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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almond Brothers

Air Date: Week of

Matt Binder reports from the Great Central Valley of California about two brothers who farm almonds, side by side, in the tiny town of Hilmar. One brother cultivates his nuts the way most almond farmers do, with synthetic chemical fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Just across the road his brother farms organically. And as you can imagine, they have some spirited debates.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Out in the Great Central Valley of California, there are two brothers who farm side by side in the tiny town of Hilmar, growing almonds. One brother cultivates his nuts the way most almond farmers do, with synthetic chemical fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. Just across the road his brother farms organically, without chemicals. And as you can imagine, there have been spirited debates. A few years ago, a researcher at the University of California at Davis found out about this sibling rivalry, and now the results of a five year study of the two farms are in. Matt Binder has our story.

BINDER: This is Glenn Anderson, using a long fiberglass pole to harvest almonds in his 20-acre organic orchard. Anderson is a vigorous 59-year old native of this area, but he's also explored the world, spending 15 years in Hawaii and Samoa. In 1980, he and his family returned to the farm his grandparents started 70 years ago. Anderson is proud of what he's accomplished as the area's first organic almond grower. He says the farm is a safer place to live now, and the land itself has been improved for posterity.

GLENN: The soil is nothing like it was when I first moved here: the color, the texture, the biology. Everything about it is different today than it was 13 years ago. There weren't earthworms on this farm when I moved here, now they're abundant. As soon as I irrigate this it will be instant earthworms throughout this orchard when I put on my final irrigation.

BINDER: Just across the road from Glenn Anderson's farm is a much larger, 95-acre almond orchard run by his older brother, Ron. Ron Anderson has never wanted to live anywhere else. The only time he left the Hilmar area for more than a vacation was when he was in the military in World War Two. Ron is big, strong, and wears bib overalls. He farms using conventional chemical methods.

RON: I see no reason for going organic. I know that our finished product is just as healthy as anything you can buy in a health food store.

BINDER: Despite their inevitable disagreements, Ron and Glenn seem to enjoy getting together to debate farming methods.

GLENN: This isn't just a business, this is a biological system that I'm working with and I'm producing food that goes into other people's bodies, and we want it to be of the highest quality, we want the earth to be preserved, we want the biology of these farms to be very diverse and complex and as balanced as possible.
RON: We're not creating a habitat just for earthworms; it's just a coincidence that they're there.
GLENN: The agribusiness mindset that we were all taught at the university has pretty much impermeated [sic] agriculture in the United States.
RON: He's always been something of a rebel. He's always been trying to preserve the world, you know. Like he went into the moped business in Hawaii because he was gonna save the world from all this exhaust fumes.

BINDER: They often come here to debate, to a sort of family battle field: a 20-acre plot of almonds owned by their sister, Shirley, but farmed by Ron. Three years ago Shirley decided she wanted to try organic farming, and Ron, the traditional farmer, agreed to stop spraying her portion of the orchard, as an experiment. But the transition to organic farming on Shirley's land hasn't been a success. This spring many of the almond flower buds were killed by fungi, the remaining nuts are small, and the orchard floor is covered with pigweed, which, Ron says, continually clogs up the harvesting machine.

RON: My sister inherited this when my mother passed away, so she's been listening to this goofy brother of mine, and has been convinced that she wants to go organic. So we can't use any Roundup or Paraquat or any of the commercial herbicides that I can on the rest of my fields. It makes it a nuisance to prepare the orchard floor for harvest.
GLENN: I used to have pigweed like you wouldn't believe, and I harvested through the stuff. So what happens over time is that these weed species will change - guaranteed!

BINDER: Glenn says he eliminated pigweed in his orchard through cover cropping, and a carefully controlled system of mowing and mulching. He says there's an organic way around every problem and every pest in an almond orchard, and the University of California study seems to bear that out. The author of the study, Lonnie Hendricks, walked through Glenn Anderson's orchard, showing me all the different species of spiders and beneficial insects that live there, and prey on almond pests

HENDRICKS: What we're seeing here, Matt, that's different is in Glenn's orchard, he has really encouraged his cover crop, he plants a vetch cover crop, and along with good sanitation and proper management of the cover crop he has been able to encourage enough beneficials that his pest problems are really quite minimal, and equal to conventional culture.

BINDER: Hendricks' study showed that nut production and quality were essentially the same in Ron and Glenn's orchards, with the cost of production also virtually even. The extra labor costs in Glenn's organic orchard were about equal to the extra chemical costs in Ron's. With the price of organic nuts 25 percent higher than regular almonds, Glenn Anderson is actually making a higher profit than Ron, per acre of trees.

Back across the road, the Hendricks study has convinced even Ron Anderson to try out some of his brother's methods, but Ron is still holding fast to the chemical option. And Ron is passing on his way of farming and his place in the family debate to his son, Arnie, who will take over management of his father's orchards when Ron retires later this year.

ARNIE ANDERSON: It can be risky to farm organically, because nature has its ways of taking its course. And if man goes ahead and takes his course, he can get a consistent crop every year.
GLENN: I think that remains to be seen, just how that's going to work out. We're still a little bit young with organic. I think over the long pull, if everything works out as we expect that it will, with building your soil year to year, that the organic system should eventually buffer itself and perhaps more sustainable than a chemical system.

BINDER: So the debate goes on in the Anderson family, into another generation now. Lonnie Hendricks' study suggests that the differences between conventional and organic almond growing have begun to narrow, and the Andersons may soon have less and less to argue about. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in Hilmar, California.



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