Significant Growth in Specialty Crops Noted in 2010 Report

This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the summary results of its 2010 National Resources Inventory (NRI), the most recent update since 2007 of data the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) gathers on changes in U.S. land use, irrigation, farmland for crops and pasture, soil erosion, and wetlands, as well as on related federal programs.

Of particular note is the significant growth in land dedicated to specialty crops, such as fruits, nuts, and flowers. Land dedicated to specialty crops more than doubled from 124,800 acres in 2007 to 273,800 acres in 2010.

Switch to Specialty Crops Impacting California Bay-Delta Watershed during Historic Drought

Under the current extreme drought conditions in California, many crop farmers are being forced to leave fields fallow and ranchers are unable to graze herds on typically rain-watered grass. As noted in the 2010 NRI, one of the practices impacting the severity of the current drought is the switch by many farmers to orchard-style specialty crops – such as olives and almonds – which require significant annual irrigation.

With these trends in mind, NRCS will be conducting surveys of California and Oregon farmers on their farming and conservation practices through the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, a key component in the development of the 2013 National Resources Inventory. The data collected will include farm production practices; chemical, fertilizer, and manure application; integrated pest management; and conservation practices. It is hoped the survey will provide data-driven insights as how to best manage the water resources for this important agricultural production region.

Innovations in Water Usage through Pilots and Demonstrations in California
The agricultural industry may be able to benefit from innovations in water usage, conservation, and treatment from a variety of sectors, which would help mitigate the rising water needs of specialty crops.

  • In California’s Panoche Water District, WaterFX, a solar-power desalination system, is demonstrating a 500-gallon system to clean agricultural drainage water through existing solar parabolic trough technology. The six months of pilot results recently released demonstrated the company’s ability to effectively produce pure water, and the Panoche Water District’s 44,000 acres include a range of nuts and other specialty crops that can benefit from the pilot’s upcoming expansion.
  • Innovative hydrogel producer mOasis raised an additional $1.22 million from the Roda Group this past December for the company’s non-toxic hydrogel development. The hydrogel allows agricultural producers to maximize crop yields and reduce water consumption by up to 20 percent. The company’s recent pilot studies in California for tomatoes, broccoli, and lettuce demonstrated significant water savings to a wide range of crop producers, with potential to scale to a wide range of irrigated crops across the region.
  • The East Bay Municipal Utility District (EMUD) recently announced the results of its partnership with WaterSmart, a data management-focused company that was able to demonstrate a 5 percent reduction in water usage for 10,000 EMUD customers. The company’s one-year pilot is expected to expand in coming years.