Located outside Esparto in the beautiful Capay Valley in central California, Brian and Gretchen Paddock operate a small family farm primarily consisting of organic almonds. The original orchard was planted over 100 years ago. In 2009 and 2010, all our six (yes, 6) children, many friends, and extended family gathered to plant a new, 1400-tree orchard. Each child has a role in our farm. Kyle and Bailey manage our website, Nicholas keeps rodents under control, Alicia writes our newsletter, Jessica created our logo (Brian and our two dogs, Roxy and Travis, are in the logo), Joshua also does rodent control, and everyone harvests, sorts, and packs. Brian is the operations and sales manager and Gretchen runs the nut house.
We choose to farm organically because our home is situated in the middle of our orchard, we drink the same water as our trees, and we do not want to subject our family to health concerns that “conventional” farming operations can present. We also strongly believe in being good stewards of our land, and therefore we grow our almonds using sustainable processes following national organic certification criteria. We practice regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is an approach to food and farming systems which aims to regenerate topsoil, increase biodiversity, improve water cycles, enhance our ecosystem, support biosequestration and recycling as much farm waste as possible.
Our farm is unique. Unlike conventional orchards that harvest onto the ground, we harvest some of our trees manually with poles and rubber sledge hammers. The rest of the trees are harvested with a hydro-mechanical shaker. However, all of the trees’ nuts are knocked and shaken onto tarps. This virtually eliminates any chance of salmonella.
Eat our truly raw, unpasteurized almonds or try the smoked ones. Our smoked almonds are awesome. They are naturally smoked using real almond wood from the organic trees they grew from. We also make our own truly raw almond butter.
Weed Control is the most time-consuming and labor-intensive aspect of organic farming. We do not use any synthetic herbicides. To help block out harmful weeds, we plant a beneficial cover crop. Once the cover crop has grown but before it goes to seed (which uses valuable nitrogen), we introduce sheep which eat the cover crop down to the ground. Normally the cover crop will grow again in a month’s time, so we repeat the sheep grazing again. Well before harvest, the sheep are removed according to food safety requirements. The sheep also help with soil fertility.
Soil Health. Almond trees use a lot of nitrogen, but adding nitrogen alone is not proper soil management. First, in autumn we spread 50.000-150,000 lbs. of organic compost on the orchard floor. The purpose of compost is to build soil structure, add nutrients (such as nitrogen, potassium, etc.), increase soil water-holding capacity, improve soil aeration and cation exchange, supply organic material for beneficial soil organisms, and stabilize soil pH. We also add chicken manure from an organic grower and gypsum, mined in Nevada. After those inputs, we complete a light rototill to prepare for our cover crop. We use specifically chosen annual plants (Mustard, beans, radish, clover, vetch) which will aerate the soil with deep roots and/or inoculate the soil with nitrogen fixing roots and add organic material to the soil. In spring, sheep graze the orchard and deposit manure for the next year. In 2015, with the drought ever-present, we inoculated the cover crop seeds with a naturally-occurring, beneficial fungi before planting them. Mycorrhizal fungi are a fungi that form a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship with plants’ roots. These fungi attach themselves to the roots of plants (and then spread to our trees) and basically become extensions of the roots. Therefore, mycorrhizae increase the trees’ capacity to find and absorb water and even help to break down important nutrients for the health of the tree. At our farm, we work towards organically producing a balanced soil condition containing nutrients and minerals. We also feed microbial activity in our soil. These microbes break down otherwise unusable nutrients and make them available to the trees, reducing inputs. We test the soil and leaves regularly throughout the year to quantitatively monitor the soil health and document the impact our soil nutrition program is having on the trees. From leaf samples, we can fine tune what minerals the trees may be lacking and add them through foliar sprays if needed. These products are all certified-organic and are natural, mined minerals: copper, zinc, magnesium, boron, etc. Each mineral serves a critical element to overall health of the tree. Foliar sprays in particular are very efficient as the open leaf stomata serve as an entry point for these micronutrients.
Irrigation is another costly expense. Our water comes from a 300 ft. deep well, which is very clean and pure and is tested regularly. We test it annually for nitrates, e-coli, and a number of other elements. The well pump is powered by solar panels on our barn. Many farmers use drip irrigation or micro sprinklers to water their orchards these days. We have two drip systems installed, but primarily use a microjet spray system that hangs from the trees. It is the most efficient due to excellent water distribution. Our alternate system, sub-surface drip, is buried 6-8 inches down in the ground and is used primarily on windy days. Another way we maximize our water conservation is by irrigating only when the tree tells us to. So how does the tree tell us? We have a pressure chamber which a UC Davis professor invented. With this device we can determine the stem water potential and compare it to a chart. From the chart and evapotranspiration tables, we determine the irrigation requirements of the tree. We really don’t care how wet the soil is, we care what the tree leaves are getting. With this tool and with our sub-surface drip system, we eliminate over-irrigating and are therefore using our water resource properly. Additionally, we hope the mycorrhizal fungi will help the tree find water.
Pollination. The blossoms of all California almond varieties require cross-pollination with other varieties to produce a crop. We planted three varieties of almonds (Nonpareil, Fritz, and Monterey) to maximize cross pollination and production yield, and to ensure a good tasting nut. Pollination during the bloom period (Feb.) is the single most important factor in determining a good yield. Without bees, we cannot farm almonds. They are critical to moving the pollen around each of the 1400 trees. So where do we get our bees? Fortunately, our next-door neighbor is a bee keeper and queen bee breeder of Carniolan and Italian queen bees. His bees enjoy our orchard and hedgerows year-round. We always have some plant blooming and maintain 2500 ft. of hedgerow, which provides a natural insectiary for beneficial insects. These insects pollinate the trees and eat bad insects…bug warfare.
So our hedgerow segways right into insect control. Years ago farmers ripped out the native plants, not realizing that in doing so they were killing the habitat for the good bugs, and hence the bad bugs took over. So these farmers looked for a solution, and folks came up with pesticides which would eliminate those pesky insects. The problem with that plan is pesticides kill good bugs and bad bugs all together plus involve some rather hazardous chemicals. We don’t use insecticides or pesticides of any kind. Instead, on our farm we provide a nice habitat for the beneficial insects through our hedgerow, and in return the good insects kill the bad insects. We have cultural practices which also reduce pests: Every winter we painstakingly remove almonds which did not shake loose during harvest; these are called mummies. This eliminates overwintering homes for naval orangeworm and greatly reduces their population. In addition to insects, another pest problem we encounter is rodents. Rodents are certainly not insects, but they can be just as damaging to trunks and roots. Each squirrel can clean an entire tree of nuts! They are very costly. We refrain from using any poisons, so instead we use cats, dogs, traps, shotguns, rifles, foxes and owls to keep these populations under control. At night you can hear our owls near their owl boxes. By the way, they don’t hoot; they screech very loudly and eat many rodents. Our hedgerows also a habitat for foxes, which love to eat squirrels.
Disease control is a tough battle for organic farmers to fight. We have few safe weapons to combat disease after infection is present other than removing the infected tree entirely. There are some organic fungicides available which introduce naturally occurring bacteria which combat the alien fungus. Therefore the best management course is prevention. We do our best to prevent diseases through these methods: (1) Promote open tree canopies for good airflow. (2) Minimize pruning to lessen the number of entries for disease. We also prune only during the right atmospheric conditions. (3) Keep the orchard floor as clean as possible. (4) Don’t over-irrigate and needlessly increase canopy humidity. (5) Plant the trees on mounds to keep the root ball dry.
Harvest: Over the past several years there has been much concern and talk about salmonella. Most almond farmers shake their trees with a machine and the nuts (in the shell and in the husk) drop on the orchard floor. They are then susceptible to soil-borne pathogens--not good. These nuts are then swept up with another machine into rows. The rows, full of nuts, branches, dirt, dust, poop, etc. are then gathered up with another machine. It is a very dusty operation and not healthy for the harvesters or the consumer eating the potentially-contaminated nut. This is not how we harvest. For the most part, we use a hydro-mechanical harvester to drop the nuts onto tarps; this method virtually eliminates any chance of salmonella poisoning because the nuts never touch the ground.
Hulling, Shelling, and Packing: After harvest is through, we transport the in-shell, in-hull almonds to a certified-organic local huller-and-sheller. The almonds come back to us hull-and-shell-free in USDA-approved containers. We then hand-sort out any bug/insect-damaged almonds. We pack the good nuts in boxes and put them in cold storage until they are re-packaged according to the customer’s wishes. Our primary cold storage facility is here at the farm in a room which is precisely temperature and humidity controlled according to UC Davis recommendations. Our secondary long-term cold storage is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in a facility which is naturally cold with low humidity. Lastly, we complete the final packing and labeling for shipment to you.
Marketing and Sales: If we did not make money from farming, we could not pay the bills associated with farming. We direct market. This removes the middle man (a store or broker) and we save money for the consumer (you) and retain more money for the farmer (us). This positions us to be economically sustainable. We do everything possible to keep costs down and shop for the best value on all orchard supplies and equipment. Brian’s mother taught him well. He is very wise spending money and saves much. Those savings are passed along to our customers. We ship USPS flat rate because it is the least expensive, and we print the label at our farm to save more money. The lower our costs are, the more affordable we can offer our almonds to our customers. How do we sell? Our primary customers come through our roadside stand at our home/orchard and through this website, built by our oldest son, Kyle. The website serves as an extension of our roadside stand making unpasteurized California almonds available to all, no matter where you live!
Well, that’s how we farm. We hope you see that we farm in a very sustainable manner, minimizing the impact we make on God’s beautiful creation.
Brian & Gretchen Paddock and family