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The current cost-price squeeze has growers searching for ways to lower costs without affecting income. The trouble is, few such opportunities exist, beyond tightening up operations here and there.
Art Bowman, Modesto-area Blue Diamond grower and partner in Salida Ag Chem, says it all when he advises, "Remember, in tough times, optimum quality and production are what carry you through."

According to Bowman, members of Blue Diamond have a unique opportunity to maximize income through participation in the High Quality Grower Meat Program. Nonpareil grower meats that qualified earned as much as 14 cents over the base price for that variety for 2000 crop. To qualify for the quality meat program, a shipment has to meet specifications in four critical categories.

"If you want to earn top dollar for your almonds, you want the best crop you can get," Bowman says. "That means good nutrition and pest control. There are no shortcuts."

"I tell my growers that when they choose not to make an input or perform a cultural operation, they have to accept the risk that they may not meet the requirements for the quality premiums," he adds. Delivering high-quality product not only earns a grower a significant amount of money above the base price, but also helps make Blue Diamond more efficient, which leads to higher grower returns.

Bowman acknowledges that his interest in Salida Ag Chem may make his cultural advice seem a bit biased, but he points out that he follows his own recommendations. "I'm not changing any of my cultural practices this year," he says. But he also keeps a tight rein on every operation at his ranch. "I make sure that we don't waste any of our inputs," he explains. "And that is my advice to anyone who wants to minimize their costs."

Mel Machado, Blue Diamond field supervisor in the Modesto area, says: "A grower must know his costs. Then he can cut the cost of the input that returns the least." He suggests determining the cost of each thing you do on a per-acre basis, which can be easily translated to a per-pound number. "You could, for example, cut your fertilizer program because it's a big cost, but it has a high return," he explains. "On the other hand, you could reduce the number of mowings, a comparatively low cost operation, but it also returns relatively little."

Conservative Management

When it comes to tree nutrition, Bowman strongly recommends using tissue, water and soil analyses "to make sure that what you give your trees is what they need. You want to make sure that the food they receive is in proper balance." Your irrigation water may have substantial amounts of nitrogen and potassium in it, which reduces the amount you have to buy to meet the needs of your trees, he says. "Snowmelt water, which some of our irrigation districts supply, doesn't have nitrates in it, but pump water usually does. I've seen significant levels of nitrates in groundwater," he adds.

You don't need to have a soil analysis done every year, he says, but do it often enough to maintain a baseline of data on the chemical compounds in the root zone. He recommends conducting the soil, water and tissue tests in June or July "so you have a common reference point."

The importance of these analyses cannot be overstated, he says, because in his years of experience advising growers he's found that growers tend to over-apply nitrogen and under-apply potassium. Bringing those two back into balance is often just an exchange of dollars: savings from using less nitrogen largely offsets the cost of the extra potassium. This adjustment produces a bonus - improved health and performance of the trees.
"Potassium helps trees be more efficient users of nitrogen and water, which are essential in the translocation of sugars and starch formation," Bowman explains. "It encourages root growth and helps build plant resistance to disease."

Some of Bowman's customers tissue test every month to make sure they are keeping their nutrients at the UC Guidelines levels. "They apply nitrogen gradually through their drip lines," he explains, "and are more efficient and use less nitrogen in the long run than if they put it on just a few times a year."

Cutting It Close

Sometimes you can't do something no matter how much you would like to, so you do what you can and plan to make it up later. You may not like the consequences, but that is the best you can do under the circumstances.

"If a grower is strapped for cash, he may have to reduce his nitrogen inputs or skip them altogether for a season," Bowman says. "Databases of year-to-year tissue analyses indicate that an almond tree that is in good shape may go a year without added nitrogen and continue to produce a crop, but that missed nitrogen will have to be replaced in the future."

"If tissue sampling shows that your trees are in good shape and your soil pH is in balance, you may be able to back off your usual nutrition program a little, but don't let things get out of balance," he advises. "It is unwise to allow your trees to become deficient in any nutrient. Remember, zinc and boron are very important."

Growers who may be thinking about cutting back on nitrogen should keep their tissue analyses above 21/2 percent, he says. "If they go below that, they could reduce the size of their current crop and jeopardize the following year's bloom and nut load."

Pest Control

To save money in pest control, a grower can help himself a lot by paying close attention to detail, says Bowman. "Know your pest exposure, which pests are a problem in your area. Don't treat for something needlessly. Ask a PCA for advice. His services are cheaper than an unnecessary treatment."

For additional savings, a grower has to take a step back in technology, he says. "The soft, environmentally friendly products cost more than the conventional materials. It's a tough decision."

Citing an Almond Board sponsored study of three different pest control programs, Bowman noted that the standard chemical-based program consistently produced results at less cost than the "soft" material program - by some $20-plus dollars per acre. But, of course, there are downsides to using such materials.

"The most efficient material for worm control may be the synthetic pyrethroids (Asana, Ambush, Pounce), but these products entail environmental concerns and could lead to high spider mite populations," he explains. "Then, one of the best materials to control spider mites is Agrimek, but it is expensive."

Make It Clean

The best approach overall, is to begin early with orchard sanitation, he suggests. "Orchard sanitation is the cheapest and most efficient way to control navel orange worm. It's far more efficient than hull-split applications."

"My experience is that if your goal is to get into the quality meat program, you need to perform at least two of the four possible worm control operations during the year: dormant control, bloom spray, May timing spray, and hull-split spray," he says. "Do two of those, along with orchard sanitation, and you have reasonable assurance of getting into the premium program."

Don't bother trying to shave costs by skipping rows, he says. "In my opinion, you are better off not doing something than trying half measures." And forget speeding up the spray rig to reduce the amount of material used. "You want good applications; you want control; you want the best crop you can get," he says. The premium more than makes up for the difference in inputs.

Make Everything Count

"These are the toughest times on the farm that I've ever seen," says Bowman. "But I have a 20-year investment in trees and I have to ride it out. I can't be jumping into something else, so I'm looking at ways to make my operation as efficient as possible. I'm looking at everything. Do I need that extra tractor? Or that extra man year-round, or could I use a labor contractor now and then to pick up the slack? There's no one thing a grower can do to make it come out right. You have to scrutinize everything."