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Pollinator Efforts Lead to Prestigious Sustainability Award for Almond Board of California

The past October, the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) presented its Business for Bees Sustainability Award, an honor reserved for standout organizations that go above and beyond to support pollinators, to the Almond Board of California (ABC) and the state’s almond farmers.

“This is about their long-term dedication to supporting all pollinators in their orchards and throughout our ecosystem,” said Kelly Rourke, executive director of Pollinator Partnership, which founded NAPPC 21 years ago. “We’ve worked with them for many years, and this is well-deserved recognition of their steadfast commitment to engaging farmers in pollinator conservation on multiple levels. The Almond Board and the entire almond industry have really moved the needle to raise awareness and generate action to protect pollinators.”

NAPPC has only given out its Business for Bees Sustainability Award once before. It is given in years when there is a business taking extra special steps to protect bees and all pollinators and to advance sustainability and innovation.

“ABC’s name is on this award, but it really goes to the 7,600 almond farmers in California,” said Josette Lewis, ABC’s chief scientific officer. “Farmers understand how important pollinators are to growing almonds and to all of agriculture and the environment. They want to be part of the solution.”

The reasons for the award, Rourke said, include ABC’s leadership in founding the California Pollinator Coalition (CPC), its work promoting on-farm pollinator habitat and its support of years of research and education about the best practices for providing hospitable environments for pollinators in almond orchards and in other habitats.

ABC worked with Pollinator Partnership and CDFA last spring to create the CPC, which brought together a broad array of grower organizations across the state’s ag and environmental landscape to help promote the health of wild and managed pollinators.

“The formation of the California Pollinator Coalition was such a big step,” said Laurie Davies Adams, Pollinator Partnership’s director of programs, who helped found the CPC. “This is a unique statewide coalition that brings together every grower, farmer and rancher group. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. It’s going to make a real difference on the ground.”

NAPPC is a collaboration of diverse partners from the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It includes respected scientists, researchers, businesspeople, conservationists and government officials. NAPPC works to promote awareness and scientific understanding of pollinators, to find common ground for solutions and to create innovative initiatives that benefit pollinators.

NAPPC is administered and supported by Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit headquartered in San Francisco with a mission to promote the health of pollinators through education, conservation and research.

The award was announced during NAPPC’s 21st-Annual International Conference, held virtually this year for the second time and hosted by the Pollinator Partnership and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The conference and award ceremony were planned for the Smithsonian before being forced to remain virtual because of COVID-19.

Rourke and Adams said they would have liked to have given the honor in person to show how much they appreciate ABC’s work.

“The strong effort that the Almond Board of California has mounted with the support of the almond industry to engage farmers and the entire agricultural community far beyond almond orchards is really impressive,” Adams said. “Bringing every grower group together to have an agriculturally led coalition for pollinators is significant. It will provide building blocks for even more engagement and large results. It’s a pioneering effort that other states are seeking to emulate.”

“This is an outstanding honor for our farmers,” Lewis said, “especially considering all the good work that NAPPC and the Pollinator Partnership do. As much as anyone, almond farmers are tuned in to the importance of pollinators to their crops and our ecosystem. That’s why they work so hard to make their orchards healthy places for pollinators.”

Almond farmers across California’s Central Valley sit in what is essentially a flyway for pollinators. In recent years, almond farmers have applied to certify more than 110,000 acres of Bee Friendly Farming®, providing pollinator habitat and integrated pest management across the valley to keep that flyway healthy and create badly needed floral resources that compliment and expand beyond the annual almond bloom.

“Almond farmers have doubled the number of acres of bee friendly habit in California and in that pollinator flyway,” Lewis said. “We’re proud to help lead a broad coalition of agriculture and conservation groups to work together to promote and preserve habitat for pollinators.”

About the California Pollinator Coalition
Spearheaded by ABC, the California Pollinator Coalition is a group of agricultural and conservation groups that will work to encourage more voluntary, grower-friendly efforts to protect the state’s native insect pollinators and managed honeybees.

The coalition includes a broad array of more than 20 of the state’s leading agricultural organizations and conservation groups. The Coalition will focus on increasing grower participation in projects to provide habitat and forage for pollinators and other beneficial insects across the state’s agricultural landscape.

“California’s almond industry has a long record of continuing improvement in the area of integrated pest management and protection and stewardship of managed bees,” said Lewis. “This new coalition helps us expand on our work to benefit California’s many native pollinator species. We’ll also get more results by collaborating within the agriculture and conservation communities on voluntary efforts that benefit both growers and the environment. Improving the health or our ecosystems is not something we can do alone, so we are glad to have many strong allies in this.”

Convened by Pollinator Partnership, the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the Almond Board of California, the Coalition’s goal is to increase habitat for pollinators on working lands to benefit biodiversity and food production through on-farm and in-orchard projects, supported by technical guidance, research and documenting progress toward increasing healthier pollinator habitats.

The California Pollinator Coalition is a group of agricultural and conservation groups that will work to encourage more voluntary, grower-friendly efforts to protect the state’s native insect pollinators and managed honeybees.

“What we are doing in California is acknowledging the urgency to address the critical issue of protecting all pollinators, including native and managed species,” said Adams. “Agriculture and conservation must work together to achieve this goal.

“The outcome will not be a tidy report that sits on a shelf, but rather a metric of acres, projects and species added to the landscape while agriculture continues to profitably feed the nation,” she said.

Extending the California almond industry’s commitment to protect honeybees during almond pollination, the Coalition plans to address habitat issues on an unprecedented scale for the benefit of the state’s beneficial insects, which include 1,600 species of native bees, managed honeybees, butterflies, beetles, wasps and more. Populations of many California pollinators are declining and often suffer from the same challenges as California’s agriculture.

The Coalition plans to address habitat issues on an unprecedented scale for the benefit of the state’s beneficial insects, which include 1,600 species of native bees, managed honeybees, butterflies, beetles, wasps and more.

The Coalition will work together on a variety of fronts to support pollinators:

Prepare grower-friendly guidance to build and maintain pollinator habitat on farms and ranches
Conduct research and disseminating relevant science
Monitor outcomes (adoption rates and effectiveness of practices)

“Collaborative action can mitigate risks to California’s pollinators, and that’s exactly why this coalition has come together,” said Karen Ross, CDFA secretary of agriculture. “We need urgent action, yet the first step in the process is building trust that encourages, enables and enhances the result. The California Pollinator Coalition is a big step forward in a journey of grower and conservation groups voluntarily demonstrating leadership.”

“This will not be an easy or quick fix,” Lewis said. “It will require a robust and sustained effort, but we are determined to be part of the solution. Almond growers and many other farmers depend on pollinators to produce a crop and pollinators depend on us to provide safe habitat. Working lands can and should be part of the solution.”
“Farm Bureau supports voluntary, farmer-friendly efforts to improve habitat for native pollinators, and we have long advocated improved research on pollinator health,” said President of the California Farm Bureau Jamie Johansson. “We will work with the coalition for the benefit of native pollinators and managed bees, and to assure stability for the domestic bee business.”

California Legislative Recap for 2021

The 2021 legislative session was an interesting one, still subject to COVID-19 restrictions limiting access to the Capitol, but bolstered by a big surplus budget. All in all, things could have been far worse. The following is a brief summary on the bills we felt were most important to the tree nut industry during this year’s session.

AB 73 (R. Rivas)
Current law requires the State Department of Public Health and the Office of Emergency Services to establish a personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpile, and requires the department to establish guidelines for the procurement, management and distribution of PPE, taking into account, among other things, the amount of each type of PPE that would be required for all health care workers and essential workers as defined in the state during a 90-day pandemic or other health emergency. This bill would specifically include wildfire smoke events among health emergencies for these purposes and would include agricultural workers in the definition of essential workers. The bill passed out of the Assembly 78-0, passed out of the Senate 37-0 and was signed by the Governor on Sept. 27.

AB 284 (R. Rivas)
This bill would require the State Air Resources Board, as part of the next scoping plan update and no later than Jan. 1, 2023, to identify a 2045 climate goal with interim milestones for the state’s natural and working lands, and to integrate into the scoping plan update recommendations developed by the Natural Resources Agency and the Department of Food and Agriculture regarding practices, policy and financial incentives, market needs and potential reductions in barriers that would help achieve the 2045 climate goal among other recommendations. The bill was moved to the Inactive File and may be acted upon in January 2022.

AB 377 (R. Rivas)
This bill would require, by January 1, 2023, the State Water Resources Control Board and regional boards to prioritize enforcement of all water quality standard violations that are causing or contributing to an exceedance of a water quality standard in surface water of the state. The bill would require the state board and regional boards, by January 1, 2025, to evaluate impaired state surface waters and report to the Legislature a plan to bring all water segments into attainment by January 1, 2050. The bill was held on the Assembly Suspense File and may be acted upon January 2022.

AB 567 (Bauer-Kahan)
Current law generally regulates pesticide use by the Department of Pesticide Regulation and requires the Director of Pesticide Regulation to endeavor to eliminate from use any pesticide that endangers the agricultural or nonagricultural environment. A violation of those provisions and regulations adopted pursuant to those provisions is generally a misdemeanor. Current law requires the department on or before July 1, 2018 to issue a determination with respect to its reevaluation of neonicotinoids and to adopt control measures necessary to protect pollinator health within two years, as specified. This bill would prohibit the use of a neonicotinoid on a seed, as specified. The bill was made into a two-year bill and may be acted upon in January 2022.

AB 616 (Stone)
This was the big bill of the session. Current law requires the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to certify the results of an election conducted by secret ballot of employees in a collective bargaining unit to designate a collective bargaining representative, unless the board determines there are sufficient grounds to refuse to do so. Current law further provides that if the board refuses to certify an election because of employer misconduct that would render slight the chances of a new election reflecting the free and fair choice of employees, the labor organization shall be certified as the bargaining representative for the bargaining unit. This bill would refer to the secret ballot election as a polling place election. The bill passed out of the Assembly 50-17, passed out of the Senate 24-11, but was vetoed by the Governor on Sept. 22, 2021.

AB 1395 (Muratsuchi)
The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 requires the State Air Resources Board to prepare and approve a scoping plan for achieving the maximum technologically feasible and cost-effective reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and to update the scoping plan at least once every five years. This bill, the California Climate Crisis Act, would declare the policy of the state both to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, but no later than 2045, and achieve and maintain net negative greenhouse gas emissions thereafter, and to ensure that by 2045, statewide anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are reduced to at least 90% below the 1990 levels. The bill passed out of the Assembly 42-21, but failed passage in the Senate 14-12. Reconsideration was granted and may be acted upon in January 2022.

SB 95 (Skinner)
This bill would provide for COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave for covered employees, as defined, who are unable to work or telework due to certain reasons related to COVID-19, including that the employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19. The bill would entitle a covered employee to 80 hours of COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave if that employee either works full time or was scheduled to work, on average, at least 40 hours per week for the employer in the two weeks preceding the date the covered employee took COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave. The bill would provide a different calculation for supplemental paid sick leave for a covered employee who is a firefighter subject to certain work schedule requirements and for a covered employee working fewer or variable hours, as specified. The bill passed out of the Senate 22-2, passed out of the Assembly 57-19 and was signed by the Governor on March 19, 2021.

The big bill of the session, AB 616, covered secretive balloting for collective bargaining votes (photo by Taylor Chalstrom.)

SB 559 (Hurtado)
This bill would establish the Water Conveyance Restoration Fund in the State Treasury to be administered by the Department of Water Resources in consultation with the State Water Resources Control Board and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The bill would require all moneys deposited in the fund to be expended, upon appropriation by the Legislature, in support of subsidence repair costs, including environmental planning, permitting, design and construction and necessary road and bridge upgrades required to accommodate capacity improvements. The bill would require the Director of Water Resources to apportion money appropriated from the fund, subject to specified requirements, for the Friant-Kern Canal, Delta-Mendota Canal, San Luis Field Division of the California Aqueduct and San Joaquin Division of the California Aqueduct. The bill was moved to the Inactive File and may be acted upon in January 2022.

Budget Act of 2021
The Legislature passed this year’s budget in stages, and spends $262.5 billion in total state funds, consisting of approximately $196.4 billion from the General Fund, $61.2 billion from special funds, and $4.9 billion from bond funds. Of note, the budget includes:

  • $31 million for the Governor’s Climate Catalyst Revolving Loan Fund;
  • $65 million to address drought impacts on fish and wildlife (habitat restoration);
  • $40 million for Water Resilience Projects;
  • $170 million for the FARMER program, plus an additional $42.5 million in Carl Moyer funds directed to agriculture;
  • $32 million for methane reduction programs;
  • $50 million designated for Land Resource Protection which would include repurposing irrigated ag lands;
  • $180 million for SGMA implementation (this is $120 million more than the previous budget); and
  • $7 million for CDFA to help farmers transition to organics.

The budget also includes $90 million in General Funds over the next two years for the Department of Pesticide Regulations. These monies are in place of a tiered mill assessment proposed by the Department but rejected by the Legislature. The Department did receive an additional appropriation of $10 million to study different approaches to the mill assessment that help transition the State to safer products.

In a year when the legislation could have been a lot worse, the failed recall attempt did take people’s attention away from some of those critical pieces of legislation, and maybe, just maybe, helped keep some of those bad bills at bay. That’s good for now, but we need to buckle up and be prepared for 2022. It will be a whole new battle!

A Conversation with Blue Diamond’s Mark Jansen

As one of the biggest players in the global almond market, Blue Diamond Growers can rightly credit CEO Mark Jansen for much of its recent success. But, as Jansen shares here, the past 21 months haven’t been easy, and there’s still plenty of work ahead.

Since he arrived as CEO in 2010, Jansen has helped transform Blue Diamond Growers into a $1.75 billion global food manufacturer.

The Sacramento-based cooperative has become the leading shipper of California almonds into the U.S., India, China and many other countries. In 2020, Blue Diamond was named one of the nation’s 10 fastest-growing food companies for the fourth consecutive year. Its brand is recognized globally, and its Almond Breeze product, sold in 100 countries, is the world’s No. 1 almond milk. And the co-op has done all of this as California set record highs for almond production.

But even as Blue Diamond enjoys its success, new challenges are emerging for the 111-year-old company like everywhere else. The statewide drought, water scarcity and the myriad effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing business leaders like Jansen to re-think their approaches to operations, markets and the future. With 3,000 grower-members, 1,800 employees and a global customer base, there’s a lot at stake for Blue Diamond.

“We’re not pessimistic,” Jansen said in an interview for West Coast Nut. “But my frustration is our industry could be so much better if some of the underlying issues could be solved.”

Q: How are the port congestion and supply-chain disruptions affecting Blue Diamond?

Our average shipping order over the past 18 months has been booked three times. The sad truth is up to 50% to 55% of the containers are leaving Oakland empty, which is just shocking to me. The berths are there if you can effectively manage and get through that. We’ve also seen about 3% cost inflation over the past year from port and supply chain issues alone. I don’t see that going away. My fear is that it’s actually increasing.

One of our advantages is that we’ve been a major exporter out of the Port of Oakland for decades. In fact, roughly 60% of our sales are exports. We’re a big player. But also because we’re a co-op, we are strong on partnerships. We look for win-win solutions. We’ve been working with our suppliers, freight forwarders and shippers to find ways to become their best customers.

Q: What would you like to see done about the problem?

What I would love to see happen, and this is not a short-term fix, is that important changes, like ports operating 24/7, are truly in place. That needs to happen consistently throughout the entire port system.

We need to also think about the availability of trucking. Very few trucks can actually service the ports, either because of unionization of truckers or more likely because of California state regulations that limit much of the nation’s trucking workforce from coming into California or particularly the ports. If the ports aren’t working, that sends ripples throughout the U.S. So, we need to find ways to ensure that we have adequate resources with the transportation structure.

The other big wish I have, and this is a federal issue, is that we develop deep-water ports on the West Coast that can take the biggest, most efficient shippers, because right now they can’t. We also need to invest in the modernization of ports. That automation and technology would provide significant long-term security.

Jansen considers his biggest success as CEO to be creating a shared sense of purpose between Blue Diamond’s employees and growers.

I’m happy to say that Joshua Woods, Blue Diamond’s director of transportation, warehousing and order management, was named to the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission’s new National Shipper Advisory Committee in September. It’s an honor for him and for Blue Diamond to have a seat at that vital table. Other committee members representing both importers and exporters include notable companies such as Amazon, Walmart, Target and Cargill. Together, they will advise the commission on policies relating to our nation’s ocean freight delivery system.

Q: As California enters another year of drought, what do you foresee for the state’s almond production?

The drought does have an impact on yields. We are seeing it in this year’s crop. We came off last year with an all-time record crop where everything was working: adequate water, perfect bloom weather, everything came into place. We’re looking at a crop this year that is constrained in yields because of the drought. What we know about droughts and almond trees, however, is that the biggest impact is not the year when the drought occurs; it’s the following year. So, we foresee not only a shorter crop this year but an even shorter crop next year.

The other thing is, if you’re an almond grower with a tree toward the end of its lifecycle, you may determine, ‘I’ve got limited water supplies. I’m going to put all my water on my young orchards, and I’ll pull out this orchard a year or two ahead of time.’ So, we’ll see some reduced acreage because of that dynamic. While there are still some plantings going on, we’ll see some pull-outs of those older orchards. For the next couple of years, we’re anticipating lower supplies of almonds.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for Blue Diamond and California’s almond industry?

Certainly, for an almond grower, water is the existential issue. What concerns us as a co-op, what keeps us up at night, is inflation. It’s a big deal. It’s not transitory; it’s here to stay. We’ve announced price increases into the marketplace. Everything in the grocery store has taken a price increase, so we’re not alone. Fuel costs, wages, the cost of resins and steel and other core materials all continue to rise. I don’t see anything short-term that leads me to believe that this is plateauing, at least in our business.

One of the biggest challenges facing Blue Diamond and the California almond industry is inflation, according to Jansen.

Q: What one or two things are you pushing hardest for these days?

Finding ways to be more effective and efficient. We know costs are increasing. We have a big focus on what we call margin enhancement, which is more complex than cutting costs. It’s also about finding ways to increase capacity without significant investments. That idea also leads into things like sustainability. The great news is that sustainability links up very, very well with those margin-enhancement initiatives. We’ve actually gone so far as incentivizing our growers for sustainability in their actions. We think it makes them and us ultimately more efficient. But, also, we think there is value that goes beyond that because we know our customers value that we are good actors and that we’re doing the right things. That’s another way for us to distinguish Blue Diamond in the marketplace.

Q: What are your other priorities for 2022?

One of the big things that’s changed, now that I’ve been CEO here for 11 years, is broadening out who our stakeholders are. The role of the CEO has greatly changed in that timeframe. It used to be, ‘Take care of your customers, your owners and your employees, deliver good results, and all is well.’ It’s a very different world today. People want to know how you’re taking care of the communities where you operate. We talk about environmental issues, but also other elements of ESG (environmental, social and governance). For example, we’ve done a lot of work, really employee-driven, around social impact and how Blue Diamond impacts the communities we participate in. It’s about how we align the values of the co-op and our people in a way that we also can communicate more broadly out into our communities and the marketplace. This is an area of priority for our leadership team.

Q: What do you consider your biggest success at Blue Diamond since you became CEO?

Creating a shared sense of purpose between our employees and our growers. It’s what allows us to be successful. Drawing those two things together has allowed us to almost triple in size, to have a 2,000% increase in profitability to growers.

Q: A 2,000% increase?

We used to pay our growers one cent per pound more than what they would get if they delivered their almonds to anyone else. Now, we’re up to 20 cents a pound. So that’s that 20-times-greater incremental profit margin over and beyond what they used to get. And that’s real. Particularly in this past year, where we had historically low market prices for almonds and increasing costs, that could be the difference between a grower having a year of loss or breaking even or being profitable.

Restoring Soil Health and Ecosystem Services in California’s Almond Orchards

Sustaining agricultural production through climate change, prolonged drought and economic pressure largely depends on the soil’s ability to support high-yielding crops under increasing stress and resource scarcity. California’s almond industry garners public scrutiny for its high water consumption and environmental impact. Yet, growers have installed microsprinklers and other irrigation system upgrades, successfully decreasing water usage by 33% since 1990. The Almond Board pledged to decrease consumption another 20% by 2025. Meeting water conservation goals requires a multipronged approach, and soil health management can contribute to the puzzle.

While water usage rightly receives public attention, the environmental impacts incurred by poor soil quality also deserve urgent consideration. Marginal cropland with low organic matter maintains productivity by spoon feeding fertilizer and water. Compaction, salt accumulation, nutrient imbalances and soilborne diseases compromise yield and increase the amount of water, fertilizer and pesticides needed to maintain yields. Ag chemicals runoff into surface waters and leach down to aquifers. Nitrous oxide and methane emissions contribute to climate change. Yet, food production and environmental protection goals do not need to remain at odds. Adopting management strategies that increase soil organic matter can slowly transform agricultural lands to provide significant ecological benefits while promoting crop health and vigor.

Nut crops may require a lot of water, but soil conservationists advocate farming systems designed around permanent crops that offer greater carbon sequestration potential than heavily tilled annuals. Tillage depletes organic matter by disturbing the ecology and exposing soil to the air. Microbes previously limited by low oxygen concentration suddenly accelerate growth, oxidizing soil carbon faster than it can be fixed. Annual net carbon loss ensues, compromising soil structure and fertility. Orchard and vineyard soils can remain undisturbed for many years, allowing enough time to accumulate organic matter and reap the environmental and agronomic benefits.

Organic Matter Does It All
Organic matter improves almost every aspect of soil health, including physical, chemical and biological characteristics. Organic matter builds soil structure, the physical architecture that facilitates movement of water and air through the soil profile. Organic matter adheres to clay surfaces, forming organo-mineral colloids that prevent further decomposition. Mineral and organic matter complexes bind together forming stable soil aggregates separated by pore spaces that hold water and air.

Soil with stable aggregation and plenty of porosity prevents runoff by allowing fast water penetration and infiltration during heavy rainfall or irrigation. Organic matter and improved structure increase the soil’s water holding capacity, allowing the field to retain more water to sustain the crop during drought. Organic matter’s adhesive properties also prevent water and wind erosion, conserving topsoil while protecting the surrounding environment from nitrate, phosphorus and pesticide residue contamination. Excess water captured during major storms can replenish aquifers rather than runoff into streams, eroding the landscape along the way.

Organic matter’s chemical characteristics provide important benefits to crop production by buffering pH and increasing nutrient availability. Plant, animal and microbial remains decompose into carbon molecules with both positive and negative charge sites. The reactive sites attract and hold cations, such as hydrogen, calcium, potassium and magnesium, and anions, including hydroxide, nitrate, borate and molybdate. Binding with organic matter prevents essential nutrients from leaching to groundwater or precipitating out of soil solution with other minerals. Ions buffer into or out of soil solution to maintain chemical equilibrium, keeping pH near neutral and replenishing nutrient concentrations in response to plant absorption.

The living fraction of soil organic matter drive all of the activity contributing to healthy soil development. Fungal networks, beneficial bacterial populations, earthworms and more contribute to carbon cycling and organic matter fixation. Micro and macroorganisms decompose raw organic matter, returning essential elements to plant available form. Sticky substances exuded by microbes bind soil particles into aggregates and earthworms burrow through soil, creating channels for water and air flow. Microbial metabolites chelate micronutrients, delivering iron, zinc and other elements to roots in plant-available forms. Beneficial fungi extend the crop’s root system, exchanging water and nutrients for photosynthate and signaling when to activate stress defense mechanisms. Microbial biomass also provides nutrient storage, releasing plant-available nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements as populations turn over.

Feed the Soil its Carbon
Microbial activity, nutrient cycling, and structure development require carbon. Almonds and other tree crops feed the microbiome by sending photosynthate down to the rhizosphere, but significant improvement in soil quality requires more biomass. Feeding microbial populations by growing cover crops and applying compost or mulch can help achieve net carbon gain, initiating the processes that build organic matter and improving agricultural sustainability. Soil structure and beneficial microbial ecology take time to develop.

During the first few years of cover cropping, the orchard might require more water and fertilizer to establish a robust cover crop stand without jeopardizing the crop’s access to sufficient moisture and nutrition. Over time, the investment pays off. Incremental increases in organic matter ramp up the soil’s capacity to sustain diverse, active microbial populations. Increased microbial activity accelerates humus formation and the other beneficial soil characteristics follow. Improved nutrient availability, soil moisture and beneficial microbes can improve tree health, reducing symptoms of micronutrient deficiency, drought and salinity.

Further research on interactions between cover crops, soil types, and microbial response can help fine-tune management practices to suit the conditions on each orchard (photo courtesy Paul Lum, AFT.)

Measurable improvements in water holding capacity, bulk density and nutrient availability may take several years to develop. Soil type, management practices, weather, water, fertilizer and many other factors influence organic matter accumulation and soil health. While some soils may respond quickly, others resist organic matter fixation. Very sandy soils lack the clay particles that bind and stabilize organic matter, preventing accumulation. The type of organic matter added to the system also impacts results. Some studies show better water-stable aggregate formation after cover cropping compared with compost application, but the effect varies with both soil type and cover crop species.

Further research on interactions between cover crops, soil types, and microbial response will improve our ability to adjust management practices to suit the conditions on each ranch. In the meantime, feed the soil microbiome with diverse carbon sources from cover crop mixes, mulch, and compost. Send soil samples to labs to check for parasitic nematodes and other soil borne disease. Select cover crop species that do not host the pathogens present in the field. Consider other drawbacks, such as gopher population growth in response to legumes or winter frost exacerbation when soils remain colder under cover crops.

UCCE advisors, cover crop seed companies and experienced growers can provide guidance on cover crop establishment and may suggest options to avoid some of the pitfalls. Comprehensive soil chemical analysis can guide fertilizer applications and labs providing soil health diagnostics can help measure change after implementing new soil building practices. Field evaluations can measure changes in structure, water infiltration rate and erosion potential.

Highly productive, carefully managed orchards might not show any changes in yield or crop quality, but better soil health may allow growers to decrease water and fertilizer use while maintaining productivity. Increasing organic matter and improving soil health takes time and experimentation, but long-term changes in land management provide an array of environmental benefits, including water conservation, erosion prevention and resiliency against extreme climatic stress. California’s almond orchards and other permanent crops provide a critical opportunity to sequester carbon and build healthy living soils that will remain productive and efficient far into the future.

CARB Updating Regulations for Trucking Industry

In January 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Executive Order N-79-20, which banned the sale of light-, medium- and heavy-duty combustion engines in the transportation sector by 2035. While 2035 is still over a decade away, his administration and representative government agencies have wasted no time in developing strategies to expedite that commitment.

With the completion of the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) Truck and Bus Regulation ending in January 2023, many seasoned agricultural trucks on the road today will no longer be allowed to operate in the state. Fleets throughout the state will be reduced and replaced with 2010 or newer heavy-duty diesel equipment. While many businesses and industries look ahead to strategize how they will be able to move goods and products in the near future, CARB has already begun developing and workshopping new regulations pertaining to the 2010 and newer equipment.

Advanced Clean Truck Regulation

The first significant regulation to impact the trucking industry begins with the Advanced Clean Truck Regulation. The intent of this regulation is to evaluate larger, heavy-duty fleets and see where opportunities for electrification could occur and benefit the fleet. The initial requirements of this regulation are focused on the manufacturing sector of the trucking industry. CARB aims to require that “…manufacturers who certify Class 2b-8 chassis or complete vehicles with combustion engines would be required to zero-emission trucks as an increasing percentage of their annual sales from 2024-2035”. (CARB ACT Fact Sheet).

The regulation would require percentages of total manufacturer sales made in the state of California be in zero-emission equipment. While many have seen the high-profile demonstration of Tesla’s new battery-powered Semi model, there are a surprising number of other manufacturers with different models of electric trucks as well. CARB cites that by 2023 more than 71 different manufacturers will be marketing zero-emission trucks, and the projected number of truck models is set to increase from 468 current models on the market to over 600 by 2023. CARB is not solely focused on Class 8 trucks; the regulation ties in several medium-duty rated vehicles such as vans and three-quarter-ton pickup trucks like the F350 and Ram 2500. While having the technology is a great first step, this doesn’t address the significant costs associated with purchasing one of these pieces of equipment as well as the electric infrastructure costs that are required when equipment like this is purchased. Additionally, equipment testing in agricultural settings is typically not included in a manufacturer’s research.

The second step in this regulation is the requirement of larger businesses to report their fleets into a newly developed CARB database. Large entities are defined by CARB in this regulation as companies with over $50 million in annual receipts as well as companies that own, operate or dispatch 50 or more vehicles within the state of California. The purpose of the reporting component is so CARB can evaluate electrification opportunities within applicable fleets. This broad applicability of “Larger Entities” brings in numerous agricultural and food processing facilities, and opens the door for requiring these same businesses to upgrade their fleets a second time after the completion of the Truck and Bus Rule.

Inspection and Maintenance Program
While the Advanced Clean Trucks regulation applies to larger businesses, CARB is developing updates to their Heavy-Duty Vehicle Inspection and Maintenance Program (HDVIMP) which would apply to every heavy-duty vehicle owner. Currently, trucks that are still operating under the existing Truck and Bus Regulation are required to have a Periodic Smoke Inspection (PSIP) annually.

These inspections measure engine opacity with the engine running, and if an engine is found to out of compliance with the truck’s engine model year opacity limitation, then the vehicle must have the necessary repairs done in order to operate the equipment. Oftentimes, if a fleet owner is locked out from updating their Truck and Bus fleet online, CARB staff will ask for the most recent PSIP inspection in order to verify mileage. The proposed updates to the HDVIMP program will still incorporate PSIP testing for some model year-specific vehicles (2010-13), but CARB is looking to take a more creative approach to ensure equipment and their emission control systems are functioning properly.

CARB intends to take advantage of the technological advancements made by the equipment manufacturing industry, specifically the on-board diagnostic (OBD) systems that are tied directly into the engine. CARB is proposing to require fleet/vehicle owners to take their equipment to a licensed repair shop twice a year to have their trucks evaluated. From there, the repair shop would connect their computer with the OBD system within the truck. The repair shop would evaluate all emission control systems within the heavy-duty truck as well as monitor the opacity of the exhaust coming out of the truck as it is in operation. If any of the emission control systems show any sign of failure, a notice will be issued to the vehicle owner requesting immediate repair.

The intent of the Advanced Clean Truck Regulation is to evaluate larger, heavy-duty fleets and see where opportunities for electrification could occur.

Fleet/vehicle owners are given 90 days to repair the equipment and bring it back to the repair shop to have the truck re-evaluated. Failure to repair and re-test the equipment would result in CARB notifying DMV of the truck’s failure and a temporary registration hold being placed on the equipment. Similar to tactics used in the most recent years of the Truck and Bus Regulation, CARB is working directly with the DMV in order to ensure compliance through registration holds.

Owner operators would have to maintain their compliance with the mandatory inspections as well as keep a copy of their certificate on file. Vehicles would also need to be entered into a separate CARB database. Additionally, a $30 compliance fee would be included in a truck owner’s DMV Registration Renewal invoice. CARB is also looking for businesses to act as the agencies’ enforcement inspectors, asking that any business that contracts any trucking work ask to see a compliance certificate with the HDVIMP before beginning any work, and if one cannot be supplied, that the contracted trucking business not be allowed to continue working at the site.

Through the workshop process, many agricultural associations have raised the alarm that agricultural trucking works slightly different than overall goods movement. The seasonality of agricultural goods movement and harvest support warrants some consideration from CARB staff, and truckers in the agricultural sector should be identified differently than the intended target for both regulations. Western Agricultural Processors Association along with several other agricultural organizations and associations has been active in supplying comments and working directly with staff to try and make both of these proposed regulatory changes more workable for the industry. Stay tuned for more updates!

Tips for Financial Planning Through the Drought

As we watch growers rapidly implementing deficit irrigation to keep their crops alive with what water they have, protecting those same growers against wild financial fluctuations has never been more important. While much decision-making and troubleshooting is being executed at the moment, it’s a crucial time to set some concrete plans.

The lack of water has meant diminished current-year crops, leading to less revenue. Undeveloped land must continue in fallow condition so that water allotments can be used elsewhere on existing crops. Longer-term conditions are impacting the value of land based on the future water outlook, and this impacts both the net worth of the owner and the value of securities that might be the source of lending from the grower’s bank. All of these events and the resulting financial stress present a myriad of challenges for growers and processors.

Being Financially Resourceful

Tough decisions have growers researching how to be resourceful with their finances. Scaling down the business to protect capital has been a frequent topic of discussion with our growers. Our team has advised on fallowing fields and delaying new plantings, early removal of mature orchards to prepare for future development, and even reducing operations in the short term.

Diversification is another topic that is back on the table. We’ve seen clients use a 1031 tax-deferred exchange to sell ag land and invest in other commercial real estate ventures. This can help diversify assets for clients with primarily ag-based real estate holdings when there is concern about long-term water or market issues. For example, a family that has farmed for multiple generations may have accumulated a sizeable amount of farmland. From a financial perspective, it may be wise to consider diversifying a portion of those assets into other forms of real estate.

Growers should also be mindful of the market dynamics regarding supply and demand for their crops. If water constricts supply by reducing the size of the crop, then in theory, the existing demand levels should cause prices and overall returns to go up. This is also a good time to ask if there are opportunities to produce less product but at a higher quality or consider another value-add that will have a greater financial return in the market.

Planning for Expense Variances

Fickle water pricing and availability have led us to examine some best- and worst-case expense scenarios with our clients seeking preparedness and opportunities. We start with a budget or cash flow projection tool to understand your “normal year” or average costs of production. With a budget or cash flow projection in hand, consider the following questions:

How much revenue loss can you handle and still break even?
What pricing of water is justifiable? What is the cost of water (if available) versus loss of yield? If water is available, can higher water costs be offset if the crop price increases due to shrinking supplies?

Jeff Bowman at Grimbleby Coleman CPAs encourages growers and processors to come to the table with hard-hitting questions on the modeling of cash flows, tax impacts and losses, write-offs from new developments and financial resourcefulness ideas to get through this drought (photo courtesy Grimbleby Coleman CPAs.)

Do you have capital available to withstand losses from drought years, or should land be sold/put to alternative use?

What does the model of cash flow look like three to five years in the future under various water availability and pricing scenarios? Remember, permanent crops cannot be easily scaled down in small increments; more often than not, related decisions impact large blocks of land and long-term investments (or loss) as plants are removed or time passes before new plants become productive.

Are your farm lenders in the loop? If the land is security for a debt or operating lines, will the lender impair value based on decreasing water allocations? Will that impact the borrowing base?
How will losses impact taxes and cash flow? Can losses be carried back to reduce prior-year taxes paid, or should they be held to offset future income?

Our team at Grimbleby Coleman CPAs encourages growers and processors to come to the table with hard-hitting questions on the modeling of cash flows, tax impacts and losses, write-offs from new developments and financial resourcefulness ideas to get through this drought. With that information, we can develop the right financial plan.

Almond Pollination 2022: Economic Outlook and Other Considerations

In this article, we summarize some considerations for the 2022 almond pollination season, including results from a 2021 survey of commercial beekeepers regarding their almond pollination agreements. The survey results provide insights on pollination fees, agreement details related to advance payment and limiting pesticide exposure as well as beekeeper preferences for bee-friendly cover crop mixes.

Almond Industry Update
Almond prices rebounded this summer due to a lower-than-anticipated almond crop for the 2021-22 marketing year following roughly a year of low almond prices. Relatively low competition from other exporting countries, coupled with steady growth in almond demand have kept almond prices strong despite monumental growth in production over the last two decades (Bruno, Goodrich and Sexton 2021).

The Almond Board of California and Land IQ estimate the removal of around 48,000 acres of almonds by September 2021, approximately 3.6% of the 1.3 million bearing acres in 2021. This is up slightly from 2020, with an estimated 39,000 acres removed. Aging orchards are the likely candidates for removal, and a few industry sources speculate the removal of additional orchards after harvest this year due to water scarcity concerns from consecutive years of drought and expected limitations due to the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act. Land IQ estimates 13% of almond orchards are more than 21 years old, compared to 20% of young orchards that will begin bearing in one to three years. Between June 2019 and May 2020, nurseries reported 66,000 acres of sales, with over half being for new orchards and the remainder replacing aging orchards. These numbers suggest that almond acreage is still expanding, though likely at lower rates than previous years due to the recent low prices and uncertain water availability.

Figure 1. Total U.S. colonies on January 1, estimated demand for colonies, and shipments of colonies into California, 2015-22 Sources: 2015-20 Almond Acreage Reports, USDA NASS and CDFA; Apiary Shipments through California Border Protection Stations, CDFA Plant Health and Pest Prevention Services; Honey Bee Colonies Reports, USDA NASS Note: Estimated demand is two colonies per acre for traditional varieties and one colony per acre for self-fertile.

Colony Demand
Figure 1 (see page 42) plots the estimated demand for colonies based on bearing almond acreage each year from 2015 to 2022 as well as the total colony shipments into California for almond pollination and the total number of colonies in the U.S. on January 1. Estimated demand is calculated using two colonies per acre for traditional varieties and one colony per acre for self-fertile varieties (Shasta and Independence). A consistent gap between estimated demand and colony shipments is filled by colonies that remain in California year-round. For the 2021 almond bloom, roughly 1.3 million almond acres (3.3% in self-fertile varieties) required an estimated 2.6 million honey bee colonies for pollination (Figure 1, see page 42). According to apiary shipment data provided by CDFA, other states shipped 2.1 million honey bee colonies into California for the 2021 bloom, up 16% from 2020.

As seen in Figure 1, the estimated demand for colonies in 2022 is 2.63 million colonies, slightly above that of 2021. It seems the recent increase in self-fertile variety plantings have started leveling off the estimated demand for colonies. However, the required colonies for almond pollination in 2022 still represent 90% of the 2.92 million colonies in the U.S. on January 1, 2021, so at least in the short run, it’s unlikely this leveling off of demand will put downward pressure on pollination fees. Additionally, an article published in Nature found the Independence variety showed an increase in yield by 20% from allowing bee visitation (Sáez et al. 2020). The researchers used the standard stocking rate of two colonies per acre. This study eliminates any claims that these self-fertile varieties do not require honey bee colonies for commercial production. Growers of self-fertile varieties who do not currently place honey bees in their orchards are likely “borrowing” pollination services from neighboring orchards. In the future, growers with traditional orchard varieties surrounded by many self-fertile orchards with few (or no) colonies per acre may have to compensate by placing more colonies per acre.

Figure 3. Almond pollination colony strength and winter mortality rates, 2010-21 Sources: The Pollination Connection, BIP Winter Loss Surveys

 

Weather Impacts on Colony Supply
Much of the western U.S. and major honey producing states in the northern plains have been under severe drought conditions throughout the summer, which could have implications for colony strength and numbers for the upcoming almond pollination season. Figure 2 shows the U.S. drought monitor for the week of July 27, 2021, a time when major honey flow should have been taking place in states where most commercially managed honey bee colonies are located for honey production in the summer (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana). As of the week of October 12, 2021, 35% of the U.S. was still in a severe drought or worse. Consequently, many commercial beekeepers have seen decreased honey production, increased costs of feeding and poor colony nutrition, all likely to negatively impact the supply and strength of colonies for almond pollination.

To get an idea of potential impacts of this drought, we looked back to 2012 when a similar drought took place. In October 2012, approximately 40% of the U.S. was in a severe drought or worse, slightly more area affected than our current situation. According to national honey yields from USDA, the 2012 honey crop was the lowest production in over 30 years. Figure 3 (see page 42) shows winter mortality rates and colony strength delivered at almond pollination for years 2010-21. Following the 2012 drought, winter mortality rates were 31%, according to Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), 38% higher than the previous winter. Average colony strength delivered for 2013 almond pollination dipped 20% lower than the previous year. 2022 almond pollination could see similar impacts on colony availability and strength from the 2021 drought.

Figure 2. U.S. Drought Monitor, July 27, 2021

2021 Almond Pollination Survey Results
In February 2021 to April 2021, we conducted an online survey of over 90 commercial beekeepers that participated in the 2021 almond pollination market to better understand their almond pollination decisions. The sample represented over 19% of hives demanded for the 2021 almond bloom. The following sections summarize some key findings of interest. Some participants chose not to answer certain questions, so sample sizes vary and will be indicated in figures, tables and text.

Almond Pollination Fees
We asked survey respondents to report the fees associated with their largest almond pollination agreement in 2021. Reported fees ranged from $130/colony to $225/colony. Fees vary due to a number of factors, a primary determinant being the colony strength requirement in the agreement. Table 1 shows the average, minimum and maximum pollination fee by colony strength requirement.

Table 1. Average 2021 almond pollination fees by average colony strength requirement (N=95)

Most pollination agreements (46% of those reported) required eight active frames for an average fee of $192 in 2021 (Table 1). Across all frame count categories, the average fee was $193 per colony. Agreements with higher colony strength requirements received a 10% premium compared to eight-frame agreements, while six- to seven-frame agreements saw approximately a 4% discount. Low strength agreements (<6 frames) on average received about the same fees as eight-frame agreements, however this could be due to the small number of these agreements reported.
27% of beekeepers said at least one of their pollination agreements were incentive-based contracts that pay per-frame based on the results of a third-party inspection (see Goodrich and Goodhue 2016 for a sample incentive-based contract.) For the beekeepers whose largest contract was an incentive-based contract, on average, they received $191/colony for a seven-frame average and $210/colony for an 11-frame average. On average, this constitutes a $5 premium per frame over the base fee.

Pesticide Exposure and Agreement Specifics
We asked beekeepers if their colonies had experienced either sublethal or lethal pesticide exposure during the 2020 or 2021 almond pollination seasons. Of the 77 beekeepers who answered this question, 19% and 56% had experienced lethal and sublethal exposure, respectively, in the last two almond pollination seasons. This suggests that pesticide exposure is a relatively common cost that beekeepers have to factor in when making pollination decisions. Growers can follow the Honey Bee Best Management Practices (almonds.com/almond-industry/orchard-management/pollination) to help minimize damage to colonies from pesticide exposure.

We also asked about language related to pesticide exposure in pollination contracts. Fifty-four percent of beekeepers said that at least one of their pollination agreements contained details to prevent pesticide exposure or to receive compensation if it occurs. Table 2 (see page 47) shows the percentage of beekeepers whose agreements contained language about pesticide exposure by the specific feature. The most common detail included was that the grower would not apply pesticides when bees were active (33%). Eleven percent to 12% of beekeepers stated they had agreements in which they would be reimbursed if colonies had to be moved or were damaged due to pesticide applications.

Table 3. Percentage of respondents by cover crop preference (N=78)

Advance Payment
Beekeepers were asked if any of their growers/brokers pay some portion of the pollination fee before colonies are placed for almond bloom. Nearly half of respondents (44% of N=91) had at least one contract that pays part of the pollination fee in advance. Twenty-one percent of beekeepers received advanced payments of 30% or less of the total pollination fee. Nineteen percent of participants received over 40% of the total pollination fee in advance. Paying the beekeeper in advance can benefit both parties; it locks the beekeeper into a contract, reducing the grower’s risk that a beekeeper will default, and it provides the beekeeper with working capital to feed and prepare colonies before bloom.

Bee-Friendly Cover Crops
Given the potential benefits cover crops can provide to almond orchards, we investigated beekeepers’ preferences and experiences with bee-friendly cover crops. All cover crop mixes that we inquired about are based on Project Apis m.’s Seeds for Bees cover crop mixes. Of the 89 beekeepers that responded, 21% said that they had at least one grower provide bee-friendly forage in or near the almond orchard they were pollinating. Most of those were from bee-friendly cover crops planted in the almond orchard, but others planted permanent or temporary pollinator habitat as well.

Table 2. Percentage of beekeepers with agreements containing pesticide exposure details (N=82) Note: Participants could select more than one, so the percentages add to over 100%* indicates detail is listed as one of the Honey Bee Best Management Practices

We provided beekeepers with a list of bee-friendly cover crops and asked which cover crop mix they would prefer. Table 3 shows the results for each cover crop mix along with the timing of bloom and potential benefits for the almond orchard. The most popular response was the Brassica mix (37%), which consists of mustards and canola, followed closely by a third of beekeepers responding that any of the bee-friendly cover crops would be welcome. The Soil Builder mix, a combination of brassicas, clovers and grains, was the second most popular mix (13%). The Brassica and Soil Builder mixes are popular due to relatively early bloom timing compared to the other mixes. The Clover mix may not bloom until mid- to late March, at which point it may not be useful for bee colonies if bloom has ended and they have been moved on. This preference for earlier blooming mixes is supported by the responses of two beekeepers who selected “Other” as an option. They said, “Any that would bloom by February 1” and “Anything that would bloom in February to mid-March.”

Beekeepers remain hesitant on cover crop benefits because of the uncertainty in the timing of bloom. Even within a cover crop mix, bloom timing can vary substantially due to the timeliness of planting, rain and/or irrigation. Figure 4 (see page 47) displays the percentage of beekeepers that agreed with two statements about individual cover crop mixes. The first statement was, “The cover crop mix will bloom at the correct time to benefit my colonies.” Over 60% of respondents thought the Brassica mix will bloom at the correct time, and over 40% thought the Soil Builder mix would. Respectively, only 22% and 20% thought the Clover and Wildflower mixes would bloom at a beneficial time, and 28% thought none of the mixes would bloom at a time that would be beneficial to colonies. The second statement was, “Mix will improve colony strength to better meet almond pollination requirements.” Due to their early bloom timing, the Brassica and Soil Builder mixes received the highest percentage that agreed, with 46% and 32%, respectively. 40% of respondents did not think that any of the mixes would bloom at a time that would help beekeepers meet colony strength requirements (Figure 4.)

Figure 4. Percentage of beekeepers in agreement for each bee-friendly cover crop mix Note: For each statement, respectively, N=74 and N=63. Respondents could select more than one cover crop mix, so percentages will not sum to 100%.

We asked beekeepers about their beliefs regarding various aspects of bee-friendly cover crops planted in almond orchards. As expected, beekeepers’ views of bee-friendly cover crops were positive. Of the 78 beekeepers who responded, 94% and 68% agreed with the statements that cover crops planted for bee forage will improve colony health and decrease feeding costs, respectively. Nearly half of beekeepers agreed that bee-friendly cover crops would reduce colony susceptibility to disease. Few beekeepers believed that bee-friendly cover crops planted in almond orchards would increase pesticide exposure or provide too little forage to be beneficial.

Given that beekeepers clearly care about early blooming mixes, the Soil Builder mix may have the most potential benefits to the grower due to the combination of soil health benefits from multiple cover crop species and the benefit of early nutrition for bee colonies. We also asked beekeepers to indicate the minimum percentage of the almond orchard that needs to be planted in the Soil Builder cover crop mix to be beneficial for their colonies (for reference, we said that the area between tree rows typically makes up 50% of each acre.) 83% of beekeepers who answered (N=52) said that 50% or less of the orchard acreage needed to be in the Soil Builder mix for it to be beneficial and 35% said less than 25% of area needed to be covered. Over half of beekeepers thought that the Soil Builder mix would be beneficial even if the mix does not cover the entire orchard alleyway, this is promising for growers who find it logistically challenging to establish much of the orchard floor in cover crops.

Concluding Thoughts
This summer’s drought across much of the western U.S. may potentially impact the total number and strength of colonies available for the upcoming almond pollination season. We recommend growers check in with their pollination provider early and often to make sure their pollination needs will be met.

In years with high winter losses and low colony strength, pollination fees may rise as bloom nears and colony health and numbers are realized, increasing the economic incentive for an unhappy beekeeper to default on a previously established agreement to capitalize on higher fees. Maintaining a good relationship with your beekeeper can prevent this, whether it’s this year or in the future. Proactively mitigating risks to colonies from pesticide exposure and providing payments in advance are relatively low-cost options for improving upon existing agreements and enhancing the relationship with your pollination provider. Planting bee-friendly forage is a more costly (and initially challenging) practice to implement, but may be worth it when growers factor in both benefits to pollinator and soil health.

Winter Prep in Walnuts

December and January provide ideal opportunities for walnut growers to get a head start on weed and disease control programs. In terms of weed control, that may mean laying down some long-residual preemergence herbicides to keep orchard floors clean going into spring. In terms of disease control, the early winter is an ideal time to measure walnut blight inoculum levels and prepare your season-long control strategy.

Luke Milliron, UCCE farm advisor for Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties, said most growers have a good sense of the walnut blight inoculum in their orchards from monitoring nut drop the previous May, June and July. In cases where they don’t, he advises to scout in winter months and sample for inoculum levels in walnut spurs with terminal buds.

According to the UCCE walnut blight sample guidelines, buds can be sampled up to the time they start to open, or anytime from December into early April for late-leafing varieties. But earlier sampling provides more time for designing disease control strategies.

The sampling guidelines include a recommendation that growers cut 100 or so three-inch-length dormant spurs with fat terminal buds from several trees in an orchard. “Walk the entire area, collecting a random sample,” the guidelines state. “One or two buds per tree should spread the sample adequately… One sample could easily represent 50 acres if experience suggests reasonable uniformity.”

Growers or PCAs should place samples in paper bags, which will allow samples to breathe and eliminate condensation, and store them in a cool, dry place before mailing to a lab. UCCE advisors can help interpret lab findings and discuss the relative disease risks.

Getting a bead on walnut blight inoculum levels and utilizing an aggressive spray program, if necessary, are keys to staying ahead of a disease that ranks as the number one disease threat to walnuts, according to Milliron.

The disease is caused by the bacterium, Xanthomonas arboricola pv. juglandis (Xaj), which overwinters inside dormant bud scales and causes infection in spring when it is rain splashed onto developing shoots and flowers.

Low Blight Pressure
Fortunately, blight pressure has been low the last two years, Milliron said, and inoculum levels should be low this winter. “A lot of people will be going into this next spring hopefully with very little blight pressure, because we’ve had those two back-to-back dry years,” he said.

In cases where blight pressure is high, Milliron advises growers to act early. “If you know you have high blight pressure, you are going to start earlier in terms of sprays, really quite early, just the very start of prayer stage or catkin emergence,” Milliron said. “And you are going to be back with a second spray a week after that. “It is a very aggressive program. You are going to treat it differently [than if you have low disease pressure].”

He added that regardless of pressure levels, growers will want to get a spray on ahead of rain events. “That doesn’t change,” he said. “The advantage of knowing inoculum levels ahead of time is really more about how early you start and how aggressive you are with those first two sprays.”

If treating for walnut blight, growers should consider utilizing Kasumin in combination with copper or mancozeb, according to UCCE guidelines. Kasumin, which was registered for use in walnuts in March of 2018, offers excellent and consistent efficacy when applied with either copper or mancozeb, according to UCCE research. The product also has a unique mode of action, providing an excellent rotational material for resistance management.

Milliron advised growers to follow label directions when spraying for walnut blight and to rotate chemistries to avoid the build-up of resistance.
“If the effectiveness of the copper-mancozeb combination was lost due to resistance, it would be an incredibly tough hit to the industry, particularly in the Northern Sacramento Valley where rainfall levels are the greatest,” Milliron wrote in a Sacramento Valley Orchard Source article in 2018.

Winter Weed Control
Like walnut blight programs, winter weed control programs require a good understanding of the pressure in an orchard. According to a Sacramento Valley Orchard Source article from Milliron and UCCE Weed Specialist at UC Davis Brad Hanson, that understanding often comes from past observances and a fall weed survey. Documenting weed discovery and escapes is also advised to help growers understand what worked and what didn’t in last year’s program and to help in devising a change in strategy if need be.

“I think it is really important to be smart about understanding the weed problem you are trying to resolve,” Hanson said. “That includes properly identifying the weed and having some idea of its biology, such as when does it come up versus when are my interventions.”

In developing orchards, UC Davis weed management guidelines say it is important to maintain a weed-free strip at least 30 inches from the trunk of trees to prevent weeds from competing with trees for water and nutrients. In established orchards, weed control is less about removing competition for water and nutrients, although that remains a consideration, and more about improving water distribution, removing impediments to harvest operations and removing habitat for vertebrate pests, insects, mites, nematodes and diseases.

December and January offer ideal opportunities for growers to come in with long-residual preemergence herbicides that will be worked into soil with winter rains. “If rains do not come after application, you may need to water in your preemergent herbicide if your irrigation system and water availability allow it,” Milliron said.

The treatment regime will depend on a variety of factors, according to the UC Davis Integrated Weed Management guidelines, including soil type. Different soil textures and organic matter tend to influence the types of weeds present and can factor into control tactics. On light-textured soils, annual species such as puncturevine, crabgrass and horseweed, and perennial species such as johnsongrass, nutsedge and bermudagrass, are more common. Perennial weeds, such as curly dock and field bindweed, are more common on heavier soils.

When devising control strategies, it is important to remember that clay or clay loam soils often require higher rates of preemergence herbicides to achieve the same level of weed control than in light, sandy soils. Good herbicide-to-soil contact also is important for a successful herbicide application, so it is important to keep orchard floors and berms clean by removing leaves and other debris before treatment.

When sampling for walnut blight, select dormant spurs with terminal buds from several trees interspersed in an orchard (photo courtesy UC IPM.)

Hanson provided a list of several preemergence and postemergence herbicides that could have a fit in different orchards, depending on weeds targeted, soil textures and other factors. The list includes indaziflam (Alion), penoxsulam (PindarGT) and flumioxazin (Chateau and others). Products that typically work well in tank mixes include pendimethalin (Prowl H20 and others), rimsulfuron (Matrix and others), flazasulfuron (Mission) and oxyfluorfen (Goal, GoalTender and others).

“I usually think of those first three as the heavy hitters in this market,” Hanson said. “But good programs can be built for specific sites out of many of them in various combinations.”

Start Thinking about Pollinator Contracts

Harvest is over. Mummies are shaken and swept. Is it time to think about almond pollination?

According to bee brokers and beekeepers, tighter supplies this year and increasing demand for pollination services mean almond growers need to contract for hives early and plan ahead for their arrival in the orchards.

New Era of Pollinator Contracts
Denise Qualls, a bee broker with Pollination Connection, said contracts with growers are welcomed sooner rather than later to ensure an adequate honeybee supply. Some almond growers do book early, she said, but for the most part, growers don’t think about bees until after harvest. Many contracts are signed in December and January, but bees are still being booked in February.
Qualls said the days of a handshake to secure pollination service might be over.

“Most growers and brokers now have written contracts that spell out terms for pollination services including price, delivery time and hive strength,” Qualls said. Conditions spelled out in the contract can ensure the grower receives the pollination service necessary for setting a crop. The contract also can ensure beekeepers are fairly compensated for their time and investment in healthy, strong hives.

Verbal agreements worked back when hives were renting for less than $100 and far fewer acres of almonds were grown. Now, Qualls said, demand for strong hives to cover all almond ground in the state requires that both sides agree on exact terms and put them in writing.

Josette Lewis, chief scientific officer with Almond Board of California said ABC recommends growers sign contracts for pollination service. There needs to be clear understanding and communication between the growers and beekeeper. A sample contract is available at ABC’s website.

Number of full frames per hive is a key element in a contract, Lewis said. A third party inspector can verify the hive strength for the grower. County Agricultural Commissioners’ offices should provide inspector information.

Working Together
Steve House, director of operations at California Almond Pollination Service, said once a grower finds a good beekeeper and a beekeeper finds a good grower, they each have an integral component in their supply chain and a major factor in the success of their businesses. Both parties need to understand the success of one depends on the success of the other.

In addition to costs, hive numbers and arrival time, House said beekeepers need to know if the hives will be secure from theft, if pesticide applications will be made, if there is a water supply and the timing of payments.

Important considerations for almond growers are hive strength and confirmation of arrival time in the orchard, generally no later than 5% bloom.

Important considerations for almond growers are hive strength and confirmation of arrival time in the orchard, generally no later than 5% bloom (photo courtesy Joseph Jackson.)

Almond growers depend on strong, healthy hives that have at least six frames of bees and an average of eight frames of bees at the beginning of bloom.

Hives that lack these frame minimums have very little ‘field force,’ House said, and do very little pollinating. It would take seven to eight four-frame hives to equal one eight-frame hive. House explained that the numbers in the hives keep the hive warm and take care of the queen and the brood. An eight-frame hive has a field force of about 6,400 bees that actively go out to collect pollen, nectar and water. A four-frame hive will have only about 800 bees living in the hive.

That is the reason hive inspection and grading is recommended, House and Qualls agreed.

“It’s like paying for 1,000 gallons of fuel and receiving only 800 gallons,” House said.

About 15% of the hives should be inspected. An apiary inspector can conduct the inspection and growers should observe. An inspection will determine if the terms stated in the grower/beekeeper agreement are being met.

The Almond Board of California Honey Bee BMPs noted that growers should be sure to notify the beekeeper of the inspection so they can assist in handling the hives. It is best to let the hives acclimate to the orchard landscape before conducting the inspection.

Colony strength evaluations not only help ensure growers get what they pay for, they also help ensure that beekeepers are compensated for additional expenses in providing
quality hives.

Growers can further monitor colony strength by walking orchards daily during bee flight hours to observe activity levels. When walking orchards during bee flight hours, growers should look for bees carrying pollen on their legs, which confirms that pollination is taking place. In addition, growers should record hives that appear weak, having few bees coming and going at the hive entrance during the day, or inactive, and then report those hives to the beekeeper.

Other Considerations
Qualls noted that bee supplies remain tight. If beekeepers can keep winter losses under 40%, there should be adequate numbers. She said losses were only anticipated to be in the 25% to 30% range this year. Varroa mites, drought and lack of native forage have had negative effects on hive strength, she said, and beekeepers have higher costs in maintaining healthy hives.

She noted that as demand for pollination services has increased, higher prices will likely follow, though they have held steady at $200 to $210 for the last two years. Hives priced at lower rates may mean beekeepers haven’t made the effort needed to control varroa mites, Qualls said.

Rising costs for inputs and the ongoing drought have been hard on both almond growers and beekeepers this year, Lewis said. When it comes to pricing information for pollination, Lewis said California State Beekeepers Association generally surveys beekeepers at their annual meeting and then publishes that information.

Besides frame and grading requirements, House said other important contract points are number of hives delivered, delivery date, price per hive and payment schedule. Pesticide applications when bees are present in the orchard can also be part of the contract.

The pest management plan for the orchard should be shared with beekeepers to make them aware of the products that may be used, Lewis said. Beekeepers are asked to register their sites with the county, but it is also important that they relay contact information to PCAs. Who will change water after a pesticide application should also be specified.
“Both growers and beekeepers should have a clear understanding of the elements of the contract,” Lewis said.

Sweet Flavor Keeps Chestnut Buyers Coming Back for More

Chestnuts are not just a Christmas season specialty. The familiar Christmas song gained this unique tree nut a place at the holiday table, but its sweet flavor places chestnuts among the ingredients for many dishes prepared year-round.

Joe and Jenni Avila, chestnut growers in the Modesto area, were familiar with chestnut use in Portuguese cuisine when they began growing chestnuts, but found their customers of diverse ethnic backgrounds value chestnuts for their sweet flavor. The Avila family operation, The Chestnut Farm, grows, harvests, processes and sells chestnuts onsite. Weeks prior to Christmas, in most years, they must hang their ‘sold out’ sign.

Not a Native Nut
Like most tree nuts grown in California, chestnuts are not native to the state. According to a UC Small Farms report, historically, chestnut tree forests were found in most East Coast states where trees grew to heights of 100 feet and the trunks were three to four feet in diameter. In the early 1900s, the species was decimated by the fungal disease Chestnut blight.

More recently, development of a chestnut species tolerant to blight was initiated by State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY). Last year, the university sought deregulation of Darling 58, an American chestnut variety developed using genetic engineering for tolerance to chestnut blight.

The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center reports that the U.S. is one of the few nations in the world that can grow chestnuts, yet doesn’t have a significant chestnut industry. In 2018, U.S.

chestnut production was less than 1% of total world production. The U.S. had 919 farms producing chestnuts on more than 3,700 acres. The top five chestnut-producing states are Michigan, Florida, California, Oregon and Virginia.

There are four common species of chestnuts grown in North America, but most trees in commercial orchards are hybrids of these species.

Acre at a Time
Joe Avila said his five acres of chestnut trees started with one acre in 1984 and gradually grew an acre at a time. He said he started with seedling trees and grafted them with the European Colossal variety with a Nevada pollinizer and an Italian chestnut variety. Cross-pollination is required for chestnut trees, but since the pollen is often shed before pistillate flowers are receptive, overlapping male and female bloom from two different varieties is required.

Degree of burr separation from the shell and ease of pellicle removal from the nut meat are quality characteristics.

The Colossal variety produces a larger nut, which is more valuable. Avila’s trees are in full production and have reached a height of about 45 feet.

“Our buyers are knowledgeable about chestnuts and are looking for high quality. In the last two years, we have sold out well before the holidays,” Avila said.

Some customers prepare them by boiling and serving them in main dishes, while others prefer to roast the nuts.

Avila said a key to quality in chestnuts is to place the nuts in cold storage after harvest. Stored at 35 degrees F, they retain their sweet flavor.

“Yield is important, but you must have quality or they don’t sell,” Avila said. “They have to be sweet and peel well.”

“Chestnuts are more like a grain, containing about 40% carbohydrate, 40% water, 5% to 10% protein and less than 5% oil,” Avila said.

Harvest in September
The Avila’s chestnut harvest usually begins about Sept. 10 when the mature chestnuts begin to fall to the ground. Those early nuts are harvested by hand. Avila said as they walk the orchards to harvest the fallen nuts, they crush the prickly burr that encases the dark, hard leathery shell and pick up the nuts by hand. The burrs are easy to split when mature. Ideally, Avila said, most of the crop is already out of the burr at harvest with only about 30% still encased. Degree of burr separation from the shell and ease of pellicle removal from the nut meat are quality characteristics.

Joe and Jenni Avila run The Chestnut Farm, a family operation that grows, harvests, processes and sells chestnuts onsite.

Hand harvest only lasts a short time. By the end of the month, Avila said most of the nuts have fallen to the ground where they are swept in a windrow and picked up by a machine. Mechanical shakers come in at the end to remove the last few nuts.

The Avila’s next step is to sort the nuts, discarding any that are off-quality. The nuts are then sized by machine into four sizes and placed in bags. The Avilas weigh the bags to make sure they contain 25 pounds, then place them in cold storage until they are sold.

Chestnut value is related to its size, with the larger nuts at the highest value.

Ease of Production
Orchard care for chestnut trees is relatively easy. Avila said he does not have organic certification, but need for insecticide application is rare. Insect pests are not an issue in his orchards, Avila said.

Nutrition is also a factor in nut size. Avila said postharvest potash application is done prior to winter rains and, if needed, nitrogen is applied in March.

Avila said the burrs left on the orchard floor add organic material to the soils and foster growth of beneficial microbes and night crawlers that aerate the soil and aid in nutrient uptake by the trees.

The organic matter also holds soil moisture. In mature orchards, weeds are not a problem due to shading on much of the orchard floor. When trees are young, he said cover crops are used to add organic matter. Avila said he does incorporate some of the orchard debris, but most has decomposed by the next harvest season. He does some scraping to keep the orchard middles flat.

Most of those production practices focus on producing top yield and quality.

“You need yields, but what is really important is to have the quality, the flavor and easy peeling or they won’t sell well.”