A California almond industry group pledges to continue its push toward greater sustainability in 2020, investing another $5.9 million in research into what its leaders call next-generation farming practices.
The funding will support 85 independent research projects to help growers achieve measurable objectives as part of the Orchard 2025 Goals, an ambitious program unveiled by the Almond Board of California in 2018.
At an industry conference in December, board leaders introduced an Almond Orchard 2025 Goals Roadmap, which outlines the industry’s journey as it seeks to cut water use by an additional 20 percent, increase use of environmentally friendly pest management tools by 25 percent, eliminate orchard waste by making better use of byproducts and halve the amount of dust kicked up during harvest.
The road map relies heavily on achieving more widespread industry participation in the more than decade-old California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP), whose nitrogen and irrigation calculators and mapping tool will help the board quantify growers’ progress toward greater sustainability.
“The CASP program is beneficial in a lot of different ways,” board Chairwoman Holly King said in a “State of the Industry” presentation Dec. 10 at the 47th Almond Conference in Sacramento. “We can improve a lot of our operations.
“It’s also given us the ability to protect our right to farm in California” by demonstrating for policymakers the industry’s commitment to sound practices, King said. Moreover, “we can use the statistics to attract buyers,” she said, noting the board’s goal is to have all California almond growers enrolled by the 2022 conference.
The “State of the Industry” report came as nearly 4,000 farmers, processors and others were gathered at the California Exposition and State Fair, the conference’s temporary home while the downtown Sacramento Convention Center is in the midst of a $120 million upgrade.
The opening presentation by King and board president and chief executive officer Richard Waycott included an Almond Achievement Award given to Rob Kiss, a former longtime field representative for Blue Diamond Growers who now holds a similar position with Bayer.
“When I go around the United States, people ask me about the almond industry,” Kiss told the audience. “People from other commodities say, ‘How do you do that? You’re so successful.’”
Later on Dec. 10, the conference introduced professional beach volleyball player and Olympic heroine Kerri Walsh Jennings, who will be the face of a marketing campaign for California almonds as she aims to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. They would be her sixth Olympics.
The campaign will include activities on social media, print advertising and personal appearances to tout almonds, Waycott told Western Farm Press.
The protein and nutrients from almonds are “so good in so many different ways,” she said during a luncheon speech. “I’m just proud to be on your team now.”
In their opening talk, Waycott and King listed industry accomplishments during the 2018-19 crop year, including achieving record shipments of 2.26 billion pounds despite considerable trade upheaval.
As of the conference, shipments were up by nearly 5 percent over the previous year’s pace, Waycott said.
“One thing that helped is we had a flat supply from the previous year,” Waycott said. “That was a disguised blessing.”
The two also detailed headwinds facing the industry, including implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), pollination challenges and the downward price pressure brought on by increases in global almond production.
“We had tremendous upheaval in foreign exchange” as a strong dollar prompted several trading partners to devalue their currencies, Waycott said. Meanwhile, Japan and the European Union have escalated their nut rejections because of levels of aflatoxins – naturally occurring contaminants often caused by pest pressures.
Almond industry leaders have been increasingly image-conscious in recent years as some environmental groups and media outlets accused growers of using too much water amid the state’s historic drought from 2012-2016.
Waycott and others frequently tout the fact that farms have already reduced the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent in the past two decades, via improved production practices and use of micro-sprinklers on most farms.
Setting concrete goals will help the industry prioritize its activities and build consumer trust, Waycott has said.
“The Almond Orchard 2025 Goals build on decades of progress, fueled by research,” King said in prepared remarks. “Fulfilling these commitments will require hard work, dedication and resources, including funding independent research to test new technologies and sharing the results as these approaches are proven.”
The 85 research projects funded this year will include 10 focusing on water with an investment of $678,000; 13 studying use of orchard byproducts at a cost of $607,000; and five projects totaling $336,000 in the areas of nutrient management, air quality and honey bee health, according to board officials.
The $5.9 million allocated this year follows $6.8 budgeted for 75 research projects in 2019 and $4.8 for similar research the year before. In all, the industry has invested $89 million in research since 1973 in areas such as responsible farming practices, food quality and safety and almonds’ impact on human health, according to a news release.
BEST OF SHOW
With the theme “Best of Show,” the conference celebrated its temporary venue by creating a fair-like atmosphere, holding competitions for exhibitors and offering an array of food trucks for those who weren’t attending the ticketed luncheons.
The “State of the Industry” report and lunchtime speeches were held in the fairgrounds’ Building C, an enclosed hall used for exhibits during the summer California State Fair.
Nearby, a large, enclosed livestock pavilion was converted into the main exhibit hall, and high-quality enclosed tents costing about $500,000 housed conference sessions. The tents were provided by the city of Sacramento as an incentive to keep the conference, officials said.
The conference was sent scrambling for a new venue amid a renovation that will add about 20,000 square feet to the 137,000-square-foot facility. Seven alternatives were considered before conference leaders settled on the large fairgrounds about five miles from the shuttered convention center.
The Unified Wine and Grape Symposium will also temporarily move from the center to Cal Expo for its 2020 gathering, set for Feb. 4-6.