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Agricultural pioneers battling water scarcity

From left Henrik Skov Laursen director of Grundfos Pump Co and chair of Blue Tech Valley Doug Rauch former president of Trader Joersquos and Bill Smittcamp president and CEO of Wawona Frozen Foods
<p> From left: Henrik Skov Laursen, director of Grundfos Pump Co. and chair of Blue Tech Valley; Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe&rsquo;s; and Bill Smittcamp, president and CEO of Wawona Frozen Foods.</p>
Entrepreneurs and agricultural pioneers are eager to find new ways to feed the world&rsquo;s growing appetite with a scarce water supply.

It takes more than a few lakes full of water to simply grow what we eat, and another sea-full to process it before we put into our mouths.

So, it’s no surprise that entrepreneurs and agricultural pioneers are eager to find new ways to feed the world’s growing appetite at the same time that scarcity of water and costs for its use are growing.

It explains why many with ties to California’s water industry gathered in Clovis this week for a two day conference with the theme “How Water Efficient Technologies Will Secure Our Future Food Supply.”

The 2nd Annual BlueTech Valley Conference drew more than 30 speakers, including top executives from some of the region’s leading processing operations, including Stuart Woolf, president of Woolf Farming Co., and Bill Smittcamp, president and CEO of Wawona Frozen Foods.

Woolf and Smittcamp, along with other panelists, outlined innovative steps their processing operations have taken to reduce not only the amount of water used, but the amount of effluent discharged into county and city municipal waste systems.

“We’re always trying to conserve water,” Smittcamp said, recounting a research partnership he developed several years ago with former Fresno State University Food Science Professor Gour Choudhury. During a discussion about ways to reduce water use, Choudhury remarked “why not try air?” as a means to peel the skin off the peaches.

His remark marked the beginning of a three-year research effort that resulted in a new, air-based peeling system. According to Smittcamp, the system saves thousands of gallons of water each day during peak processing at Wawona’s Clovis plant.

Now head of the Food Science and Nutrition Department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Choudhury said he is using similar processes to save water use in taking the peel off processing tomatoes “without a drop of water.”

“Next year we will be testing the commercial use of that on tomatoes,” he said.

The conference was sponsored by a consortium of regional water technology businesses and agencies, including Woolf Farming and Processing, Grundfos, Wells Fargo, Fresno State, the City of Clovis and the California Water Alliance. Fresno State’s Water, Energy and Technology Center (WET Center) is one of the consortium founders and also a co-sponsor of the event.

“Our aim was to create a forum for discussion and inspiration on how new technologies can help sustain and grow the food processing industry in the BlueTech Valley,” said Henrik Skov Laursen, planning committee chair and director of Grundfos Pump Co.

The term “BlueTech Valley” was coined by business leaders to represent the central San Joaquin Valley water technology industry in the same way that “Silicon Valley” in the Bay Area became known as the center for the computer and software industry in the United States.

Sense of urgency

According to David Zoldoske, director of Fresno State’s Center for Irrigation Technology, the event provided an important opportunity for developers of new water technologies to meet with those in the farming and processing industries who will be the end users of those technologies and systems.

"We’re all sharing a sense of urgency about future threats to our water supply in California,” Zoldoske said. “This provided a great opportunity for networking and the sharing of ideas among the conference participants. I think the collective feeling is that as a community we will be able to solve these problems.”

The conference included presentation of a $450,000 grant from the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) for a new AgWaterEnergy Center that will oversee demonstrations of how innovation can save energy and water and preserve water quality in agricultural operations in California’s Central Valley.

Operating under the Center for Irrigation Technology (CIT), the AgWaterEnergy Center will work with manufacturers to design, install and monitor the most advanced water- and energy-saving systems available for demonstration and production on Fresno State’s University Agricultural Laboratory.

Woolf Farming is a diversified operation with land in Fresno and Madera counties, and processing tomatoes are among its major crops. Woolf talked of how the company increased its tomato yields threefold between 1974 and 2013, by switching from furrow to drip irrigation and changing some cultural practices.

He and several other speakers talked of a “more crop per drop” approach that boosted yields.

Woolf also talked of extracting water from the tomato itself, water that is then used in some further processing steps, as well as for growing more tomatoes.

“It’s a closed system,” he said.

The use of drip, though beneficial, has the drawback of concentrating salts “where the plants are,” Woolf said, rather than spreading it evenly as flooding did. His challenges include finding tools to better manage salt accumulation.

He would also like to see systems developed for re-using water more at the Los Gatos Tomato Products plant. On the farm, Woolf would like better monitoring tools and water scheduling tools.

Beneficial waste water

Another panelist, Delshawn Brown, environmental manager with Cargill Food Solutions in Fresno, talked of steps being taken at that plant to save and re-use water, including reclaiming water from condensers and using it for cooling.

Brown said portable water meters are being used for monitors, and employees are encouraged to take steps such as posting “water leak repair tags” to call attention to waste. Employees are also rewarded for water-saving suggestions.

Other speakers at the conference talked of using technology to harvest beneficial waste in water. For example, phosphate, which may be in short supply years from now, could be among materials recovered in that way, said Slav Hermanowicz, a professor in environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

Ross Sirigusa, director of global agriculture with HJ Heinz Inc., talked of his company’s efforts to increase grower efficiency in various countries that supply processing tomatoes. He said those efforts include sharing some techniques piloted by Woof Farming.

Formerly CEO of the California Tomato Growers Association, Sirigusa said having multiple efficient suppliers abroad is vital “because, with the water situation in California, we have to look to other places.”

Despite its challenges, Woof said, California continues to grow nearly 94 percent of the entire world’s processing tomatoes.

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