Getting in Touch With the Almond’s Desert Roots

Using drought-tolerant rootstock could make the thirsty crop less environmentally damaging.

(Photo: David Gomez/Getty Images)

Oct 8, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Almonds would appear to be an unlikely villain. With their good-for-you gloss and newfound ubiquity—proliferating through breakfast cereals, snack bars, and even lattes over the past few years—almonds are everywhere, and that’s a good thing, from a health perspective.

Then there’s “The Dark Side of Almond Use,” as The Atlantic recently put it in a headline. More than 80 percent of the global crop is grown in California, and while the USDA estimates a record harvest this year—2.1 billion pounds—that massive haul is coming at a mighty environmental cost. With a fourth year of drought now threatening the state, almond farmers are drilling like mad to suck up enough groundwater to irrigate their trees. Partly because the trees must be watered even when they’re not producing, it takes more than a gallon to produce just a single kernel.

Thirstiness isn’t the only sin of the almond, however. The nut’s most poetic moment in literature, which comes courtesy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, may tie its scent to romance, but the scene that opens Love in the Time of Cholera is of a suicide.

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before. The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.

Almonds, it turns out, are natural-born killers. Wild varieties that are native across the Middle East and into the Hindu Kush mountains in South Asia are intensely bitter thanks to the glycoside amygdalin they contain, which turns into cyanide when the nuts are consumed. But the wild kernels might have a secret benefit as well as a hidden poison.

Nowhere in its historic range does the almond gets much rain. Many of the wild relatives of Prunus dulcis, the domesticated sweet almonds, are therefore highly drought tolerant, thriving in places even drier than California’s San Joaquin Valley.

No one is going to replant the Valley’s more than 900,000 acres of sweet almonds with Prunus scoparia, a wild Iranian almond, overnight. Creating a drought-tolerant future for almond growing in California requires separating what’s above and below the soil. Growers could continue to harvest Prunus dulcis while the trees are grown on the rootstock of wild or drought-tolerant domesticated varieties. That’s because almond trees, like other fruit trees and vine crops (the kernel is technically a seed), can be grafted onto the roots of another variety or even that of a close cousin, such as peach, apricot, or plum.

Prunus scoparia is just one of the wild varieties that could provide drought-tolerant rootstock for commercial orchards. “In undisturbed habitats, you might find them growing alongside a profusion of other desert trees and shrubs,” Bijan Jobrani writes in his Subversify essay about a stand of wild almonds planted to preserve a former Iran-Iraq War battlefield. Scoparia’s habitat resembles the desert chaparral of California, according to Jobrani.

Other varieties include a sweet almond called Balaton, originally from Hungary, and Prunus kuramica, a wild variety from Pakistan. Both are included in the USDA National Germplasm Repository for Tree Fruit, Nut Crops, and Grapes at the University of California, Davis—a collection of domesticated varieties and wild relatives that has been more eloquently called “Noah’s Ark for Fruits, Nuts and Grapes.”

“As climate change increasingly wipes out the fruits and nuts we eat today,” writes Laurel Allen in Modern Farmer, “this place, says Dylan Burge, a botany curator at the California Academy of Sciences, is where we’ll turn for help.”

The “potential value” of Prunus kuramica, according to its listing in the Repository’s catalog, is that the tree is “very drought resistant,” growing on “arid scree slopes” in the mountains of Pakistan, and that it has “rootstock potential.” Researchers and breeders trying to figure out a less thirsty future for almond farming might turn here for cloning material.

The orchards might not even need to go wild or feral (from the trunk down, that is) to use less water. Even in the wetter Mediterranean Basin, where almonds have been grown for more than 2,000 years, the trees were historically planted much like olives—a crop that many, me included, have suggested as a potential alternative—taking up resident on dry slopes with poor soil unsuitable for row crops. Centuries of farming “concentrated almond into specific regions where well defined land races evolved,” Jules Janick writes in “The Origins of Fruit, Fruit Growing, and Fruit Breeding,” published in Plant Breeding Reviews. “Almond culture became a low input dryland crop in semiarid areas.” In other words, the history of almond farming is not a history of irrigation, even in California: The first commercially successful almond orchard, planted in the Sacramento Valley way back in 1843, was dry farmed.

But snowmelt and groundwater pumped up from ever-drier aquifers have leveraged subpar farmland into a $6.2 billion business. Thanks to “revolutionary practices” that have “re-configured the geography and ecology of almond production,” Keith Warner writes in his book Agroecology in Action: Extending Alternative Agriculture Through Social Networks, yields have jumped from 213 pounds per acre in the 1920s to 1,348 pounds per acre in the 1990s. The USDA estimate from the 2014 harvest, which has just begun in the San Joaquin Valley, is mounds higher: 2,270 pounds per acre.

With both demand and prices up, almond farmers have little incentive to look for a more sustainable way to grow their crop. Drought even has its advantages if you can afford to drill wells. As a slideshow presentation from UC Davis explains, dry conditions speed up hull split—exposing the kernel inside—and limit hull rot, which can damage the crop.

“Some of the best years you have are drought years,” Michael Kelley, CEO of the Central California Almond Growers Association, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “That’s because you control a lot of the variables. You get rid of the funguses and the molds. You’re able to control things a lot better when you have drought conditions, even though you have a lot of stress on the plant.”

And as permanent as the almond trees stretching across much of the San Joaquin Valley may look, their dominance in California’s agricultural landscape will likely come to end sooner rather than later. Farmers here are a trendy bunch, and while you’re unlikely to see them drinking out of Mason jars or wearing anything but the most utilitarian Red Wing boots out in the orchard, the chase the market—or better yet, try to get ahead of it.

“What’s always been the case here in Kern County is that people have huge tracts—just ginormous farms—that always follow commodity,” almond farmer Nate Siemens told me when I visited his orchard during the almond bloom in February. “So, right now, the biggest cash crops you can have is almonds.” But if that changed tomorrow to potatoes, he says, his neighbors wouldn’t be able to tear out their trees fast enough.

I did find one study on dry-farming almonds in California, published in California Agriculture in 1967—when barley was the leading crop in Kern County, and just 7,600 acres of almonds were planted there.

The study looked at a rain-fed orchards further north, in Yolo County, and found the almonds responded to a decrease in soil moisture “by reducing the rate of extraction.” The almonds simply drink less during drought, and “thus they are able to extend the period of the available water supply.”

“In reality the dry land almond orchard used less water in June than in May,” the study continues, “which indicates some control of soil water extraction by almonds under moisture stress.”

So perhaps there’s still something of those wild desert almonds lurking in the coddled trees that grow in California today.