Farming for almonds

Walking through the almond orchard, she checks the trees for any sign of almonds. Upon sighting a clump of almonds, math teacher Sara Bilton swings a 10-foot long bamboo stick toward the branch to knock the almonds to the ground.

During the summer, Bilton helps with the almond harvest at the SJM Farm, a family-owned business located in Modesto, Calif. The business dates back to 1910, when Bilton’s great-great grandfather grew grapes for wineries. After retiring as a police officer in 2010, Bilton’s father used the property from the vineyard to establish the SJM farm in 2011, naming it after his son and daughters, Matt, Jennie, and Sara. Today, the farm has 1500 almond trees, spanning 15 acres.

“The almond farm gives our family something in common that we’ve all experienced and know about. Even though my siblings and I live in different places, we always come back together and help out with the farm.” Bilton said. “It’s positively impacted my parents, especially when my siblings and I have moved out of the house. A lot of times that’s difficult for parents, for their kids to leave and for them to become empty nesters. The almond farm gives them a second purpose and something to work on.”

The soil on the SJM farm consisted mostly of clay, so Bilton’s family had to turn the soil and make it softer before growing the trees. The saplings were then planted into the soil and spaced out evenly throughout the farm. The clay provided nutrients for the trees, allowing them to grow within 5 years. Since then, Bilton’s family has tended the almond trees to keep the process of almond farming going. The process begins in late February, when the almond trees begin to produce blossoms. The blossoms are replaced by small green pods over the course of the summer, and inside each pod is a single almond. When the pods become hard shells, Bilton’s family uses shaker machines to shake the almonds to the ground. However, not all almonds are knocked to the ground, so Bilton hits branches with clumps of remaining almonds with a bamboo stick.

“To farm almonds, you need a lot of patience, [and] you need a lot of time,” Bilton said. “It’s really tiring for the first five years because there’s no almonds really being produced, so you’re not immediately getting a reward.”

In addition to harvesting almonds, Bilton helps with watering trees, handling pesticides and trapping gophers and ground squirrels to prevent them from eating the produce or digging into the roots of the trees. Bilton also uses pesticides to fight fungi, diseases and pests that could potentially harm the almond trees.

“We don’t have a big enough farm to have a corporate, where we hire a bunch of people. It’s just our family does it, but I think that makes [the almond farming process] the most special.” said Bilton. “We have fun together. My family likes to joke around which makes the work fun, and I think that’s why we like it so much: we feel happy when we’re helping out.”

After harvesting the almonds, Bilton’s family sends the almonds to Blue Diamond, a manufacturing center, where the almonds are cracked open. The almonds are then sorted based on appearance, in which the Blue Diamond workers determine whether or not the almonds look appealing. Finally, the almonds are sent off to be turned into products such as almond milk, roasted almonds, or flavoring.

“My favorite part about almond farming is when I’m walking around when all the trees are full of almonds, green and beautiful. I just like being outside and being one with nature,” said Bilton. “You’re outdoors, and you’re in the middle of the orchard; you can’t see anything but trees for yards and yards. You kind of feel isolated and just kind of like away from the rest of the world. Living down here in Los Angeles, where it’s always busy and there’s always people, [is always noisy], but out in the trees, it’s really peaceful, and there’s nobody else around.”

By Andrew Kim, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Sara Bilton