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January 26, 2011

Almond growers are taking the initiative on sustainability

Bob Johnson
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California’s almond growers are on a campaign to build on their sustainability initiatives, and to finally reap the credit and the rewards for the steps they have already taken.

The Almond Board of California is developing a sustainability self-assessment program to allow almond growers to confidentially evaluate the sustainability of their practices in key areas. As enough growers complete the self-assessment, the Almond Board said it expects to be able to go to corporate buyers, regulators and the public with evidence of the almond sector’s commitment to sustainability.

“I would encourage each and every one of our almond growers to participate so we can go to the people who buy almonds with information about how we grow almonds,” said Merlin Garber, a Modesto-area almond grower who was among the first to complete the self-evaluation.

The first two modules of the self-assessment questionnaire cover irrigation and nutrient management. Future modules on air quality and energy should be available early this year, and a module on pest management should be available in the spring. The questions for the self-assessment are based on information from the University of California, UC Cooperative Extension, California State University, private consultants and almond growers.

A group of nearly 80 almond growers answered a sampling of the questions during the discussion of the sustainability program at the 38th annual Almond Industry Conference in Modesto in December. Their answers revealed the wide range of practices among almond growers when it comes to irrigation and nutrient management. More than a quarter of the growers had done a distribution uniformity test of their irrigation system in the last year, while nearly that many had never done the test. More than 40 percent regularly use historical and real time evapotranspiration (Et) information in their irrigation decisions, while a third do not use that information. Nearly three in five growers are using neutron probes or other devices to measure soil moisture, and a quarter of them are using pressure bombs to directly measure tree water stress. Fully 70 percent of the growers use plant tissue testing to help guide decisions about fertilizer. 

“As I suspected, a very high percentage of people are doing plant tissue testing. It is one of the first things you should do,” said Dan Sonke, SureHarvest senior scientist and a consultant to the Almond Board on the sustainability initiative. According to Sonke, around 100 of the state’s 6,000 almond growers had taken the self-assessment survey before the recent Almond Industry Conference. The first modules of the self-assessment program are available on the Internet (www.almondboard.com/Growers/Sustainability/Pages/Default.aspx). The Almond Board is planning to offer an ongoing series of events to encourage as many growers as possible to take part in the selfassessment.

“The only way this program will be successful is if as many almond growers and handlers as possible participate,” said Gabrielle Ludwig, Almond Board associate director of environmental affairs.

Many of the growers who have done the self-assessment received confirmation of the steps they have taken over the years to manage water and fertilizer more efficiently. “I think I’m up to speed with the techniques that are out there,” said George Nicolaus, who grows almonds just south of Chico. He was part of the group of Sacramento Valley almond farmers who filled out the questionnaire last summer. Nicolaus monitors soil moisture with a neutron probe to make irrigation decisions and figures that saves 10 percent to 20 percent on his water. He also uses leaf tests every year and soil tests every other year to achieve similar savings in his fertilizer applications. The program not only saves on water and fertilizer, it more than pays for itself, he said.

“A leaf analysis is cheap compared to the cost of a truckload of fertilizer,” Nicolaus said.

The self-evaluation is also a way of learning about practices and techniques that might make the orchard operation more sustainable. “At our review, there were some things that came up and I thought, ‘Maybe that’s something we ought to consider.’ That can be a benefit of doing this,” Garber said.

After finishing the questionnaire, growers can take a peek over the fence by learning the average answers of all the growers who have taken the survey. The self-evaluation is an evolving process because growers who go through the assessment are also asked to contribute their thoughts on how the questionnaires could be made more helpful. “They had us review a module that is coming up and I appreciate that they gave us an opportunity to say what relates to us,” Garber said.

The impetus behind the sustainability initiative is the interest that major corporate almond buyers have expressed in learning about the almond sector’s sustainable practices. “We have representatives talk to companies like Walmart, Kraft, Nestle and Unilever about unrelated questions and as soon as the conversation starts they ask what we are doing in the area of sustainability. The major food corporations are driving the sustainability movement,” Ludwig said. In order to answer the questions asked by these buyers and by regulators, however, the almond sector needs
a significant number of growers to take part in the selfassessment. “We need more participants to feel comfortable saying this is representative of what’s going on out there. We don’t have any data to stand on now, and regulators do respond to data,” Ludwig said.

Almond Board leaders said they are optimistic that the interest of corporations with enormous public relations resources could make this campaign uniquely successful.

“There have been umpteen initiatives to get the story out there and they have failed because they went about it the wrong way. The difference with the sustainability initiative is that the top managers of major retailers and manufacturers see it as a way to make money. The other initiatives did not have the money-making ability behind them that this one does. These companies are the mouthpieces we need to get the story out,” said Richard Waycott, Almond Board president.