Almonds have been a constant throughout human history. From the Bible’s Old Testament to our present era of emails, e-books and e-commerce, you’ll find almonds are referenced in various places across multiple countries, consumed by each new generation over hundreds of years.
While it’s thought that almonds were introduced to California as early as the 1700s, it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that production expanded significantly in the Central Valley as seedlings along roadsides and commercial orchards propelled the discovery of new almond cultivars. Alongside these discoveries, California maintains the oldest continuous almond breeding program in the world. In 1923, the University of California (UC) at Davis and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiated a cooperative breeding program to conduct early pollination and cultivar studies.[i] Together with private breeders and nurseries, USDA and UC Davis have built a robust pipeline of new cultivars and rootstocks to serve the California almond industry.
The Almond Board of California (ABC) began funding almond varietal research at UC Davis in the early 1970s and expanded to rootstock development in the late 1980s, investing an estimated $8 million over the past 40 years. In the last 20 years, this research has delivered three new varieties—Kester, Winters and Sweetheart—and supported testing of most commercial varieties and rootstocks for overall performance, resistance to pests, diseases and abiotic stresses, providing growers with information on options for different growing conditions.
Today, ABC has established a holistic approach to develop the varieties of tomorrow. In November, ABC hosted various stakeholders—public and private breeders, growers and handlers, hullers/shellers, UC Cooperative Extension researchers and farm advisors, and nursery representatives—for an opportunity to sample more than 60 varieties of almonds at its Crack-Out Day.[ii] Now, after considering each industry sector’s valued almond characteristics, from the grower to the handler, the manufacturer to the consumer, ABC has developed a five-point plan detailing how it will coordinate with actors throughout the industry to find better varieties that can achieve greater, higher quality yields with reduced management costs and horticultural inputs in the areas of pollination, water use and pest management, among others.
“The Almond Board is excited to lead the California almond industry in this community-wide effort to find improved varieties, and it is truly a team effort. We want to work in lockstep with each industry stakeholder every step of the way,” said Dr. Sebastian Saa, senior manager of Agricultural Research at the Almond Board.
Innovation to Speed up Varietal Development
Unlike annual crops, breeding of tree crops such as almonds can take multiple years. To accelerate breeding for traits such as self-compatibility, ABC has initiated new investments in the development of molecular markers for use in conventional breeding.
“To be clear, this is not related to GMOs [Genetically Modified Organisms]. We are still using conventional breeding approaches, but rather than waiting for a tree to grow each time we cross two varieties, breeders can use molecular markers to see very early on if the trait of interest will be in the progeny of that cross,” said ABC’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Josette Lewis.
The benefit of molecular markers on time and development is astronomical. With the previous process, a breeder would cross two varieties, grow the seedling and wait until it produces. That process could take up to seven years. Using markers, however, when the plant is only four months old the breeder can already send a leaf to the lab to determine its molecular makeup.
Molecular marking technology is being used in almond breeding programs across the world, including Israel, Australia and Spain. ABC is looking forward to incorporating these tools into the California almond industry’s breeding program. In December ABC issued requests for proposals to the best researchers in this field of study and projects are now underway.
Accelerating Evaluation of New Varieties
In addition to speeding up development, ABC will increase the rate at which new varieties are evaluated, allowing researchers to weed out the “winners” from the “losers” at a more efficient pace.
In the 1980s, the Almond Board began supporting long-term regional variety trials (RVT) in various locations to test the performance of new varieties in a semi-commercial manner across diverse almond growing regions and soil conditions. These varieties are compared to standard varieties such as Nonpareil.
In the industry’s current RVTs taking place in Butte, Stanislaus and Madera counties, UC researchers[iii] are collecting performance data on a total of 29 varieties in the areas of bloom and hullsplit timing, disease and insect susceptibility, tree canopy size, kernel quality and yields.
With ABC’s new process, top varietal candidates will be evaluated in interim orchard plots in combination with newly developed material from other sources (i.e. private breeding programs). Here, researchers will gather data and determine the strongest, most viable varieties, which will then go onto a longer term RVT, remaining at that site for 15 years. During those 15 years, researchers will continue collecting data on seedling performance, growing habits and horticultural factors, data that will then be provided to growers and other industry stakeholders to help them make the most informed decision possible.
“Streamlining this process so that all potential new varieties are screened in the same manner allows us to be more strategic and thoughtful about which varieties we pursue—those which have the best qualities,” Saa said. “For the benefit of all involved, we want to ensure that the varieties that reach the 15-year RVTs are the best of the best.”
In addition to incorporating these interim orchard evaluations to the breeding equation, Saa said ABC is working with funded researchers to design the next generation of RVTs to provide outputs to the industry every five years instead of every 15 years (once the design is fully implemented).
“RVTs will need to run more frequently, initiating every five years or so, to ensure we can increase the frequency of the outputs without sacrificing the quality of the information,” he said.
Soliciting Input on Breeding Priorities
The multiple uses of different varieties and types of almonds have long been understood in the industry. Selling into Japan? You’re shipping your best product—Nonpareil J-spec—for a consumer demographic that demands perfection, a nut without blemishes. Sending a load to Germany for confectionary use? You’re likely shipping a variety that’s easy to blanch for marzipan and can easily be used for multiple purposes. Ultimately, different markets want different almonds.
While handlers, in particular, know these details well, for many years the California almond industry has bred almonds not with the end user as top of mind but with a focus on the growers’ priorities: harvesting implications, pest management, bloom timing, etc. However, in order to keep California almonds ahead of the competition—to ensure continued demand—the industry needs to produce different varieties that are not only productive for the grower but also provide versatile, high quality kernels that work well for the ingredient and snacking markets.
To meet this need, the Almond Board is soliciting input from growers, hullers/shellers, handlers and food companies to inform public and private breeders on horticultural, processing and demand priorities. This guidance will provide a list of “priority” traits, such as self-compatibility, high yield, certain kernel specifications, harvest shake efficiency, etc., and then a list of “desired” traits, including disease resistance greater than Nonpareil and flavor development.
“Developing this guidance is an ABC and industry-wide effort,” said Dr. Karen Lapsley, senior director of Nutrition Research and Special Projects at the Almond Board. “We’re working with ABC experts in nutrition profiling, almond quality, trade and marketing, as well as a vast amount of industry stakeholders through our industry-led workgroups and committees to determine what should be included in this guidance.”
Sharing Research Outcomes
ABC-funded research cannot support the industry if it never reaches the eyes and ears of growers, nurseries, handlers and other stakeholders. Constant, timely communication and hands-on events are required to share research outcomes and demonstrate how those outcomes may be applied in the orchard.
At present, industry members have access to RVT outcomes and other breeding projects through ABC’s Research Database and annual Research Update.[iv] ABC is looking to give the industry an earlier and fuller look at varieties coming through the pipeline of both the public breeding and commercial nursery programs. Learning how varieties in those programs are performing will give industry members helpful data on which varieties may maintain improved production, quality, or processing value.
“Increased outreach is particularly important to public entities, such as the UC and USDA breeding programs, as they do not have the marketing capabilities that private nurseries do, which keeps them from broadly promoting new varietal releases,” Dr. Saa said.
The Almond Board has already started to execute on outreach events and communications, such as the Crack-Out Day, from which ABC plans to create and distribute an industry report sharing the results, which includes how attendees rated each variety on taste, texture, etc., as well as findings from RVTs and other breeding research. The Almond Board is also planning to arrange field days during which results from RVTs will be shared and craft more broad communications via industry newsletters.
“Not only do we want to increase outreach, but we want to make it more user friendly and approachable,” Saa said. “New varieties are being constantly evaluated, but if we don’t do more to work with researchers in planning field days and communications to the industry then growers and stakeholders won’t have the full picture.”
ABC also recently formalized its strategic collaboration with the UC Davis Fruit and Nut Center, with whom ABC will partner to develop specific outreach tools in upcoming years.
Evaluate Almond Quality in Context of Market Demand
From almonds as an ingredient to almond butter and almond milk, the industry is seeing continual growth in almond uses across multiple categories. Because different almond varieties can be optimized to best suit the end user, food manufacturers look for a wide slew of attributes when selecting almonds for purchase, attributes including kernel shape and size, surface color (light to dark), surface texture (smooth to deeper groves), the ability to be blanched (for milk and baking) and more. Flavor is also a factor—in almonds, the compound Amygdalin gives the nuts their signature amaretto-like flavor—and while flavor does not drastically vary between California almond varieties, those with a keen palate will notice a distinct difference in taste.
Beyond the almond in all its forms, of course, is the whole almond, which in recent years has taken the lead ahead of other nuts in the realm of “snackification.”
“Driven by busy millennials, this growing trend of ‘snackification’ demonstrates that people are rapidly trading in their three daily meals for smaller snacks consumed throughout the day. Growth in the snack aisles is one of the largest drivers of almond consumption worldwide,” said ABC’s Associate Director of Trade Stewardship and Marketing Harbinder Maan.
Parallel to this increase in global demand is an increase in supply. For the third straight year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is predicting a record California almond crop, estimating orchards will produce 3.0 billion pounds of nuts in the 2020-21 crop year, up 17.6 percent from last year.[v]
What does this mean for the California almond industry?
According to Guangwei Huang, associate director of Food Research and Technology at ABC, “As supply and global competition increase, demand for certain almond characteristics and quality properties becomes more and more relevant—no exceptions.
“For instance, in the walnut industry when global supply is higher than demand, the ability to produce extra-light walnuts really matters, and in cherries, we know that producing fewer, big fruit is more desired than producing more smaller fruit,” said Huang.
With this mantra in mind, ABC is working with professor and food chemist Dr. Alyson Mitchell of UC Davis and sensory experts from The National Food Laboratory to define flavor and sensory quality characteristics of different almond varieties to better understand how the aforementioned “priority” and “desired” traits impact consumer liking or preference of almonds.
“Carrying out profiling and quality evaluations in the early stages of varietal selection and RVT evaluations will expedite the development of new varieties and allow us to best meet the end user’s demand for common and unique applications,” Huang said.
Looking to the future of ABC’s strategic breeding program, Lapsley said she’s excited to see future varieties and the research backing them drive the industry toward a more advanced, successful future.
“Thorough evaluation of new varieties gives confidence in their value across the industry,” said Lapsley.
“For instance, the reason you know Monterey consistently has more doubles is because of an early RVT that demonstrated that result year after year. With improvements in the variety evaluation process, we have an opportunity to exponentially increase the knowledge of growers and other industry members to help them make decisions about the varieties of the future. And by supporting the industry in its efforts to produce better quality, highly productive varieties at a faster pace, the Almond Board is continuing to support the California almond industry in its mission to expand global consumption through leadership in innovative research.”
[i] Gradziel, T. M., & Company, R. S. i (Eds.). (2017). Almonds: Botany, Production and Uses. CABI.
[ii] Learn more about ABC’s Crack-Out Day at newsroom.almonds.com/content/almond-board-brings-together-growers-manufacturers-to-taste-more-than-60-almond-varieties.
[iii] UC researchers involved with current RVTs include Bruce Lampinen, Phoebe Gordon, Roger Duncan, Luke Milliron and Sam Metcalf.
[iv] To access the Almond Board’s Research Database, please visit almonds.com/growers/resources/research-database.
[v] For more information, visit http://newsroom.almonds.com/content/usda-nass-predicts-third-straight-record-breaking-almond-crop.