Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Give Me One Good Reason Why I should Grow Almonds Regeneratively

by CRARS staff member Sheryl Karas. M.A.

almonds on a tree

You’ll make more money.

Many California almond growers find being pushed to change over to regenerative agriculture a bit frustrating and there are valid concerns driving that. This a hard time for the industry because of supply chain issues and drought, and it pays to be careful even in healthier economic situations. On the other hand, being overly cautious can keep you from making decisions that could make a big difference for your bottom line.

The latest research shows that regenerative almond orchards in California are “twice as profitable as their conventional counterparts.”(opens in new window)

The study, published in August 2021, was partially sponsored and funded by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It included results from sixteen orchards all located in the northern half of the San Joaquin Valley through the Capay Valley to Chico over the course of two years and brought to light six more reasons to grow almonds regeneratively. Regenerative orchards had:

  • Six times faster water infiltration in their fields (essential in a drought)
  • Increased soil nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and sulfur while using fewer inputs
  • Higher soil carbon (an indicator of soil health and climate-beneficial carbon sequestration)
  • Better soil biology
  • Increased biodiversity (more bees and earthworms, etc.).
  • No difference in terms of pest damage (meaning they were able to eliminate pesticides and the associated costs and danger to employees without harm)

Interestingly, in this study, none of this affected yields—the increased profitability came from reduced costs despite the initial investment in regenerative techniques.

That’s great news at a time when the cost of fertilizer(opens in new window) is skyrocketing! However, when it comes to making the switch to regenerative, most almond growers feel like that is a daunting task. It’s not that they don’t care about the environment—they do and many already engage in practices to reduce water use and create bee habitat. But much of what they were taught to do is the opposite of regenerative. In particular, the most recommended common practice is to keep the land in the orchards bare so almonds can fall to the ground when shaken off the trees, left to dry, and then be picked up with a sweeper without gathering a lot of debris. But in regenerative agriculture a priority is placed on keeping the ground covered with living plants and keeping roots in the ground as much of the year as possible. Animals such as sheep, normally avoided in conventional systems, are used to graze the cover crops before they drop seeds and to add manure to feed the soil. But current regulations require that animals be removed from an orchard 120 days before harvest. And, certainly, choosing appropriate cover crops and watering them can feel overwhelming after having invested in micro-irrigation and fertilization systems that direct water and nutrients in a focused fashion.

It's obvious that making such a change shouldn’t be made hastily, certainly not in a few months. Yet for those willing to make a well-considered longer-term investment towards a more resilient and profitable future, there is great research to support appropriate steps to take.

Rosie Burroughs

Rosie Burroughs with regenerative almonds at Burroughs Family Farms

Addressing the Concerns of Almond Growers

Best results in various studies on regenerative almonds come from the use of multiple stacked practices. In the SARE study mentioned above, practices included reducing or eliminating synthetic agrichemicals, planting perennial ground covers, integrating livestock, maintaining non-crop habitat (bee habitat, hedgerows, etc.), and using composts and compost teas. No single practice was responsible for the results—it was shown that results improved by using more than one in combination.

Cover Crops

Keeping the ground covered with living plants is one of the most important practices. This can be done by planting cover crops or by simply allowing whatever resident plants are present to grow. Ground cover has many benefits for almond orchards(opens in new window). Soil erosion is a particular problem for orchards which typically experience some of the highest levels of soil loss among cultivated landscapes(opens in new window). Bare land becomes hard and rainwater runs off along with eroded soil and needed nutrients. This, and the lack of plant habitat for insects and small animals that keep pests under control, necessitates the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Cover crops slow run-off, and roots in the soil allow for greater water infiltration. They also encourage the increase of healthy soil biology. Choosing specific plants to grow as cover (such as legumes) can add needed nutrients to the soil. Others can be chosen to attract bees and other pollinators or to suppress unwanted weeds. They also help with soil compaction.

Won’t cover crops require more water?

Earlier research conducted in a different climate indicated that cover crops might take water away from cash crops. However, according to a 3-year study(opens in new window) by UC Davis published in 2022, winter cover crops can likely be used in California almond orchards without altering an almond grower’s irrigation or management practices. Almonds are grown in a narrower range of soils than the crops previously tested. It should also be noted that better results came from using deliberately planted cover crops (usually a mix of peas and oats) than from allowing native vegetation to grow.

Cover Crop Management

It is recommended that cover crops be planted in the fall as early as possible after the almond harvest. They sprout on their own with the first rain. When allowed to flower they can help attract bees and other pollinators to the orchard. They then should be terminated in late spring by grazing with livestock, by mowing, or by using a roller crimper(opens in new window). If the plant residue is left on the ground, it provides protection from the sun and reduces moisture evaporation from the soil. If alternative methods of catching the almonds are not employed—such as the use of catch-frame shakers(opens in new window)—plant residue can be removed before harvest if needed. Some growers spray after mowing(opens in new window) and find little-to-no residue by harvest time.

Animal Integration

Integrating animals into a crop producing operation(opens in new window) has been shown to improve soil health, reduce labor and machinery costs when it’s time to terminate a cover crop, and increase carbon sequestration. Animal manure improves soil fertility by increasing soil microbial density and organic matter, and it can significantly reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer. Growers can potentially make money by allowing another farmer’s sheep or cattle to graze their cover crops. But enterprising growers, who are able and willing to diversify, could develop an additional stream of revenue by selling wool and meat and reduce the risks associated with producing a single product by raising their own livestock.

Adding animals, however, does require additional attention. Livestock need to be moved through the orchard at regular intervals to avoid soil compaction. They also need to be entirely removed from the orchards at least 120 days before harvest to comply with FSMA(opens in new window) requirements. Some growers have expressed concerns that companies might still be nervous about buying almonds from orchards even under those conditions. This may be true unless they have a specific interest in marketing regenerative products. But that market is growing(opens in new window) and consumer demand may shift the situation enough for even large-scale growers to benefit. Some CRARS mentor almond growers such as Burroughs Family Farms(opens in new window) and Massa Organics(opens in new window) market their regenerative products directly to the consumer. They successfully graze sheep in their orchards part of the year, move them to a pasture the rest of the time, and reap the benefits of added income as well as improved soil health without creating issues with food safety.

That said, animal integration is NOT a requirement for an operation to be considered regenerative. Cover crops can be mowed or roller crimped. Compost can be added. Each operation is best advised to study what is possible in their location and what best suits their needs.

Reducing or Eliminating Synthetic Agrichemicals

Because of high prices, Modern Farmer recommends(opens in new window) testing your soil to see if cutting back on inputs might be possible at least for a short time. However, without at least using some regenerative practices like cover crops and/or compost, it is unlikely to have long-term positive results by eliminating agrichemicals alone. It is exactly these practices that make it possible to stop paying for synthetics and increase profitability.

Compost and Compost Tea

 Soil amendments such as compost and compost tea are materials that can build soil fertility and support and enhance the microbiology of the soil. Compost increases organic matter, improves soil structure, pH, and the water holding capacity of the soil. Compost tea (a liquid brewed from compost) can be used to specifically increase microbial abundance and deliver nutrients more efficiently to plants. Both choices have been shown to reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers(opens in new window) in almond orchards while restoring depleted soil and improving carbon sequestration, especially in conjunction with other regenerative farming methods.

Whole Orchard Recycling

One criticism of the use of compost is that it does not necessarily increase yields. Again, increased profitability does not depend on increased yields. However, there is exciting research into the use of whole orchard recycling(opens in new window) that does indicate that grinding and chipping old trees to use as a soil amendment for new plantings, instead of burning them, can increase yields significantly. The results of a more than 10-year study funded by the Almond Board of California and conducted by researchers from UC Davis and UC Agricultural and Natural Resources showed a 15% increase in cumulative yield over five years and substantial improvement in soil functioning, including nutrient content, aggregation, porosity, and water retention. The practice sequestered significantly higher levels of carbon in the soil, increased irrigation water efficiency by 20%, and improved soil and tree water status under stress.

How to Proceed and Get Funding

The Almond Board and most CRARS mentor-farmers agree that proceeding carefully and slowly is the road to success. Gabriele Ludwig, director of Sustainability and Environmental Affairs at the Almond Board(opens in new window) encourages growers to take the time to evaluate their soil type, water availability, and potential options before adding cover crops, for example. One of the lead researchers on one of their studies, Amélie Gaudin, recommends that before investing a lot of money, growers would do best by trying different cover crop seed mixes in a small area to determine which plant species and combinations work best in their orchards at the best price.

Rory Crowley, Chief Operations Manager at the Nicolaus Nut Company(opens in new window) likes to quote a friend of his who says: “To be green, you still have to make the green.” He’s been participating in studies on cover crops. That enabled him to start small with just a few test plots and have research teams at UC Davis and Chico State fund it. Now, based on the encouraging results that were seen, he has been working on getting grants to help cover the expense of expansion. (He shares what he and the research teams have learned(opens in new window) and how that is helping him make decisions in detail on our website.)

Potential sources of funding for equipment, seeds, and other expenses related to going regenerative include:

Conservation Innovation Grants(opens in new window)

Grants are available through both national and state CIG opportunities designed to support trials and adoption of innovative approaches, practices and systems such as regenerative agriculture. On-Farm Trials projects feature collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and partners to implement on-the-ground conservation activities and then evaluate their impact. Incentive payments are provided to producers to offset the risk of implementing these approaches.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)(opens in new window)

This NRCS USDA program provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to address environmental concerns through implementing practices that improve water and air quality, conserve ground and surface water, increase soil health and reduce soil erosion, improve or create wildlife habitat, and mitigate against drought and increased weather volatility.

CDFA Healthy Soils Program(opens in new window)

California's Healthy Soils Initiative provides grants for orchard/vineyard, rangeland, dairy and row crop producers to implement Soil Health Management Systems. It’s a competitive program that producers must apply for. Chico State’s Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems(opens in new window) will provide technical support and assistance in filling out the application when the next application period begins. They also offer several related grant opportunities.

Seeds for Bees(opens in new window)

Enrollees of Project Apis m.’s (PAm) Seeds for Bees® program can receive seed mixes designed to be successful in harsh conditions like the non-irrigated middles of orchards. If water availability is a concern, they instruct people to select seed mixes they indicate are most efficient at growing successfully in droughts. They will also provide you with technical advice on using the seeds as cover crops with the best water efficiency. First time enrollees get a $2,500 discount on their seed purchase.

Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Small Grants Program

One-year grants of up to $7,000 are available to fund pilot projects and research projects that support California’s farmers plan, implement, or evaluate sustainable agriculture or food systems strategies. Priority will be given to projects that benefit socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.