Local, state and federal regulators toured the Nickels Soil Lab in Arbuckle and a nearby family farming operation in mid-May to learn how research and technology are helping almond growers make the most of irrigation water and other limited resources.

Now in its sixth year, the Almond Environmental Stewardship Tour provides an opportunity for almond growers, regulators and industry leaders to come together and demonstrate what the California almond industry is doing to be a good environmental steward and to promote good almond growing practices.

Enrique Manzanilla, director of the U.S. EPA’s regional Community and Ecological Systems Division in San Francisco, said the tour gave him the opportunity to see the complexity of farming operations first-hand.

“There is value in being on the ground to get an appreciation that farming is a system. It’s important for us as regulators to look at farming in an integrated way and realize that if a farmer does one intervention it will also affect other things in the orchard,” Manzanilla said.

Colusa County Farm Advisor John Edstrom gave Manzanilla and more than two dozen regulators from other agencies, including the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, California Department of Pesticide Regulation, State Air Resources Board, and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, a tour of the 200-acre estate that has helped launch many practices now common in California almond orchards.

Edstrom noted that micro-sprinkler and drip irrigation, which are now standard practice on some 80,000 acres of almonds in the Sacramento Valley, were first introduced to the region at the Nickels Ranch. Research there to improve on the use of micro-irrigation systems is ongoing.

Larry Schwankl, UC Irrigation specialist, shared details of a project comparing the irrigation uniformity, efficiency, economics and yield of various configurations of micro-irrigation systems, including single- and double-line surface drip, subsurface drip and microsprinklers.

Ken Shackel, UC Davis plant sciences professor also discussed a new ABC-funded project to help growers deal with years when water availability is extremely limited. The project hopes to answer questions about which of several strategies will have the least long-term impact for the orchard under restricted water availability.

Regulators on the tour also had the opportunity to see how research developed at facilities such as Nickels gets implemented in a commercial orchard. At Peart Ranch, a two-generation family farming operation in Yolo County, grower Don Peart shared how technology and research has allowed him to maximize the efficiency and utilization of his inputs over the last 40 years.

Peart said the adoption of new techniques and technologies has significantly reduced annual rates or increased the yields for the rates applied of nutrients, water and pesticides. The orchard is farmed completely on drip irrigation. A weather and soil monitoring system provides real-time readings via computer or smart phone that Don’s son, Jim Peart, uses to schedule irrigations based on crop need. Well-timed irrigation and fertigation optimizes water use efficiency and prevents nutrients from being leached below the root zone.

“We are using every drop of water we put on toward producing the crop,” Don Peart said.

Peart Ranch also participates in the USDA NRCS Conservation Security Program, a program that rewards growers for implementing good environmental stewardship in their operations. The Pearts efforts in irrigation and nutrient management and Integrated Pest Management are part of a 10-year contract that provides annual cost-share payments.

The Pearts have reduced their in-season and dormant sprays by implementing intensive pest and disease monitoring programs along with cultural practices that provide for an integrated pest management approach. Jim Peart noted that participating in the NRCS program was a major paperwork exercise, but it was nice to be rewarded for their efforts.

With the help of funding through the state’s Carl Moyer Program, the Pearts have recently replaced a diesel pump with a new Tier 0 electric pump motor. The replacement will greatly improve air quality and be more energy efficient.

The tour also highlighted the many partnerships the Almond Board and almond growers rely on to continually improve growing practices for almonds. Examples presented included the Pest Management Alliance funded by DPR and managed by Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), the California Almond Sustainability Program, and USDA- NRCS. Jeff Sutton, manager of the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority, explained how planned changes in the intake from the Sacramento River for the canal will benefit water users throughout the state.

Partnerships over the last 30 years with the UC Cooperative Extension Service and University of California have also produced many of the practices in place at Peart Ranch and other almond growing operations throughout California. This hub of research has laid the foundation for the stewardship practices many almond growers have adopted and will continue to be important to the industry’s continued success.

The Almond Board is committed to ongoing research and continued partnerships for the betterment of growers, the environment and the community. For the crop year 2009-2010, the Almond Board funded more than $2 million in production and environmental research projects to build on these successes and position growers to address environmental issues and regulations related to air quality, water supply and quality, endangered species, and sustainability.

For more information on environmental issues, go to AlmondBoard.com/farmpress8.