Can science transform Californian cultures to cope with drought?
Like most orchards, almond trees are grafted onto the rootstocks of other trees, such as plum and peach, to find better varieties. Gradziel has spent two decades refining and refining these varieties in order to land on the almond of the future.
âBreeding takes a lot of patience,â he said. âI am now planning the trees that growers will have in 20 years. You can’t rush it.
Almonds, California’s thirstiest crop, were chosen as a scarecrow during the last drought. About 1.3 million acres of almonds are grown this year, according to the Almond Board. There has been a constant increase, drought or no drought.
The industry has been on the offensive, pushing back the oft-quoted equation “an almond requires a gallon of water” and noting the protein value of the nut and the use of its shell as feed for livestock and to other purposes.
Almond grower groups fight to stop the $ 6 billion industry from becoming the environmental equivalent of a gas-guzzling, carbon-spitting car by sponsoring research into breeding new types of trees that require less of water and are more tolerant of the increasingly salty soils of California.
The industry has set a 2025 target of reducing the water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 20%. It’s a tall order: last year, almonds consumed 13% of the water used for California agriculture.
“By cultivating, I take a huge risk”
It is often said that farmers are optimistic, that they have the ability to peer into the empty skies during drought and see silver clouds laden with rain. But farming in contemporary California requires a little more than hope.
When climate change and crippling water shortages land like a gale, Christine Gemperle sees it as a push from nature, urging her to constantly recalibrate her way of farming.
âI wonder every day,â said Gemperle, sitting on her shaded paved porch overlooking the 40 acres of almond trees she cultivates near Ceres, south of Modesto. His voice sometimes gets lost in the cacophony created by a vocal blue-fronted Amazon parrot, the ringing of wind chimes and the occasional bark of three rough puppies.
âI guess I have resigned myself to adapting to climate change,â she said. âBy cultivating I take a huge risk. It may and may not work. But if it works and we realize that we can adapt and we can change the way we do things, then we are learning something. If I give up and don’t do anything, then we don’t learn anything.
Gemperle, 50, has a master’s degree in fishing and happily describes herself as a âscience nerdâ open to new technologies: the perfect profile for a modern Californian farmer.
Gemperle and his brother Erich operate their family farm plots as a living laboratory.