You want to piss off an almond farmer? Tell them to grow regenerative
Part 1: Can almonds be regeneratively farmed at scale?
At a time when shipments are down (so farmers can’t get paid), water is scarce, and prices are so low they don’t cover the costs of production, asking the almond farmer to grow cover crops and invite sheep to graze the orchard sounds nothing short of ludicrous.
Industry best practices for almond farming are inherently incompatible with regenerative practices. Even in the good times, a few short years ago, regenerative initiatives would have been off the table.
First, understand that the term “regenerative” is not defined by the USDA or FDA for food or crops. Certifying organizations and corporates have come to define it as:
· improving soil health
· sequestering carbon
· increasing water tables
· improving wildlife habitat
· fostering biodiversity
Let’s start with soil.
Improving soil health
You don’t have to do soil analysis to know that the average almond orchard’s soil is not loamy and full of life. Just look out your car window while driving along the 99: dry, compact… dead earth. And that is by design.
In the never-ending quest to conserve resources, best practices dictate that almond trees get precisely what they need, not more and not less, to grow to full yield. Nutrients and water are applied to the roots through fertigation. Then in order to mitigate pests and microbial contamination (like salmonella) the orchard floor is maintained clean and clear. Additionally, harvesters work best picking up nuts (and not dirt) when the ground is smooth.
Regenerative says plants should get the nutrients they need from healthy soil. Healthy soil has living organisms and decomposing matter. This type of soil is supposed to draw down and retain carbon. Which brings us to the next point – carbon sequestration.
Is it even known if almonds are a net contributor vs reducer of greenhouse gases? Remember 4th grade photosynthesis? Almonds are grown on trees. The best I can find is a Life Cycle Assessment study that says almond production can contribute to carbon neutrality when you take all the biomass byproduct into account but it doesn’t address that trees take in CO2 and release oxygen 🤔
Increasing water tables
Almonds get a bad rap for being water hoggers. Nevertheless, consumers still love them, particularly because almonds are a nutrient dense form of protein. Almonds top the list of many a Keto/plant-based/gluten-free/low carb diets. If you wonder how much water it takes per gram to grow your favorite proteins, I have done the comparison:
>90% of almond orchards are on micro-irrigation. But flood irrigation is what will restore our groundwater storage (groundwater recharge) and increase our water tables.
Regenerative teachings say you’ll have better water retention with more organic matter in the soil (refer back to soil health/cover crops above). But you must water cover crops if there is no rain, so even if your soil has a higher water retention rate, you may still net more water use regardless.
Biodiversity and wildlife
Bees are one thing, but animals poop. Animal waste is a great fertilizer, but it also carries bacteria that cause food borne illnesses. In 2007 the USDA required that all almonds sold in the US be pasteurized due to a rash of salmonella outbreaks traced back to almonds. Then in 2016 the FDA included almonds in the Food Safety Modernization Act or FSMA (say it like this- fizma) which places responsibility for the “kill step” on certain parties along with documentation for traceability.
All of this is great for protecting the public but not good if you want to farm regeneratively. Farmers can be food safe if they take the animals off the orchards 120 days prior to harvest. Still, processors may be apprehensive and quality control managers apoplectic.
If you don’t believe me, it’s already happening. Here is an email blast from the energy bar company VERB talking about their sustainable almond farmer:
Notice the progression from bee friendly > micro-irrigation > solar, and now > soil health. Note the mention of The Almond Project. What is that? Find out next week.
All my best,
General Mills buys a lot of almonds, admits GHG emissions rose last year, invests in regenerative ag in almond farming
“…California produces 80% of the global almond supply and that the state has been grappling with extreme water stress. Research the company has conducted preliminarily indicates regenerative agriculture may help address the water issues.
“In fact, we’re seeing regenerative farming practices driving similar yields, increased farmer profits and up to 6 times better water infiltration rates than the conventional approaches,” Mr. Nudi, group president North America Retail, said.