Almonds shake the dust off with new tech

Low-dust machinery aids almond harvest, air quality in the San Joaquin Valley

By Kevin Hecteman
California Farm Bureau

SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY – As California farmers work to harvest a record-sized almond crop, they say efforts to make the job less dusty are showing results.

Jonathan Cloward tried a low-dust harvester last year, and liked it so much he bought another one. He’s using them to scoop up almonds in the Ripon and Madera areas.

On a sunny morning in Ripon, Cloward opened the side panel of his Exact harvester. The machine gathers almonds—already shaken out of their trees by the shaker, then collected into rows by the sweeper—along with twigs and leaves. All of this is collected on a cleaning chain designed to separate the dirt and other detritus from the almonds before the debris hits the blower.

“All of your dust is going to come from the machine when that blower blows everything out the side of the machine,” Cloward said. “What Exact has done is, there’s a water tank in this machine. It will shoot water into this blower housing to try to capture as much dirt and dust as possible.”

Pointing to a brush resembling those on street sweepers, Cloward explained that its purpose is to keep the dust and dirt from clumping and to move it out of the harvester. With the addition of water, much of the dust and dirt becomes mud that returns to the orchard floor.

“That way, it keeps it out of the air and just puts it right back onto the ground,” Cloward said.

Eric Heinrich, who grows almonds and walnuts on his family’s farm near Modesto, said a certain amount of dust at harvest time is inevitable, but that “huge strides” have been made by harvesting-equipment manufacturers.

“They’ve done things in their engineering to reduce dust—things like slowing their fans down and just having better designs of their harvest equipment,” Heinrich said. “That’s made a big difference.”

Jesse Roseman, a senior environmental specialist at the Almond Board of California, said his group works to expand adoption of the technology, through incentive programs offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and working with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Research into dust reduction from better technology has been underway for more than a decade, Roseman said.

“The results show that it does reduce both visible dust and the regulated dust, PM2.5 and PM10,” he said.

The exact amount of reduction depends on the machinery, but Roseman said some data show reductions of 50 percent or more.

In addition to technology, Roseman said the Almond Board is researching ways to reduce dust using existing equipment, such as different machine settings and harvest speeds. Reducing dust also has agronomic benefits, he added, such as less dust on leaves and controlling pest populations.

“The Almond Board continues to look for ways to reduce emissions in the Central Valley, whether from outreach to growers to adopt the practices that we know reduce dust, expanded adoption of low dust harvesters, or work with equipment manufacturers to develop new technologies,” Roseman said. “It’s certainly a win for the grower who can reduce dust and see on-farm benefits, and also for neighbors who can see a reduction in dust that might be affecting them.”

Though dust is down, the forecast for this year’s crop is up. Almond farmers are projected to produce 2.45 billion meat pounds of the crop this year on 1.07 million bearing acres, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. That’s up 7.9 percent from a year ago.

Gordon Heinrich, Eric’s father, said he thinks the grand total will fall short of that projection, but it’s too early to tell for sure.

“You’re dealing with mature trees, and you’re dealing with young trees coming into production that are going from third to fourth leaf, fourth to fifth,” he said.

The record projection came despite a cold snap in late winter and early spring that caused at least one California county to declare a disaster. Tehama County, estimating a crop loss of at least 40 percent, sent the paperwork to the USDA in April.

Eric Heinrich said that in one early variety, the Peerless, “we did find frost damage, and we were kind of wondering how that was all going to end up.” Weight reports for his crop are not in yet, he added, but the damage is “not near as bad as what we were thinking, which is exciting.”

Gordon Heinrich said the timing of the frost could have been worse.

“We’re lucky that that frost wasn’t a week later,” he said. “Had that frost been one week later, it would have affected the Nonpareils and other varieties much more.”

Back in Ripon, Cloward reported a smooth harvest with cooperative weather.

“As far as crop size, with the frost and everything, we see it as being average,” he said. “We haven’t seen any fields that have any major damage from the frost we can tell so far.”

He was about halfway through harvest as of Friday.

“I would definitely say it is not as detrimental as what we were maybe worried about back when it was freezing, but I wouldn’t say that it’s incredibly high, either,” Cloward said. “I would probably still keep the crop, from field to field, as being average.”

As with many other farmers, the Heinrichs said they’re keeping an eye on ongoing trade disputes.

“We don’t get paid on a finalized payment for almost a full year after we ship,” Gordon Heinrich said. “We don’t know what the bottom line’s going to be yet. I think that the next two or three months is going to tell the story.”

Eric Heinrich pointed out that “the world is hungry for what we are producing, and that is a good, plant-based protein that preserves well.”

Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at [email protected]

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