Proving out regenerative almond farming
Part 2: Can almonds be regeneratively farmed at scale?
Regenerative is coming, but for almonds, can it ever scale? Part 1 of this series explains the obstacles. If you missed it, click here.
Small regenerative almond farms already exist. See here, here, and here. But there are 1.6 million acres of almonds in California. While Big Food is investing to convert millions of acres of Midwestern crops to regenerative, can the same be done in almonds?
I predict regenerative almond farming will go one of two ways – small and exclusive, or greenwashed and ubiquitous.
I say this because regenerative farming as currently defined (cover crops and integration of livestock) is expensive, labor intensive, and at odds with sustainability initiatives already established for almonds, as I will explain below. This is an early prediction – and I hope I’m wrong – but the only way to know is by proving regenerative out at scale.
Proving out regenerative
Last week I mentioned Treehouse Almond’s soil health program, The Almond Project. Treehouse supplies almonds and almond butter to many emerging and growth stage CPG brands; these are the brands who cater to the premium/natural consumer who cares about sustainability. Treehouse has been at the forefront of sustainable almond farming and is unafraid to try new things. For this grower-processor, the topic of regenerative can’t be ignored. That is what led them to pilot The Almond Project program in partnership with brands Simple Mills, Daily Harvest and Cappello’s. The mission: to try out a variety of soil health practices, get the data, and share results with other growers.
Another project conducted at Zonneveld Farms, a walnut farm in Hanford, CA, is in its second year of testing regenerative practices and seeing positive results.
I talked with Joe Gardiner of Treehouse Almonds about his program. It’s a five-year project on 160 acres of their almonds.
You’re not going to get any growers to do it [grow regenerative] if you don’t prove it out on a real farm. - Joe Gardiner, Treehouse Almonds.
Joe is unapologetically transparent about his operations and wants people to know what he, along with the vast majority of almond farmers and processors, are already doing to be sustainable:
· Pollinator friendly habitats (flowers for the bees)
· Solar powered facilities
· Micro-irrigated trees
· Precision (minimal) fertilizers and pesticides
But the game of sustainability keeps changing and the industry must keep up.
Here’s the nitty gritty on what exactly these practices entail and my take on scalability.
Cover crops are a means to improve soil heath by increasing organic matter.
Seeds are expensive and you have to know what to buy. Cary Crum, an agronomist with California Ag Solutions can help with seed selection, but every orchard is different and there is no sure thing; for example, Treehouse is trying out 22 different types of seeds
Planting seeds requires renting or buying a seed drill plus the labor to make the passes
This is where things get tricky. Seeds won’t germinate without water. And so much of the industry has gone to drip irrigation systems. Treehouse has micro-sprinklers in addition to drip so they are only planting seeds along the root zones where their micro-sprinklers reach, not in the middle of the orchard where water won’t reach.
Zonneveld Farms is flood irrigated (!!) so these cover crops do extend between tree rows
You have to mow the cover crops before harvest
More mows increase the cost per acre
Industry best practices call for clear ground for food safety reasons. It also makes for smooth harvesting
Harvesters (the service providers that come with harvesting equipment) are resistant to harvest over mowed cover crops because they claim it picks up extra debris and leaves nuts behind
My take: if cover crops re-seed themselves then the initial costs are a one-time investment. Farmers can avail themselves of grants like the USDA’s $1B Climate Smart Initiative to cover costs. The biggie here is water. Zonneveld is experiencing benefits like greater water infiltration and retention, but their method of flood irrigation is where regenerative contradicts industry sustainability initiatives to not flood; not to mention flooding is impossible for so many that lack a sufficient supply of water.
Fertilizer & Pesticides
Healthy soil has more nutrients so you don’t have to use as much fertilizer. Cover crops invite beneficial insects so you don’t have to spray as much.
· Treehouse is reducing nitrogen use by 10% this year, and hoping to continue reductions
· Zonneveld didn’t need to spray pesticides last year
My take: Fertilizer prices have gone through the roof. If cover cropping costs less than fertilizer – and you can still get the yield – it’s a no brainer. Again, this works for those that have the water and infrastructure to irrigate cover crops. Otherwise, it’s a hold out for rain and growers have to be nimble enough to time seed planting just before rainfall.
Ruminants eat the cover crops and their waste is good for the soil.
Sheep on orchards only works at scale
It takes at least 600 acres to get a sheep herder to stay on an orchard, says Joe Gardiner
Treehouse has to pay the sheep herder to come down from the foothills for only 160 acres
Ideally, tree nut farmers would be paid (up to $40-$55/acre) to let sheep graze
Animals must vacate 120 days prior to harvest to be food safe
Still, processors and their quality control managers will be apprehensive to run this type of product
My take: increased food safety scrutiny from FSMA makes responsible parties understandably nervous. If you can get past that, it still begs the question: how many blocks of contiguous acreage are blessed with the water necessary to grow the crops that the animals will feed on?
Back to my prediction. Under current drought conditions, it’s impossible for regenerative (as defined in this post) to be a widely adopted practice in almond farming. That’s why it has potential as a small, exclusive enclave of the total market and should therefore command a premium price.
For true believers (or hopefuls) the idea is not to charge a premium but to make a wholesale industry change that is economically self-sufficient. I get it. I just don’t think it.
Second prediction. I’d be dismayed if regenerative went the way of organic: greenwashed. Organic used to mean more than it does today; it started out as a holistic way of farming but got reduced to the absence of GMOs and certain synthetics. Organic does nothing to improve the environment, and therefore paved the way for the regenerative movement today. The jury is out on the potential greenwashing until the term “regenerative” gets some federal standards around it and becomes regulated.
Part 3 of this series will spotlight the most beautiful almond orchards I’ve ever toured. I can’t wait for you to meet Christine Gemperle, the Martha Stewart of almond farming. She’s been farming regeneratively for years and didn’t even know it.
See you next week.
All my best,