Ask 10 almond growers how to prune trees or plant new ones and you’ll get 10 different answers. While the basic logistics of pruning and planting are the same, farmers develop different styles to maintain their crops. When it comes to water, they are becoming even more resourceful by finding diverse ways to fine tune their irrigation practices during the drought– just ask Chuck Dirkse of La Mancha Orchards in Denair.
Dirkse was a late bloomer in the almond industry when he took over his family’s ranch in 2006, upon his brother’s decision to enter the Army leaving an opening to fill. Having grown up on a dairy, Dirkse was familiar with working on a farm but had little knowledge about the almond trade after a career in the computer software industry. With a quest for knowledge and an appetite to learn the nuances of the industry, Dirkse applied to participate in the Almond Board of California’s one year Almond Industry Leadership Program where he would learn more advanced farming techniques, industry trends, and leadership training.
“You can learn quickly in this industry because there are so many people to explain things to you. The Leadership Program exposed me to so much more than I could have ever learned by just staying on the ranch,” said Dirkse, just one of the 6,500 growers of the Almond Board, which is a fully grower funded Federal Marketing Order.
Upon completion of his Leadership Board duties Dirkse was drawn to participate in the Almond Board’s California Almond Sustainability Program which offered him the opportunity to evaluate his farming practices through a self assessment in five areas: nutrient management, air quality, irrigation management, energy efficiency, and pest management. With more than 70 percent of his almonds being exported, Dirkse could see an increasing interest from handlers to be able to explain to their customers not only where his almonds were from but how they were harvested.
“The Europeans have a lot of concerns. They’re picky,” joked Dirkse.
More than just to please consumers, the Sustainability Program also provides California growers like Dirkse an opportunity to become more economically and environmentally efficient – and to document their efforts.
“You can do something all day long but if you don’t document it, in the eyes of the law it is as good as if you didn’t do it at all,” explained Dirkse.
Upon completion of the Sustainability Program’s self survey Dirkse was able to compare his responses to other participants’ answers to get an overall idea of industry trends, his wife Glea Dirkse likening it to “doctors conferring together about their patient.” However, the results proved to be only the beginning of Dirkse’s sustainability initiatives at La Mancha Orchards.
In an industry where water is becoming increasingly equivalent to dollars, Dirkse is among a group of farmers who are investing in technology to mitigate the loss of excess water through the installation of soil moisture monitoring equipment. Dirkse first utilized the iPhone application SoilWeb to identify the different types of soil in his orchard and then installed the soil moisture monitor equipment throughout his orchards. A pole-like device that is planted in the ground with a remote monitor protected in a metal box atop the pole, the equipment identifies the moisture levels of the soil one, two, and three feet deep. Dirkse then is able to transmit the soil information to his iPad where he evaluates the moisture levels – a tool that allows him to hybridize his computer industry background with his current farming career.
“Irrigation is certainly a science but it’s a bit of an art too,” explained Dirkse.
With farmers typically watching the trees for signs of wilt or testing soil moisture with their hands or manual devices, Dirkse is now able to irrigate precisely as needed thus decreasing his chance of wasting water. Dirkse also utilizes the California Irrigation Management Information System which publishes the amount of water needed to irrigate an acre of grass in his area each day. This allows him to apply the crop coefficient for almonds in order to find out how much water is needed to irrigate his orchards. Between CIMIS and the moisture measuring equipment, Dirkse’s lean irrigation practices are not only environmentally effective but economically efficient.
“Once you start understanding what sustainability means, you think more about it. It encompasses everything in your business — your employees’ well being, the wellbeing of the environment—it all revolves around sustainability,” said Dirkse.