Organically grown almonds and organic nut products have become increasingly popular in the last decade and are a growing market segment, according to Josette Lewis, Almond Board of California’s Chief Scientific Officer. Still, just under 1% of almond acreage in California is organic.
Many growers are exploring the idea of growing organic, but management details and financial incentives aren’t always available. In a presentation during The Almond Conference 2020 presented by Almond Board of California, participating growers and experts spoke about the “fine print” when it comes to organic almonds.
The participants included Geordy Wise, senior vice president of farming operations for Pacific Ag Management; Wes Sperry, CEO of Sperry Farms; and Amelie Gaudin with the Department of Plant Sciences, UC Davis.
Most growers would agree that managing organic almonds is a different world compared to conventional almonds. There are many things to consider in order to maximize yields and ultimately capture the premium associated with organic products.
Many organic growers end up dealing with a lot of the same insects that they already deal with in conventional almonds.
“In Kern County, we have similar pest categories to conventional almonds,” Wise said. “Concerning mite control, the key is to be on the early side and be upfront about it. We’re very mindful of our roads and dust, so we use road oil and sulfates to keep dust down which has been big for mite control. For NOW, I think sanitization still works best for us.”
“Pest management has been one of the larger concerns on our organic farm,” Sperry said. “[In year one,] we used organic fungal and bloom sprays that seemed to work well. On the NOW side, we used mating disruption products that showed results that were on par with or below our conventional nut damage. I was really impressed with some of the products that are out there.”
Weed issues in organic almond management, and all organic management, are one of the most difficult management challenges. Organic herbicides are not abundant and costs for them are still high; thus, growers have found other alternatives for their orchards while organic herbicide research continues.
“Regarding weed management, it’s been one of the most challenging aspects of the organic journey so far,” Sperry said. “We made an investment into a propane burner to burn down the weeds in strips. Burning [drip] hoses is a concern with this and it has happened before. We’ve also gone with a wider mower to help clean up more weeds in those rows.”
Wise also uses unique methods for organic weed management. “We’ve used netting underneath the tree row that suppresses and keeps weeds down,” he said. “Weeds still grow out around the edges as well. The downside is the repairs; it’s very maintenance-driven. We also use propane burners. It probably takes a good year to tear up everything and burn it, but you can’t get behind on it. Every 10 to 14 days seems to be working well for us for burning weeds.”
Different growers have different ways of dealing with weed pressures depending on orchard characteristics and weather patterns, but Gaudin believes that cover crops can provide weed suppression during the winter by competing with native vegetation.
“We recognize that there are benefits and tradeoffs as to what might work for different operations,” she said.
Sperry explained the benefits and tradeoffs that his operation has experienced with cover crops. “The success with cover cropping for us really came down to timing,” he said. “We rely on those winter rains to help the cover crops. Since this year has shown little rain, it’s hampered our cover crops. Keeping whatever native vegetation is already there as well is beneficial for the soil. Don’t burn or mow it.”
Wise felt differently about cover crop usage. “I just struggle with the cost of planting cover crops knowing that we’re not getting the rain right now,” he said. “We believe in native cover. The root systems of the weeds can even help with water penetration sometimes.”
Feeding the crop with a soil fertility program is another challenge. Sperry and Wise both expressed difficulties implementing a fertility program in their organic operations.
“These nitrogen-based organic fertilizers are really expensive,” Sperry said. “The nitrogen has been the biggest hurdle for us in a budget aspect. You get used to cheap fertilizers coming from conventional, but compared to organic there’s a big difference. You’ve got to be realistic and have a different mindset if you’re coming from conventional to organic. It’s been a learning curve.”
Wise agreed nitrogen fertility is a particular challenge.
“We started with composting using chicken manures for soil fertility, but it created some issues, so I’ll probably stay away from that in the future,” Wise said. “Many of the products we have found to work have shown some other smaller issues such as plugging lines. Nitrogen will be the limiting factor; it’s just part of the game with organics, and you’ve got to be willing to make the commitment.”
Making the Jump
Starting a new organic almond orchard, especially if transitioning from conventional, can be daunting. There are many available tools and methods that growers can utilize to get started, but, according to Gaudin, it’s going to take some experimenting for the grower as well.
“The research with whole orchard recycling and cover cropping are great ways for a grower to prepare an orchard for planting organic, but there is more to it than individual practices,” she said. “Experimenting with your own operation is going to be critical.”
Sperry and Wise shared their own experiences with starting their organic orchards.
“We found that taking a conventional block and isolating and transitioning it to organic was a good way to start,” Sperry said. “You also have to find a certifier to work with and document all the products and practices that you want to use. There’s a fair amount of paperwork and communication with your certifier to be had.
“It’s a long-term commitment, you likely won’t see profits for two to three harvests,” he continued. “I’m optimistic that when we get past this point, we’ll start to see those premiums.”
“You have to be realistic about everything,” Wise emphasized. “Your costs will increase and yields will probably be reduced, but the market for them [organic almonds] is definitely there.”