- Author: Gary Bender
- Author: Dave Shaw
By now almost everyone growing tree crops in California is undergoing some amount of mandatory water cutbacks, especially if they are buying water from water districts. Some districts in the San Joaquin Valley have had really severe cuts, up to 80%. For a lot of growers who are not buying water, they may be facing severe water shortages due to water tables that are dropping.
San DiegoCounty is a good example. In 2008 all of the avocado and citrus growers in San Diego
County had a mandatory 30% water cutback, if they
were in the water discount program known as the Interruptible Ag Water Program. Fearing that the cuts would be even higher in 2009 if they stayed in the program, most growers opted out, but were then faced with paying full price for their water. Now, it looks like most of these growers will be faced with a mandatory cut of about 8% (this depends on the water district), and will have to pay full price for ag water. But wait! Because the districts aren't selling as much water, they need to raise prices to cover their fixed costs. For instance, Fallbrook
Public Utility District recently announced they were raising prices 13%. Many districts in San DiegoCounty have simply followed water wholesalers (MWD and SDCWA) in their price increases.
Please make sure that you are in touch with your local water district. They may have a different cutback rate than the 8% mentioned as well as conservation guidelines and regulations. You are responsible for knowing this information and you could be looking at some hefty fines for using more water than allowed.
So what can you as a grower do when faced with this scenario? Before we start with our recommendations, let's start by thinking about what you can't do. (This always confuses the issue, so let's get this off the table).
- You can't make it rain more. We are in a prolonged drought, this happens periodically in California, and that's just the way it is. Can you lobby for more storage for when it does rain in excess? Yes!
2. You can't solve the Delta smelt issue, not unless Congress cancels the Endangered Species Act. A solution for bypassing the Delta with a pipeline from the Sacramento River down to the State Water Project canal which supplies Southern California would certainly help. Researchers at UC Davis have determined that the canal would be the most economically feasible way to fix the delta issues. However, given California's budget woes, it probably won't happen soon.
- There are no magical solutions that work to “inactivate” the salts in your well water. There are a lot of devices sold that make lots of claims, but there is no University research evidence that shows that any of them work. The only thing that does work is reverse osmosis, but be careful because these systems produce brine which must be disposed of legally. The brine cannot go into the local creek.
OK! Let's Strategize. There are four steps for everybody to consider, it doesn't matter if you have a backyard lawn and landscape or if you have 700 acres of avocados.
1. Maintenance: Irrigation System and Cultural Practices
2. Improve Irrigation Scheduling
3. Deficit Irrigation
4. Reduce Irrigated Area
a. Irrigation System.
- Fix leaks. Unfortunately, there are almost always leaks for all kinds of reasons. Pickers step on sprinklers, squirrels eat through polytube, branches drop on valves, coyote puppies like to chew….the system should be checked during every irrigation
- Drain the lines. At the beginning of each year every lateral line should be opened in order to drain the fine silt that builds up.
- Maintain or increase the uniformity of irrigation so that each tree or each area gets about the same amount of water. Common problems include different sized sprinklers on the same line or pressure differences in the lines. Where there are elevation changes, every line should have a pressure regulator, they come pre-set to 30 psi. Having all of your lines set up with pressure regulators is the only way you can get an even distribution of water to all of the trees, and it solves the problem of too much pressure at the bottom of the grove and not enough at the top.
- Clean the filters often. You don't have a filter because you think that the district water has already been filtered? Hah! What happens if there is a break in the line in the street and the line fills with dirt during the repairs? All of your sprinklers will soon be filled with dirt.
- Is water flow being reduced at the end of the lateral line? It could be because scaffold roots are growing old enough to pinch off the buried line. The only cure is to replace the line.
b. Cultural Management.
- Control the weeds because weeds can use a lot of water.
- Mulch? Mulching is good for increasing biological activity in the soil and reducing stress on the trees, but the mulch will not save a lot of water if you are irrigating often….the large evaporative surface in mulches causes a lot of water to evaporate if the mulch surface is kept wet through frequent irrigation. Mulches are more helpful in reducing water use if the trees are young and a lot of soil is exposed to direct sunlight.
2. Improve the Irrigation Scheduling.
- CIMIS will calculate the amount of water to apply in your grove based on last week's water evapotranspiration (ET). You can get to CIMIS by using several methods; for avocado growers the best method is to use the irrigation calculator on the www.avocado.org website. If you need further instruction on this, you can call our office and ask for the Avocado Irrigation Calculator Step by Step paper. You need to know the application rater of your mini-sprinklers and the distribution uniformity of your grove's irrigation system.
- CIMIS tells you how much water to apply, but you need tensiometers, soil probes or shovels to tell you when to water.
- “Smart Controllers” have been used successfully in landscape and we have used one very successfully in an avocado irrigation trial The one we used allowed us to enter the crop coefficient for avocado into the device, and daily ET information would come in via a cell phone connection. When the required ET (multiplied automatically by the crop coefficient) reached the critical level, the irrigation system would come on, and then shut down when the required amount had been applied. Increased precision can be obtained by fine tuning these devices with the irrigation system precipitation (application) rate.
3. Deficit Irrigation.
- Deficit irrigation is the practice of applying less water than the ET of the crop or plant materials. Deficit irrigation is useful for conserving water in woody landscape ornamentals and drought tolerant plants where crop yield is not an issue. Water conserved in these areas may be re-allocated to other areas on the farm or landscape.
- There hasn't been enough research on deficit irrigation of avocado for us to comment. We suspect, however, that deficit irrigation will simply lead to dropped fruit and reduced yield.
- Stumping the avocado tree could be considered a form of deficit irrigation. In this case, the tree should be stumped in the spring, painted with white water-based paint to reflect heat, and the sprinkler can be capped for at least 2 months. As the tree starts to re-grow, some water should be added back, probably about 10-20% of the normal water use of a mature tree.
- Regulated Deficit Irrigation for Citrus is an important method for saving water, and in some cases will reduce puff and crease of the peel. In one orange trial done by Dr. David Goldhammer in the San JoaquinValley, an application of 25% of ETc from mid-May to Mid July saved about 25% of applied water for the year and reduced crease by 67%, without appreciably reducing yield.
- 4. Reduce Irrigated Area.
- Taking trees out of production. Trees that are chronically diseased and do not produce fruit (or the fruit is poor quality) should be taken out of production during this period. Also consider: trees in frosty areas, trees in wind-blown areas, trees near eucalyptus and other large trees that steal the water from the fruit trees.
- Changing crops. You may want to take out those Valencias during this period and replant to something that brings in more money, like seedless, easy-peeling mandarins. The young trees will be using a lot less water.
- Fallow Opportunities. You may decide to do some soil preparation, tillage or cultivation, or even soil solarization of non-irrigated areas.
We have found that this four step process is a logical way to achieve water cutbacks with least impact. It is possible to achieve a ten percent reduction in water by only improving irrigation system uniformity and scheduling procedures. Often, these two measures also result in better crop performance and reduced runoff. Reducing irrigated area or taking areas out of production should be a last resort and a well thought out decision. Plan for the future, hopefully water will be more available in future years.
Ground urban organic material that shows up in great trailers for use in agriculture has simple rules for its use. 1) It should be a material low in contaminants. If you can clearly see golf balls and plastic, send it back. Over time with decomposition it is only going to become clearer because all the organics go away and all you are left with is a mess to clean up. 2) If used as a mulch (applied to the surface of the soil), it should be as woody material as possible, because it is more persistent and lasts longer and the roots which adjust to the mulch layer are less likely to be disturbed. 3) If it is used as a material to be incorporated into the soil IT MUST BE COMPOSTED. This cannot be emphasized enough. With decomposition, gasses such as methane, ethylene and ammonia are released which are all toxic to roots and it heats up, also which is hard on roots- like it burns the heck out of them. This goes for the material used as a mulch, it should be kept at least 6 inches away from tree trunks so that gasses and heat don't burn the trunks. And 4) no organic material should be incorporated into the planting hole, composted or non. This is one of those myths (planting mix in planting holes) that have been foist on gardeners and farmers alike. If it is organic it is good? Any organic material incorporated into a planting hole is going to decompose over time, and then the soil settles, causing voids. Much better to plant into the mineral soil and mulch and let the worms move any nutrients from the organic surface material into the root zone.
And remember that fresh citrus leaves and stems can harbor Asian citrus psyllid. Dry that material out before moving it around so you don't spread the psyllid.
The latest (2012) Department of Agriculture reports on county agricultural production can be found at
Some ways to deal with drought
Growers are faced with an ever-changing list of commercial “tools”, each with the promise of providing some advantage to the farmer. Frequently, these are new fertilizer mixes presented as proprietary cocktails promoted and dispensed with promises of a multitude of profitable (yet improbable) benefits to the buyer. With the large number of new products available, and the number of salespeople promoting them, it is often difficult for growers to distinguish between products likely to provide real benefit, and those that may actually reduce the profitability of the farm.
In all situations when a company approaches the University or a commodity research board with a new product or technology for sale to California growers, these institutions act as grower advocates. They are charged with sorting through the available information; asking the right questions; getting the necessary research done if the available information warrants this pursuit; disseminating accurate information on these new technologies and products, and doing all that can help maximize grower profits now and in the future. When approached with a new product or technology it is obligatory to challenge claims with the following questions:
Is there some basic established and accepted scientific foundation on which the product claims are made?
Language that invokes some proprietary ingredients or mysterious formulations, particularly in fertilizers mixes registered in the State of California, raises red flags. A wide range of completely unrelated product benefit claims (such as water savings, pesticide savings, increased earlier yield) raises more red flags. Product claims that fall well outside of any accepted scientific convention generally mean the product is truly a miracle, or these claims are borderline false to entirely fraudulent.
Has the product undergone thorough scientific testing in orchards?
Frequently, products are promoted based on testimonials of other growers. While testimonials may be given in good faith, they are most often not backed up by any real scientific testing where a good control was used to compare orchard returns with and without the product.
A “test” where a whole block was treated with a product and which has no reliable untreated control does not meet accepted standards for conducting agricultural experiments. Also, a treated orchard cannot reliably be compared to a neighboring untreated orchard; and a treated orchard cannot be compared to the same orchard that was untreated the previous crop year. Even a test with half a block of treated trees and half untreated is not considered dependable by any known scientific standard of testing.
Only a well designed, statistically replicated, multi-year trial allows for direct comparison of untreated versus treated trees with statistical confidence. Verifiable data from tests that meet acceptable standards of scientific design, along with access to raw baseline (before treatment) yield data from the same trees (preferably for the two years prior) should be used to determine the validity of test results provided.
Are the test results from a reliable source?
If the testing were not done by a neutral party, such as university scientists, agency, or a reputable contract research company using standard scientific protocols, this raises red flags. If the persons overseeing the tests have a financial interest in seeing positive results from the product, it raises red flags.
Does the product have beneficial effects on several unrelated farm practices?
A product that increases production of trees, makes fruit bigger, reduces pests, reduces water use, and reduces fertilizer costs, is more than a little suspicious. In reality, if such a product really existed, it would not need any testing at all because its benefits would be so obviously realized by the grower community that it would spread rapidly by word of mouth and embraced by the entire grower community.
Are other standard and proven farm products put down in the new product sales delivery?
If a new product vendor claims that their product is taken up 15 times faster than the one growers are currently using, or is 30 times more efficient, it probably costs 15 to 30 times more per unit of active ingredient than the standard market price. Growers should always examine the chemical product label to see what active ingredient they are buying. There has to be a very good reason to pay more for an ingredient where previously there had been no problem supplying the same ingredient at a cheaper price to trees in the past.
There are impartial sources of such information available to farmers to help corroborate information provided by product vendors. Perhaps the most reliable and accessible impartial research and education resources for growers are their local Cooperative Extension Farm Advisors and commodity research boards.
When promising products emerge, local university Farm Advisors can advise growers on how to evaluate these products and may help design a small trial to test a particular product on a few trees under local orchard conditions. If in these pursuits a truly promising new product or technology emerges, research board funding may follow but only on the recommendation of that board's Research Committee.