This year’s Environmental Stewardship Tour, hosted May 13 by the Almond Board of California, serves as a reminder and illustration of how valuable the Nickels Soil Lab in Arbuckle, Calif., has been to the almond industry. The result of research conducted here has transformed several production systems and led to improvements in others.

Perhaps the most noteworthy of these has been the introduction of micro and drip irrigation, as discussed by Colusa County Pomology Farm Advisor John Edstrom at the May tour. Nickels was an ideal venue for the Stewardship Tour, which highlighted the progressive state-of-the art irrigation research and management leading to water stewardship and production efficiency in almonds.

Nickels is a research farm and is also used for education and outreach, such as the Environmental Stewardship Tour and the annual Nickels Field Day. Farm Advisor Edstrom oversees the production operations, which are managed by Sam Cutter. Edstrom also coordinates the applied research and activities.

Nickels is unique in that no public monies are used in its operation. Farm operation is covered by profits received from crop production and some grants, including annual support from the Almond Board. In addition, given the key role this facility plays in Almond Board-funded research, the ABC recently provided support to drill and develop a well, so that the facility would not be entirely dependent on surface water from the local irrigation district, as water shortages could jeopardize ongoing studies.

The Nickels farm, which encompasses 90 acres of almonds, was collaboratively developed and is operated by UC Cooperative Extension and the private sector. The Nickels Soil Lab has been in operation for over 30 years and came about as a bequest from the Leslie J. Nickels estate. The will stipulated the farm be used to research and improve management on local class II and III soils. Pomology Farm Advisor Tom Aldrich was instrumental in its initial development. Currently, the financial well-being of Nickels is overseen by three trustees: Mike Murray (UCCE Colusa County director), Raymond Charter and Gary Henderson.

While the Nickels Lab was set up to address local growing challenges, the work conducted here has rippled out to the industry, where it has been tested and adapted, and has benefited a wide swath of acreage. In addition to drip and micro-irrigation, pioneering work has been done on irrigation scheduling and fertigation, as well as higher density planting and minimal pruning. Nickels has been key in both variety and rootstock evaluation and development, including the peach almond hybrid rootstock.

The impact of this horticultural research has been significant. For instance, average yields in Colusa County, where Nickels is located, have quadrupled over the past 20 years from about 600 kernel pounds per acre to 2,300–2,400 pounds. Industry-wide, over this same period, average yield has doubled from about 1,100 kernel pounds per acre to about 2,200 pounds per acre. To a large extent, yield increases are a result of these improved practices. Work done at Nickels has also contributed significantly to pest management. Examples include alternatives to dormant sprays, such as Bt for controlling peach twig borer, and development of reduced-risk insecticides for navel orangeworm.

The Nickels Soil Lab plays a significant role in the ongoing Almond Board research program, which has industry-wide impact. Currently there are about 20 almond research projects in progress at this research farm. The Almond Board is funding the expenses (personnel, supplies, etc,) for over half of these. As noted above, there is no charge for farming and management by Nickels. The current ABC-funded research includes work on navel orangeworm, lower limb dieback, drought survival strategies, self-fertile almond varieties, rootstock evaluation, alternatives to methyl bromide and almond replant, and greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration.

Clearly the vision and generosity of Leslie J. Nickels combined with the diligence and vision of those mentioned here who manage and oversee the Nickels facility has had an impact not only on the surrounding area, but also to the entire almond industry — the extent of these contributions could not have been envisioned by Mr. Nickels.

Go to AlmondBoard.com for more information.