WASHINGTON, June 1, 2016 - What might one day be called the Idaho Growers Almond Coup may be taking root in the Treasure Valley of southwest Idaho, where farmers successfully grow table and wine grapes, peaches, apples, nectarines and more.
There, about 16 varieties of almond trees are blooming, flourishing in a small experimental tract at the University of Idaho’s Parma Research and Extension Center, located in the low, flat region where the Snake, Boise and other rivers and creeks converge.
Because winters get colder there than in the southern and central California groves of almonds (pronounced a′-mens, with the a as in apple, by California farmers), researchers at Parma are, of course, looking especially at strains with cold hardiness. “The ones that have worked really well for us are Sonora, Nonpareil and Monterey,” says research assistant Tom Elias. “The three have grown here for a long, long time and they are doing really well.” Now, the center has stepped up its research at the urging of Treasure Valley farmers who want to consider commercial almond production.
Growing almonds “piques my interest,” says Kevin Schultz of Eagle, Idaho, president of the Snake River Table Grape Growers. “I got into grapes because of a buddy who grows almonds in California. It’s how I got into agriculture in the first place.” Schultz observes that Californians “get pretty good returns on almonds.” So, he says, “On my place, I would plant some almond trees in a heartbeat.”
In California, the only state growing almonds commercially, production has had a storied history. Franciscan friars brought almond trees, long grown in the Middle East and Mediterranean, to locations there more than 400 years ago. California farmers began growing them seriously more than a century ago, quadrupling their yields per acre by 2000. In recent decades, output has soared: Acreage has doubled in the past 20 years, and production has nearly doubled in just the last decade to an expected 2 billion pounds this year. The success is driven largely by exports: Californians now grow almost 80 percent of world almonds and ship more than 80 percent of world almond exports.
What’s more, Californians have been steadily adding more bearing acres, while enhancing their yields to boot, right on through recent years of drought. Yield per acre is projected up again this year – by 5 percent – with total production of shelled almonds up 6 percent.
Back in Parma, Elias says that one strain tested there, called Fritz, showed cold damage. But
Nonpareil and Monterey, which happen to be California’s top producing varieties, seem to flourish, he said. They mature later in Idaho, he said, but it may be an advantage for Idaho growers to have a bit different harvest season.
Note that while drought has zapped California in recent years, the Treasure Valley has plentiful water from area rivers and aquifers. Also, it hosts hundreds of beekeepers who now haul their beehives each winter to California to assist almond orchard pollination, but may prefer to perform those services in Idaho groves.
So far, California producers seem to be paying scant attention to the Treasure Valley research. “As far as I know, we are not aware of any research (on almond trees) in Idaho,” Alicia Rockwell, spokesperson for Blue Diamond Growers, a cooperative and leading California producer, said in an email to Agri-Pulse.
Meanwhile, Gabriele Ludwig, representative of the California Almond Board, a producer promotion and research entity, said she was surprised at the notion of Idaho almond production. Folks in her offices, she said, “are not aware that Idaho has the appropriate growing conditions for the current varieties of almonds. Almonds have a quite narrow temperature range they like to grow in and produce well.”
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