California almonds on the path to regeneration and sustainable agriculture

Global demand for almonds continues to increase and while California may produce 80% of the global crop, almonds are rapidly falling out of favor with local growers. Decreasing market prices, water shortages, increasing costs of fertilizers and labor are all factors making it significantly harder to maintain profitable almond growing operations.

Adding to these pressures is a negative public perception fueled by media reports that almond growing is robbing local communities of water access and is not an environmentally sustainable crop in California’s hot dry climate.

It’s not surprising, given these factors that there is a trend of almond growers looking to switch to alternate crops which are showing more favorable margins. Is this truly the only option available to almond growers or is there a way to keep existing almond orchards and return to more profitable and sustainable operations?

We explore key challenges almond growers are facing and what options exist to be part of a more sustainable and profitable farming future.

Almond farming and water management

California’s Central Valley has endured droughts year after year. Historically, California’s Mediterranean climate of hot dry summers and mild wet winters have been ideal for growing almonds. Like any other crop, almonds need water to grow. But lower rain and snowfalls year after year are reducing groundwater levels and many communities don’t have reliable access to running water.

Access to water is a sensitive subject and an ongoing challenge for almond growers, which is why improving water efficiency remains a high priority. According to the Almond Board of California; from 1990 to 2010 almond growers reduced their water usage by 33%. Within the industry there’s a target to reduce this by a further 20% by 2025.

This has been achieved primarily by installing micro irrigation systems so that each tree benefits from irrigation directly to its roots. Manually inspecting the system to ensure it is irrigating efficiently is time consuming. Fortunately sensor technology installed on ATV’s being used for the inspections, paired with digital scouting applications can give farm managers greater visibility into which blocks and rows have been checked. Having this data ensures inspections are carried out more diligently, supports better water management and ultimately reduces water wastage resulting from faulty irrigation systems.

Continuing to improve water management remains a high priority for almond growers, but given the effects of climate change, it may not be enough. Research highlights the importance of soil quality in water retention and looks at different ways growers can develop more nutrient-rich soils that’ll support greater levels of water conservation as well as healthier crops.

How do regeneration and technology factor into the future of almond growing?

Already many almond growers aim to achieve zero waste with uses for almonds extended beyond whole nuts to using lower quality nuts to make almond milk, flour, and butter. Increasingly the beauty industry is using almond oil in their products and this too is expanding the market applications. The almond hulls are often used for livestock feed and the shells for bedding ensuring none of the harvested crop goes to waste.

Innovation is creating opportunities to take this a step further. A recent Forbes article highlighted a new California grant program aimed at regenerative farming methods for almond growers. It looks at transforming almond shells into biochar through closed system pyrolysis. It’s a form of carbon sequestration that aims to regenerate the soil by increasing its carbon content. The added benefit is that it’s using almond shells as the system resource.

This example highlights that while market prices remain suppressed, opportunities still exist to not only make almond growing more sustainable but also more profitable. And technology is the enabler.

How technology creates greater efficiencies for almond growers

The complexity of growing almonds means there are many activities to manage. Getting these right the first time can be the difference between a profitable harvest or not. While much of the harvesting is mechanized, efficiency is hard to achieve through manual management. With shakers, sweepers and harvesters working simultaneously in different blocks, smart sensors can feed data back to the cloud that gives farm managers greater visibility into how efficiently activities are being carried out.

Once the data has been used to create a benchmark, it becomes easier to identify, for example, when under shaking or over shaking occurs. With data at their fingertips, managers can use this information to take corrective action to optimize the harvest. Ensuring shaking is taking place at the optimum rate reduces the need for excess winter sanitation or reshaking and ensures the buds for next season’s harvest aren’t damaged.

Data becomes the tool farm managers can use to optimize the current season’s crop while at the same time ensuring activities are carried out in a way that sustains future harvests too. With margins tight, every small efficiency adds up and contributes to a stronger bottom line.

Even the best farm managers can’t be in every block that’s carrying out growing activities. Having smart sensors on farming equipment measures the efficiency of operations and feeds that data back to an operations platform in the cloud. Farm managers can access this data anytime and from anywhere using any mobile phone, tablet or desktop device.

This gives greater visibility into activities and helps managers check that the operations are aligned in a way to optimize scouting, spraying, harvesting, and other activities. It helps manage the complex operations involved with almond growing and can accelerate the time to complete the growing activities – which ultimately contribute to greater profitability.

Can smart farming make almond growing more sustainable?

It’s the pressures of increasing labor, materials, and operational costs combined with lower crop prices that are making almond growers consider switching crops, especially as achieving greater efficiencies seems unattainable using current manual farm management methods. Realistically, if they had a choice, most almond growers would likely prefer to keep their almond trees, rather than having to pull them out of the ground and replace them with an alternative.

Technology is giving almond growers that choice and an opportunity to create more efficient farming operations while keeping their existing orchards. Making smarter farming decisions doesn’t always mean having to start over. The ability to make data-driven decisions in real time is the future of farming and has the potential to reduce input costs, make significant gains on the bottom line, and improve the sustainability of almond farming.

Considering the global demand for almonds and almond products remains high, leveraging existing resources more efficiently with smarter farming tools makes sense. Combine this with grant opportunities being made available for regeneration projects and continued innovation to improve sustainability and the future of almond growing starts to look much more optimistic.

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