Crunching into an almond, it’s hard to imagine the long journey that little nut took to make its way to you. The almond lifecycle is a complex and exciting one with many stages and lots of natural beauty, which you’re sure to experience every time you choose to make California Almonds part of your life.
Almond trees need a period of dormancy, when cold weather allows them to store nutrients and prepare for next season’s production cycle. That’s why from November through early February, while buds are already present, the trees use the cold weather to rest and build up resources for the next year's crop.
The period between late February and early March is a critical time of year for the almond industry. The buds on the trees burst into bloom in preparation for pollination. This phase of the lifecycle can influence the size of the crop that will ultimately be harvested.
The warm days during this stage stimulate the trees to bloom, transforming California’s Central Valley into a beautiful landscape of light pink and white blossoms.
Several factors influence the timing of bloom, including weather and almond variety. The Nonpareil variety is one of the first to bloom. Other key varieties, such as Carmel and Mission bloom later.
Because the almond tree is not self-pollinating, bees are brought to the orchard to carry pollen between alternating rows of almond varieties. This occurs during a small window of opportunity in the bloom phase, when the weather is warm enough for the bees to fly. Bees need warm, sunny, and calm conditions for optimal pollination. Stormy, cold weather during the bloom stage can limit bee flight and reduce the size of the crop.
If bees do not pollinate the blossoms, almonds will not develop.
For optimal cross-pollination and crop development, an orchard must have more than one variety of almond tree. Most orchards have three.
From March to June, California Almonds continue to mature with the shell hardening and kernel forming. Some green almonds are harvested at this point for various culinary uses. For more information on green almonds click here.
Almonds develop within a shell that is surrounded by a hull, similar to the fleshy part of a peach. The almond hull protects the nuts from a variety of environmental conditions.
In July and early August, the hull begins to split open exposing the almond shell and allowing it to dry.
As the season progresses, the split continues to widen and the hull becomes tough and leathery, although still adhering to the shell. The nuts continue to dry and shortly before harvest, the hulls open completely.
Harvest occurs mid-August through October. There are many steps almond growers must consider prior to harvest, such as preparing the orchard for harvest by leveling and clearing any debris from the orchard floor. This provides a smooth clear surface when the nuts are shaken from the trees. Each variety matures at a different time so harvesting is done in stages to keep varieties separate and distinct.
Different varieties will have different characteristics that impact the actual size of the kernel. Another factor is how many almonds the trees are actually producing. Generally, the more nuts per tree, the smaller the kernel size.
There are over 30 types of almonds, but 10 varieties comprise the majority of almonds produced in California. Three varieties account for over two-thirds of production. Nonpareil is the largest single variety.
Mechanical tree "shakers" vigorously shake the almonds to the ground. This machine grabs the trunk of the tree and knocks all the nuts to the ground. The almonds, which are still inside their shell and hull, dry naturally for 8–10 days in the orchard before they are swept into rows and picked up by machine. This drying period is critical for the almonds.
After being gathered from the orchard, almonds are transported to the huller/sheller where kernels pass over a roller to remove the hull and shell as well as any remaining foreign material or debris. Then the almonds are stored in bulk until processing occurs.
The hulls are used to feed dairy cattle while the shells are used as bedding for livestock.
Almonds are delivered to the handler for sizing. The kernels pass over a series of screens that have varying size holes. Kernels may also be sorted electronically through a laser light system.
The kernels drop into separate bins according to size.
After sizing, almonds are graded to meet customer specifications.
After almonds are sized, they are kept in controlled storage conditions to maintain quality. Almonds have natural antioxidants that promote a long storage life if properly handled. Almonds are stored until they're shipped or further processed in a variety of ways that are valuable for culinary use.
Almonds are manufactured for either commercial or industrial use, or rebagged, salted, and roasted.
Once manufactured, almonds are sold to one of the following distributors:
- Grocery (bulk): consumer packaged goods that are sold in-store
- Foodservice: ingredient in restaurant menu items
The US is the largest market for almonds, with about 30% of the crop sold for domestic use. About 52% of all almonds produced go into retail products, 20% go to foodservice applications, and the remaining 28% is used for bulk sales and snacking. 70% of the almond crop is shipped internationally with Spain, Germany, Japan and India being the leading export markets.
Whether you roast them, toast them, sprinkle them, or chop them, it’s easy to make sure a handful of almonds make it into your next meal or snack. After all, you can find them almost anywhere.
- At the grocery store: in the baking, produce, bulk, or snack food aisles
- On-the-go: at the local convenience store
- In a restaurant: from appetizer to dessert, almonds can be found on any part of the menu