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Sorting for Aflatoxin: The Needle in the Haystack

(Feb. 7, 2020) The pain of rejection is part of the human condition – it is also an unfortunate reality in the global almond business. “I’ve lived through this before, and I can tell you, the pain of having a rejected shipment of almonds due to aflatoxin is worse than the pain of when you get told no at your first high school prom,” quipped Brendan O’Donnell, global category director of Nuts at TOMRA Food, during a panel discussion about aflatoxin at The Almond Conference 2019 in Sacramento this past December. The session featured two companies – Optimum Sorting and TOMRA Sorting Solutions – which both use laser technology to identify aflatoxin in nuts based on the fluorescence signature produced by mold residues. “Effectively sorting for aflatoxin is a journey of continuous improvement for our industry,” said Tim Birmingham, director of Quality Assurance and Industry Services at Almond Board of California (ABC). Birmingham, who moderated the panel at The Almond Conference, said that featuring equipment from Optimum and TOMRA at the conference could help handlers understand how to better identify the needle – aflatoxin – in the haystack. “We know other sorting technologies can get insect-damaged product out of the stream, but the technologies from Optimum and TOMRA focus on what you do after you’ve already removed that insect-damaged product and you still have low levels of aflatoxin,” Birmingham said. “It’s essentially slicing the pie into smaller and smaller pieces. This technology is really useful at removing low levels of aflatoxin, especially for markets where that can be a problem, such as Japan.” Current sorting technologies target visual defects commonly associated with aflatoxin, such as molds, decay, insect damage and shrivel. However, aflatoxin can still be present on nuts that appear damage free to the human eye. “What if we could see the invisible?” asked Mike Parise of MPA Solutions, also a consultant for Optimum Sorting’s laser technology. “We can see the invisible with this technology because some residues of aflatoxin fluoresce, or emit light.” Both the Optimum and TOMRA technologies use a UV laser light source, which stimulates the fluorescence produced by aflatoxin. The laser technology is extremely sensitive, revealing the slightest amount of fluorescence in a kernel, which indicates the presence of aflatoxin. “The technology doesn’t detect aflatoxin itself, but does detect the fluorescing ‘by product’ of aflatoxin,” Parise said. “Once those kernels are identified and removed, the amount of aflatoxin can be drastically reduced.” Improving the detection of something that’s invisible and odorless, especially in small quantities, is be a major step forward for handlers and exporters, who are keenly aware of tougher regulatory tolerances for aflatoxin. “Every country has its own limits,” O’Donnell said. “Between shipments to the European Union and Japan combined, nearly 40 percent of California almond exports must have less than 10 parts per billion of aflatoxin, which is half the maximum aflatoxin regulatory standard in the United States.” O’Donnell also pointed out that countries test for aflatoxin using different protocols, which could result in a shipment passing in one country, but failing in another. “The bottom line is that a uniform, globally agreed to sampling and testing method for aflatoxin doesn’t exist, and that creates uncertainty,” O’Donnell said. “Different quantities and locations in a load are sampled and some samples are tested separately while others are blended.” O’Donnell noted that detecting aflatoxin can be difficult because it can exist in “little pockets in a load,” which means that testing an entire load is the only way to ensure that aflatoxin levels meet regulatory tolerances. “UV laser sorting is the final safeguard when it comes to minimizing costs, protecting your brand reputation and the almond industry’s reputation,” O’Donnell said. For more information regarding The Almond Conference session featuring UV laser sorting technologies, please contact ABC’s Tim Birmingham at tbirmingham@AlmondBoard.com or check out the slides presented at the session on ABC’s website.  
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// About the Almond Industry, Quality and Food Safety

Almond Board Takes Breeding to the Next Level

Diversity of almond varieties needed for a diversity of uses Almonds have been a constant throughout human history. From the Bible’s Old Testament to our present era of emails, e-books and e-commerce, you’ll find almonds are referenced in various places across multiple countries, consumed by each new generation over hundreds of years. While it’s thought that almonds were introduced to California as early as the 1700s, however, it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that production expanded significantly in the Central Valley as seedlings along roadsides and commercial orchards propelled the discovery of new almond cultivars. Alongside these discoveries, California maintains the oldest continuous almond breeding program in the world – in 1923, the University of California (UC) at Davis and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiated a cooperative breeding program to conduct early pollination and cultivar studies.[1] Together with private breeders and nurseries, USDA and UC Davis have built a robust pipeline of new cultivars and rootstocks to serve the California almond industry. The Almond Board of California (ABC) began funding almond varietal research at UC Davis in the early 1970s and expanded to rootstock development in the late 1980s, investing an estimated $8 million over the past forty years. In the last twenty years, this research has delivered three new varieties – Kester, Winters and Sweetheart – and supported testing of most commercial varieties and rootstocks for overall performance, resistance to pests, diseases and abiotic stresses, providing growers with information on options for different growing conditions. Today, ABC has established a holistic approach to develop the varieties of tomorrow. In Nov. 2019, ABC hosted various stakeholders – public and private breeders, growers and handlers, hullers/shellers, UC Cooperative Extension researchers and farm advisors, and nursery representatives – for an opportunity to sample more than 60 varieties of almonds at its Crack-Out Day.[2] Now, after considering each industry sector’s valued almond characteristics, from the grower to the handler, the manufacturer to the consumer, ABC has developed a five-point plan detailing how it will coordinate with actors throughout the industry to find better varieties that can achieve greater, higher quality yields with reduced management costs and horticultural inputs in the areas of pollination, water use and pest management, among others. “The Almond Board is excited to lead the California almond industry in this community-wide effort to find improved varieties, and it is truly a team effort. We want to work in lockstep with each industry stakeholder every step of the way,” said Dr. Sebastian Saa, senior manager of Agricultural Research at the Almond Board. Innovation to speed up varietal development Unlike annual crops, breeding of tree crops such as almonds can take multiple years. To accelerate breeding for traits such as self-compatibility, ABC has initiated new investments in the development of molecular markers for use in conventional breeding. “To be clear, this is not related to GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms]. We are still using conventional breeding approaches, but rather than waiting for a tree to grow each time we cross two varieties, breeders can use molecular markers to see very early on if the trait of interest will be in the progeny of that cross,” said ABC’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Josette Lewis.   The benefit of molecular markers on time and development is astronomical. With the previous process, a breeder would cross two varieties, grow the seedling and wait until it produces. That process could take up to seven years. Using markers, however, when the plant is only four months old the breeder can already send a leaf to the lab to determine its molecular makeup. Molecular marking technology is being used in almond breeding programs across the world, including Israel, Australia and Spain. ABC is looking forward to incorporating these tools into the California almond industry’s breeding program: In Dec. 2019, ABC issued requests for proposals to the best researchers in this field of study and projects are now underway. The Nickels Soil Laboratory will be one of the hosts for ABC’s new interim breeding evaluation plots. Accelerate the evaluation of new varieties In addition to speeding up development, ABC will increase the rate at which new varieties are evaluated, allowing researchers to weed out the “winners” from the “losers” at a more efficient pace. In the 1980s, the Almond Board began supporting long-term regional variety trials (RVT) in various locations to test the performance of new varieties in a semi-commercial manner across diverse almond growing regions and soil conditions. These varieties are compared to standard varieties such as Nonpareil. In the industry’s current RVTs taking place in Butte, Stanislaus and Madera counties, UC researchers[3] are collecting performance data on a total of 29 varieties in the areas of bloom and hullsplit timing, disease and insect susceptibility, tree canopy size, kernel quality and yields. With ABC’s new process, top varietal candidates will be evaluated in interim orchard plots in combination with newly developed material from other sources (i.e. private breeding programs). Here, researchers will gather data and determine the strongest, most viable varieties, which will then go onto a longer term RVT, remaining at that site for 15 years. During those 15 years, researchers will continue collecting data on seedling performance, growing habits and horticultural factors, data that will then be provided to growers and other industry stakeholders to help them make the most informed decision possible. “Streamlining this process so that all potential new varieties are screened in the same manner allows us to be more strategic and thoughtful about which varieties we pursue – those which have the best qualities,” Dr. Saa said. “For the benefit of all involved, we want to ensure that the varieties that reach the 15-year RVTs are the best of the best.” In addition to incorporating these interim orchard evaluations to the breeding equation, Dr. Saa said ABC is working with funded researchers to design the next generation of RVTs to provide outputs to the industry every five years instead of every 15 years (once the design is fully implemented). “RVTs will need to run more frequently, initiating every five years or so, to ensure we can increase the frequency of the outputs without sacrificing the quality of the information,” Dr. Saa said. At ABC’s RVT in Butte County, researchers are evaluating performance data in multiple key areas, including hullsplit timing and kernel size. Providing guidance to create value across the industry The multiple uses of different varieties and types of almonds has long been understood in the industry. Selling into Japan? You’re shipping your best product – Nonpareil J-spec – for a consumer demographic that demands perfection, a nut without blemishes. Sending a load to Germany for confectionary use? You’re likely shipping a variety that’s easy to blanch for marzipan and can easily be used for multiple purposes. Ultimately, different markets want different almonds. While handlers in particular know these details well, for many years the California almond industry has breed almonds not with the end user as top of mind but with a focus on the growers’ priorities: harvesting implications, pest management, bloom timing, etc. However, in order to keep California almonds ahead of the competition – to ensure continued demand – the industry needs to produce different varieties that are not only productive for the grower but also provide versatile, high quality kernels that work well for the ingredient and snacking markets. To meet this need, the Almond Board is soliciting input from growers, hullers/shellers, handlers and food companies to inform public and private breeders on horticultural, processing and demand priorities. This guidance will provide a list of “priority” traits, such as self-compatibility, high yield, certain kernel specifications, harvest shake efficiency, etc., and then a list of “desired” traits, including disease resistance greater than Nonpareil and flavor development. “Developing this guidance is an ABC and industry-wide effort,” said Dr. Karen Lapsley, senior director of Nutrition Research and Special Projects at the Almond Board. “We’re working with ABC experts in nutrition profiling, almond quality, trade and marketing, as well as a vast amount of industry stakeholders through our industry-led workgroups and committees to determine what should be included in this guidance.” Amplify industry outreach ABC-funded research cannot support the industry if it never reaches the eyes and ears of growers, nurseries, handlers and other stakeholders. Constant, timely communication and hands-on events are required to share research outcomes and demonstrate how those outcomes may be applied in the orchard. In July 2019, Almond Board Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Josette Lewis spoke with researchers, handlers and nursery representatives during an event aimed at soliciting industry input on public breeding priorities and increasing coordination of testing and selection of new varieties and rootstocks. At present, industry members have access to RVT outcomes and other breeding projects through ABC’s Research Database and annual Research Update.[4] ABC is looking to give the industry an earlier and fuller look at varieties coming through the pipeline of both the public breeding and commercial nursery programs. Learning how varieties in those programs are performing will give industry members helpful data on which varieties may maintain improved production, quality, or processing value. “Increased outreach is particularly important to public entities, such as the UC and USDA breeding programs, as they do not have the marketing capabilities that private nurseries do, which keeps them from broadly promoting new varietal releases,” Dr. Saa said. The Almond Board has already started to execute on outreach events and communications, such as the Crack-Out Day, from which ABC plans to create and distribute an industry report sharing the results, which includes how attendees rated each variety on taste, texture, etc., as well as findings from RVTs and other breeding research. The Almond Board is also planning to arrange field days during which results from RVTs will be shared and craft more broad communications via industry newsletters. “Not only do we want to increase outreach, but we want to make it more user friendly and approachable,” Dr. Saa said. “New varieties are being constantly evaluated, but if we don’t do more to work with researchers in planning field days and communications to the industry then growers and stakeholders won’t have the full picture.” ABC also recently formalized its strategic collaboration with the UC Davis Fruit and Nut Center, with whom ABC will partner to develop specific outreach tools in upcoming years. Evaluate almond quality within context of market demand  From almonds as an ingredient to almond butter and almond milk, the industry is seeing continual growth in almond uses across multiple categories. Because different almond varieties can be optimized to best suit the end user, food manufacturers look for a wide slew of attributes when selecting almonds for purchase, attributes including kernel shape and size, surface color (light to dark), surface texture (smooth to deeper groves), the ability to be blanched (for milk and baking) and more. Flavor is also a factor – in almonds, the compound Amygdalin gives the nuts their signature amaretto-like flavor, and while flavor does not drastically vary between California almond varieties, those with a keen palate will notice a distinct difference in taste. Beyond the almond in all its forms, of course, is the whole almond, which in recent years has taken the lead ahead of other nuts in the realm of “snackification.”  “Driven by busy millennials, this growing trend of ‘snackification’ demonstrates that people are rapidly trading in their three daily meals for smaller snacks consumed throughout the day. Growth in the snack aisles is one of the largest drivers of almond consumption worldwide,” said ABC’s Associate Director of Trade Stewardship and Marketing Harbinder Maan. Parallel to this increase in global demand is an increase in supply. For the third straight year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is predicting a record California almond crop, estimating orchards will produce 3.0 billion pounds of nuts in the 2020/2021 crop year, up 17.6 percent from last year.[5] What does this mean for the California almond industry? According to Guangwei Huang, “As supply and global competition increase, demand for certain almond characteristics and quality properties becomes more and more relevant – no exceptions. “For instance, in the walnut industry when global supply is higher than demand, the ability to produce extra-light walnuts really matters, and in cherries, we know that producing fewer, big fruit is more desired than producing more smaller fruit,” said Huang, associate director of Food Research and Technology at ABC. With this mantra in mind, ABC is working with professor and food chemist Dr. Alyson Mitchell of UC Davis and sensory experts from The National Food Laboratory to define flavor and sensory quality characteristics of different almond varieties to better understand how the aforementioned “priority” and “desired” traits impact consumer liking or preference of almonds. “Carrying out profiling and quality evaluations in the early stages of varietal selection and RVT evaluations will expedite the development of new varieties and allow us to best meet the end user’s demand for common and unique applications.” Huang said. Looking to the future of ABC’s strategic breeding program, Dr. Lapsley said she’s excited to see future varieties and the research backing them drive the industry toward a more advanced, successful future. “Thorough evaluation of new varieties gives confidence in their value across the industry,” said Dr. Lapsley. “For instance, the reason you know Monterey consistently has more doubles is because of an early RVT that demonstrated that result year after year. With improvements in the variety evaluation process, we have an opportunity to exponentially increase the knowledge of growers and other industry members to help them make decisions about the varieties of the future. And by supporting the industry in its efforts to produce better quality, highly productive varieties at a faster pace, the Almond Board is continuing to support the California almond industry in its mission to expand global consumption through leadership in innovative research.” [1] Gradziel, T. M., & Company, R. S. i (Eds.). (2017). Almonds: Botany, Production and Uses. CABI. [2] Learn more about ABC’s Crack-Out Day at newsroom.almonds.com/content/almond-board-brings-together-growers-manufacturers-to-taste-more-than-60-almond-varieties. [3] UC researchers involved with current RVTs include Bruce Lampinen, Phoebe Gordon, Roger Duncan, Luke Milliron and Sam Metcalf. [4] To access the Almond Board’s Research Database, please visit almonds.com/growers/resources/research-database. [5] For more information, visit newsroom.almonds.com/content/usda-nass-predicts-third-straight-record-breaking-almond-crop.
almond orchard
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// About the Almond Board, About the Almond Industry

Honey Bee BMPs at Bloom Protect Bees, Enhance Pollination

The Almond Board of California’s (ABC’s) “Honey Bee Best Management Practices for California Almonds” offers best management practices for all pollination stakeholders to consider during bloom. Based on decades of ABC-funded research, the Best Management Practices include strategies that are both protective of the honey bees essential to pollinating the crop as well as the almond crop itself. Chief among these practices is to avoid fungicide application when bees are foraging in the orchard, and to time applications for the late afternoon and evening, when bees and pollen are not present. No Insecticides at Bloom Additionally, application of insecticides or tank-mixing insecticides with fungicides should be avoided during bloom; opt instead for alternative IPM insecticide application timings until more is known about the impact of insecticides on honey bees, particularly on young, developing bees in the hive. Applicators should always take care to ensure pest control materials are applied only where they are needed. Do not directly spray hives or flying bees with any spray application, as any spray material, even water, on bee wings will prevent them from flying, and could adversely affect bee health and the pollination of the crop when it comes in direct contact with them. Provide bees with clean, pesticide-free drinking water. This will ensure that bees spend their time pollinating the crop rather than searching for water elsewhere, which could be contaminated. Communication Among Stakeholders As throughout the year, growers should work to maintain a strong chain of communication between all pollination stakeholders, including beekeepers, bee brokers, farm owners and managers, pest control advisers (PCAs) and applicators concerning all of the activities described above. All pollination stakeholders should be aware of pest control decisions during bloom, and initial agreements between growers and beekeepers should include a pesticide plan that outlines which pest control materials may be used. If a pesticide treatment is deemed necessary, growers/PCAs/ applicators should contact county ag commissioners so that beekeepers with nearby managed hives are given advance notification. For more information about the Almond Board’s Honey Bee BMPs, visit Almonds.com/ BeeBMPs. Materials available for download include the full BMP guide, “Honey Bee Best Management Practices for California Almonds,” as well as a general grower quick guide and an applicator guide available in English and Spanish. Printed copies may be requested from Rebecca Bailey at (209) 343-3245 or rbailey@almondboard.com.  
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// Almond Bloom and Bees

Almond Leadership: Meet the Class of 2016

Fresh and eager to begin their year-long experience, 21 participants in the Almond Board of California’s (ABC’s) Almond Leadership program met for the first time in late January for their program orientation and kickoff activities. At the end of the program, the California Almond industry will be enriched by the addition of 21 members poised to become industry leaders. After a brief introduction to the major programs and activities of the ABC, participants were introduced to their mentors — dedicated long-term members of the California Almond industry who volunteer their time and expertise to share their knowledge and provide guidance throughout the year. Participants are paired with mentors according to their particular areas of interest. A highlight of the orientation was a seminar on the state of the California Almond industry presented by President and CEO Richard Waycott, who provided a brief history of the growth of the industry, and also described the challenges and opportunities the industry faces. Getting-to-know-you exercises were led by Almond Leadership Program director Jenny Nicolau, manager, Industry Relations, for ABC. First, participants interviewed their mentors and shared three facts about them. In another exercise, each member of the class brought four items to the orientation meeting that represented themselves, and explained the significance of those items to their classmates. Items ranged from a handful of library cards for libraries around the world, to a pair of spurs, representing one member’s interest in horse training. In subsequent months, the class of 2016 will attend events designed to provide a well-rounded education on all aspects of almond production, processing and marketing. Class members will also have the opportunity to job-shadow mentors, giving them an authentic experience in the California Almond industry. The members of the Almond Leadership class of 2016 and their mentors are: Ashley Bandoni, Syngenta, mentor: Randy Layne Joseph Barnett, Blue Diamond Growers, mentor: Todd Meyer Daniel Chui, Trinitas Partners, LLC, mentor: Jordan Phippen Rory Crowley, Nicolaus Nut Co., Inc., mentor: Todd Meyer Chad Cummings, JKB Energy, mentor: Ladd Hackler Blake Davis, Pacific Gold Agriculture, mentor: Chuck Dirkse Scott Donald, Pearl Crop, mentor: Mike Ratto Rita Edwards, Coldwell Solar, Inc., mentor: Brian Dunning Sarah Gooder, Wonderful Orchards, mentor: Brendan Feder Jarred Hettinger, Jackrabbit, Inc., mentor: Tommy Tickenoff Mallvinder Kahal, Kahal Farms, mentor: Ryan Cosyns Michael Locke, CH Farming, Inc., mentor: Dave Richmond Ethan Nicol, Portwood Farms, mentor: Kent Stenderup Edgar Perez, Crop Production Services, mentor: Carlos Arellano Angie Raimondi, Blue Diamond, mentor: Lori Coburn Wes Romero, The Almond Company, mentor: Stan Chance Chris Taylor, Bayer CropScience, mentor: Danielle Lightle Jason Thomas, Syngenta, mentor: Emily Symmes Miguel Vasquez, Sierra View Ranch, mentor: Martin Pohl Robert Willmott, CSU Fresno, mentor: Darren Rigg Brandon Windecker, Olam Farming, Inc., mentor: Jared Britschgi
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// About the Almond Industry

CASP Series 2 Workshops to Take Place May 10–12

Conducted in partnership with University of California weed specialists and staff, these in-the-field workshops present a unique opportunity for your growers and their PCAs to refine their weed identification skills, match the latest management strategies and tactics with species present and resistance concerns, and review cost-effective practices for monitoring and recordkeeping. Taking the education outside the typical meeting room and into the orchard allows growers, PCAs and allied industry members to learn and test their knowledge on-site. Weed specialists with the University of California will conduct hands-on learning exercises and spend considerable time exchanging information about practical weed-related experiences and challenges with attendees. In addition, Almond Board staff and consultants will share updates about efforts and tools that add value to grower operations and the greater California Almond community. Growers will also have the opportunity to complete a CASP self-assessment module. The workshop will conclude with a complimentary lunch. Identical morning workshops will take place in almond orchards in the following locations, representing the northern, central and southern growing regions of the Central Valley: May 10 – Arbuckle (Nickels Soil Lab, Green Bay Ave.) May 11 – Turlock (Genzoli Ranch, 1130 Commons Rd.) May 12 – Bakersfield (Southern Star Ranch, 14400 Panama Lane) Attendance is limited! RSVP to Rebecca Bailey at rbailey@almondboard.com or call (209) 343-3245 to reserve your place today.
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// About the Almond Board

Irrigation Efficiency a Top Priority

Limited water supplies — with or without the California drought — are a reality. Almond Board of California has invested heavily in the area of water irrigation strategies and technologies that conserve water while optimizing almond production and tree health, as well as in ways to protect ground- and surface water from potential runoff or leaching of grower inputs. One of these investments is the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum, a comprehensive manual of irrigation management and scheduling practices. Recognizing that growers may be operating at different stages of irrigation efficiency, the Continuum provides information at three proficiency levels (1.0, 2.0 and 3.0). The Almond Board’s goal is to assist the industry in meeting level 1.0. These are irrigation management practices that are within reach for all California Almond growers, and can be implemented with limited additional investment in time and/or financial resources. Levels 2 and 3 refine irrigation management with the employment of additional investments. Leading this initiative is Spencer Cooper, senior manager, Irrigation and Water Efficiency. He will have boots on the ground and other outreach activities to provide system-specific recommendations to attain even more “crop per drop” on an orchard-by-orchard basis. I encourage you to learn more about these tools and resources in the article "Irrigation Continuum Reintroduced with Online Guidance, Outreach." Sincerely, Mike Mason Chairman of the Board Almond Board of California
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// Orchard Management
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