Why Sacramento’s Nuts About Almonds

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If someone says her favorite fruit is the almond, she’s not nuts. Although they share a somewhat similar size and texture&emdash;as well as premium snack and appetizer status&emdash;with peanuts, which are a legume, almonds are classified as a stone fruit due to their being an ancient offshoot of peaches.

Almonds have been eaten by humans for thousands of years, even meriting mention in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Traced to central and southwest Asia, they were not found in North America until Father Junípero Serra, founder of California’s Catholic missions, brought a bag over from Europe in the 18th century. By the mid-1800s, farmers were planting almond trees in the Los Angeles, Monterey and Sacramento regions. By the dawn of the 20th century, almonds were emerging as one of California’s most important crops.

In 1910, fruit and almond grower (and ordained minister) J.P. Dargitz spearheaded the 230-member California Almond Growers Exchange, a growers cooperative founded May 10 of that year by a vote held in Sacramento’s Turclu Hotel.

We have come together as growers . . . to eliminate the speculative and parasitical elements from the business and also the poor quality of almonds that has often been put on the market, Dargitz is quoted as saying in The Almond People, a 2000 book that celebrated the 90th anniversary of what now is known as the Blue Diamond Growers.

In 1914, at a startup cost of about $10,000, the exchange unveiled the Blue Diamond logo and opened a shelling plant at 18th and C streets. The facility included a spur track to facilitate shipping and enough property to allow for soon-needed expansion. Within a decade, exchange membership skyrocketed to more than 3,500, and California’s almond production more than quadrupled. Although such growth peaked and even waned before a post-World War II resurgence, the Blue Diamond plant in Sacramento consisted of seven buildings by 1939 and was among the city’s largest employers. Most of the work was seasonal, running from harvest deliveries in late summer until orders were completed in January.

Today, the 90-acre midtown facility stays open year-round and employs up to 1,500 people during the busy fall season. Blue Diamond has grown to become the largest nut-processing and -marketing company in the world. Almonds represent California’s largest agricultural export; more than 80 percent of the world’s crop is produced here.

By the way, if you want to fit in as a local almond insider, say AM-mund, with the first syllable pronounced like that in action. To remove almonds from the trees, you know, farmers must shake the L out of them.