Christine Gemperle knew it was going to be a tough year for her almond crop.
The year started out dry, with very little new water coming into the reservoir for her orchard. Ceres, California, the location of one of the two orchards that she farms with her brother, saw less than 10 inches of rain all year through mid-October, according to the National Weather Service. Summer temperatures were scorching.
Gemperle knew they would need to be very careful with the water supply for their 135-acre orchards. After the last major drought from 2014 to 2016, they had adapted to the challenge of farming almonds with very little water. And she thought she could make it through the season using the water they had to get all of their trees to produce — including a 92-acre block with 24-year-old trees that were getting to the end of their peak production years.
She was wrong.
"We didn't even have enough water to do the whole 92 acres, so we let a third of it die," she said. "We only harvested two-thirds of it. Because the price of water was just astronomical. Because there just wasn't much of it extra to be sold on the market. And the price of almonds is lower, and so it just didn't pencil out. We did the math, and it gave us a pretty clear answer."
Gemperle said she had been planning to take out those trees at the end of this season anyway. As almond trees pass their peak, it makes better business sense to tear them out and replace them. She plans to replant and stay in the almond business, which she started in as a child growing up on an almond farm.
But with climate change and drought ravaging California, where 78% of the world's almonds are grown, farmers will continually have to adapt. And they have been, according to Almond Board of California President and CEO Richard Waycott. Since the 1990s, the drought and conscious conservation efforts led growers to reduce the amount of water used on almond crops by a third. The Almond Board, an industry-funded group created in 1950 by a federal marketing order, now has the goal of reducing that by an additional 20% by 2025.
Despite horror stories of global warming-intensified droughts in California's future — and statistics that indicate it takes an entire gallon of water to grow a single almond — farmers and scientists are still optimistic. Almonds continue to be popular among both consumers and manufacturers.
Acreage dedicated to almond farming continues to climb. The USDA said there were 1.6 million acres in California dedicated to the nut in 2020, a 5.3% increase over 2019. Of that total last year, 1.25 million acres were producing almonds. In preliminary estimates, USDA expects 1.33 million acres to be bearing this year.
Waycott said that there are about 7,600 almond growers in California — about 90% of which are small family businesses that farm for larger companies. Many of them came to almond farming because it was a valuable crop, and the state's Central Valley has a climate that is uniquely suited to growing it, he said. Those farmers will always consider whether growing almonds makes business sense, but Waycott said their interest is not waning.
Waycott acknowledges that the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which provide water to the Central Valley, is changing and temperatures are rising. That said, he still considers almonds "an ideal crop" for the region.
"What would have to change where that wouldn't be the case?" he asked. "I'm not sure climatically what that is, but I do think we all recognize we need to do things differently, adopt technology faster, and try and right size the ag industry in California to a more long-term profile that will accommodate environmental needs and accommodate urban consumption needs, as well as agriculture."
Why almond farming is big business for California
Despite the talk of climate change and drought, it's not like California's almond harvest has been in trouble. It's actually quite the opposite.
Last year's crop of 3 billion pounds of almonds was the largest on record, the Almond Board's Waycott said. The estimated crop size for 2021 is 2.8 billion pounds, which would be the second largest.
"There's plenty of nuts there," he said.
Because this year's harvest season has not yet ended, Waycott couldn't predict whether this year's crop would meet estimates. According to the Almond Board's monthly crop report, the supply of salable nuts through Sept. 30 was nearly 1.7 billion pounds.
Last year's harvest was so plentiful because of many things happening in perfect combination, Waycott said. The weather was perfectly timed and warm for peak bloom and pollination. Rainfall was plentiful enough to keep the trees growing well. And more acreage became dedicated to almonds than ever before.
With this year's drought, Waycott said that the efficient irrigation methods that almond farmers in the state use will keep most of the trees growing and producing. When there is less water and more extreme heat, nuts tend to be smaller and lighter. But, he said, the taste and the number of nuts should come in as expected. Because the almond crop is measured by total weight, it might be down some.
Mae Culumber, a nut crops farm advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension Fresno County, tracks how to improve the almond crop in the state. The early months of 2021 were setting up for another bumper crop, she said, with ideal weather conditions for the trees to bloom and for pollination.
Culumber said that she's spoken to many growers more recently who are seeing lower crop weights than anticipated. This could be a result of the drought, but it could also be hot temperatures earlier this year. But, she said, it's too early to tell how the whole year's almond crop will shake out.
"There are so many new orchards coming into production that it may still be a much higher crop than last year," she said.
Almond farming is relatively new to California, Waycott said. The climate and soil of the state have made it an agricultural hub for years, but the dominant crops have evolved along with the advent of irrigation techniques, shifting from wheat in the 19th century to intensive crops like fruit trees and grapes by 1929.
"We all recognize we need to do things differently, adopt technology faster, and try and right size the ag industry in California to a more long-term profile that will accommodate environmental needs and accommodate urban consumption needs, as well as agriculture."
President and CEO, Almond Board of California
Almonds have been planted in California since at least 1853, according to the University of California - Davis, but it took years of cross-pollinating and perfecting irrigation techniques to make it a major crop. In 1964, the state had 100,000 acres of bearing almond trees. By 1985, that had quadrupled to more than 400,000 acres.
There are only three areas in the world where almonds are grown commercially — California, Australia and Spain — Waycott said. California's digging into almond agriculture helped get the nut to the point where it is today: a popular snack and ingredient that is ubiquitous in stores and foodservice nationwide.
The supply of almonds helped make them popular, but that wasn't the only thing that helped them sell, Waycott said.
Waycott said the Almond Board also worked to understand and share the nut's nutritional value with health professionals and consumers "to help them understand what benefits almonds, and the composition of almonds, offer for the human diet."
Misleading statistics and growing more with less water
Despite almonds' positive nutritional story, they also have faced some negative press. During the last big drought in California, one soundbite about almonds stuck: An almond by itself requires a full gallon of water to grow.
Waycott said there is truth to that statistic, but described it as a "very poorly ... calculated and communicated sound bite."
While an almond tree grows the nut that consumers eat — known in the industry as the kernel — each of these almonds has a tan dimpled shell. The kernel and shell grow inside a fuzzy pod called the hull. The kernel makes up 30% of the weight.
Waycott said that the one-gallon-of-water-per-almond statistic came from taking the amount of water that a tree as a whole needs to stay alive and dividing it by the amount of kernels it produces.
Almond trees' nonedible products, he said, are also reused in water-conserving ways. The hulls become feed for cattle, Waycott said, replacing other material that would need to be grown and watered. The shells are ground up and recycled as animal bedding. Parts of the tree that are trimmed, called woody biomass, are often chipped and reincorporated into the soil for enrichment and carbon sequestration purposes.
Almond trees also release much of the water they absorb back into the atmosphere through a process called transpiration, so it can form future precipitation, Waycott said.
Culumber with UC Cooperative Extension agrees that almonds have been getting an undeserved bad reputation for their water use, noting that all fruit and nut trees use a lot of water. Depending on its location, a mature almond orchard uses about four acre feet of water, or about four feet of water on land the size of a football field, she said. This is similar to pistachios and cashews, and only a couple inches per acre more than citrus.
But it is possible to grow well with less water, Culumber said. The industry, she said, has really put a lot of effort into using water resources more efficiently. Almost all almond farmers today use microirrigation, which is extremely targeted and strategic, delivering small amounts of water only to where and when it is needed.
Gemperle said that during the last drought, most of her almond trees were in their prime growing years, which meant letting them die because there was no water was not an option. Taking out an almond tree in its prime means missing out on the entire financial benefit of that investment, she said.
She got through it by buying more water — which was pricey — as well as trying new methods to conserve water.
Each year of the last drought, Gemperle's orchards used 20% less water. The first year, Gemperle said they just reduced the amount given to the trees. The second year was much more strategic.
She worked with researchers and learned about deficit irrigation, where water is only given to trees when it is absolutely needed. Under this plan, irrigation generally isn't done until April — trees can pull residual moisture from the soil until then — and really is most needed when the nuts are forming.
"I'm really thankful, actually, that we learned that lesson," Gemperle said. "...It enabled us to become very smart about how to use the water that we did have access to."
No sustainability questions
Many CPG companies have issued sustainability pledges, as consumer demand rises for products that have minimal impact on the environment.
Jaime Reeves, executive vice president for product development and commercialization at food innovation firm Mattson, said that these pledges make manufacturers in tune with the ingredients that work both in products and for the environment.
Maddison Gurrola, a food technologist at Mattson, said she has asked clients how they feel about almonds from a sustainability standpoint and has heard no concerns. While almonds' water usage might be frowned upon by some consumers, Gurrola said the crop has other positive sustainability factors. Almonds have a lower carbon footprint than other comparable ingredients. And excluding almonds because they have been said to need too much water doesn't take the whole of the crop, or the efficiency of the agricultural system that grows it, into consideration.
"It enabled us to become very smart about how to use the water that we did have access to."
Owner, Gemperle Orchards
Instead of focusing on the drought and almonds' water usage, the nut needs to be considered in the context of its entire environmental impact and the efficiency of the agricultural system that grows it, she said.
The Almond Board's Waycott said the CPG industry has a high bar for its suppliers to meet. They want to be satisfied that California's almond farmers use water responsibly, grow a sustainable crop and are careful with pesticide use.
"We deal with the top and most sophisticated consumer products companies in the world," he said. "Their sustainability officers and their corporate goals and so on are very much part of the conversation with us. I think if you look at decisions that have been made corporately with almonds across most of those companies, they've continued to support us and increase their consumption. So I think on that level, we're meeting expectations."
Companies that rely on almonds for their products are active in ensuring that the nuts are farmed sustainably. Danone, which uses almonds for several of its dairy-free product lines worldwide, has worked with the One Planet Action program, the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to develop science-based water targets for its Alpro brand. The European plant-based dairy brand, which sources its almonds in Spain, received actionable insights to ensure that the almonds it used were grown without waste of water. Almonds also play a starring role in many of the products from Mars' Kind brand, and as a part of its sustainability plan, the company is working to ensure that the nuts it uses are farmed with water conservation in mind.
The future is nuts
Culumber with UC Cooperative Extension said that climate change and drought will certainly alter agriculture in California. Projections show that the state may lose up to half of its agricultural land in coming decades if water continues to be scarce and temperatures keep climbing.
But that doesn't automatically translate to the end of plentiful almonds, she said. California's farmers will likely continue working to make their crops more efficient. Other areas of the United States might become hotspots for almonds too, including Southern Oregon and the Snake River Plain in Idaho, she said.
"There may be some decline in this area, but I think that there's going to be the drive to meet both domestic and global demand," Culumber said. "It's such an important part of our agricultural economy in the Western U.S. that the people that produce almonds will find ways to continue with production."
Almond farming is a long commitment, Waycott with the Almond Board said. The trees take time to grow and they produce for many years, so it's difficult for farmers to walk away from the crop.
But he still sees almonds in California in a hotter and drier future.
"If you look at decisions that have been made corporately with almonds across most of those companies, they've continued to support us and increase their consumption. So I think on that level, we're meeting expectations."
President and CEO, Almond Board of California
"If we are able to implement the right initiatives on the farm in terms of how we grow, and that the complex of growing almonds — in terms of the different products you produce and the markets they go into — are profitable enough for the industry, then we'll probably be able to continue," Waycott said. "Maybe not as rapid of growth as we had in the past, but be able to continue to growing."
Gemperle said she's going to replant those 92 acres where the aging trees died and will adapt to whatever comes next.
First, she will chip up the old trees to improve the soil and increase its water holding capacity. She's going to add what she called the "Cadillac of irrigation systems," which is super-targeted and super efficient. She will plant some cover crops to enrich the soil, and is looking forward to raising the next generation of trees.
"I'm really focusing on the sustainability of almond farming, and [number] one, it means sustaining myself as a farmer," she said.