While the end result of growing crops in the Central Valley is still the same, the way those crops are grown has undergone dramatic changes in the last few years.
The tools growers use to produce the food that feeds the nation have seen a significant upgrade recently.
“I have been working at this for 41 years,” said Chris Locke, owner of Locke Ranch in Lockeford. “You do need a lot of advanced tools to do this.”
In the last decade, Locke has gone from gas and diesel machinery to solar powered pumps and vehicles. He has seen operations move from depending on chemical fertilizers exclusively, to adding items such as insect pheromones. He has also seen advances in irrigation systems that help save water and has seen some growers resort to using drones to monitor their crops.
Some of the most important advances agricultural operations have experienced are ways to reduce dependency on chemical pesticides. Locke’s operation uses pheromones that help drive away moths which can be devastating to his walnut orchard.
“We use pheromones to confuse the male from finding the female insect,” said Locke. “It’s dispersed by a device that looks like a giant hairspray can. It is activated by computer chip at night when the insects are most active.”
The device has a variety of advantages. First it means fewer pesticides on the trees. It also allows more targeted spraying.
“Lockeford is downwind where I live,” he said. “The prevailing winds could blow pesticides into town.”
He said the pheromone system is also safer for workers on his ranch. Using pheromones on the 600-acre ranch, which sits in a floodplain, also reduces the risk of water contamination.
“What I like about it is worker safety,” he said. “It’s all about risk management.”
Another advance that many growers are focusing on is adding solar power to cut down on fuel consumption.
“We are at 90 percent of our power usage being generated by solar power,” Locke said. “We put the first panels in 2006. In 2016, we finished another solar array. We went electric with all our pumps and they generate power for all our homes.”
Locke’s ranch’s location in a floodplain gives it ready access to water, but has also made expensive innovations in water use harder to justify.
“We might be a little behind in that area,” he said.
Many area growers who are located in places without ready access to a nearby water supply have historically used gravity powered flood irrigation systems. That is slowly changing.
“They are trying to update their irrigation systems,” said Ron Nydam, owner of Waterford Irrigation Supply. “They are converting from flood to drip irrigation.”
Nydam said that he has a team of engineers that work on pumps, filters and pipelines to help growers be as efficient as possible with the water they use.
“The goal is to make sure every tree in that orchard gets the same amount of water,” Nydam said. “We are designing the systems to be as uniform as possible.”
Topography and history make that a big challenge. Growers in the foothills often use gravity-based flood systems. That often leads to crops at higher elevations getting less water than those at in lower regions.
This has led some growers to move to pressurized systems, similar to the types of systems that deliver water to homes.
“The other thing we have seen in the last few years are growers starting to use moisture monitoring devices,” he said. “They are using more technology to make better decisions to use water to the maximum efficiency.”
One of the issues slowing down those advances is infrastructure. Many water districts in the Central Valley have systems designed to deliver water based on gravity systems. Those systems often lack precision in the amount of water delivered.
“For most growers, we operate on rotational schedule,” said Forrest Killingsworth, Engineering Department manager for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. “That means we start on day one and it takes 10 days to go through the rotation of our customers. They are limited to once every 10 days.”
The system was designed for flood irrigation which resulted in operational spills and water drainage into nearby streams and rivers.
The problem with that is that growers are largely stuck on a certain day no matter what their specific needs may be. While Nydam said systems exist that allow growers to use the exact amount of water exactly when they need it most irrigation districts can’t support that technology.
The South San Joaquin Irrigation District is attempting to close the gap between technology and infrastructure. The district recently installed a pressurized system that can deliver water on demand to growers in a small portion of the 56,000 acres of irrigated crop land the district serves.
“Water availability is really where this project shines,” Killingsworth said. “Growers can order their water online or through their iPhone.”
He compared the system to ordering an airline flight. Growers can go online, see when water is available and order exactly how much they need.
“They no longer have to worry about water delivery as we are using a pressurized system,” he said.
The drawback is cost. So far, the district has invested approximately $18 million for a system that is available to 3,000 acres.
“When you look at expanding this technology throughout the district, it is more expensive than we would like to see,” he said. “It will take some big planning to make that happen.”
While the cost is a major obstacle, the benefits are substantial. The system is tightly controlled which results in water ending up on the roots of the plants, not in the drainage systems. So far, the system has saved 12,500-acre feet of water per year.
“Water is being utilized more efficiently than flood (irrigation),” Killingsworth said.
While this specific project may prove too expensive to expand in throughout the district, technology like it will likely figure as part of the district’s water master plan. The master plan is a two-year process that aims to look at the future of water delivery in the district.
“The district is in very preliminary phases of the master plan,” he said. “We are very eager to get answers to those questions.”