Troy Richman stands among the 95,000 newly-planted almond trees on the company’s Meilman property.

By JOHN DOOLEY

THE expansion of almond tree plantings in Sunraysia is strikingly evident at Almas Almonds’ Meilman orchard, located 30kms east of Euston.

The group is growing strongly, operating two other well established almond orchards in the region, at Buchanan and Bannerton.

This new property has five permanent employees, including an orchard manager, irrigation manager and three other full-time staff assisting them.

At any given time in the season, there are up to 20 other workers in the field, and during pruning and full production leading to harvest, there will be up to 50 workers, including casual labour.

The property’s footprint covers more than 500 hectares, almost 400 of which are planted with 95,000 juvenile almonds trees, sourced from nurseries in the region.

The ‘new whips’ as they are called, are one-year-old disease-free trees, that at the time of planting represent a $1million investment, the scale of which is visually impressive.

The entire planting was carried out by hand, with each tree being buried and tied to a hard wood stake to prevent them from being torn out of the ground at an early age by strong winds.

Once a good root structure is established, the stakes are removed well in advance of the first harvest.

I’ve joined a bus tour of the new orchard, and our guide is Almas general manager, Troy Richman,  INSET and RIGHT. His mechanical engineering background in viticulture and the broad-acre industry stands him in good stead today, given the diversity of the new technologies which are being applied at the Almas orchards.

“The incentive for Almas to expand its plantings comes from the fact that it has been a stable market for some time domestically and world-wide,” Troy said.

We pass an unplanted area, which Troy explains is either deemed to be frost-prone, or the soil depth is marginal, and there isn’t enough top soil to sustain an almond tree through its productive life.

“A lot of work goes into identifying areas that should or shouldn’t be planted, and this is carried out by a ‘soil doctor’ who is engaged by Almas prior to doing the irrigation design,” he said.

Almonds are usually planted on a seven metre by five metre grid to give a density of about 250 trees a hectare.

Careful planning goes into the layout of the plantation, with consideration given to the different variety of nut species to be planted, to ensure successful cross-pollination of the trees.

Everything is done on a big scale here, with plans to construct a 250-megalitre dam on an unused clay flat to provide water for irrigation.

“The dam will have the capacity to deliver up to 1000 litres of water a second out of the pump station, and will be filled with water from the river which will automatically top up as required,” Troy said.

The dam will be set up with a ‘fertigation’ system, which enables the irrigation manager to control the percentage of fertiliser in the water being supplied to the thousands of metres of drip-lines providing sustenance to the trees.

“For example, you may want to inject 100,000 litres of fertiliser into the water over two hours, the system will supply it in a percentage of flow. The water flow is controlled by a computer that has been programmed by an operator,” Troy said.

The irrigation system is a pressure compensated (PC), dripper system, a term used to describe an emitter that maintains the same output at varying water inlet pressures, which compensate for uneven terrain, length of supply tube and inlet flows.

“All of this equals more efficient watering by reducing the risk of over or under watering,” Troy said.

“In addition to this, because there is a need to vary the rate of delivery of water and fertiliser across the rows, to facilitate cross pollination and different growth stages of the almond varieties, the ability to change the irrigation to every second row is required right across the farm, which means the irrigation footprint is effectively doubled.”

Also joining the tour is Matt Strong, Regional Agribusiness manager for North West Victoria, whose role is to oversee the farming sector in the region.

“The agricultural sector in Sunraysia is going from strength to strength, key indicators of this are favourable seasonal conditions in recent years, water availability, and the strong export markets opening up, together with a competitive dollar,” he said.

“From the bank’s perspective, the outlook for the horticultural sector in the region, including the almond industry in particular, is very positive.”

Our tour concludes after a short trip, via Robinvale on the Murray Valley Highway, to the Almas’ Buchanan orchard, where thousands of mature trees are in full bloom as far as the eye can see.

If you haven’t seen a huge plantation of almond blossom before, you are missing a treat. The blossom stays out for a little over two weeks, during which time tens of thousands of bees are busy cross-pollinating the trees.

The final stage of the season is the harvest, which for Almas is a totally mechanical process performed by a variety of different machines, all of which have specific roles.

Harvesting is hot, dusty work, often carried out in over 40ºC heat, by staff working 12-hour, around the clock shifts.

An interesting fact brought to my attention was the orchard’s no-glass policy. This is to ensure that no fragments of glass or plastic ever find their way into the sorting and packing process.

Strict protocols are in place at every stage to monitor vehicles and containers entering the orchard to ensure this high standard is maintained.