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Almond industry goals ensure sustainability
New standards to reduce water use, orchard waste
almond orchard
Almond growers hope to reduce the amount of waste produced by orchards down to zero percent.

California’s almond industry is comprised of nearly 7,000 farmers throughout the state who have been committed to growing their crops in better, safer and healthier ways for decades. Goals announced by the almond community on Thursday aim to build on that promise, setting new, industry-wide standards that will benefit both the public and the environment.

“We’re an industry of family farmers...we’re very invested in the communities in which we live,” Almond Board of California chair Holly King said. “We believe it’s important to do the right thing and be conscious of how we’re using resources.”

The Almond Orchard 2025 Goals establish targets in the areas of water efficiency, zero waste, pest management and air quality, all of which are meant to contribute to the sustainability of California’s almond farms. Over 90 percent of the state’s orchards are individually owned by families, with most living on the land with a plan to eventually pass it down to their children.

To ensure the almond community continues to thrive, there is a “three-legged stool” of sustainability, King explained, which includes utilizing production practices that are ecologically sound, economically viable and socially equitable.

“There’s no doubt these goals will be challenging, but that’s a responsibility that comes with leadership and a commitment to innovation,” King said. “We’re excited to be embarking on this journey.”

By 2025, almond farmers hope to further reduce their water use. Over the past two decades, growers have reduced the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent. Over the course of the next seven years, the 2025 goals call for an additional 20 percent in water use reduction.

“Water is a topic that’s constantly in our scope of vision and important to everyone here in the Valley,” Almond Board president and CEO Richard Waycott said. “Thirty-three percent is great, but where do we go from there?”

Through forward-thinking techniques like microirrigation, almond growers are able to “do more with less,” Denair farmer Brian Wahlbrink said, using drip methods to water their crops win a more environmentally-friendly way. As co-owner of Sperry Farms, Wahlbrink has also taken other innovative measures to ensure sustainability for his crops, using drones to monitor his orchard, utilizing solar energy and converting well motors from diesel to electric.

“The environment is ever-changing, and no two years of almond growing are alike,” Wahlbrink said.

The Almond Orchard 2025 Goals also call for zero waste in orchards. About 70 percent of orchard output consists of things we don’t eat, like hulls, shells and the woody biomass from trees. These products can be used for livestock bedding, dairy feed and electricity generation — changing markets that are spurring innovation for higher value uses, both economically and environmentally.

“We want to make sure everything in our orchards is put to optimal use,” Waycott said.

California almonds are harvested by shaking the nuts to the ground, where they dry naturally in the sun before being swept up and collected — a process that can create dust in nearby communities. To address this nuisance, the almond community is taking short- and long-term steps to reimagine harvest and, by 2025, commits to reduce dust during harvest by 50 percent.

 Keeping pests away from the crop is another necessary part of the industry, but the almond community hopes to continue its path toward eventually doing so without chemicals. By 2025, almond farmers will increase adoption of environmentally-friendly pest management tools by 25 percent.

“This is a tough one, but the only way forward is to push the envelope on what kind of non-chemical tools can be adopted,” Waycott said. “Those sorts of things are included in the research budget to move the needle further and further toward non-chemical methods.”

Over the last 40 years almond farmers and processors have funded $80 million in scientific research, making significant advancements in areas which include discovering innovative farming methods that are environmentally sound. While goals for 2025 have been supported by this research, the new standards are completely voluntary for California almond growers, Waycott said.

Having reaped the benefits of eco-friendly practices himself, Wahlbrink believes most growers will be excited about the goals for 2025 and actively participate.

“It’s beneficial for growers and they’re going to want to do it. There’s financial incentive through improvements in efficiency,” he said. “It’s a win-win — there are cost savings at the ranch level, so it reduces costs and helps the environment.”