Seen up close right before harvest, almond trees produce an amazing-looking fruit. It says, “I’m ready” when the fuzzy outer hull is split open, exposing the hard shell that tightly encapsulates the kernel. That inner bit is what we know as the almond.
I found myself privileged. This very harvest is reserved for few regions on Earth. If you live in or visit California, where 82 percent of the world’s almonds are grown, then maybe you’ve seen orchards as you travel along Highway 5 through the state’s Central Valley. The Almond Board of California invited me to something rare and special — a two-day “Almond Harvest Experience.” I came to learn as a non-food-expert.
On the morning of my arrival, I’m introduced to the men and women with whom I’d spend two days. They represent a special segment of the food industry: human nutrition. Up to this point, I’ve spent my time getting to know farmers. Now I could meet experts in why we eat the things we choose and why we should choose almonds.
Only two of the 23-person tour group are not a registered dietitian or nutritionist. I’m one. As conversations and introductions flow, it dawns on me that the nutrition information I’m exposed to on a regular basis is from nationally recognized authorities like those on this almond adventure.
One is a genetics nutrition counselor. Another specializes in fertility diets. I sit next to a woman who oversees a health and wellness program for state employees. These experts have traveled from across the U.S., and some participants have flown in from the U.K. and Canada to learn more about almonds. The gentleman from Canada is a registered dietitian on his third cookbook — in French.
With all the impressive health and wellness credentials surrounding me, I can’t help wondering: Who the heck am I to these people? I just eat almonds. (My invitation to this event was the result of my outreach and visit last spring with a member of the California Almond Board to learn about almond production).
Unbothered by my irrelevance to this group, I eagerly absorb Day One’s information: an overview of almond nutrition, California’s role in producing the crop, and the rise in the almond’s popularity with consumers. (Growing up, I knew almonds as a garnish or an inconspicuous snack that would appear in a small bowl on the holiday buffet table.)
Think about it, when did you really start eating almonds? If you eat them at all.
Today, almonds are everywhere. They’re a dairy substitute. A replacement for peanut butter. Bags of all sizes are sold for snacking. And have you tried cooking with almond flour or using almond oil or paste? (Apparently the paste isn’t popular in the U.S.)
I must have gradually incorporated almonds in my diet over the years, because I can’t recall a time when I intentionally included almonds as a key food for my health. A handful a day — 1 ounce, or about 23 almonds — is what I hear a lot of in the media now. But for years I thought it was 6 or 7 almonds daily. I have no idea where I got that information. Maybe I picked it up while scrolling Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds.
Day One concludes, and my big takeaway was that I need to get more familiar with the science. I learned that almonds are a good source of a plant-based protein. They’re satisfying, heart-healthy, nutrient-rich and might help lower the glycemic impact of high-carbohydrate foods. I must admit that the health science behind the almond (or any food) can be a little over my head.
I’m excited for Day Two: the harvest. I experienced the spectacular almond bloom last spring, so this is the encore. For the farmer, harvest is the reward for risk and hard work.
We arrive at an orchard in Ripon around 9 a.m. and the farm crew immediately goes into harvest mode.
They don’t pick almonds one by one from the branches. Instead, specialized equipment grabs each trunk and shakes the tree bare. The whole almond, hull and shell with the kernel tightly enclosed, falls to the ground. After a drying period, another machine comes through and sweeps the almonds, gathering them in a row for pickup and transport to a nearby processing facility.
I know from the Volkoffs, whose almond orchard I visited last winter, that, on average, almond trees can produce 20 to 25 pounds of almond “meats” for harvest (meats being the almonds we eat).
We depart the orchard and make our way to the processing facility. Dazzling in our lovely, bright orange hair nets, we take in the different stages, from hull removal to packaging. Did you know that almonds can have a shelf-life of up to two years? I didn’t. I also didn’t know that the hulls and other materials from the processing have many uses, such as dairy feed.
We close the tour with an outdoor lunch with members of the almond company we’ve just visited.
I was fortunate to sit next to a gentleman who’s been farming since graduating high school some 40 years ago. His daughter leaves Northern California in a few days to start college in Los Angeles. I wonder if she will follow in her dad’s footsteps and grow almonds. I wish I’d asked what she was going to study, but her dad was so proud to share his pride over his daughter’s last few days on the orchard that I didn’t want to change the vibe of the conversation.
On the bus ride back to the hotel, I sit next to the other non-nutritionist, Adriana. She’s a grandmother from Mexico living in Florida who started a food blog a few years ago to share recipes and stories about Latino culture.
Last April Hispanicize and Telemundo awarded Adriana with the Tecla Award for excellence in Latino blogging. We bonded over our shared pursuit of food knowledge. She laughed at how I didn’t cook yet started this food blog and suggested I try her next featured recipe: almond mole!
My harvest experience concludes and I use the six-hour drive home to Southern California to review everything I learned.
Visiting where food grows and learning from the people who bring us the harvest fascinates me. But so too is getting to know the people who inform us on what to eat. It’s all connected.