The Billion-Dollar California Almond Industry's Blossoming Future

Hint: This Future Involves the Auto Industry

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The Billion-Dollar California Almond Industry's Blossoming Future

Almonds are the ultimate snack. Nutritious and satisfying, there’s a reason why these beloved nuts are pricey. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California’s almond crops were valued at $5.33 billion in 2015. The year after that, the United States Department of Agriculture gave its approval for the Almond Board of California to raise its handler assessments from three cents to four cents per pound over the next three years in order to facilitate the goal of producing 2.6 billion pounds of nuts by 2020. With that in mind, the board hopes to increase global demand before this anticipated 25 percent increase in production.

Almond trees produce not only the actual almond kernels we consume, but also the hulls and shells which encase the nut as it develops. In addition, the tree itself is a source of essential woody biomass. These parts of the almond are known as coproducts. This year on Jan. 6, 2017, the ABC announced that it is actively seeking ways to better use these almond coproducts, in order to, “focus research investment on new uses which address manufacturing needs across several industries, among them food, automotive, pharmaceutical and plastics.” Given that California alone produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds and 100 percent of the U.S. commercial supply, the fact that the ABC is revamping its efforts to make the entire almond crop as profitable as possible could mean millions more in revenue for the already flourishing industry.

The California almond community has been diligent when maximizing the usages of almond coproducts. That said—due to market changes, fluctuations in the supply of livestock feed and bedding coproducts, as well as the demand of the dairy industry along with the advent of solar energy and wind mills, all result in a decline of cogeneration facilities (use of a heat engine or power station to generate electricity and useful heat at the same time), and it’s becoming increasingly tougher to recycle wood waste. The board estimates that for the 2015/2016 crop year, “over 1.5 million metric tons of hulls and over 0.5 million metric tons of shells were produced, with a growing proportion needing new outlets, preferably for higher value-added uses.” As a result, this organization is stepping in to help solve this issue. The goal? Zero-waste almond crops.

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While this newly engaged strategic task force is giving the industry the opportunity to explore new and different ways to utilize coproducts, research and development is often uncertain and doesn’t follow a consistent trajectory. “Farms are becoming more like factories: tightly controlled operations for turning out reliable products, immune as far as possible from the vagaries of nature.” According to the Economist’s Technology Quarterly: The Future of Agriculture. “In the short run, these improvements will boost farmers’ profits, by cutting costs and increasing yields, and should also benefit consumers (meaning everyone who eats food) in the form of lower prices.” However, there are always the issues of cost efficiency, legality, scale, competition, and feasibility to take in to account.

A big initiative is “whole orchard recycling.” According to the ABC, this is “the process of grinding up entire almond orchards at the end of their mature life and incorporating the trees’ material into the soil.” The idea that what grows on the farm will eventually return nutrients to the land, improving its quality and water-holding capacity, is the key to its sustainability plan. Almond Board-funded researchers are also exploring the idea of converting almond hulls to make fibrous materials, which in turn can be added to diapers as a natural absorbent, or as additives for foods, moisturizers and pharmaceuticals.

In the long term, Karen Lapsley, Chief Scientific Officer at the ABC, speculates that a major focus for the almond industry will be incorporating bioenergy to increase the value of almond biomass as bioenergy feedstock. An example? Integrating a portion of bio-char (porous charcoal briquettes, similar to black lava, made from almond shells) into automobile and plane tires would alter the plastic compound to better withstand changes in temperature. Bio-char can also be used to create stronger, biodegradable plastics such as garbage bags and flower pots. Furthermore, the substance aids in water treatment methods, such as absorbing contaminants in soil and water, increasing the water holding capacity of soil and improving overall soil quality. Many companies are already advertising such applications far ahead of the tested scientific research.

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These advances in almond coproducts could mean major bucks—not to mention awards and accolades—for automobile companies in particular. Ford Motors is already quite involved in bio-fuel research, and is a prime example of a company looking at how to replace materials in its vehicles with eco-friendly agricultural products. Industries are now questioning how they can reduce products’ weights and whether they actually need to be 100% plastic. The concept of bio-char and its many potential usages has everyone who stands to benefit very excited. That said, the world of almond coproducts is in its infancy. The smaller companies need the big time investors to fund research, while the big corporations are looking to switch to sustainable processes and products.

“We have shifted our mindset to view agriculture coproducts as an opportunity, not a problem.” Asserted Glenda Humiston, PhD., Vice President, UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, at the recent Almond Conference. “In fact, as research continues to find new and innovative technologies to commercialize coproducts into bioproducts, almond coproducts might someday be as profitable as the almonds themselves. It’s a win-win for the almond industry.”

The next five to ten years is primed to be a period of growth and profitability in the almond industry. Though the future of sustainability, efficiency and innovation appears to be heading in a positive direction, only time will tell whether or not new bio-economy processes will be widely adopted by the almond community and approved by its regulating authorities.

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