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Valley Harvest Escalon Grower Hits Peak Of Season
0925 Pick Up
This pick up machine is moving along the row of almond trees, leaving the dust behind and picking up the almonds that were placed in the center of the row in the orchard. VIRGINIA STILL/The Times

The agriculture industry is a huge part of the Central Valley economy and most of the residents in this area know when summer is coming to an end due to the machines rumbling along the rows in an orchard and stirring up (more than) a little dust. Late August is the beginning of harvest for many of the nut growers that have trees that produce almonds and walnuts, with several weeks typically spent getting the crop in.

Owner Robert Longstreth, of Growers Choice on River Road in Escalon, farms almonds, walnuts, and cherries. The area around the Valley that he farms is north of the Tuolumne, East Waterford, throughout Oakdale, near Riverbank, Farmington, Collegeville, and East Salida.

Longstreth started farming when he was a teenager. His father purchased a 33-acre lot planted in vineyards that he took out and then planted in walnuts. Longstreth attended Fresno State for a few years where he studied plant science with a minor in Viticulture.

“Every weekend I would come home from Fresno State and do the job,” said Longstreth of working the acreage. “I have been doing it a long time.”

The reason that agriculture plays such a huge role in the valley, he added, is because of the climate and the water that is available to the region.

“Eighty percent of the nuts consumed in the world grow between Bakersfield and Yuba City,” said Longstreth. “If you go to China, Korea, or Taiwan, chances are you are going to eat a nut that came from California.

“The nation doesn’t produce almonds and walnuts except for right here.”

The Central Valley agriculture offerings include a tremendous variety of food that is grown right in our own backyard, from peaches to strawberries, row crops to the nuts.

Several scientific studies throughout the years have shown that there are several health benefits in nuts, Longstreth said, which make them even more desirable to eat.

Almonds are rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals that help fight against certain diseases and cancers.

Walnuts are also known to have several health benefits and according to Longstreth are now being called the miracle nut.

“Not only does it (walnuts) have the Omega 3 like fish, but it is helping your heart, and making your veins elastic as well as fights Alzheimer’s and cancer,” said Longstreth. “It’s a very healthy protein source.”

Along with walnuts, Longstreth said there are several different varieties of almonds and at one of his orchards they have Nonpareils, Carmels, and Sonoras.

The older varieties are no longer as productive as the newer varieties. So the farmers have to pay to have new varieties developed.

Walnuts are very similar to almonds but there are only three varieties that are being planted today, explained Longstreth.

He added that he has seen many changes since he has been in the farming industry and he expressed that the machines have improved with low dust machines and advanced technology making it easier for growers to harvest the crop and being less disruptive to residents living nearby.

This is the busiest time of the year for Growers Choice and they are working six days a week, nine- to 10-hours a day.

There are many steps to harvesting the nuts and the process today is a very efficient system. The trees are shaken and the nuts are dropped to the ground. The pick up machine then goes along each row and picks up the nuts and drops the debris on the ground. Every part of the almonds is used from the hulls to the shells. The first and most popular variety gets picked up first and those are the Nonpareils. The other two varieties are the Carmels and Sonoras, which are pollinators that help support the Nonpareils.

A shuttle truck, used in the collection of nuts, has a lever in the cockpit that can be switched so the entire control center – the heart of the truck – can be moved. That way, the operator can drive the shuttle truck backward and forward. These new machines and technology have helped the process by allowing for a 40 to 50 percent increase in productivity, said Longstreth. The shuttle truck will ‘bump’ the pick up machine and start the conveyor belt of the elevator that is on the back of the pick up machine, which then starts pouring the almonds into the shuttle truck. Once the pick up machine is empty and the shuttle truck is full, the truck will leave the pick up machine and head over to the elevator, where the elevator will dump the almonds into a container. The pick up machine no longer has to stop to unload. It can run continuously. It all plays out like a well-orchestrated ballet of man and machinery.

“The machines are faster so production has skyrocketed,” said Longstreth. “The new machines are a lot better on dust.”

Harvest started in late August and will run until the end of October.

“We are a business and are forced into regulation and are tied up with a lot of things,” said Longstreth. “We are producing dust and I understand all that, but if you just bear with us it only happens a few weeks out of the year.

“We’d appreciate your patience with us this time of year.”

And the payoff for patience can be found on store shelves near you, ready for use in your favorite recipes or just plain eating out of the package.