Almonds have become a way of life in one of America’s favorite pastimes — eating. They seem to be everywhere: snack packs, bulk bags, protein bars, shakes and cakes, cartons of milk, and now even skin care products and weight loss remedies. But few realize almonds aren’t grown everywhere. California’s 7,600 multigenerational almond growers produce 99% of the country’s and 80% of the world’s almonds thanks to California’s unique Mediterranean climate and water infrastructure.
According to a 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service estimate, California almonds thrive on nearly one-fifth of California’s largest-in-the-nation irrigated acres — 8.4 million acres total — exceeding 1.6 million total planted acres in the state. In addition to total irrigated acres, California almond orchards use anywhere from 42 to 52 acre inches of water per year.
The California almond industry recognizes the importance of irrigation efficiency to not only keep growing this nut but also to continue improving growing practices by managing water resources as responsibly as possible, a focus that’s especially relevant given growing pressure on water resources from urban, agricultural and environmental interests worldwide, particularly in California.
The Almond Board of California, which represents these 7,600 almond growers, has been researching irrigation and water management practices since the 1970s. Insights from that research led the industry to reduce the water required to grow a pound of almonds by 33% over the past two decades thanks to ABC-supported practices and the adoption of efficient microirrigation technology.
Today, building off past endeavors, the California almond industry is continuing its efforts to grow almonds in better, safer and healthier ways, protecting local communities and the environment as well as producing a high-quality product. In 2019, the industry announced its Almond Orchard 2025 Goals, which include a commitment to reduce the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by an additional 20%. To further support growers and the broader industry in achieving more crop per drop, ABC is committed to support continued research, incentive funding and overall advancement of stewardship principles to address two major issues: management behavior and irrigation system equipment.
Regarding management behavior, ABC has entered partnerships with California Resource Conservation Districts (RCD), which help farmers schedule irrigations based on the three fundamentals of efficient irrigation: determining crop water use, irrigation system application rate and irrigation system distribution uniformity.
Last year, the Almond Board supported Tehama County RCD in northern California to determine where irrigation help was needed most by performing in-orchard distribution uniformity tests and audits and by educating growers on management basics. The ABC-RCD connection began when RCD Mobile Irrigation Lab Manager Kevin Greer, CLIA, hatched a plan with ABC’s Field Outreach and Education Manager Tom Devol to target audits in almond orchards across five counties. Greer, who cut his teeth in landscape irrigation, is an Irrigation Association-certified landscape irrigation auditor who began managing Tehama’s agricultural mobile irrigation lab in 2009.
“The impact I had was immediate because I now dealt with huge, 2,000-gpm-plus pumping stations and thousands of acres of farmland,” Greer says.
While RCDs are typically overcommitted and underfunded, ABC financially supported the Tehama County RCD to perform audits on 30 almond irrigation systems. The results were telling.
“We found leaks from animals biting through the hoses, spaghetti lines broken, missing micro-sprinklers, leaks at the filter station and plugged lateral line inlet filter screens,” Greer shares.
Leaks obviously waste water but not so obviously lead to longer run times and overirrigation to compensate for the underpressurized portions of the field. For example, one 18-acre system was wasting 24,000 gallons of water a week due to leaks alone. In addition, smaller growers with resource constraints weren’t educated on the basic concepts of irrigation scheduling, again resulting in overirrigation.
“These systems needed better management,” Greer says.
To make matters worse, with inefficiencies, water alone isn’t wasted. “Yields suffer, too, as a result of overirrigation, and fertilizer is unnecessarily applied where it isn’t needed or welcome,” Greer adds.
The irrigation audit begins with an irrigation system analysis, but it quickly becomes a potential revenue analysis because irrigation management is directly related to yield and quality (revenue), cost (of water, fertilizer, energy, etc.) and risk (ground and surface water quality regulations and sustainability).
“From our report, we learned that not all our sprinklers were efficient, which was a shock to me,” says Chad Johnson, a Capay, California, grower in Glenn County who had two orchards evaluated by the Tehama County RCD mobile irrigation lab. “We had some leak issues and discovered that our gallons per minute in the main line were down due to some filters. We also found that we were underirrigating in some spots and irrigating too much in other spots.”
Regarding irrigation system equipment, ABC supports research conducted at the University of California, Merced, whose engineering department redesigned the riser T, a common almond irrigation system component.
“Riser T’s always leak and needed innovation. The university came up with a great solution which must now be commercialized,” Devol says. “Without ABC’s involvement, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Another milestone was ABC’s investment in formal almond irrigation education. It began years ago with the development of the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum, a 149-page information-packed resource guide for farmers in scheduling and managing almond irrigation. Three levels of expertise are outlined — fundamental, intermediate and advanced — for evaluating irrigation system performance, determining orchard water requirements, monitoring the plant water and soil moisture status, and finally, scheduling irrigations. The Continuum also features an irrigation calculator, which is available to growers who participate in ABC’s California Almond Sustainability Program. More information about this program is available at www. sustainablealmondgrowing.org.
“The Continuum is a work in progress,” Devol says. “The information is available to farmers and irrigation managers via field days, webinars, seminars and self-study, but it is challenging considering the target audience’s time constraints. Farmers are very busy people.”
Despite this, ABC is working with one farmer at a time, one meeting at a time, one field audit at a time, so that we may enjoy almonds, one nut at a time.
How does the Almond Board of California help growers get more crop per drop? It starts with education on the three pillars of water use efficiency, which are highlighted in ABC’s Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum:
Together these three pillars are used to schedule irrigations, i.e., decide which days to run the system and for how long.
In theory, the run time should closely match the crop evapotranspiration, resulting in little waste. However, if the system is in disrepair and has a low distribution uniformity, even the best irrigation schedule will waste water. Likewise, if the system is in good operating condition but scheduled poorly, water will be wasted.
Both hardware (the irrigation system) and management behavior (deciding when and how long to schedule irrigations) are critical to the process.
Download steps growers can take to move from level 1 to level 3 along the Pathway to Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum.