Researcher revitalizes nuts
Connell zeroed in on pest problems, helped create almond breeds
By TIM HEARDEN
CHICO, Calif. -- When considering California's proliferation of nut trees, much of the credit for the crops' success could be given to Joe Connell.
A University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor here since 1980, Connell, 60, was part of a research team in the 1980s that developed early-harvest almonds that retain quality but are more resistant to pests. Today Nonpareils are among the first off the trees and are the gold standard among almonds.
Connell's study of the life cycle of the navel orangeworm and other pests have helped producers predict when the next generations would come and target their sprays accordingly, allowing them to cut costs and impacts to the environment.
And Connell has helped develop other varieties of almonds, including Butte, Padre and Sonora, that are now commonly grown in the industry.
Connell is quick to praise other farm advisors and local growers who have participated in all the various field trials.
"What I've enjoyed most is having a career that has given me an opportunity to work with family farmers and help them with the production problems they were facing," he said. "It's very gratifying to assist them in that way."
A San Francisco Bay area native, Connell said he was always interested in plant science, even as a kid doing yard chores. He entered UC-Davis as an engineering major but took a plant science class, and soon switched his field of study. After graduating in 1977, he was an advisor in Fresno County for several years before coming to Butte County.
When he started, the almond industry had a then-record crop of 300 million pounds of nuts -- a mere fraction of the 2 billion pounds anticipated this year.
"They were concerned about having too many nuts," Connell said. "The price dropped in the early '80s. But they did a great job of marketing.
"The big boost came when the almond industry and the walnut industry started to do research into the nutritional value of nuts," he said. "Prior to that work, doctors were telling us we don't want to eat nuts. Even though consumption was increasing, that message was still coming from society. The work of the Almond Board (of California) confirmed the fats in nuts are a good fat."
A few decades ago, it was common for almond growers to start their harvest around Labor Day, Connell said. Growers were suffering considerable losses because of the navel orangeworm, a primary pest whose larvae bore into the nutmeat and consume most of the nut.
UC researchers found that rapid, early harvest is one of the most effective controls of the pest, as the nuts are removed from the trees before third-generation eggs are laid and do the most damage.
"Today most of the growers try to get started as early as they can," Connell said. "Today it's not uncommon in some places for harvest to start in mid-July. Around here we get going in early August."
By cutting the worm damage, growers have improved the yield of high-quality nuts, he said. Other research that Connell has participated in has also helped, including irrigation efficiency, frost protection and better pruning methods to achieve higher yields.
"We did a 16-year pruning trial where we looked at the effects of different training and pruning," Connell said. "We found the less pruned almond trees had a heavier yield. ... Prior to that we all felt we needed to prune to select strong scaffolds. That was true for the type of almond industry we had at that time, which was large trees at wider spacing.
"I think our trial work in the 1980s demonstrated that with new types of plantings, with closer spacing and mechanical harvests, we didn't need to prune in the same way," he said.
Connell again credits area farmers and the Almond Board of California in helping with the research.
"There's some great family farmers who've been very supportive ... and were willing to explore the research programs I've worked on that have made a real difference in the community," he said. "The Almond Board has been a great supporter of the industry as a whole ... they're great partners with the university."
Joseph H. Connell
Residence: Chico, Calif.
Occupation: University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor and Butte County director
Family: Married, two grown children