Out in the Fields, Contemplating Humanity and a Parched Almond Farm

For Christine Gemperle, almond farming is a family business. But now, amid another punishing California drought, she worries about the future, and climate change.

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Christine Gemperle shells an almond freshly picked from a tree in her grove in Ceres. Credit: Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Christine Gemperle shells an almond freshly picked from a tree in her grove in Ceres, California. Credit: Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

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Hours before sunrise, Christine Gemperle lay in bed, snoozing an alarm set for 3 a.m. and dozing. She waited until the chimes outside her window signaled that the wind had died down enough for her to spray insecticide on the 40 acres of almonds that surround her house. It was the time of year when the pale green almond hulls split like clams, exposing the fruit and making it vulnerable to a notorious pest called the navel orangeworm.  

Now, behind the wheel of a tractor, the headlights made the hulls look like glowing orbs. Christine had been trying to gauge whether the crop this year was better than last, and hoping it wasn’t worse. Usually, she plays music while she works, but today, she listened to the podcast S-Town. She identifies with John, the protagonist—deeply concerned about the future of the planet. Around sunrise, just as the birds began to chatter, Christine finished up the spraying and parked the tractor outside, near her chicken coop. 

After breakfast, Christine changed into a t-shirt with a slogan she designed herself, “Agrimentalism change your attitude, change your world,” and headed back outside. The sun was now well into the sky and she needed to get back in the orchard.

She slid onto the sun-warmed seat of a smaller tractor, a green, Kawasaki ATV. With dogs trailing her, she steered between the rows of almond trees. Pregnant Squiggy, a black and white border collie, squeezed between her legs, forcing Christine to feel her clogged feet around the footboard to find the gas pedal. The floor of the ATV was coated with soil and a few dry, dusty almond husks. 

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Christine started at the edges of the orchard, methodically scooping white fertilizer pellets using a small, battered ceramic dish and sprinkling them around the base of trees that look stunted compared to their neighbors, a result of soil fumigation that didn’t quite reach the entire crop. After a few minutes of stop-and-go scooping and driving, Christine knelt underneath one of the wilted trees. 

She scrutinized the trunk, scratching at an orange, sap-like gum that had appeared and wondered what disease it was, what she did wrong, and if she would find more trees like it. It’s a spiral of thought that’s hard for her to escape. This year she’s already treated for ants—a tool she used as pest management last year that she now thinks is going to be a scourge on the orchard. Today she’s feeling particularly anxious about the trade-offs and decisions inherent in her job. Her work means a lot of time out in the fields alone, thinking about the issues confronting humanity and her farm—problems like climate change, drought and the fact that the farm isn’t making any money. 

California is amid its driest period since record-keeping began, a drought made drier by climate change. In June, the state curtailed water allotments for thousands of users across the state, including in agricultural areas like the San Joaquin Valley, where Christine farms. Droughts are expected to become more frequent and intense as climate change sharpens. And in times like this, scrutiny often turns to the state’s booming agriculture industry. About 1 million Californians live without access to safe drinking water—including about 100,000 people in the Valley. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of all water used by businesses and homes in the state and brought in $50 billion in 2020.  Almonds in particular receive criticism, because they can be  water intensive to produce and most are exported. 

Christine grew up in the Valley in a family that farmed almonds. She studied biology and fisheries in college and graduate school and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. But during grad school in Utah she started gardening, and realized she was meant to grow things. She and her brother bought this farm in a rural section of a Central Valley town called Ceres in the late ‘90s. Christine vaguely remembers one drought growing up, when her dad was farming not far away. But today, she says, the landscape is completely different, with more people in California, more almond acres in production and more demand for resources like water. 

“The goal is to use the least amount of resources to produce the most amount of food,” she says, driving through the rows. “You don’t want to waste resources.”

Farming Through Drought in California Almond Country

After fertilizing trees, Christine steered the ATV mule next to a concrete canal that runs through her property to deliver water from the Don Pedro Reservoir via a local irrigation district. Though she has a well, the canal is the real lifeline of her operation. Right now, it has a leak that can’t be fully fixed until after the irrigation season, evidenced by a small puddle about 50 feet away. Christine likes to measure every single inch of water she uses, an obsession that’s even more necessary due to the state’s deep drought. Tarry patches where she’s tried to fix the leak spread like veins on the canal’s concrete. 

This year, Christine got 27 inches of water from the irrigation district. It’s a number she’s satisfied with, but a downgrade from wet years when the allotment is close to 40 inches. She doesn’t use her well often, but other farmers in the Valley do. Groundwater pumping, particularly during the last drought, led to overdrafted supplies and the state passed a law to regulate it. Last year, nearly 1,000 households in California reported dry or compromised wells.  

The narrative around the almond industry’s excessive consumption of water frustrates Christine; everything in American refrigerators takes water to produce, and she thinks the media wields statistics about almond farming’s use of water like a weapon. Christine takes it personally. Water scarcity has undoubtedly put strain on the farm; last year she ripped out one orchard early to save water. The lack of water and the threat of climate change make her feel panicky sometimes, wondering what a grocery store will look like in the future. The weight of carrying on the family farming legacy is an added stress. 

She squinted at her iPhone under the bright sun, tapping in irrigation data, then twisted a large wheel on a pipe leading under the ground, leaning her weight into the turn. The mechanism moves the water from micro-sprinklers in the mature grove to the ones placed between trees in the younger orchard. Then she hopped back on the small tractor, her feet working around Squiggy, to check that all the sprinklers were running right. Every few rows, Christine put the Kawasaki in neutral and leaned down to twist the top of a black plastic sprinkler to even out the spray. 

In between blocks of rows she stopped outside the barn. Her brother and business partner, Erich, was halfway inside a pickup truck. 

“Are you going to start scraping tomorrow?” Christine says.

Christine and Erich are redeveloping orchard land they own about 25 miles southwest of this farm and getting ready for installation of a new irrigation system. Before they install it, they have to drag equipment across the soil that will scrape it smooth and mark it with grid lines before trees are planted. 

“I’m going down there now,” he says. 

“Oh, are you going to start scraping today?” she says. “Well, the weather’s nice the next few days—take advantage.” 

They decided together that they’d splurge and install two types of irrigation systems on that land; a big investment they feel makes sense, because climate change will require farms to build in more flexibility and resilience. Christine hopes the new irrigation system will help get them through the dry years while allowing for more sustainable practices like planting cover crops. Though they got a grant from the state to help pay for it, it won’t cover everything, and the farm is already losing money. Right now, everything costs two or three times what it used to. The drought has multiplied the price of water, the war in Ukraine increased diesel prices and the pandemic has complicated supply chains. 

Christine Gemperle stands in her almond grove in Ceres, California. Credit: Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Christine Gemperle stands in her almond grove in Ceres, California. Credit: Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Christine feels she has little choice but to keep going, despite the hard-to-predict, macro issues. Plus, she’s used to being at the whims of the outside world. Farmers, she likes to say, are at the mercy of the weather.

A few rows later she found an especially stubborn sprinkler. She bent down, popped off the top and quickly speared it from the inside using a pearl-topped sewing pin she bought at an estate sale, unclogging the sprinkler. Scanning rows, she listened for the subtle sputtering that indicates a wonky sprinkler. She’s trained her ear to pick up the sound over the low rumble of the ATV. 

Criticisms of agricultural water use is just one of many narratives about farming that eats at her. Christine could be considered a small-scale farmer, but she’s also protective of the industry. Complaints about corporate farming, she feels, don’t take into account the significant economies of scale required to make farming work today. The hard financials are one reason why so many growers in the Valley turned to almonds, she says, which used to bring in decent money. 

The majority of California’s farmers grow on 100 acres or less, according to the state. The trend holds for almonds, too, but the total acreage for the almond industry grows every year—increasing by 62 percent in the last decade.

“One hundred thirty five acres used to support Erich’s family and my family,” she says. “Right now, it doesn’t even support itself.”

Christine is active in speaking to journalists. She sees it as public education. She hopes to inject complexity back into conversations about agriculture and almond farming. Over the years she’s also appeared before the Agricultural Committee at the State Assembly and she fills  one of the grower seats on the Almond Board of California, an industry trade group with an eye for slick marketing. 

Despite her connections to the industry, she sometimes feels like an outlier, maybe because she’s worked in fisheries—fish and farmers often fight over water in California. But maybe it’s just because she’s a woman. Outside her gate she’s hung a sign that reads, “Stop the Donald 2020”—political expression that could also isolate her in a county where about 48 percent of voters favored Trump in 2020. But where Christine doesn’t feel alone is in connecting the struggles agriculture faces to climate change. The last drought changed that, she said, tamping down doubt that the environment was changing, and farming along with it. 

She came back into her lived-in, crowded farmhouse kitchen from checking the sprinklers around noon. Inside, her phone’s duck quack ringtone announced a call from KC Stone, her representative at Blue Diamond, an almond co-op founded in 1910 that now represents more than 3,000 growers. 

Christine’s first thought was worry; her day was busy as is. But she likes to help, so she picked  up. Women in an industry dominated by men, the two have grown to be friends. Less than 15 minutes later, KC drove her pickup up the long driveway and parked near Christine’s abundant garden, where she grows lantana, coreopsis, and other plants to attract pollinators. Christine had changed out of her farm clothes and into a blue and white checked dress and heels with flowers adorning the toes. Her long graying hair was pulled back in a clip. 

“Hey, I got to leave pretty soon because I have to go — I’m getting a major award,” Christine says. 

KC stepped onto the pavement in jeans and a maroon polo. She pulled a cellophane-wrapped gift basket from the cab. It was a thank you; the prior week Christine appeared in a promotional video for the co-op. 

After KC drove away, Christine put the basket inside, away from the dogs. Then she got into her 2003 Honda Civic hybrid and turned right out of the driveway, headed towards Turlock.  

When Christine stepped into Linda Murphy-Julien’s office, the executive director of the United Samaritans Foundation had a candle flickering in the corner. It added to the slightly religious aura of the whole office, which was decorated with multiple crosses and a printout of Mother Teresa’s Humility List. 

“Come on in, have a seat,” says Linda, gesturing. Her fingernails were coated in sparkly maroon polish. “They’re making egg salad sandwiches today and I love egg salad, but when you’re doing 1,500 sandwiches—overpowering.” 

“Where’d you get the eggs?” says Christine. She knew the answer, and laughed at the question like a joke. 

“Where do you think? Thank God for Gemperle,” says Linda. 

Gemperle Farms, a poultry operation started by Christine’s dad and her uncle and passed on to her cousins, is one of Northern California’s largest egg producers. They’ve donated eggs to United Samaritans, a Christian nonprofit that distributes meals, since the organization started nearly three decades ago. Now, Christine was presenting the nonprofit with $1,000—money from an India-based agrochemical company as part of a newly created “Allies for Agriculture” award. Christine and Linda waited for a representative from the company to arrive and help present the award. 

Once he came, Linda led everyone out her office door and to Samaritan’s commercial kitchen down the hall. She wanted to give a quick tour. The nonprofit distributes 1,500 meals a day to people around the Central Valley. Christine’s parents, who moved out of the country and now live in town, arrived when the group had stopped in a warehouse filled with donated clothes and food. The family was soon hustled into the truck bay and arranged in front of a van Samaritans uses to deliver meals. A Samaritans employee handed the group a big check that UPL had sent over a couple days before—the kind you see on TV game shows—made out to the nonprofit, and Linda helped hold it up. 

“Okay, ready? Big smiles—eat good food, take care of yourself.” Another Samaritans employee snapped their picture.  

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After the photo op, Christine, Linda, the Gemperles, the company rep and a reporter from the local paper wandered back to Linda’s office for an impromptu press conference. The reporter asked Christine why she saw good farming practices as a way to give back to the community. It was the kind of question she lives for. 

“We have to take care of the land that we live on,” she says. “Everything I can do to make healthier soil, to make the air cleaner—it’s not just about me, it’s about everybody that’s here.” 

On her land, Christine uses a mix of regenerative agriculture—practices designed to build soil health in order to sequester carbon—and conventional practices. Implementing more sustainable  practices would mean more labor; and it’s just her and Erich, and occasionally their kids. A neighbor used to farm organically, and watching that operation, and its towering weeds, stressed Christine out. When the land switched hands, the new farmer went back to conventional farming.   

After a few more questions the group scattered, dispersing through the parking lot. Christine climbed back in her Honda. 

When she arrived back at the farm, there was a car in the driveway she didn’t recognize, a dark gray GMC SUV with a pink mermaid bumper sticker. It followed her car as it crunched up the gravel to the barn. The man inside wore a Hawaiian print baseball hat and khaki shorts. Christine was expecting him; he was delivering a new “bio-stimulant” that she plans to apply to her fields—another experiment. Trained as a scientist, Christine lets numerous researchers conduct studies on her trees and her land. 

They unloaded white jugs of the liquid and lined them up in the barn. Christine started quizzing him on how to use the new product. He gave her a few pointers, but soon begged off. 

“Don’t listen to me, I’m just the delivery guy,” he says.   

When Christine got inside the house, her thoughts turned back to the constant calculus of whether the weather aligned with the tasks she needed to complete. She opened a spiral-bound planner holding her to-do list and glanced over the entries. 

Soon, she was outside in the sun, slipping on a white suit that looked like hazmat gear to protect her from the herbicide she planned to spray. She looked up at the palm trees. The fronds swayed. The wind was too strong. Off came the suit and she hopped on the ATV. She guided the small tractor through the rows. She was on the lookout for “suckers,” thin shoots from the tree roots that can make it hard for harvesting equipment to grasp onto the tree. Harvest itself is just over a month away, and everything Christine does is in preparation for those stress-filled weeks. 

Branches weighed down with almonds arced over the rows and Christine dodged through the canopy as she drove, looking for sprinkler malfunctions, weeds and any other peculiarities. When she spotted a sucker, she idled the Kawasaki ATV, crouched at the base of a tree, and clipped it. She tossed the branches under her left arm and into the middle of the row, where the mower can chop them into bits. She cut the sucker off a dead tree, wondering why she bothers. 

With a few rows left she spotted a problem with the part of the irrigation system that helps regulate pressure. How long had it been like this? It could have been days. She rifled in the back of the ATV for a part to fix it. She would have to check back later to make sure it holds. 

“All right we are at the last row—OK, this is good, this was our goal today,” she says, turning the ATV back towards the house. It’s about 4 p.m. 

Finished with the suckers, she’d catch up on paperwork, but she was already thinking ahead to the next day. Her decisions would have consequences for the harvest, and they’ll extend to the next year, and the next. When to water and how much is a constant calculus. And it’s a crucial time for the almonds; now that the shells have cracked open it’s a race against time to make sure they’re protected from bugs. She wants to get back out into the fields to do her second round of spraying. But that would need to wait until the early morning hours, when all is quiet and the air is still again. 

Images for this story were provided by CalMatters and are reprinted with permission.

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