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Almond Biochar, Curriculum, Free Fatty Acids, Oh My!

Each year, participants in the Almond Board of California (ABC) Almond Leadership Program complete a special project that challenges them to take a deep dive into a topic that interests them, to try a new technology or innovative practice.


Each year, participants in the Almond Board of California (ABC) Almond Leadership Program complete a special project that challenges them to take a deep dive into a topic that interests them, to try a new technology or innovative practice on their operation, or to explore a new or novel idea that advances the industry in some capacity.

ALP groupThis November, with the 2019 Leadership Program coming to a close, participants had the opportunity to present their year-long projects at the Almond Board office in Modesto. ABC Board of Directors, staff and program mentors filled the room to hear presentations focused on topics ranging from “The Road to Better Understanding Aflatoxin” to “Biowaste and Bioplastics: A Future with Endless Possibilities” to “Atmospheric Water Generation and Irrigation.” 

“After listening to 15 different projects on subjects spanning the entire industry your head is spinning – but in a good way!” said Ladd Hackler, a long-time mentor for the Leadership program. “The participants bring forward so much new and exciting information on research findings, the potential for technological advancements in certain areas and educational materials for Central Valley youth and beyond, and you just can’t help but to walk away feeling inspired by these future leaders of the California almond industry.”

In her project, “Developing a Curriculum for Almond Education in California,” participant April Nuckles combined pre-existing educational materials from ABC and other sources with a hands-on, STEM-based learning methodology in an effort to create almond-centric curriculum for students in California’s almond growing region. This curriculum, optimum for students grades three through five, aligns with both the normative school year – August to June – as well as the almond lifecycle. For instance, at the start of the school year students will learn about almond harvest, in December they will learn about dormancy and in May they will learn about almond growth and even insect management. 

“I want this curriculum to go beyond teaching students science. I want students to learn how decisions are made in the orchard and what factors influence growers’ actions,” said Nuckles, a former elementary school teacher. “For instance, responsible Integrated Pest Management for Navel Orangeworm may not always necessitate an application, as other viable tools – such as mating disruption – are available. That’s the kind of learning I want students to be exposed to.”

Later in the day, Connor Wagner spoke on the future of “Almond Biochar in Rubber Products;” more specifically, on the potential to replace black carbon with torrefied almond shells (TAS) in products such as shaker head pads and water manifolds. Wagner was first inspired to pursue this project after the Almond Leadership Program’s visit to UC Davis, where the group learned about ongoing research to determine what products TAS may be used in with the purpose of not only improving those products but also finding a value-added use for almond shells. Wagner worked with USDA Agricultural Research Service, West Biofuels, Holz Rubber and other companies to conduct research and trials that involved mixing increasing amounts of TAS with other recycled materials to determine how much TAS could be included in different rubber products. 

“I’ve always had a knack for science and its applications, so I saw this project as a huge opportunity to use my skills to determine one way to make the almond industry even more eco-friendly,” Wagner said. 

Wagner has decided to continue pursuing the outcome of his findings, even after his year in the program concludes. He recently determined that a compound with 10% TAS could be molded into water manifolds and shaker head pads. In the case of head pads, he determined that 12.4 of 90 lbs between the two pads could come from TAS. He is now working with Holz Rubber to create the manifolds and head pads. 

Towards the end of the day’s presentations, participant Gaby Chavarria shared her findings from a shelf life study on pH variation. In her study, Chavarria aimed to understand pH behavior in different almond configurations, seeking to learn if pH in unpasteurized natural almonds, blanched almonds and blanched roasted almonds could change based on Peroxide Value (PV), Free Fatty Acids (FFA), temperature or time. At the conclusion of her study Chavarria found that she had even more questions than when she started, which is why she aims to continue studying this subject beyond her participation in the Leadership program. 

“The special project presentations are one of my favorite days out of the entire year for the Almond Leadership Program! I love the energy, the passion and the months of hard work that come to fruition. This year’s projects were strongly aligned with the current challenges and future needs of our industry. What impressed me the most, out of any past year of projects, was how many participants are choosing to continue their research and outreach. I have no doubt that the participants in this class will go on to do great things for our industry,” said Senior Manager of Industry Relations and Communications at ABC Jenny Nicolau, who oversees the Leadership program.

Poster summarizing each participants’ special project will be on display at The Almond Conference 2019 in Building D at Cal Expo. Those interested to learn more about the Almond Leadership Program are encouraged to stop by the Almond Lounge, also in Building D, to speak with participants from the 2019 program. More information, including program requirements and the application for the 2020 program, is available online at

*The Almond Board of California does not fund or endorse any Almond Leadership Program participant projects. These projects are aimed at expanding participants’ knowledge with the betterment of the industry in mind; the projects and the findings are not vetted by the Almond Board.