More than 30 regulators, members of the media and local dignitaries gathered in February for the Almond Board of California's fourth annual Environmental Stewardship Tour in Hickman, Calif., to hear first-hand how the industry is tackling environmental issues.

State and federal regulators praised the work of almond growers and handlers — including tour host Braden Farms — who are finding solutions to environmental challenges, including endangered species, air and water quality and reduced-risk pest management.

Pamela Creedon, executive officer with the Central Valley Water Board's Irrigated Lands Program, said the Environmental Stewardship Tour helps illustrate not only the impacts of various regulations on industry, but opportunities for partnerships in meeting the Board's water quality mandates.

"It's encouraging to see some of the things we've seen out in the field today," Creedon told tour attendees.

The tour highlighted new technologies and methods designed to reduce the impact of almond production on the environment. Braden Farms' new hulling and shelling plant in Hickman, Calif., for instance, produces nearly zero dust emissions thanks to state-of-the-art technology, said Braden Farms CEO Dick Braden.

That environmental minded approach extends to the company's growing operations as well. Braden Farms has added 1,000 acres of new almonds annually to its 13,000-acre orchard, and each new block is planted with an eye on reducing environmental impacts.

Land is laser leveled and designed with collection ponds and cover crops to reduce fertilizer and soil runoff into nearby waterways.

Micro-irrigation systems help Braden reduce water use and runoff and apply fertilizers more efficiently. And pests are managed through careful monitoring and timely sprays of softer insecticides.

Jim Wagner, pest control advisor and partner at Braden Farms, says winter orchard sanitation has helped reduce or eliminate dormant and in-season navel orangeworm sprays while maintaining very low insect damage rejection levels at the processor. Weather stations in each block also help Braden Farms time fungicide applications so they are sprayed only when necessary and for maximum benefit.

The Environmental Tour also spotlighted new harvesting technologies that are drastically cutting air quality emissions at harvest. Regulators viewed new sweepers and pick up machines that reduce dust and also save fuel and reduce emissions by eliminating passes and truck traffic during the three-step harvesting process.

Gabriele Ludwig, the Almond Board's senior manager for technical and regulatory affairs, said many of these strategies and technologies have been developed through years of research sponsored by the Almond Board of California.

The Board's Environmental Committee this year is funding $400,000 in research to address environmental issues, including the study of harvest dust generation, greenhouse gas emissions, water quality mitigation measures and site-specific soil fumigation.

"The Almond Board's Environmental Committee focuses on research projects that help almond growers do things differently or give regulators data about almond production that they can use," Ludwig said.

Committee Chairman Dave Baker said the industry will continue to seek proactive solutions to environmental challenges in almond production.

"Through research and outreach supported by the Almond Board's Environmental Committee, almond growers have been able to reduce their PM 10 emission at harvest by 50 percent in recent years," he said. "We continue to reduce runoff from farms, are on track to reduce VOCs from pesticides in the field and we now chip 80 percent to 85 percent of our brush compared to burning all of it just a few years ago.

"We enjoy the opportunity to share these successes with regulators first-hand and will continue to work on projects that move the industry toward sustainability very quickly in the future," Baker said.

Kathy Taylor, director for agriculture programs with the U.S. EPA Region 9 in San Francisco, said it was good to see first-hand industry efforts to move toward sustainable almond production.

"[The almond industry] has been doing great work for many years and we have worked with you for many years," Taylor said. "We were talking with the Almond Board about sustainability when other commodity groups wouldn't even let us say the word. And as the industry now works to put real meat around the bones of the word sustainability, we will be able to really move the partnership forward."