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How almond farmers are pioneering sustainability in California

It’s not a magic trick — it’s a marriage between technology and the generational knowledge of family farms.

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Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are farmed in California, which has suffered from increased droughts and volatile climate conditions, partially as a result of climate change. It may seem incongruous to grow almonds — a tree nut that is perceived to need a relatively high supply of water — in a state that has water shortages on a fairly regular basis. But is it?

Why California?

California produces over 400 agricultural products, making up 13 percent of the total agricultural value in the United States in 2019. All kinds of produce thrive here and some, like almonds, are not grown anywhere else in the U.S. There are just five regions in the world that have the Mediterranean climate needed for growing almonds, and California is one of them.

“We planted our first orchard here, actually right next to where I’m sitting, in 1965. My grandpa planted that. When he came here … they had cows and a dairy, but people quickly realized California can be more than that, thanks to its climate,” says Danielle Veenstra, an almond farmer and sustainability communications manager at the Almond Board of California.

The characteristics of a Mediterranean climate — mild winters, a defined rainy season, and dry, hot summers — are all crucial to the different growing stages of almonds. Though California is home to the ideal climate for almonds, farmers acknowledge that the issue of limited water resources can’t be ignored.

Almond farmers have already reduced the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent over the last two decades. And they are working with the Almond Board of California to reduce the amount of water needed per pound of almonds a further 20 percent by 2025 as one of their major sustainability goals.

Keeping almonds sustainable for California is a big deal. They are among the top valued commodities of California, to the tune of just over $6 billion in 2019.

“When we look at the role of agriculture in the state, the almond industry in particular provides 110,000 jobs, and a lot of those are in a region, the California Central Valley, that is known for high unemployment, so it’s really important that we’re providing jobs there. It’s not just that we are in the community, we are part of the community,” says Veenstra.

Dave Phippen, a third-generation almond farmer, echoes that sentiment.

“There are over 70 families that depend on our little operation for their daily income. And we take that to heart. It’s not just Dave Phippen’s family and his seven grandkids. It’s a whole bunch of other ones,” he says.

So, do almonds need a lot of water?

The sustainability of almonds and their water needs became a hot topic of discussion after a paper published in 2010 calculated the water footprint of different crops, and concluded that it required 1 gallon of water to produce one almond. But that same study estimated that it takes 5 gallons to produce a walnut, and hundreds for a cheeseburger.

The comparison between products raises an interesting consideration: When a drop of water is invested, what exactly does it return?

“When we think about almonds, we should be thinking about the nutrition that they provide, right? It takes a plant more water to grow a nut, say, than a strawberry, and that’s because physiologically the plant has to do more work and do more processes to create a protein than it does a sugar. I think we need to consider what food we want to eat and what properties of those foods are important to us,” says Veenstra.

But farmers are thinking beyond just the almond nut in terms of maximizing water efficiency. They have found creative ways to get the most out of everything they grow by using a zero-waste approach.

“The water that’s needed is not just growing the nut, it’s growing all of these other things that have benefits as well,” Veenstra adds. “The shells are used for livestock bedding. The fuzzy hulls … those are used for dairy feed.”

One new and particularly impactful practice, called whole-orchard recycling, utilizes the wood of the almond trees at the end of their productive life.

“We’re chipping them up but putting them back into the soil. The trees over 25 years have been sequestering carbon and by putting that organic matter back into the earth, we are removing significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” says Veenstra. The amount of carbon sequestered is 2.4 tons per acre for this process. That amount of carbon reduction is equivalent to someone living car-free for a year.

In the end, 1 gallon of water doesn’t just produce one almond, but also livestock feed and bedding, electricity, and increased carbon sequestration — all with a zero-waste approach.

“I think the biggest thing for our urban neighbors to learn is that it takes water to grow food. And every one of us is being as careful as we can with that water; we’re trying to make every drop count,” says Pippen.

California’s water supply is limited. Almond farmers might have cracked that nut.

Zero-waste practices are just one part of the equation. One of the biggest factors that have helped almond farmers reduce the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent is the adoption of microirrigation.

Microirrigation is straight-forward: Instead of a blanket application of water to an entire orchard or field through flooding or large sprinklers, the water application is targeted directly to the root area of the crops, and released more slowly.

It’s a simple practice with dramatic results. Microsprinklers use targeted spray patterns, and drip irrigation uses a network of hoses that only let out a few drops of water at a time. This all prevents runoff or evaporation, leading to 20-50 percent less water use than traditional irrigation systems. And 85 percent of almond farmers in California have adopted one of these types of microirrigation.

A more high-tech tool is demand-based irrigation scheduling. California Irrigation Management Information System stations (CIMIS stations for short) give detailed reports to farmers about the water needs of a given area, allowing them to customize the watering schedule to the trees that grow there.

“My father used to irrigate every 30 days because that’s when the irrigation district offered water. When my brother and I took over the operations in the mid-70s … we irrigated by the calendar, just like dad did,” says Phippen. “Now with CIMIS ... we’re learning what yesterday’s evaporation loss was. So basically, you had an almond tree out in the orchard and it used this much, and we can record that. It used to be countywide we’d get that information. Now we get it localized to our individual field sites.”

Microirrigation and demand-based irrigation scheduling have helped almond farmers become leaders in sustainability. But they are also looking beyond the borders of their farms.

Reduce, reuse, recycle... and return

California’s underground aquifers make up the state’s largest water storage system. Spread across several interconnected basins, this water services not only farms in the Central Valley but cities large and small throughout the state.

During the rainy season, groundwater recharge occurs when excess precipitation creates flood water that works its way back into the state’s aquifers. The process is crucial to California’s water usage equation. Groundwater is used to service cities and farms alike across the state, and precipitation in wet years helps sustain the population’s water needs during dry years by refilling the aquifers. But for decades, more water has been withdrawn than has been replenished — a trend that accelerated during the 2012-16 drought.

Today, almond farmers are helping that water reach aquifers, like those in the Central Valley, through intentional groundwater recharge. In winter, when the almond trees are dormant, they do not take up any water. By using existing canal and aqueduct infrastructure to divert excess flood water onto their fields, farmers can help refill the aquifers underneath.

“We can be part of a bigger water solution, and this isn’t just something that helps farmers. That’s also water that serves people’s homes. That’s water that serves cities, so it’s a way in which we’re trying to be part of the solution,” says Veenstra.

Building a legacy on sustainability

These three major practices — microirrigation, demand-based irrigation scheduling, and groundwater recharge — are all crucial to preserving California’s water resources.

Almond farmers continue to innovate in pursuit of their 2025 sustainability goals. Their importance is made all the more critical as climate change affects the conditions for people in the farming community and cities alike around the world.

Maybe it’s so important to them in particular to get this right because 91 percent of California almond farms are family farms. Dave Phippen, the third-generation almond farmer, has a fourth generation already working alongside him in the orchard — and a fifth generation soon to come of age.

“My grandfather immigrated here from the Netherlands in the early part of the last century. He established a farming operation here in central California. And I walk a lot of the soil that my grandfather walked. The seven grandchildren, they’re walking on it. So it’s very meaningful to this old farmer.”