Launched this year, the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum synthesizes decades of almond irrigation research into a single resource that is helping farmers evolve practices and get the most out of their irrigation system investments.
Authors: Terry Prichard and Larry Schwankl. Both retired University of California extension specialists, they have utilized their decades of experience in California tree crop water and irrigation management in developing the Almond Board of California’s Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum.
Limited water supplies — with or without the California drought — are a reality for permanent
California specialty crops, such as treenuts, wine, table grapes and fruit trees. Since 1982, the California Almond industry has been investing in irrigation improvement research through the Almond Board of California (ABC). Acknowledging the State’s limited water resources and propensity for drought, the industry has funded 182 projects to date. Research projects are wide-ranging, including field-testing innovative technology and supporting the development of localized crop water demand models, but they have one goal in mind: to continue to help almond farmers be leaders in irrigation efficiency. As a result, almond farmers have reduced the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33 percent over the past twenty years.
Using Research to Drive Innovation
In 2015, ABC launched a groundbreaking new effort to compliment its existing research programs. The Accelerated Innovation Management (AIM) program prioritizes innovative almond farming research and improvements to better meet future needs of the California Almond industry as well as the consumer, local communities and the environment. The efficient use and management of water is one of four key initiatives of AIM.
Using the decades of industry-funded research as a foundation, the Almond Board of California, in partnership with technical experts from University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources created the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum. This comprehensive resource supports the AIM initiative to accelerate almond farmer adoption of research-based, commercially available and more water-efficient irrigation practices and technology.
The Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum
With the overarching goal of growing more crop per drop, this progressive management guide encourages continued improvement in a farmer’s irrigation strategies. Recognizing that each of California’s 6,800 almond farmers are operating at different stages of irrigation management, the Continuum provides information at three proficiency levels (1.0, 2.0 and 3.0), each covering the following five essential elements of good irrigation management, as well as how to effectively integrate them into an overarching strategy:
- Estimating orchard water requirements based on evapotranspiration
- Measuring irrigation system performance and efficiency
- Determining the water applied
- Evaluating soil moisture
- Evaluating plant water status
None of the information in the Continuum is revolutionary, or wasn’t out there before; most of it was available but hard to find. Irrigation water management can be complicated, but taking all the information and putting it in one place is helping almond farmers see how it all fits together. The Continuum provides this information in one easy-to-access location.
Beyond its utility for California’s almond farmers, the Continuum has broad applicability to other fruit and treenut crops in California or Mediterranean climates globally.
Three Levels of Proficiency
The Continuum was designed to offer something to every almond farmer, regardless of their irrigation management sophistication. Level 1.0 outlines irrigation management practices that are within reach for all California Almond farmers and require zero capital investment for the farmer. Proficiency level 2.0 (intermediate) and level 3.0 (advanced) evolve practices to more sophisticated levels that further increase water efficiency, minimizing waste and growing more “crop per drop”.
As an example, the Level 1.0 guide shows almond farmers how to calculate estimated orchard water requirements using “normal year” regional crop evapotranspiration (ET) and other site-specific factors, such as rain or salt leaching, to determine irrigation needs on a monthly basis. To improve upon these measures, Level 2.0 and 3.0 in the Continuum guides farmers to calculate orchard water requirements on a more frequent basis, using increasing reliance on current weather conditions or even real time ET monitoring through local monitoring stations provided by the California Department of Water Resources’ California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS).
Increasing the frequency at which farmers monitor and adjust for local conditions allows them to manage their irrigation scheduling adaptively, increasing precision and decreasing inefficiencies. Using real-time monitoring gives farmers a more accurate picture of what is going on within their orchard, allowing them to be more proactive in their management decisions.
The Irrigation Calculator
A supplement to irrigation management practices outlined in the Continuum is the Almond Board’s online Irrigation Calculator. This decision support tool is available to any California Almond farmer and generates irrigation run time schedules that provide the amount and timing of irrigations based on local ET and information about individual orchards and irrigation systems. Linked to each field’s nearest real-time ET monitoring station, this tool automatically integrates current weather information, allowing farmers to efficiently calculate an orchard’s irrigation water requirement.
The Almond Board’s objective through this AIM initiative is to assist all almond farmers in meeting level 1.0 proficiency. Beyond this, the Almond Board will work with farmers to progress along the Continuum to levels 2.0 and 3.0 proficiency. To achieve this goal, in 2016 ABC hired an expert in irrigation and water efficiency to interface with farmers in the field, providing orchard and irrigation system-specific recommendations for improvement.
Using the tools and research available through the Continuum, the Almond Board’s Spencer Cooper, Senior Manager, Irrigation and Water Efficiency, is helping almond farmers across the spectrum of irrigation management precision improve.
This work is complemented by extension through California’s many trusted and respected technical experts from the University of California Cooperative Extension, allied industry and beyond.
The Continuum and associated outreach program were launched earlier this year, so it is difficult to say how many of California’s almond farmers are at each level. What is clear is that no operation is a distinct Level 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 but rather a blend, providing opportunities for improvement across the board.
Through farmer self-assessments from the California Almond Sustainability Program, we know that more than 70 percent of California’s almond orchards employ efficient microirrigation in contrast just 42 percent California farms statewide. In addition 83 percent of almond orchards are managed using some combination of evapotranspiration, soil moisture and the trees’ water needs (plant water status) to determine a demand-based irrigation strategy, rather than irrigating on a predetermined schedule.
While this still doesn’t answer exactly how many almond farmers fall within any of the Continuum’s levels, it reflects the fact that these practices are used by many to inform their water management throughout the growing season.
As a research-based industry, users of California’s limited water resources, and stewards of some of the world’s most productive farmland, continuous improvement is nothing new for almond farmers. No matter where their starting point is, every California Almond farmer will be able to learn something and evolve their practices through the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum.
To learn more about the Almond Irrigation Improvement Continuum visit Almonds.com/Irrigation
 University of California. UC Drought Management. Feb. 2010. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. FAO Irrigation and Drainage Paper 66 – Crop yield in response to water. 2012. Almond Board of California. Almond Almanac 1990-94, 2000-14.