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.
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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.