Self pollinating almond tree

With Bees In Trouble, Almond Farmers Try Trees That Don’t Need ‘Em

Earlier this year, beekeeper Brian Hiatt had millions of bees working to pollinate almond trees across California. Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio hide caption

toggle caption Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Earlier this year, beekeeper Brian Hiatt had millions of bees working to pollinate almond trees across California.

Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Beekeepers flock from all over the country to California every February and March to watch billions of honeybees buzz around the state’s almond trees. Eighty percent of the country’s commercial bees visit the Golden State each spring.

So I went to check out the scene at an almond orchard at the California State University, Fresno, in Central California.

“Really, the key is to stay calm around bees, because if you’re afraid, then your body physiologically changes and they can sense that,” beekeeper Brian Hiatt tells me. “They literally can smell fear.”

He should know: In this orchard alone, Hiatt has about 1.5 million bees.

Spring is usually a really busy time for beekeepers. But this year, Hiatt says he is worried that a relatively new variety of almond called Independence could harm the longevity of his business.

Independence almond trees are easy to harvest, and they make tasty almonds. But what really sets them apart is the fact that they’re self-fertile — meaning they technically don’t need bees to pollinate their flowers because they breed with themselves, says David Doll with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Merced.

Doll runs the The Almond Doctor blog, and he says strong wind moves the sticky pollen millimeters within each blossom to the female part of each flower and in turn, creates a single almond. (Some farmers say if you use just a few bees, you’ll get an even bigger crop.) That’s a boon for farmers, who spend lots of money hiring bees to pollinate their crop.

Ben Barra guesses there are a couple of thousand acres of the Independence almond variety in California. He says there is a growing waiting list for new sprigs of the tree. Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio hide caption

toggle caption Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Ben Barra guesses there are a couple of thousand acres of the Independence almond variety in California. He says there is a growing waiting list for new sprigs of the tree.

Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

“There are a lot of these old almonds that still need bees,” Hiatt notes. But as Independence almonds become more popular, he thinks he will lose profits.

Others in the industry — including Gene Brandi with the American Beekeeping Federation — see things differently, especially since a colony collapse disorder has killed as much as 40 percent of the honeybees in the West. “I know how difficult it has been for our industry to supply the bees that are needed,” Brandi says.

And farmers like Josh Pitgliano from Tulare County are loving Independence almonds. Pitgliano has several hundred acres of the self-fertile variety — he first started planting Independence trees six years ago.

He says he likes that with Independence almond trees, he has to use less than half the number of bees. Whereas most farmers place two hives per acre, Pitgliano scrapes by with half a hive per acre on his orchards of Independence.

That translates to big savings: An average hive of bees costs around $180 to hire for the season.

Plus, Independence almond trees comes with another perk — easy harvest.

“I come in here once and I harvest all the nuts, all at one time,” Pitgliano says. In contrast, traditional almond orchards have several varieties of the tree planted in each field and are harvested multiple times.

And the nuts these trees make are just as good, says farmer Ben Barra. When he realized he didn’t have to hire any bees at all with the Independence variety, he was hooked. (When I visited his farm, there were some wild bees buzzing around.)

Ben Barra farms 18 acres of Independence almonds southwest of Fresno, Calif. He says this will be his last foray into farming. Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio hide caption

toggle caption Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Ben Barra farms 18 acres of Independence almonds southwest of Fresno, Calif. He says this will be his last foray into farming.

Ezra David Romero/Valley Public Radio

Barra has farmed everything from sugar beets to eggplant to potatoes. He tore out his peaches and plums after he had a really bad season, losing over $100,000.

So he latched on to the idea of a crop that didn’t require many bees, that he’d only have to harvest once. And it seems to be working out: Barra says the Independence trees have produced more than he originally expected.

“You can’t believe it,” Barra says. “The first year we did 6,000 , and then we did 17,000 . Last year we did 31,000 .”

This year he hopes the acreage’s yield is over 40,000 pounds, but he realizes he is taking a chance on new tree variety that hasn’t stood the test of time.

“When I gambled with this,” Barra says, “this was the last shot that I was making.”

Scientists develop self-pollinating almond trees

Self-pollinating almond trees that can produce a bountiful harvest without insect pollination are being developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists. This is good news for almond growers who face rising costs for insect pollination because of nationwide shortages of honeybees due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other factors.

ARS geneticist Craig Ledbetter, at the agency’s Crop Diseases, Pests and Genetics Research Unit near Parlier, Calif., is developing this new line of self-pollinating almond trees.

Self-pollinating almonds are not new. The Tuono variety, originally from Spain, has been around for centuries. But its traits are not attractive when compared to California’s most popular almond, Nonpareil.

Tuono’s seed coat has a hairy texture and it has a very thick shell, so only 32 percent of the nut is edible kernel, compared to 60 to 65 percent for Nonpareil. But Tuono’s thick shell gives it more resistance to the navel orangeworm and other pests. An almond that has traits from both varieties would be ideal.

Ledbetter and his collaborators used Tuono as the male (pollen) parent in conventional hybridizations with California-adapted almond cultivars and selections. The scientists made crosses at bloom time and came back at harvest time to collect the nuts. They then grew those nuts into seedlings and surrounded the branches with insect-proof nylon bags to exclude insects that could serve as pollinators. The seedlings bloomed and some produced fruits inside the bags, making these seedlings self-pollinating.

The original plantings in 1996 at first produced only small harvests, but by 2006 produced excellent results. In November 2008, after a very good almond harvest, Ledbetter and his team from Parlier brought eight very promising selections from his self-pollinating almond breeding program to the Almond Board of California for evaluation.

The board was pleased with the skin color, oil content and, most importantly, the flavor. And best of all, the new almonds have many of the same characteristics as Nonpareil, which sells for premium prices.

Read more about this research in the April 2010 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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Many almond growers are gambling that self-fertile almond trees will save enough from a reduced need for bees — and the ability to uniformly harvest and manage orchards of a single variety — to compensate for prices that may be lower than for the popular standard Nonpareil.

The leading self-fertile almond has already become the second most widely planted variety in recent years, and additional self-fertiles are showing well in preliminary trials, as growers look to simplify orchard management.

“Independence went from 11 percent of new planting in 2014 up to a full 25 percent in 2016,” said Dani Lightle, University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser based in Glenn County. “This is a huge change, and it could represent where we are going as an industry.”

Lightle made her remarks to growers looking over an almond trial, including the Independence variety, as researchers presented their latest work on almonds and walnuts during the Nickels Soil Lab Annual Field Day in Arbuckle.

Self-fertile almonds offer insurance against the high and uncertain price of bees for pollination, but they also greatly simplify management because all the trees in the orchard have uniform hull split and harvest schedules.

“The Independence system requires fewer bees; some growers go down to a half hive an acre,” Lightle said. “You also only have to harvest once, and you have hull split at the same time, which means you only have to spray once.”

Unfortunately, she said, there is no way of knowing what price Independence nuts will bring compared to the standard Nonpareil in the long run, and almond growers usually leave their trees in the ground for about 25 years.

“The question is the pricing,” Lightle said. “The Independence was the same price as Nonpareil, but then you started to see some separation. The concerns are about visual appeal, and about flavor and taste. There are stories some buyers won’t accept Independence, which would be a disaster.”

A significant number of growers have already passed the point of no return in this gamble, because the ratio of Nonpareil to Independence has dropped significantly in new plantings the last few years.

In 2014, there were 4.28 Nonpareils planted statewide for every one Independence tree; that ratio dropped the next year to 2.04, and dropped again last year to just 1.47.

Nonpareil is still the leader because its high quality nuts set the standard among buyers, and most growers still choose to plant their orchards with half Nonpareil trees and the rest in one or two pollinator varieties.

“Whether it’s a heavy or light planting year, our No. 1-planted variety is Nonpareil,” Lightle said. “That makes sense; it is our money maker and other varieties are complementary.”

Nonpareil trees, however, dropped from 44 percent to 37 percent of the new trees planted the last two years.

Acreage of the major pollinator varieties also declined during that time: Monterey from 19 to 16 percent; Wood Colony from 9 to 5 percent; and Aldrich and Carmel also both continued their recent decline.

But the slack was taken up by Independence, as acreage of this self-fertile leader rose from barely 10 percent of new planting all the way up to 25 percent in just two years.

Independence was developed by Zaiger Genetics of Modesto and is marketed exclusively by Hickman-based Dave Wilson Nursery.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s initial forecast for this year’s almond crop was 2.2 billion pounds on a million bearing acres, growers are not done planting. There were more than 200,000 additional acres of new trees in the ground that were not yet producing.

There is still interest in the possibility of orchards that could be managed uniformly with fewer bees, even if Independence does not prove to be the golden self-fertile variety for any one of a number of reasons.

“There are growers who won’t plant Independence because you can’t plant it on the Krymsk rootstock,” Lightle said.

Krymsk is a peach-plum rootstock from Russia known for its ability to provide anchorage for young trees, which can be important in areas that experience strong winds, like the Sacramento Valley.

There are other promising new self-fertile almond varieties among the third-leaf trees in the Butte County regional almond variety trial growing on the Chico State University farm.

While the Nonpareil trees produced 482 kernel pounds an acre in the first harvest of that trial last fall, four self-fertile numbered varieties from Tom Gradziel’s breeding program at UC Davis yielded anywhere from a little to a lot more than that.

Gradziel’s two most productive self-fertile varieties produced more than 700 pounds in that first harvest, but he urged great caution in looking at the preliminary results of studies on trees that must stand the test for 25 years.

“These are third-year yields, so the trees are just coming into fruitfulness,” Lightle said. “This list might completely reorder itself next year.”

While the search for a self-fertile almond that yields an abundance of highest quality nuts continues, some growers are hedging their bets by planting Independence trees as pollinators for Nonpareils.

“There are orchards with 50-50 Independence and Nonpareil around Fresno and Sacramento,” Lightle said. “They are compatible, but if the price for Independence is as low as for Carmel almonds, there might not be much advantage.”

By David Eddy|July 28, 2017

It was a bit of a “Wow” moment recently for University of California Cooperative Extension’s (UCCE) Franz Niederholzer, who decided to develop a chart from the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s almond acreage statistics.


“I was just curious about patterns; growers always want to know what to plant,” says Niederholzer, Orchard Systems Farm Advisor in several Northern California counties. “And as an Extension person, one of my duties is to present data so it’s easier for growers to look at it.”

So he posted the chart he came up with on “The Almond Doctor,” a blog hosted by his UCCE colleague, David Doll. The chart showed — in quite literally graphic terms — just how much the ‘Independence’ almond variety had taken the industry by storm. By 2016, the most recent year available, ‘Independence’ represented one-quarter of all plantings, and the trend line showed no sign of slowing.

And this in an industry where there are already 300,000 nonbearing acres.

“The almond industry is the backbone of the California nursery industry — huge acreage, a marketing juggernaut,” Niederholzer says. “Almonds are the bread and butter of the nursery business, which makes sense, because if almonds are going bad, the whole world is probably going bad.”

There are other interesting takeaways from the charts Niederholzer prepared, such as the fact that the percentage for ‘Nonpareil,’ the industry’s flagship variety, appear to follow the popular ‘Butte’/’Padre’ combination. While nowhere near as valuable as ‘Nonpareil,’ ‘Butte’/’Padre’ is much easier to farm, and when the price premium is not so great on ‘Nonpareil,’ the combination gets mighty attractive to growers.

But no question what sticks out is ‘Independence,’ which was so named because it is self-fertile, and doesn’t need the pollenizing varieties almost all other almond varieties require. Pollination is a grower’s single most expensive activity, 24% of cultural costs, from bloom to hull split. But ‘Independence’ has other advantages, notes Niederholzer.

“Everything you do, you do once,” he says. “Not just harvest, but irrigation, you name it.”

Grant Zaiger of Zaiger Genetics in Modesto, CA, who made the cross that was to become ‘Independence’ with his dad, Floyd, says even he was surprised by Niederholzer’s charts.

“When we first selected that variety, Robert Wooley said ‘I think it will revolutionize the almond industry,’” recalls Zaiger. “That was back in 1999-2000, and I thought he was a little over the top.”

Zaiger thinks sales may not keep soaring as they have, but that’s more a reflection of the industry. “I think the almond industry as a whole will start calming down a bit,” he says. “But ‘Independence’ will continue to have a big place in it.”

However, he notes new varieties will be coming down the road in the future.

“We have new varieties, all self-pollinating,” Zaiger says. “I won’t go backward. They must be self-fertile, productive, and have good nut quality.”

David Eddy is the editor of Meister Media Worldwide’s American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® magazines. See all author stories here.

Australian-bred almond varieties are set to make their mark across the globe as growers look for ways to combat the danger of declining bee colonies.

Six new varieties developed at the University of Adelaide in South Australia have been released in Australia in the past two years, four of which are self-fertilising.

Budwood cuttings have been sent to California and South Africa with a shipment expected to leave for Spain in the coming weeks.

The United States is the dominant almond producing nation, growing about 80 per cent of the world’s almonds followed by Australia, Spain, Iran and Italy.

More than $400 million of Australian almonds are exported to 46 countries every year with Europe and India the biggest markets.

However, concerns about declining bee colonies overseas, particularly in the US, have nurseries looking to new varieties – including those bred in SA – that do not require bees for pollination.

The decline in bee numbers in recent years has been blamed on a variety of factors including pesticides, climate change and parasites.

This has coincided with a rise in global almond consumption and increased plantings that led to record production of 1.3 million tonnes in 2017-18.

They are very keen to trial our self-fertile varieties because they don’t have anything on their books that is self-fertile – Dr Michelle Wirthensohn, University of Adelaide

The University of Adelaide has run the national almond breeding program for two decades, leading to the commercial release in Australia of five new varieties of almond trees in 2016 and a sixth in 2017.

Cuttings of all six were sent to the US in August 2016 where they will remain in quarantine until November.

Some of them will go into USDA trials along with trees from other parts of the world.

Program leader of the breeding program Dr Michelle Wirthensohn received an Australian Government grant last month.

This has allowed the University of Adelaide to partner with Californian company Varieties International, which will send the trial varieties to Yuba City nursery Sierra Gold.

“They’re a large nursery and they are very keen to trial our self-fertile varieties because they don’t have anything on their books that is self-fertile,” Dr Wirthensohn said .

“It’s a fairly new thing, there’s a few varieties out … Sierra Gold has told me they will test for 10 years before they release them commercially.”

The six varieties have also been sent to South Africa in the past year and will be trialled when they are released from quarantine from next year.

Three of the varieties – Carina, Mira and Maxima – have semi-hard shells while Vela is a soft shell, Rhea a paper shell and Capella is a hard shell. Maxima and Rhea are not self-fertilising but Maxima is proving popular among some Australian growers because of its large kernel.

Nonpareil, also known as Californian Paper Shell, is the main commercial variety in the world.

Dr Wirthensohn said a key factor with the new Australian varieties was their similarities in kernel properties to Nonpareil.

She said all of the varieties out-yielded Nonpareil in Australia by more than 10 per cent, producing more almonds per tree with the same amount of water.

“So if the time came when for some reason Nonpareil collapsed then we would have an almond that looked really similar and was either the same size or bigger,” Dr Wirthensohn said.

“The main attraction is the self-fertilising and I guess in the US they are also curious to see how our almonds are going to perform over there – they’ll probably perform differently but hopefully they will do at least as well as they do here.

“They’re probably not going to be interested in Capella but the Spanish will probably like it because they do like a hard shell.”

It can take decades to breed a new almond cultivar from the initial crossbreeding through to commercial release.

Dr Wirthensohn said the next pipeline of trees in the Australian breeding program were currently going through secondary and tertiary evaluation with a projected commercial release of another five varieties – some self-fertile and some not – by 2023.

“The next lot of breeding I’ll be beginning next year,” she said.

I’m only going to focus on self-fertile varieties because that’s what the industry says it is aiming for – self-fertilising trees that minimize the need for bees and filling up the orchard with a variety that doesn’t need a pollinator.

“The lack of bees will be a concern in the future.

“No one has trialled a solid block of self-fertile trees in Australia yet – they have in Spain and they said it worked fine – but not here yet, which will be interesting.”

The Almond Board of Australia is also testing high and medium density plantings at the Almond Centre of Excellence Orchard in SA’s Riverland, one of Australia’s main almond, grape and citrus growing areas.

The medium density trial was planted in 2017 at three-metre spacings between trees with 6.5m between rows using Nonpareil, Carina, Maxima and Vela.

The high-density plantings will go in this year at one-metre and two metre spacings.

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