Growing Californian Almonds Responsibly
with Alejandra Sanchez, Sustainability Lead, Ag Operations, US
Optimising water use is one of the greatest contributions that Olam can make to global food security, and forms one of the key pillars in our Sustainability vision. This requires thinking out of the box and customising solutions to the land’s limitations and strengths.
In California, our almonds team is working with various external experts, in areas spanning water management, soil health, biodiversity, bee health and exploring innovative ways to grow our business responsibly.
Our strategy has brought together a team of consultants who specialise in each of these different variables to work closely with our orchard management team. Together these teams have formulated an action plan called “More Crop Per Drop”. The strategy focuses on optimising crop inputs by improving soil health and ensuring irrigation systems are working more efficiently.
To improve soil health we’re increasing soluble calcium which improves soil porosity, allowing water to infiltrate through the root zone which will improve nutrient uptake efficiency. At the same time, we’re working to increase the activity, diversity, and populations of soil microbes by increasing soluble carbon levels. Soil microbes release nutrients in the soil for plant growth and health.
For better management of orchard water stress we continually take aerial imagery surveys (via plane) to measure water stress and biomass density of the orchard. The images we capture help pinpoint any tree stress so we can audit and fix the irrigation design and practices for those specific fields. We’ve also enhanced efforts to better regulate the pH of soil moisture at 6.0-6.5 which is the optimal level for the tree’s nutrient uptake.
In addition to Olam’s commitment to the ABC’s recommendations on demand-irrigation and micro-irrigation, our extended farm management team has adopted or pioneered other progressive practices.
Ultimately, our goal is to achieve the “four rights”: the right nutrients, at the right time, in the right place, in the right amount. Central to getting the “four rights” right is consistent sampling, which allows us to determine necessary soil or water changes quickly and to stay ahead of any potential issues. We also actively take leaf tissue samples to check that the measures we take are working and that the plants are responding healthily.
We have learned from research and in-field experiences about the almond’s natural biological features to keep the trees as healthy and stress-free as possible. Reducing tree stress makes them less susceptible to diseases and pests. This results in a healthier orchard and fewer pests, and makes us good neighbours as we minimise and control any spread of these to surrounding areas.
Our own expertise is complemented by a diverse team of external experts with whom we enjoy strong relationships. With their inputs and our own innovations, Olam’s almonds team will continue to develop innovative yet practical opportunities to build a lasting and scalable business in California.
It is also meaningful to take a broader view of water used for almond cultivation in comparison to other common protein staples in the context of changing lifestyle impacts and health concerns.
We know for a fact that one ounce of beef requires about 105 gallons of water to produce, and lentils consume about 70 gallons of water per ounce of production, whereas almonds take a much lower 22 gallons of water to generate each ounce of output.
While this comparison supports the relative sustainability of almond production, the more important focus is on the need for diversification both in agriculture and consumption. There is demand for diversification generated by global health trends. For example, not everyone can consume dairy milk and almonds are now providing a new source of protein and energy through almond milk. Not everyone wants meat for their protein intake so some look to almonds and other nuts as alternatives.