Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/July 1892/Almond Culture in California



DURING the fiscal year ending June 30, 1890, the American people imported 5,715,858 pounds of almonds, valued at $813,278. The value of all other nuts imported was $800,376. I confess my surprise at this fact, that we spend more money for almonds than for all other imported nuts put together. It would not be so surprising if this were the cheapest of our imported nuts. But, on the contrary, it is the highest priced, not only in the countries of exportation whence we draw our supplies, but still more so to the consumer in this country, on account of the higher import duty. The duty on almonds is five cents a pound if unshelled, and seven cents and a half if shelled. The highest duty on any other nut is three cents on filberts and walnuts.

The average import price of the almonds was fourteen cents and a quarter, and of the filberts and walnuts 5·7 cents. The almonds imported were almost exactly half shelled and half unshelled, which would make the duty average six cents and a quarter; and so, adding the duty to the import prices, the prices in this country, duty paid, were 20·5 cents for almonds and 8·7 cents for filberts and walnuts. Thus our preference for the almonds seems to be conclusively established, in spite of the fact that our imports by weight of filberts and walnuts were nearly double those of almonds.

The home production of all these nuts is still so small that we have no reliable statistics of it. California produces both almonds and walnuts, but in small patches only. The southern end of the State has a considerable walnut belt, but the almond orchards are widely scattered. The area suitable for almond culture is confined to small spots distributed over the whole length of the State. It is doubtful whether there is enough of it all told to supply the American market. What there is of it, however, is rapidly filling up with the trees. Not more than half of those already set out are now in bearing. So it may not be many years before the California almond-grower will be able to depress a market which he can never hope to wholly supply, even with the burden of a high protective tax of five cents a pound heaped upon his foreign competitor.[1]

For the past year I have myself been an almond grower, in a small way, my total product being almost exactly one car-load. The purpose of this paper is to describe the processes by which the favorite nut of Americans is produced and made ready for their holiday tables.

To begin at the beginning, the almond is strictly a budded or grafted tree. A seedling apple, peach, cherry, or plum is sure to be good for something and marketable at a fair price, though it may be far below the grafted stock in quality and productiveness. The seedling almond may, like other seedlings, be an improvement, but it is very apt to be utterly worthless and unsalable, and may ue deadly poison. It is as if its evolution were so recent that its type is not well set, and its tendency to atavism, or "breeding back" to older types, quite strong. This inclination to "sport" shows itself even in budded and grafted trees. All except the oldest trees on this ranch were planted and budded on the ranch, under the careful supervision of the owner. In selecting the buds and scions he not only paid strict attention to varieties, but took care to cut from none but the most prolific bearers of the best nuts among the tested trees of each variety. In spite of all his care, we have some interesting sports. There are trees that never bear at all; others bear worthless nuts. One yields a nearly perfect peach-pit inclosed in a nearly perfect almond drupe. And the four named varieties, though amply distinct when fairly represented, now and then shade into one another so gradually that the most experienced pickers have difficulty in deciding which box to empty their baskets into.

Of the many varieties of almonds four only are cultivated on this ranch, and their most important difference is in the weight and hardness of shell. None of them is a hard-shell, but the standard is a rather hard soft-shell; the Languedoc is the regular soft-shell, so quoted in the market reports; the paper-shell is the nut regularly quoted as "paper-shell"; and the California papershell is a new and very distinct variety which originated within a mile of here, and has made this ranch famous among the nurserymen of the State. The trees grown from its buds and scions probably number at this writing half a million. At any rate, enough has been cut from it to produce a far greater number. It was a purely accidental seedling, not a premeditated hybrid. But its good size, plump kernel, extraordinarily thin, light shells, sweet flavor, and agreeable appearance have won its way in the markets; and sold alongside of other nuts, hard-shell, soft-shell, or paper-shell, in San Francisco, New York, or Chicago, it brings the highest price of all by two or three cents a pound. It is the truest of all to type, and most distinct in the form of the tree. Mr. Morrison at first set out a twenty-five-acre orchard entirely of this variety. But, being disturbed by reports that it had proved a shy bearer, he sawed off three fourths of the trees and grafted in the better-known varieties. The new almond certainly has not borne so well as the others since I have been familiar with it, and I am afraid the difference in productiveness offsets the difference in price. Otherwise the California paper-shell would be a valuable contribution, strictly American, to the improvement of the almond; and Mr. Webster Treat, who has tried it on a larger scale than anybody else, claims in his paper, read before the State Board of Horticulture, that it is the hardiest and most prolific as well as the most salable almond grown. He confidently predicts that it will drive the foreign almond out of the market.

The almond is an unpruned apple tree in size and shape, and in smoothness and color of bark; a peach tree in foliage and green fruit. The leaf is so exactly like that of the peach, to which it is most nearly related, that the casual visitor can not distinguish them. The same is true of the fruit in a very green state. The drupe is a peach in taste and smell, both green and dry. The almond is quite commonly grafted on peach stock, though some prefer the almond stock on account of its alleged greater hardiness and longevity. An almond orchard in bloom is a thing of beauty. The first one I ever saw was the one immortalized in the story of Ramona, and it happened on Washington's birthday. The date shows what an early bloomer it is. First of all the fruit blossoms of spring comes the showy almond, a dense mass of white with a "hint of a tint" of pink in it.[2]

The cultivation of the almond is easier than of any other tree, unless it be the prune. The orchard is plowed and harrowed once or twice a year, and then the weeds are kept down in any way the farmer chooses. The amount of work required to do this depends on the weather, and is just the same for the almond as for any other tree. But the almond tree, like the prune, is never pruned in this region. Like the prune, the fruit is never thinned on the tree, as the peach and apricot must always be, to produce a crop of good fruit. The heavy pruning and thinning required every year on our peach and apricot trees is a great expense, the thinning alone often costing fifty cents a tree, for an average of the whole orchard. Aside from stirring the soil and killing the weeds, a dozen apricot trees take more care and labor than a dozen acres of almonds. This is the consideration that makes almondgrowing popular. Equally important is the fact that thus far the almond has no parasites, such as scales, moths, etc., while almost every year adds a new recruit to the insect enemies of other fruits. Our peach-growers are put to the expense of buying costly machines for spraying their trees, and insecticides with which to spray them. Insecticides cost money, and spraying costs time and labor. If the wash is strong enough to kill the scale, it is apt to kill the new wood of the tree a very serious matter in the case of the peach, whose fruit is all on its last year's growth of wood. Still, the spraying must be done every year, and may even be enforced by law in California. All this trouble and expense are saved to the almond-grower, whose only insect enemy is the red spider, a semi-occasional visitor easily got rid of, and not formidable if left unhindered in his work.

First to bloom in the spring, the almond is last to mature in the fall. The whole spring and summer long it hangs there, a green peach for all the world, and after the first few weeks never increasing in size or changing in appearance. The seam is deeper than in most peaches, but not deeper than in the ripe apricot. Late in August this seam will be seen to have opened in a few of the earliest. The grower's anxiety now reaches its climax. Will his almonds open and remain open until harvested, or will the drupe remain closed, or only partially open and then close tight again? The whole profit of the crop may depend on this question. It may cost half they are worth to pick and husk them. Just that thing happened this year to my nearest neighbor, and to several neighbors; while the nuts on this ranch opened better and husked easier than ever before in the whole course of its thirty years of almond-growing. The result was, that our pickers earned a dollar and a half a day picking at half the cost per pound incurred by our neighbors, whose men earned a dollar and a quarter a day.

The nuts are knocked off the trees with long poles. Where they have opened nicely they are allowed to drop on the bare ground, and are husked as they are picked up. The picker's delight, if he is working by the bushel or box, is to see the ground covered with nuts that the stroke of the pole and the impact against the clods have completely husked, so that he has nothing to do but throw them into his basket. He is lucky indeed if half of them come out that way. Those that do not are husked with the fingers. The new paper-shell above described is one of the freest, and its drupe often falls off spontaneously before the picking season, leaving the naked nut hanging to the tree. But the nut so free from its drupe clings tightest of all to its tree, and is often quite hard to knock down without injury to the branches. Otherwise the saving in its harvest expense would be quite an important point in its favor.

In the best of seasons there will be a large part of the crop so badly opened as to require a different process. A canvas is spread under the tree for the nuts to fall on. When all are knocked down, the canvas is rolled up and with its load of nuts carried to any spot near by where it is convenient to heap together the harvest of several trees. A simple table of loose boards is made, and around it gather the pickers. One of the party rubs the nuts to loosen the drupes, and the others husk. The rubber is an extremely simple machine, exactly like a washing machine in principle. Practically it is two old-fashioned wash-boards rubbed together. In appearance it is a flat-bottomed pig-trough, six or eight feet long and open at one end. Across the bottom inside, pieces of lath are tacked an inch apart, and thus the lower wash-board is formed. The nuts are scooped into it, a few pounds at a time, and a shorter board, likewise ribbed crosswise with lath, handled like a flatiron or a plasterer's trowel, is rubbed over them by hand, loosening their husks and pushing them along to the open end of the trough, where they fall into a box and are heaped on the table, to be now easily husked. It is a cheerful thing to see the assembled pickers seated under the shade of a tree, making their fingers fly and heaping up their boxes with the precious harvest. The damper on the meeting is the fact that almost invariably the pickers are Chinamen. Their gay chatter might as well be that of monkeys, for all the sense you get of it. At many kinds of work white men are more profitable to employ than Chinamen, though they demand much higher wages. At picking almonds the Chinaman is preferable at the same wages. Fewer nuts escape his keen eye to be left on the tree or under the clods. He can pick more in a day, and with less damage to the tree and the nuts.

In large orchards a more complicated but still crude and unsatisfactory rubber is sometimes operated by horse or steam power. But the nuts and drupes must still be separated by hand, and probably always will be. The drupes are mostly only loosened by the machine, many of them not even that, and but few of them entirely rubbed off. This last might be done by machinery in the case of quite hard-shelled nuts. But more force is required to remove the drupe than to break the shell of a large portion of the crop. In some orchards every year, and in many orchards this year, the only way to market the almond was to crack it with the drupe on and sell the kernel. Others who did not deliberately crack were obliged to rub so hard that many of the kernels came out, and at the close of the harvest they had barrels of them to sell as shelled almonds. The price per pound is greater than of unshelled almonds, but my neighbors say that the addition to the price does not make up for the weight of shells thrown away, to say nothing of the extra labor and expense of cracking.

Where the picking was done by hand, and paid for by the box, it cost this year, in this vicinity, seventy to ninety cents a box. The box used is what is called the large-sized free apple-box. That is, it is the box which holds an honest bushel, and goes with the apples when they are sold in the market. The first boxes I got from the factory were free apple-boxes, and I supposed that was all right and sufficient, until the Chinese foreman of our band of pickers brought out the box he had used in former years, and I saw that mine were smaller just enough smaller not to arouse suspicion in the breast of the final consumer when he buys apples by the box, and at the same time to save the middle-man, who buys by the pound and sells by the box, a few pounds in each box he sells. He prefers that the producer should ship his fruit in these dishonest boxes, just as the San Francisco butter dealers, who buy by the pound and sell by the roll, caution the farmers not to put quite two pounds in a roll. So I found that my apple-boxes were short-weight boxes, and were losing me the cost of picking about three pounds out of every box of almonds picked; and that this loss would in one season cover, several times over, the price of the boxes. I put this part of the story in for whatever it may be scientifically worth, as a contribution to the study of commercial ethics. I bought the larger-sized bushel boxes as quickly as possible. It cost me one dollar and fifty-six cents to find out the difference between a bushel of apples and a bushel of apples.

Picking and husking the almonds cost us exactly fifty dollars a ton, and our neighbors all the way up to twice that. Outside of my own family we employed a varying number of Chinamen, up to nine. The task lasted from the 18th of September to the 28th of October. The boxes picked each day are gathered in the evening and conveyed to the drying-yard, where the nuts are sun-dried for a few days. Then comes the bleaching, which is done with the fumes of sulphur, and requires care and some experience.

The bleaching-box is built in various fashions, but covered with tongued and grooved boards and in other ways made tight, so as to confine the sulphur-smoke as much as possible. In common orchards it is about six feet square and six or seven high. It is a complete inverted box, and often movable. The drying-trays are slid in on cleats like the draws of a cabinet. Almonds, being dried before they are bleached, are sprinkled or sprayed with clean water just before sulphuring, the moisture being necessary to make the sulphur do its work of bleaching. The proper quantity of sulphur for one bleaching is put into a pan, ignited, and set inside the bleaching-box. The doors are closed tightly, and left so until the sulphur is all burned. The almonds are then taken out and dried again for a few hours, to remove the moisture sprayed upon them before bleaching.

If they come out bright and evenly bleached, the grower's heart beats more quickly. He knows that it is the color that sells his almonds. Consumers may growl as much as they please, and preach on the sin of poisoning their fruit with sulphur-fumes, but they will always buy the poisoned (?) fruit and give a much higher price for it. They may pat the honest grower of unbleached fruit on the back, but trust them never to give him a penny's worth of encouragement in the market. To-day my paper quotes unbleached apricots at two to four cents a pound, and those that are bleached, or "sulphur-poisoned," at five to six and a half cents. All these prices preclude living profits. Who knows how many growers of unbleached fruit this year's ruinous prices will drive off their farms and out of business, to make room for a like number of sulphur-poisoners? And, going back to the apple merchants and butter dealers, we must admit the full force of the same apology for their crookedness.

But aside from the fact that the fruit-grower is held, much against his inclination, by his final consumers to his questionable trick of trade, the question is still open whether it really does them any harm. Sulphuric acid, like many poisons, is a medicine in proper doses. Does a tablespoonful or two of well bleached peaches, taken at meal-time, contain a poisonous or a medicinal dose of the acid? Remember, they are not sulphured ad lib. The consumer and the middle-man set the bounds. A distinctly susceptible sulphur taste hurts the peach in the market, and reacts on the grower. He is obliged to learn the art of securing a thorough bleach without the sulphur taste. To do this he must have the right kind of sulphur, and a very tight bleaching-box properly arranged inside; and he must know how much sulphur to put in, and how long to leave his fruit exposed to its fumes. The most experienced of my neighbors still differ widely on all these details. But I am convinced that, with proper facilities and proper skill and care, the bleaching may be made to entirely satisfy the eye of the consumer without injuring the rest of his body. I confess I should like to be still better satisfied on the point. But I console myself with the reflection that sulphur-smoke is a famous disinfectant, and must render the fruiteater less liable to all those diseases originating in germs, either microscopic or otherwise. Who knows but that a thorough scientific investigation, bacteriological as well as chemical, would prove the sulphur-poisoner to be, on the contrary, a conservator of the public health?

But whatever guilt the fumes of sulphur fasten upon the fruitgrower, the almond-grower is clear of; for he does not sulphur his fruit at all. What he sulphurs is but the shell that is thrown away that is, if he does his work properly. If he sulphurs while the nuts are green, or wets them too much just before sulphuring, the fumes may penetrate to the kernel; especially of very soft-shelled or paper-shelled almonds. But he gains nothing by it, not even in the appearance of his nuts, and does it from ignorance or inexperience rather than from policy. I tried this thoroughly, and by watching closely the result of each experiment was able to improve on the best advice my neighbors, old in the business, could give me. First, our old bleacher being too open, a new one was built. Then the almonds were made a little drier than they need be to go to market. Then the water was put on in the finest spray attainable, so that the nut was slightly but evenly dampened, but little if any more than enough to make up for the overdrying. Then the time of exposure to the fumes was regulated, not by the watch, but by the quantity of sulphur put into the pan, so that, whether we bleached in the daytime and took out one bleacherful to make room for another, or went to bed at night leaving the bleacher loaded and the sulphur burning, the nuts always got the same dose and no more. We kept on until we found the minimum of moisture and the minimum of sulphur that would do the business.

The nuts came out of the bleacher looking beautifully, all the more so by being laid out in the drying-yard in rows or squares alongside of the black, ugly things not yet bleached. They never look so pretty afterward, for the sunlight required to dry off the moisture artificially put on blackens them to a certain extent. Here we got the advantage of not moistening too much. Our overdried nuts absorbed part of this moisture, and they could soon be removed from the discoloring influence of sunlight, and the curing finished in the shade. Manipulated in this way, the kernel of the finest paper-shell can not be hurt by the sulphur.

And this leads us to the observation that, as a rule, the harder the shell, the whiter the almond bleaches. This rule does not hold always and absolutely, for, while no paper-shell approaches the mere soft-shell in whiteness, the whitest of our paper-shells is also the softest-shelled—namely, the new "California." But while the market pays more for the darkest paper-shell than for the whitest soft-shell, the tourists who visit our yards are always most attracted by the "Standard," the hardest of our soft-shells, because of its showy whiteness. In the market it brings about two thirds the price of our black, old-fashioned paper-shell—that is, in the San Francisco market. But just here I had one of my most interesting experiences in almond-growing. I sent fair samples of each of our four varieties to San Francisco and also to Chicago. I was struck by the grotesque difference in the relative prices quoted from these samples. Thus, in cents per pound:

Variety. San Francisco. Chicago.
California paper-shell 14 18
Common paper-shell 12½ 12
Languedoc 10½ 15
Standard 9 15

The tawny skin of the common paper-shell, easily cracked by twisting in the fingers and yielding a large weight of kernel in proportion to weight of shell, was too much for Chicago, and it was quoted away below the heavy-shelled, hard-shelled Standard, requiring the use of the hammer, or the clumsy nut-cracker, and its weight consisting largely of waste shell.

If any of these varieties had a kernel suitable for the confectioner or the baker, and he bought them unshelled, he could afford to pay considerably more for the paper-shells; for he would be paying for little else but kernels, and these would be easily extracted. However, the kernel used in candies and cakes is that of the imported Jordan almond, in San Francisco as invariably as in Chicago or New York. It is imported shelled, and is longer and smoother than anything we have yet produced. It comes from Malaga. Those who buy nuts by the pound for the table, or to carry in the pocket, would save money by paying a little more for paper-shells, to say nothing of convenience in cracking—especially as a pocket nut. Those who buy them for children inclined to use their teeth as nut-crackers would save something worth more than money. The child who disobeys and clandestinely cracked his almonds that way would not be damaging his teeth as much as if chewing a hard crust of bread or a dry toast. On the other hand, many persons, after their attention has been called to the subject, like, or think they like, the flavor of the harder-shelled Standards and Languedocs better than of the paper-shells; and de gustibus non est disputandum. The writer hereof has no preference. He never did eat almonds, nor any other imported nuts except Brazil-nuts, when he could get the native nuts of the Mississippi Valley.

If this is due to early associations, the almond would by the same token be the favorite nut of the younger generation of California almond-growers. They had no eatable wild nuts, their native walnut tree, transplanted to their homes for its beauty, bearing a worthless nut. The almond, of all their crops, was best adapted to cultivate and felicitate home life. They harvested it themselves, knocking the nuts off the tree in the daytime, husking what they could, and carrying the rest into the house to be husked by all the nimble fingers of the large, old-fashioned families at night. Prices were high then, and every pound husked meant twenty, twenty-five, or even thirty cents. With such prices, never-failing crops, and little or no cash expense, it is no wonder that almond-growing became popular, nor that the solidest farmers attribute their present comfortable circumstances to almonds. Well may they turn from these degenerate dime-apound seasons of more than occasional failure, when the inevitable Chinaman, whom the Exclusion Act has exalted into a grasping monopolist of labor, takes half the proceeds of the harvest, and takes it before the producer gets the first penny of it into his own fingers, back to those cheery days of old.

Cured ready for market, the nuts are stored or shipped just like barley, the same coarse gunny-sack being used. Its capacity is that of the cotton sacks used by Eastern farmers, by them branded and kept on the farm. The California sack is also often branded, but goes all the way to the final market and never comes back. All grain is shipped from Pacific ports in that manner. And, though the single sack costs but seven to ten cents, the whole expense is a great burden—estimated for the State at $2,000,000 a year—on the California producer. He can not escape it, for there are no elevators. Where grain has to be handled from five to ten times before reaching its consumer, the sack becomes a still more expensive crudity, shaving down the producer's profits. To the grain-grower the average loss by it is officially estimated at ten per cent of his gross proceeds. The sacks alone cost me six per cent this year on the gross proceeds of a thousand bushels of the best brewing barley, sold at a price twenty-five per cent higher than that realized by the average grower of the common grades. How much I paid the warehouseman at home, the one in San Francisco, the one in Liverpool, and the brewer, each of whom handled it twice, for the extra work of the sack system over the elevator system, I do not know. They may have done it gratis, but I do not think so. At any rate, long after the system is universally recognized to be a monstrous and unnecessary burden, we shall be held to it by the same cause which binds England to its crude passenger-coach and America to its deadly hand-coupling and brake on its freight trains—the necessity of changing all at once and on so large a scale when the change is made.

But the burden on the almond-grower is trifling—one per cent for sacks in my case—the product being so much more valuable in proportion to bulk. The sack is altogether an advantage. It saves the delicate shell, and furnishes a place for the brand of the orchardist who is proud of his product and wishes to work up a reputation for it, and also for another brand giving the name of the variety contained in each sack.

An important practical question confronting every prospective orchardist is, How soon will my trees come into bearing and pay their own expenses and interest on my investment? In these days of harnessed steam and chained lightning, young America plants for himself and not for his children. Some old men who have tried it a little have come to the conclusion that too much planting for posterity is a mistaken kindness for which posterity, lying in the shade, kicking up its heels and letting its faculties rust for want of planting to do, returns no thanks. The almond is an early bearer. At four years from the seed the orchard of which I am the lessee yielded, at about average prices, about eighty dollars per acre gross—say sixty dollars net. This year at six years old, prices considerably below the average, the gross proceeds will be about one hundred and twenty-five dollars per acre. I do not think any other orchard yielded so much per tree, of the same size; but, on the other hand, these trees are so wide apart (twenty-eight feet) that there are only about half the usual number of trees on an acre. While the trees are small, this tells against the yield per acre, and so in this respect this orchard is probably only a fair example. It was not an exceptionally early bearer. In a general way it may be said that an almond orchard yields as quick returns as an average herd of beef steers, but not as quick as a herd of heifers. And in the mean time the planter does not lose the use of his land. He plants other crops between the rows and does not lose a single year. But of course no ordinary annual crop can yield a profitable return on the price he will have to pay for land known to be adapted to almonds.

The almond, most precious by weight of all orchard products, involves the least labor, care, anxiety, expense, and skill of all, except perhaps the prune. In recent years it has never yielded the fabulous returns occasionally realized by the growers of almost every other fruit and nut. It never yields, as the orange has, a competence for life in a single year from ten acres. Its reasonable expectations are about one hundred dollars net per acre.

The old Latin form of the word almond (Amygdala) furnishes the name whereby botanists designate the genus to which belong its two species (A. communis, the sweet, and A. amara, the bitter almond), and the peach (A. persica).

  1. The table on page 314, Internal Commerce of the United States, 1890, estimates the "shipment" of almonds as follows:
    Year. Pounds.
    1885 . . . 1,050,000
    1886 . . . 600,000
    1887 . . . 500,000
    1888 . . . 450,000
    1889 . . . 600,000

    Whence or whither the "shipments" were made is not stated. The connection indicates that they were from the eight leading fruit and nut shipping points in California. The figures look like guesses, and no clew is given to the amounts shipped from the other points to San Francisco, to be reshipped and thus counted twice in the table, which does not include some important almond-shipping points; and would not include my 15,000 pounds sent from a point not named in it direct to Chicago.

  2. The writer in the Encyclopædia Britannica combats the ancient tradition that almond blossoms are white. He says they are pink. As I have seen them it is more proper to call them white than pink, though the whitest contain a suggestion of pink, and some varieties show it so plainly as to be distinguishable at considerable distances.