Before plunging into a sea of science-based talks on soil and that most precious of commodities this year – water – participants in a Fresno conference heard a keynote speaker talk of something on the minds of many in agriculture.
The speech had much to do with pressures that buyers are putting on the industry to comply with demands related to sustainability, responsiveness to environmental concerns, food safety and social performance.
“The data makes the difference; we have to marry it with the stories we tell,” said Hank Giclas, Western Growers senior vice president for strategic planning, science and technology. “The old anecdote is no longer enough.”
Members of Western Growers provide half the nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables including a third of America’s fresh organic produce. Giclas was speaking at the 2014 California Plant and Soil Conference.
His premises were that demands for data from regulators and buyers will only increase, and that very information can help producers be more efficient and producers are wise to amass information early themselves to counter unreasonable demands.
Giclas had come to the right place, a conference where experts on soil and water talked of what has been — and what will be documented. His theme was echoed in some seminars at the two-day event.
“The old line that you are either at the table or on the menu is very alive and well,” said one seminar speaker, Parry Klassen, a longtime advocate of growers taking the initiative to form water quality coalitions to come up with solutions in the face of increased state regulation of ground and surface water.
It’s a theme that has surfaced elsewhere in recent weeks, for example at a Fresno symposium in December on wine grapes. Both John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, and Nat DiBuduo, president and CEO of Allied Grape Growers, warned that the industry needs to continue to press its “sustainability” efforts to avoid directives that could be imposed by retailers out to put in place “key performance indicators.”
“If we don’t act, the Wal-Mart’s, Sam’s Clubs and Safeways will impose their own vision,” Aguirre warned.
Giclas said long lists of such indicators coming from multiple sources have created what he called a time-consuming “massive paper chase” that is often “repetitive and duplicative.”
He would like to see tools developed to manage massive amounts of information that could be delivered in a more stream-lined way.
And he would like to see those in the industry share more data when it’s practicable. “There is the opportunity for aggregation of information to learn from each other,” he said. “We should drive data out of silos and into trusted repositories.”
He favors the notion of “measure to manage” and believes much of the data producers amass could help counter misperceptions among consumers, including the idea that workers are taken advantage of.
“There’s a widening gulf between consumers’ knowledge and trust of agriculture,” he said.
Giclas said Western Growers is working with a dozen companies to find out “what kind of information do you want from us?”
At the conference, participants heard from speakers including:
Tim Hartz, University of California extension specialist, addressing nitrogen budgeting for annual crops and the issues of nitrogen released into groundwater or the air.
“The basic principle of nitrogen management is that any nitrogen applied to a production field but not removed from the field in a harvested product is at risk of eventually being released in the environment, either in gaseous emission to the atmosphere or lost through runoff or leaching,” Hartz said.
How much is removed with harvested material varies greatly by crop, from less than 30 percent for broccoli to nearly 100 percent for forages. “That means some crops and some production systems will get more scrutiny than others,” he said.
Hartz said he has heard more about the idea of “nitrogen budgeting” by growers “in the past 12 months than in the previous 20 years.”
He said leaching of nitrates accounts for the highest loss of nitrogen. Ammonia volatilization from animal manure, anhydrous ammonia or urea fertilizer can mean a loss of 30 percent. Denitrification, reduction of nitrates to nitrous oxide and nitrogen can be a problem when soils are at or near saturation.
Katherine Pope, with UC Davis, who talked of optimizing fertilizer management in almonds, another nitrates issue.
She reiterated something Giclas said, referring to the “4-R’s” of nitrogen management, applying it at the right time, at the right rate, from the right source and in the right place.
“Trees take up nutrients when they are needed,” Pope said. “If you throw them on in May, the trees are not going to suck all that up.”
For walnuts, she said, the most demand is in June, July and August. As for the right place to deliver nutrients, she said, that would be the root zone which is about 2 feet deep.
She said fertilizer application should be planned at the beginning of the year and leaf monitoring should be done.
Marsha Campbell Mathews, with UC Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus County, talked of a new software tool for nitrogen budgeting for agronomic crops. She emphasized the strategic timing of irrigation and pointed out that the software takes into account different forms of agriculture applied, including lagoon water and irrigation water.
Mathews said the software is easy to use and has pull-down menus for accessing data in various forms, including pounds, gallons and loads per acre.
It can be used to manage nitrogen applications while minimizing leaching. The software currently supports winter cereal forage, silo corn and single cut sudangrass.
Jim Ayers, agricultural engineer with the Agricultural Research Service in Parlier, discussed water and nitrogen requirements for developing pomegranates. He said demand for water will increase as California’s population grows, and much still remains to be learned about the ancient crop that is thought to be both drought and salt tolerant.
Ayers said research in Parlier indicated trees grown with subsurface drip had higher yields that those grown with surface drip irrigation. Subsurface drip, he said, eliminates runoff and deep drainage and minimizes surface soil and plant evaporation.
Ayers said it is still too early to develop conclusions regarding the required levels of nitrogen for a pomegranate orchard, and initial results show little effects on yield when nitrogen levels are increased.
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