiding prime farmland or wildlife habitat, little research has been done that captures the perspectives and priorities of California’s farmers, even though most solar energy is developed on privately owned farms and rangeland.

To include the voices of farmers in the discussion, this Stanford research team would like to hear your opinions through a phone interview. They are interested in understanding what solar income could mean for your operation, what types of solar contracts are attractive and landowners’ concerns about solar.

If you are a producer in the San Joaquin Valley and are willing to participate in this study, please email Estefania Acuna Lacarieri (at eacuna@stanford.edu or by phone at 650-460-0304) to schedule a time to share your thoughts. Your contribution to this work is important and will be kept confidential.

Western Ag Processors Association Meeting Highlights Top Issues for the Nut Handling Industry

The Western Agricultural Processors Association held its annual meeting in June, providing one of the first opportunities for nut industry leaders to gather in person for two days of networking, business, trading and learning. Held in partnership between West Coast Nut magazine and WAPA, the annual meeting in Monterey including two days of talks and business for some 300 handler/processor members and associated exhibitors.

“It’s been great to see people in person again,” said WAPA President and CEO Roger Isom. “We had some new faces and some familiar faces. The ag industry is based on communication; whether it’s at the coffee shop or out in the field in the pick-up, we like to talk face to face.”

For many of the speakers at this year’s convention, the operative word was fight. From issues surrounding air permits, food safety, trucking and labor, WAPA members heard how the association advocates for its nut industry members on the regulatory and legislative front every day.

“We fight for our members on the front end to help [handlers] implement their programs, and then we fight for them on the back end to help them with appeals when there are issues,” Isom said. WAPA also invests significant resources following and helping craft policy that makes common sense for the industry and brings California to some sort of parity with other states.

“We can either give up and move to Texas or we can fight,” Isom said.

“WAPA has the time to be there in the regulatory office or in the state capitol,” said Kirk Squire, grower relations manager for Horizon Nut Company and a member of the WAPA board of directors. “Being part of WAPA affords us that talking ground we would not have time for as a company.”

 

Industry Issues

Chris McGlothlin, director of technical services for WAPA, reported on the association’s efforts to get incentive funding for ag tractor replacement rules set to go into effect in 2024 and its engagement with Sacramento over funding to implement the ag burning rule, which will phase out agricultural burning by 2025 in the Central Valley.

To illustrate WAPA’s efforts to engage legislators, state assembly members Autumn Burke and Heath Flora discussed their bipartisan efforts to understand and represent each other’s districts. While Burke is a democrat representing Los Angeles and Flora is a Republican representing the San Joaquin Valley, the two work together in a bipartisan way to find common grand and common-sense action that impacts California nut handlers, including legislation around cap and trade, pesticide mill tax increases, trucking and water.

Dan Walters, a political reporter who writes for CALmatters.org, a non-profit devoted to California public policy issues, said during his guest talk that this type of bipartisanship is rare in politics today but essential for moving the state forward. Particularly for agriculture, which has lost clout over the last few decades, engaging legislators will be critical.

“Not only has ag lost clout in in the mind of many legislators, ag is the enemy,” Walters said. “You’ve got to get that seat at the table or you will be on the menu.”
Several handlers in attendance shared their top concerns facing the industry. From supply chain issues brought on by COVID, to water, hulling capacity, labor, trucking shortages and more, handlers universally said there are a number of hot-button issues handlers and processors are up against as they prepare to handle this year’s nut crops.

Outgoing WAPA Chairman Butch Coburn of Hughson Nut, addresses the 2021 WAPA annual meeting audience.

 

Supply Chain

Dan Pronsolino, general manager of Cortino Hulling Group, which includes Dunnigan Hills Hulling & Shelling and two other huller/shellers, serves as secretary/treasurer on the WAPA board of directors.

He said supply chain constraints throughout all levels of the growing and handling process are creating hardships for handlers as they gear up for harvest. Parts and supplies they are used to having on the shelf are in short supply. And like consumers trying to buy replacement parts for a faulty refrigerator, or a new car or appliance, they are having to adapt to a shortage created by supply chain disruptions.

“We had a couple color sorters coming in that took 40 days from the day they arrived at the Port of Oakland to get to our facility,” Pronsolino said. Rubber products, such as belts, are just being delivered that were ordered last October.

Handlers are coping by ordering ahead to anticipate their parts needs and have spare parts already on the shelf. Here, too WAPA has helped direct its members to suppliers and manufacturers.

Horizon has put advance orders in for basics like shovels and rakes and parts for the water truck or tractor.

“These are all items that are showstoppers so you’ve got to have them here when you need them,” Squire said.

 

Water

Handlers agreed that lack of water is a serious threat, and although the ag industry in California has lived with drought for more than 20 years, the system is at a breaking point for the state’s ag industry.

“The way we say it in our board room is, ‘We own a couple thousand acres of some of the best farmland in the world, but without water, it’s just dirt,” said Don Barton of Gold River Orchards.

While growers are making it through this year through deficit irrigation and rationing what water they do have, Ali Amin, president of Primex, said if the drought continues into next year it will create a lot of uncertainty.

He said while pistachio growers continue to plant, he is concerned about the impacts to the industry 5 to 10 years down the road if climate trends continue. Deficit irrigation also leads to production issues, including a higher percentage of closed shells, which impacts yield and revenue.

Already this year’s crop is impacted and if there is no water for post-harvest refill, next year’s will be as well.

“If we don’t have a wet winter this year we are going to have a major issue on our hands,” Pronsolino said.

More than 30 exhibitors took advantage of one of the first in-person events in more than a year for the nut industry to reach current and potential clients.

 

Labor

Handlers agreed that the labor supply issue has been a serious problem this year.

“Were having a horrible time finding labor out there and the buzz is that nobody wants to work,” Squire said. “Is that true or does nobody want to work in ag anymore?”

Many handlers/processors are paying signing bonuses and wages above prevailing scale for both skilled and unskilled positions to have the staff on hand to process this year’s harvest. As minimum wage increases, Amin said it puts pressure on labor costs across the board, from sanitation line operators to forklift drivers and mechanics.

And that is when they can find workers.

“The vast majority of seasonal people who would usually be available are quite happy to stay at home,” Pronsolino added.

Many handlers are turning even more to automation where possible, from robotic palletizing to electronic sorting, to reduce their labor reliance where possible.
Squire said handlers will always need labor but the incentives to automate are ramped up by the labor shortage.

“A piece of equipment might cost $300,000 but it doesn’t call in sick,” he said.

Amin said Primex is also turning to automation, refiguring its processing area with new electronic sorters, to slowly reduce labor. The processor works to build long-term relationships with its work force to encourage them to return year after year, but acknowledged that a tighter pool could lead to more breakdowns and quality issues if they are not careful.

 

Hulling Capacity

In the almond industry in particular, handlers said bumper crops continue to push the industry beyond hulling capacity. At the same time, many handlers are pausing expansion plans to see what the weather will bring in terms of water supply. Many growers are debating letting older less productive orchards go and many have halted plans to plant new acreage as they wait to see the outcome of next year’s snowpack.

Pronsolino estimated there are about 180 million pounds worth of planted almond acres beyond hulling capacity, and another 10 to 12 plants will be needed to handle that acreage throughout the state. Cortino Hulling Group plans to increase its capacity by 10 to 20 percent at each of its plants. The facility already runs 24-7 during the season, so it is looking to larger equipment to process more nuts per hour.

Amin said Primex, the state’s third largest pistachio processor, plans to add four hullers for 2022 and an additional two facilities in the near term to increase its capacity from 90-100 million pounds to 130-140 million pounds. He said three growers are also putting up their own processing facilities to handle industry growth in the near future. He said handlers will find a way to process larger crops.

“If you grow them, we will figure out how to process them,” he said.

Coburn passes the gavel to incoming chairwoman Kim Keyawa-Musselman of Keyawa Orchards, who presents Coburn with a plaque of appreciation in return.

 

Shipping and Logistics

Truck driver shortages have also been a significant issue throughout the nut industry. WAPA is working to move regulations that would increase the load capacity to allow more product to be moved in a single load.

Handlers are faced with having to pay more for trucking or build added storage to give them more hauling flexibility. Ultimately, all these additional costs put a squeeze on grower returns.

“Trucking is usually paid directly by the grower, and as it gets tighter, they get squeezed and ultimately, although we try to absorb what we can, it finds its way to the grower return,” Pronsolino said.

At the same time, COVID lockdowns led to significant congestion at ports, as reported in previous issues of West Coast Nut, and that has disrupted the flow of nuts to market.

With containers returning empty to key export markets before they can be loaded, and uncertainty around shipping dates, handlers have worked extra hard to get their logistics organized for an orderly flow of California nuts to market.

Squire said Horizon like other handlers last year was weeks or months behind on shipments, just due to the difficulty to get containers or get loads on a ship. As with many of these issues, WAPA is working with maritime agencies and others to try and alleviate the impacts of these issues on the industry.