Around 1850, a grower named Felix Gillet bought a new variety of cultivated almond seedlings from the William Prince Nursery in New York. They were called Languedoc, because they came from a region in France of the same name. Gillet took the cultivars back home to Nevada City, California, where he planted them in his orchards. Within a few years, Languedoc-derived trees were being cultivated and sold throughout the state. Results differed without any apparent rhyme or reason. One grower would have a good crop, while his neighbor would lose most of his crop to frost or disease. Discouraged, many growers threw in the towel and switched to other crops that were more reliable.
One grower who didn’t give up was Augustus T. Hatch, who owned 800 acres of almond trees in Solano County, California. Hatch kept experimenting, grafting seedlings to different types of rootstock. He tried apricot roots, plum roots, peach roots, almond roots and almond-peach hybrid roots. In 1879, Hatch planted over 2000 seedlings. Two-hundred of which he could not graft because there was not enough rootstock available. Ever the innovator, Hatch decided to take four different varieties – which he called Nonpariel, IXL, Ne Plus Ultra, and La Prima – and plant them together. The La Prima variety proved to be insufficient. But the other three varieties, when planted together, were resilient and very productive. Hatch’s discovery changed the face of the almond industry forever. Nonpariels became the leading almond in the world.
But before the California almond growers became a powerful industry, they experienced some initial growing pains. For the growers knew how to produce almonds, but they didn’t know anything about marketing or selling almonds. Each grower would harvest his crop and then go looking for someone to buy it. The buyers were speculators who had lots of information at their fingertips, while the growers had none. Buyers knew the volume of almonds available from foreign countries, whether it was a good crop or not, and what the demand for almonds was. Which meant they knew what the fair market price was. The growers had no idea what they should be getting for their crops. So the buyers undercut them. Which meant the growers barely made enough profit to stay in business.
A few of the growers realized that if they wanted to survive, they needed to get organized. The first group to do so was in Davisville, California, where, in 1897, seventy-one growers formed what they called the Davisville Almond Growers Association (DAGA). The goals of this group were many and varied, but the primary objective was not unlike that of modern unions. By banding together they hoped to make more money for their crops. DAGA gathered information about the status of the state’s almond crop. How many tons were expected to be harvested, and of what quality. They originated efficient methods to store and ship the association’s almonds, and introduced inspection guidelines and marketing campaigns. Initially, their efforts were rudimentary, but over time improvements were made rapidly.
By 1905, DAGA organized an exhibition of their almonds at the St. Louis World’s Fair, where they won a gold medal. DAGA seized this opportunity to establish itself as a ‘brand.” They designed and manufactured sacks with the legend “Awarded Gold Medal at St. Louis World’s Fair.” This was well before the concept of ‘branding’ was even known.
The result of DAGA’s concerted enterprise was greater production and more profit. And other growers took note, forming their own local associations. Even so, DAGA’s founding members recognized that local organizations lacked the power to extract full value for their crops. There were too many island groups competing with each other. Competition drove prices down, not up, because buyers played one group against another group. Something needed to be done. A statewide organization was the answer. But actually making it happen was a different proposition all together. Each local organization was jealous of its prerogatives. Coalescing these disparate groups would take a regular Moses – someone who combined the persuasive skills of a diplomat, a demagogue, and an evangelist.