“Regenerative agriculture” is a concept for sustainable farming that has been around for decades, but that terminology been gaining traction particularly in the last 5 years. While there are many different definitions of what that means in terms of specific farming practices and there are several different regenerative certifications, the “regenerative” concept typically involves two basic aspirations: improving soil health in order to enhance climate resiliency and water use-efficiency, and a reduction of inputs achieved through optimized nutrient cycling and integrated pest management. Many “regenerative movement” participants acknowledge the need to identify “measurable outcomes” that can be used to optimize practices for specific growing environments and then track progress towards the goals. That process is most advanced for row crop rotational settings, but there is also interest in doing that for tree and vine crops. There are now two large-scale almond production experiments underway in California supported by consumer-facing food brands that would like to source nuts that can be claimed to have been grown using regenerative methods.
There are 1.35 Million acres of almond orchards in California generating $3 to $6 billion of sales at the farm level, $9.2 billion in overall economic activity and 110,000 jobs. That industry has been a long-term participant in sustainability initiatives and has developed the California Almond Stewardship Platform (CASP) to help growers track and optimize the sustainability of their operations. Dr. Josette Lewis, Chief Scientific Officer for the Almond Board describes the goal of their research funding as “providing growers with science-based information that informs choices on new practices and potential implications for their farming operations.” The regenerative projects described below are building on that base and almond buyers can reasonably anticipate wider adoption of these practices should they demonstrate success in terms of the outcomes to which they aspire.
These initiatives involve partnerships between growers, processors, consumer brands and researchers. One such effort is the farmer-led, 300 acre, five year “The Almond Project” focused on the implementation and evaluation of regenerative soil health practices. The grower/processor side in this case is represented by Treehouse California Almonds and the Gardiner Family. Its founding partners include food marketers Simple Mills, Daily Harvest, and Cappello’s. Guidance is provided by the non-profit, regenerative-focused White Buffalo Land Trust organization, and the outcome measurement component is supported by Soil Life Services, Agri Technovation, and the University of California, Davis.
Earlier this year, KIND Snacks launched a three-year, 500 acre pilot project titled the KIND Almond Acres Initiative as the snack company uses almonds as their number one ingredient in 45 different products. They plan to look at several new technologies in combination with recognized regenerative agriculture practices with the goal of sourcing 100% of their almonds from such farms by 2030. They are partnering with the ingredient production and processing player olam food ingredients (ofi). The other project players are the California Water Action Collaborative (CWAXC) and university researchers at UC Davis.
There are some overlaps between what is being tested in these two projects. Both are using cover crops – a mixture of annual species that keep growing, building soil health and increasing biodiversity even during the time of year when the almonds are dormant. In The Almond Project animals such as sheep are used to manage weeds and the cover crops and to enhance soil biology.
Both projects will be testing compost application as another soil health strategy. Almond hulls can be fed to dairy cattle, thus when their manure is composted and returned to the orchard it is an excellent example of the type of circularity to which regenerative farming aspires. The KIND project will also include two approaches intended to build soil organic matter. One is taking the shells from the almonds and slow-burning them to make a charcoal-like material called biochar. The other is called whole orchard recycling” – a practice in which all the wood from an orchard that is being replanted is finely chipped to generate mulch which goes back on the land rather than being incinerated elsewhere as is common practice.
One of the expected beneficial outcomes from these soil-health strategies is increased water-use-efficiency because of enhanced water infiltration and holding capacity. In fact, the orchards managed this way in The Almond Project were spared the flooding that occurred during the intense rain events of 2022 and 2023. For part of its acreage, the KIND project is using subsurface drip irrigation to further optimize water-use-efficiency.
Both projects are seeking to reduce overall inputs of fertilizers and crop protection chemicals but in ways that do not compromise productivity such as nitrogen fixing cover crops, Integrated Pest Management and other methods that enhance nutrient cycling. The KIND project is looking at a low carbon footprint YaraLiva® calcium nitrate fertilizer produced by the company Yara which comes from an improved production system that recaptures the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide that is typically released during the fertilizer manufacturing process.
Almond growers associated with both projects are early participants in the Bee Friendly Farming ® (BFF) Certified program and KIND has already committed to getting 100% of its almond supply from such farms by 2025. A third party verification option was added to that program on World Bee Day in 2023.
One of the more difficult aspects of almond farming is the nut harvest. Traditionally the nuts are shaken from the trees and spread on the orchard floor to dry – a step that is critical to prevent the growth of toxic mold. Getting the ground ready for that process isn’t very compatible with some of the soil health practices. Thus, as part of the KIND project they are evaluating “Off Ground Harvesting” in which the nuts are caught in nets as they fall and then taken elsewhere for spreading and drying. The goal is to work out some of the logistic and cost issues associated with this approach.
Each of the individual sustainable/regenerative farming practices being evaluated in these two projects has also been the subject of peer reviewed research funded by the broader grower community through the Almond Board. Recently that industry association has also been sponsoring trials combining various potential regenerative practices to look for synergies and generate science-based guidance for the growers. The KIND and The Almond Project efforts are complimentary to the goals of the broader industry in that they will add to the learning process based on measurable “outcomes” involving soil health improvements, carbon sequestration, environmental impacts, ecosystem biodiversity, water conservation and other resource use-efficiencies.
The projects are also significant in that they demonstrate the commitment of these consumer-facing food marketers to these goals and their willingness to pursue this as a pre-competitive learning process.
Caitlin Birkholz, Regenerative Agriculture Pillar Lead at KIND said, “It was important to us that we kept the community and future of California almond production at the forefront of this project; supporting growers as they transition to regenerative and supporting the next generation of sustainable farming leaders through our scholarship with UC Merced.”
Kaitlin Smith, CEO and Founder of Simple Mills describes The Almond Project as “an integral part of Simple Mills’ mission to advance the holistic health of the planet and its people and will pave the way towards a more resilient future for almonds, an important crop in Simple Mills’ portfolio. This is, of course, accessory to a goal to share learnings and best practices with the broader farming community in California, creating industry-wide change.”