From Field to Processing Plant

If you’ve ever traveled through an agricultural area while having a snack, you may have had a moment in which the farm in front of you just happened to produce the kind of crop that went into making your snack. I had such a moment during a recent holiday weekend: driving through central California, munching on smoked almonds, and noticing a large grove of almond trees off to my right. That’s what got me thinking: many of us can recognize crops in the field, and most of us know what crops contribute to the food we eat, but how many of us know what happens between farm and table (or snack, or gas station, or consumer product)?


This is where harvesting and midstream processing comes in. In the developed world, there is an entire system behind carefully yet relentlessly getting at the most valuable products from the field, transporting them, processing them using physical, chemical, and/or biological means, and so on. A few steps later, they’re in your kitchen, car, or office.

Since the universe of crops, processing methods, and end products is so vast, let’s focus on one crop with which we’re almost all familiar: almonds. The state of California is the world’s largest producer of almonds by far. In 2011, its farmers produced almost 2 billion pounds (900 million kg) of shelled nuts from 760,000 acres of land, accounting for about 75% of global production and generating almost $3.9 billion in revenue.

For this post, we’ll focus on the process by which almonds – and several other types of nut crops, including TerViva’s own pongamia – can be removed from trees and taken to processing facilities. This harvesting process usually takes place between mid-August and October.

almond shaker

1. Shaking. Machines called shakers, essentially four-wheeled vehicles with a claw-shaped boom in the front or to the side, are used to physically shake each tree one by one. A good shaker, run by a good operator on a well-designed orchard, can shake an entire tree in as little as 30 seconds. This means that an entire acre of orchard, containing 110 trees on average, can be “shaken” in under an hour. The almonds are then left on the ground to dry for 7-10 days before the next step.

2. Sweeping. The shaking process gets the almonds off the trees and on to the orchard floor, but they still need to be picked up. However, because of the variation in morphology of each tree coupled with the subjectivity of the shaking process, the almonds are scattered all over the floor and would be difficult for an automated machine to pick up without additional assistance. This assistance comes in the form of the sweeping step.

flory v60 sweeper

The “sweeper” is a machine that looks like a cross between a combine harvester and a hovercraft from the front. Equipped with powerful fans capable of pushing almonds out of berms, it is used to blow and arrange the almonds into neat piles running along the center of each row.

3. Pickup (not shown). Next, it’s up to the rather generically-named “harvester” to pick up the almonds from the center of each row. This is done using a conveyor belt mechanism that picks up the almonds and flings them into a reservoir cart hitched behind the harvester.


4. Running. In many cases, the harvester operator simply keeps on going until the reservoir cart is full. However, this may be a less-than-optimal use of resources in the case of larger orchards. In such cases, having a self-propelled, human operated, bidirectional shuttle runner may be the way to go. These seven-tenths-scale “dump trucks on wheels” attach to the harvester, while facing backwards, and serve as a reservoir for when the harvester its doing its job. Once full, the shuttle runner detaches from the harvester with its load, “running” in the opposite direction to the staging area (at speeds up to 30 mph in both directions!), dropping off its load, and coming right back for more.


5. Transfer to Temporary Storage. The shuttle runner drops off its load on a combination “desticker”/elevator, which as the name suggests, removes sticks and other large pieces of debris before storing the nuts in open mounds or other temporary storage. The elevator is not unlike the baggage loading machine that you may have seen if you’ve looked out the window of a plane while at the gate.

almond utility trailer

6. Transport to Processing Plants. The almond fruits are transported in utility trailers to processing facilities. You might have seen trailers like these on the road while traveling through rural areas.

Hopefully this provides an appreciation for just the first step of getting almonds and similar nut crops such as pongamia off the trees into a processing facility. We’ll discuss the journey from the processing plant to one’s glovebox on the Interstate 5 (or fuel tank, or other suitable end use) at another time.

Until then, enjoy your snack!

Aniket Sawant manages downstream products and markets for TerViva.

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