What the Future of Almonds Looks Like in a Dry California

It takes about 4 years for an almond tree to bear fruit and nearer to seven years to get a full yield from the tree. That’s seven years of planning, planting, irrigating, pruning and tending earlier than the massive payoff. It’s a lot to ask of farmers in California’s Central Valley, the place almost 80 % of the world’s almonds are grown. In 2021 alone, the 7,600 almond farmers in the state grew almost three billion kilos of almonds, making it the state’s most beneficial crop

But now, going through excessive climate occasions, shrinking water assets and rising prices, some farmers are leaving almonds behind, opting to place their efforts behind in-demand crops akin to canning tomatoes, garlic or onions. In reality, this yr’s almond harvest is predicted to drop from final yr’s, with drought and frost injury two of the most important causes for the dip. With ongoing droughts, heatwaves and wildfires throughout California, the state’s farmers have much less water to work with. That makes it exhausting to decide to a crop that takes years of cautious irrigation earlier than it produces a single kernel. 

Almonds get a unhealthy status for being a water-intensive crop. A 2019 examine confirmed that it takes on common 12 liters of water to develop one almond kernel, though there was “substantial variation” over time and geographic space. That similar examine additionally discovered almonds to be amongst the prime three meals “offering the biggest dietary profit per unit weight; nevertheless, they’d the highest water footprint worth per unit weight.” Of the 34 million acre-feet of water (the quantity wanted to cowl an acre with a foot of water) that California makes use of for agriculture every year, the overwhelming majority of that comes from floor water, akin to diverting streams or pumped from floor water. One report calculated that almonds use 10 % of California’s annual water provide, which, on its face, looks like a lot. But is it? 

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“Almonds should not notably completely different in their water use than primarily some other irrigated agricultural crop,” says Patrick H. Brown, a distinguished professor of plant sciences at UC Davis. Not solely do almonds use a proportionate quantity of water, Brown says that, for farmers, the crop is one of the greatest investments for restricted water assets, as almonds generate a solidly good financial return. “A pound of almonds, when they’re priced at $2 to $4 per pound, equates to a excellent selection of what to make use of your water on.” In a good yr, says Brown, costs have shot as excessive as $6 per pound. Plus, that’s simply the going fee for a pound of the almond kernel, the nut we eat (or use to make milk or flour). There’s additionally a secondary marketplace for the hulls and shells, as they’re used in dairy cattle feed, farm bedding materials and even cosmetics

That’s one of the causes growers akin to Kiku Severson are optimistic about the future of almonds, and are working to make the business extra sustainable. Severson works alongside her mother and father at their farm in Turlock, California. She’s additionally a member of the California Almond Board, specializing in the sustainability efforts of the business. Severson says she’s regularly impressed by the efforts of almond farmers to adapt as their assets get scarcer. “We’ve been researching water since the ’90s,” Severson says, noting that, at the time, micro-irrigation—focusing on water on to a tree’s roots moderately than spraying it uniformly over an orchard—was a comparatively new innovation. Now, greater than 80 % of almond farmers use micro-irrigation, “and we’ve been in a position to cut back water use by about 33 % to develop a pound of almonds.”

Now, Severson says farmers are relying additional on expertise akin to precision sensors to pinpoint what particular crops would possibly want and make the greatest use of the assets. Because the world provide of almonds is so concentrated in this one geographic space, Severson says it’s “a large duty. And I believe almond farmers actually really feel that, and we need to be leaders in this agriculture house.”

And it’s not simply the growers. Food manufacturers are getting concerned, too, with initiatives akin to The Almond Project, whose founding companions embody snack and baking firm Simple Mills, plant-based meal supply service Daily Harvest, almond flour-based frozen meals firm Capello’s and Treehouse Almonds, together with the White Buffalo Land Trust and a household of farmers who’re main the on-the-ground work. The five-year undertaking will take a look at a selection of soil well being practices and goals to measure which mixture of elements is the most ecologically useful and produces the greatest almonds. They’re testing issues akin to animal integration, decreasing the quantity of artificial pesticides and fertilizers and elevated compost functions. When it involves cowl crops, they’re utilizing greater than 30 completely different species to introduce biodiversity, testing their outcomes

One of the objectives is to make sure that there’s a future for California almonds. “We’re occupied with the holistic ecosystem, to establish these areas of alternative and to make steady progress, moderately than vilifying or boycotting a particular ingredient that has change into fairly a lightning rod,” says Christina Skonberg, director of sustainability and missions at Simple Mills. Skonberg says additionally they needed to tackle this undertaking to scale back the monetary burden on farmers when testing out new practices. “Trying one thing like grazing sheep by means of the orchard, which is one of the practices we’re testing, that threat is shared by all of the companions and doesn’t fall absolutely on the farmer.” 

The Almond Project is just a five-year initiative, however farmers don’t have 5 years. Changes are taking place now. The undertaking’s companions perceive the urgency. “We can’t afford to attend till 5 years from now to take any motion,” says Skonberg. So, whereas there are formal measurements taken at common intervals over the size of the undertaking, they’re additionally leaning on the experience of the farmers to see what’s working anecdotally, and adjusting as they go. “We’re utilizing these learnings, and present analysis and tasks on different lands, to make educated guesses about what would possibly work in this method.”

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There are additionally newer practices when an orchard reaches the finish of its lifecycle, normally after about 25 years. Whole orchard recycling, the place previous timber are floor into chips and combined in with the soil earlier than planting new timber, is proving to be a smart way for farmers to extend yields in subsequent years, in addition to enhance soil well being and carbon sequestration. Initial analysis confirmed a 30-percent enhance in the soil’s capability to carry water after entire orchard recycling. Severson says she’s seen many farmers attempt it out, though it’s nonetheless being studied. “Almond farmers are actually wanting to undertake new practices,” says Severson. “I’m very optimistic that we could possibly be probably a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative meals in the future with extra analysis and extra adoption of new practices.”

That can be nice, each for almond growers and shoppers. But attending to a carbon-neutral regular will probably take a whereas. In the meantime, Brown says the whole irrigated space in California will diminish. Right now, about 9 million acres are irrigated yearly, which “will undoubtedly shrink in the coming years as a result of of competitors for water sources,” he says. 

Of the irrigated acreage that is still, Brown predicts that extra of will probably be devoted to crops akin to almonds, which yield the greatest income for the out there water. “Anybody who’s acquired any smarts about them will use a helpful and costly useful resource on the product that provides the greatest financial end result, and that’s almonds or pistachios.”

So, whereas California grapples with droughts, wildfires and a tightening provide of water, almonds would possibly really climate the storm with out too many losses—that’s, if growers proceed to adapt to the adjustments.

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