GUEST COMMENTARY: Almond growers are committed to finding water solutions that work for people, farms, and fish

This guest commentary is written by Don Cameron of Terranova Ranch:

Back in late February and early March, California almond growers experienced what many are calling the perfect bloom. Perfect weather resulted in the abundant crop filling almond trees, uniquely suited to the state’s Mediterranean climate, up and down the Central Valley. This year’s record crop – estimated to hit 3 billion pounds – is proof that California is the best place in the world to grow almonds. Almonds account for more than 100,000 jobs in California and contribute $11 billion to the state’s GDP.

And yet, the announcement of the record crop drew an immediate attack from Marin County attorney David Zeff, a board member of the Golden State Salmon Association, who dredged up the old “fish versus farms” fallacy to attack almond growers in his July 15 guest commentary in Maven’s Notebook.

This argument has been around for more than 40 years, just with a different crop. When cotton was the most planted crop in California, we heard the same mantra. Unfortunately, Zeff’s overly simplistic “big is bad” argument overlooks years of work by almond growers to improve how we grow almonds and use water responsibly. We understand that with our size comes great responsibility and see our size as an opportunity to make a positive impact on California agriculture.

Yes, we have increased acreage as growers of other crops – like alfalfa for dairy feed – have converted to almonds to help meet growing global demand for nutritious, plant-based food. In fact, with an estimated total of 1.53 million acres in the ground, almonds are now the largest acreage crop in the state. But is this bad? Almond orchards bring many benefits to the state and our environment. Almonds grow on trees. Trees produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. All trees are essential to life!

Yes, almond trees use water to convert sunlight into protein. All plants require water to grow and crops that grow on trees all use around the same amount of water. We understand water is a precious resource in California and have been working on substantive conservation measures for the past twenty years, using micro- and drip irrigation to improve water use efficiency by 33%. But we are not stopping there. In 2019 the almond community set a goal to improve water use efficiency another 20% by 2025. In other words, we will have cut the amount of water needed to grow each nut in half within the lifetime of a single orchard (about 25-30 years).

The water used to grow almond trees also produces the shells which protects the nut and the hulls – or the fruit part of the tree – which surround the shell. For every pound of almonds, we grow more than two pounds of hulls and shells. These products have value economically and environmentally.  Almond hulls are often used in dairy feed, reducing the need to grow other crops. Almond shells can be incorporated into recycled plastics, increasing their strength and heat stability. And the trees themselves, at the end of their productive life, can be ground up and recycled. That process incorporates 60 tons per acre of wood chips back into the soil, increasing water holding capacity, improving soil health, and helping address climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide and keeping it out of the atmosphere – 2.4 tons for each acre the practice is used on.

Almond growers are committed to finding water solutions that work for people, farms, and fish. Through research funded by the Almond Board of California we are exploring ways to recharge groundwater aquifers, be good stewards of the water that we all collectively share as a state, and even helping the salmon industry understand how agricultural land, like rice fields, could play a role in supporting salmon health.

ABC has partnered with the California Rice Commission and others to fund research with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences comparing the survival of young salmon released directly from hatcheries into local rivers to those that spend time growing in flooded rice fields before entering a river. While in the flooded rice fields, salmon grow quickly in the calm, nutrient-dense waters, and researchers hypothesize the larger fish will have better chance of making it to the Pacific and returning later to spawn. Over the past two years, the Almond Board has invested more than $100,000 in this project and is one of several organizations providing matching funds to a USDA government grant to fund this work. While the research has no direct benefit to almond growers, it stands to benefit all Californians by supporting biodiversity and the health of our environment.

As one of 7,600 almond growers in the Central Valley, I am proud of the work we are doing to make life better for all Californians by growing almonds responsibly. We truly believe working together we can achieve a balance between people, farms, and fish. One thing is for certain, we will not get there by placing blame on each other without accepting responsibility for finding mutually beneficial solutions.

About the author: Don J. Cameron is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Biology.  He is married with two adult children.  Since 1987, Don has been the Vice President and General Manager of Terranova Ranch, Inc. located 25 miles southwest of Fresno, California.  Terranova farms approximately 6,500 acres, in addition to 1,500 acres custom farmed for other clients. The farm has a mix of conventional, organic and biotech field crops.  Over 25 different crops are grown on the farm. Don also owns and farms Prado Farms located in Fresno County.

Please note:  The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Maven’s Notebook.


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