Christine Gemperle is a second-generation almond farmer and a hobbyist beekeeper. She and her brother Erich farm 16 hectares (40 acres) of almonds near Turlock in Stanislaus County, California and another 37 hectares (93 acres) in nearby Gustine.
She talks to us about the challenges of working in one of the riskiest professions in the world and shares her pride in being part of an industry committed to protecting the land and promoting the health of the bees, without which there would be no almonds.
How long have you been growing almonds?
My brother Erich and I started our farming operation in 1997 but our father has been farming almonds since the early 1970’s. He and his brother immigrated from Switzerland and started a farming operation here in Turlock.
We are a small operation, but we like it that way as it gives us greater control of the crop we produce. It might be hard work, but we love the simplicity. A bonus is that we get along well, and each have our own skill set which caters for most of our operation’s needs.
California is home to over 80% of the world’s almonds. What makes the region so well-suited to almond growing?
California is the confluence of all the things needed for maximum productivity and efficiency. It’s a place where food should be grown and where I think it would be irresponsible and unwise not to take advantage of the many benefits we have. For starters the Central Valley has some of the most fertile soils in the world and a climate that allows for year-round growing of food.
The diversity of crops grown here is unparalleled. Although we have our share of climate change, drought and water conveyance issues, we have a highly complex and functional system of water storage compared with other places in the world. We have knowledge, education and research available to us that enables us to produce the most with the least input.
What do you enjoy most about being an almond farmer?
A million things! I love the yearly cycle. I like to say that every year is the same, but every day is different. Our yearly duties are more or less the same because work follows the lifecycle of the trees but each day, we may be doing something different depending on what the trees’ needs might be.
I love bloom for obvious reasons, it’s beautiful and smells great – I call it the Promise of Spring when those first buds start to pop. It’s a chance every year to start over and ask yourself what can I do better, where can I improve. Farming is not for the weak hearted or fickle. It’s a commitment and a lifelong choice. Most of us never retire, we just slow down.
How important is sustainability to you?
Very. I’m proud to be a farmer who, along with my fellow almond farmers, is totally in sync with being good stewards of the land. It is not only a commitment but a responsibility to preserve and pass on the land to the next generation.
Almond farmers have a long history of doing more with less; we have a deep, vested interest in protecting honey bee health, and by investing in water-saving technologies we’ve been able to reduce the amount of water it takes to grow a pound of almonds by 33% over the past 20 years. Waste is another area where we’re making a difference; the almond community is committed to achieving zero waste in orchards by 2025, by putting everything that’s grown to optimal use. Not only are the almonds taken from their hulls and shells, but those hulls and shells are also used in a number of beneficial ways rather than being sent straight to landfill. In fact, it’s best to describe them as co-products. Almond growers strive to be responsible growers, because in the end this industry is about long-term commitment, we are lifers.
You’ve touched on the importance of bee health. Why are bees so essential for almond growing?
We wouldn’t have much of a crop without bees. Every nut on the tree is there because a bee visited a flower. Pollen needs to move from one variety of almond to another variety but it doesn’t work with wind – it needs to be moved by a bee. However, I like to think that the bees need us as much as we need them. To them we are a key source of nutrition, providing 10 of the essential amino acids that they need to survive.
That’s why it’s so important for us to make the most of what is a symbiotic relationship. Over the years Erich and I have changed our farming practices and planted forage to promote bee health and nutrition because, at the end of the day, stronger hives can produce bigger crops.
What sustainability practices do you implement to minimize environmental impact?
Where do I start? I guess I can start with the bees. I am a hobbyist beekeeper, which makes me hyper aware of the impact my practices have on the well-being of my bees and pollinators in general. In the fall I plant forage in the orchard rows – the mustard in every other row is a great source of food for bees before and after bloom. The alternate rows are planted in a clover, which provides a late spring source of forage in addition to nitrogen fixing and helping to build a healthy soil.
We also use our water very efficiently by working with innovative researchers and investing in technology. We have learned to cut back our water use without compromising our crop size; in fact, during the drought of a few years ago we survived only because of these changes. All our farming processes keep in mind the environmental impact, and because almonds are California’s number one agriculture export we work very closely with research and governing bodies to constantly improve our practices.
What are some of the challenges involved in growing almonds?
Almond farming comes with plenty of questions, uncertainties and risks, particularly as harvest time approaches. Will it rain on the blossoms? Will the bees have enough time to pollinate the blooms? Will we have a good nut set? Will there be frost or disease that threatens the crop? The questions go on and on.
Farming is inherently risky. How many other professions can claim they are completely at the mercy of the weather? It is the uncontrollable factor that can make or break you.
That’s why we must rely on the tools we have to protect our investment, whether spraying crop-protection materials or turning on sprinklers during freezing temperatures to save the bloom. And of course, protecting the bees is key as they are a huge part of what ensures we can produce anything.