I n the spring of 2013, Christine Gemperle opened a piece of mail and began to panic.
At the time, California was two years into what would eventually be deemed the worst drought in state history, and Gemperle, an almond farmer since 1997, had already seen steady reductions in her allotment of irrigation water from the Shasta Lake reservoir. And now, as the letter she held in her hands from the local water utility informed her, she would receive just 20 percent of the water she typically needs to sustain the 93-acre orchard she owns with her brother in Gustine, a small city due east of San Jose.
“When you first get that news, you kind of put your head in your hands,” she says. “You sit there and breathe, and you’re like, ‘Okay. What are we going to do?’”
“Okay. What are we going to do?”
California’s Central Valley is one of the few places in the world with the Mediterranean climate needed to grow almonds, which is why the state produces more than 80 percent of the world’s supply. Gemperle grew up on her family’s almond orchard in nearby Turlock, and while conditions were often ideal for farming there, she’d long understood that drought was part of life in California. But she’d never experienced anything like this. Neither had the rest of the state’s 7,600 almond farmers. That’s because, according to scientists, this was no ordinary drought. Climate change was driving up temperatures, increasing evaporation from reservoirs, rivers, and soil, and reducing the state’s snowpack to a historic low. While climate change didn’t trigger the drought, it was making it far worse.
Even more frightening for California farmers, the drought was an unmistakable sign of things to come. Indeed, as the planet continues to heat, cycles of drought and extreme flooding—a pattern known as “precipitation whiplash”—are expected to become far more common in the state, posing greater challenges for an industry working to meet the rising global demand for plant-based foods. “The drought was really a shot across the bow,” says Katherine Jarvis-Shean, an orchard systems advisor with the University of California.
No farmers enjoy droughts, but they’re particularly stressful for those who grow tree crops such as almonds. Unlike row crops, which are planted annually, almond trees are planted approximately once every 25 years, and must achieve their full productive lifespan to remain profitable.
Ninety percent of California’s farms are family-owned, and many are operated by third- and fourth-generation farmers. Since the industry’s beginnings, almond farmers have adopted innovative sustainability practices to remain in business even as the resources available to them fluctuate. In the past two decades, for example, farmers have reduced the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent through the use of microirrigation sprinklers and drip systems, which conserve water by applying it directly to a tree’s roots rather than across an entire field. The drought, however, raised the stakes for almond farmers. “We learned that the water supply is less reliable than we thought it was,” says Dr. Josette Lewis, the chief science officer for the Almond Board of California.
A Changing Climate
Gemperle’s mind raced as she reread the letter from the water utility.
Her orchard was still in its prime years and she couldn’t let it die. Quickly she devised a plan: She’d cut her water use dramatically, access some water she’d saved from the previous year, and buy the rest of the water she needed on the open market. She’d also start setting up wells on the property so she could pump groundwater in the event of a future water shortage. “We were turning on and off sprinklers down to the minute,” she says. “It was all about saving these small increments of water so that we would have just enough to get through the year.”
The result was a small but healthy crop. But as the drought persisted, Gemperle faced even more trying circumstances. In 2014, she learned that she’d receive none of her water allotment from the utility. She couldn’t rely on buying more water—at one point the previous year, she’d paid seven times the normal price per acre. Going forward, she knew she’d need to figure out how to make do with less irrigation.
Her search for answers led her to researchers at Irrigation for the Future, a consortium that develops next-generation irrigation software for farmers. With their guidance, Gemperle started using neutron probes to get precise soil moisture measurements and installed a weather station to get detailed climate reports. These two data sources allowed the Irrigation for the Future team to develop a nuanced irrigation schedule for her that accounted for soil and weather variations throughout the orchard. Soon, Gemperle was using a phone app to remotely control her sprinkler system according to the plan.
“In April, we might actually cut the water 50 percent, but then put it up to 100 percent in May, when it’s a critical time for nut development and it’s getting warmer,” she says. “It’s very much based on what’s going on with the tree and where it is in its life cycle and growth cycle.”
The Future of Farming
Like Gemperle, many almond farmers transformed their irrigation practices during the drought.
And many more will be making similar changes on their orchards in the years leading up to 2025, as the almond industry strives to reduce the amount of water used to grow a pound of almonds by an additional 20 percent.
According to Tom Devol, the senior manager of field outreach and education for the Almond Board, hitting that target will involve farmers gathering the same kind of soil and weather data that Gemperle now uses. It will also involve using plant-based sensors to measure tree stress and satellite imagery to determine orchard growth. More farmers will also use app-controlled irrigation systems to easily act on all that information.
“Industries with higher-value crops have a little bit more revenue to put into these kinds of technologies,” says Devol. “We’ve got a pretty healthy industry, and I think part of the way it has stayed healthy is by staying cutting-edge.”
The industry’s sustainability innovations aren’t limited to water efficiency measures. Farmers are adopting new equipment and techniques to improve local air quality during the almond harvest. They’re reducing their reliance on pesticides by taking up new environmentally-friendly pest management tools. And in an effort to achieve zero waste in orchards, researchers are looking at how to use almond hulls and shells to cultivate mushrooms, strengthen post-consumer recycled plastics, and even brew beer.
Farmers are also trying whole orchard recycling, which involves grinding up an entire almond orchard at the end of its life—rather than sending the trees to facilities for electricity generation, as farmers have done since the 1990s—and incorporating the woody biomass back into the soil. According to Brent Holtz, a farm advisor for the University of California, who developed the practice with support from the Almond Board, the process has been proven to increase the soil’s water holding capacity. It also sequesters 2.4 tons of carbon per acre, making it the kind of climate-smart agricultural practice that the State wants other orchardists to emulate. Starting this year, in fact, farmers who adopt the practice can receive a grant from California’s Healthy Soils Incentive Program.
“Almond farmers will pave the way for other Tree Nut and fruit Growers…”
“Almond farmers will pave the way for other tree nut and fruit growers to really look at this and see the multitude of benefits that come from it,” says Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “I think we’ll see this really take off.”
While these practices will surely increase the resilience of almond farmers in the face of unstable weather and water conditions, farmers and researchers agree that climate change will make greater uncertainty the new normal for the industry. Gemperle, for one, feels good about the new systems she has in place to understand her orchard—but if this winter is as dry as last winter, she says, she’ll be in a tight spot once again.
Almond farming has changed a lot since Gemperle was a kid. Back then, she could play in the irrigation water in the summer, and her father could reliably take a nap at lunchtime. These days, she doesn’t finish her work in the orchard until midnight. Still, she believes growing almonds makes for a good life—and she’ll do whatever it takes to give her children the opportunity to take up the torch one day. “I would really like to pass this place on,” she says. “It would just be a shame to have it be anything other than a farm.”