Organic Almonds: Why and How From A Grower’s Perspective

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Cover crop can be established to promote both soil and pollinator health (all photos courtesy Sperry Farms.)

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.

 

Organic Management

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.

Insect Pests

Many organic growers end up dealing with a lot of the same insects that they already deal with in conventional almonds.

Wise said that his organic operation in Kern County sees similar pest categories to conventional almonds, such as mites, navel orangeworm (NOW) and plant bugs.

“[For] mite control, we’ve actually for four years done very well with organic products that have been available,” Wise said. “I think the key to it is trying to be a little more on the early side and not watch the populations increase. It’s kind of a strategy that I think you have to be fairly upfront on. [For] navel orangeworm, I tend to lean towards the sanitization.”

“Pest management has been one of the larger concerns we’ve had here on the organic farm,” Sperry said.

“We’ve had pretty good success I think for our first year. The first year, we used a number of different organic-labeled fungal sprays, bloom sprays. On the NOW side, we went with a product from Semios, their mating disruption. We had extreme success in that range. After harvest, we had worm damage results that were on par with or below even our conventional. We also did put in some hull split sprays along with the mating disruption from Semios, but we really felt that was a strong point of our pest management program.”

Weeds

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, that’s been one of the most challenging aspects, I feel like, of the organic journey that we’ve taken,” Sperry said. “We consulted a bunch of different farmers and experts in the field on some of the actual organic herbicides, and we have not tried any of those yet based on reviews and costs. What we have done is made the investment into a propane burner to burn. We’ve been using this propane burner to burn down the weeds in our strips. I’m not completely happy with the weed burning, but I think it’s the best thing we have available right now. We’ve also gone to mowing a wider mower to clean up the middles of our rows.”

Wise also uses unique methods for organic weed management, noting that netting underneath the tree row suppresses and keeps weeds down. “You still have weeds growing on the edges and out in your middles. The downside of it is repairs; it’s very maintenance-driven.”

Like Sperry, Wise also uses propane burners. “It probably takes a good year to tear everything up and burn it and replace, and you get good at it. You cannot get behind on burning weeds. Probably every 10 days or two weeks [for burning] seems to be working for us.”

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. “A lot of our success with cover crop planting has just been more timing [than anything],” he said. “We’re relying on those winter rains. We haven’t had much rain, and it’s hampered our planting of a cover crop. For the folks out there that aren’t planting cover crop seeds, keeping whatever native vegetation you got going is adding to the soil health, soil biology and adding carbon. Don’t burn it down and don’t try to mow it too early.”

Wise felt differently about cover crop usage. “I struggle with the sense of the cost [of planting cover crops] knowing we’re not going to get the rain,” he said. “We’re reliant right now on native cover crops.”

Soil Fertility

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 particularly nitrogen-based organic fertilizers are really expensive,” Sperry said. “It’s been a big learning curve on how to get that nutrition and do it in a good budget. If you’re coming from conventional into organic, really it’s having a different mindset and the timing can be a little different.”

Wise agreed nitrogen fertility is a particular challenge.

“We started with composting using chicken manures, which actually need to be incorporated into the soil. That’s a practice I think I’m going to probably end up staying away from, it creates some other issues in the orchard…,” Wise said. “From a management standpoint and workability, the liquids [fertilizers] are so much easier. The downside is the products they’re made with plug up irrigation filters and devices. Nitrogen will be your limiting factor; it’s just part of the game with organics.”

Weed control using a propane burner at Sperry Farms.

Making the Jump

Starting a new organic almond orchard, especially if transitioning from conventional, can be daunting. Gaudin noted that new research is showing whole orchard recycling and cover cropping to be great

ways for a grower to prepare an orchard for planting organic, but she said there is more to it than individual practices.

“Being proactive, seeking advice and exploring and experimenting with solutions that work for you and your operation is critical,” she said.

Sperry and Wise shared their own experiences with starting their organic orchards.

“We felt that through our research, taking an established conventional block and transitioning it to organic would give us the best chance of success,” Sperry said.

Sperry advised that new organic growers may want to find a certifier to work with and document all the products and practices that may be used. “There’s definitely some paperwork and a fair amount of communication that goes on between you and your certifier.

“You likely won’t see the benefits for two to three harvests,” he continued. “It’s a long-term commitment.”

“You have to be realistic,” Wise emphasized. “Costs are probably going to be 25% more and your yields are probably going to reduce 25%. You’ve got two things going opposite directions, but I believe the marketplace [for organic almonds] is there.”