Water Investment Produces a Healthy Crop Using Precision Agriculture and Zero Waste


They say it takes a gallon of water to grow an almond.

The strange thing about this claim is that it’s true—and also that it couldn’t be more wrong.

Why trust me? As a fourth-generation California farmer, I grow almonds for a living. I also love to eat them and promote them on social media as “Almond Girl Jenny.”

My home state dominates the global almond market. About 80 percent of the world’s almonds come from California. They are the Golden State’s golden crop, worth more than any other agricultural export. About two-thirds ship to customers in other countries, which means that we’re selling American grown almonds to people in the European Union, India, China, and elsewhere. More than 100,000 U.S. jobs depend on almond production.

Almond trees flourish in what is called a “Mediterranean climate”.  There are only 5 of these climates in the world and they do best in California’s Central Valley, where the cool and mild winters combine with the dry heat of summer to create the ideal conditions for a nut that is at once a healthy food and a delicious snack. Each one is packed with protein, fiber, vitamin E, and more.

And here’s a fun fact: Almonds are closely related to peaches; inside a sweet, juicy peach is a pit that seems a little like a hard and bitter almond.

Put it all together, and it’s no wonder that almonds have billions of fans among farmers, nutritionists, and consumers.

Yet they also have a few detractors, as we discovered nearly a decade ago when the magazine Mother Jones published an article with a provocative headline: “It Takes How Much Water to Grow an Almond?!”

I have a lot of thoughts about this article and the firestorm of negative attention it generated for almonds and the lasting impression it has left on people across the world, but I’ll start with the headline’s two punctuation marks. By joining a question mark and an explanation point, the article tried to achieve a hybrid vigor in sensationalism. It aimed to shock and outrage its readers—and make them disapprove of almonds and the farmers who grow them.

Yet I’ll admit the truth: It does indeed take roughly a gallon of water to grow a single almond.

This is the wrong way to think about almonds and water use, however.

Everything that grows requires a lot of water. A head of lettuce and an ordinary tomato both take between three and four gallons. A gallon of milk needs about 4.5 gallons.

A lot of things that don’t grow also need water. The average American shower uses more than 17 gallons. A data center that stores everything from the photos on your phone to the information on this web page can require up to 5 million gallons per day, which is the equivalent of what a small city needs.

This is why water scarcity and management are so important for agriculture—and one of the reasons why our almond farm has invested heavily in the technology of precision irrigation. We’ve built a sustainable system that delivers exactly the right amount of water at the right time to the right place, wasting almost nothing. Drip irrigation helps farmers to target our water use efficiently. We also use various soil moisture sensor systems that monitor the water content of the soil.

As a result, we’re doing more with less. We use about one-third less water than we did previously, and our yields are improving.

Each almond still needs about a gallon of water—but that gallon grows more than a single almond.

brown almond nuts on white backgroundThe almonds that we love to eat are grown in shells that are surrounded by hulls. These are also resources. The woody shells, once crushed, become everything from landscaping material to livestock bedding to plastic composites. The softer hulls go into animal feed used heavily in California by dairies and cattle feed lots.

Even the wood of an almond tree is a resource. A single tree has a productive life of about 30 years. At the end of this cycle, we chip the tree and put its bark into the ground for soil enrichment. Almonds are a true zero-waste crop, with nothing lost and every piece of the almond being utilized.

A final byproduct of almonds is beauty. The flowers are gorgeous. When they bloom in February, they turn our farm into a place of stunning splendor—and allow us to engage in agro-tourism. We open our orchards to families seeking portraits with lovely backgrounds, we host ‘brunch in the bloom’ events on our farm and invite anybody who just wants to enjoy the beauty of nature.

Bloom is also a vital time for bees to migrate to California.  Almond production requires bees to move pollen from one tree to the other. Without bees we wouldn’t have almonds to harvest.  Our blooming orchards are often the first taste of spring for bees and offer a natural habitat for them to flourish as they come out of their winter dormancy state.

You can’t put a price tag on that.

So yeah, it takes a gallon of water to grow an almond—but in addition to a tasty nut we get an economic boost, multipurpose materials, and a marvel to behold.

That sounds to me like a good way to use a gallon.

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