While California has had its struggles with drought and wildfires in recent years, ABC president and CEO Richard Waycott told FoodNavigator-USA, the industry has also made significant strides on water efficiency such that it can now produce a pound of almonds with a third less water than it did 20 years ago.
“This year our estimate [for the 2017 crop] is about 2.25bn pounds and the outlook indicates that with proper moisture we should be able to grow at about 6% a year for the next five years… and that would put us to 3bn pounds in the crop year 2021, so we’re forecasting significant growth,” said Waycott.
So where is the growth coming from?
Some is coming from existing growers increasing both yields and acreage, said Waycott, who noted that prices had picked up again after the drop in 2016: “Every time we replant acres we also switch [to more efficient planting] so we’re up from say 83 trees per acre to up to 120 trees per acre and putting in all the modern irrigation and so on, plus there is also better crop management.”
Some growth is also coming from new players entering the industry, particularly dairy farmers “that might have traditionally planted x-hundred acres of corn or silage for their dairy herds, but are now sourcing that from out of state and diversifying into almonds,” added Waycott.
“We’re seeing continual substitution in irrigated land from annual to perennial crops and almonds are the favorite of the tree nuts.”
He added: “Overall I think California will be a smaller agricultural state than it has been and a smaller dairy state in future, but I’m very confident about the almond crop and all the outreach we’re doing in our industry. What’s incredible really is that three quarters of almond farms here are 100 acres or fewer, and most are family owned, and yet we’ve tripled our volume in the last 15 years or so.”
Almonds, the Dairy Pride Act, and plant-based industry infighting…
As anyone that has been following the ongoing debate over labeling conventions in the plant-based dairy category will be aware, almondmilk has repeatedly come under fire – both from the dairy lobby (which objects to the industry’s use of dairy-derived terms such as ‘milk’ and ‘cheese’) and some plant-based food and beverage brands (notably Ripple Foods, which branded almond milk a ‘sham’ and nutritionally inferior to pea milk).
While ABC has been following this debate, the fact that the FDA has not weighed in suggests that it does not think consumers are being misled by terms such as ‘almondmilk’ claimed Waycott.
“From the FDA’s perspective, this is about consumer understanding, and we’ve done extensive research showing that consumers are not confused by the term almondmilk.”
As for the argument that consumers of plant-based beverages erroneously believe that they are nutritionally equivalent or even superior to dairy milk, he said: “For most people [who are not vegan], it’s not one or the other [dairy or plant-based]. Our research suggests that most consumers that purchase non-dairy also have dairy products in their refrigerators too, and almondmilk is just another choice.”
He added: “Almond milk is not positioned as trying to complete with dairy milk or pea or soy milk on a protein basis, so no one is being misled. The ingredients and nutritional content are also very clearly stated. All products in this market have their pros and cons, and people purchase them for multiple reasons [taste, sustainability, animal welfare, etc] as well as nutrition.”
Growth opportunities in food and beverage
While there has been steady growth in the more traditional applications areas for almonds such as baked goods and snacks, there has also been strong growth in the burgeoning plant-based dairy category, with continued growth in almond milks but also in cultured almond products such as vegan cheeses, yogurts and other fermented dairy alternatives, he said.
“Almond flour has also gone from being a specialty niche product to something we’re finding in a lot of places, in part driven by the gluten-free trend, but also just because it makes a wonderful addition to baked goods and other products.
“Almond butter is also growing, and some of the mainstream companies are now developing products with almond butter inclusions.”
International growth opportunities: Germany, Mexico, Japan…
Overseas demand is also growing, with shipments up 22% year-on-year in November 2017, although year to date shipments were up about 5%, he said. “Almonds are now being included in people’s diets on a daily basis... we’ve been the #1 nut in new product introductions for the last several years.”
In 2018, the ABC is also planning strategic initiatives in several markets with particular growth potential, he said: “We’re starting full consumer and trade relations program in Mexico this year, we’re upping our [spend on our] program in Germany from around $400,000 to $4.5m to implement a comprehensive consumer awareness and promotion program, and we’re entering Italy for the first time with a consumer program. We’re also going back into Japan and working with the trade and consumers there.
“We’re also trying to figure out the best approach for Brazil as well…”
Established in 1950 and based in Modesto, California, the Almond Board of California is a non-profit organization that administers a grower-enacted federal marketing order under the supervision of the US Department of Agriculture.
Asked about the uncertainty over NAFTA and other trade deals, Waycott said: “We export 70% of our crop and we’ve always been very supportive of global free trade, so we’d obviously like to see trade channels remain open and we don’t want to see disadvantageous policies come into effect, either proactively by our country or reactively from third party countries.”
That said, [NAFTA members] Mexico and Canada only account for about 1% of shipments, he said.
Asked about pressure by advocacy groups in some markets to ban the use of the herbicide glyphosate – which is used on almond crops in small quantities – and what it would mean for the almond trade, he said: “Our position is that we are all for science-based risk-based assessments and of course we want to make the best choices, but what has happened is that public policy on certain chemicals has been more influenced by fears and public opinion than science and that’s not helpful.”
Sustainability and almond production
The ABC recently unveiled plans to allocate $4.8m to 64 independent research projects exploring next-generation farming practices, 14 of which ($1.2m) will focus on water sustainability, spanning irrigation efficiency, groundwater recharge, and water quality.
One such project, led by Brian Bailey at UC Davis, will assess water status in almond trees via thermographic imagery, and will explore the creation of a smartphone app and heat sensing platform to more precisely determine irrigation needs at any given time through leaf surface-and tree-temperature.
The ultimate goal is to create an accessible tool for almond farmers to determine real-time irrigation needs and increase efficiency, said Waycott, who said most farmers are now adopting demand-based irrigation systems that monitor weather, soil moisture and plant needs in real time to determine the most effective irrigation protocols.
“Precision irrigation is something we’ve been looking at a lot, it’s the Holy Grail, really, and ultimately, we may almost be able to get to the point of being able to analyze the needs of each tree in given area individually.”
Micro-irrigation is now standard practice in many almond orchards, whereby flexible plastic tubing at ground level allows farmers to aim water directly in trees’ root zones instead of across an entire field, reducing water lost to evaporation and obviating the need for large impact sprinklers or the flooding of graded fields.
Another area the ABC has been researching is groundwater recharge, whereby almond orchards might play a role as a sink for excess winter rains which could be used to flood orchards during winter dormancy and percolate down into aquifers, which under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act must be managed sustainably, such that groundwater drawn out is matched by what’s put back in.
Finally, a lot of work is also going into projects designed to maintain the bee population (bees pollinate almond crops), said Waycott.
“We’re part of the Honey Bee Health Coalition which is working on several strategies to achieve a healthy population of honey bees. We’re doing a combination of things, so for example, we’ve educated our growers to apply fungicide during bloom [in late feb/early March when almond trees produce blossom and prepare for pollination] at night after the bees have collected pollen and gone home, rather than during the day.”
“We’re also supported programs that fund traveling bee doctors who work with beekeepers to monitor hive health and advise on pest and disease treatment and the results show that beekeepers participating in the program lost, almost 40% fewer colonies than those who didn’t participate.”
Read more about the almond industry’s sustainability efforts HERE.