Almond growers adopt sustainable farming methods
By Craig Macho
The Ripon Record
Aug. 6, 2014
(Reprinted with permission by the Ripon Record)
Brent Boersma is a third-generation Ripon almond grower who is invested in his farm and community; his father and grandfather worked the family land for decades, his children attend Ripon schools and he and his wife Brooke were raised here.
It’s this investment, as well as economic challenges, that is leading Boersma and other local growers to adopt sustainable farming practices recommended by the Almond Board of California.
According to Mark Looker, a consultant with the Almond Board of California, more and more growers in the Central Valley are participating in the Almond Board’s sustainability program, which not only seeks to make better use of water resources and orchard management programs but also allows growers to use their resources more efficiently.
“It allows Brent and other growers to realize they're not alone, they can compare farming practices,” he said.
Ripon almond grower Brent Boersma prepares to test the water content of a leaf stem from his orchard earlier this month using a pressure chamber device. (Craig Macho/The Ripon Record)
A tour of Boersma’s orchards revealed many of these sustainability practices in action. Solar panels grace the roof of a hulling barn, drip systems and micro sprinklers provide for irrigation while probes that measure the moisture content of the soil are deep underground. With a glance at his smart phone, Boersma is able to ensure he is using his resources wisely.
But it wasn’t always this way in Ripon, the home of the Almond Blossom Festival and the community that declares itself the Almond Capital of the World.
Not your father’s almond orchard
Boersma tells a story about how his grandfather, Dick Boersma, became an almond grower.
“He was growing alfalfa and had cattle for years, but one day a salesman from a tree nursery drove up with a pick-up truck full of small almond trees. He offered the trees for 25 cents each, so my grandfather decided to go ahead and plant them see how they would work out.”
It worked out pretty well for the Boersma family; Brent's father, Arvin Boersma, is still working their farm every day at the age of 74 and other family members, including uncles and cousins, also work the land.
Through the years the family has grown peaches, walnuts and grapes but over the past 20 years has concentrated solely on almonds.
But like most growers in the area, Boersma has had to deal with a number of issues including the rising price of energy, a mountain of environmental regulations and lately, a concern that there will not be enough water to maintain his trees.
Two years ago Boersma installed solar panels on the roof of a hulling barn. Although it was a big investment, he is glad he took the step.
“Energy costs are rising, the cost of diesel for water pumps is approaching five dollars a gallon,” he noted.
Boersma also said a PG&E program allows him to gather energy credits during the year.
“It generally provides us enough power to run our sheller for the two months we use it, and any excess power we generate we’re able to sell back to PG&E throughout the year,” he said of the solar setup.
With the current drought stretching into its third year many local growers are attempting to find ways to use their water allotments wisely.
Boersma said that the South San Joaquin Irrigation District has done a remarkable job in supplying water to growers, noting that he's received a full water allotment this year.
“There are no issues yet and we have a well we can use if necessary,” he said.
But using wells means using pumps, which can cut into a grower’s margins depending on the price of fuel and electricity. As a result, many growers have forgone the flood irrigation practices of the past and have installed drip systems and micro sprinklers.
Brent Boersma examines a tree in one of his orchards. He’s among a number of local growers who are using technology and innovative methods to implement sustainable farming practices on their land. (Craig Macho/The Ripon Record)
They are also using the latest in technology to monitor their orchards.
In the past, a grower would dig into the dirt in an orchard to determine how much moisture the soil was holding. He’d feel the leaves on the trees, walking among the rows to determine the health of his orchard.
While this is still a part of being a farmer, some growers are also using technology to determine needs.
A tall tower sits in the middle of one of Boersma’s orchards, powered by a solar panel. A nearby probe connected to the tower has been sunk five feet into the ground.
Boersma displayed his cell phone to a visitor, explaining how the system works.
“The probe measures the moisture content of the soil; if it falls below a certain level I’ll receive a text notifying me of this,” he said. The tower also measures the temperature and wind speed, all available with a glance at his phone.
He also demonstrated the use of a pressure chamber, a device that measures the water content of leaf stems. He carries the portable device in his truck, bringing it out during his visits to assess the orchard.
“Farmers can tell when water is needed, there's a look to the trees. It's really an art,” he said. “But you’re never going to be sitting in an office to do farming, these devices don’t replace your observations but supplements them. You might think you're applying the right amount of water, but this confirms it,” he added.
Boersma said his father has adapted to the new technology, even if he grumbles about it at times.
“Dad is 74 and on the surface he’s skeptical, but he’s getting use to it. It’s like a phone, he used to say, ‘Why do you need all that for,’ and now he has an iPhone,” Boersma said with a chuckle.
“He’s warming to the technology; he didn't have these tools available when he was younger. But he's enjoying the science side of it now.”
Almond Board leads effort
The Almond Board of California began offering Almond Sustainability Modules to its growers a few years ago, according to Looker. It offers five areas where growers can examine their practices and determine what improvements and changes in farming methods are recommended. The modules covered are Irrigation Management, Nutrient Management, Energy Efficiency, Air Quality and Pest Management and are done online.
“It allows us to do a self-assessment; how much water and energy we use, the pesticides we use, other methods we can put in place,” Boersma said.
In years past Boersma said many of these issues were discussed by growers as part of what he termed ‘coffee shop talk,’ where growers would gather some mornings and discuss the art of almond farming among themselves.
Innovative growers such as Boersma have added the Almond Board’s recommendations to their repertoire.
“It provides an analysis of what you're doing. It allows you to think about things from a cost viewpoint as well as a sustainability viewpoint. There's a lot of overlap; not everything that is sustainable is nonprofit,” Boersma said.
A screenshot from Boersma’s cell phone displays the moisture content of the soil in one of his orchards.
The Almond Board of California assists 6500 growers from Chico to Bakersfield, according to Looker. In addition to marketing efforts, the board also tracks crop yields and keeps its members apprised of the latest environmental regulations.
But most importantly to growers such as Boersma, it partners with many universities for research into new techniques for growing almonds and sustainable farming practices, sharing the results with its growers.
“The UC system has done some great research on some of these practices,” Boersma noted. “It’s pure research, and to have that resource is a great thing for us.”