Aubrey Bettencourt has spent her career tackling some of agriculture’s thorniest issues.
As the director of sustainability for Western United Dairymen, she focused on watershed health and other natural-resource issues for California’s highest-valued ag sector. Before that, Bettencourt served as deputy assistant secretary in the Water and Science Division of the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.
From 2017-19, she fought to keep “farmers farming” as the California state director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency. She also spent almost nine years, from 2009 to 2017, as the executive director of the California Water Alliance.
And underpinning all that is Bettencourt’s first-hand involvement with Bettencourt Family Farm, a fourth-generation operation in Hanford, Calif., in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.
When she took on the position of president and CEO of the Almond Alliance of California on December 1, 2021, Bettencourt was ready to tackle the growing challenges facing the state’s No. 2 agricultural commodity. She spoke to West Coast Nut in mid-December about her priorities, concerns and excitement in helping shape the future of California’s almond industry.
Q: How does your background in the dairy industry inform your leadership role in the almond industry?
I’ve had the privilege now of being involved in the future and leadership of the two largest commodities in the largest agricultural economy in the world. That experience, that networking, that perspective definitely gives me fresh eyes coming into this position at the Almond Alliance.
Having the experience both on the dairy side, which has been extremely progressive in going through an immense amount of challenges, and now coming over to almonds, which has its own suite of unique challenges, I just come into it with a lot of energy. It gives me a different and opportunistic mindset.
Q. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing California’s almond industry?
I’m a water girl from way back, so I’m always going to start there. The reason is because I’m also a farmer. I know the first questions farmers ask before they put anything in the dirt are, ‘How much water do I have? What quality is it? What’s the sustainability of it? And where is it?’ All things water are quantity, quality, timing and distribution. Over 80% of the world’s almond production comes out of California. It is a massive market that we proudly have created in partnership with the Almond Board of California. My job and my concern are to protect the resources necessary to grow almonds, process them and get them to market.
My second concern right now is ports and the supply chain. Getting the product to the consumer is a huge concern, especially with the dysfunction at almost every step of the way in the supply chain right now. It is a massive concern. That’s something that we’re working on actively, constantly.
Q: What agency or agencies play the biggest role in determining the future of California’s almond industry?
You can always talk about USDA and CDFA. They’re the big ones, the traditional ones. But I actually think it’s your regulators, not your ag entities. To complain about regulation and the level and scale of regulation we have in California is like complaining that the sky is blue. It’s just the cost of doing business in the state. It is what has made us a superior and sophisticated community and economy in the ag sector of the world.
But it does have its challenges. I look at our regulatory agencies like the State Water Resources Control Board or the Department of Pesticide Regulation. They have an incredible amount of influence and impact. I want to have relationships with our regulators because it is so important for us as an industry, as experts in our space, to be working with them to create better, more informed, best available science as they develop their rulemaking.
Q. What will you be pushing hardest for in 2022?
Water. I’m going to come back to it every time. It’s challenging every aspect of not only our infrastructure but our management philosophy. I would rather us be in the position of deciding not only how we want to survive the drought for our producers and our industry but also be a part of shaping a future that gets us prepared for getting out of this drought, when the rain and snow comes, and then for longer-term climate resilience and the future we want with regards to the modern pressures on our water supply in the state.
At the same time, we have all our groundwater sustainability plans going up for review. This is actually a great opportunity, in my mind, for us to get ahead in SGMA compliance and implementing and pouring resources out onto the landscape to invest in our own sustainability long term. I will do everything I can to position us as part of the solution.
Q: Where do you see California’s almond industry three to five years from now?
Someone said, “You get paid to be optimistic,” and I said, “No, I’m genuinely optimistic.” Because I know the personality, the resilience and the sophistication of our industry. Out of challenges, you’re going to see a lot of new solutions and adaptations that may change the way we look at things, maybe change where things are being grown or how they’re being grown. But we will still be a dominant industry. I don’t expect to knock dairy off its perch. But in the next three to five years, we will still be in the top two spots as the largest commodities in the state.
Q. What should people know about the Alliance?
We are a voluntary, membership-based organization with an elite, svelte team whose job it is to look at all these challenges and be that fierce representative for the industry. It’s distinct and different from the Almond Board, which is our partner and sister in the industry. They have amazing expertise in technical as well as market development. We are on the other side in the room, with expertise in policy and politics, lending our community’s voice and expertise in critical decisions, whether that’s at the federal or state level, even in some cases at the international level when we’re talking about supply chain issues.
We are here as a resource and an asset. Our job is to be responsive and responsible to our industry and community and represent it well in those decision-making places. That’s my commitment coming into this position. My email address is Aubrey@almondalliance.org. Reach out anytime. I want to make sure we’re right where we need to be, if not ahead of it, and leading in solutions on behalf of our community. That’s exactly who the Alliance is and we’re going to continue to do that.