- Author: Tyler Ash
For 26 years, Blake Sanden has been the irrigation, soils and agronomy farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Sanden retired from UCCE Kern County on July 1.
He helped growers with on-farm soil and water problems, organized and spoke at workshops across California and conducted applied field research projects focusing on irrigation, salinity/fertility management for all crops, and agronomic field crop production of alfalfa, dry beans and oil crops.
Sanden has a bachelor's degree in international agricultural development and agronomy and master's degree in irrigation and drainage from UC Davis and 35 years of experience in California production ag, international ag development and extension.
He developed salt tolerance thresholds for high-production California pistachios in the San Joaquin Valley, soil moisture monitoring techniques and irrigation efficiency assessment on 12,000 acres in Kern County and deficit irrigation in early citrus navel oranges.
Over the last eight years, Sanden has fulfilled a vision that started nearly 30 years ago. Through collaboration with nearly 50 University of California researchers, farm advisors, extension specialists, the Wonderful Farming Company and almond industry representatives, he played a crucial role in increasing the precision of water and fertilizer application for optimal almond yield – increasing the statewide average yield by more than 50 percent.
But some of his greatest joys and heart-felt satisfaction lay in development work in Africa – 3 years of missionary service in the 1980s developing vegetable gardens in Zambia and month-long training/consulting trips working with farmers and extension agents in Uganda, Ethiopia and central Asia.
When asked what he'll miss the most about his career, he said the interaction with the growers, most notably “seeing the ‘ah-ha' light up in a grower's eyes when he finally grasps the solution.”
He remembered a particular time in May of 2004 when a sugarbeet grower called him seeking his advice on whether or not to irrigate his 380 acres of beets one last time before harvesting. That was the way he had always done it. So Sanden went out and spent a couple of hours using his hand probe to check the moisture of the fields down to a three-foot depth.
“I ask, ‘Ken, when did you last probe this field?'” Sanden recalled.
‘“Oh, I really didn't check it this year?' he says.”
“Do you really need to irrigate or is this enough water to get through harvest?” noting that he already had enough moisture.
“I guess it's enough, but that's why I asked you out here. It wouldn't hurt to put on the irrigation, would it? I'd feel better. Of course, we did get the digger stuck a couple times last year because the field was too wet.”
“Too much water does hurt beets because you will reduce sugar percentage and can get rot and lose tonnage,” Sanden replied.
“OK, it makes me a bit nervous but you say I have at least four inches of water stored in the soil that the beets can get at.”
That year Ken was the top sugar producer in Kern County and got the Silver Beet Knife for highest percentage of sugar, Blake recalled.
“With that two hours worth of field scouting, he probably made an extra $300,000 in the saved irrigation and increased sugar,” Blake said.