Environmental stewardship, maximizing production can go hand-in-hand, says IPM award winning almond grower

(Modesto, Calif., December 21) – Environmentally friendly production practices and maximizing production can go hand-in-hand says a Kern Country almond grower who has been honored by the state of California for his innovative integrated pest management (IPM) techniques.

Thomas Vetsch, owner of Bakersfield-based Vetsch Farms, decided more than seven years ago to convert 160 acres of his conventionally farmed almond orchard to practices that reduce reliance on broad-spectrum insecticides and routine fungicides.

With financial support from the Almond Board of California’s Pest Management Alliance project and the scientific expertise of the University of California Cooperative Extension, Vetsch has virtually eliminated the use of synthetic pesticides to manage key pests in the orchard, reducing overall inputs while increasing yields throughout the orchard. The practices he has developed on his Kern County orchard have been so successful he has converted all four ranches at Vetsch Farms of California to sustainable, IPM-based farming.

PM INNOVATOR. Thomas Vetsch, second from right, and Vetsch Farms General Manager Ken Ballou, second from left, are congratulated by Mary Ann Warmerdam, left, director, California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Kern County UC farm advisor Mario Viveros, and A.G. Kawamura, Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture. (Photo courtesy of DPR.)

His accomplishments caught the attention of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, which recently honored Vetsch with one of its nine annual IPM Innovator Awards.  Vetsch was lauded for using predatory mites, spraying reduced-risk pesticides, and seasonal monitoring for pests and beneficial insects.
Vetsch is an example of an increasing number of almond growers who are striving to improve reduced risk farming practices while maintaining a productive and healthy environment for future generations, says Chris Heintz, director of Production Research and the Environment for the Almond Board of California. “Three decades of research funded by the Almond Board of California have given almond growers the tools to become better stewards of the land,” explains Heintz. “By supporting this research, and through grower field days and published educational materials, the Almond Board is continually working to develop environmentally sensitive farming techniques and transfer them into commercial orchards.”

The Almond Board was an early pioneer of IPM research and education starting in 1997. That year, the Board received a grant from the state Department of Pesticide Regulation to initiate the almond Pest Management Alliance (PMA) project at Vetsch Farms and commercial sites in Butte County and Stanislaus counties.

When funding for the five-year project expired three years ago, the Almond Board continued to fund the research that helped develop reduced risk strategies, such as scouting, monitoring, beneficial insects and cultural controls.

Those reduced-risk farming practices today make the California almond industry a leader in environmentally sustainable farming.

“The Almond Board was one of the early participants in the first year of the PMA project,” says DPR Environmental Scientist Bob Elliott, past coordinator of the PMA project. “They truly made a commitment to take a comprehensive look at evaluating and identifying alternatives that had been researched and were ready to be implemented or to continue research on those practices where more work was needed.”

Elliot says the Almond Board has become a model for the public-private partnership between DPR, industry and participating growers in Integrated Pest Management research and education, enabling growers to adopt reduced risk farming practices.

The Almond Board leadership has since been recognized by two consecutive awards from the EPA’s Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program and an IPM Innovator award from DPR.

Vetsch says that when he initiated the IPM demonstration block he was at a crossroads in his almond growing operation and looking for ways to farm that would maintain profits while reducing the environmental impact of his farming practices.

Vetsch collaborated with UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Mario Viveros who helped him convert a section of his almond orchard into a PMA-sponsored IPM demonstration block. In that block, IPM strategies have been developed and compared over the last six years with conventional almond production strategies.

ORCHARD SANITATION and a well-timed oil spray are key practices at the Vetsch Farms in Bakersfield being inspected by Vetsch, right and general manager Ken Ballou. (Photo by Marni Katz)

With the expertise of Viveros and General Manager Ken Ballou, Vetsch has replaced traditional organophosphate dormant sprays with good orchard sanitation and a well-timed oil spray. His fertilizers are applied according to the needs of individual blocks and varieties. Ballou has reduced fungicide applications by converting to microsprinklers and increasing light and air movement in the orchard through hedging and thinning trees.

Vetsch’s IPM demonstration site provided UC researchers with information on San Jose scale damage potential and sampling methods that have led to widely adopted practices for managing scale with reduced-risk materials and economic thresholds.
Vetsch continues to focus on improving irrigation management and building soil health to perpetuate a sustainable environment for his orchard. He believes these practices will ultimately pay off, not only for future generations but also for the long-term productivity of his orchard. He also believes it pays off in the market place as consumers are increasingly focused on how their food is produced.

Once his IPM program took off, Vetsch downsized in acreage so that he and Ballou could focus more resources on monitoring, scouting and cultural practices. Today, Vetsch Farms spends about $40 an acre on monitoring and scouting, less than the cost of a single insecticide spray, and that information gathering has become the cornerstone of all its production practices.

More foot time in the orchard to scout and monitor for insect pests has created secondary benefits by allowing Ballou to quickly recognize symptoms, such as water or fertilizer deficiencies, before they have a chance to significantly impact yield.

“We stay connected to the trees in the orchard and are able to detect problems right away,” he says. 

As a result, of this intensive management, yields at Vetsch Farms have jumped from an average of 1,800 pounds per acre to about 2,400 pounds per acre and returns are further improved through less costly inputs. Production costs per acre have dropped by about 25 percent as yields have increased about 20 percent.

“We focus more time, energy and resources into less acreage to maximize the output,” Ballou says. “And our production has gradually been going up the last five years.”

“We really found out that less is more,” Vetsch notes.

Innovation has been key for another Central Valley almond grower who is working hard to meet air quality challenges in the San Joaquin Valley. Fred Olmstead, Fresno County, has been steadily adopting more sustainable farming practices pioneered in part through Almond Board of California-supported research.

The General Manager of Air-Way Farms says in recent years the operation has been addressing such environmentally sensitive issues as air quality and water quality by gradually shifting the way it farms.  

Air-Way Farms has converted about one-fourth of its 1,300 acres of almonds to an experimental harvesting operation aimed at addressing air quality issues, refitting every aspect of the operation from its pickup machines and sweeps to its harvesters and prunings management, in an effort to reduce the air pollution emitted from the orchard.

Olmstead estimates recent modifications to his sweep, pickup machines and harvester on that experimental acreage have reduced the amount of dirt taken in to the huller during harvest by 25 to 30 percent.  Prunings from the almond orchard are chipped and hauled to a nearby field where the chips are composted into fertilizer for Air-Way’s row crops.

Such alternatives focused on air quality have been the subject of environmental research and outreach by the Almond Board for more than a decade.

Growers like Olmstead and Vetsch, who are impassioned about focusing on environmental stewardship in California almond farming operations, believe they are becoming the norm in the California almond industry. And the Almond Board continues to support those and other efforts through its industry sponsored research and Environmental Stewardship campaign.

“We certainly see more grower interest in these alternatives,” DPR’s Elliott says. “And the board has been committed through its Environmental Committee to continue promoting the exchange of information on these types of programs and alternatives.”

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The Almond Board of California administers a grower-enacted Federal Marketing Order under the supervision of the United States Department of Agriculture.  Established in 1950, the Board’s charge is to promote the best quality almonds, California’s largest tree nut crop.  For more information on the Almond Board of California or almonds, visit www.AlmondBoard.com.


 For Immediate Release
December 21, 2005

For More Information:
Christy Quaresma
(209) 343-3218