Shaking Almonds and Pulling from The Family Tree
In the 1960s, Nick Koretoff was the second farmer in Kerman to plant an almond orchard; the surrounding country was mostly cotton and alfalfa.“I can remember when I was a kid, we’d give directions to our ranch by saying, ‘When you leave Kerman and you get about a half mile out of town, you’ll see an almond orchard on the right. That’s our place,’” said Steve Koretoff, Nick and his wife Faith’s oldest son. You’d be lost if you tried to follow those directions now–there’s an almond orchard almost everywhere you look.
Today, the Koretoff family continues to farm almonds, 550 organically certified acres of them. While they’ve grown in size over the years, you’ll still find Nick working in the field any chance he gets. Steve runs the packing and processing shed they built in the 90s when the family got going with organics. Nick and Faith’s daughter Christine works in the farm office, and their youngest son David is the ranch manager.
Nick’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Russia as teenagers. They bravely paid for their voyage by working on the Panama Canal. When they had saved enough money they came to California and started farming on the vast, empty plains west of Fresno, a land strikingly similar to their home in the old country.
Tucked away amid the Koretoffs’ almond orchards is their original homestead. “This is where the family started,” Steve said under the shade of an umbrella tree that his great grandmother had planted shortly after settling on the land.
Family stories and memories are woven all throughout the patchwork of almond trees, nourishing them with an extra measure of pride.
“When you’re born on the farm, and you’re raised on the farm from a youngster, you know, that’s just part of life, I don’t know any better I guess you could say,” Nick said about his commitment to farming. “We’re kind of unique in a way. I used to plant seeds and watch them grow and harvest them, now I watch the trees,” he reflected, standing in the lane between two ready fields of almond trees, “They go from a bare branch, to a bud breaking, to a bloom and through the year and now shaking it and picking it up and marketing it. The neat thing now about it is not only do we grow the crop, but we market it ourselves. So that just is pretty fulfilling in itself.”
Growing up on the farm provided Nick with an environment and attitude that made self-sufficiency a normal part of life. “On the farm here we used to raise all our own food just about. We had our own cows we milked, had our own chickens, and we come from a kosher type background so we did all our own butchering…We were very self sufficient,” Nick added before he climbed into the tree shaker and started heading down the rows.
Nick started in organics by converting just a couple of orchards, and as the family established a way to pack and market the almonds themselves, he followed through with the rest of the land. The packing and marketing aspect of the Koretoffs’ set up seems to connect to back the model of self-sufficiency he mentioned when remembering his childhood on the farm.
The return to organics in the 90s was also, in a way, a return to the family’s farming roots. “A lot of the things we were doing while we were going into organics were things that my grandparents used to do,” Steve said. “When my grandmother was still alive she used to say, ‘Well, we used to do this, and we used to do that…’”
Among those things is paying close attention to the soil profile and microbial action in the soil of the orchards. Steve explained that pests and diseases have a foot in the door when a tree is stressed, and taking care of the soil with compost and other natural inputs is a preventative measure for protecting the trees. “It’s a combination, you want to use the best scientific data that you can get, with your most modern technologies, but also with the life lessons that are learned over the long haul in the farming industry,” Steve said. And he added, better harvesting equipment and new technologies have made it possible for them to do things the old way, but more efficiently.
Seeing Nick settle down into the driver’s seat of an air conditioned, computer programed tree shaker and make his way down the rows of harvest ready trees, you can see how easy it is to tie technologies to an ever increasing collection of family wisdom.