Grower borrows an irrigation idea from Greece

Russ Lester calls his innovative elevated irrigation an “upside-down sprinkler system.” The Solano County organic farmer has threaded plastic hoses through the branches of 215 acres of walnut trees, and found enough benefits that he wants to put hose up in the air throughout his whole farm.

“We’ve been evaluating this for six or seven years now,” Lester says. “We farm organically, and try to look at the whole picture, including energy. This idea just seems to be a solution for a number of problems.”

His flood irrigation system was loading water up on one end of the field to the extent that trees on the other end were stunted, and buried irrigation pipe presented other problems, Lester says.

He originally was thinking about how grape growers used trellises to support irrigation hoses, and then he visited Greece. He noticed that farmers there, faced with extremely rocky, rugged terrain, strung water hoses through their olive trees. Lester figured if they could do it, so could he.

Key Points

• Elevated sprinklers cost less to install than buried pipe.

• Less energy use and lower upkeep are the benefit of hanging sprinklers.

• Elevated sprinklers make it easier to farm organically.

Problems solved

Lester uses both M\,-inch and C\v-inch hose, hanging sprinklers on it like the overhead type used in greenhouses. Among the buried hose problems prevented:

• Weeds by sprinklers. With organic farming, vegetation control around each micro-sprinkler was labor-intensive.

• Mineral buildup in emitters. Again, in organic farming the acids commonly used to clean emitters couldn’t be used. Hanging sprinklers allow all water to drain into the air, leaving no water to freeze.

• Critter damage. Rodents chewed through underground pipes and hoses; jackrabbits chewed sprinklers aboveground.

• There’s no need to locate underground problems, including water losses, whether from leaks, roots pinching pipes — or other water-loss problems.

• It’s better for the trees, since there’s no digging around tree roots of established trees.

Lester was concerned about pruning and shaking the trees with hoses in them, but that hasn’t been a problem. He was also concerned the hoses would sag too much, but found they were fairly stable. He says the workers can cross-mow, another concern, as long as they keep their heads down.

Lester entered into an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to convert flood irrigation systems on 26 acres of walnuts in Solano County to his new system.

Still testing

Lester is working with the resource conservation district and NRCS to test the efficiency of some of his systems. While most sprinkler systems operate at 20 to 30 pounds per square inch, he believes he can operate at 15 to 20 PSI.

Brown is the public affairs director for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in California.

Organic walnuts result in high yield

Russ Lester was certified organic in 1991, but he took his first steps toward it in 1978, when he and his father began using integrated pest management. “I wanted to reduce my use of chemicals then,” Lester says. “So we tried not spraying and allowing a natural cover crop to grow under the walnuts. It turns out that beneficial insects took care of the pests. We were finding only 2% to 3% worm damage, when others with sprayed fields were seeing 20% worm damage.”


Ended chemical use

He had stopped using chemicals in the late 1980s for both insects and weeds at that time, and decided to quit using commercial fertilizer.

“I had beautiful walnuts, but my walnuts were being dumped in with everyone else’s. I knew if I got certified I could get a premium,” says Lester. He says organic farmers do need to get a premium because they are constantly carrying out research with their own money, have higher labor costs, and are more susceptible to weather.

“Our production is two times the state average,” he says.

He’s met a whole new group of caring, committed people who are like-minded. Organic farming can offer niche marketing and processing opportunities — and command premium prices — for specialty crops.

Lester set a goal to become energy self-sufficient by 2012. He has a solar system, and a co-generator that burns walnut shells to generate electricity to dry walnuts.

Organic farming is fun, he says, and it presents new challenges that require individual problem-solving.

— Anita Brown

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EQIP ASSIST: Russ Lester (left) got assistance from Jim Schneider of the Dixon NRCS office, including cost-share from the EQIP, to convert some of his walnut land from flood irrigation to the new elevated sprinkler system.

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PREMIUM USE: Russ Lester says organic farmers do need a premium because they are constantly carrying out research with their own money.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of CALIFORNIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.