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July 8, 2020

California Almond Farming: Working Towards a Sustainable Future

Modern farming practices create opportunities for almond farmers.

Almond farming originally began in Western Asia, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that it was officially introduced to American soil by Spanish explorers. By the 1900s, commercial almond production in the U.S. had been established in the heart of California’s Central Valley as almond trees flourished in the Mediterranean climate.

Decades later, California is the only state to commercially produce almonds in the U.S. and a leading global supplier of almonds worldwide. California farmers have turned almond farming into an agricultural industry that generates more than $21 billion in economic output annually and creates more than 100,000 jobs in California.

Today, almonds are California’s top-valued agricultural export and rank as the largest specialty crop export in the U.S. California almond farmers grow on less than one percent of the total acreage within the state. From that one percent comes 99 percent of total domestic almond supply and 82 percent of total global almond supply. To keep up with this thriving demand, these California farmers must work diligently to overcome several obstacles that stand in the way of a sustainable future.

The Top Five Challenges of Almond Farming in California

1.  Global Trade

Although the U.S. is the main almond exporter in the world, the industry has faced retaliatory tariffs impacting the American almond farmer’s bottom line. Hefty tariffs from big importers like China are ongoing and climbed as high as 60 percent in U.S. almond imports at the start of 2020. U.S. import tariffs to India rose 20 percent on shelled almonds in 2019. However, Spain and Germany are also among the leading U.S. almond importers and have substantially lower tariffs between 2.0 and 5.6 percent depending on the almond variety.

COVID-19 impacts have challenged almond global trade further with congested ports and increased border regulations leading to a decline in global economic output. Fortunately, the shelf life of almonds is more resilient compared to more perishable commodities and is expected to bounce back quickly as export shipping normalizes.

2.  Pests and Diseases

The almond shell provides a protective layer that many crops lack, but almond farmers must still monitor tree health to avoid unwanted intruders from infiltrating their orchard. Out of the estimated 300 kinds of ant species in California, luckily only two are of concern—the pavement and Southern fire ant. Outside of these two species, ants can actually benefit almond trees by eating the larvae of other pests, such as the navel orange worm.

Insects, parasites, and fungus can transmit bacterial and fungal diseases that can be detrimental to almond orchards if not detected. Organic almond farmers must be especially proactive in keeping orchards clean and free of debris to minimize the risk of infestation or spread. Risk of disease increases with warm temperatures and excessive rain. Strategies almond growers use to suppress these risks include pruning and keeping soil well-drained.

3.  Unpredictable Weather Conditions

Almond orchards can be resilient once established but thrive best in climates with stable, less severe weather conditions. The most damaging for California almond farmers is cold and wet weather during the growing season, between February and May. These conditions make it difficult for bees to pollinate flowers, in turn causing trees to bear less fruit. Excessive rains can also lead to almond trees becoming over-watered which deprives almond trees of oxygen and makes them more susceptible to pests, diseases, and root rot.

On the other hand, excessive rains can be welcomed when facing droughts and fires, which are among the most common threats to California agriculture. A lack of available water during droughts has caused almond farmers to turn to groundwater to keep trees hydrated and has spurred a new set of challenges in the California agricultural community.

Learn more about how to prepare your farm operation in the face of a natural disaster.

4.  Environmental Sustainability

Despite increasing popularity for this nutrient-dense food, almond farmers have faced public scrutiny from environmentalists concerned about the water needed to keep almond orchards sustained. In times of drought, California almond farmers rely on groundwater and surface water to keep almond orchards alive. Excessive use of groundwater can lead to a depletion of California aquifers and brings into question the sustainable nature of the almond industry as a whole. Increased demand coupled with severe drought could have substantial environmental impacts—making increased efficiency in irrigation a top priority among the California almond farmers.

5.  Government Regulations

Pressurized government regulations are further motivating the California almond community to find more sustainable irrigation techniques to keep both their almond orchards alive and aquifers replenished. The “unpaired flow” amendment to the Bay-Delta plan that was introduced in 2016 blocked almond farmers from diverting surface water to irrigate their orchards. Along with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) passed in 2014, this combined legislation put California almond farmers in a lose-lose situation that could inevitably force an economic constriction of the agricultural economy unless an alternative is found. Both water conservation and almond organizations see the inefficiencies in existing legislation and support working together towards a more modernized ecosystem management system.

Implementing Regenerative Agriculture Practices in the Almond Industry

In an effort to encourage this collaboration, the Almond Board of California (ABC) has invested $89 million since 1973 in environmental research and programs. Through this research, they have created micro-irrigation technology to improve the efficiency of water use that is now used by 77 percent of California almond farmers. Microsprinklers and drip irrigation adoption have reduced water use by 33 percent per pound of almonds compared to twenty years ago. The ABC is certain more can still be done; since then, they have developed several sustainability programs to accomplish four measurable goals by 2025.

1.   Reduce the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds by an additional 20 percent.

2.   Improve air quality by reducing the amount of dust created during almond harvest by 50 percent.

3.   Increase adoption of environmentally friendly pest management tools by 25 percent.

4.   Achieve zero waste and minimize carbon footprint in nearly every orchard by putting everything grown to optimal use.

To accomplish these goals, the Almond Board of California has partnered with several organizations to develop environmental programs and grants that support California almond farmers in creating a more sustainable future.

  • The California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP): A self-assessment resource center that was developed to help almond farmers compare current practices against industry standards and identify areas of improvement within their operations. Interactive tools within this program include nitrogen and irrigation calculators.
  • 5-Point Pollinator Protection Plan: A collaborative initiative with Pollinator Partnerships to help educate farmers on the importance of floral diversity and support bee health research.
  • Bee+ Scholarship: Scholarship awarded to California almond farmers that provides free cover crop seeds through the Seeds for Bees non-profit organization.

“Responsible farming is at the heart of what the California almond community does. Whether it is bee health, water efficiency, or other important sustainability areas, we stand committed to growing almonds in better, safer and healthier ways.”

Josette Lewis, PhD, Director of Agricultural Affairs at the Almond Board of California.

Working Together Towards a Sustainable Future

Over 90 percent of California almond farms are family-owned. To be an American farmer means to carry an enormous responsibility as a caretaker to the land that sustains us year after year. To do that successfully, we must work collaboratively to create solutions that sustain both the environment and livelihood of the American farmers who continue to feed our nation and abroad.

Creative solutions require innovative thinking and revolutionary ideas. As a leading agricultural land lender, AgAmerica embraces these values and believes in the future of American agriculture. To learn more about the options available to you when it comes to securing capital to finance a more sustainable future, contact one of our Relationship Managers today.

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