The California Department of Food and Agriculture recently awarded several research grants for specialty crop projects that will benefit the California Almond industry and build upon research the Almond Board of California has funded over the past 30 years.

California received a $16.3 million block grant from the USDA’s 2009 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, which was authorized under the 2008 farm bill. The block grant will fund competitive grants for 55 research projects designed to enhance the long-term competitiveness of specialty crops, including fruits, nuts and vegetables. In particular, the state funds will leverage existing almond industry support for four projects related to sustainability, honey bee pollination, rootstock resistance and orchard management.

Goals of these projects include:

• Implementing an almond sustainability initiative for integrated water and nutrient management;

• Establishing best management practices to ensure long-term sustainability of managed bee colonies;

• Developing rootstocks with improved resistance to soil pathogens; and

• Creating nut tree phenology models to better understand crop development and the potential impacts on nut crops from global warming.

For the sustainability initiative, the Almond Board will collaborate with SureHarvest, a consulting and software company that works with growers and trade associations on sustainability strategies, on an integrated water and nutrient resource management project. The goal of the collaboration will be to provide industry-wide outreach, benchmarking and decision-making tools to help increase almond grower water and nutrient resource use efficiency.

Five years ago, the Almond Board developed a definition of sustainability for its industry that emphasizes economically sound production practices that consider impacts on the environment, employees and community. This project will accelerate the development of self-assessment models for sustainable almond production practices.

Additional grant funding will support the efforts of Project Apis m. (PAm) to develop best management practices for commercial honeybees to improve pollination services for California Almonds and other specialty crops.

Project Apis m. is a cooperative effort established by growers and beekeepers in 2006 to fund honey bee research. The grant money will help PAm develop sustainable best management practices for commercially managed honey bees and implement an outreach program to educate commercial beekeepers about those practices.

Given the important role honey bees play in the pollination of almonds and other California crops, it is perhaps surprising how little updated information is being utilized. Since 2003 the Almond Board of California has funded a significant amount of research focused on honey bee health and nutrition. The ABC also works closely with Project Apis m., being an early and ongoing supporter of PAm, and supports research by other organizations aimed at improving honey bee health, nutrition and management. Results of this recent research and collaboration need to be extended to beekeepers as well almond growers.

In another funded study, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service will develop new rootstocks with resistance to targeted soilborne pathogens to minimize yield loss and maximize production, while reducing reliance on traditional soil fumigants.

This project will be the latest in a concerted effort to develop rootstocks that are resistant to a wide array of soilborne pathogens, such as nematodes, Phytophthora, bacterial canker, and replant disorder. This will be particularly important given the precarious future and limitations on the use of traditional soil fumigants.

The Almond Board already is funding studies related to understanding the factors that cause orchard replant disorder and developing diagnostic tools for orchard replant decisions. This project could help develop germplasm that is tolerant to these factors and other soilborne pathogens.

The final almond-related study will help researchers develop growth models for tree nut crops in California based on new methods for deriving chilling hour and heat unit requirements in almonds, walnuts and pistachios. Information will be used to determine the impact of climate change on the long-term viability of nut crops in California, and predict various growth stages to guide production management decisions.

This information could provide a tool for selecting tree crop varieties and planning for the future, given projections for climate change that could impact chilling hours and other conditions.

The potential benefits of this research go beyond understanding the impacts of climate change. Of most immediate impact, developing new growth models based on the chilling hour and heat unit requirements of different tree species and varieties will help improve the timing and efficiency of production in-season practices including irrigation and nutrition, pest management and harvest.

In total, these four projects will receive $1.5 million — nearly 10 percent of the total $16.3 million allocated for California to improve the competitiveness and ensure the sustainability of almonds and other California specialty crops. While four projects will specifically benefit almonds, the almond industry is likely to see value from many of the other projects that received grants, such as food safety.

Go to almondboard.com/farmpress2 for more information on almond production research.