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Can regenerative agriculture alleviate California’s almond drawback?

I’ve lived in California for over 4 years and, as an avid explorer, have pushed previous my justifiable share of farmland throughout that point. Through the dry season — which implies a lot of the yr — almond, avocado and citrus orchards break up the brown and dry panorama with their lush and neatly lined timber. I’ve at all times been curious to see one in all these massive orchards from the within and eventually bought an opportunity to enterprise in.

Just a few weeks in the past, I joined an illustration of regenerative agriculture practices for almonds hosted by KIND — the New York-based meals firm greatest identified for its granola bars. Earlier than the tour to an orchard exterior of Fresno in central California, the KIND crew urged everybody to hop on a gaggle bus moderately than drive to the orchard themselves as a result of it was supposedly onerous to seek out. How troublesome can it’s — I assumed — given that these days yow will discover the whole lot when outfitted with a smartphone and the proper coordinates? However I’m glad I adopted their recommendation. 

Whereas the orchards already look pretty massive from the freeway, that impression doesn’t even trace at their precise scale. As soon as our bus turned off the freeway and into the orchard, we didn’t roll up the driveway of an idyllic household farm surrounded by timber. As a substitute, we drove down a paved street, then a mud street and eventually a mud path. For quarter-hour, we saved going deeper and deeper into the almond maze till we lastly arrived at demonstration website. 

Almonds’ sophisticated reality

Why all this effort to have a look at some timber? Effectively, almonds have been juggling a considerably controversial existence for the previous years. They’re one of many extra nutritious and climate-friendly meals and have skilled exploding demand with the rising recognition of almond milk, yogurt and different dairy various merchandise. About 80 p.c of the world’s almonds develop in California. In accordance with my calculations, almond orchards have elevated by 78 p.c from 2010 to 2022, reaching a measurement that would cowl Manhattan 96 instances. 

This has led to a better examination of farming practices and a debate over associated native impacts. Almonds are a thirsty crop, however California is a dry area. Thus the enlargement of almonds and different orchards has put additional strain on water allocation within the state. Almond farming can also be exceptionally demanding and harsh for wild and industrial bees. Throughout pollination in late February, about 90 p.c of U.S. industrial honey bees function in California’s almond orchards. They expose one another and wild bees to illnesses, compete over forage and get subjected to pesticides. Lastly, manufacturing impacts the well being and well-being of neighboring communities — almond harvests produce mud storms and plumes of smoke come up when farmers burn previous timber within the fields on the finish of their 25-year lifespan. 

It’s like a Fitbit in your tree, so you may perceive its heartbeat in real-time and measure whether or not it’s thirsty.

Some corporations with important almond footprints have famous these issues and responded with initiatives to mitigate them. For instance, well being meals corporations Easy Mills, Each day Harvest and Cappello’s collaboratively launched the Almond Mission final yr. It checks cowl crops, animal integration, compost and enter discount to enhance soil well being and local weather resilience on 160 acres of almond crops over 5 years. 

Scaling regenerative practices

Now, KIND is enrolling 500 acres of orchards into its personal pilot program, which it can implement with its provider Olam Meals Elements (OFI), one of many three largest almond producers on the earth. The harvest from these areas will make up 10 p.c of KIND’s almond provide chain. The corporate is experimenting with 4 essential approaches to enhance sustainability over the approaching three years:

1. Sub-surface irrigation to extend water effectivity

Almond growers have already come a great distance on the subject of irrigation. In accordance with Zac Ellis, senior director of agronomy at OFI, they made a large leap over the previous 20 years by transferring from month-to-month flooding of the whole orchard to adopting drip irrigation as the brand new business normal. Even so, water use stays of concern. The following step can be to make use of a sub-surface irrigation system that dispenses water on to the tree’s roots moderately than making use of it on prime of the soil to scale back evaporation. 

To see whether or not this gives the timber with sufficient water, OFI is combining it with a dendrometer within the KIND pilot. “It’s like a Fitbit in your tree, so you may perceive its heartbeat in real-time and measure whether or not it’s thirsty,” Ellis stated. Putting in the underground system is dear, so one of many pilot’s goals is to know if the water financial savings and probably greater yields from adopting the brand new know-how make up for the funding. 

Two people in front of soil sampls

2. Cowl crops for wholesome soils and completely satisfied bees

The pilot makes use of a mixture of 5 cowl crops — clover, white mustard, triticale, candy clovers and phacelia. They might improve biodiversity within the orchard, present extra pollinator habitat and provide varied soil well being enhancements, comparable to nitrogen fixation, erosion prevention and weed suppression. 

However the cowl crops gained’t have the ability to freely develop year-round. They have to be mowed earlier than the almond harvest season from August by way of October so the nuts can dry on the bottom after being shaken off the timber. Testing for natural matter, soil carbon and bee well being will consider whether or not the quilt crops have been efficient and whether or not their advantages outweigh seed price and upkeep wants. 

Orchard Machinery

3. Off-ground harvest to scale back soil disturbance, mud and gas use

At the moment, step one for harvesting almonds is utilizing a machine that grabs the trunk of a tree after which shakes the almonds to the bottom. Second, one other machine sweeps the almonds into rows in between the timber to allow them to dry earlier than being collected. The sweeping course of disturbs the soil and creates mud clouds, a big regional well being concern. 

KIND helps OFI check a brand new off-ground harvesting machine. It shakes the timber, collects the almonds after which mechanically locations them into rows. This fashion, growers can get across the sweeping course of and halve the variety of heavy-duty fuel-consuming machines that function throughout harvest time. However these new harvesters haven’t undergone a lot sensible testing but, Ellis instructed me. As a result of they price round half 1,000,000 {dollars}, growers are reluctant to speculate. He hopes the expertise collected on this pilot will improve their confidence. 

4. Complete orchard recycling, plus biochar and compost

Lastly, as an alternative of burning almond timber on the finish of their 25-year lifespan, the pilot will grind up the timber and reintegrate them into the soil. This step guarantees to keep away from emissions and air air pollution from the tree-burning fires which have been normal observe. It’ll additionally cycle vitamins again into the soil, hopefully reducing the necessity for artificial fertilizers.

[Want to learn more about where biodiversity meets the bottom line? Learn more about Bloom 23 — the leading event for professionals advancing strategies to protect nature.] 

KIND and OFI are additionally experimenting with a brand new course of that breaks down almond shells into biochar. They plan to combine the biochar with compost and work each into the orchard, which might enhance soil well being and biodiversity, additional lowering fertilizer and water use. 

It’s inspiring to see what number of instruments almond growers might leverage to enhance their social and environmental affect, and pilots comparable to this one are important in ground-proofing these concepts. However when strolling by way of the orchard, I couldn’t shake off a moderately anxious feeling. This monoculture farm is big and structural points comparable to California’s water scarcity problem its continued existence — even when imagining what it’d appear like three years from now, with more healthy soil, flourishing cowl crops and extra bees. 

I requested Ellis if he might think about transferring to a extra built-in system, mixing almonds, avocados, oranges and different timber, and maybe integrating grazing livestock. With out having to consider it for a second, he shook his head, saying that it will be too onerous to handle and wouldn’t make financial sense. 

Then I requested the KIND crew whether or not they have been attempting to revamp merchandise with much less problematic elements and leverage the ability of their model to form shopper preferences. Extra shaking heads. Except there are systemic modifications, it appears that evidently a much less unhealthy model of monocultural orchards may be the perfect California can hope for. 

However on a planetary scale, this could possibly be OK. Suppose the state’s excessive yields keep away from the conversion of pure ecosystems elsewhere into much less environment friendly almond orchards. In that case, we’d protect an total bigger space of intact ecosystems — a world win with respective native tradeoffs. 

This text initially appeared as a part of our Meals Weekly e-newsletter. Subscribe to get sustainability meals information in your inbox each Thursday.



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