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Friday, March 09, 2007

Almond tour highlights stewardship
Growers want to have ‘the healthiest specialty crop in the world’

Cecilia Parsons
Capital Press Staff Writer

Friday, March 09, 2007

Scott Phippen with Phippen and Travaille almond processing and Anita Brown, public affairs director with Natural Resources Conservation Service, take a close look at the processing operations during the Almond Board of California’s environmental stewardship tour.
MANTECA - Mummified nut removal, cover crops and specialized shredding equipment, all examples of farming practices that help the environment, were highlights of the annual Environmental Stewardship tour by the Almond Board of California.

Members of federal, state and local regulatory agencies as well as other growers were on hand to learn farming and processing practices aimed at making almonds "the healthiest specialty crop in the world."

The tour was hosted by Dave Phippen, chairman of the Almond Board of California, at the Travaille and Phippen plant.

Under a canopy of almond blooms, Nick Gatzman, who leads the pest control and cultural operations for Phippen's almond orchards, spoke emphatically about their goal of reducing pesticide use.

"The most cost-effective control is orchard sanitation," Gatzman stressed.

Removing over-wintering sites, disruption of life cycles, monitoring and beneficial insects all play a part of their integrated pest management plan, Gatzman said.

Control of navel orange worm, potentially the crop's biggest threat, begins with clean trees and a clean floor. Gatzman said the $50 per acre cost to run shakers in the winter, to remove mummified nuts and discing them into the ground pays off.

"Sanitation allows for a little bit of error," said Gatzman, explaining his monitoring program for navel orange worm. He said 2006 was a big year for the pest and just before last year's harvest he was checking the early variety nonpareils when he found a new hatch of worms.

"I told them we needed to harvest now. I was very concerned."

The vigilance paid off with only a 0.46 percent reject average, he said..

Gatzman said he times his spraying by monitoring traps in the almond orchards. He says timing them exactly to hatching allows them to use lower application rates because the newly hatched worms are easier to kill.

Dormant sprays and pre-emergent herbicide applications are no longer standard practices for them, Gatzman said.

Again, monitoring traps tells him when pests, like San Jose scale, are on the rise. He looks to see if beneficials are parasitizing the pest. If they are working well, dormant sprays are not necessary. Going without those sprays is a big deal because of water quality and run-off rules, he said .

Ants can also be pests, he said, but only certain ones. Using ant traps tells him if there are any hot spots and those can be individually treated, he said.

Gatzman acknowledged that problems with pests can occur if neighbors do not follow good management practices. But, he is a proponent of integrated pest management.

"It's the responsible thing to do. Chemicals are becoming more restricted and ... when the chemicals are gone, you will still be OK."

One of the chemicals almond growers still need, Gatzman said, is the fumigant methyl bromide. Without it, new orchards would not thrive and never reach their production potential due to nematodes and re-plant disease.

"Fumigation is a dirty word, but it's a real tool. We need to have alternatives to methyl bromide or have resistant rootstocks," Gatzman said.

Cover crops in new orchards are also important tools, he said. Their orchards are on sandier soil, so the peas, beans, oats and vetch plants hold the moisture plus they add organic matter to the soil. The organic matter becomes a food source for soil microbes, which add to soil health.

"Taking care of the soil pays us back in higher yields, makes it sustainable," Gatzman said.

Restrictions on dust and burning orchard waste have also prompted innovations in machinery used in almonds, Phippen said.

Mike Flora of Flory Industries explained they have new machines that use a circulating system to reduce the dust that is kicked up during harvest operations. Machines that collect the shaken nuts and sweep them into windrows for harvest typically put a lot of dust into the air, but new technology keeps the air in circulation while kicking out debris.

More almond growers are now shredding their prunings, Flora said. A brush shredder can take wood up to 4 inches in diameter and turn it into small chips that decompose on the orchard floor. Costs run between $280 to $290 per hour, he noted, but that was less costly than pushing and burning.

Flora said growers in drier areas were having more difficulty with the chipping, because the wood was not decomposing quickly and presented problems during harvest.

Phippen said more than 80 percent of growers in the north and central areas are now chipping. He noted that blown down trees and diseased trees were still being burned.

Steve Shaffer with the California Department of Food and Agriculture said it is important for the almond industry to develop protocols to quantify their dust and emission reductions. Dale Shimp of the state air board also noted there will be a workshop on April 16 where growers can present their ideas on voluntary reductions, tracking and reporting.

Cecilia Parsons is based in Ducor. Her e-mail address is

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