Nine Questions with Richard Waycott, President and CEO of The Almond Board of California

From by Kate Reed
Nine Questions with Richard Waycott, President and CEO of The Almond Board of California

Food Tank, in partnership with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, Farm-to-Fork Program, and University of California, Davis, is excited to announce the 1st annual Farm Tank Conference at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento on September 22–23, 2016. This two-day event will feature more than 35 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels.

The event will feature interactive panels moderated by top food journalists, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Richard Waycott, President and CEO of The Almond Board of California, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Richard Waycott (RW): I always wanted to be involved in international commerce and chose agribusiness and food processing as fields in which I could contribute to providing nourishment to the world.

FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

RW: In growing one of California’s largest acreage and most valuable crops, we have the ability to work together as an industry of 6,800 almond growers to drive almond farming and the greater agriculture industry forward through innovative sustainability initiatives that help us ensure our industry is as vibrant many years into the future as it is today. While we have a rich history of research, committing more than US$50 million to air and water quality as well as tree, soil, and bee health, we recently launched the Accelerated Innovation Management (AIM) program to accelerate almond sustainability. We see four key areas to meet the future needs of consumers, local communities, and the planet: improved water management and efficiency; sustainable water resources; air quality; and 22nd-century agronomics. 

FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

RW: One of the four key areas of our AIM Initiative is 22nd-century agronomics, which will seek out new innovations and technical “leap frogs” to improve almond farming’s sustainability footprint. We are leaving no stone unturned here—each component of almond farming will be considered for improvements in efficiency and sustainability from land preparation and varietal development to equipment and processing.

The broader agricultural community here in California is also making advances that have wide-reaching implications. As farmers have shifted away from flood irrigation to more efficient drip and micro-irrigation, local water districts have begun to rethink their infrastructure. The South San Joaquin Irrigation District, in particular, has developed a pressurized irrigation system that is the first of its kind in the state. The system allows farmers to schedule water deliveries from a smartphone or tablet based on current and past weather forecasts, previous water usage, and historical evapotranspiration rates and orchard moisture sensors. Growers have the ability to choose the time, volume, and pressure of all deliveries, allowing for extremely precise irrigation, something that is incredibly important in our current state of drought.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

RW: I consider all of the farmers with whom I’ve worked throughout my career to be food heroes. Farmers are the ultimate risk takers and the benefit of their efforts is that we have a plentiful and safe food supply. We owe so much gratitude to the farming community for the role it plays in society and the nutritious food it puts on our tables every day.

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

RW: We live in and are an integral part of the food system, so we have a better sense than most about how it can be evolved and improved.  As business persons with families living in an almond orchard, the drive has always been there for almond growers to do more with less, and to preserve the environment. Very exciting times lie ahead where innovation and new thinking will provide for breakthroughs in the growing and processing of agricultural crops.

FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn't have to deal with?

RW: California has historically been America’s “fruit and vegetable basket” and is currently home to 76,400 farms, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. California is also the nation’s most populous state. According to the California Department of Conservation, between 1984 and 2010, 1.1 million acres of California irrigated farmland and nearly 370,000 acres of non-irrigated farmland was lost to urbanization. By 2050, the Public Policy Institute of California predicts our state’s population will grow to 50 million. As the natural resources in California are increasingly limited, agricultural and urban interests need to work together to create a sustainable future for the state. 

Protecting and conserving farmland isn’t just important for your grocery cart. Agriculture is a vital industry in California. The state’s Mediterranean climate is ideal for growing a variety of crops, like almonds, not to mention the infrastructure that has been built over the years to support more than 400 crops. 

The California almond industry alone contributes 104,000 jobs in our state, which is about as many people as General Motors employs throughout all of North America. In total, land-based industries (agriculture, fisheries, recreation, forests, etc.) contribute US$318 billion in direct sales and exports, accounting for one-third of our state’s economy. 

At the same time, it is important that farmers be good neighbors to this increasingly urban population. Due to air quality concerns in the Central Valley, almond growers have a responsibility to manage dust and protect air quality for the health of their neighbors and own families. For years the Almond Board has been funding research to both better understand the impacts of harvest dust on air quality and identify ways that growers and their partners can reduce dust.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

RW: Honey bees are essential to creating food—helping produce approximately one in three bites of the food we eat. Declines in honey bee and pollinator health have put farming, healthy ecosystems, and worldwide food security at risk. Almonds are dependent on honey bees. Without them, there would be no almonds. And without almond blossoms, bees would lose their first important natural source of nutritious pollen after a long winter.

Since 1995, the Almond Board has invested US$2 million in bee health research, leading to several breakthroughs towards improving honey bee health. Our work continues to investigate the varroa mite and other pests that affect honey bees; bee stock improvements and disease management; honey bee nutrition; and in-field technical assistance for beekeepers addressing hive health and management. We will continue to invest in honey bee research to help these little friends we depend on so much.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

RW: According to the NRDC, 40 percent of the food produced in the U.S. never gets eaten. By being mindful of what you purchase and consume, we can begin to reduce that number. But food waste doesn’t just exist in your trash can; it is an issue across the food supply chain, from grocery stores to farms.

In our own industry, for example, the almond tree actually produces three products: the hulls, shells, and kernel we eat. We know that the reuse of the hull and shell byproducts can make a big difference in cutting down on waste. Typically, the hulls go to livestock feed and the shells are used as livestock bedding. Even the trees’ woody biomass is often incorporated back into the soil after they stop producing almonds.

We’re currently researching ways to further optimize reuse for the benefit of our industry’s carbon footprint with the goal of making our industry carbon neutral or even carbon negative in the future.

FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

RW: As we have lived through the past four years of extreme drought here in California, having enough water for human consumption, the environment, and growing food is a critical issue that needs to be addressed. All food takes water to grow, and California alone produces more than two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and one-third of our vegetables.

Globally, groundwater is vital in supporting human needs, and California’s groundwater is pumped for drinking as well as other urban and agricultural uses. As we look to the future, projecting that natural resources are going to continue to be limited in our state, we must do what we can to replenish groundwater supplies for future generations.

As part of the AIM program we launched, we are exploring how to best leverage almond acreage for accelerating natural flood-year groundwater recharge of aquifers. This is vitally important given that continuing drought and its associated shortage of surface water supplies have meant the volume of pumped groundwater has been more than can be reasonably expected to be recharged without coordinated efforts to increase recharge. California’s aquifers are collectively the state’s largest water storage system and water recharged through this program would benefit all Californians, not just farmers.


To find out more about the event, see the full list of speakers, and purchase tickets, please click HERE. Interested participants who cannot join can also sign up for the live-stream HERE.

To join us at Food Tank's São Paulo, Brazil, Summit in October 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Chicago, IL, Summit November 16, 2016, please click HERE.

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Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Sacramento include: Almond Board of California, Annie’s Inc., Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Blue Apron, Clif Bar & Company, Driscoll's, Fair Trade USA, Farmer’s Fridge, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Inter Press Service (IPS), Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, and VegFund. More to be announced soon.

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