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A Third-Generation Almond Farmer Talks Sustainability & Water Conservation

Photo: Courtesy of Justine Pitts

Why is water sustainability such a high priority when it comes to growing almonds?

Over 90 percent of California almond farms are family farms, many owned and operated by multigenerational farmers like myself who live on their land and plan to pass it down to their children. We take a long-term view of success based on respect for the land and our local communities. The most important responsibilities of a farmer are to be good stewards of the land and to protect our natural resources.

What is a water tip consumers can take away from your business practices?

Strive to make every drop count. We’ve installed efficient microirrigation systems in our orchards to do just that. Similar technology exists for landscaping and backyard gardens, ensuring water is delivered exactly where plants need it, rather than being wasted.

Consider soil texture before watering. Different types of soil can hold different amounts of water. If moist soil can form a firm ball in your hand when squeezed, this finer soil will hold more water than a coarser soil like sand, meaning it doesn’t need to be irrigated as often.

Another tip is to try eliminating food waste at home or compost that which isn’t eaten, recognizing the water that goes into growing that food. Almonds grow on a tree, inside a shell, protected by a fuzzy outer hull, and we make sure everything our orchards grow is put to good use. In addition to the almonds we eat, the trees store carbon and are transformed into electricity at the end of their lives, the shells become livestock bedding and the hulls are nutritious dairy feed. Nothing goes to waste.

What are some new innovations in farming that allow for greater water efficiency?

To ensure our trees get water only when they need it, 87 percent of almond farms use demand-based irrigation scheduling instead of a predetermined schedule. But we’re not stopping there. Just like other sectors, technology has exploded within agriculture, allowing us to precisely measure what is needed to grow more crop per drop.

For example, soil moisture probes track irrigation water moving through the soil. Real-time data is transmitted to our mobile phones, allowing us to make immediate adjustments and send water only where the trees need it.

We can further fine-tune our irrigation scheduling by monitoring the amount of water stress the trees are feeling with pressure chamber technology. Similar to measuring blood pressure for humans, this device tells us how thirsty the trees are and allows us to stretch the amount of time between irrigating. 

How do you see farming changing with regard to sustainability within the next 10 years?

An exciting new area is looking at everything our orchards grows and investigating bold, innovative uses for its coproducts: the almond hulls, shells and trees themselves. With traditional markets for these materials changing, this will bring value to the almond community while contributing to zero waste and addressing needs across food, automotive and more.

Current research is exploring using almond coproducts as a growing medium for mushroom cultivation, producing feed sources for poultry, plastic additives for strength and color, soil amendments for almonds and other crops, supplemental winter food sources for honey bees and even for brewing beer.

Staff, [email protected]

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