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When Almond Trees Have To Go, It's Not As Bad As It Looks

BY JOHN COX   When he's at work in local almond orchards, passers-by often stop to ask Hank Gorman whether the property owner know he's knocking over their trees. And every time he gives the same answer: "The farmer called me."   No doubt it's a confusing sight to people unfamiliar with almond-growing. But there's a good reason he's there behind the wheel of an excavator pushing down tree after tree for acres on end.   It turns out almond trees have a relatively short productive life. After 20 to 25 years, they are typically removed and replaced with saplings that start producing nuts within about three years.   Compare that with pistachio trees that can yield nuts well past their 70th year. Citrus trees outlast almonds, too, sometimes giving fruit for 100 years or more.   This week, Gorman and his partners at Bakersfield-based orchard-removal and tree-grinding service Ignis4 were at work taking down an 80-acre almond orchard at the intersection of Coffee and Snow roads. Clearing 10 to 11 acres per day, the company has a few more days of labor before moving on to the next in a long list of waiting customers. Gorman said the property's owner has indicated he intends to replant with almonds.   The tree removals are entirely routine, especially in the almond capital of Kern County. But what's not as well-established is what to do with the downed trees.   In decades past, farmers simply burned the trees in place or chopped them up for firewood. A lot less of that happens now that air quality has become a top priority in the Central Valley. But generally speaking, many of the trees still do not end up in landfills.   Until a few years ago, many dead almond trees were sent to nearby biomass power plants and co-generation plants that burned them to create energy for use in local oil production. But while co-gen facilities still operate in Kern, the biomass plants have largely faded away as their underlying economics lost out to other renewable energy sources such as wind farms and solar power plants.   Many farmers now grind up the trees instead of burning them. Often the resulting wood chips are mixed with dyes to create a visually pleasing urban ground cover. Or, untreated chips are spread across an orchard as a means of weed control.   Increasingly, though, ground-up trees are recycled back into an almond orchard's soil. Ongoing research supported by the Almond Board of California trade group discs the chips into the ground, where the release of carbon dioxide is slowed and nutrition is put back into the orchard. Studies suggest the chips can improve water infiltration and storage.   Orchard Systems Advisor Mohammad Yaghmour, a consultant with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Kern County, said the process increases organic matter inside the soil, which improves its quality without hindering tree growth.   "In the near future, this is going to be the norm, grinding up the orchards and reincorporating them into the soil and replanting," he said.   Gorman considers the wood chips more of a renewable source of energy that is, for some farmers, a nuisance they usually just want to get rid of.   He tries to explain this to uninformed observers.   "It is a rotated crop, believe it or not," he said. "It just takes 15 or 20 years for it to run its course."
In The News
// About the Almond Board, About the Almond Industry

Almond Board Announces New Goals to Sustainability

By Bob Highfill   The Almond Board of California announced new goals to substantially improve sustainable farming practices in key areas by 2025.   Almond Orchard Goals 2025 focuses on reducing the amount of water to grow almonds, achieving zero waste in the orchards, increasing environmentally friendly pest management tools and reducing dust during harvest.   The goals are voluntary for farmers to adopt, and the almond board will evaluate progress on a continual basis. The goals build on past sustainable farming initiatives meant to ensure the future of an industry that has multi-generation families at its core.   “We’re an industry of family farmers,” said Holly King, chair of the Almond Board of California during a conference call Thursday. “Ninety percent of our almond farms are family farms, so we are vested in the communities in which we live.”   Almonds are big business in the state and especially in San Joaquin County.   California produces 80 percent of the world’s supply of almonds, and in 2017, San Joaquin County had 74,200 bearing acres of almonds worth $362.7 million, according to the county’s agriculture commission. The California Almond Board’s 2017 annual report states nearly 75 percent of California almond farms are 100 acres or less. King said large or small, California’s almond farmers have taken a long-term view of success based on their respect for the land and local communities.   “We believe it’s important to do the right thing and be conscious about how we’re using and managing resources,” King said.   For instance, over the past 20 years, California almond farmers have reduced the amount of water used to grow one pound of almonds by 33 percent through improved production practices and micro irrigation, according to cited reports from the University of California, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Almond Board of California. The new rules seek to decrease water usage an additional 20 percent.   The 2025 rules call for innovation in finding higher value uses for almond byproducts, such as hulls, shells and woody branches, so that everything grown goes to optimal use. The new rules call for a 25 percent increase in the use of environmentally friendly pest management tools, such as beneficial insects, habitat removal, mating disruption and, when necessary, pesticides, to further protect orchards, employees and communities. And the rules call for farmers to reduce dust during harvest by 50 percent.     “We try to be a good steward of the land by doing more with less — less inputs, less applications, less trips into the field, obviously less water,” said Brian Wahlbrink, chair of the Almond Board’s Harvest Workshop and an almond grower in Stanislaus County. “These goals will help drive us to substantive improvements, building on past achievements and sharing our progress as we work toward 2025. I am very confident in where we are going.”   California almond farmers continue to support research in other areas critical to success, such as investing in seven new projects focused on honey bee health this year alone. The board has adopted a comprehensive set of Honey Bee Best Management Practices that are widely adopted and evolving to ensure the safety of honey bees during pollination and beyond.   “By working collectively toward the Almond Orchard 2025 Goals and key areas, such as bee health, we are ensuring that we can farm here in California for the long haul,” Richard Waycott, Almond Board of California president and CEO, said. “That means taking care of the land to the best ability we can and farming responsibly.”
In The News
// About the Almond Board, About the Almond Industry

Focused on Growing Good, the California Almond Community Commits to New Goals

(MODESTO, Calif.) Producing 80 percent of the world’s supply of almonds, California’s almond farmers and processors have always been about growing good—managing resources responsibly for current and future generations. Today, the almond community is publicly committing to four new goals that build on decades of previous achievements and further demonstrate the industry’s commitment to growing almonds in better, safer and healthier ways, while protecting local communities and the environment. The Almond Orchard 2025 Goals set industry-wide targets in the areas of water efficiency, zero waste, pest management and air quality. “We’ve always been focused on minimizing our environmental footprint and being good neighbors—and we have the track record to prove it. But for the first time, we are publicly setting goals for how we will farm in the future and committing to transparently reporting on the progress we are making,” said Holly King, chair of the Almond Board of California. “There’s no doubt these goals will be challenging, but that’s a responsibility that comes with leadership and a commitment to innovation. We’re excited to be embarking on this journey.” The Almond Orchard 2025 Goals focus on four key areas: Further Reducing the Water Used to Grow Almonds Over the past two decades, California almond farmers have successfully reduced the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent[1] via improved production practices and adoption of efficient microirrigation technology. By 2025, the California almond community commits to reduce the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by an additional 20 percent.   Achieving Zero Waste in Our Orchards Almonds grow in a shell, protected by a hull, on a tree: products traditionally used for livestock bedding, dairy feed and electricity generation. Changing markets for these coproducts are spurring innovation for higher value uses, both economically and environmentally. By 2025, the California almond community commits to achieve zero waste in our orchards by putting everything we grow to optimal use. Increasing Adoption of Environmentally Friendly Pest Management Tools Responsible almond farming requires protecting the crop and trees from bugs, weeds and disease through an integrated pest management approach. This means using tools and techniques like beneficial insects, habitat removal, mating disruption and, when necessary, pesticides. To further protect our orchards, employees and communities, by 2025, we commit to increase adoption of environmentally-friendly pest management tools by 25 percent. Improving Local Air Quality During Almond Harvest California almonds are harvested by shaking the nuts to the ground where they dry naturally in the sun before being swept up and collected, a process that can create dust in our local communities. To address this nuisance, the almond community is taking short- and long-term steps to reimagine how we harvest and, by 2025, commits to reduce dust during harvest by 50%. “We try to be a good steward of the land by doing more with less—less inputs, less applications, less trips into the field, obviously less water,” said Brian Wahlbrink, almond farmer in Stanislaus County and chair of the Almond Board’s Harvest Workgroup. “These goals will drive us to substantive improvements, building on past achievements and sharing our progress as we work toward 2025. I am very confident in where we are going.” In addition to the 2025 goals, California almond farmers continue to support research in other areas critical to success, investing in seven new projects focused on honey bee health this year alone. This effort builds on a legacy of $3.2 million invested in 120 research projects since 1995 addressing the five major factors impacting honey bee health. As part of its ongoing commitment to bee health, the Almond Board has also developed a comprehensive set of Honey Bee Best Management Practices for California almond farmers. Widely adopted, these best practices are constantly evolving to ensure the safety of honey bees during almond pollination and beyond. “By working collectively towards the Almond Orchard 2025 Goals and key areas such as bee health, we are ensuring that we can farm here in California for the long haul. That means taking care of the land to the best ability we can and farming responsibly. This commitment is based on a history of improving growing practices and will truly impact how we farm in the future,” said Almond Board of California president and CEO, Richard Waycott. The California almond community is a collection of family-run farms dedicated to making life better through innovation and responsibly producing a healthy food accessible to people around the world. For over four decades, almond farmers and processors have funded $80 million in scientific research, making significant advancements in the areas of water, nutrient management, air quality, honey bee health and more, increasing farming efficiencies while minimizing environmental impacts. [1] University of California, 2010. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2012. Almond Board of California, 1990–94, 2000–14.
almond orchard
News Article
// About the Almond Board

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
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