A quick study in climate-smart agriculture

Climate smart agriculture is becoming a more broadly discussed topic as food companies set climate goals and policymakers think about how agriculture can be part of the solution for climate change.

In 2018, the Almond Board of California (ABC) established the Almond Orchard 2025 Goals to demonstrate the California almond community’s commitment to continuous improvement across agriculture and for a healthier planet. The goals help focus ABC’s research and outreach priorities in four key areas: water efficiency, zero waste, pest management, and air quality.

Christine Gemperle, a second-generation almond farmer based in Ceres, California, is taking advantage of the best of scientific research that growers such as herself fund through the Almond Board to help address these priorities, and implement climate smart agriculture, on her farm. During an Almond Essentials podcast episode, Gemperle and Josette Lewis, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at the Almond Board of California, define climate smart agriculture as a series of three main goals and discuss how Gemperle is working toward these goals on her farm. The three main goals of climate smart agriculture are:

  1. Reduce the carbon footprint of how food is grown
  2. Improve the resilience of food production amidst a changing climate
  3. Sustain or improve the productivity of how food is grown

For Gemperle, it’s all about balance when it comes to addressing these goals, more specifically, balancing productivity with the inputs and outputs that it takes to grow a nutritious almond crop. Sometimes that means making compromises.

“There are always tradeoffs and sometimes you have to make some hard choices. We’ve been researching whole orchard recycling for about 10 years with the almond industry. For this, you take an entire orchard at the end of its productive life, grind it up, spread it all over the ground in which it once grew, and work those chips back into the soil. Not only does this build organic matter in the soil, but it also sequesters all the carbon that those trees took up in the 25 years that they were growing,” said Gemperle. Farms that use whole orchard recycling sequester 2.4 tons of carbon per acre, equivalent to living car-free for a year, but the environmental impact doesn’t stop there.

Carbon sequestration also helps improve the soil’s water retention by up to 30 percent. This ability is crucial during extreme heat because it allows for more resilience. When there is excess water, the soil also is better equipped to absorb water, which helps prevent ponding, flooding and runoff. By sequestering carbon and improving the water holding capacity, research shows these practices can increase the yield of the next orchard by 19 percent.

Another technique Gemperle implements on her farm is cover cropping. Her orchard has benefitted in ways she didn’t expect when she began cover cropping 10 years ago, such as a spawning a huge population of beneficial insects that naturally support weed management and combat unwanted pests. Cover cropping also has helped Gemperle achieve improved water penetration.

When it comes to water, Gemperle has adopted practices like the highly efficient drip or micro sprinkler irrigation. In fact, over 85 percent of almond growers in California use these highly efficient irrigation systems to ensure effective water use, at nearly two times the rate of California farms overall. In the last 20 years, this has helped reduce the amount of water it takes to a grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent, which the industry aims to reduce by another 20 percent by 2025.

“Hearing you talk about your experience is a great reminder of one of the things I love about working in the almond industry: this real commitment to science-based research and combining it with the grower experience that you’ve illustrated. We learn from growers like you and then we can fund the research to document that,” said Lewis.

By collaborating with growers like Gemperle, ABC collects research findings that enable growers to pilot innovative practices with confidence in the benefits. However, there is no “one size fits all approach” to running a farm. Every operation runs differently based on a variety of factors, including soil, climate and costs. It’s also important to know that farmers try many different things to meet productivity goals along with resilience and climate mitigation. It can be hard to get all three of those together, but as Gemperle says, it’s all about balance.