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Scientist envisions almond orchards of the future

TAGS: almonds
Todd Gradziel/UC Davis GL0318-UCD-almonds-future.jpg
A late-blooming Kester variety almond tree is more frost tolerant.
Geneticist Tom Gradziel at UC Davis spends his days immersed in that changing world.

It's a bit like the flowing river. In fact, the adage is: “Nothing stays the same, save eternal change.”

And while that wisdom about constant change wasn't written with the California almond industry in mind, it is apropos to that segment of the tree nut industry with so many variables that are constantly in flux.

Geneticist Tom Gradziel at the University of California, Davis, spends his days immersed in that changing world, tending to 20,000 seedling trees in a dozen test plots up and down the state.

His conclusion involving recent harvest results? "The concerns I’ve heard involve smaller size product, especially in the Sacramento Valley,” he said. “Some of our varieties are already pushing the margins of size and I worry if sizes start to get too much smaller, the overall perceived quality of California almonds may suffer.”

Gradziel has spent decades breeding almonds with a contemporary focus on self-pollinating almonds. “Breeders have to be in tune with the industry in terms of problems that need solving, both now and in the future, and how to pragmatically go about solving those problems, thinking ahead to what the industry may need in the future,” he said.

His search for cultivars more tolerant to a wider range of climatic conditions led to an interest in developing self-fruitful varieties that don’t need to be pollinated. “Visionary breeders have been working on this for the last 20 years,” he said. “We need new varieties to meet new needs and challenges and with tree crops, it takes a long time to breed both by traditional methods or the new genomic methods.

“And the newness of varieties also means unknowns revolving around things like disease susceptibility to incompatibility of root stock to market needs. We need to be confident these new varieties will give a payback.”

Asked if his research over seven years of regional trials was showing anything promising in the area of self-compatible varieties, Gradziel cited things to consider including dust regulations, pesticide losses, a need for reduced water and tolerance to salts as well as trees reaction to early heat or frost. “There’s clearly a need to bring in new genetics to provide these solutions.

Industry ‘is so diverse’

“The almond industry from Redding to Bakersfield is so diverse that each area has a variety that tends to work best in that area,” he said. “For instance, in dealing with self-compatibility, we released a variety called Kester, a very productive later-blooming variety that has more tolerance to frost damage and is a potential replacement for Padre plantings to compensate for some of their deficiencies.”

Gradziel dusted off the crystal ball when asked what future California orchards would look like.

“For a significant part of the industry, it should continue to look like what we’re doing now with Nonpareil still being the dominant variety,” he said. “It’s had a more-than 120 year history of dominance because it captures good market value and is very productive over a whole range of conditions throughout the state. I expect as we move to more managed input in terms of fertilizers and water, this variety will remain dominant with its traditional pollenizer production and the attendant responsibilities that come with that.”

Nonetheless, there will be some transitioning depending on location. “In order for regional production to stay in the game, we’ll need some new solutions, things like compact varieties that are more amenable to catch-frame type harvesting,” he said. “The real challenge for breeders is to determine exactly what the needs of the future will be. We need to keep alive a lot of our options.

“If we knew precisely what the needs would be 20 years from now, we could focus on that, but because we’ve got a moving target— particularly for the different regions and their specific location challenges -- we need to adapt quickly in terms of new varieties. We can use the expertise we’ve already developed to look at specific areas, modifying the way we harvest, changing the way we manage our trees, and developing new equipment and integrated pest management solutions as part of anticipating future requirements.”

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