Blue Diamond: Growing California’s Almond Industry with Less Water

Can California take control of it's thirsty cash crop?

Almonds: no longer the “1 gallon of water per nut” nut
California is currently facing a severe water shortage. The shortage is primarily due to two factors: four years of consecutive drought and the lack of adequate water storage facilities to accommodate the state’s residential, industrial and agricultural demands [1]. The drought cost agriculture 17,000 jobs and $1.5 billion contributing to a total loss of $7.5 billion to the broader California economy [1]. Although the almond (the “one-gallon nut”) is a water intensive crop (consuming 10% of California water resources), it is critical to the California economy as the state’s top commodity export valued at $4.5 billion [2,3].

Blue Diamond: facing harsh drought conditions
Throughout the drought, the almond industry has faced harsh limits on surface water allocation forcing growers to shift their constrained resources from established to young groves in an effort to preserve their orchard investment. This starvation of productive almond orchards negatively impacts the current and subsequent year production and nut quality. To alleviate the pain of water restriction, Blue Diamond is working with government authorities and growers to increase water sustainability by promoting initiatives to fix the leaky water distribution infrastructure, capture waste water to reconstitute aquifers, and develop water storage systems. Additionally, Blue Diamond is committed to investing in educating growers about best practices and new irrigation management systems [1]. As the Blue Diamond director of member relations said, “Growers do all they can to be good stewards of natural resources like water because it’s smart business and smart farming” [1]. Farmers must innovate in order to significantly increase their crop to drop ratio and continue to operate under these water restrictions.

Education to improve operations
Blue Diamond educates almond growers about new farming practices through the California Almond Sustainability Program [4]. One module, irrigation management, has introduced new irrigation approaches: watering at night, increasing efficiency, and reducing water pump energy costs. Growers’ adoption of new practices has reduced water per pound of nuts consumption by 33%, and a further $3 billion investment in smart irrigation systems reduced water consumption by an additional 14% in 2015 [1].

Technology in the orchard today

Matt Efird and His Dog at Double E Farms [6]
Matt Efird and His Dog at Double E Farms [6]
Beyond established irrigation techniques, Blue Diamond growers, such as Matt Efird, continue to innovate by adopting water management technologies that ensure healthy crop and lowest water use by monitoring soil moisture with electronic soil probes and root zone water measurements. [6]

Example of sap flow sensor used to confirm optimized irrigation [11]
Example of sap flow sensor used to confirm optimized irrigation [8]
George Goshgarian Jr., another almond grower, is implementing real time on site weather stations, as well as sap flow sensors to determine their trees’ specific water needs [8]. Efird and Goshgarian’s adoption of new technologies and strategies shows how growers can introduce technology into the orchard to use water resources more efficiently. Eventually, the growers will be able to use remote sensing to electronically control irrigation for healthier groves, while reducing water consumption by restricting resource delivery to only trees that need it [8].

 

Pushing the Boundary: the case for restricted irrigation techniques

Example of almond hull rot prior to harvest [11]
Example of almond hull rot prior to harvest [11]

Recently, scientists have started to experiment with Regulated Deficit Irrigation (RDI), the intentional limiting of water during the almond production cycle. A pioneer of this method, David Goldhamer, studied the improvements in irrigation efficiency through RDI [10]. Goldhamer’s group used linear displacement sensors to measure the maximum daily trunk shrinkage to calculate water stress data specific to each tree [12]. The researchers found up to 40% reduced water consumption was achievable with only slight decreases in almond yield.

A surprise finding from RDI experiments was that water stress for three to four weeks prior to harvest, not only saved about 10% of irrigation water [7], but also reduced hull rot (fungal infection of the splitting hull and tree) creating a win-win situation. Historically, hull rot could decimate one third of the crop, erasing profit and leaving damaged groves in its wake [10]. RDI not only saves water, but also saves crops and businesses. Wide adoption of RDI in conjunction with remote sensing and monitoring can lead to significant reduction in water consumption and increased production yield.

Looking forward: The Future for Almonds
The Blue Diamond growers’ adoption of next generation technology as well as their partnerships with government and environmental groups will lead to sustainable almond production and water security for California. To make these studies truly successful, Blue Diamond will need to determine long term implications of the RDI method, and continue to help their growers deploy technology in their orchards. Ultimately these advances in almond production could benefit other tree crops both in California and globally.

Final Word Count: 759 Words

References

[1] Cummings, D., et al. “Governor declares mandatory water cuts: agriculture water use under scrutiny.”  Almond Facts: May/Jun (2016): 26.

[2] Holthaus, E. “Stop Vilifying Almonds” Slate: April (2015)

[3] Sumner, D., et al., “The Economic Impacts of the California Almond Industry.” Almond Board of California: (n.d)

[4] Olsen, Daniel, Arian Aghajanzadeh, and Aimee McKane. Opportunities for Automated Demand Response in California Agricultural Irrigation. No. LBNL-1003786. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), Berkeley, CA (United States), 2015.

[5] Almonds: Growing up Sustainable.” Almond Board of California: Oct 2016

[6] Cummings, D., et al. “Leading Edge Operations Mean Higher Return for Blue Diamond Growers.”  Almond Facts: Jul/Aug (2016): 15

[7] Stewart, W., et al. “Regulated deficit irrigation reduces water use of almonds without affecting yield.” California Agriculture 65.2 (2011): 90-95.

[8] Cummings, D., et al. “Taking the Guesswork Out of Irrigation.”  Almond Facts: May/Jun (2016): 30.

[9] Goldhamer DA, Viveros M, Salinias M. “Regulated deficit irrigation in almonds: effects of variations in applied water and stress on yield and yield components.” Irrig. Sci. 24(2) 2005:101-114.

[10] Cline, H., “Too much water at almond hull split can be costly for a long time.” Western Farm Press: July 2007

[11] Cummings, D., et al. “Time to Consider: Hull Rot Management.”  Almond Facts: May/June (2016): 33

[12] Goldhamer, D., Elias Fereres, and Mario Salinas. “Can almond trees directly dictate their irrigation needs?” California Agriculture 57.4 (2003): 138-144.

[13] Schoups, Gerrit, et al. “Sustainability of irrigated agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, California.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences102.43 (2005): 15352-15356.

[14] Kendall, Alissa, et al. “Life Cycle–based Assessment of Energy Use and Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Almond Production, Part I: Analytical Framework and Baseline Results.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 19.6 (2015): 1008-1018.

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7 thoughts on “Blue Diamond: Growing California’s Almond Industry with Less Water

  1. While I agree that RDI represents an opportunity for farmers to reduce water usage, with limited impacts to crop productivity, we can’t discount the risks surrounding the implementation and outcomes of the relatively new technology [1]. With regards to implementation, it seems there are still questions around the optimal time of production at which to apply the deficit irrigation method for a given crop and the magnitude at which the deficit should be applied. Regarding the outcomes, there is still uncertainty among the scientific community around the ROI of the technology, particularly when applied to large-scale systems [2].

    This uncertainty highlights the importance of Blue Diamond’s role in exploring this technology and then sharing learnings with its farmers, as you’ve highlighted toward the end of your analysis. Rather than pushing farmers to take on the financial risk of deploying a relatively new technology, Blue Diamond should take on the responsibility of testing RDI against a comparable control, with the goal of defining when and how RDI should be deployed by farmers. Moreover, Blue Diamond should then educate farmers around both the benefits and risks of pursuing a technology and provide standard implementation procedures for those who choose to pursue it. Lastly, Blue Diamond should work with the State of California to ensure that low-interest project financing options are available to farmers.

    [1] Chai, Qiang et al. “Regulated Deficit Irrigation for Crop Production under Drought Stress. A Review.” SpringerLink. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, Mar. 2016. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.

    [2] Romero, Pascual et al. “Cost–benefit Analysis of a Regulated Deficit-irrigated Almond Orchard under Subsurface Drip Irrigation Conditions in Southeastern Spain.” Irrigation Science. Irrigation Science, 2005. Web. 6 Dec. 2016.

  2. Sonja’s post was very well written and thought-provoking. In her post, Sonja mentioned that one of the main reasons for diverting water to almond crops even though California was facing a severe water shortage and almonds are a water-intensive crop was because “it is critical to the California economy….valued at $4.5 billion” Recently though, almond prices have dropped steeply due to the surge in supply, from $4.00 per pound in 2014/15 to $2.84 per pound in 2016/17 [1]. Even with the sharp drop in prices, almonds will still be one of the largest components of California’s economy. For me, however, this does bring up an interesting question on how water distribution should be determined. During California’s water shortage, many farmers were blamed for shifting so much of California’s acreage to a thirsty permanent crop, and diverting water from other crops to produce almonds [2]. In addition to developing new technologies to reduce water usage for almonds, I wonder if it is Blue Diamond’s responsibility to weigh the social impact on California against its desire to grow.

    [1] Agnes Perez and Gustavo Ferreira, “Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook,” United States Department of Agriculture, September 30, 2016.

    [2] Dale Kasler, Phillip Reese and Ryan Sabalow, “California almonds, partly blamed for water shortage, now dropping in price,” The Sacramento Bee, January 30, 2016, http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article57432423.html, accessed November 6, 2016.

  3. Great post Sonja, the use of technology to monitor and mitigate the high water usage in the Almond crop industry is promising! It is sad that these types of solutions tend to come up only when the problem becomes critical. In a way this is a reflection of the climate change problem as a whole. I fear that until we begin to feel the effects of climate change on a broad and real scale, we won’t put forth the efforts needed to fix the problem.

    Another interesting effect of the California drought is the domino effect that it can have worldwide which can make the climate change problem even worse! This article talk about how the stresses on California Avocado growers have led Mexican Avocado growers to deforest more land in attempts to capitalize on the higher avocado prices in the US:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/10/avocado-shortage-price-hike/504383/

    1. Wow! Cool article Javier – it’s amazing just how many widely varied impacts climate change causes. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Great post Sonja and one a bit close to my heart having lived in drought-stricken California for the last 4 years, and being an almond-lover! In fact I believe the 10% of California water use quoted in your post (and often quoted by most people) is a bit of a misrepresentation because it is actually 10% of California’s agricultural water, not total water. [1]

    That being said, and as much as it pains me to say because I do love almonds and almond milk, I agree with @yz2236 in that we have to question whether almond growers should be weighing the environmental impact of almond production with the benefit to the economy. Is this a crop we humans truly need to survive? I believe the answer is “no.” Almonds seem to me a bit of a luxury crop – it is not essential for us humans to live healthy long lives. Perhaps we should put a pause on growing almonds throughout the entire state. I understand almond growers would lose their livelihood but perhaps the state should be paying them some kind of pension to not grow almonds? Water shortage is a very serious issue and I do worry that if we continue to arguably waste water on a luxury crop, we will be hurting ourselves more in the future.

    Finally, I agree with Javier that stopping the irrigation leaks and only reducing water needed by 33% is too late. Only once a drought was realized did farmers invest in ways to fix leaks and reuse water!? That just seems wrong!

    [1] “Get The Facts About Almonds” [http://www.almonds.com/get-facts-about-almonds-and-water?mobile=1], accessed November 2016

  5. Sonja – thanks for the post. I’d be interested in learning more about these ways in which farmers are applying new technologies to reduce water consumption. How many can be applied to agriculture across the board? I wonder how much best practice sharing and collaboration takes place from crop to crop.

  6. Great post Sonja! The topic of California drought is close to my heart as I experienced it first hand while living in Orange County. I did not know Blue Diamond is pioneering such product, and although I agree with some of the risks Ryan mentioned, I am very optimistic. As you mentioned, this is not only a California specific issue but a global one. It is indeed said that we, as a society, needed a drought to innovate but it is an amazing progression nonetheless. Necessity is the mother of invention after all. My question now is whether such innovations would suffice to reduce the amount of water used significantly and if this is enough. For instance, one issue with California is that currently it is using 60% of water from ground water reserves versus 40% a few years ago. However, as of now there is no state-wide policy limiting the use of ground water.

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140819-groundwater-california-drought-aquifers-hidden-crisis/)

    If almonds will continue to be produced at a current rate with no laws around water sources and no success from initiatives such as the one described, almonds will continue to be a drag on water supplies in the state.

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