High-tech almond approach to environmental challenges

Almond grower Sharon Naraghi is taking a high-tech approach to meeting environmental challenges and regulations in the family’s 1,000-acre orchard operation. Naraghi hosted more than two dozen local, state and federal regulators at her Quinn River Ranch in March during the Almond Board of California’s annual Environmental Stewardship Tour to illustrate how new technologies are helping address environmental issues related to soil, air and water quality

Quinn River farm managers Nick and Joe Bavaro, of Bavaro Farm Management in Escalon, said site-specific fertilization and state-of-the-art soil moisture monitoring have helped Quinn River more efficiently apply inputs to control off-site and downward movement of applied water, pesticides and fertilizers.

And softer insecticides have eliminated winter applications of broad-spectrum insecticides, such as organophosphates and pyrethroids.

Managing inputs to reduce applications and off-site movement is especially important for Quinn River, which is located in an area of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition targeted for past exceedances of pesticides and sediments in the nearby watershed.

“This watershed is on the map so we have to be very careful,” said Quinn River Pest Control Advisor (PCA) Mike Grohl with Wilbur-Ellis Co. in Hughson.

Coalition manager Parry Klassen said coordinated management plans and proactive measures taken by growers such as Quinn River have significantly reduced exceedances of fertilizers and pesticides showing up in the coalition’s water monitoring program along the Dry Creek watershed.

“We contacted 29 landowners on this watershed and said we need you to look at how you’re managing pests along these waterways,” Klassen said. “Growers in this area, once they were told we had a problem, they went right to work to find solutions.”

Using real-time soil moisture monitoring technology from PureSense, Bavaro said he now knows at any time throughout the orchard what deep soil moisture levels and crop water requirements are so that he can irrigate more precisely.

Site-specific data from the computerized irrigation management system allows Bavaro to measure and monitor soil moisture, system operations, and weather conditions to apply irrigations within a desired level. The approach helps improve the efficiency of applied water and also reduce runoff and leaching by keeping drip-applied water and fertilizers within the root zone.

“Every morning we go onto the computer and know what our weather is, what our plant stress is and what our deep moisture looks like,” Bavaro said. “We know when to start irrigating because we know when the moisture is starting to leave the soil profile.”

Site-specific monitoring is also a key component of Quinn River’s integrated pest management and fertility strategy.

Grohl said Quinn River has reduced its applied fertilizers on one newly planted block of Carmel/Mission almonds, for instance, by sampling and amending soils preplant with a fertilizer and potash blend. He expects Quinn will yield 4,000 pounds per ace on that block with only 20 to 30 pounds of annual applied nitrogen — about a tenth of what were once conventional industry practices.

In addition, by relying on trap counts and degree-days within individual blocks, Grohl can make pest management recommendations based on mounting pest pressures rather than the calendar year. As a result, Quinn River has significantly eliminated its reliance on winter organophosphate and pyrethroid sprays in favor of narrow-spectrum, in-season insecticides.

“Everything we do here we try to be site-specific and do only what the orchard needs at any given time,” Bavaro said. “This is the way the industry has to go; we’ve got to be very site-specific about what we do.”

Quinn River is participating in the second phase of the Almond Pest Management Alliance Program to assess reduced risk pest management strategies in the orchard.

“If it can eliminate one spray for us or find one thing we can do better with our pesticide programs it will be worth it,” Bavaro said.

University of California Cooperative Extension Merced County Farm Advisor David Doll in Merced County said insect growth regulator pesticides like Dimilin and Intrepid are handling pests such as peach twig borer, and even mites, without the need for a winter dormant spray.

“And winter sanitation practices such as shaking and polling can reduce overwintering pest pressures event more,” said Doll, who is evaluating these practices in demonstration orchards for PMA II.

Regulators on the tour also viewed new harvest equipment that is helping reduce the impact of harvest on the environment.

Amid mounting air quality regulations related to dust and smog, equipment manufacturers are finding ways to reduce the number of trips through the orchard, integrate cleaner, more efficient motors, and use brushes and other equipment designs to reduce dust during the three-step harvesting operation. Chipping and shredding demonstrations also illustrated how growers are complying with new burn ban regulations by integrated orchard prunings into the orchard or sending them to cogeneration plants or dairies.

Joe Bavaro said a trend toward lighter pruning is also reducing the overall amount of pruning wood coming out of individual orchards.

“There isn’t nearly as much brush coming out of these fields a there has been in the past,” Bavaro said. “Growers are figuring out how to get around the challenges and make this work.”

Pamela Creedon, executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control board, which oversees the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, said it is important for regulators to see first-hand the tactics growers are taking to comply with environmental regulations.

“It’s nice to be around these growers and innovators,” she said. “We really need to educate our staff and board on some of the progressive things almond growers are doing throughout the Central Valley.”

PCA Grohl said Quinn River Ranch has been on the cutting edge of integrating environmentally friendly practices into its orchard since the family pioneered farming almonds on the east side decades ago. Until recently, however, the technology has not always been there to support those efforts.

“Some of the things they’re doing they tried 30 years ago, but the technology wasn’t there. But today it is, and they’re doing it now and doing it well,” Grohl said.

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