excavation of almond orchard
Excavators removing almond trees. (Photo: Milne / Holloway Group)

By Brian Milne, Vice President, Director of Marketing & Communications, The Holloway Group

(Data: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service)

Drive down the I-5 or Highway 99 these days, and you’re sure to see a few old, unproductive almond orchards looking the worse for wear. 

That’s because from 1997 to 2002, California planted an average of 22,765 acres of almonds a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, as the almond industry quickly grew to become the state’s top specialty crop by 2011. By comparison, new almond acreage was down to its lowest totals in two decades the past two years, with 19,873 acres planted in 2020 and just 14,998 planted in 2021.

That growth in plantings at the turn of the century, along with record production numbers for half those seasons, amounted to more than 182,000 additional acres of almonds going in during the six-year span, many of which are now (a quarter of a century later) coming out of production—if they haven’t already been removed.

An almond orchard typically has a lifespan of about 20 to 25 years, and the Almond Board of California now projects about 30,000-40,000 acres of almonds will be coming out of production annually over the next decade.

Almond orchard excavation. (photo: Milne – Holloway Group)

And with ag burning being phased out in the San Joaquin Valley by Jan. 1, 2025, and permits and burn days becoming harder to come by, farming operations have few options for disposing of old fruit or nut trees. That leaves growers in a tough position, not only having to pay for the removal and chipping/grinding of old trees, but also cover the costs of having the shredded material hauled off—during a time when diesel prices are soaring to record highs.

Grants for WOR

Fortunately, there are grant programs and improved Whole Orchard Recycling practices available for growers to help ease those costs and even improve soil conditions as they transition from aging orchards to new plantings and varieties they hope will remain productive for another 25-30 years.

Over the past couple of years, Whole Orchard Recycling has become eligible for funding via a number of programs, including:

Almond orchard excavation. (Photo: Milne – Holloway Group)
  • CDFA’s Healthy Soil Incentives Program
  • USDA-NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program
  • San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District’s Alternative to Agricultural Open Burning Incentive Program

Companies like Holloway have been working with growers to help efficiently remove, stack, grind and reincorporate orchard material into the soil—rather than having it hauled off, or burned to meet the requirements for grant funding.

“Fortunately we’ve been able to help many of our growers successfully apply for those grants, which is great,” said Brian Maxted, CEO of Holloway, an approved Whole Orchard Recycling service provider. “Now, there’s always a cost-benefit analysis that needs to take place, given the different ways to reincorporate woodchips, and different challenges that exist afterward. But it’s certainly something a farmer should consider.”

Maxted said other considerations include determining the appropriate carbon-to-nitrogen ratios to break down material after reincorporation, along with what crop the operation will be moving into.

That’s where working with a trusted provider, and consulting Whole Orchard Recycling data from the Almond Board and UC Davis can help growers navigate some of those decisions.

Additional Benefits of WOR

Reincorporating the wood material not only helps keep the air smoke-free, it prevents having to run more trucks to landfills and biomass power plants, cutting down on emissions.

The Almond Board of California also notes the following benefits of Whole Orchard Recycling:

  • achieving zero waste by recycling all orchard material on site
  • increasing water-use efficiency
  • improving soil water holding capacity
Holloway managing a whole orchard recycling project in Firebaugh. An excavator removes the trees and then later loads the dried trees into the grinder. (Photo: The Holloway Group)

Then there are the operational efficiencies that come with Whole Orchard Recycling, particularly when the material is ground into finer woodchips that are spread back across a new orchard floor in a more uniform fashion.

“The other benefit is it’s a faster, more efficient way to remove an orchard,” said Holloway Ag Operations Manager Alex Parsons, who previously worked as Farm Unit Manager for South Valley Farms in Wasco. “By reincorporating onsite, you can get the material spread out in a matter of days, versus having to haul it all off.”

Improve Soil Health

While cutting down on ag burning is a key benefit to Whole Orchard Recycling, Parsons added the benefits for the soil shouldn’t go overlooked. Reincorporating woodchips or grindings into the soil can increase carbon sequestration, as well as improve soil biological activity, nitrogen and organic matter in the soil.

In aging orchards, it can also be tough to break up soils and make for a homogenous root zone after dozens of tractor passes each season lead to compaction issues. But during the orchard recycling process, the soils are broken up when the trees and roots are removed and chiseled, and then again during the deep ripping and reincorporation process—when the woodchips are spread back into the soil.

Holloway Vice President of Farm Services Jordan Burt says post-removal, during the deep-ripping phase, is a great time to get soil amendments applied and incorporated deep into the soil profile where the roots of newly planted trees will be established.

“We take a soils-first approach to orchard redevelopment,” Burt said. “We dig soil pits prior to a redevelopment, so we have a better idea of what you have to do to get your ground ready for the next crop.

“This is your one shot to get it right. So, think about what your soil needs. When can you ever put amendments under your tree? This is your one chance to get nutrients down there for another 20 years.”

Learn more about Holloway’s Whole Orchard Recycling process at: HollowayAg.com/WOR.