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Almond Board of California focused on improving ‘crop per drop’

Almond Board of California focused on improving sustainability.jpg
The Almond Board of California's recent orchard tour showcased a heightened focus on sustainability and water use.

Nutritionally, almonds have a pretty well-deserved good reputation. A 1-ounce portion contains under 200 calories while packing 6 grams of protein, 4 grams of dietary fiber and more than 200 grams of potassium. Compared to other tree nuts like brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts and others, almonds lead the way in not just protein per 1-ounce serving, but fiber, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin E and calcium as well.

This healthy halo is largely responsible for almonds’ premier position as a healthy snack and ingredient. Almond milk sales in the U.S. were estimated at US$1.83 billion in 2020, more than soy milk ($1.11 billion) and coconut milk ($315 million) combined.

However, as consumers increasingly begin paying attention not only to the nutritional profile of the foods they eat, but the impact the production of that food has on the planet and its people, almonds have begun to get some pushback, especially in regard to the amount of water required to grow them.

That’s why, during the Almond Board of California’s (ABC) recent virtual orchard tour, the focus was on how the almond-growing community is working to improve the sustainability of its crops, specifically the issue of water usage in a state—California—that has experienced severe drought in recent years.

To begin, the Almond Board made clear that, yes, almonds require water—just like every other crop. Interestingly, while almonds tend to bear the brunt of criticism, in actuality they require roughly the same or less water as other, similar crops. According to the organization, pistachios and walnuts actually require more water than almonds, while stone fruit, prunes and citrus fruits require roughly the same amount. ABC also noted that almonds, because of their high protein and fat content, will naturally require more water than carbohydrate- and sugar-filled fruits.

That said, ABC was not trying to pass off responsibility or claim it had no role in reducing water usage and generally otherwise improving the sustainability of almond growing. In fact, quite the opposite; while ABC noted almonds likely get a worse rep than is deserved, it also made clear that more sustainable almonds was one of, if not the, key focus of the almond community moving forward.

And it isn’t just talk; ABC has undertaken several initiatives to back up what it says.

One such initiative is a process called on-farm groundwater recharge, which aims to return as much or more water to California’s groundwater reserves as farming takes out. This process includes flooding almond orchards during the winter offseason as a way to allow that water to slowly trickle back into the ground and replenish reserves.

“We know in the long term, we’re going to need to use a practice like this, using farmland to recharge aquifers, [and] probably not just in almonds,” said Danielle Veenstra, senior manager, sustainability communications, ABC.

In addition to work returning water to the ecosystem, ABC has also been working with farmers to reduce overall water consumption; as noted during the presentation, water requirements for almond growing have decreased 33% since the 1990s, thanks in large part to the practice of microirrigation, defined as “an irrigation method with lower pressure and flow than a traditional sprinkler system.” Today, ABC noted, about 85% of California’s almond farms use this technique—nearly twice the rate of California’s non-almond farms. Research showed this had no detrimental effects on yield, and in some cases even helped increase it.

“We want to [further] reduce the amount of water required to grow each almond by an additional 20% by 2025,” Veenstra said.

“The goal is really a continuous improvement process,” added Tom Devol, ABC’s senior manager, field outreach and education.

That improvement process is known as the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum, which assists farmers in evaluating their water usage. The plan monitors how much water crops need, how much is being applied, how water is moving into and through the soil and root systems, how much relative stress the almond trees are under and more.

“All of these tools lead up to helping a grower better manage [his/her crops],” Devol explained. “The last process of the continuum is how you leverage all of this information to make better management decisions.”

The Almond Board employs a four-person team supporting growers in their efforts to take on these initiatives, with the aim of “being as sustainable as they can be,” according to Devol.

Of course, existing plans and technology can only go so far; that’s why ABC is also constantly working to fund and research new technologies to make the orchard of the future even more sustainable. Since the 1980s, this has meant funding more than 225 projects aimed at increasing water use efficiency. Devol noted technologies such as satellite imagery, solar power arrays, different irrigation processes for different varieties of trees and crops, robotic assistance and more as potential pieces of future orchards.

Devol also noted that, when it comes to improving technologies, ABC needed to address parts of the supply chain even beyond the farmers; this led to the first-ever Irrigation Summit, which allowed ABC to meet directly with engineers to discuss improved irrigation technologies and what the future could or should bring. Of note, Devol explained that an almond orchard’s life span is about 20-25 years, and changing or adjusting irrigation technology is difficult—and at times impossible—once an orchard is established. This means, when building or designing a new orchard, not only must today’s available technology be accounted for, but the next 20 or more years’ worth as well. In essence, an orchard built today should be built in such a way as to remain technologically relevant for the orchard’s entire life.

When it comes to maximizing the “crop per drop,” as the Almond Board puts it, much advancement has taken place—but much more also remains. In an evaluation of California’s almond farms, ABC found nearly 60% had at least some broken sprinklers; 1 in 3 had significant leaks; more than 4 in 5 were not using specified sprinkler heads based on need, and nearly 3 in 4 did not have a flow meter to keep track of exact water usage.

Almonds’ healthy halo is well documented; the barrier for purchase now revolves around the sustainability of their production. The Almond Board, as proven by its recent virtual tour, understands this and is continually working with farmers, engineers and others along the supply chain to further reduce water usage and make orchards as self-sustaining as possible. If recent improvements are any indication, almonds may soon be as good for the planet as they are for people.

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