This year’s Almond Industry Conference theme, “Leadership Through Research,” brought home the importance of grower cooperation in industry-funded research to the overall success of the industry.
The Almond Board of California (ABC) each year funds between $1 million and $2 million in production and environmental stewardship research, finding practical solutions to challenges that range from regulatory requirements to pest problems, environmental issues and food quality and safety. Engaging top researchers in each area assures the most reliable and accurate information.
But grower cooperation is essential to ensuring that research can be successfully adopted in a commercial setting to enhance yields and manage orchards for long-term production.
More than half of ABC’s currently funded research relies on grower cooperators. The bottom line is that California almond growers wouldn’t have access to nearly as much knowledge about producing almonds if it weren’t for those growers who allow research to be done in their orchards. Many of those cooperators willingly allow their trees to be stressed or damaged, alter their schedule for planned cultural activities or harvest, and allow their orchard layout and irrigation systems to be modified to meet the needs of researchers to conduct trials and collect data.
Brock Faulkner, a researcher with Texas A&M University, spent seven years working with almond growers from Bakersfield to Arbuckle to study particulate matter dust emissions from almond harvest operations. The knowledge gained in this trial is helping to develop promising methods for reducing visible dust emissions during harvest, while also providing valuable data for regulators that shows actual PM-10 emissions factors from almond harvest are actually much lower than originally assumed.
Faulkner says good researchers work around producers to reduce the impact on their operations, but in reality it doesn’t always happen. His work can slow down harvest to accommodate sampling equipment in test orchards and also requires coordination with field operations that can sometimes interfere with a grower’s timeframe.
He believes that the key to successful large-plot research is good communication between researchers and the growers. An ideal cooperator provides the necessary freedom to do the research, but also clearly states what he is or is not willing to live with.
“When I go to a producer, he has to be willing to tell me when to stop asking questions,” Faulkner says. “My job is to do research. For that to be effective, I want to know as much as possible about the agronomics, economics, management, etc., of an operation. Fortunately most farmers like to talk about farming, so it usually works out well.”
Matt Billings, a third-generation almond grower with Billings Ranches in Delano, has participated in a number of research projects over the past two decades, looking at everything from irrigation techniques and fungicide treatments to varieties and rootstocks. Billings says that committing small blocks of his orchard to research can create challenges, particularly around harvest. At the same time, that participation helps him stay on top of production practices that have contributed significantly to making him a better farmer.
“It puts us on the leading edge, but also on the ‘bleeding’ edge sometimes too,” he says.
Paramount Farming Co. in Bakersfield has also been a steady participant in grower-funded research trials over the last quarter century. The company typically has 20 to 30 multi-year research projects going on at any given time.
President Joe MacIlvaine said there are upsides and downsides to participating. Among the upsides: Access to site-specific information as it is developed by researchers that can improve farming practices specific to Paramount’s situation.
And the potential downsides?
“In the early years, we actually killed trees exploring the extremes of almond irrigation,” MacIlvaine says.
Paramount has several reasons for participating as a grower cooperator. As an industry leader, MacIlvaine says the company has an obligation to dedicate its resources to overall industry improvement.
In addition, along with early access to cutting edge information, he says research trials expose ranch personnel to experimental methods and ideas that get the entire staff thinking outside the box on farming methods.
Everyone at Paramount is involved in the design, set-up and installation of research blocks and is aware of where those research trials are located and the limitations placed on those test plots. Otherwise mishaps can occur that can decimate years of ongoing trials, such as the time a custom applicator oversprayed a test plot and ruined several years of consecutive data collection.
And then there is the challenge of harvesting multiple replications of nuts, which must be sorted, weighed and sampled.
Despite these challenges, almond growers continue to participate in field research and the industry owes them a debt of gratitude. For without this research many of today’s common practices that have led to dramatic increases in yield, cost-saving production strategies and more judicious use of farm inputs likely would not be known.
For a searchable database of recent almond industry research results, go to AlmondBoard.com/farmpress14.