Gurreet Brar has seen the effects of intensive agriculture in his homeland of Punjab, India. He has seen how intensive agriculture can benefit the lives of people by producing more food.
While improved agricultural practices eventually made India self-sufficient in the production of food grains within a generation, what Brar learned through his experiences in India and his agricultural studies abroad and in the United States promise to serve nut growers in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley’s growing region.
Earlier this year, Brar, 34, became the new tree nut farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in Madera and Fresno counties. He will work with almond, pistachio and walnut growers in the two-county area on a host of issues facing Central Valley tree nut growers.
Some of those issues will include collaborating on nitrogen management studies, establishing a regional almond variety trial, projects involving pistachios, a grower survey of problems related to walnuts, pistachios and almonds, and some tree nut short courses.
Other research goals that should benefit local growers include planned research on water stress and tree physiology, training and pruning young almond trees, development of innovative nursery production practices to achieve better tree health, and the management of root diseases in trees.
His focus with the UCCE will be to instruct commercial growers about almonds, pistachios and walnuts in Fresno and Madera counties, with a goal of financial and environmental sustainability. His research program will focus on production issues facing nut growers.
Almonds continue to be the most valuable cash crop in Madera County and the No. 2 commodity produced in Fresno County. Almonds are grown on nearly 246,000 acres in the two counties, with a combined gross value last year of more than $1.33 billion. The growing popularity of pistachios promises to make that nut crop increasingly valuable in the next few years as new tree plantings in recent years begin to produce a crop.
From India to Florida
Brar comes to the UCCE with an impressive string of work experience and academic success. He earned his Ph.D. last December in horticultural sciences from the University of Florida, Gainesville. His undergraduate and graduate degrees in horticulture were earned from the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana, India. He is fluent in English, Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu languages.
While at the University of Florida, Brar studied citrus physiology. He studied how water stress and poor nutrition in young nursery trees alter the balance of plant growth hormones, leading to poor bud take. He developed recommendations for citrus nursery growers about supplemental lighting and water management for citrus nurseries in greenhouses.
Some of the work his lab did was related to the citrus disease Huanglongbing (HLB) and the Asian Citrus Psyllid, which vectors the disease. According to Brar, the pathogen of HLB blocks the phloem in citrus trees, restricting the flow of nutrients and carbohydrates in the tree. Some of that work also looked at how to extend the life of trees with HLB by managing the nutritional needs of the tree. Fruit and juice quality studies were also part of his lab’s work.
“I have been doing research in tree physiology for quite a while now,” he said.
Other career highlights include:
- Agricultural executive with Pepsi Foods in India;
- Research Associate with Punjab Ag University for 5 years;
- Member of several professional horticulture associations;
- Prestigious fellowship by College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Florida;
- Certificate of Outstanding Achievement by UF International Center for three years;
- Ten professional research papers;
- Print and broadcast media experience;
- Science fair judge in California and Florida; and
- He successfully organized the first Southern San Joaquin Valley Almond Symposium, held earlier this year in Kerman.
Brar says trees fascinate him. He cites literature which places trees in high regard. He believes humans can learn much from trees.
“We get more than just oxygen and shade from trees,” he said.
While in India he developed 50 articles on 50 different trees, discussing the various beneficial uses of trees from herbal medicine to the creation of musical instruments. Those articles were translated into Punjabi and used to educate local residents on the benefits of trees.
Because of population pressures in the Indian state of Punjab, trees were being cut down to make room for people and agriculture.
“It’s the same in the cities here,” he said. “We build new homes and cut away the trees.”
According to Brar, there is a germplasm bank within PAU that hopes to build on the population of various tree species.
“It’s just a small step to encourage the growth of these tree species,” he said.
Communicating with growers
One of Brar’s hobbies while in college in India was acting. This exposed him to various forms of communication, which piqued his interest and desire to help communicate with farmers.
While at PAU he and a friend discussed their interest in interviewing successful growers. They went on to interview 20 successful growers about innovations they used to increase the size of their operations and improve yields.
“This was an incredible learning experience,” he said
This led to a weekly column in a local newspaper and the understanding that PAU’s own cooperative extension service would become an important link for growers in the region to obtain the latest information to help them with their crops.
Through his work in India, and now with the UCCE, Brar believes that by seeking out the early innovators of various technologies and agricultural practices, and by working with them to achieve greater success with it, he can expand the adoption rate of better technologies and agronomic practices throughout the farming community.
“Through this kind of communication, if the farmer is doing good things you can share this and increase the adoption rate of that technology,” he said.
Much of what he saw in northern India with the advancement of technologies and agricultural practices mirrors what is happening today in California. More intensive farming and the use of fertilizers and ag chemicals carries with it unintended consequences and challenges.
According to Brar, insecticide resistance issues, human and plant disease, poor regulations and understanding of them all are some of the challenges faced in Punjab. He believes these challenges may exist in the United States.
“We can speculate on the impacts of intensive agriculture,” he said. “But I think we can still realize benefits from intensive agriculture with regulations and enforcement.”
Other issues Punjabi farmers experienced that are evident in California include depleted water sources and water contamination. Brar hopes to have a positive impact there too. For instance, he says, “you can reduce nitrogen use in your orchard if you already have increased nitrogen in your well water.”
One of the global challenges that excites Brar is the idea of feeding a growing world population without increasing the land space dedicated to agriculture.
“We cannot bring more land into agriculture,” he said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to produce more from the land we are already using.”
He continued: “As a researcher, making connections with the developing world is something I look forward to.”
It is that desire to communicate with growers and others that drives Brar.
“This is what led me to take this job,” he said. “There are growers out there who need to be educated, and my goal is to come up with multiple means to reach them.”
Growers who want to work with Brar on trials, or who need to reach him regarding issues in their orchards can contact him at (559) 241-7526 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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