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What's It Like to Work on an Almond Grove?

In the final installment of Quick and Dirty Tips’ Faces of Farming series, Nutrition Diva talks with almond grower Brian Wahlbrink about almonds, sustainability, and the future of agriculture. Listen to the podcast here: A Conversation with Almond Grower Brian Wahlbrink Nutrition Diva: Welcome to the Nutrition Diva podcast, Brian! Brian Wahlbrink: Thank you, thanks for having me.   ND: Tell us what’s going on in the almond groves right now. What’s your day today going to look like after we finish taping this interview?   BW: Well we're coming off a very strong and busy harvest, which really dominates most of August and September. Now we're getting the trees ready to go to sleep, as we call it, or to enter the dormancy period on the almond life cycle. So, we're hedging, pruning, and irrigating as we wait for rain in California. We're feeding the trees and composting, and we're also planting covered crops, all getting ready for the bloom in 2019.   ND: Something tells me that even though the trees are dormant, the almond growers are busy year-round.   BW: Yes, it definitely is a 12-month-a-year profession. But it's ever-changing, always exciting, and we're always trying to stay ahead in the fields.   ND: So, do you only harvest one time per year?   BW: Correct. The caliper and almond harvest typically lasts from August through September. It was a little bit later year this year due to some colder temperatures early on in the season, and some growers are wrapping up as late as the first week of November.   ND: As I mentioned earlier, we all could pick an almond out of a line-up, but most of us wouldn’t know an almond tree if we saw one. And perhaps that’s what motivated you a couple of years ago to start an Instagram feed. Tell us about the 44 Days of Harvest project.   BW: Sure thing. I've actually gone through three seasons now, documenting the day-by-day occurrences on the ranch. The conversation was started three years ago—people were asking me on a daily basis what was going on from the fields and I said, "Well, how about I just start posting and show you guys?" So, I grabbed my phone, went into the field, and really tried to document what we were doing that day, trying to give the outsiders an inside look at how we're farming, what we're doing, and what the harvest really looks like.   ND: What a great idea. I have a link to your Instagram feed in the show notes for the listeners if they want to check that out. That is exactly what we're trying to do in the Faces of Farming series—give people who are outside the world of agriculture, but of course completely dependent upon it, a little view into what goes on there.   BW: Social media has been a really big help, visually, to our industry in the last couple of years. And the use of Instagram and Facebook has really opened up conversations that I was not having before.   ND: All of the farmers I’ve talked to so far in this series either grew up in farming families or farming communities, but you are actually a city boy. What got you into farming?   BW: I am an official transplant. I had the luxury of marrying into a wonderful family business. I grew up in Southern California Orange County, and everybody thought I was gonna be a real estate broker or a stock broker. I ended up in an almond orchard, the ranch that I get to be a part of now with my family. It's a fifth-generation farm, and we've been growing almonds for over 40 years.   ND: Almonds have a great reputation for being healthy, thanks to a lot of research that’s been done on the health benefits of frequent almond consumption. But they also have a reputation for being water hogs. One widely cited report claims that it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond and that almonds consume a disproportional share of dwindling water supplies. Is that a fair charge? Have almonds been unfairly singled out?   BW: I think most people don't understand how much water agriculture takes. But I think the positive is that it's really opened up conversation to how we're doing things and what our resources are, and we're able to engage in the conversation. Since that was published a couple years back, it's really been a positive mix. People have been very happy with what California almond growers are doing with the resources that we're given—we have 70% of almond growers using micro-irrigation in the fields now, and we really cut water by incredible amounts over the last 10-20 years. We really are doing more with less.   ND: So micro-irrigation is one way that you've reduced water use in the fields. Are there any other innovations that are helping improve the sustainability of this crop?   BW: We're really trying to track our water usage, and we're using technology to make sure we need to irrigate and that the soil is ready for irrigation. We've really tried to blend modern technology into the ranch. The other thing that I mentioned earlier in the interview was using cover crops—planting crops in the middle of the row to improve health during bloom time, and we're very proud of that. We're really trying to create a ranch that's going to be around in the next 50 years.   ND: I'm glad you mentioned technology. One of the most interesting things to me about speaking with farmers is that modern agriculture has this juxtaposition of technology and innovation, with all of that work that can still only be done by human hands. What's the balance of machine labor and human labor in the almond growing business? Are you able to harvest most of the nuts mechanically or are there some aspects of almond care that are still done by hand?   BW: Farm labor and hand labor are still huge components. It takes our workers to drive the tractors through the field, to drive the harvesters, all the equipment. The harvest itself is fully mechanized, starting with a shaker, which looks like a machine from the Star Wars era. Then it goes into sweeping and then harvesting. Those are three separate machines that cover a lot of ground, but there's still a huge reliance on labor during the harvest period. During the rest of the year we still have guys mowing and driving tractors as we're putting on different field applications, and then of course, there's daily and weekly visual checks of water.   ND: You mention that at this time of year, you're also pruning the trees to get them ready for the next harvest. Is that something that's still done by hand?   BW: Actually, in the last couple years, we have mechanized that as well. It is a single tractor with rotating giant saw blades that drives through the fields and hedges the trees back. What we're trying to do is open up the tree rows to promote sunlight to get down to the orchard floor to help growth on the trees throughout the season.   ND: Wow that must be an amazing machine. I'm sure that's documented in your Instagram feed for people that want to actually see what those machines look like.   BW: Yes, I'll be documenting that piece in the next couple weeks as we get into the off-season posting.   ND: Perfect, perfect timing. So, Brian, you're a pretty young guy. Can you see yourself doing this for your entire career?   BW: Absolutely, I absolutely love the industry, I love the daily challenges of being an almond grower, and I also really enjoy the people. I've had the good fortune to get involved with the California Almond Board about 10 years ago, and it’s a very diverse group of people in California. Most of the growers have very interesting stories, when you actually get a chance to get off the field and sit down and have a cup of coffee with them. There are very interesting stories and very good families running these orchards out here. In fact, the almond industry is 90% family owned and there's over 6,000 growers in California.   ND: Where do you see your industry headed in the future? What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities facing agriculture?   BW: The number one focus right now is water and our resources, and we're trying to be good stewards, kind of ahead of policy and legislation in the state. When you have an industry that's so concentrated, like the California almond industry—we grow 80% of the world's almonds—the world is very reliant on California to get the supply into the world. We're looking at increasing crops, which is always going to put some leverage on global trade, but I'm very confident that we're going to be climbing very soon from 2.45 billion, which is about this harvest, to 3 million pounds within the next five years.   ND: That's a lot of almonds.   BW: It sure is. There's a lot of mouths to feed out there.   ND: Brian, I want to thank you so much for spending some time at this busy time of year and giving us a peek into your world.   BW: Monica, thank you for your time and spending your day featuring California almonds.
In The News
// About the Almond Industry

Almond Board of California Announces 2019 Election

MODESTO, Calif. — The Almond Board of California (ABC) announced Jan. 19, 2019, as the deadline for filing nomination petitions for two independent grower member positions and two independent grower alternate positions on the ABC Board of Directors. To be considered for the position, each candidate must be a grower and must submit a petition signed by at least 15 independent almond growers (verified by the Almond Board). The petition should state the position for which the candidate is nominated and be filed with Almond Board of California at 1150 Ninth St., Suite 1500, Modesto, CA 95354. Additionally, one independent handler member position and one independent handler alternate position is available. Handlers must declare their candidacy, in writing, to the Almond Board no later than Jan. 19, 2019, to be considered for these positions. A cooperative grower member and alternate nominee will be selected through their cooperative association. The Almond Board of California is the agency established to administer the Federal Marketing Order for almonds. The Almond Board assures industry compliance with marketing order regulations and is responsible for administering all aspects of the marketing order. It also serves the almond industry in other major areas, including production research, generic advertising and public relations, and accumulation, compilation and dissemination of statistical information. The Almond Board encourages eligible women, minorities and people with disabilities to consider running for a position on the Board of Directors as it believes this committee should reflect the diversity of the industry it serves. For further information call Bunnie Ibrahim, senior analyst, Government Affairs, ABC, at (209) 343-3228.
Almond orchard during bloom
News Article
// About the Almond Industry

The 46th Almond Conference Walks the Line Between Education and Entertainment

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — More than 3,900 almond growers, processors and allied industry members met in Sacramento, Dec. 4–6, 2018, for The Almond Conference. The 46th annual conference set a record for attendance and featured 254 exhibitors and more than 50 educational sessions. Planned and hosted by the Almond Board of California (ABC), this event provides the almond community with an opportunity to gain fresh knowledge, network with fellow industry members, reflect on the recent harvest and prepare for the coming year. “In today’s fast-paced world it’s a challenge to keep up with all the changes impacting the almond industry. Whether it’s complying with new regulations, keeping up with best practices, or staying on top of the ever-changing trade environment, the list goes on and on,” said Holly A. King, chair of ABC. “This is the one event held each year that brings the industry together to discuss and learn about these topics, and work together to find solutions and propel the industry forward. It was great to see so many members of the almond community gathered in one place with the single-minded goal of advancing the industry.”  Setting Goals to Prioritize Efforts From Tuesday’s State of the Industry address to Thursday evening’s Gala Dinner, the Almond Orchard 2025 Goals were a key focus throughout this year’s event. These goals, announced publicly at the Conference, demonstrate the California almond community’s commitment to continuous improvement and provide the foundation for the industry to grow and evolve into the 21st century.  Adopted by the ABC Board of Directors in June 2018, the Almond Orchard 2025 Goals state that by 2025 the California almond community commits to:  Reduce the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by 20% Achieve zero waste in our orchards by putting everything we grow to optimal use Increase adoption of environmentally friendly pest management tools by 25% Reduce dust during harvest by 50% During the State of the Industry address, King and Richard Waycott, Almond Board president and CEO, spoke to attendees about how the industry must work together to grow almonds in better, safer and healthier ways, protecting local communities and the environment.  “When we look back over the past couple of decades, in terms of the growth of the industry, it’s really been largely driven by repositioning almonds in the minds of consumers globally — we need to always be thinking about how to take almonds higher in the minds of our customers and consumers,” said Waycott. “The new goals we have set are all there to improve our productivity and achieve our vision to make life better by not only what we grow, but how we grow.”  King agreed, “These goals ensure our future.”  California Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross then joined King and Waycott on stage to offer her thoughts on the goals.  “It’s about documenting what we’re doing and being able to quantify it, and being able to measure and monitor the progress that we continue to make, creating a benchmark that we can all measure ourselves against,” said Ross. “That’s the secret to continuous improvement.” Luncheon Speakers Inspire, Gala Entertainment Walks the Line Luncheon speakers at this year’s Almond Conference all spoke to a need for the almond industry to get outside its comfort zone and push boundaries to persistently innovate. During Wednesday’s luncheon, David Deak, a disruptive innovator in the energy and tech space, demonstrated how rapid change forced the automotive and communications industries to advance at a pace that would change the course of history. Deak then challenged attendees to consider how that type of rapid change could push the almond industry to greater heights, to improve at an accelerated pace, and to continue setting the tone for California agriculture.  "The key to abundance is unlocking knowledge and creating new ways of getting more with less,” said Deak.  Thursday’s speakers, the Peterson Farm Brothers, built upon that challenge as they spoke to industry members about how the almond community can, and should, be creative and open to sharing their farming stories with those in urban areas, reaching them with messages that resonate. Greg, Nathan and Kendall Peterson shared four of their top songs, including their latest parody of “California Love” — “California Farms” — which features a shoutout to California almonds. After the luncheon, multiple Conference attendees crowded the ABC booth for an opportunity to shake hands and take photos with the Kansas farming brother trio, whose YouTube videos have reached more than 50 million views.  “The Peterson Farm Brothers reached a whole new audience with a positive message about agriculture,” said Daren Williams, senior director of Global Communications at ABC. “Hearing their personal story along with live performances of their hit songs was both entertaining and inspiring.”  The 2018 Almond Conference wrapped up with a show honoring The Man in Black himself: James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash. The performance featured a blend of Cash’s greatest hits infused with short retellings of his life, from creating music with Shel Silverstein to performing for Folsom Prison inmates.  Bright Futures for CA FFA Students, Additional Highlights  Since 2011, Almond Leadership Program participants have worked to raise funds for California FFA students who seek to study agriculture after high school. This year, through efforts including a silent and live auction at the Conference, and a golf tournament this past October, the 2018 Almond Leadership class raised over $36,000 for California FFA. Altogether, the Leadership program has now raised over $100,000 in scholarships for FFA students.  “California FFA has been an integral component to the success of California ag leadership — training, educating and inspiring future leaders,” said Jenny Nicolau, manager of Industry Relations at the Almond Board. “The Almond Leadership Program’s commitment to supporting FFA members by providing scholarships is a true testament to ensuring today’s youth has the tools needed to become tomorrow’s leaders. Raising more than $100,000 in a few short years proves yet again that the almond industry believes in serving our communities and our youth.”   Other highlights from The 2018 Almond Conference include:  Almond Board Research Funding Announcement The Almond Board of California announced a $6.8 million investment in 75 independent research projects exploring next-generation farming practices, including optimal use of everything almond orchards grow. ABC’s research programs provide a scientific basis for best practices across several priority areas, including water sustainability, pollinator health and finding new uses for almond coproducts. Former Almond Board Staff Bob Curtis and Sue Olson Recognized Curtis and Olson have served the almond industry for nearly 50 years, combined.  General Session: Live Consumer Focus Group Four consumers participated in a live focus group in which they spoke on their expectations for food producers and perceptions of the almond industry, specifically. Overall, the group held positive opinions toward agriculture and the almond industry.    Almond Board Shares New Vision and Mission Statements During the State of the Industry address, King and Waycott shared the Almond Board of California’s new vision and mission statements, which are available on the Almond Board website.  Stay tuned for more information on The 2019 Almond Conference, Dec. 10–12, at Cal Expo in Sacramento. If you’re interested in sponsoring the 2019 event or hosting a booth, please contact Nicolau at   
Waycott, King and Ross
News Article
// About the Almond Board

Almond Board of California Fueling Innovation with $6.8 Million Research Investment

The Almond Board of California (ABC) announced a $6.8 million investment in 75 independent research projects exploring next-generation farming practices including optimal use of everything almond orchards grow. In addition to improving production practices, the research projects help the California almond community provide almond lovers around the world with a safe, wholesome and sustainable product. The announcement was made at the 46th annual Almond Conference, an event held in Sacramento, Calif., convening almond farmers, processors and researchers to discuss the latest science behind responsible almond farming. ABC’s research programs provide a scientific basis for best practices across several priority areas, including water sustainability, pollinator health and finding new uses for almond coproducts, including hulls, shells and woody material. “Innovation is at the core of sustainable almond farming. Driven by family farmers, the almond community is committed to continuous improvement, ensuring a better environment and future for our children and grandchildren, neighbors and employees,” said Almond Board of California President and CEO, Richard Waycott. “Since 1973 almond farmers and processors have invested $80 million in research through the Almond Board to improve our understanding of almonds’ impact on human health, ensure food quality and safety, and improve farming practices while minimizing environmental impacts.” Finding New Uses for Almond Coproducts Almonds grow in a shell, protected by a hull, on a tree. Farmers have always taken responsibility for these coproducts, ensuring they are put to beneficial use rather than sent to landfill. Today, the California almond community is focusing research investment on optimal uses for these coproducts, embracing a zero-waste approach that addresses critical needs across multiple industries. This year ABC funded nine coproducts-focused research projects totaling $1.2 million with applications spanning from in-orchard utilization to value-added uses. “We enjoy working with the almond community because their goals align with ours. The Almond Board is investing in research so nothing goes to waste, with the goal of a neutral footprint,” said Lydia Palma, researcher and PhD student at University of California, Davis. “Our research partnership focuses on developing new technologies to convert almond coproducts into valuable products.” Three ongoing almond coproduct research projects showing promising results are: Recycled Polypropylene-Polyethylene Torrified Almond Shell  Biocomposites. USDA-ARS, Western Regional Research Center[1] – Almond shells have traditionally been used as livestock bedding. This research explores how almond shells, transformed to a charcoal-like powder through a process known as torrefaction, can serve as a strengthening agent and colorant for post-consumer recycled plastics. Cultivation of Black Soldier Fly Larvae on Almond Byproducts. University of California, Davis[2] – Almonds’ sugary, fibrous hulls can feed animals big and small, including the emerging world of insect farming. This research project explores raising black soldier fly larvae, used as a feedstock for poultry and aquaculture, on almond hulls. Almond Hull Byproducts as a Casing Amendment Material in Mushroom Cultivation. USDA-ARS, Western Regional Research Center[3] – With their sugars removed for other uses, the remaining hull material can serve as an alternative to traditional peat moss for mushroom cultivation. This research project explores using almond hulls as a growing medium for commercial mushrooms, with preliminary results showing several benefits including optimal water absorption and increased yields. “Creating new ways to use a product that has historically been thought of as a single-use item is very exciting,” said Mike Curry, almond huller/sheller with Johnson Farms. “The entire production and supply chain, including the consumer, will benefit from the development of new products from almond hulls and shells.” Additional Opportunities for Innovation Commitment to scientific research supports the California almond community in growing the farm of the future. To improve water sustainability, farmers are adopting precision irrigation technology and exploring replenishing underground aquifers through on-farm groundwater recharge. To ensure the safety of honey bees, essential to pollinating almonds, farmers work closely with beekeepers and follow research-based best practices. Research continues to fine-tune the optimal approach to planting bee pastures which supply additional nutrition to bee hives and other nearby pollinators. Water and honey bee-focused research projects funded by ABC this year include $610,000 to nine water projects and $579,000 to seven honey bee health projects. This builds upon more than 200 water research projects funded since 1982, helping farmers reduce the water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33% over the past 20 years,[1] and, with 120 projects funded to date, ABC has supported more honey bee health research than any other crop group.[2] Almond Board research projects are funded through an assessment paid per pound of almonds produced. After review by research advisors and workgroups focused on distinct almond farming topics, projects are selected by a committee of almond farmers and processors based on strategic alignment to industry needs and anticipated impact of the research.   For more information about ABC’s 45 years of almond farming and environmental research, visit Media Contact: Kelsey Johnson – 617-897-8262; Julia Hannon – 212-601-8234;     [1] Zach McCaffrey, et al. Recycled polypropylene-polyethylene torrefied almond shell biocomposites. Journal of Industrial Crops and Products. December 2018. [2] Lydia Palma, et al. Cultivation of black soldier fly larvae on almond byproducts: impacts of aeration and moisture on larvae growth and composition. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. December 2018. [3] Allison Flynn, et al. Almond hull byproducts as a casing amendment material in mushroom (Agaricus bisporus) cultivation. Mushroom News. American Mushroom Institute. October 2018. [4] University of California, Feb. 2010. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, 2012. Almond Board of California, 1990-94, 2000-14. [5] Gene Brandi. Vice President, American Beekeeping Federation.  
almond orchard in bloom
News Article
// About the Almond Board, About the Almond Industry
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