Data Validates California Almond Growers' Sustainable Practices

Increased participation in the California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP) is yielding statistically significant data that shows the almond industry is practicing sustainability in a range of production practices. The program is based on growers completing self-assessment modules to report which practices they employ in their operation or specific orchard. The five modules are: Pest Management, Irrigation Management, Nutrient Management, Energy Efficiency and Air Quality.

This year, Almond Board of California (ABC) worked with allied partners, including handlers and nurseries, to host sustainability workshops, resulting in participation levels that exceeded goals. Nearly 900 California Almond growers, farm managers and PCAs have participated in a CASP workshop, resulting in more than 500 orchards assessed using one or more modules, and a total of nearly 1,500 individual modules completed.

Growers this year are also able to complete modules online. Those online modules contain an easy-to-use, autofill feature to assess multiple orchards/locations, and offer participants continuing education credits for PCAs and certified applicators. A new round of workshops will start up throughout the state in January.

Program Gaining Traction
“This level of participation shows that CASP is clearly gaining traction within the almond-growing community,” said Joe Browde with SureHarvest, a consulting firm working with the almond industry to develop and implement the sustainability program.

“In many instances, we now have enough data points to say within a 95% range of confidence that the numbers represent the industry as a whole,” he added.

Confidential information gathered from self-assessments is being compiled to inform growers, researchers, regulators and buyers of almonds about the efforts almond growers make to be good stewards. It provides specifics to help tell the story that California Almond producers incorporate pragmatic and economically viable practices that also protect the environment and the community.

The California Almond Sustainability Program is centered on a cycle of continuous improvement, allowing growers to assess their practices, compare their results with averages of other growers, develop and implement new management practices, and reassess periodically through continued participation in the self-assessment program.

A look at data collected so far reveals that almond growers are employing a number of sustainable practices related to water, nutrient and pest management; reducing emissions from equipment, pesticides and dust; and using energy efficiently. The information also helps the Almond Board identify areas where growers can incorporate new strategies and technologies to make farm operations even more efficient. ABC will work with partners, such as UC Cooperative Extension and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, to target research and communications in areas that increase efficiency and save growers money.

Efficient Irrigation
In the area of irrigation, for instance, growers participating in CASP by and large have integrated highly efficient irrigation systems into their farming operations. About two-thirds of orchards are irrigated with micro-irrigation, such as micro-sprinkler or drip systems. For a majority of orchards with irrigation pumps, timely pump efficiency tests are conducted, flow meters and pressure gauges are installed, and frequent checks of filter status and flushing systems are done. A majority of orchards with micro-irrigation also incorporate pressure-compensating emitters, and lines and emitters are frequently checked for leaks and clogs. However, 57% of all orchards have not had an irrigation distribution uniformity test in the past year, presenting an opportunity for growers and farm managers to easily and affordably improve the efficiency of systems already in place.

Specifically, growers for 58% of orchards with irrigation pumps had a pump efficiency test performed in the last three years, 70% use flow meters, and 93% have pressure gauges to check for pressure drops through filters. Data shows, though, that many growers are unaware that they can more fully utilize the efficiency of those innovations by inspecting and calibrating flow meters regularly or checking pressure gauges for accuracy.

Likewise, while nearly all growers who used irrigation pumps regularly checked filter status and flushing systems, many are not aware that they should have a backup screen in place in case of filter failure, and that they could save on irrigation costs by capturing flush water for reuse.

Making Improvements
The program’s cycle of continuous improvement is also designed to help growers think about areas where they might improve. For instance, growers for 70% of orchards where salinity issues are detected through soil and water testing do not use a salinity leaching fraction to support irrigation decisions, largely because they are not familiar with the practice, reflecting a need to further educate growers on this practice.

A further look at the data from other modules reveals similar areas of success and potential improvement.

In the area of plant nutrition, 88% of operations use leaf samples for nutrient testing to inform fertility management decisions, and 81% calculate fertilizer rates based on yield estimates, replacing nutrients removed with harvest. Nearly 60% of operations using well water for irrigation have tested it for nitrogen levels, and a slight majority of those operations account for nitrogen in their irrigation water when developing their nutrient budgets.

Tracking Electricity
Energy efficiency module data shows that 40% of all operations track their electricity use, with about three-quarters of those tracking electricity use by specific orchard or facility. About one-third of operations have undergone an energy audit by an efficiency expert, and of those, about two-thirds have implemented more than half the tactics suggested in the resulting energy management plan.

The Almond Board’s Gabriele Ludwig said that an overall look at the data helps tell an excellent story about the sustainability of almond growing in California.

And she added that areas for potential improvement are also encouraging as they provide opportunities for almond growers to further enhance the sustainability of their operations by improving efficiencies through existing technology and techniques.

“These are the areas where ABC can work with Cooperative Extension and other research and education partners to better convey the benefits and increase adoption rates of existing methods like real-time evapotranspiration rates, neutron probes and tensiometers to support irrigation timing decisions and fine-tune nutrient management,” Ludwig said.