Almond growers outline objectives for conservation


Issue Date: December 12, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Richard Waycott, left, president and CEO of the Almond Board of California, and Holly King, chair of the board, discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the crop during last week’s conference in Sacramento.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

Ways almond growers can show an increasingly curious public how they do what they do—and why—proved to be a key aspect of the annual Almond Board of California conference.

"What it's going to mean to all the members in the almond industry that farm is that we're going to have to up our game a little bit," according to David Phippen, a Ripon-area farmer and Almond Board director. "I really think we don't have to change a whole lot. We just have to tell our story a lot better than we've ever told it before."

At the conference in Sacramento last week, the Almond Board announced the adoption of four goals it wants to achieve during the next seven years. Known as Almond Orchard 2025, the objectives are to reduce the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by 20 percent; reduce harvest dust by half; boost environmentally friendly pest management practices by 25 percent; and zero out orchard waste by making use of every part of an almond and its tree.

"I think these goals really state where we as an industry want to go," said Holly King of Bakersfield, the Almond Board chair, who said the objectives "express our desire for continuous improvement."

Richard Waycott, the board president and CEO, said the goals feed into "this general interest of consumers to know more about their foods and how they're raised, how they're grown—the same thing is coming through our customer base down the supply chain, wanting to ensure that certain standards are being met by their suppliers."

Regarding the water-use goal, King said that between the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the specter of unimpaired-flow regulations being mulled by the State Water Resources Control Board, supplies will be an issue.

"I think we're either going to do more with less, or we're going to have the same amount of water," King said, adding, "I think 'same' is pretty darned optimistic."

About 80 percent of almond orchards are watered through microirrigation, which has helped almond farmers reduce their water use by a third during the past 20 years, according to the board.

In addition, the Almond Board has been working with a Sacramento-based firm, Land IQ, on a spatial-imaging project to identify which orchards would be suitable for groundwater recharge. The idea is to flood the orchard during the winter, when water is available and trees are dormant, and allow the water to seep into the aquifer. So far, 675,000 acres have been deemed fit for recharge duty.

"If there's ever excess water available during the wintertime, we now know at least where to place that water," Phippen said.

Mel Machado, member relations director for the Blue Diamond Growers cooperative, described the dust initiative as an educational effort covering topics such as orchard-floor preparation and proper equipment setup.

A harvest work group focuses on dust, King said, and grants for low-dust harvesting equipment are available from the state Air Resources Board.

"What are some of the out-of-box things we ought to be looking at?" she said, noting that any new technology would need to be economically viable and preserve product quality.

As to pest management, King said most growers already use integrated pest management and are reducing the amount of chemicals used in the orchard. One pest that must be controlled is the navel orangeworm, she said.

"We need to deal with that issue, and we have a fair amount of best-management practices—winter sanitation, getting the mummies ground up on the floor—different management practices that will go a long way to control that," she said, adding that mating disruption is another environmentally friendly way to handle the pest.

Zero-waste goals include more whole-orchard recycling, in which trees at the end of their useful lives are ground up and mixed into the soil to nourish the next generation, as well as making increasing use of the hulls for animal feed and the shells in recycled plastics, among other uses.

Mike Mason, a Kern County almond grower and former board chairman, said almond growers are "going to have to adopt technology from every aspect—whether it's dust, whether it's water, whether it's production, whether it's precision ag—and knowing literally what each tree needs from a nutrient standpoint and being able to deliver that to that tree."

Waycott said he sees a meeting of the minds of the Silicon and San Joaquin valleys, and that will call for different skills.

"A lot of the new equipment that is being developed in robotics and in more sophisticated means of processing and grading and so on needs a new labor force that really understands how to work with this equipment and how to manipulate the software," he said. "There's some very highly skilled jobs that are starting to come into agriculture."

King said the board did not include pollination in the 2025 goals because it already has a robust pollination program. One idea being studied involves planting forage and cover crops in and around orchards for the benefit of the bees almond farmers depend on.

"We want the highest-quality bees, and we want bees that are staying in the orchards," said Neal Williams of the University of California, Davis, who has field studies planned next year in the Chico, Modesto and Bakersfield areas. "Providing that additional forage right before the almond is blooming, and right after the almond bloom, is going to be really important."

Phippen said his farm is doing this, with the cover crop being planted in late November.

"You're going to see more and more growers doing that, trying to think about what's bee-friendly," he said. "I think it's something that every almond grower in California ought to be thinking about."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be reached at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.