After a tough year of drought, almonds still celebrated in Capay Valley

Miraj Sanghvi plays with her daughter Sofiya, 4, in an almond orchard during the 101st annual Capay Valley Almond Festival along Highway 16 between Madison and Rumsey on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016.
Miraj Sanghvi plays with her daughter Sofiya, 4, in an almond orchard during the 101st annual Capay Valley Almond Festival along Highway 16 between Madison and Rumsey on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. Special to The Bee

California almonds were maligned over this past year as prime water guzzlers during a devastating drought, but that didn’t take the bloom off several thousand fragrant acres of white and pink almond blossoms highlighting the 101st annual Capay Valley Almond Festival on Sunday.

On Highway 16 from Woodland to Rumsey, a thick stream of cars and motorcycles poured into the towns of Esparto, Capay, Brooks and Guinda for a flurry of festival-related activities, only some of them having to do with the magical properties of almonds.

Aside from stands selling almond butter (crunchy and smooth), almond latte, almond blossom ice cream and almond candy, there were fruits, jams, jewelry, leather jackets and olive oils for sale, along with live bands playing “Folsom Prison Blues” and other favorites.

“We will easily pass our projected turnout of 15,000,” said Pat Harrison, president of the Esparto Chamber of Commerce, which helped sponsor the long-running celebration.

More than a century ago, the tough little seed first transformed the Capay Valley into a beautifully sculpted agricultural paradise now known for its fruits, nuts and wines.

The origin of Capay Valley almonds traces back to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which built train depots from Elmira to Rumsey in 1888 to stimulate business in the valley, said local historian Elizabeth “Betsy” Monroe. The railroad had stops in several towns, and farmers planted almonds throughout the valley, Monroe said.

But as California’s most recent drought worsens, the almond has become a source of controversy.

Driven in part by dipping international demand, almonds plummeted in price from $5 a pound over the summer to as little as $3.10 a pound Jan. 26, even though 6,000 California farmers grow 890,000 acres worth. Mother Jones magazine famously asserted that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond.

Katherine Pope, regional orchard adviser for UC Davis, said almonds were getting a bad rap.

“All trees use water, and if you grow food you use water,” Pope said. “Almonds use roughly the same amount of water as most of the trees we get food from.” And many almond growers have cut back their watering systems, and some even water by hand.

The Almond Board seems to sidestep the controversy, advertising the “crunch” as a gluten-free, energy-packed, nutrition-filled miracle food good for the heart, weight management and diabetes prevention.

Many at this past weekend’s festival also did their best to avoid the almond debate.

“Almonds got beat up a lot this past year,” conceded Hallie Muller, a former Almond Queen who squired this year’s queen and her court up the valley Sunday. Muller works at Full Belly Farm and grew up on a farm that has raised almonds for 32 years.

“Originally the festival was centered around the almond harvest in later August or September, but then folks realized the blossom’s the most beautiful part to see,” Muller said.

Over the weekend, the tiny bursts of pink inside beds of white petals had cars parking along Highway 16 to catch a glimpse. Families, couples and other groups of onlookers ventured into the orchards to sniff the subtle, sweet fragrance and play with the petals floating off the trees like snowflakes.

“We never get snow here, so it’s nice to see it blanketed with petals,” said Khonnie Lattasima, 33, of Sacramento, as she and two friends nosed right up to the blossoms. “We came with a group but ditched them because it’s so beautiful here.”

Laura Osburn, who recently moved to Davis from Austin, Texas, with her husband, Cory, agreed. “It looks like there’s snow on the ground – it’s incredible,” she said. “I’ve been telling Cory for weeks we have to go out and see the almond blossoms!”

Still, few people were having more fun than 4-year-old Sofiya Sanghvi as her parents sprinkled petals on her head. “I’m pretending they’re snow petals,” she declared, picking up a handful.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

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