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Getting ready for South County to go nuts
Scott Phippen, and Dave Phippen in one of their almond orchards. - photo by DENNIS WYATT
Within a matter of weeks the almond orchards throughout the South County will start budding with those magnificent white and pink blooms that symbolize the start of another season.

While the community of Ripon – the self-proclaimed “Almond Capital of the World” – pays tribute every year with the Almond Blossom Festival, nobody rejoices more than those who make their living growing and harvesting the nuts to meet the worldwide demand that continues to increase each and every year.

The first few weeks of February are always his most favorite time of year as a grower, according to Dave Phippen of Travaille and Phippen – a Ripon-based corporation that grows, harvests, and ships almonds all over the world. It is the time of the year that symbolizes a new beginning and the most beautiful part of the entire process.

“When the blossoms come it’s the start of a new crop, and that’s always my most favorite time of the entire year,” he said. “Everything is in bloom, everything smells good, and it’s the first sign of life for what will be the new crop.

Growers in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon had a drop in production in 2009 despite 47,800 bearing acres - up from 300 acres in 2008. That sent the overall value of almond meats from $175.2 million in 2008 to $134 million in 2009. The totals for 2010 - 15 percent higher than 2009 - are fetching stronger prices thanks to robust demand and could set the stage for steady growth in coming years.

“But it also marks the point in time when growers have to start prepping for another season.”

While they might be pretty to drive by and look at, they mean work for the men who spend hours-upon-hours making sure that everything is just right to get a high yield once the harvest season finally concludes.

It means stripping the trees of anything that’s still lingering from the last harvest, it means spraying the trees with a protectant to make sure that they aren’t harmed by any bacteria or pests that might come out when the weather warms up, and it means checking the irrigation systems that might have been fouled up during the winter months when they weren’t being used.

According to Phippen, irrigation to the trees is crucial because the systems deliver both water and necessary nutrients – preventing the need to hand-spray each and every tree in an orchard, a process which could take valuable time away from other important processes.

February also marks the time that the beekeepers – from outfits in Texas, Montana, Oregon and the Dakotas – are packing their loads and making sure that everything is up to snuff and no insects are going to be brought into California when they truck in their deliveries.

Without the bees, the pollination of the blossoms couldn’t take place, and a mature almond won’t form.

“We normally won’t bring those in until the first or second week in February, typically after Valentine’s Day,” Phippen said. “I always make sure to find a bloom when I’m out to bring my wife home for Valentine’s Day.”

But the single most important factor about prepping for a new season is the one thing that growers have absolutely no control over – Mother Nature.

Since February is the most unpredictable month for weather – and historically the wettest of the year – growers are betting against the frigid weather that leads to a freeze and the downpours that can ruin blossoms and cause mold.

“It’s absolutely the single most important thing during this time of year,” Phippen said. “If we get nice weather, we’ll end up with a good crop. With rain and cold we really don’t know what’s going to happen and how things are going to shape out. Since it’s a high rainfall month, you have to bet against all odds.

“My wife says you have be an optimistic fool to do this – betting against the rain.”

Because it’s only with sunlight and warm weather that the bees are at their most active, and when they’re moving from one blossom to another, the pollination necessary to produce is well underway.

“The male and the female have to come together,” Phippen said. “It all comes down to that.”