Before I moved here and inherited the stewardship of hundreds of knackered old almond trees, I only knew that almonds were tasty and full of goodness. As they are the wonder-food of the moment and loved especially by those going easy on the grains, many of us will be aware that they’re a ‘good thing’ to try and incorporate into our diets. Specifically, they’re high in monunsaturated fats, (which are believed to lower cholesterol), they’re packed full of protein and contain vitamin E, magnesium and potassium, and have been found to reduce post-meal elevations in blood sugar. Almonds can now claim the coveted label ‘superfood’.
I wasn’t unaware of the rise of the almond; I had the Helmsley and Helmsley cookbook, I was ready to replace the flour in my quiche with ground almonds at least once – I’d maybe chop a few on top of my salads and cereal – but that was probably, honestly, the extent of my knowledge of this particular prunus. These days however, as we’ve been on this land from harvest to blossom drop- spent many many hours amongst the branches and boughs of prunus dulcis, made many mistakes and false assumptions and having done some introductory reading and researching -I am now fractionally more familiar with this popular and charismatic crop.
Back in August 2016, when we first moved onto this new piece of land, all I could see was loveliness. Long swishing grass, a cute little casita and rows and rows of almond and olive trees, around eight acres worth in fact. The evening light here in this part of the world is an almost daily wonder and right here on this finca, it seemed even more magical. My romanticism knew no bounds…
By the end of September we thought we’d ‘make a start’ on harvesting those almond trees. This naive notion involved a quaint trip up the road with a trug and a couple of brooms to knock down the nuts that were out of reach. After a mere two or three tree’s worth of this wholesome and sweaty activity, the basket was overflowing and the novelty, for the boys at least, was over. Seemingly there was more to this business than a wicker basket and an optimistic attitude. In the mood of ‘getting more serious about this farming malarky’ off we went to the local cooperative to purchase some nets which we duly laid upon the ground (or more accurately, laid them upon the undergrowth) ready to catch the envisioned showers falling from the branches. Now, we were more prepared for the volume of nuts but not so much the practical business of getting them down from the towering, unpruned-for-millenia, branches at the top of the tree.
I thought that if I started to prune the trees then remove the almonds from the fallen boughs on the ground this would be a way around their inaccessibility. I thought wrong. If your almond trees are as neglected as ours, this plan will not get you very far. It takes a long time to prune a large neglected tree by hand without mechanical assistance, and a whole lot of energy. You might think that having an arborist friend come and aid you might help; or that having a ground-team of family and friends processing the wood and pulling off the almonds will speed it along. No. You are wrong. You are on a hiding to nothing.
As time was ticking on and a month or so had passed by now, we abandoned the pruning and focused on just banging the trees to get what nuts we could to fall. Our neighbour, Dan from Finca Slow, told us that we should be using big fancy poly-carbon sticks instead of the branches and broom handles we were using to knock them down. ‘Ha!’ we laughed, ‘how different could a big fancy stick be??’ and we laboured pathetically on with our inappropriate equipment. When we eventually relented we came to see that they could be very different indeed. Another lesson learned. Listen to your almond farmer neighbours and get the damn fancy sticks.
We were out there every day and had the kids to help whenever we could persuade them but, by now, they were pretty darn fed up of almond harvesting. We hit the trees, we gathered up the nuts in the nets and we emptied them into bags. Over and over again. We were tired, we were bored, we’d had enough. After weeks of frantic activity we gave up, although only a tiny percentage of our trees had been stripped of their fruit, we were pretty proud of our five big bags of almonds…until, that was, we found out that Dan and Johanna’s average is around sixty bags. We’re clearly going to need to up our game.
After ‘harvest’ I continued to prune and have discovered that the wood of the almond is tough and hard. Climbing up into these unruly trees and manually cutting out branches as thick as my arm with a pruning saw and loppers is quite a task and, I’ve been told, is a pointless one to boot; because apparently, old abandoned trees will never fruit properly again. I am yet to learn how true this is but I couldn’t give up on all these ‘arboles’ anyway; it would feel like such a sorrowful waste. I’m not looking to make the most of every tree, to wring out every ounce of ‘profit’ from this land. These old, untrained beauties still bear plenty of nuts and, as far as I can tell, don’t suffer in the tasting. I’ll slowly replant new trees to replace those we’re forced to remove, but I can’t accept that a tree exists solely as a commodity.
The seasonal cycle in the life of our trees is something that cannot be reduced to monetary value. To feel the land literally vibrate with the hum of legions of bees up above us in the February blossoming, to watch the flowers fall like snow and tiny fuzzy green nuts start to swell and grow, to take shelter under the shade of long verdant leaves in the height of summer and to witness the bouncing showers of hardened nuts in autumn is to experience the essence of life itself – bloom, ripen, let go and sleep. This is earth magic, not a profit opportunity.
Elsewhere though, the almond has of course become just that. In California, a place besieged by drought, almond trees are big business and everyone wants a piece of the booming market. In the Central Valley of the Golden State, land is being bought up and planted at alarming speed – currently 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown there – and the pumps are sucking California dry to turn a desert region into agricultural land.
The trees here on Finca Collita however haven’t ever been irrigated yet they produce a crop. I found out that here in Catalonia, across Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean, almond trees have traditionally been grown ‘dry’ on marginal land. It seems, from my reading, that this practice would be possible in many places; it’s also possible for many other irrigated crops, such as tomatoes and grapes, to be grown the same way. Desertification and lack of water availability are increasingly a concern in all dry regions, and over-reliance on irrigation makes growers vulnerable. In an age of massive climate uncertainty, resilience – not dependence – should be the aim of all agriculturists.
My conclusion at this point is, that almonds (like most crops) could be sustainable depending on where they’re coming from and who is growing them, but the almonds that most people are buying are probably not. We’re all getting used to checking out the ethical credentials of our food but I’m not sure it’s happening yet with our current favourite nut.
There is so much joy to discover in our new life on the land, but also so much horror that comes with learning about the havoc wreaked upon the earth by agriculture. I’d love to be part of a new movement that works for healing alongside harvesting. To that end, I’m really hopeful that we’ll be able to supply a small amount of dry-farmed regeneratively produced almonds in the coming years. For that to happen though, I’m going to have to significantly accelerate my learning curve and get an order in for some brand new fancy sticks.
*Our almonds are currently being used by Stephen Jackson at T&Cake in Almondbury – a licensed cafe serving organic food and drink. Stephen is the former chef/owner of the acclaimed Weaver’s Shed
**If anyone can point me to places to further my learning about almonds I’d really appreciate it. We’re also hoping to take pre-orders for our own almonds available in the uk from December this year. Please leave a comment below if you’re interested in ordering and I’ll get back to you with information
Some further reading about dry farming