Blue Diamond celebrates 100 years of almonds

September 4, 2010 

In 1910, J.P. Dargitz took on the task of selling about 1.5 million pounds of almonds from California.

He was the first manager of a farmer-owned cooperative that would come to be known as Blue Diamond Growers.

"Naturally, we have had many obstacles to meet and overcome," a company history quotes Dargitz as saying after the first year, "but by the very earnest and upright method of doing business, we have been able to overcome practically every obstacle."

Imagine what J.P. would think of the company upon its centennial. Blue Diamond has become the world's largest almond supplier, processing hundreds of millions of pounds a year at plants in Salida and Sacramento.

In Salida last week, the first few days of the 2010 harvest had created a 5 million-pound pile of almonds -- more than triple Dargitz's entire 1910 supply. The mound stood 48 feet high -- about 2 billion nuts in all.

Like Dargitz, today's managers keep

finding markets for the crop. Some of the almonds end up in snack bags and other products with the Blue Diamond label. Many more go to companies that use them in candy, baked goods, ice cream, breakfast cereal and a host of other products.

"What you can do with it is amazing," said Dave Baker, director of member relations for the cooperative. "It can take on flavors of all kinds."

Blue Diamond employs about 300 people at the peak of production at the Salida plant, the largest almond receiving station in the world. Most of them work 10 to 11 months a year because cold storage allows each crop to be processed gradually.

The plant opened in 1968. It does basic processing for about two-thirds of Blue Diamond's nuts, shipping them in 50- to 2,200-pound containers.

Human touch is still there

The plant at the Sacramento headquarters has about 1,000 employees. It handles the rest of the crop and all of the slicing, flavoring and other advanced processing.

The Salida plant has plenty of high-tech equipment for sorting, inspecting and pasteurizing the almonds, but the human touch still matters, manager Darrell Nelson said.

Tae Hui Yi and her daughter, Yun Ok Tune, both work on the processing lines, picking out defective almonds and foreign material.

"It's like a family plant," Tune said. "I really enjoy working here."

They have been with the company for nearly 25 years, after emigrating from South Korea.

"I like this job," Yi said. "That's why I'm 82 and still working."

The almonds come from more than 3,000 grower-members in the Central Valley. Blue Diamond does not disclose its share of the state's crop, which is projected to be 1.65 billion pounds this year.

The cooperative's field staff works with growers to boost the yield and quality of the crop. Today's harvest methods -- using machines that shake the nuts from the trees and sweep them up from the ground -- is far removed from the hand labor of the first half of the 20th century.

"In the early days, almonds were hand-knocked by either poles or a rubber mallet that you swung and struck the limb with, and the nuts would fall off of the trees," Baker said.

When Blue Diamond started, the almond industry mainly aimed at Christmas season sales and was dominated by Spanish and Italian imports, according to a history by Gray Allen. Blue Diamond extended the sales period and invested in processing and packaging methods to meet the growing demand.

In the early 1940s, Blue Diamond promoted nutritional research that resulted in almonds being declared an "essential food" for the war effort. In the decades that followed, its products made their way into more and more foreign markets.

In the 1980s, flagging domestic demand prompted a classic series of television commercials. "A can a week, that's all we ask," real growers said as they stood waist deep in nuts.

In recent years, Blue Diamond has boosted sales with messages about the "good fat" and other benefits that almonds provide.

The start of the company's second century comes with challenges, including a tight water supply in parts of the valley and trade barriers in many nations. But Baker noted opportunities, including a taste for almonds among the burgeoning middle classes in China and India.

Shermain Hardesty, a specialist in agricultural cooperatives at the University of California at Davis, said Blue Diamond faces competition from more than 100 other processors in the state.

"But because of their strong relations in the export market and their product development efforts, they're different from most of those handlers," she said. "It's not just that lowest price wins."

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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