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January 11, 2010

Winning numbers. Almond industry begins to collect data to back sustainability claims.

Vicky Boyd
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When almond grower Brian Ramos was asked to fill out a self-assessment questionnaire about his irrigation and fertilization practices this fall, he admits he hemmed and hawed.

Photo by Vicky Boyd

After all, the Turlock, Calif., grower says, he had a lot more-pressing matters to take care of that day. And besides, Ramos reviews his operation annually, always looking for ways to improve.

But after answering the questions on the 30-page document, he says he has a different view.

“What I like about this program is it tells people about what we’re doing,” Ramos says. “It’s nothing but win-win.”

Chuck Dirkse had a similar experience after he was asked to participate.

“At the time, I was somewhat annoyed,” he says. “I think the SureHarvest folks did a good job of explaining it to the group. Then they turned us loose.

“It’s not too daunting. Compared to some of the other surveys we get and the recent [ag] census, I think it was pretty simple.”

Putting the survey to the test

Ramos and Dirkse were two of 19 growers who participated in a pilot program overseen by the Modesto-based Almond Board of California to try to quantify how widely the state’s almond growers have adopted sustainable practices.

The board used the pilot to gauge grower reaction and receive grower input before taking the effort statewide, says Gabriele Ludwig, almond board director of regulatory and technical affairs. She formally introduced it at the recent Almond Industry Conference in Modesto, Calif.

The first module deals with irrigation and fertility practices. The total number of modules has not been determined, but Ludwig foresees ones dealing with energy use, integrated pest management and possibly air quality.

The almond program is loosely modeled after the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program and its predecessor, the Lodi Winegrower’s Workbook.

Based on grower and winery self-assessments, the California wine industry issued a sustainability report card in 2004 and planned to issue another earlier this month.

Whether the almond industry goes that far has not been determined, Ludwig says.

The wine industry’s program examined sustainable practices used by both growers and wineries, whereas the almond industry program focuses only on grower practices, she says.

But like the wine industry programs, the almond effort is purely voluntary, Ludwig says.

Even before those groups adopted self-assessment programs, manufacturing had one—ISO14000, says Cliff Ohmart, vice president of professional services for Soquel, Calif.-based SureHarvest. It is nothing more than a company looking at how well it is doing and how it can improve, he says.

Answering the Walmarts of the world

Ludwig says she foresees several benefits from the data that will be collected.

It can be used to focus the Almond Board’s research into areas where information may be lacking, she says.

It also can be used to answer questions buyers have about the industry’s sustainable practices.

When Almond Board chief executive officer Richard Waycott makes presentations to European buyers, one of the first questions asked is about the industry’s sustainable practices.

Closer to home, Walmart and Safeway, among others, have sustainability initiatives and are increasingly asking suppliers about their own programs, Ludwig says.

“This is what Walmart is concerned about—they want people to have metric-based programs.”

She was referring to numeric-based measurements or data.

In addition, Ludwig says it will help her make a case in front of state and federal regulators because she will have data to back her claims.

But more importantly, it will give individual growers a snapshot of what they’re doing in their orchards and how that compares with others in the area, Ohmart says.

“It provides tools for evaluating your farming operation,” Ohmart says. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. It helps you zero in on those efficiencies.”

Dirkse agrees: “I think there are benefits as growers—obviously, as an industry—if we are giving the buyers what they want. As an individual grower, I think there’s some potential to where I might be able to look at the Ballico area to see how much nitrogen a typical grower puts on. If I differ from that, is that reflected in my production?”

As with the winegrape industry’s efforts, the data will be collected and reported in such a way that an individual grower cannot be identified.

Photo by Vicky Boyd
As part of a voluntary program to gauge sustainable practices, the Almond Board of California is asking growers about their irrigation and fertilization programs.

A cost of doing business

The almond board began talking about sustainable practices about five years ago. But it wasn’t until 2009 that it began working on a self-assessment program.

SureHarvest, a consulting firm that was involved in the wine industry’s efforts, was brought in to help draft the original questions.

They were then reviewed and fine-tuned by a group of university researchers, Cooperative Extension farm advisers and private consultants.

Ramos says he was encouraged to participate by his Blue Diamond Growers fieldman, Rob Kiss, who sat on the committee that helped draft the questions.

Initially, Ramos says he viewed the process in a negative light and as just another of numerous surveys that farmers are required to answer.

But after filling out the self-assessment and hearing Ludwig discuss how the data might be used, he changed his mind.

“Gabriele talked about the markets that were requiring it, and then it totally clicked,” Ramos says. “It gives us an opportunity to tell the world that we’re doing a pretty good job and to buy our stuff.”

But it is unlikely that growers who score well on their sustainability questionnaire will see more money for their crop, Ohmart says.

“This is becoming a cost of doing business,” he says.

During the next few months, the almond board will hold sessions throughout the state to help growers fill out their self-assessments.

How many growers are needed to provide a relevant sample size still is being discussed, Ludwig says. Should it be based on acreage or number of respondents?

The state has more than 6,000 almond growers and more than 710,000 bearing acres of almonds, according to almond board figures.

If you’re interested in participating in the almond self-assessment program, contact Ludwig at the almond board, gludwig@almondboard.com or (209) 549-8262.