California Almonds: 4 Goals to Improve Sustainability by 2025

Photo: University of California

At The Almond Conference 2018, the California almond industry announced four ambitious goals with a seven-year target timeline to achieve each. The Almond Orchard 2025 Goals build off decades of previous achievements and are intended to define the industry’s journey toward continuous improvement while acknowledging the challenges of growing almonds in the Central Valley. They also provide the Almond Board of California (ABC) with areas in which to prioritize grower-funded research dollars and outreach efforts.

In reaching the four 2025 Goals, the California almond industry aims to

  1. reduce the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by 20%,
  2. achieve zero waste in our orchards by putting everything grown to optimal use,
  3. increase adoption of environmentally friendly pest management tools by 25%, and
  4. reduce dust during harvest by 50%.

Over the past year, the Almond Board has worked diligently with growers, handlers, industry experts, researchers and others to define the metrics that will pave the road to success in achieving the 2025 Goals, creating a roadmap that will guide the industry on its journey towards continuous improvement. This roadmap considers the hurdles that will arise and information that will steer the industry down a different path towards achieving the goals.

One year after the 2025 Goals were released, the Almond Board and industry leaders released this roadmap at The Almond Conference 2019 during the session “Almond Orchard 2025 Goals: The Roadmap to Success.”

“These are moon-shot goals,” said session speaker Mel Machado, comparing the industry’s goals to President John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1961 that the United States would put a man on the moon within a decade. “But when you think about them, they’re not out of reach. They should challenge you.”

“We didn’t get to a position of leadership in California agriculture by shying away from tough goals,” affirmed Machado, who is director of Member Relations at Blue Diamond Growers.

Speaker Daren Williams, ABC’s senior director of Global Communications, said one of the biggest accomplishments in the past year related to the goals was the industry’s ability to “create conditions for change to happen in scale.”

“We’ve laid a foundation for the industry to move forward in a big way,” Williams said.

CASP key to measurement

To measure industry progress across the four goal areas, the Almond Board will use aggregated data from the California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP). This program will be critical in not only measuring advancement but also helping the industry assess its practices to farm more responsibly and efficiently.

Now in its 10th year,1 CASP helps industry members identify areas of improvement across their operations by completing modules that are both informational and educational, providing details on best practices and improvement opportunities. This assessment also includes free decision support tools, such as a mapping tool and irrigation and nitrogen calculators, and is supported by in-orchard workshops hosted by ABC throughout the year, all while helping growers meet regulatory requirements.

“CASP allows the industry to speak credibly about the progress we’re making towards our goals,” said Josette Lewis, director of Agricultural Affairs at ABC. “For growers, CASP also allows you to compare your practices to those of other growers and benchmark your own metrics against the entire industry.”

Since 2009, more than 2,400 growers have completed at least one of the nine CASP modules. Growers are highly encouraged to participate in CASP so they may contribute to the broader industry’s effort to achieve the 2025 Goals and be better informed about best practices to make better on-farm decisions, grow more responsibly and improve their bottom line.

“Ultimately, CASP creates value for you and increases profitability and sustainability,” Lewis said.

1. Water: More crop per drop

To work toward the 2025 Goal of improving water use efficiency, the Almond Board and almond industry are aiming to achieve “more crop” – increasing yield by optimizing application timing of water and nutrients – “per drop” – improving irrigation system performance.

Lewis said this approach is key to more sustainable water management. In fact, research shows that greater yield improvement occurs when water is targeted to address trees’ needs versus irrigations scheduled based on soil moisture or the calendar. She credited innovations in irrigation system performance as well as growers’ increasing familiarity with irrigation technology as helping to maximize the use of every acre-foot of water in orchards.

“We can even time irrigation scheduling to align with growth patterns in the tree,” she said.

In order to measure the industry’s progress toward improving water use efficiency by 20%, the Almond Board will annually measure growers’ irrigation water applied per unit of crop yield. The data underlying this metric is derived from the Irrigation Management module in CASP.

In addition, ABC will monitor growers’ progress in moving up the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum. Developed in partnership with respected technical experts and resources such as the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR), the continuum outlines key irrigation management practices and explains how to achieve increasing levels of precision.

2. Zero Waste: Optimizing orchard outputs

The Almond Board estimates that by 2025, the industry’s biomass – shells, hulls, prunings and trees at the end of their productive lifespan – could reach nearly 9 billion pounds. Meeting the industry’s goal of putting everything from the orchard to optimal use will require effort and innovation on multiple fronts.

The industry is continuously finding more uses for almond coproducts, from farmed insect and poultry feed to recycled plastics and soil amendments. Strategies to achieve the Zero Waste goal focus on reducing the industry’s environmental footprint and adding value – economically and environmentally – via three key measures:

  • increased adoption of Whole Orchard Recycling – incorporating woody biomass into the soil when an orchard is removed,
  • diversifying applications for hulls and shells beyond current uses in the California dairy industry, and
  • effective elimination of open burning to dispose of woody biomass.

To measure progress towards these three efforts, the Almond Board will use data from periodic surveys of hullers and shellers regarding uses of hulls and shells, in addition to the CASP Air Quality module, in which growers assess and report practices related to woody biomass.

3. IPM: Exploring alternative approaches

More and more, growers are seeking alternatives to spraying to control pests and weeds in an effort to adopt more environmentally friendly practices and to reduce the risks to honey bees around bloom. Alternative approaches include using techniques like winter sanitation, mating disruption and introducing beneficial insects to the orchard, as well as monitoring pest levels so that pesticides are used only when necessary.

“When we spray, we want to be as attentive as possible in order to reduce spray drift,” Lewis said.

Not only does an integrated pest management approach improve sustainability and environmental health, it also makes good economic sense for farmers, reducing input costs and improving the effectiveness of pest control.

Progress toward this goal is being measured through grower adoption of integrated pest management techniques across California’s almond orchards for several key pests, including navel orangeworm and mites, as well as Alternaria fungal disease and weeds. The data underlying this metric is derived from the Pest Management module in CASP.

4. Dust: New equipment, off-ground harvest shows promise

Lewis said an estimated 75% of dust associated with harvest is generated primarily during sweeping and pickup. Focusing on those two stages of harvest, industry members are researching and testing innovative solutions in orchards up and down the state, and a few growers have experimented with off-ground harvesting, a method used in other almond-producing countries such as Australia, Spain and Israel.

Machado believes that dramatic reductions in dust will a require a long-term transition to off-ground harvest.

“Right now, when we knock the nuts off the tree, they land on the orchard floor, then have to be swept into windrows before they are picked up,” he said. “That’s going to change.”

While large scale industry advancements in this area are still years in the making, many growers have already transitioned to using low-dust harvesting equipment in combination with making fewer passes, lowering speeds in and around the orchard, and using conditioners to “clean” the product before pickup.

To measure industry progress towards this 2025 Goal, the Almond Board will assess total suspended dust particles per acre through data derived from the CASP Air Quality module. A reduction in total particles will demonstrate a positive trend towards meeting this goal.

Join the journey – participate in CASP

Optimum measurement of the 2025 Goals relies on increased grower participation in CASP.

“First and foremost, CASP helps individual growers assess their operations and identify areas of improvement,” said Williams. “But collectively, data from CASP will help us measure progress and share the positive almond sustainability story with customers and consumers around the world. It’s a win-win.”

To learn more about CASP, industry members are encouraged to visit SustainableAlmondGrowing.org or to reach out to ABC’s Senior Manager of Field Outreach and Education, Tom Devol, at tdevol@almondboard.com. Devol and team member Ashley Correia are available to assist the industry in setting up a CASP online profile, answering questions about the modules and addressing general questions about on-farm best practices.




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