Torture orchard: Can science transform California crops to cope with drought?

Almond farmer Christine Gemperle in her Ceres almond grove on Aug. 25, 2021. Gemperle has experimented with new irrigation systems and different breeds of almonds to counteract her dry, salty land. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

There’s a hive of PhDs at the University of California at Davis who are working to reinvent food production in the Golden State. Researchers have fanned out across the globe collecting rare plant samples; others are grafting Frankenstein trees and stitching together root systems of plums and peaches to create better almond and walnut trees.

Some scientists are deconstructing crime scenes of withered and dying plants, gathering clues about what killed them. Others deprive trees of moisture or douse them with salty water, stress-testing the plants to understand how much they can withstand at experimental fields, including one that researchers call Torture Orchard.

Whether in a sterile lab or in a dusty farm row, these projects are focused on one objective: saving water. In the midst of California’s extreme drought and scant water available for growers, the name of the game is how to produce more crop per drop.

With about 70,000 California farms operating on drastically reduced water rations, experts say it’s past time to figure out how to turn down the tap.

Researchers are applying lessons learned from the last drought to enable the $50 billion agricultural sector to sustain itself in a new reality, where water use will not be dictated by state or federal regulators, but by nature and climate change.

“It was a huge challenge for all farmers,” said Josette Lewis, chief scientific officer for the Almond Board of California, which represents the industry. “People in California agriculture recognize that, with the need to manage groundwater more sustainably and the uncertainty of surface water supply, the overall footprint of agriculture may change.”

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Because agriculture uses four times more water than California’s residential users, growers are under pressure to tighten their water budgets. This year, many have lost their water from the drought-plagued Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed as well as their federal allocations, and are increasingly reliant on depleted groundwater stores.

And, while the last drought took three years to peak, this drought has already reached a dire state in its second year; nearly 90% of California is experiencing extreme drought.

“This is different from the last drought. What’s changed is how fast things are happening,” said Sam Sandoval Solis, an associate professor at UC Davis and a cooperative extension specialist who advises farmers on efficient water management.

“The reality is we have reached a point we are using more water than is available in California,” he said. “This is nothing new. We’re living beyond our means. It breaks my heart.”

The growing water crisis in California is reverberating through what used to be a slow-to-change industry. In the same way that workers across the national economy have had to learn new skills and adopt complex technology, farmers and ranchers have also felt the ground move beneath them. Many of the old ways of doing things are no longer working, and not all of the crops they grow make sense against a backdrop of recurring droughts.

To help them cope, California farmers have been turning to science and technology. Some tools only recently …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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