Pest control advisors who work with commercial growers were recently encouraged to find ways to help their clients in more ways than killing bugs and curing disease.
At this year’s California Association of Pest Control Advisors (CAPCA) conference in Reno, PCAs were encouraged by several speakers to help growers address challenges centered on the nebulous idea of sustainability, which is quickly becoming an industry buzzword.
John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers, was one of several opening-day speakers at the CAPCA conference to advise PCAs to consider how they will help their clients achieve definitions of sustainability that are currently being set – or at the very least, driven – by large companies such as Walmart.
Aguirre says it’s not the consumer who is engineering the sustainability train, but the commercial buyers – from wineries to retailers – that are demanding growers employ various practices that can be leveraged into marketing opportunities.
“There’s increasing pressure on growers to understand sustainability and obtain certification,” Aguirre told the large audience at the opening day’s general session. “Generally, this is positive provided that the grower is compensated or realizes economic benefits from certification or this effort. However, it’s truly a double-edged sword.”
Aguirre laid out an example of efforts by Walmart to develop key performance indicators that could ultimately ask growers for information many find proprietary and a violation of their privacy. He further says the information, couched as data to support established sustainability practices, could be used by marketers to pressure growers into lowering the price of commodities sold to these marketers.
“Our growers are very reluctant to disclose data that would indicate their cost structure to their buyers,” Aguirre said.
“I’ve been to meetings with Walmart and others who want to collect this data and dictate from afar how the grower should grow his crop,” he continued. “The real arrogance that someone who’s buying wine in Bentonville, Ark. (Walmart's headquarters) can actually dictate changes that should occur on the ground. That’s not how the relationship should work.”
While Aguirre says growers continue to face various challenges including Pierce’s disease and the glassy-winged sharpshooter, red blotch, leaf roll virus and sugar development in vineyards. He encouraged PCAs to be more rounded in assisting growers.
“My point here is to underscore that growers want you to participate on their team in ways that go well beyond pest and disease management,” he said.
Almond Board of California (ABC) President Richard Waycott echoed Aguirre’s notion on staying ahead of sustainability.
“Instead of letting the companies dictate to us, we need to be developing these programs for our own good,” Waycott said.
For about a decade, the ABC has focused on several facets of sustainability, developing protocols to assist growers in achieving aspects of what is not easily defined but definitely among the talking points of buyers.
“We need to embrace the programs we can create around sustainability,” Waycott said.
To do that, the ABC developed eight different modules to help growers prove to world buyers of almonds that the industry is serious about such efforts. So far, Waycott says he is pleased with how the almond industry is embracing the various sustainability practices they developed with industry leaders.
One thing Waycott believes the ABC has going for it is its “science-centric” approach, not just with sustainability practices, but throughout the organization. For instance, current research is looking into applying excessive water to almond orchards during flood events to test the effects that could have on orchards.
The goal is groundwater recharge and salinity management, which was much easier when growers flood irrigated their orchards than under drip and micro-sprinkler technology.
Air quality studies and new technology to achieve that is also being looked at, as are ways to promote honey bee health as the industry needs at least 1.7 million colonies of bees each year to pollinate the crop.
This year alone, the ABC will spend over $1.5 million on production research to help the industry’s 6,800 growers.
This is small in comparison to the nearly 70 percent of the organization’s $58.9 million budget earmarked for global market development. When 67 percent of the U.S. crop is sold internationally, Waycott says it’s important to spent time and energy marketing almonds worldwide.
California’s almond industry, by the numbers:
- 87 percent of the crop is grown south of Modesto;
- 100 percent of the U.S. crop is grown in California;
- Export value in 2012 was $3.4 billion – the state’s leading export;
- Almonds support over 104,000 jobs, according to the University of California; and,
- At current market prices almonds are valued at about $8 billion.
Waycott points to the last decade where almond production doubled to over two billion pounds within six years.
“This is just incredible growth and an amazing feat that the industry was able to harvest and process all those nuts,” he said.
Also noteworthy for Waycott was the industry’s ability to sell those nuts at a profitable price as output exploded.
“We were able to keep demand in front of supply, and that is the holy grail of organizations like mine if you can accomplish that,” he continued.
In spite of the recent slip in almond production since its record crop in 2011 – due largely to drought conditions, Waycott is optimistic that the industry will see 2-3 percent growth per year as new plantings come into production.
Though much smaller in acreage than the almond and grape industries, strawberries remain a highly-valuable crop in California for the estimated 400 family farmers, according to Rick Tomlinson, president of the California Strawberry Commission.
While the industry covers just 38,000 acres of plantings along the California coast from Orange County to near Santa Cruz, Tomlinson points out that the farm-gate value of the crop exceeds $2 billion, “which is pretty amazing given our acreage.”
Two of the industry’s bigger challenges remain finding alternatives to fumigation and the lygus bug, Tomlinson says. To address those challenges, the commission is partnering with the University of California and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
The importance of fumigation is easy to explain economically.
“We get double-yield on fumigated ground versus non-fumigated ground,” Tomlinson says.
The strawberry industry has a critical-use exemption for fumigants until 2016.
California strawberry growers are already frugal when it comes to water use. Tomlinson says growers typically apply the equivalent of a glass of water per day per plant to irrigate their crop.
“We’re still doing water efficiency training,” he said. “We think we can shave another 10-20 percent of our water use through some of the techniques and research we’ve done in cooperation with Cooperative Extension and Cal Poly.”
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