Almonds: no longer the “1 gallon of water per nut” nut
California is currently facing a severe water shortage. The shortage is primarily due to two factors: four years of consecutive drought and the lack of adequate water storage facilities to accommodate the state’s residential, industrial and agricultural demands . The drought cost agriculture 17,000 jobs and $1.5 billion contributing to a total loss of $7.5 billion to the broader California economy . Although the almond (the “one-gallon nut”) is a water intensive crop (consuming 10% of California water resources), it is critical to the California economy as the state’s top commodity export valued at $4.5 billion [2,3].
Blue Diamond: facing harsh drought conditions
Throughout the drought, the almond industry has faced harsh limits on surface water allocation forcing growers to shift their constrained resources from established to young groves in an effort to preserve their orchard investment. This starvation of productive almond orchards negatively impacts the current and subsequent year production and nut quality. To alleviate the pain of water restriction, Blue Diamond is working with government authorities and growers to increase water sustainability by promoting initiatives to fix the leaky water distribution infrastructure, capture waste water to reconstitute aquifers, and develop water storage systems. Additionally, Blue Diamond is committed to investing in educating growers about best practices and new irrigation management systems . As the Blue Diamond director of member relations said, “Growers do all they can to be good stewards of natural resources like water because it’s smart business and smart farming” . Farmers must innovate in order to significantly increase their crop to drop ratio and continue to operate under these water restrictions.
Education to improve operations
Blue Diamond educates almond growers about new farming practices through the California Almond Sustainability Program . One module, irrigation management, has introduced new irrigation approaches: watering at night, increasing efficiency, and reducing water pump energy costs. Growers’ adoption of new practices has reduced water per pound of nuts consumption by 33%, and a further $3 billion investment in smart irrigation systems reduced water consumption by an additional 14% in 2015 .
Technology in the orchard today
Beyond established irrigation techniques, Blue Diamond growers, such as Matt Efird, continue to innovate by adopting water management technologies that ensure healthy crop and lowest water use by monitoring soil moisture with electronic soil probes and root zone water measurements. 
George Goshgarian Jr., another almond grower, is implementing real time on site weather stations, as well as sap flow sensors to determine their trees’ specific water needs . Efird and Goshgarian’s adoption of new technologies and strategies shows how growers can introduce technology into the orchard to use water resources more efficiently. Eventually, the growers will be able to use remote sensing to electronically control irrigation for healthier groves, while reducing water consumption by restricting resource delivery to only trees that need it .
Pushing the Boundary: the case for restricted irrigation techniques
Recently, scientists have started to experiment with Regulated Deficit Irrigation (RDI), the intentional limiting of water during the almond production cycle. A pioneer of this method, David Goldhamer, studied the improvements in irrigation efficiency through RDI . Goldhamer’s group used linear displacement sensors to measure the maximum daily trunk shrinkage to calculate water stress data specific to each tree . The researchers found up to 40% reduced water consumption was achievable with only slight decreases in almond yield.
A surprise finding from RDI experiments was that water stress for three to four weeks prior to harvest, not only saved about 10% of irrigation water , but also reduced hull rot (fungal infection of the splitting hull and tree) creating a win-win situation. Historically, hull rot could decimate one third of the crop, erasing profit and leaving damaged groves in its wake . RDI not only saves water, but also saves crops and businesses. Wide adoption of RDI in conjunction with remote sensing and monitoring can lead to significant reduction in water consumption and increased production yield.
Looking forward: The Future for Almonds
The Blue Diamond growers’ adoption of next generation technology as well as their partnerships with government and environmental groups will lead to sustainable almond production and water security for California. To make these studies truly successful, Blue Diamond will need to determine long term implications of the RDI method, and continue to help their growers deploy technology in their orchards. Ultimately these advances in almond production could benefit other tree crops both in California and globally.
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