Grown in California: The Blue Diamond Almond Podcast
Delivering the Benefits of Almond Sustainability
Don’t miss the seventh episode of Grown in California: The Blue Diamond Almond Podcast. It’s a unique chance to hear Dr. Dan Sonke, our Director of Sustainability, discuss the ways Blue Diamond strives to create a more sustainable product, including key points like:
- Our metrics for sustainability
- Highlights of our 2022 Sustainability Report
- How we’re delivering a more sustainable product to our customers
- How almonds can improve customer formulations
CJ McCLELLAN: Hello, and welcome to Grown in California, The Blue Diamond Podcast, where we talk about all that is new and trending in the world of food and almonds. I'm CJ McClellan, the Senior Strategic Marketing Manager for Blue Diamond and our Global ingredients Division, and I'm joined by…
LORETTA KELLY: Loretta Kelly, Director of Strategic Marketing here at Blue Diamond's Global Ingredients Division.
So, today, we're discussing sustainability, an often-used term that can take on different meanings depending on who you're talking to, the perspective of the organization, the individual stakeholders… I mean, it could really mean anything, it really can. We'll go in-depth on what exactly sustainability means to Blue Diamond, and how that's really evolved over time. We're also going to talk about our 2022 sustainability report, Growing a Better Tomorrow - there's a lot of things that are going on in the orchards that are positively impacting the environment as well as our co-op of growers - and how we're really delivering a more sustainable product to our customers.
CJ McCLELLAN: You know, we're working with product formulators, product developers, as part of the Global Ingredients Division, and we know that they need more sustainable ingredients to integrate into their product. Because according to a recent study, 55% of consumers are more likely to purchase sustainable food products.
LORETTA KELLY: And 51% of those consumers say they now place a greater emphasis on sustainability when making those decisions.
CJ McCLELLAN: And that can be a variety of things. It can be from sustainable packaging to how the ingredients are sourced for the products that they're eating. I know it's something that I look at when I am in the store, as well.
LORETTA KELLY: And there's so many different halos that are connected to it. Like, I look at locally grown stuff, and I really want to, you know, purchase from that, versus actually looking at things that have, you know, "Imported from Mexico," "Imported from Chile."
CJ McCLELLAN: Exactly. But who better to lead a discussion on sustainable practices than today's guest? Joining us we have our expert, Dr. Dan Sonke, our Director of Sustainability at Blue Diamond Growers. Thank you, Dan, for taking the time to chat with us today.
DR. DAN SONKE: Hey, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me on the podcast.
LORETTA KELLY: Well, we've got a lot to discuss today, but first, you know what, Dan? I really want to learn more about your background.
DR. DAN SONKE: I think it's kind of a fun story, so thanks for asking. So I've been at Blue Diamond Growers just about 18 months now, with responsibility for the sustainability programs across the company and the co-op, but… A lot of people don't know this, but I actually grew up on a Blue Diamond member farm. So I started my life working in an almond orchard on the weekends after school, and I really grew up not only with almonds but with the company, [so] that the Blue Diamond brand's always prominent in our family's mind.
LORETTA KELLY: Wow, that's really interesting, Dan. I mean, like, to have Blue Diamond literally running through your blood. It's been something that you've been doing your entire life, and that's really exciting. Like, can you tell us more about how that really shaped your interest in agricultural sustainability?
DR. DAN SONKE: Great question. So as I said, I grew up on this Blue Diamond member farm. It had been in the family for a couple of generations. In fact, both of my grandfathers were Blue Diamond members, so we're working on the, the third and, actually, now the fourth generation. One of my nephews is working for a Blue Diamond member as well.
Growing up on the farm. I was the book nerd. That was probably - if my parent… If you asked my parents, [they] probably would say I was the least likely to stay in agriculture, but as I went to college I discovered I, you know, I, I knew I had a love of gardening and horticulture. And after a couple of years in college, I decided, you know, I really need to do something with this passion.
So I shifted to an environmental studies degree and took all my electives from the plant sciences, basically creating a sustainable agriculture degree back in the days before such types of degrees were common. And it was there that I started to get exposed, not just, you know, to the horticulture that I loved, but at the same time, [in] my hometown area, a lot of the orchards were being paved over as new housing developments were being built, and I discovered that I had this, you know, passion for horticulture and my home, you know, the farm I grew up on, that was kind of getting, in my mind, intermixed with this growing understanding of a holistic perspective on how the environment and agriculture interact. And so my passion for sustainability and agriculture really kind of came through that blending of seeing, essentially, a little bit of a threat to the agriculture area where I grew up on, but then married to this opportunity to think about how to communicate to the world about agriculture and the good things that agriculture has done already, and then help agriculture also tell a good story by identifying ways to improve.
CJ McCLELLAN: You have such a unique background and some deep ties to agriculture and sustainability and almonds, and now you work here at Blue Diamond, a co-op that was created to help serve the growers. So in that line of thought, why are Blue Diamond's sustainable initiatives vital not only for the customers that we're talking to in the Global Ingredients Division, but for the grower, too?
DR. DAN SONKE: You've positioned it very well, first of all, in that consumers definitely are interested in sustainability issues. I've been working in sustainability for over 20 years now; for about 15 of those years, I've been tracking marketing information related to consumer interest and sustainability. And 15 years ago it was growing, but still somewhat of a minority. Today, study after study says that the majority of consumers are interested in sustainability. They want to know where their food was grown, they want to know how it's grown. And if we, as an agricultural community, don't answer the questions - the desires - of our customers, then shame on us, they're going to go elsewhere. Just for that reason alone, we have to take this seriously.
But let's not ignore the fact that we do live in a changing world. We have, you know, these supply chain challenges we have climate challenges. We do see the impacts of agriculture on the environment. And the more we learn about this holistic thinking around sustainability and agriculture and manufacturing, the more we understand how we can improve, how we can reduce risks, how we can benefit our, our neighbors and our communities by responsible practices related to managing water, managing carbon emissions, managing our relationship to pollinators and other wildlife. So all these things are in our hands now to drive the needle forward and to not only respond to our customer base, but to address all stakeholders and improve the ability of our organizations to be good neighbors to the world.
LORETTA KELLY: Wow, Dan, that's very exciting. You can definitely tell your passion and experience coming through as you start talking about the different things that we do around sustainability, and especially how you created your own degree. I think that's really exciting when it came to really come up with something that's like, meaningful for you.
CJ McCLELLAN: Very cool.
LORETTA KELLY: I think one of the key initiatives that you've been really helpful in bringing forward during your time here at Blue Diamond is the Orchard Stewardship Incentive Program. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
DR. DAN SONKE: First, I just have to say that it's funny that you say I created my own degree. I literally had to get the dean's signature in order to do it, so I really did create my own degree back then. But you asked about OSIP, and one of the things that was most exciting when I got here was that the Board of Directors of Blue Diamond had recognized that we need to move faster on sustainability, and we need to do that with our membership.
So, as has been said in the past, we are a co-op - we are owned by the 3,000 farmers who are our members. And so in order to lead by example and put our money where our mouth is, the Board of Directors said, "Hey, let's create a program that financially incentivizes all our Members to enter the sustainability program that had been set up." (It was in place when I got here, and it's been incredibly successful.)
So the Orchard Stewardship Incentive Program, we call it, is simply a 3-tier program, and it partners with a couple of programs, the biggest of which is the California Almond Stewardship Platform of the Almond Board of California. So that's a multi-stakeholder program and approach to assessing growers, having them share data anonymously with the industry, but get exposed to over 300 best practices related to all aspects of almond farming, from irrigation and soil management and fertilizer management and pest management, human resources, etc. So this platform is a great way to expose growers to sustainability thinking and assess where they are, and then get data shared with you as a company and as an industry to help you understand where you can pull levers to move the needle, such as educational programs or workshops for the growers or other financial programs.
So that's one part of our incentive program. The other part is a carbon assessment through the Cool Farm Tool, an internationally-known carbon calculator for agriculture. The third part is a certification around bee-friendly farming, where we do a whole bunch of practices to protect pollinators. There are three tiers to our incentive, and growers get paid more as they go up at each tier. The first two tiers encourage them to go through the Almond Stewardship Platform. To get the top tier payment they have to do the entirety of the California Almond Stewardship Platform, plus do the carbon calculator with the Cool Farm Tool, and get Bee-Friendly Farming certified, which is a pretty expensive investment of time and resources on their part. And if they do all three of those things, then they get the top financial payments from our incentive program.
CJ McCLELLAN: Really fantastic to hear about these programs that are being put in place and these resources that are helping produce not only more beneficial crops, but are also helping the growers who are producing them, and the environment, and everyone that's involved in it as well.
DR. DAN SONKE: And I want to say that it's been phenomenally successful. The program's been around for two years now. First year, we grew 1,000% in the number of acres involved in that program. And by the end of the second year of that incentive, we're now at 40% of all Blue Diamond acres involved in that program.
LORETTA KELLY: Wow.
DR. DAN SONKE: … Which means 40% of our acres is more acres in a sustainable agriculture program than any other almond company has in the world. So really excited to show our leadership position that way, very exciting stuff to watch the growers go through this and how they've been responding.
We have small, medium and large farms engaged in the program; we didn't just go out and ask the big farmers to get involved to inflate our numbers. That's not how we operate. We have small farms, medium farms, large farms, all participating and taking advantage of these incentives.
LORETTA KELLY: One of the ways that you talk about our carbon footprint, and I know one of the big things that we can do to reduce our carbon footprint is reducing our waste, right? And reducing food waste. I've worked on tons of projects around that throughout my career, and I think it's one of the key things that both as a consumer you could do, but as companies, you know, we need to take more ownership of that. Could you tell us a little bit about what Blue Diamond does to ensure we're using all parts of the almond we're and we're reducing that food waste?
DR. DAN SONKE: Well, I mean one of the first things that consumers can do to reduce food waste, in my mind, is eat more almonds. And I say that with a smile on my face, that it's actually true that almonds have a long shelf life; they don't need to be refrigerated to sit on your counter while you eat them. So there's very little waste naturally amongst consumers when they eat almonds.
The other aspect of our operations is that there's very little waste through the processing of the elements. When you harvest almonds, you get two additional byproducts. There's a hull and a shell around the almond that we're familiar with eating when they come off the tree. So you harvest these three things at once, and then you crack them apart. And of course, the almond that we eat is the part that's familiar to most people. A lot of people don't realize, though, that this shell and the hull both have beneficial uses. So the hulls, first of all, are very nutritious feed for dairy cows, and almost all of them in the industry go to California dairies for that purpose - which, by the way, means that those dairies don't have to grow additional irrigated feed crops to feed those cows the portion that they're getting from the hulls, so the water used to grow the almonds also helps to offset water use in other parts of California agriculture. The shell often gets used as bedding for the cows. Sometimes it's used to generate electricity in cogeneration plants or renewable electricity through burning the shells to power the generators. So there are beneficial uses even before the almonds leave the orchard. You know, over half of what we harvest is going to these other beneficial uses.
LORETTA KELLY: You know, Dan, that brings up that one question that we always get asked about. And it's really the combination of resources that we use to grow an almond versus the output and really trying to calculate what's that net carbon footprint, right? Have we ever really done the math?
DR. DAN SONKE: Yeah, there are a couple of great studies at the university level - University of California, Davis has done some of them - that have put a carbon footprint to a pound of almonds. But there are some good studies that have put some numbers to almond production, and one exciting thing is that a couple of the studies that are published in very respectable journals have said that almonds and other nuts are low-carbon nutrition sources, low-carbon foods. So yes, you know it takes resources to grow the almonds, but there's a low-carbon component to the finished products that should encourage people when they're eating, you know, something that's highly nutritious and fun to eat, but also a low-carbon food.
Once the almonds come in from the orchard, we still have all sorts of ways to put them to use, which is kind of exciting to me. A lot of companies don't have the breadth of product portfolio that Blue Diamond has - we create almonds in all forms, we like to say. So, of course, the most beautiful almond kernels can go into uses where [the] consumer is going to see the nut and you want it to look nice. But, you know, some of the nuts do get chipped or scratched or even cracked in half as they go through different processes. And they don't get wasted, because we can turn them into other things. We can grind them into almond butter. We can turn them into almond flour. We can press them for almond oil and make almond protein powder out of them. So through all of these product portfolios that Blue Diamond has, we can make sure that we're minimizing food waste down to a very low level and utilizing the goodness of the almond in all of its forms and in all of our product lines.
CJ McCLELLAN: Pivoting just a little bit, I know one question that is probably always the first question you get, or that most frequent question you get, is around water. And I know that we recognize the importance of water conservation, and I know that it's really a critical component of the work that we do and our sustainability work. But just what are some of the common misconceptions around almonds and the water usage in California?
DR. DAN SONKE: I think the real story is that, yeah, it does take water to irrigate. All this - you know, one report said it takes about a gallon per nut to grow an almond. I have some quibbles with that report, but you know the numbers are in the ballpark. And that sounds really scary. But that same report said it took three-and-a-half gallons to grow a head of lettuce.
And my point isn't that you shouldn't eat lettuce, either; my point is it takes water to grow the nutritious fruits, nuts and vegetables that experts say we should, all around the world, be eating more of.
But the other part of the story - there's a lot more to the story, and that is it takes a third less water to grow a pound of almonds today than it did in the 1990s. That's because we're using micro-irrigation systems. These are highly efficient irrigation systems - like drip irrigation, you may have heard of, or micro-sprinkler is another one - and these systems have very low water loss and very efficient delivery of the water to the trees. In fact, 85% of all orchards are already on these highly efficient systems, but there's ways we can make them even more efficient, and the industry has a goal to reduce water use by another 20% three years from now, 2025. And how do we do that? Well, growers are adopting things like soil sensors, tree sensors, weather sensors… [If] we ask a grower about his or her water use today, they're likely to pull a smartphone out of their pocket and connect to real-time analysis of the water in their orchard, and that can tell them, "Hey, I don't need to water today, I can wait a couple more days." And that's how you make these systems even more efficient than they already are. If you look at other crops in California using micro-irrigation systems, it's about half that much. So, you know, almonds really are leaders in responsible use of California water.
LORETTA KELLY: Wow, I didn't know we used technology that much so really just determine, "Should we water today?" I mean, that's real-time information using real data to drive decision. I think that's really cool.
DR. DAN SONKE: It is really cool.
CJ McCLELLAN: I didn't know that, either. That's very, very cool.
So I know that we are big fans of bees around here at Blue Diamond Growers. How important is it for our growers to be given resources to help boost biodiversity and incorporate pollinator-friendly practices? And what even are pollinator-friendly practices, for those listening?
DR. DAN SONKE: It's an interesting question, especially the way you asked it.
So first of all, almonds and honeybees are from the same part of the world. Almonds grow in California today; honeybees were brought into the United States with… the Mayflower, I think. I mean, they've been here for a very long time. And they are the best pollinator for almonds. We've looked at native pollinators of various types, and the early spring when almonds are blossoming, and most other pollinators, they're still dormant, so they're not ready to pollinate. We bring in hives to pollinate the orchards in California already in January, February, so that when the trees bloom in February, the bees are awake and ready.
Almond blossoms are actually really nutritious for honeybees. A lot of people don't realize that, and it's a great source of nutrition. But like any other animal - and they are little, tiny flying animals - they do better if they have a diverse diet. And we know that by providing them additional pollen and nectar sources, this diverse diet can help the health of honeybees. So by planting cover crops and other plants in or around the orchard that bloom at the same time as the bees are in the orchard before, during, and after the almonds, it enhances the diet of these bees.
So, now, bees have been under pressure in the United States for about ten years or more now. New diseases have been introduced, parasites have been introduced accidentally that are hurting bee populations. Now, there's still plenty of honeybees around, they're not endangered, but we know that we want to help them thrive. And so we voluntarily provide these additional resources, pollen and nectar, for the honeybees simply to make them stronger, make them set up better to thrive, not just when they're in our orchards, but it's the beginning of the year for them, so, throughout the whole year it has set them up in a better place for the whole year ahead of the hive.
We also encourage growers to put out fresh water. Same thing, we all do better if we have fresh water to drink. So by providing fresh water resources in the orchard, growers can help the beekeeper to set his or her hive up for health during the bloom and as the hive moves on to their next location.
LORETTA KELLY: That's really exciting, Dan. You know, I think there's a lot of different programs that we have in place to help support our pollinators. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Pollinator Partnership?
DR. DAN SONKE: Pollinator Partnership is a nonprofit organization that promotes the health of pollinators of all types across the country. They created a program called Bee-Friendly Farming Certification to recognize the fact that there are opportunities for farmers to provide habitat and diverse diets for pollinators in and around their farms. And in our incentive program for sustainability, Blue Diamond actually pays growers more when they accomplish various things, including getting Bee-Friendly Farming Certified for their orchard. And to get Bee-Friendly Farming Certified, you have to plant the equivalent of 3% of your acres to forage crops and habitat for pollinators. You have to provide some permanent habitat for native pollinators year-round. You have to provide fresh water resources for the pollinators. You have to practice techniques that prevent those pollinators from interacting with pesticides, so that you're having a holistic environment that promotes the health not just of honeybees, but pollinators of all stripes. And we're really excited by the response of our growers to this financial incentive. In fact, over 10% of our acres today, of all Blue Diamond acres, are now certified under the Bee-Friendly Farming Certification. We're talking thousands and thousands of acres of bee-friendly certified almonds that we've been able to advance with our membership through this incentive program.
CJ McCLELLAN: Well, we know if our orchards weren't buzzing with pollinators and biodiversity, we would not be able to produce many of the different almond varieties and almonds that we grow. So it's awesome to see the commitment we have to making sure that our bees and our pollinators are healthy and able to help us year in and year out. But similar to our commitment to the pollinators and to the bees, we are also committed to mitigating the impact that our orchards have on climate change. So can you tell us a little bit about the steps that we are taking to help improve, you know, our greenhouse gas emissions?
DR. DAN SONKE: First of all, it's important to note that almonds, in multiple studies, have been declared a low-carbon food, even under conventional management, because they grow on trees. And, like trees in a forest, almond trees in an orchard are taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis and turning it into the components of the tree which, over time, is wood, and that happens for about 25 years, because almond trees live for about 25 years before they're replaced.
In the old days, we used to burn those trees when the orchard was finished. We don't do that anymore. There are ways to make sure that that wood stays out of the atmosphere even longer. And one of the techniques that's really cool is to take the orchard at the end of its life, chop the trees up into little, tiny wood chips, and put those wood chips into the soil before you plant the next crop, which, again, is usually almonds. And by putting that into the soil, you're locking that carbon out of the atmosphere for about another 25 years. So studies are saying this is one of the most significant ways that an almond orchard can reduce its climate impact across decades of time. And we're encouraging growers to adopt this practice. In fact, the USDA just awarded us a grant that we're going to roll into a program, and one of the things that will be cost-shared with the growers out of those grant dollars is this "whole-orchard recycling," we call it. So it's going to be advancing the adoption of these low-carbon techniques like whole-orchard recycling, and we're really excited to see that happen.
LORETTA KELLY: How much is the grant?
DR. DAN SONKE: $45 million, which will be rolled out over five years' time to adopt whole-orchard recycling and some other practices that have climate benefits and also biodiversity and pollinator benefits. So, things like cover cropping and hedgerow plantings to enhance pollinator habitat, while also sequestering carbon and putting organic matter into the soil.
CJ McCLELLAN: I bet that was a fantastic day when you received the news.
DR. DAN SONKE: Very exciting day. Also a little overwhelming, if I'm honest.
LORETTA KELLY: Wow, Dan, you're such a humble person. We really appreciate you coming here to talk to us about what's going on with sustainability, and really helping us put things in perspective. I think it's a lot of people have a lot of questions about sustainability, what does it really mean and, really, what does it mean for us as Blue Diamond. So I'm really excited to hear more details over the coming year about what we're doing and what things are going on.
CJ McCLELLAN: It was really great to hear about the positive impact that we are trying, daily, to make on the environment, and for our planet, and our customers, and our growers… and the entire ecosystem that is almonds.
Do you have any final thoughts? We are, as usual, running out of time.
DR. DAN SONKE:
Well, as you can tell, I'm passionate about this subject; I'm passionate about Blue Diamond and my family's participation in it, and the future of almond farming as we adopt these practices. So thanks for inviting me to share some of the story today.
CJ McCLELLAN: We are so happy to have you and we will definitely have you back.
LORETTA KELLY: If you enjoyed today's episode, be sure to set up for the upcoming webisode in January around the sustainable initiatives Blue Diamond is incorporating to grow a better tomorrow. And if you're hungry for more sustainability insights, head over to our website at bdingredients.com/insights to sign up to receive our Growing a Better Tomorrow 2022 Sustainability Report and the latest industry news.
Stay up to date on current trends as well as the future of almonds and almond ingredients. CJ McClellan, Senior Manager of Strategic Marketing, and Loretta Kelly, Director of Strategic Marketing, interview industry experts and Blue Diamond thought leaders to bring you applied almond expertise and valuable insights you won't find anywhere else.
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