The juggernaut that is California almond production could not be stopped in 2020. While final figures are still being compiled, the harvest is estimated at 3 billion pounds—the product of a nearly 7% increase in bearing acres and consistently high yields statewide.
Of course, the continued growth of the industry presents its own challenges, from finding new markets to responding to environmental pressures. We asked Tom Devol, senior manager of field outreach and education at the Almond Board of California, for his observations on the year behind us—and where he'll be focusing in the year ahead.
Another massive crop drives market expansion
Earlier in the year there was some speculation that the size of the 2020 crop might be impacted by labor disruptions related to COVID-19—or, later, by historic wildfires burning all across the state. Though some growers reported needing more time to dry out the crop due to humid, smoky conditions during harvest, neither the fires nor COVID seems to have put much of a dent in the numbers.
To support growers in these market conditions, the Almond Board has worked diligently to shore up domestic demand and build California nuts' appeal in the global market. Despite a challenging business climate—including significant uncertainty over trade policy—exports were up 5%, with India remaining the top foreign buyer.
Pandemic woes force creativity
Though the size of the harvest appears largely unaffected, that's not to say that COVID-19 didn't place new burdens on California almond growers—including some almost impossible to anticipate. (One example: consumers' sudden demand for PPE impacted growers' ability to obtain required safety gear for chemical applicators.)
As essential employees, orchard workers weren't prevented by stay-at-home orders from showing up to work—but managers still needed to keep them safe. Some got creative in scheduling shifts and distributing employees to maintain social distance.
Water remains the resource on everyone's mind
Amidst the all the surprising new hurdles of 2020, one almond industry focus was not new: water. Having set a goal of an additional 20% reduction in water to produce a pound of almonds by 2025, the Almond Board continued to work with growers, researchers, and other industry players to improve water management.
While point-source tools like soil moisture probes, pressure chamber testing, and dendrometers remained in common use this year, industry leaders increasingly looked to tools and techniques that can provide a more complete picture of orchard water needs—without sacrificing precision. As part of the effort, the Almond Board worked with Ceres Imaging to explore the role of aerial data and analytics for irrigation management.
“If they aren’t using Ceres Imaging, some growers still kick the dirt, or start irrigating when their neighbor starts," Devol says. "These practices have to change to meet the demands of the crop in a more efficient manner.”
While use of new irrigation management tools is on the rise, especially among growers developing new orchards with brand new irrigation systems, Devol says there's much work to be done in removing hurdles to more widespread adoption. Apart from cost, there's a learning curve to using new technology—one that becomes even more onerous when growers are juggling information from multiple sources.
“In the future, we need to be able to link the data together so the grower can look at one app and make insightful decisions,” Devol says. “Growers need to know when to run water, and how long, it’s that simple.”