BY JOHN COX
When he's at work in local almond orchards, passers-by often stop to ask Hank Gorman whether the property owner know he's knocking over their trees. And every time he gives the same answer: "The farmer called me."
No doubt it's a confusing sight to people unfamiliar with almond-growing. But there's a good reason he's there behind the wheel of an excavator pushing down tree after tree for acres on end.
It turns out almond trees have a relatively short productive life. After 20 to 25 years, they are typically removed and replaced with saplings that start producing nuts within about three years.
Compare that with pistachio trees that can yield nuts well past their 70th year. Citrus trees outlast almonds, too, sometimes giving fruit for 100 years or more.
This week, Gorman and his partners at Bakersfield-based orchard-removal and tree-grinding service Ignis4 were at work taking down an 80-acre almond orchard at the intersection of Coffee and Snow roads. Clearing 10 to 11 acres per day, the company has a few more days of labor before moving on to the next in a long list of waiting customers. Gorman said the property's owner has indicated he intends to replant with almonds.
The tree removals are entirely routine, especially in the almond capital of Kern County. But what's not as well-established is what to do with the downed trees.
In decades past, farmers simply burned the trees in place or chopped them up for firewood. A lot less of that happens now that air quality has become a top priority in the Central Valley. But generally speaking, many of the trees still do not end up in landfills.
Until a few years ago, many dead almond trees were sent to nearby biomass power plants and co-generation plants that burned them to create energy for use in local oil production. But while co-gen facilities still operate in Kern, the biomass plants have largely faded away as their underlying economics lost out to other renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar power plants.
Many farmers now grind up the trees instead of burning them. Often the resulting wood chips are mixed with dyes to create a visually pleasing urban ground cover. Or, untreated chips are spread across an orchard as a means of weed control.
Increasingly, though, ground-up trees are recycled back into an almond orchard's soil. Ongoing research supported by the Almond Board of California trade group discs the chips into the ground, where the release of carbon dioxide is slowed and nutrition is put back into the orchard. Studies suggest the chips can improve water infiltration and storage.
Orchard Systems Advisor Mohammad Yaghmour, a consultant with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Kern County, said the process increases organic matter inside the soil, which improves its quality without hindering tree growth.
"In the near future, this is going to be the norm, grinding up the orchards and reincorporating them into the soil and replanting," he said.
Gorman considers the wood chips more of a renewable source of energy that is, for some farmers, a nuisance they usually just want to get rid of.
He tries to explain this to uninformed observers.
"It is a rotated crop, believe it or not," he said. "It just takes 15 or 20 years for it to run its course."