As in any successful relationship, communication is the cornerstone of a successful partnership between field researchers and grower cooperators.

More than half of the $3 million in production and environmental stewardship research funded by the Almond Board of California each year relies on grower cooperators. These field research trials over the last four decades have provided practical solutions to problems facing California almond growers. In reality, all modern practices employed by the state’s growers were once researched and developed in grower cooperator research trials.

If managed well, commercial trials can provide benefits for growers, researchers and the industry at large. Rob Baker, who manages the Belridge division near Lost Hills for Paramount Farming Co., says participating in research over the years has provided valuable feedback and information that Belridge can integrate into its production program. It also places Belridge at the forefront of developing practices and helps nurture relationships with the research community where these practices are being forged.

UC Cooperative Extension almond specialist Bruce Lampinen says involving grower cooperators offers the research community the benefit of gathering commercial data to test promising practices or understand impacts in a real-world setting.

But both agree this partnership comes with challenges.

Belridge typically has a couple of large-scale trials going on at once, including one five-year almond nutrition trial now in its final stages. At any one time more than a dozen principal investigators might be looking at plots at Belridge Farms. Baker stresses the importance of two-way communication both in the advance planning of the trial and ongoing throughout the season.

Pre-planning meetings between the research team and Belridge’s PCA and fertilizer and irrigation managers help lay out the expectations of both researchers and Belridge staff. Baker assigns a point person on staff to each research plot and puts Cooperative Extension folks in touch with his PCA.

“Initially we have a meeting to talk about the goal and plan for the research and plot it out. We assign whom to call and directions for researchers coming into the field,” Baker says. “From there, we’re talking or emailing probably weekly.”

While most growers and researchers go into multi-year research trials with the best intentions, in reality, it can be a challenge, particularly around harvest time when growers are on a tight schedule to get nuts shaken and picked up and researchers are trying to work within those narrow windows to collect harvest data that is essential to meaningful trial results.

Covenant research plots

Baker tries to get shaker schedules and anticipated pickup dates in advance to researchers and otherwise keep the team in the loop and updated. For instance, rain and other variables sometimes get in the way of planned schedules. He also notes that communication has to go both ways. Graduate students or others not in on the early planning stages or unfamiliar with the routine sometimes ask to enter orchards without calling first or at the last moment, but equipment obstacles, irrigation schedules, reentry intervals or other factors may prohibit that access.

Lampinen’s statewide project to collect information on light interception and its relationship to yield under different management regimes is revolutionizing how almonds orchards are designed and managed. But the sheer magnitude of the light-bar trial, on 40 different grower plots throughout California, can be a logistical nightmare for researchers, at harvest time in particular.

Researchers must load the harvest trailer at a moment’s notice to get to a field site sometimes three to five hours away to work around last-minute harvest schedules. On more than one occasion researchers arrive to find the plot has been harvested before researchers could measure yield in those test rows and valuable data is lost.

“In the case of the light bar tests, without the harvest data we lose the most important piece of information,” Lampinen says. “Fortunately we now have much better harvest equipment with GPS, larger capacity and self-contained hydraulics so we don’t slow growers down much at all and it’s much less of a hassle, so that is helping.”

Lampinen notes that both growers and researchers are balancing a lot of variables and that is where communication comes in, particularly at the front end of the season.

The bottom line is, research plots are a covenant between the grower and researcher. This covenant, to be successful, requires both grower cooperators and researchers to communicate and understand the goal of the research and what is expected of each of them.

Growers should ask a lot of direct questions of research teams at the outset so that there are no surprises down the line: How will this change the day-to-day operation? What is expected, in terms of time and resources, of you as a grower or your personnel? What guidance can you expect on treatments or is this strictly an observation plot? How will the trial impact your cultural practices, such as irrigation, fertility and pest management, and should you check in when contemplating a cultural practice? How might the trial impact yield or quality? How might the trial affect the trees in the long run? And what do researchers need from the grower in terms of harvest?

The more communication there is going into the trial the more likely there will be a successful partnership with a successful outcome. Commercial trials do provide benefits for growers, researchers, and the industry at large. Despite the challenges almond growers continue to participate in field research and the industry owes them a debt of gratitude. For without this research, many of today’s common practices that have led to dramatic increases in yield and improved quality, along with efficient and environmentally responsible orchard management, would not have been discovered.