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Family beats storm to save almond crop
A number of almond growers lost income producing trees during Tuesday’s wind and rain. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
The Phillips clan of Manteca had literally hours to spare before the first drops of Tuesday’s rainstorm fell on their just-harvested almond orchards.

“We were done picking them up yesterday (Monday) about 2:30 or 3 p.m. We just made it. We were going fast. We picked up everything. So now, we’re relaxing and having a glass of champagne,” said a tired but happy Richard Phillips on Tuesday as he watched the angry rainstorm from his window drench the farm grounds around his home on North Union Road.

The patriarch of the almond-farming family and co-owner of P&P Farms, an almond-hulling plant located next to his home and the homes of his three children who are his partners in the business, knows how much even a little rain can wreak havoc to the almond crop during the harvest season.

“The little rain we had about two weeks ago slowed us up about three days and cost us a few bucks,” he noted.

Fortunately, “since they gave us a week’s notice that this rain was coming, we were able to pick up everything quicker,” said Phillips.

He and his family work on 400 to 500 acres of almond orchards every year, which includes some acreage that belongs to fellow farmers who rely on P&P Farms to hull their annual crops.

To get the gargantuan job done at record pace, and to get the nuts off the ground in a constant race against the rains, all members of the Phillips’ three-generation family are rounded up to lend a hand. Only daughter Dianne takes a few days off from her Dad’s Hot Dog business that she has owned for more three decades at the Lincoln Center in Stockton to man the pick-up machines. Son Mike, a security supervisor at Sandia Lab in Livermore, schedules his vacation at this time of the year to help harvest the almonds. Dianne is usually the only one running the pick-up machine. This time, because of the rush to finish the harvest before the arrival of the storm, Mike had to run a second pick-up machine. Son Ricky, a reserve firefighter with the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District, runs the huller and the fields.

Since this was a race against time, the family also chucked the usual harvest protocol of waiting a certain number of days after shaking the nuts off the trees before picking them up to get to the huller.

“Usually, when you shake the nuts, you wait about three days to a week before you pick them up. Since we knew this rain was coming, we shook them and swept them the next day,” Phillips said.

In at least one of the fields even, “we shook them and swept them the same day,” he said.

“Since it’s so hard to harvest after the rain, especially a heavy rain like this, you just put every effort you can to get them (the almonds) off the ground. But sometimes, it’s just impossible. Every year, we usually get hit by a little bit of rain. If it comes early, then you get hit really bad because then you have to dry the nuts out,” which is often an expensive proposition, Phillips said.

The wet almonds have to be dried out before they can get to the huller, he said. That drying out process hits the farmer’s pocketbooks about 10 cents a pound.

And if they have to dry the shell and the meat as well, that’s 20 cents a pound, not to mention the rejects, Phillips added.

“So it gets quite expensive. There are a few (almond) farmers that are crying right now. I took a drive today up to Ripon just to see how many were still down, and quite a few were still on the ground or still on the trees,” he said.

There are two more weeks of the harvest season left, “but it will be longer now, of course, because of the rain, and they are talking about rain (today) and Sunday.”

The good news is, at this time of the year, about 90 percent of the almond crops are already harvested, Phillips said. The remaining varieties still left either on the trees or are waiting to be picked up on the ground will “cost the guys a few bucks,” he said. On the bright side, though, these later varieties are the more hardy varieties with hardier shells.

“They put up with the rain a little bit better. They’re really hard shells. They are what they call the pollinators,” Phillips said.

Overall, he said, he was pleased with the way the hectic last few days of harvest turned out.

“We feel pretty good that we got them all out,” he said of this year’s almond crop.