LE GRAND -- In 1996 Joe Marchini of Le Grand brought together nine families. He had an idea. The families had been growing almonds throughout the county for decades.
Marchini's idea was that they combine their resources and start a company to get better market access and more flexibility in selling their nuts.
The result: Minturn Nut Co. Inc.
Scroll down to today. Minturn processes 80 million pounds of nuts a year, up from 5 million to 6 million when it was founded. Over the past four years, said General Manager Keith Rigg, the company has doubled its sales.
From those original nine, Minturn (named after the road it's on east of Highway 99) now has 274 growers. Although subject to the seasons -- September to Christmas is the busiest part of the year -- Minturn employs about 220 people.
It sells almonds mostly in the United States but also ships boxes to 50 countries, including China, India, the Middle East and Western Europe, mainly Italy, where Florindo, Joe's father, came from.
And those nine families still own the company. Marchini is president of J Marchini Farms, also in Le Grand. Marchini Farms specializes in radicchio, a leafy Italian vegetable, and figs.
Minturn is all almonds, all the time. Under 180,000 square feet of warehouse space, the nuts travel a circuit before they're ready to sell. Trucks unload at several docks. The nuts are placed on conveyor belts that take them to huller and sheller machines, then to cleaning bins that shake off loose dirt and other impurities. A five-gallon can is nearly filled with pebbles that came in with one load of almonds.
Then they move to a sizing deck where they're weighed -- 18 to 20 per ounce, up to 36 to 40 an ounce. An electronic sorting machine made by Satake speeds up this process. A machine made by Best further sorts the nuts with laser beams. Forklifts dart back and forth between buildings.
At every step of the way, human hands and eyes inspect the nuts for grade and quality assurance. Workers shuffle almonds around in trays like dominoes, rejecting the ones that don't pass muster. "We pride ourselves on orderliness and cleanliness," Rigg said.
At one sorting machine, Roy Martinez, production manager, scoops up nuts in his hands, showing which ones have defects. "Say we process 44,000 pounds," Martinez said. "According to USDA standards, we can only have 1 percent split or broken."
The last step in the process is packaging. One warehouse is stacked with pallets of almonds in lime-green boxes named "Le Grand Premium," aimed at high-end customers in China and the Middle East. The box top features a sketch of almond orchards in flower.
Other warehouses hold wooden bins, about the size of a small Dumpster, full of nuts or empty, awaiting their turn.
Minturn processes whole, natural "brown skin" almonds in varieties called Carmel, Livingston, Monterey, Nonpareil and Sonora. More than 30 percent of its volume now comes from "in shell" almonds, which include some of those same varieties and which, of course, are still in their shells.
Last year was a boom year for almond growers and processors. "Our industry went through a period of what we thought would be tremendous oversupply," Rigg said, "but with competitive pricing we've been able to work through this period relatively pain-free."
Production of new acreage planted from 2003 to 2008 will level off, he suggested, and the industry will be able to move prices higher.
The Almond Board of California markets the nuts as a health food, "the smartest move our industry has made," Rigg said. "The health benefits of eating almonds are on everybody's mind."
He cites several factors as key to Minturn's success: Keep it simple; keep it original; keep it clean; and continue to make the process more efficient.
But the most important part of the dynamic is the grower. "Without our growers' production -- the lifeline of our business -- China wouldn't be our customer," he says. "We put tremendous value in our grower membership. We provide a comprehensive return and give them honest, timely and insightful information."
Minturn also produces 90 percent of its energy through rooftop solar panels.
All in all, it's a company that tries to live up to the proverb by Aristotle that it quotes in a brochure: "Quality is not an act -- it is a habit."
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.