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Why California's almond bloom is 'the largest pollination event in the world'

The almond bloom is a trademark California spectacle with the Central Valley being one of only a few places in the world that can grow almonds.

CALIFORNIA, USA — The budding white flowers of the almond bloom are unmistakably Californian, and even more so emblematic of the Central Valley.

Every year, thousands of blossoms blanket the orchards of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and other Central Valley counties. Many of those orchards belong to third generation farmers like Jonathan Hoff, CEO of Monte Vista Farming Company.

"Where some of my buddies were looking to be pro-baseball players, or football players, or rock stars," Hoff said. "I just wanted to be exactly like my dad [an almond farmer], because I loved what he did so much."

His family is one of many that help create the beautiful almond bloom with their vast orchards, and that bloom signals the start of the growing season for many farmers. 

"It is the largest pollination event in the world, the pollination of California’s almonds," said Danielle Veenstra, a communications manager with the Almond Board of California.

Veenstra says the valley is the No. 1 place beekeepers go to start pollinating, and that almond pollination can account for up to 80% of the money beekeepers get for their pollination services.

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While the super bloom of the southern California wildflowers depends on a number of variables, the almond bloom comes around every year and in grand numbers. Locally, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties are among the top growers in the state for almonds.

A lot of orchards are throughout the Central Valley, because they can't really grow in many other places. Veenstra says there are five places in the world that have the climate to grow almonds, and the Central Valley is one of them. 

"They need a certain amount of time each winter that’s kind of cold and just puts the tree into that dormant state, " Veenstra said. "The tree is preparing those blooms that are going to burst out each February."

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When it comes to the almond bloom, California's cool wet winters are essential to delivering 80% of the world's almonds.

"All of these sort of perfect things need to lineup in order for us to have a successful bloom and a solid crop," Hoff said.

However, the budding white flowers don’t all come at one time. The first wave is the beginning blossoms, followed by the full bloom, and, finally, the "valley snow," where the white petals fall and blanket the orchards as if there was a snowfall.

"They are just absolutely gorgeous when they’re in full bloom," Hoff said. "It’s hard to deny that it’s just a really picturesque setting for sure."

Ironically, the world’s largest pollination event also hearkens the kickoff for allergies. It's something even experienced growers like Hoff aren’t able to avoid. Despite walking the orchards, he gets the same red eyes, sneezing fits, and tears as everyone else.

"I have three daughters, and they think it's hilarious that I'm an almond farmer, but I am highly allergic to almond pollen," he said.

When the bloom comes, it's common to feel the effects of almond pollen.

"We know that if you’ve got allergies, you’re going to be feeling it," Veenstra said. "Almond bloom is just the first of many things to start blooming here in the Valley. There's lots of other crops after that."

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San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and the rest of the counties in the Central Valley didn't become the hub of the world's largest pollination event overnight.

Veenstra says the big boom for almond orchards didn’t happen till around the '60s and '70s. She said harvest technology like almond shakers, sweepers, and pickup machines helped bring forward the number of orchards people now see in California. 

Before mechanical harvests, it was a matter of physically knocking nuts off the trees, onto the tarps, and hauling them away.

"It always could grow here, physiologically, but with the addition of that equipment, that's what allowed more farmers to actually grow it and harvest it," Veenstra said.

Hoff says he spent his childhood mimicking those tractors and almond shakers, kicking up dust and shaking trees on his father's farm in Ripon. 

Hoff eventually got his own farm and processing plant, taking up the same mantle as his parents and grandparents, despite the gambles, headaches, and politics involved.

"Farming is growing food, and there's something rewarding about the lifestyle, about the function of growing food, and feeding people," Hoff said. "It's one of those things you have to love to do."



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