College of Agriculture

The Spaces Between

Butte County Farmer Dax Kimmelshue Makes the Most of the Orchard Floor

Farmer stands in orchard and inspects his fieldDax Kimmelshue knows beans. The fifth-generation farmer from Durham has been growing the hearty legumes for decades and thanks to renewed focus on the plant’s ecological and economic benefits, researchers at California State University, Chico are studying one particular production method in Kimmelshue’s farming toolbox: alley cropping.

Alley cropping is a cropping system in which a short duration “companion” crop is grown between rows of fruit and nut trees. The sustainable farming practice increases the efficiency of land and water resources and offers added revenue streams to growers.

For Kimmelshue and his family, alley cropping has been part of their production system since about 1975 when his father, Edward, collaborated with another Butte County farming legend, Fred Montgomery, to brainstorm ways to utilize the bare soil between newly planted almond and walnut trees.

“Beans worked out to be a great companion crop for the trees,” Kimmelshue said. “Both require about the same amount of care. The trees rob a little bit of the fertilizer you put on for the beans, and they [require] about the same amount of irrigation water—light, frequent irrigations about once a week.”

Kimmelshue recalls that alley cropping with beans was common in the Northern Sacramento Valley until about the late 1990s when irrigation and planting systems began to change. As growers invested more in drip irrigation and planted new orchards with narrower tree spacing, they turned away from alley cropping. Kimmelshue is one of the few growers left in Butte, Glenn, and Tehama counties with the equipment to grow and harvest beans in an alley cropping system, so he farms beans for other growers along with his own family’s orchards. Kimmelshue grows and markets dry beans primarily for Hispanic markets, where yellow and cranberry varieties are top sellers. Dry bean demand skyrocketed in 2020 when COVID-19 stay-at-home orders boosted demand for nonperishable bulk products.

Kimmelshue observed that grower interest in alley cropping relates inversely to the price of tree nuts.

“You’re not going to get rich [alley cropping beans], but it’s going to help defray the cost to the tree grower,” he said. “When nut prices are low like this, growers are more apt to do it because they need a little extra income to pay for irrigation.”

“Despite substantial acreage of orchards in California, alley cropping is not a common practice,” plant science professor Hossein Zakeri said. “We believe that alley cropping can benefit orchard growers during the early years of orchard establishment, and also improve soil health and quality.”

Zakeri, Brasier, and their research team, including a graduate student and a group of undergraduate students in the College of Agriculture, have begun documenting Kimmelshue’s work as they set out to create alley cropping guidelines for those who are interested in adopting the practice. They plan to study the impacts of alley cropping on soil and tree’s water status, and also investigate the possibility of growing other crops in alley cropping systems.  

The team at Chico State hopes to help students and other orchardists explore the value of alley cropping with beans by sharing what they learn through field days, presentations at the California Plant & Soil Conference, and annual agronomy meetings, as well as with written, video, and alternative learning materials to share with growers throughout the state.

View a video conversation with Dax Kimmelshue about the basics of alley cropping. 

Harvester drives between rows of young trees, leaving neat windrow of cut bean plants behind.
Bean harvest takes place in mid-September, approximately 90 days after planting.
An extended hand holds four yellow beans.
Vibrant yellow beans are among Dax Kimmelshue's best-sellers. 
Professor inspects recently harvested dry bean plant.
Professor Hossein Zakeri leads a team of researchers who are studying beans as a alley crop in young fruit and nut orchards. 
Researcher uses yardstick to measure the height of mature bean plants in a young orchard.
Dr. Kyle Brasier measures plant height as part of a research team studying the use of beans as an alley crop in young orchards.