My parents, as I think we've mentioned before, are farmers. On 40 acres of land outside Ceres, a small town that borders the grand suburban metropolis of Modesto, they have around 4000 almond trees in production. This is not the kind of super-farm that springs up throughout the Midwest but it approaches an ideal: enough to both support two families--my parents as well as my dad's brother's family of four--and just about the right amount of work throughout the year for two men to handle. Double this acreage and it would take 3 or 4 hands but most of the year it's just my dad and his brother, Bill, who keep the place going. Irrigating, spraying, pruning, all of those various gerunds that roll so easily off the tongue but translate to days, sometimes weeks, of work for the two of them. Occasionally, though, the work of the farm will crescendo, turn into something they cannot handle alone. In these times, their families step in to take up the slack. That's where I come in.
Intermittently, as I blundered my way through University and then grad school, I would find myself back in the area at one of these times and be able to lend a hand to help. It's good honest work, but it can be laborious. Once, I spent a few wet January days swinging a fifteen pound rubber mallet at tree trunks in order to knock mummy nuts--almonds that weren't collected in the harvesting process and, if they remained on the branches, could become infested with worms that would harm the next years' crop and eventually kill the tree--from the spare winter branches. By the time I finished two rows--maybe a hundred trees--my arms had gone numb to the elbow from the sharp impact of the mallet reverberating through the wooden handle. Once I'd finished for the day I couldn't uncurl my hands from the shape of the mallet for hours. I wrote this stanza in a poem titled Almond Days about the experience.
Some nights my hands stay negative toolsIt can be backbreaking work, punishing to the body and truly wearying, but it's hard to communicate just how rewarding I find it. Just to be walking under the canopy of gnarled branches right after sunrise, the doves and crows flitting from tree to tree in front of you, jackrabbits leaving a trail of dust you can follow for half a mile. Just to be working at something you can put into words instead of toiling at the ethereal labor of the office makes everything feel right. Maybe I've just worked at too many dead end white-collar jobs and this is backlash but even at night, when my bones ache and my head feels swollen from weariness, I don't regret a minute of the day. The pleasure of feeling exactly what I've done with the hours between sunrise and sunset is too great.
chainsaw grip, tractor claw, cramps like coins in the blood.
Since we returned to the Modesto area, I've had the good fortune to be involved in a part of the almond production process that I'd never had the time to even see before. This week and the next few we're bringing in the harvest: truckload after truckload of nuts, many hundreds of tons of almonds dusty and sun beaten and ready to be processed and packaged and marked up and sold for ridiculous prices in stores. You'll find us there from just after sunrise straight on into the thin arid heat of the day, a fine dust like peach fuzz all over our bodies, hair and skin and clothes dyed the gray-brown of the field.
At the moment, I'm unskilled labor. But I've been trying to learn as much about the process as possible, partially to satisfy my newfound curiosity at this enormous aspect of my father's life, partially because I honestly enjoy the work.
So here's an overview of the trip almonds take from tree to factory this time of year, as I'm learning it.
When the nuts have grown ripe on the tree, they will split their protective hulls--the gray-green outer shell in the picture above--and start to dry out. When dry enough (we're talking less than a tenth of a percentage point of moisture each), they are vibrated from the trees by a shaker, a machine that is essentially a gigantic robotic claw that grasps each trunk and shakes the hell out of it until what was loosely attached above--leaves, sticks, birds, almonds--uncouples and ends up on the ground.
The shaker leaves a thin carpet of nuts through the field, so tightly packed you cannot find room for your feet between them so walking through the rows at this point means almonds crunching beneath you like a crust of grainy sublimated snow. For its surreality, it's not an altogether unpleasant experience, walking on food this way. I'm not saying I'm into messy fun or anything but it's nicely tactile. Real.
Next, these nuts are swept into neat piles between each row of trees by a machine called, you might have guessed it, a sweep. Following this is the job I spent the early bulk of the week at: walking the tremendous length of each of these piles and pulling out any larger branches or thick brush I find. This detritus can get stuck in the machines during pick up and cause an overflow, which is basically just a huge amount of almonds falling on the ground and means a ton of work shoveling the damn things up by hand.
Using the obviously-named pick up machine, we brush these rows of nuts up into belts that shake off the smaller dust and debris and shuttle the nuts into a trailer which empties into a conveyor belt to transfer them into a series of double-trailered semis and eventually into the factory which will hull, shell, and store the nut meats until they sell to any of the many buyers of almonds around the country and the world. Phew.
This week I've been involved in every step of the process in some form and, despite the heat (it's been in the high 90s), it's been a wonderful experience.
Maybe it's the blush of working with my hands for the first time in a long time, but I find I can hardly wait for next week to begin. I think about food quite a lot, and it's just so cool to be involved with this side of its production.
Look for more almond posts coming up in the next couple of weeks as I further dirty my shiny camera documenting the harvest!