Hopeton Farms, Snelling, CA
|Hopeton Farms uses a mix of clovers, vetches and short grasses between their almond trees to improve the soil.|
Summary of Operation
2,100 acres of almonds
65 acres of walnuts grown organically
Lavender and other herbs
Troublesome, undernourished soils. The owners of this nut orchard, interested in creating a more environmentally sound enterprise, enrolled a 28-acre block of the farm's almond trees in a pilot project run by a California nonprofit organization to develop more sustainable orchard systems. Initial soil tests showed their soil was badly depleted of nutrients, so they immediately began applying compost over the whole farm. Additional changes further increased soil health and reduced pesticide use and input costs.
Hopeton Farms, located just east of Merced in California's Central Valley, was started in the mid-1980s as a partnership of three families. These non-farming landowners bought the farm as a financial diversification and entrepreneurial venture, but they are actively involved in decisions about production practices and marketing. Hopeton Farms is operated on a day-to-day basis by farm manager Chuck Segers and foreman Leonel Valenzuela, working closely with crop consultant Cindy Lashbrook. The farm employs 14 people full time and brings in extra crews for pruning and harvest.
In 1993, one of the owners saw a newsletter about a project to develop more sustainable orchard systems and decided Hopeton Farms should be involved. The BIOS Project (Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems), initiated by the California Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) and funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, sought 20- to 30-acre orchard blocks on which to do orchard system comparisons. In exchange, project organizers offered technical assistance from a multidisciplinary research team.
Hopeton Farms put a 28-acre block of almonds into the project and closely followed the team's recommendations for cover cropping, composting and cutting back on pesticides. Consultant Cindy Lashbrook, one of the members of the team, continued after the three-year project to work closely with a number of the BIOS farms, including Hopeton.
Focal Point of Operation - Sustainable orchard management
When the BIOS team first visited Hopeton Farms, recalls Lashbrook, they reported that there was 'no apparent life in the soil.' They recommended applying compost on the 28-acre project block. The owners, however, were so struck with that alarming diagnosis they decided to begin applying composted dairy manure on the whole 2,100-acre almond orchard. They purchased the composted manure from a local dairy clean-out and spreading service about 12 miles away, applying about 2 to 3 tons per acre.
Traditionally, almond orchards have very little plant cover on the soil, and what is there is mowed very close for ease of harvest. The Hopeton owners decided to try cover crops as a key way to improve the soil. In the first year of the project, they experimented with three different cover crop mixes to find the best combination.
'We tried a tall, rich mix, a low-growing mix, and an annual insectary mix that encourages beneficials,' Lashbrook says.
The tall, rich mix of oats and vetch grew too high and rank. 'The vetch grew into the trees,' recalls Chuck Seger, 'and the oats were four feet tall.' The low-growing mix, made up of annual clovers and vetches with a small amount of low-growing grasses, worked better. They settled on this, plus an insectary mix every tenth row.
After the original test plot of 28 acres, they have put an additional 300 to 400 acres of almonds under cover each year. They plant the cover crops in October and November, then mow them to about four inches high in February. By mowing the cover crops before the trees bloom, they improve air circulation during a critical period for potential frost damage. The orchard floor is then mowed again in early June before the nut harvest in August and September. If mowing is delayed long enough, plants self-seed to become a virtually perennial cover. That way, they don't have to re-seed the cover crop the following season, saving both seed and labor costs.
Because orchardists have long considered it important to have the orchard floor clean for harvest, with the cover crop not just cut but mostly broken down, this delayed mowing is a significant change from conventional practices.
'People start panicking in May [if the mowing isn't done],' Lashbrook says. 'It's a real paradigm shift. Sometimes the first year is pretty awful [getting residue to break down], because the soil is essentially dead. But if the cover is mostly legumes, there's generally no trouble getting it clear in time.'
Instead of removing and burning tree prunings, they now chip up the prunings and put the wood back into the soil.
The 65-acre block of walnuts was transitioned to organic management in 1993, when the farm first entered the BIOS project. No fungicides are needed, and the farm managers have dispensed with herbicides because the trees are farther apart, thus easier to mow and take care of than the almonds. One insect problem, the walnut husk fly, has been successfully managed with mass trapping. Almonds have proved more difficult to grow organically at Hopeton, due to disease pressures.
Economics and Profitability
Hopeton Farms has saved substantially on input costs by cutting back on pesticides and fertilizers. While total savings are hard to track, they know that in the first year alone they saved $375,000 in pesticide and fertilizer costs. 'It's been a substantial savings,' Segers says. 'We went from full-bore conventional and just eliminated a lot.'
The compost they apply is expensive, but they have cut way back on application of liquid nitrogen, and see less insect damage and disease. Mowing labor costs are also way down. In a competitive market situation, they find that cutting input costs is one of the best ways to improve the bottom line.
As yet they receive no market benefit for their low-input, sustainable methods, but they are investigating possible 'green label' certification. 'We did try to go organic on some of the almonds,' Lashbrook says, 'but we had a lot of disease, so we still need to use some spring fungicides.'
The walnuts, easier to raise organically, are certified organic and sold through an organic wholesale distributor. The walnuts receive a premium price as much as 50 to 100 percent higher than commercial walnuts. 'It's a niche market, though,' cautions Segers, 'and we're one of the larger growers in it.'
With the dedicated use of compost and ground covers and reduced use of soil chemicals, organic matter levels in the sandy loam soil are improving slowly and life has returned to the soil. 'Before, we had no earthworms,' Segers says. 'Now, I see earthworms throughout the orchard.'
Lashbrook notes another side benefit of keeping a plant cover on the soil: 'Now you can drive a tractor through the orchard all year without worrying about rutting.'
Hopeton Farms began using biological controls such as predatory and parasitic insects, applying pesticides only if the problem is particularly acute. They installed owl nesting boxes to attract barn owls, which help control gophers.
The farm cut way back on its pesticide use. They no longer use the customary dormant spray for almonds, which contains pesticides targeted by EPA. For weed control, they now use only a light strip spray of Roundup two or three times a year to keep the tree trunks and sprinklers clear.
Wildlife also has returned. 'I have seen a return of raptors - owls and hawks - on the farm,' says Segers. 'And I know organophosphates have been blamed for a falling off of the hawk population.'
Each spring, Hopeton Farms holds a bloom party, inviting everyone in the community, their vendors, crop insurers, their neighbors. The farm has hosted four or five field days and several bus tours to show off their participation in the California Alliance with Family Farmers/EPA project, and continues to receive visitors interested in the farm's production methods.
Other area orchards may be emulating Hopeton Farms' methods. Lashbrook notes that the operation through which they sell their almonds has started cutting back inputs in its own almond orchard.
'There are so many chemicals that are put on just because they are easy and the way it's always been done,' Lashbrook says. 'You need to keep the big guns for the big problems.'
She encourages growers to make full use of the technical information resources available. 'Here in California, our Cooperative Extension is fully on-line with sustainable methods and very helpful with soil test interpretations,' she says. 'Farmer networks like CAFF are good resources.'
As Hopeton Farms replaces older orchard blocks with new plantings, they plan to make changes in the layout of the trees to further increase sustainability. 'There are a lot of close plantings now,' Lashbrook says. 'More open spacing and an orientation to the prevailing wind will encourage air circulation.' They also plan to try out some of the new 'softer' fungicides and other products.
Profile written by Deborah Wechsler
For more information:
15185 Cox Ferry Road
Snelling, CA 95369
(farm manager Chuck Segers)
(crop consultant Cindy Lashbrook)