Today the concept of “sustainability” is being used to evaluate everything from restaurant menus to public policies to how companies demonstrate their performance to stockholders. Increasingly, the California Almond community is being asked questions about its sustainability. A close look at the content of the 2009 Almond Industry Conference in December makes it clear that ABC-supported research programs, as determined by the Production Research and the Environmental committees, are focused on the core components of what sustainability is all about.

All definitions of sustainability require that any activity meet the following three criteria:

• It must be economically sustainable in that there must be a financial reward for the activity;

• It must be environmentally sustainable, that is, it must ensure the long-term health of the environment; and

• It must provide social equity by taking care of the people affected by the activity or using the product.

• Sustainability definition

The almond industry’s definition of sustainability expresses these three attributes: “Sustainable almond farming utilizes production practices that are economically viable and are based upon scientific research, common sense and a respect for the environment, neighbors and employees. The result is a plentiful, healthy and safe food product.”

Dissecting a range of the conference production research topics in terms of the three criteria of sustainability, it is evident that research funded by almond growers has been focused on sustainability, even if we didn’t call it that.

The Almond Irrigation World Roundup session, for instance, touched on the seminal issue of sustainability for almond growers — how to sustain crops in the face of increasingly limited water supplies. Years of research funded by ABC has led to the widespread use of micro/drip irrigation systems, and current research is focused on better tools to assess the timing of irrigation applications to meet almond tree needs.

Both past and current research will help ensure economic viability for almond growers while reducing water use, which contributes to access for all Californians to a limited water supply.

While the session on Variety Development would seem to be focused on how to improve grower returns through improved quality and yields, the evaluation of disease and pest resistance has always been part of the variety research. As a result, growers can choose more resistant varieties where a particular disease or pest is more of an issue, reducing the need for pesticide applications. Current plans for the next round of variety development trials are also focused on flavor and other qualities consumers care about.

Recent research on fertility in almonds was presented as part of the Tree Nutrition session. In this research, it was shown that some almond growers can reach 70 percent or more nitrogen use efficiency — the percentage of the nitrogen applied as fertilizer that is taken up by the tree. This level of efficiency demonstrates that carefully timed applications can prevent nitrogen fertilizer from contributing to water quality and air quality issues. Given the air quality and ground water quality issues in the San Joaquin Valley, anything that reduces PM2.5 formation or the potential for leaching is beneficial to the communities where almonds are grown.

• Sustainability initiative

Building on the existing research programs and the tools they provide almond growers, the Almond Board recently launched an industrywide sustainability initiative. The initiative is a self-assessment program designed to inventory actual practices in the orchard. The program’s first module – focused on irrigation and fertilizer management practices – is likely to provide a prototype for additional self-assessment modules.

Cliff Ohmart, vice president of professional services for SureHarvest, presented the program during a panel discussion on sustainability at the Almond Industry Conference in December. He said an industry-wide self-assessment program provides a tool for measuring sustainable almond growing practices while sending a message to consumers and regulators that California Almond growers are proactive on sustainability, with the data to back it up.

Growers who participated in the recent pilot self-assessment questionnaire also shared their thoughts. They reported that they were initially quite skeptical about coming to the workshop, but going through the process of answering questions about their fertilizer and water management practices convinced them that this was an opportunity to tell customers that the industry is proactive about sustainability.

It was clear that growers understand the direct connection between their choices in the orchard and the ability to market almonds. In addition, growers found it useful to simply be reminded of the various tools available to help them be more efficient in their water and nutrient management.

Next steps include seeking more participants to fill out the current module and providing confidential feedback to participants, as well as developing modules in energy and pest management.

For more information or to participate in the self-assessment program, go to almondboard.com.