Almond growers conduct environmental show and tell for regulators

05/14/2012 11:40:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

Bill and Don Jackson, who farm about 4,000 acres of permanent crops east of Oakdale, Calif., opened up their operation to more than two dozen state and federal regulators recently.

The family farming operation wasn’t in trouble by any means. Instead, the Jacksons and farm manager Mike Burden, of Lent-Burden Farming Inc., wanted to educate the regulators about the science and technology they use to make decisions.

The annual environmental tour is sponsored by the Modesto-based Almond Board of California to showcase the practices growers are using to protect the environment.

It’s also designed to create a better understanding between farmers and regulators.

Since 2007, the Jacksons and Burden have developed the hilly countryside, planting walnuts and almonds.

Depending on the microclimate and soil-water infiltration rate, the trees are irrigated with microspinklers or double-line drip hoses, Burden says.

Burden showed tour participants the automated weather stations and pressure chamber he uses to help determine when and how much to irrigate.

Each of the PureSense automated soil-moisture monitoring units costs about $3,200 without a weather station and $4,000 with a weather station.

The operation has 38 units across all the blocks, with 12 of those having weather stations.

In addition, Burden says the operation pays about $800 per unit per year for service and monitoring.

But he says the cost is well worth it.

What Burden says he found was he wasn’t irrigating the almond trees enough at critical stages in the crop’s development.

He’s actually applying more water, but the trees are less stressed and healthier now.

Burden says the stations also allow him to reduce irrigation by 25 percent during hull split.

By using regulated deficit irrigation, he’s able to better manage the disease as well as promote more even crop ripening.

Before the monitoring stations, the operating hired a technician with a neutron probe to take soil moisture readings one a week.

Burden then spent days calculating irrigation rates and timing, factoring in ET, or evapotraspiration rates.

The weather stations collect soil moisture data every 15 minutes and relays it via cellphone technology to Burden’s computer.

As part of the irrigation monitoring, Burden says he uses a pressure bomb to test stem water potential. The reading shows whether the tree is receiving ample water or is drought stressed.

Burden still uses ET when figuring irrigation applications, but he says he spends only a few hours a week calculating irrigation rates.

”By tying all three together, we’re able to dial this in and hit it right,” he says.

Burden also discussed how he spoon feeds the trees nitrogen through the irrigation, improving overall nutrient efficiency while reducing the changes for leaching into the groundwater or runoff into nearby waterways.

In addition, he talked about using cultural practices to control navel orangeworm, showed off a settling pond system that improves water quality and protects Dry Creek down stream, and talked about transitioning to brush chipping from open-field burning.

Burden is one of 405 growers sok far who have participated in the almond board’s sustainability program that involves self-assessments, says Gabrielle Ludwig, associate director, environmental affairs.

The almond program, started in 2009, is patterned loosely after the highly successful California Sustainable Winegrowing Program.

So far, the almond board has released five modules—irrigation management, nutrient management, energy efficiency, air quality and pest management.

The almond board has conducted a number of workshops through the state to help growers complete one or more of the modules, Luldwig says.

The assessments recently were posted online, so growers can complete them at their convenience.

Although many growers already have adopted practices considered sustainable, the program allows them to document it, she says.

”It’s an industrywide initiative that’s transparent about what the industry is doing,” says Joe Browde, professional services manager, Sure Harvest, Soquel, Calif.

The data is collected by SureHarvest and presented in such a way that individual growers remain anonymous.

Industry leaders also can look at the results and determine where to target educational industry outreach programs, Ludwig says.



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