Trials test self-pollinating almond trees

Every February, thousands of beehives are trucked into the San Joaquin Valley for pollination of almond trees.

All that could change as plant scientists and farmers begin trials of self-pollinating almond trees that have been in development for years. If successful, growers could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in pollination costs.

"That is like the Holy Grail," said Roger Duncan, a pomologist with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus County.

Almonds are grown statewide on more than 600,000 acres, and it isn't unusual for larger operations to spend more than $1 million to rent bees. To help reduce that expense, plant breeders have spent more than a decade trying to develop an almond tree that can pollinate itself.

Some of the work has been done at Burchell Nursery and Dave Wilson Nursery in Stanislaus County. Others in the hunt include Craig Ledbetter, a U.S. Department of Agriculture geneticist; the University of California; and private breeders.

Pollination is vital to producing almonds, which are second only to milk among farm products in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The nuts brought an estimated $654 million in gross income to the region's growers in 2008.

California produces about 80 percent of the world's almonds. They are the state's No. 1 farm export.

The almond pollination in California draws about two-thirds of the nation's commercial bee colonies each February. But colony collapse, an undetermined problem that is killing bees in large numbers, threatens the ability of beekeepers to provide enough hives to pollinate the huge California crop.

Self-pollinating trees have been used in Spain for years, but Spanish almonds tend to have a hairy texture and a strong almond taste.

The challenge for Ledbetter of the USDA was to isolate the self-pollination traits of the Spanish tree and the mild taste and smoother texture of the nonpareil variety, the main type in California, to create a new tree. After years of crossbreeding, he believes he's found the right combination.

The USDA's new tree will be part of a field trial by the Almond Board of California, headquartered in Modesto. Trees from UC and private nurseries also will be evaluated.

Some growers have started their own trials. Last year, Chowchilla farmer Jim Maxwell planted 40 acres of a new self-pollinating variety called Independence, a tree developed by a private breeder.

"We have been watching the new trees with great interest, and we are very pleased with what we see so far," said Maxwell, chief executive officer of Agriland, a farm management company that operates 4,000 acres of almond trees.

The next big step for growers and the industry is to see how well the trees perform in a commercial orchard setting. That process could take several years.

Bob Curtis, director of agricultural affairs for the Almond Board, said new varieties must go through rigorous testing and evaluation to see whether the self-pollinating trees perform.

"It may take as many as eight years before we find out if we have a winner or a dog," Curtis said. "But there is no question that this is the future of the almond industry."