By ROSE ALBANO RISSO
209 Living Correspondent
At this time of the year when the grounds in the almond orchards are covered with a carpet of sweet-smelling snow-white blossoms, boxes of beehives are a common sight.
But in the last few years, more and more acreage of San Joaquin County’s top crop are blooming sans the buzzing pollinators.
Welcome, Independence Almonds.
As the name implies, this newest variety of California’s $5.6 billion crop ($536,396,000 in 2018 figures for San Joaquin County’s almond meats) self-pollinates its own blossoms and does not need any busy bees help to come up with a productive nut crop at harvest time.
Latest ag reports indicate that the Independence Almond variety has become so popular that there is a waiting list of farmers wanting to purchase them for planting.
That’s no surprise considering the amount of money growers can save in bee pollinating rentals or lack thereof, timing of spraying applications, harvesting, and irrigation efficiency.
“They are self-fertilizing so you do not need bees. You can cut costs way back on bee colonies,” said Ripon almond grower Herman Van Laar who, unlike a growing number of area farmers, has not yet jumped into the Independence plant wagon.
Savings jump even more significantly when harvest time comes. If you have 100 acres of these self-pollinating trees, for instance, you knock the whole field at one time, sweep them, and pick them.
“After that, you’re done with the field,” whereas other fields of other varieties will require two to three times of knocking, sweeping and pick up so the extra labor will “cost a lot of money,” said Shannon Vrieling of Vrieling Farms, an agricultural company in Ripon which he co-owns with his brother Brian and their father, John.
The Independence advantage does not end there. During a “bad-weather year, those trees tend to stand pretty good,” which translates to less trees being uprooted and lost.
For these reasons, Vrieling Farms wanted to “try them out” and planted a section of their almond acreage with Independence.
“They’re five years old now; they’re not blooming yet,” Shannon Vrieling said.
At this point in time, they don’t have any plans of increasing their Independence tree inventory because of market saturation. The first time they came out a few years ago, he said 50,000 acres of Independence were planted.
“There’s too many already, so we’re not planting any more either,” Vrieling prudently observed.
But they are exploring the possibility of trying another new tree variety called Bennett. It’s “kind of like Independence but they don’t self-pollinate,” he said.
However, where the good news comes in is that the Bennett can be harvested at the same time as the nonpareils – “you pick them all up with the nonpareils.”
There’s a difference in the taste of Independence from the other varieties like nonpareil, Shasta, Butte and Carmel.
Just as for every action, there’s an opposite reaction, so does the Independence almond.
A couple of years ago, some farmers “found out that they couldn’t do much with them because (the nuts) are on the bitter side,” Van Laar said.
Roasting them takes out the bitterness “and you can put them in candies; but short of that, they are not good for anything; you can’t make milk or paste. They’re hard to sell.”
Still, there are farmers like Stanley Vander Veen, an almond grower and owner of an almond hulling plant in Ripon, who are sold on the cost advantages of Independence.
“We have some (Independence). They don’t need bees, and you harvest them all at one time,” thereby saving labor costs. “They got some good qualities,” Vander Veen said.
Independence was developed by Zaiger Genetics and has been available to growers since 2008. In 2016, one-fourth of all new almond acres were planted to the self-fertile variety.