In 2018, Mike Curry and his colleagues at Johnson Farms looked ahead to 2019 and knew this year would be the last harvest for 150 acres of their almonds. So, as they had done in the past, they intended to completely recycle the orchards’ woody biomass back into the soil rather than burning it or trying to find a co-generation plant to accept it.
What was different than past recycling efforts, however, was that this year there were incentive funds available to help cover their costs.
Air District Reimburses WOR Costs
Curry reached out to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in the fall of 2018. From his work with the Almond Board of California (ABC) and Almond Alliance of California, he knew the Air District was piloting a $1 million program – the Alternative to Agricultural Open Burning Incentive program – that provided money to growers committed to trying Whole Orchard Recycling (WOR) on their operations.
Curry’s application was quickly approved, and since Johnson Farms didn’t plan to remove the old trees until early September 2019, the Air District granted the business a short extension from the typical six-month time period it gives growers to complete WOR.
Applying was easy, Curry said.
“It’s very simple paperwork. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said, adding that growers who have applied for Air District funding to assist with the purchase of low-dust harvesting equipment or to replace diesel pumps will find the application process similar.
Reimbursement amounts range from $300 to $600 per acre, with a maximum of $60,000 per grower, and are typically paid four to six weeks after WOR has been completed and invoices have been sent to the Air District. To be eligible for the program, growers’ orchard/s must be in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley. Growers should expect that Air District officials will come to their orchards to verify the work has been done.
The program has proven popular with growers, thus far, so popular that the program’s initial $1 million in funding was increased to $5 million this year, according to Brian Dodds, program manager for grants and incentives at the Air District.
To date, 137 projects have been completed or approved through the program, representing more than $3.65 million in payments to growers. Another 20 orchard recycling projects that may qualify for about $500,000 total in incentive funds are currently in review, leaving around $800,000 that’s still available to growers who are considering WOR. Dodds advises interested growers to contact the Air District and start the application process before they begin removing trees. Growers can also go to the Air District’s website to view the program rules and the process to apply for funding.
“There has been a tremendous response from growers. We’re excited to see interest continue to grow,” Dodds said. “Our primary purpose is to provide funding to lower the financial hurdle for growers, especially those who are considering whole orchard recycling for the first time as an alternative to burning material.”
In addition to providing a value-added alternative to burning and reduce potentially harmful emissions, benefits to practicing WOR include increased soil organic matter content, the fostering of positive microbial communities, the ability to store carbon naturally and improved water retention in the soil. Initial research even suggests growers may see potential yield increases in second-generation trees planted in soil where whole orchards have been recycled.
Jesse Roseman, principal analyst for Regulatory and Environmental Affairs at ABC, said practicing WOR is a tangible way for growers to not only improve their orchard conditions but also farm more responsibly and help address concerns about poor air quality in the San Joaquin Valley.
“Growers are avoiding burning and sequestering carbon back into the soil. Those are important steps in farming more responsibly,” he said.
CDFA Announces Healthy Soils Will Include WOR
ABC Director of Ag Affairs, Josette Lewis recently attended CDFA’s Environmental Farming Scientific Committee meeting to provide an almond industry perspective on whether WOR should be included in CDFA’s Healthy Soils program. Among other factors discussed at the meeting, CDFA was proposing including a requirement that growers must replant an almond orchard immediately on the same soil where the previous orchard had been recycled.
During the public comment period, Lewis shared that the industry will have a large amount of biomass on its hands in the near future. She emphasized industry members’ continued commitment to WOR research and explained the industry’s Almond Orchard 2025 Goal to put everything grown in the orchard to optimal use and achieve zero waste by 2025. Finally, Lewis questioned the requirement to immediately replant, mentioning that greenhouse gas emission levels would be lower without immediate replant.
At the conclusion of the comment period, the committee voted unanimously to approve WOR without requiring to replant. This means that funding will be available for growers who want to practice WOR through the Healthy Soils program starting in January or February 2020, and growers can decide for themselves if replant is immediately necessary or if they want to treat the soil before planting again.
“The Air District’s and now CDFA’s Healthy Soils program are part of an ongoing effort to ensure ag is part of the solution in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting national air quality standards,” said Lewis.
More information about Whole Orchard Recycling – including testimonials from growers and the latest research – can be found at this UC Davis website.