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Almond harvest is part of what makes San Joaquin Valley wonderful

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POSTED September 15, 2012 1:52 a.m.

I confess.

The first three days I was in Manteca I pronounced Ripon - “rip-on.”

It took longer for me to shake the other no-no of native vernacular, the incorrect pronunciation of the word “almond.” The right way, of course, is “am-mun.”

I resisted going native until I ended up living nine months in the middle of an almond orchard on North Ripon Road.

It was there that I truly appreciated the joke about the reason it is pronounced “am-mun.” It’s the one that goes, “It’s pronounced am-mun  because they get the ‘L’ knocked out of them.”

One of the most fascinating things to watch is for farmers to go through an orchard, maneuver a mechanical device to grab the trees and then start shaking them just like those tummy reducers known as “Eskazier Golden Tummy”. Those were the vibrating belt machines from the 1960s where women stood on a platform (usually in the privacy of their bathroom), put a big leather belt around their waist that was hooked to a vibrating device and then supposedly “shook” the pounds away.

Almonds would fall like heavy rain drops. But instead of settling the dust it kicked up small clouds of dust.

That is nothing compared to the old-fashioned way of swinging a mallet at the base of an almond tree. It’s a great money saver if you exclude the chiropractic bills.

What got me reminiscing was bicycling down Jack Tone Road where a farmer was shaking away and then pedaling by an almond hauling operation on Highway 120.

It sounds nuts, but both processes created a distinctive smell of dust that is unique to almond harvesting.

There’s a beauty in it although the farmers who get dirty while sweating through 90-degree days retrieving their crops may think otherwise.

It could have something to do with the fact I’ve lived my entire life in towns that can be classified - at least by Northern California standards - as farming communities. Manteca definitely falls in that category.

About the only two or three odors that are farm-related that I’ve grown to despise completely over the years is being downwind from a turkey ranch or a dairy and the organic fertilizing of vineyards using chicken manure that has been freshly watered on a 100-degree day.

Nothing, and I repeat nothing, can get you to pick up the pace five miles out of Manteca near the end of an 80-mile bicycle ride on a stifling August day than passing chicken manure spread in a vineyard. If you doubt me, try it sometime on your roses. (I actually did this once.) Your neighbors won’t speak to you for weeks because they will have fled their home.

The smells in farming communities can surprise at times. Take a field of freshly harvested onions. There is no harvest smell as poignantly sweet. You may be able to smell the sweetness of peaches when you pick them or they’re stacked in lugs - that was one of my favorite smells growing up - but onions are pervasively sweet over a long, long distance. It’s a tad surprising considering what onions will do to you when you peel off their skin.

Alfalfa being cut has a sweet smell as well.

It’s unfortunate that many who move to the valley don’t fully embrace what agriculture brings to the table in terms of filling our stomachs and feeding our senses.

It is understandable that people with asthma and other breathing problems aren’t enthusiastic about the Central Valley seasons. But it is all part of living in what is the world’s greatest valley for food production.

The dust and the smells are an integral part of the wealth and health of the valley. Given the food that goes to the four corners of the globe, it is also critical to the health and wealth of countless millions who don’t call the Great Valley of Central California, stretching from Redding and the Siskiyous in the north to Bakersfield and the Tehachapis in the south, home.

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