In the final installment of our Faces of Farming series, Nutrition Diva talks with almond grower Brian Wahlbrink about almonds, sustainability, and the future of agriculture.
ND: What a great idea. I have a link to your Instagram feed in the show notes for the listeners if they want to check that out. That is exactly what we're trying to do in the Faces of Farming series—give people who are outside the world of agriculture, but of course completely dependent upon it, a little view into what goes on there.
BW: Social media has been a really big help, visually, to our industry in the last couple of years. And the use of Instagram and Facebook has really opened up conversations that I was not having before.
ND: All of the farmers I’ve talked to so far in this series either grew up in farming families or farming communities but you are actually a city boy. What got you into farming?
BW: I am an official transplant. I had the luxury of marrying into a wonderful family business. I grew up in Southern California Orange County, and everybody thought I was gonna be a real estate broker or a stock broker. I ended up in an almond orchard, the ranch that I get to be a part of now with my family. It's a fifth generation farm, and we've been growing almonds for over 40 years.
ND: Almonds have a great reputation for being healthy, thanks to a lot of research that’s been done on the health benefits of frequent almond consumption. But they also have a reputation for being water hogs. One widely cited report claims that it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond and that almonds consume a disproportional share of dwindling water supplies. Is that a fair charge? Have almonds been unfairly singled out?
BW: I think most people don't understand how much water agriculture takes. But I think the positive is that it's really opened up conversation to how we're doing things and what our resources are, and we're able to engage in the conversation. Since that was published a couple years back, it's really been a positive mix. People have been very happy with what California almond growers are doing with the resources that we're given—we have 70% of almond growers using micro-irrigation in the fields now, and we really cut water by incredible amounts over the last 10-20 years. We really are doing more with less.
ND: So micro-irrigation is one way that you've reduced water use in the fields. Are there any other innovations that are helping improve the sustainability of this crop?
BW: We're really trying to track our water usage, and we're using technology to make sure we need to irrigate and that the soil is ready for irrigation. We've really tried to blend modern technology into the ranch. The other thing that I mentioned earlier in the interview was using cover crops—planting crops in the middle of the row to improve health during bloom time, and we're very proud of that. We're really trying to create a ranch that's going to be around in the next 50 years.
ND: I'm glad you mentioned technology. One of the most interesting things to me about speaking with farmers is that modern agriculture has this juxtaposition of technology and innovation, with all of that work that can still only be done by human hands. What's the balance of machine labor and human labor in the almond growing business? Are you able to harvest most of the nuts mechanically or are there some aspects of almond care that are still done by hand?
BW: Farm labor and hand labor are still huge components. It takes our workers to drive the tractors through the field, to drive the harvesters, all the equipment. The harvest itself is fully mechanized, starting with a shaker, which looks like a machine from the Star Wars era. Then it goes into sweeping and then harvesting. Those are three separate machines that cover a lot of ground, but there's still a huge reliance on labor during the harvest period. During the rest of the year we still have guys mowing and driving tractors as we're putting on different field applications, and then of course, there's daily and weekly visual checks of water.