The Almond Board’s recent environmental stewardship tour provided real-world examples of how almond growers are taking sustainable farming principals and putting them into action in a way that manages resources with an eye toward environmental stewardship and economic viability.

Brian Leahy, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, one of the state’s highest ranking regulators who himself has a background in sustainable farming, was one of 40 state, local and federal regulators, elected officials, media and other invited guests who got a firsthand look at innovative almond growing practices related to water, nutrient and pest management at the Almond Board’s eighth annual Environmental Stewardship Tour in May.

Mike Burden, farm manager for tour host Jackson-Rodden in Oakdale, shared how the 5,000-acre farm has integrated sustainability into water, nutrient and pest management on the farm and in the end boosted the efficiency of its applied inputs.

The farm in recent years converted a tailwater drainage area for neighboring water districts near the property into a series of sediment settlement ponds and is now reclaiming the nitrogen-rich tailwater for irrigation, keeping it out of environmentally sensitive surface waterways. Burden said the return system provides enough water to irrigate 600 acres of almonds and walnuts at about 10% of the cost of pumping supplemental water from its deep wells. The reclaimed tailwater also provides 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre through the irrigation water that is taken into account in the overall nutrient management budget.

Leahy said Jackson-Rodden’s sediment basin provides a perfect example of how sustainability is being implemented in very real ways in California almond orchards.

“The real definition of sustainability is when you can take a misplaced resource and put it to use somewhere else and at a fraction of the cost,” he said. “That’s what you want and that’s what we are learning growers are doing. Nothing is sustainable until it makes you more efficient at the end of the day and I think we are rediscovering that.”

Burden also shared with tour participants how high-tech soil, weather and water monitoring systems are helping integrate technology into its drip irrigation and fertilizer decision-making for optimum efficiency. Jackson-Rodden uses a combination of plant and soil based monitoring in the Monterey/Fritz/Nonpareil orchard.

Burden said he first looks at the soil’s water holding capacity to determine how much applied water will be available to the tree at the time it needs it. Microsprinklers are geared to soil infiltration rates to ensure optimum applications that do not exceed holding capacity. Pressure chambers measure leaf tension to ascertain tree-water status at certain times of the year to allow deficit irrigation for hull rot control.

Burden also shared how high-tech soil, weather and water monitoring systems are helping integrate technology into its drip irrigation and fertilizer decision-making for optimum efficiency. Throughout the season, soil moisture monitoring systems continue to drive Jackson-Rodden’s irrigation decisions by measuring moisture throughout the soil profile every 15 minutes and integrating that real-time information with evapotranspiration rates to help schedule irrigation.

Sustainable irrigation practices not only optimize water use efficiency, they also help manage diseases, such as hull rot, and mites by maintaining well-timed levels of moderate stress that decreases hull rot without flaring mites. Jackson-Rodden also relies on cultural practices, such as winter sanitation, for controlling navel orangeworm.

Joe Browde of SureHarvest, which partners with the Almond Board of California to manage the California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP), said this year’s environmental stewardship tour illustrates that almond growers are already using sustainable farming practices in the orchard. CASP is working to encourage more growers to participate in the program to further document the many sustainable practices they are doing related to irrigation, nutrient and pest management, air quality and energy use efficiency.

“Telling the individual stories is critical but we want to make sure we have accurate information on the industry as a whole we can talk about,” Browde said.

The California Almond Sustainability Program has already achieved and is improving upon its ambitious goal to triple participation in the program this year through workshop attendance and completion of the five sustainability modules either at workshops or online. By engaging handlers to get growers more involved, CASP has added more than 200 additional orchard assessments since February to its sustainability database.

This vast amount of statewide assessment data helps reinforce that almond growers are successfully integrating sustainable management practices.

Burden and the farm managers he works with at Lent-Burden Farming Inc. have attended a number of sustainability workshops. He says participation not only provides valuable feedback on sustainable practices to buyers, regulators and consumers of California almonds, but also provides stimulus for him and his crew to implement additional sustainability measures on the 9,000 acres of permanent crops Lent-Burden manages.

“We can show that not only do we have a very healtful food, we are now proving that it’s healthy to the environment, which in the end helps us market the commodity,” Burden said.

At the same time, Burden said, participation by growers and farm managers in CASP contributes to the cycle of continuous improvement by pointing out additional sustainable farming practices they may not already have considered.

“I think growers will find that, if they go through the self-assessment and all five modules, they will take home at least one thing from each module that they’re currently not doing and can look at it at home,” he said. “And in many cases, they’ll be able to increase production or save money.”

For information on how to participate in the California Almond Sustainability Program, go to www.AlmondBoard.com/Sustainability.