High Density: The Future Of Almonds?

Billy Lyons, left, and his cousin, James Bogetti, show off the tight spacing (4 feet) of their trial block of ‘Independence’ almonds just west of Modesto, CA. (Photo credit: David Eddy)
Billy Lyons, left, and his cousin, James Bogetti, show off the tight spacing (4 feet) of their trial block of ‘Independence’ almonds just west of Modesto, CA. (Photo credit: David Eddy)

Billy Lyons and his cousin James Bogetti fully understand why people have trouble wrapping their heads around the 10-acre trial block of almonds they’re farming just west of Modesto, CA. They planted a whopping 907 trees per acre on 12-by-4-foot spacing, after all, about six to nine times the density of conventional plantings.

“When you tell people about it, it sounds kind of ridiculous,” says Lyons.

Adds Bogetti: “We felt that way, too.”

Lyons says he had to go to Spain to see such a high-density almond planting for himself. Barcelona, Spain is where Agromillora is headquartered. The tree nursery company has locations all over the world, including California, where a friend of Lyons’, Cliff Little, works. Four years ago, Little flew Lyons back to Spain to see a trial block of almonds, because Little was convinced the concept could work in California.

Lyons came away impressed, and he too thought a high-density orchard system might work, especially planting a certain almond variety he’d already had some success with, ‘Independence.’ Of course, it didn’t hurt that the developer of the non-pollinated cultivar, Zaiger Genetics, is practically a neighbor of Lyons.

Grant Zaiger, left, and his dad, Floyd.
Grant Zaiger, left, and his dad, Floyd.

Lyons has long known Grant Zaiger, son of founder Floyd Zaiger, who couldn’t have agreed more strongly with the choice. Not just because of the lack of need for pollination, but because of the fruiting habits of ‘Independence.’

“Other almond varieties shade out nuts lower on the tree,” Zaiger says. “Look at [industry favorite] ‘Nonpareil.’ All its fruiting is in the top of tree. But ‘Independence’ has fruit from the top to the bottom.”

After discussing it with his family, Lyons planted the 10 acres of dwarfing trees that were provided in a collaboration between Agromillora and Dave Wilson Nursery, the master license holder of ‘Independence.’

Bumper Crops
The trial is now in its third leaf, and so far, so good.

“So far, it’s pretty astronomical seeing the nut-set this year,” Zaiger says. “He’s getting double what he gets from his normal plantings in the third leaf.”

Lyons says in the second leaf he got yields of 500 pounds per acre, but wouldn’t put too fine a point on his yields this year, except to say the block is yielding more than any other orchard of the same age in the surrounding area.

“It exceeded our expectations — the yields were a huge success,” he says. “It gave us a lot of momentum to continue the project, let’s put it that way.”

Lyons emphasizes that it’s still a work very much in progress. In fact, because of that, he was initially reluctant to discuss the project.
“It may work, it may not, which is why we were keeping it quiet — but with all the coffee shop talk,” he smiles, trailing off, before adding quickly: “As farmers we have to look to the future. If you don’t innovate and evolve, you may go extinct.”

Root Of The Matter
While ‘Independence’ appears to be an excellent choice for a variety to use in the project, the key to a high-density orchard lies with the rootstock. That’s why the whole project started with Agromillora, and its dwarfing rootstock, Rootpac 20.

Agromillora, which has 11 subsidiaries in 9 countries and produced more than 60 million finished trees and rootstocks last year, promoted its first high-density olive orchard 22 years ago and planted the first in California in 1998.

Little said the company has long produced high-density olives worldwide utilizing existing rootstocks, but saw a need to further develop a breeding program aimed at producing hybrid rootstock, not only for olives but also for other species.

Out of that original program, they developed a series of prunus rootstocks known as Rootpac. Each Rootpac rootstock was produced to manage a certain challenge to the grower. One, Rootpac 20, was bred to reduce the structure of the tree and gain the benefits of high-density, both in increased yields and lower labor inputs.

Cliff Little
Cliff Little

“After olives we started looking at peaches, nectarines, and plums,” he says. “What other crops are scalable? What other crops would benefit from high density? There’s lots of almond acreage in Spain, but it’s not that productive. We knew stone fruit rootstocks could be compatible with almonds. So we started testing Rootpac 20 on almonds, and it looked great.”

In Europe more than 4,000 acres of high-density almonds have now been planted utilizing the main European varieties, and that number is expected to double over the next few years, Little says.

After the rootstocks went through quarantine in the U.S., Agromillora worked with Lyons and about a dozen other growers to establish trials in 2013 all over California, from as far north as Willows to as far south as Bakersfield.

The trials have gone well enough that some growers are doing additional plantings. Little encourages them to take a balanced approach to additional acreage.

“We’ve had quite a few orders already, with growers planting between 5 and 150 acres. What we tell growers is the information we have is the information we have,” he says. “We don’t have 15 years of data [here in California]. Anyone who wants to place an order for the coming year is welcome, but we tell them we simply don’t have long-term data on the rootstock/variety complement.”

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