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Trial looks at potential to grow almonds in Idaho

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

PARMA – An increasing number of California almond growers have expressed interest in growing that crop in Idaho. Local commercial fruit growers say they would also produce almonds here if it can be shown they can be grown economically in the Gem State.

Because of the large amount of interest in growing almonds in Idaho, University of Idaho researcher Essie Fallahi has received a $136,000 specialty crop grant to support a field trial that has been established at the fruit orchard at UI’s Research and Extension Center in Parma.

The trial includes 14 different almond varieties, as well as 10 walnut varieties, and will study performance, bloom and harvest dates, yield and quality attributes.

The grant was awarded by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture and the project will be conducted between Oct. 1, 2018, and Sept. 30, 2020.

According to the university’s application for the grant, “we anticipate attracting commercial growers from Idaho, California and other adjacent states to invest in Idaho and grow these nut crops which have much less cost of production than other fruits.”

Fallahi said he has heard from more than 20 growers in the past year interested in the possibility of growing almonds in Idaho, most of them from California, the global leader in almond production. Several are actively searching for land to purchase for that purpose, he said.

One is seriously considering putting in as many as 1,000 acres of almonds in southwestern Idaho, said Fallahi, who heads UI’s pomology program.

California growers interested in growing almonds in Idaho say they are attracted by the cheaper land prices here, greater water availability and more favorable regulatory environment, he said.

Fallahi said he has warned people interested in growing almonds in Idaho about the possibility of having a severe, damaging frost some years.

“But they say that even if they lose a crop one or two times every 10 years, it would still be worth it for them because of” the cheaper land, water availability and fewer regulations, he said. “As researchers, we are trying to be on the conservative side and give them all the warning we can, but we still have growers that are very serious about this.”

Almonds have been grown in Idaho over the years but only on a trial basis and not on a large commercial scale.

Existing Idaho growers are also interested in the possibility of adding almonds to their crop portfolio and are keeping a close eye on Fallahi’s almond trial.

“If we can find a variety of almond that we can grow here that is accepted in the marketplace, then we would be extremely interested in it,” said Chad Henggeler, field manager for Henggeler Packing Co., one of Idaho’s largest commercial fruit growers.

“We have to make sure the yields and quality are there, but we are definitely interested,” he added.

Williamson Orchards and Vineyards, another one of Idaho’s biggest fruit producers, has grown some almond trees on a test basis a couple of times over the years, said manager Michael Williamson.

Almonds would fit into the company’s existing equipment makeup, labor profile and growing practices, he said.

“They seem to do all right but a lot more research and education is needed to do it right,” Williamson said. “That’s where Essie’s work will come in handy. It will give us a much broader picture because he is growing so many different varieties.”

Treasure Valley farmer Vince Holtz, who used to have fruit orchards in California years ago, said he is on the cusp of putting in some almond orchards around the region. That includes a 10-acre block in Eastern Oregon near the Idaho border, 7 acres in Caldwell and a couple of acres in Homedale.

“There’s a real good possibility it could work,” he said. “It’s been proven you can grow almonds here. The quality is actually pretty darn good compared with what you get in California.”

Holtz agreed with Fallahi that Idaho is attractive to some California farmers because of the cheaper land prices here, more reliable water situation and more favorable regulatory environment.  

“The California situation is getting tough enough that some of those guys are looking at new areas to put almonds in,” he said. “Demand for almonds is growing and growing and they are also running out of opportunities to expand in that area.”

If grown on a drip irrigation system in Idaho, almonds would use about 2.5 acre-feet of water per year, Holtz said, which would make them comparable to peaches or apples in water usage.

If almonds are grown in Idaho on a commercial scale, that would present opportunities for the state’s beekeepers, who currently travel to California in February and March to pollinate that state’s almond crop.

“If I had the opportunity to completely stay away from going down to California and pollinate almonds here in Idaho, that would be an opportunity in heaven for me,” said Beau Keading, a beekeeper from Shoshone.

Jonathan Millet, a beekeeper from Parma, said he believes most Idaho beekeepers would continue to travel to California as well as pollinate almonds in Idaho.

Idaho’s almond crop would be pollinated in April or May, after California’s almond pollination season, which usually wraps up in March.

Millet and Keading both hope a commercial almond market develops in Idaho, but they differ on the likelihood of that happening.

Keading “absolutely” thinks it can happen. “If we can tap into the almond market, that would bring a heck of an economic boost to Idaho and could open up possibilities.”

Millet, who pollinates Fallahi’s almond trial, has grown several different almond varieties on a test basis over the past decade and has had mixed results.

“Some years they’ll have a whole bunch of fruit and some years they frost out,” he said. “They all die for a variety of reasons.”

Millet said he is excited about the possibility of Idaho attracting a large number of almond acres.

“It would be great if it did happen but it’s hard to do,” he said. “I’m a little skeptical. I don’t know if they’ll ever get anything past the research stage.”

Millet said the weather factor is the biggest challenge “but it’s not out of the possibility. They will never be grown in Pocatello [in East Idaho] but there are some warm pockets in southwestern Idaho where it could be possible.”

Based on past Idaho almond trials, “the chance for cropping in almonds was better than for apricots, which are routinely grown here,” Fallahi said. “We think they can be grown here but like with everything else, people have to be willing to take a chance.”