New almond promises Independence from bees

Bees working in an almond orchard west of Fresno. Bees working in an almond orchard west of Fresno. The Independence almond — a self-fertile variety needing few bees to produce numerous large nuts — is creating a buzz among almond growers.

Created by Zaiger Genetics Inc., the Independence almond was released in 2008. Dave Wilson Nursery, which holds the patent on the trees, has a producing Independence almond orchard in Modesto.

At Dave Wilson Nursery, orders for Independence almond trees now exceed orders for the popular and widely known Nonpareil variety.

Closer to home, Barra Farms, owned by Ben Barra, is giving the Independence variety a try. The Barra family has young trees on 20 acres just southwest of Fresno.

“We expect a couple of hundred pounds this year,” said Steven Barra, Ben’s son.

“It takes almonds about five years to mature,” he added. And this is Barra Farm’s first Independence crop.

Barra explained that production costs could be cut considerably if the variety works out. “Bees are a major expense,” he said.

The variety also cuts down on trees, because one variety does not have to pollinate another variety. And with only one variety planted, multiple harvests are no longer necessary.

“It is self-fertile,” said Art Ruble, almond and olive specialist for Dave Wilson Nursery in Reedley. “You only plant one variety.”

It makes harvests easier to schedule and nuts can usually be picked before damaging rains arrive, Ruble said.

Nonpareil has been the dominant variety in the area producing large almonds with attractive shells. But the variety needs plenty of pollination. Dennis Tarry, CEO of Dave Wilson Nursery, points out that growers could save as much as $250 to $300 an acre by eliminating the cost of bees. Pollination accounts for about 16 percent of the per-acre cultural cost of growing almonds.

The Almond Board of California sets the per-acre cultural cost of growing almonds at $1,752. That includes pruning, weed abatement, disease control, irrigation and fertilization and pollination.

“Bees are a significant component,” Tarry said. Considering that total cost of growing almonds stands at nearly $3,900 per acre, growers spend between 8% and 12% of the total cost of growing almond trees on bees,” he said.

One eye-catching factor is that the money saved by cutting bees out of the equation could potentially pay the cost of planting news trees.

The prospect of the Independence almond has some beekeepers a little concerned. Roger Everett, a Tulare County beekeeper and past president of the California State Beekeepers Association, said his industry is keeping an eye on the success of commercial plantings of the Independence almond. 

“Depending on how well Independence plays out in the real world, it could result in a decrease in the need for bees,” Everett said. “The question is how fast the industry chooses to adapt or change over.

Everett said almond bloom should begin in the next couple of weeks — the beekeepers busy season. The Valley’s almond crop requires up to 1.2 million bee colonies for fertilization, and Everett estimates there are about 2.1 million bee colonies in the entire continental U.S. 

Rent for a single pollinating bee colony reached as high as $140 a few years ago when colony collapse disorder caused widespread bee disappearances.

With that in mind, growers are planting young Independence variety trees in the fertile fields of east Fresno.

Some new Independence almond groves in the Fresno area now span 100 acres, Tarry said. Although the popular Nonpareil variety tends to draw a slightly higher market price, that trend may be changing.

In some cases, Independence growers received $2.35 a pound for their almonds, about equaling the wholesale price for Nonpareil almonds.

Tarry said he expects Nonpareil almonds to always be around, but the Independence variety could cut into Nonpareil production. “It has its own place,” Tarry said.

Tarry describes Independence as a large high-grade commercial quality almond with a soft shell. It has a sweet flavor and blanches well.

“We are pleased with the quality of the nut,” Tarry said.

It blooms with Nonpareil and is harvested two to three days before Nonpareil.

Last year, California growers produced about 300,000 acres of Nonpareil almonds. Independence almonds cover between 15,000 and 20,000 acres in the state, Tarry said.

Although much of the production started out in San Joaquin County, it is now catching on in Madera and Fresno counties. Fresno County crops are mostly in their third year and production stands at about 1,350 pounds per acre.

Madera County produces about 560 pounds per acre. The difference results from different growing techniques and some problems the Madera crop had along the way.

Developing a plan for best production of the crop is a learning process, Ruble said.

Independence almond growers in the Modesto area have a jump on Independence growers in the Fresno-Modesto areas. Some of the groves are in their fourth year or older.

But groves are also coming of age around Fresno. “We are seeing a lot of interest in the Central Valley,” Tarry said.

“The outlook is fantastic,” he said. 

Although growers are still learning about the attributes of the Independence variety, it appears to produce well and provide good quality nuts. “We knew it had a lot of potential to set fruit,” Tarry said.

In terms of bees, some growers have opted to have no hives at all. Others have brought in one hive. “It may or may not be necessary,” Tarry said.

Time will tell if having fewer bees or no bees is the best option.