Blue Diamond Growers: The effect of climate change on the almond industry
For Blue Diamond Growers, almond demand is growing and acreage is increasing; however, supply is being threatened by climate change, specifically droughts in the California region.
Why is America going nuts for almonds?
Blue Diamond Growers is the world’s largest handler of almonds. Blue Diamond was originally founded with 230 Californian growers in 1910 as a cooperative of farmers . Estimates suggest that Blue Diamond’s market share is more than half of all the almonds grown in California . Since 2005, almond demand has grown more than 220 percent, and the annual consumption per person has quadrupled from a half pound in 1970 to two pounds in 2014 .
Changing information on health, an increased focus on diet, and aggressive marketing campaigns have all helped influence the rising demand. Prices of almonds have also risen, from $1/lb in 2000 to $5/lb in 2005, making it an attractive investment for farmers .
High risk, high reward:
As a result of the industry’s growth, lands have been converted into almond fields with a 14% acreage increase from 2007 to 2014  and a 6% acreage increase from 2015-2016 . While almonds are more profitable than some other crops, almond trees require years of growing and watering before farmers can truly recoup their investment . Therefore, almond farmers are taking on a bigger risk, with potentially more reward, when deciding to plant almonds instead of other crops.
Trouble in paradise:
It takes about 1 gallon of water to grow 1 nut. Overall, almonds are responsible for about “10% of California’s agricultural water supply,” which in recent years has been under stress due to climate change .
California’s water supply originates from 3 primary sources: snowpack, reservoirs, and groundwater. In normal years, water is sourced equally from the three. However, in drought years, residents are forced to rely primarily on groundwater which can lead to limited overall water supply . In 2015, California was in its 4th consecutive drought year and farmers were put in a tough position in which they needed to remove orchards ahead of schedule and lay off workers . Global warming was responsible for intensifying the Californian drought in 2015 by 15-20% and the odds of California suffering droughts “have roughly doubled over the past century,” . Therefore, Blue Diamond needs to work with its farmers to mitigate this supply chain risk.
Blue Diamond’s response:
During the drought, Blue Diamond educated its farmers through Industry Notes and explained why water shortages were a problem that needed to be addressed . Blue Diamond educated farmers on the effects of excessive stress, drought-tolerant growth phases, and how decreased water usage at the right time can improve crop quality/yield and conserve water . In the long-term, Blue Diamond has committed to “collaborating with industry peers, water and environmental experts, consumer groups, regulatory bodies and policy-makers to address several key factors to combat water shortage,” .
Furthermore, California farmers have invested over $3 billion in developing smarter irrigation systems in order to reduce water use by 14% . “Almost 70 percent of almond growers use micro-irrigation systems and more than 80 percent use demand-based irrigation scheduling,” . At an individual level, farmers are working to gain access to technology that can help them combat water issues. For example, Eric Genzoli, graduate of the Blue Diamond Leadership Development program, completed his first California Almond Sustainability Program module in 2011, through which he learned to use CASP’s online irrigation calculator and other tools that help Genzoli respond to water crises .
Adapting to a changing world:
The Almond Board of California has created the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum, which is a manual on irrigation management and scheduling practices .
The strategy is divided into 3 levels that span a range of sophistication and accessibility, such that the information applies to all growers . Blue Diamond should encourage its farmers to use the Continuum in order to truly understand best practices for water management. Additionally, Blue Diamond should invest in new irrigation technologies. Specifically, they should invest in precision irrigation, where systems use remote sensing to track soil and water status, as well as link with a mobile platform that has decision support tools  .
In the future, Blue Diamond will not only need to worry about limited internal resources, but also external competitive pressures. During the 2015 drought, Australian almond producers boosted production to meet growing demands in Asia, stealing Blue Diamond’s market share . As droughts continue to affect the Californian region, will the “good” years be enough to combat the “bad?” It is in Blue Diamond’s best interest to work with its growers to adopt technologies that conserve water in order to meet increasing demand.
What’s to prevent almond growers from using “saved” water to just plant more crops, offsetting any conservation efforts? Is this a good or a bad thing in the long-run?
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Student comments on Blue Diamond Growers: The effect of climate change on the almond industry
Very interesting to look at Blue Diamond through an operational lens (versus a marketing one), and your ending question brings up a number of intriguing issues. One, I agree that farmers may have an incentive to use ‘conserved’ water to plant more crops, particularly during non-drought years, and therefore increase the risk of major losses during drought years, but I suppose the goal of the Industry Notes is to educate farmers as to why to conserve water (it’s in their best interest in terms of financial risk) as well as how. But you are absolutely right to be concerned – maybe Blue Diamond will have to incorporate incentives for farmer water reserves to encourage the right behavior? Regardless, using less water to grow the same volume of almonds seems like a step forward for conservation efforts. To that end, do you think Blue Diamond should try to partner with a company like Indigo and develop strains of almonds that require less water to begin with? I realize that sort of R&D might be outside Blue Diamond’s typical core, but might be a worthwhile investment for long term sustainability of the company and the environment. Lastly, I wonder if ultimately global warming uncertainty will force Blue Diamond to join forces with almond growers in other regions California to diversify the year to year drought risk and avoid losing market share (e.g., with Australia, as you mentioned).
I never realized how water-intensive almond farming is! It’s great that Blue Diamond is taking an active approach toward educating its farmers on the water scarcity issue and encouraging practices that conserve water, and I agree with your suggestion to encourage them to use the Continuum. Longer-term, however, I wonder how long these farms can survive if temperatures continue to rise and droughts worsen, even with new practices and technologies. However, I wonder if Blue Diamond should start researching other potential farming locations and investing in new farms. For example, the University of Idaho is testing whether almond trees can be farmed in the southwestern part of the state (http://www.capitalpress.com/Orchards/20160509/researchers-test-almonds-in-idaho). I realize this would be quite a challenge given Blue Diamond’s situation as a cooperative of farmers, which likely gives each farmer a certain degree of autonomy and voice in these types of decisions. Combined with the fact that it takes years to grow new almond trees, that would make it especially difficult to relocate the farms to another part of the country, though given climate change trends it may be something to consider.
My first reaction to this is can we engineer almond trees that require less water. One gallon of water per nut seems extraordinary. Potentially even more stark — online sources suggest it takes over 900 gallons of water to make one gallon of almond milk.  Indigo has in fact engineered cotton seeds that require less water.  One challenge with engineering almond seeds, however, may be the growing time. The author mentions that almond trees require years to grow before they can harvest. It may therefore take a substantial amount of time to do the testing required to determine whether certain probiotics help almond trees grow with less water. From Indigo’s perspective it may also be less of an attractive business given once the tree have been planted there is no need to buy more seeds. Genetic options would be worth exploring as well. In the meantime, it’s great to see Blue Diamond being proactive about educating farmers on water optimization.
 Benji Jerew, “Is Milk a Problem for the Environment,” The Green Optimist, September 8, 2014. https://www.greenoptimistic.com/milk-problem-environment-20140908/#.WiCc70qnE2w, accessed November 2017.
 Alex Brokaw, “New probiotic seeds grow crops that require less water to survive,” The Verge, July 21, 2016. https://www.theverge.com/2016/7/21/12234918/agtech-startup-indigo-cotton-probiotic-covered-seed-water, accessed November 2017.