March, 2019 Interview with
Rory Crowley, Chief Operations Officer and the Executive Vice President for Research and Business Development at Nicolaus Nut Company
Q. Where did you grow up and what got you interested in the Ag industry?
A. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, for about 16 years and then went out east to high school with some family there. I completed an undergrad degree in philosophy in Virginia, and a master’s degree in Ancient History in Dallas. Then, when I went back to DC after my master’s degree, I met my wife. She was from Chico, CA and her dad had been in commercial production of almonds and walnuts for about 30 years at that time. His family was originally in Iowa, where they farmed corn, soy, and other row crops. My wife and I decided to return to California from DC and go straight into agriculture helping out on the farm. It’s been almost 5 years now, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve always been interested in working in the outdoors and working hard—literally sweating for a paycheck, and so that’s how it came about. We love it. It’s a pretty hard lifestyle, but it’s great.
Q. Who do you work for and what is your job title?
A. Currently I work for Nicolaus Nut Company here in California. My job titles are the Chief Operations Officer and the Executive Vice President for Research and Business Development. My wife and I have just launched an LLC called Terra Nux (pronounced noox) which is Latin for “earth nut” The purview of that operation will be farm management, farm land brokerage, and bringing our farm products, almonds and walnuts, direct to the consumer. The idea is to take our family farm products and move it to the market through our LLC.
Q. What certifications do you have that pertain to your job?
A. I went through the Almond Board Leadership Program in 2016 so I’m an alumnus of the Almond Board Leadership Program. I also have a Private Applicators Certificate and we have someone on staff with her PCA and QAL as well as working closely with other PCAs in the industry.
Q. What was your work experience before almond growing?
A. When I first moved to DC when I was 16, I started working for corporate concrete company which is a family company that does big buildings – high rises, parking garages, and concrete work. I learned how to work hard out in that environment. Up through my master’s degree, I was very involved in discipline-specific research in ancient history working as an intern coordinator and research coordinator for a few companies that were focused on textual studies of ancient texts. When I got back to DC after my master’s degree, I was working for a history museum as a Research Fellow. Then, when I came out to Chico I started on the ground level, digging out a mainline to fix an irrigation system. Over the past few years my father-in-law has seen that my best use isn’t a shovel, it's more on the research and development side as well on the operations side. My job now is to get the job done, whatever that entails, on a daily basis.
Q. How has your research background informed your farming practices?
A. It has heavily influenced my farming practices. At the end of the day, I’m a data and analysis guy. Coming into this with little to no idea of how agriculture works was, on one end, a weakness, and on the other end a set of fresh eyes. Farming has been done for a long time very successfully and efficiently, and in a particular way, but there is room for improvement. So my research background helps me be a critical thinker about what we’ve done in the past regarding what have become conventions or tradition, at least where I sit in the tree nut world. So it helps me look at what we are doing with a critical eye and evaluate whether or not this or that is the most efficient, most environmentally-friendly, most productive, makes the most economic sense, etcetera. There are all these different factors, and it’s a multi-pronged stool to make this all work. The research part of my training, although in ancient history, prepared me quite well for coming into commercial agriculture at a time when we are seeing an enormous change – at the consumer level, all up and down the supply chain, and specifically in the regulatory environment; we are seeing a lot of governing factors and influences that are by themselves challenging the way we have done traditional agriculture in the tree nut industries. That alone takes a critical eye to balance how things have been done and at the same time, seek to understand that there is a huge economic component to what we are trying to do, as well as huge environmental components to what we are trying to do; not that there hasn’t been these emphases on environmental in the past, but certainly there is more of an energy behind the environmental side. There are a lot of changes going on in the industry and I think my background does really lend its self well to that change, specifically happening in my own world of specialty crops in California’s Central Valley.
Q. What does sustainability mean to you?
A. Everyone has an idea about what the word “sustainability” means. At a very basic level, consumers have a view of what sustainability is and growers have a view of what sustainability is, and those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive; I don’t think they should be, but at times they seem to be two very different conversations or definitions.
Sustainability typically is understood in strictly an environmental context, and I can appreciate and understand that. But in the environmental context when we typically use the word “sustainability,” sometimes it’s different to understand on the customer/consumer end that sustainability involves not just the environment, it also involves economics, it involves regulatory aspects, it involves really a wholistic approach to what we are doing. So when I think about the word “sustainability,” I cast a much wider net that certainly includes the economic components of what it takes to grow a product and get it to market in a high quality and high yield type of sense.
At Nicolaus Nut Company, first and foremost, our Mission statement is to “love our neighbor one nut at a time.” That involves product, that involves people, that involves planet, and that involves the economic side of what it takes to grow this product. In terms of our Vision, our Vision is: “to see a world where agriculture serves the social, environmental, and economic good.” We don’t see these things as being mutually exclusive, and we focus very heavily on all three.
We want to see agriculture do something, and not something detrimental. We want to see positive influences that agriculture has on the world, specifically around us and in our immediate concentric circles here in Chico, and our employees, but also as it relates to a greater context – California farming, farming in America, farming in the world, and how it relates to the planet’s health, these kinds of things.
Environmentally, we see water and soil health as very, very high on the list. Obviously, the greatest asset we have on our farm is not tractors, harvest equipment, not our trucks, it’s two things: our people and our soil. That’s where the bulk of our investment is and that’s what we have to take care of. From that standpoint on the soil health side, it becomes increasingly important for not only the short-term health of a crop, but for the long-term health of an orchard and the long-term health of our operation and our people within that operation.
When I talk about soil health, I have to couch that and say that in the California tree perennial crop systems we still don’t have a good definition for soil health. We do not have a lot of our metrics, especially on the biological, micro-organism side. There’s just not a lot of testing that can be done without being exponentially cost prohibitive. We can’t just go out, take a soil sample, send it to the lab like we do with chemical and physical analysis, and then get it back and say 'this is what we’ve got, and this is what we need to do.' It’s a much more nuanced and specific, and in many ways a new science."
"At Nicolaus Nut, we believe that if we put life into the soil, we will get life out of the soil - environmentally, economically, and socially. And of course, economically if we can’t grow a competitive product that’s very high quality, that has high nutrients, and have a high yield or at least a competitive yield, then we go backwards, and the farm doesn’t exist. The sustainability vision and definition at Nicolaus Nut is multi-faceted, as it continues to grow and be organic in it’s nature—we continue to look at it and amend it and say what’s good and what’s not.
Sustainability is a discussion that needs to be understood more properly and holistically, and needs more attention as to how we are defining it specifically, and what parameters we are defining it by. Certainly, we can all agree that there is a knowledge gap on multiple levels down the supply chain, and even on the grower level about what sustainability could entail, but also on the consumer level about how we actually grow the product and what it takes to grow that product.
Q. Why did you start incorporating Seeds for Bees into your farm/orchards?
A. When I first got into agriculture, I didn’t really know what to expect; it was just a huge learning curve. But very quickly I got involved in the Almond Board of California through the 2016 leadership training and it was clear to me that there was a fundamental collaboration and relationship between honey bees and almond orchards. For years and years, the ABC has been funding millions of dollars into bee health and pollination health. When I started looking at how these bees work and started understanding what they are, and the symbiotic relationship that growers (humans) have with this small little creatures—which was just amazing—I adopted a passion for making sure that almond growers know that they have a responsibility to make sure—at every level possible—that this little bee is as healthy as possible, even and especially given all the multi-faceted challenges that the honey bee faces. This was very clear to me, and grows every year.
Honey bees are absolutely essential to our food chain, our supply chain, our food supply – all of these different things. It’s hard to have a meal that a honey bee ultimately hasn’t pollinated. And so, it is absolutely essential to understand that there are many challenges that these bees are facing—it’s not just one thing, which is usually portrayed by this group or that group, or this medial outlet or that one. It’s not just conventional controls in commercial agriculture, it’s the loss of forage, it’s the varroa mite and the list just goes on. Understanding these pressures and relationships and these insects piqued my interest in cover crop and thinking about ways to allow for a more wholistic diet for the bees. Not only in terms of the various pollen that they can get from cover crops and almonds, but also in terms of the timing of that feed for them.
Typically, what we do is we like to get the bees in early, almost before the first variety starts (blooming), so that when the first variety starts to bloom they are already flying around and they are pollinating our orchards, but I want to have more feed for them, and more pollen for them as they are waiting. And as petal fall happens, I want them to have ample amount of forage after that. I want these bees to have the best possible start of the season period before they go on to the next place. All I can do is seek to control in the best possible effort, what we do here on our ranch. We can’t control what everyone else does, but what I can do is play a small part and make an important contribution to the little (honeybee) lives that we support.
It is imperative to me to be planting cover crops in all of my almonds no matter what. I started researching, and Project Apis m. (PAm)’s Seeds for Bees came up through the Almond Board. I sat down with some of the more high-profile industry members, Dan Cummings was one of them, and we talked a little bit about the history there. I was impressed with the fact that we could get some free seed for a while and there can be another collaboration between PAm, who understands everything that I just talked about, and understands the challenges to adoption. That’s very important and it was clear—let's collaborate with PAm, and let’s get some seed in the ground – they will do their part, I will do my part, and we are going to help out the bees along the way.
Q. Why is important to you that bees leave your orchards strong?
A. Bees are absolutely essential for our food supply and I want to do everything I can to make sure that they are strong. That is the primary goal that I have. The economic part is not a primary driver, although it’s a close secondary. One of the things I’ve always said is that – the stronger the bees we have in these hives means the stronger possibility for a stronger crop in the orchard. There is absolutely a huge economic side to this which needs to be substantiated with further research, which we are circumstantially doing right now—counting the bees before they come in with the cover crop, counts after, and what are other hives doing without a cover crop. We really need some more thorough study on this which is now underway. But if the hypothesis being verified now rings true, which is that you can go from an 9-frame average to a 10- or 11-frame average with cover crop present in one season, with one orchard – that's a substantial amount of bees that are being ultimately put out into the orchard during our pollination, and it’s a substantial amount of strength going out of the orchard for the next crop.
Being that almonds are the “first stop” for honey bees, almond growers have a responsibility to really send them off as strong as they can. But again, that’s not a mutually exclusive idea from – if you can get them stronger during the bloom, we are theoretically going to have a stronger impact on the crop that we are trying to grow, and the pollination that we are having. So, again, the potential there could be huge to have a much stronger beehive and a much stronger almond crop.
Q. Have you seen any soil benefits since planting cover crops?
A. Yes, at a base level there is a physical benefit and without getting into the chemical technicalities, cover crops essentially helps the soil stay in place. Just from a physical standpoint up on the North Ranch we get a lot of flooding that comes in from Keefer Slough – 3 or 4 years ago when that flooding happened, there was an absolute massive displacement of soil with the sheet flow of water that went over that orchard. When cover crop is planted, and when it’s strong, it has a tremendous effect on keeping soil in place. The root systems of the cover and perhaps the microorganisms that are there, keep things at bay and do a heck of a job keeping soil where it needs to be. On a base level, that’s one of the benefits of cover crops or cover cropping.
I’ve also observed strong worm activity since taking planting cover crop – the other day I pulled out one of the bell beans on our North Ranch and I counted three different worms on the root ball after a flood. It’s not hard and fast academic research but worms equal good things in the soil – aeration, more microorganism activity, and worm poop does a lot of great things – it's beneficial. On the physical side, there is no doubt in my mind that water penetration, aeration, and percolation is seriously increased. What I can see is that a cover crop field that has the same amount of water in a bare field with no cover crop, the one without cover crop one pools water, and the one with cover crop takes and holds water.
From the chemical side we haven’t substantiated yet that there is a huge effect on what it takes to grow an almond or walnut crop. By and large, that’s just because of time constraints and I don’t have the research wherewithal to do all of that. I do believe that we are benefitting – especially with the bell beans and nitrogen fixing crops. I can see the nitrogen fixing nodules, and I think they are ultimately going to be beneficial. It’s pretty well established the nematocidal affects that some mustards, especially yellow and white mustard have, to suppress or eradicate nematodes in certain spots. That becomes more and more important to us because chemical fungicides are going to be gone. Economically they aren’t feasible, environmentally their indiscretion to just “nuke” everything out there is unbeneficial, and in terms of the regulatory environment in California, it’s not only faux pas, it’s dangerous. So there are physical, chemical, and microbiological benefits - we believe in it, we see it in our orchards.
The Almond Board has put a lot of effort into researching these things, and that work needs to continue, but we still aren’t there yet on substantiating what a cover crop does and does not do. But we have a lot of data and a lot of things in the pipe, and we are gathering data on our own farm. We are working very seriously with Jeff Mitchell and his team at UC Davis, looking at percolation rates and other soil benefits. We are furthering the research on our own ranch. In terms of Nitrogen fixation, we are now working with Dr. Zachary at Chico State University through their Sustainability Agriculture Initiative and Western SAR, and next year we are going to be planting Fava beans to understand whether or not we can really fix 180lbs of nitrogen per acre in a commercial orchard. So, we are trying to push the research further and further with some of these nuanced questions to help growers understand that what we are assuming, or thinking is happening with cover crops, we are now getting data to substantiate that.
I think balance is really, really important, and especially humility—to say “we don’t have the data yet but we are working toward that goal” is vital. Farmers usually say that you aren’t going to do something because they haven’t done it before; that is unhelpful, and to say that it is something that we don’t know about yet it is, and then to not do anything about that, is also is unhelpful. But at the same time, creating that middle ground of balance and humility by saying “hey, let’s try this” and then we assume for a minute that if we put life into the soil we are going to get life out. Let’s assume for a minute that bees are really, really important and we have a responsibility to do our best with them. Let’s assume for a minute that this does benefit the soil in a whole host of ways, let’s just assume, and then let’s go forward and do the research and let’s see what happens.
Q. What is your favorite way to eat almonds?
A. I like them raw. If you taste a good, well-grown almond, it’s a lot different than what you could possibly get in the store. When people taste a well-grown, healthy, fresh almond from our ranch, they will say “wow - that’s an almond right there—I don’t think I’ve ever had one like that.”
Q. What is one tool or resource you could not live without?
A. She is NOT a tool, but my wife first and foremost, is my own greatest asset I have as a man and as a farmer. Also, we can’t do what we do without the people on the front line: the boots on the ground, experienced orchardists and the people we collaborate with whether it be a PCA or a nutrient analysis person. Our greatest resource is people, being a team, and understanding that everyone has a part to play and that it’s absolutely vital. The people who are out there in the orchard mowing and planting and looking for things that I can’t see every day, pruning, etc. that’s our greatest asset.
Thanks to Rory Crowley for taking the time to share his insight and experiences with us.
Communications Director, Project Apis m.