Franz Niederholzer, farm adviser for orchard systems for the Yuba-Sutter University of California Cooperative Extension, points to a radio unit that can remotely trigger irrigation for research into site-specific irrigation techniques at the extension’s research orchard. 

There is a 100-acre outside laboratory south of Arbuckle, where the test subjects are trees and the end goal is to create a hardier, more bountiful crop.

It's the research orchard for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Sutter and Yuba counties, and in this drought year, it's in trouble.

At the orchard, researchers compare different irrigation systems, root stocks and pruning methods. It's classic science — take two different ideas, test them on similar subjects and compare the results.

It's all about finding efficiencies, using the least to gain the most. And water is near the top of the list of agricultural input costs the researchers endeavor to reduce.

But the orchard will not receive any of its usual surface water during this drought year. Like the rest of the orchards in the state, a year without water will likely result in the orchard's death.

A lack of water is putting in jeopardy a tract of land designed to help conserve water.

The irony of the situation is not lost on Franz Niederholzer, farm adviser for orchard systems for the cooperative extension.

Niederholzer and others at the extension have been scrambling to arrange water transfers that will enable the research orchard to survive the summer. Nothing is guaranteed, but Niederholzer is starting to allow himself to hope.

If there is a potential snag, it lies in the unprecedented situation in which state and federal water users have found themselves.

"There's territory no one has ever been into before," Niederholzer said. For instance, the cooperative extension already signed a contract for a water transfer and paid for its product. But language in the contract says the water is not guaranteed, and the cooperative extension won't necessarily get its money back if it doesn't get what it paid for.

"Imagine buying a car and being told it may or may not come with wheels," Niederholzer said.

And much could be lost if the orchard dies.

A professor at the University of California, Davis has spent the last three years studying a new irrigation method Niederholzer calls site-specific irrigation.

The idea is that any one tract of land contains a number of irregularities in its topography — bumps and dips that can change the flow of irrigation water. The concept, then, is to apply water in different ways to suit the land's different shapes.

The irrigation deliveries could be triggered remotely, via a radio tower hooked up to the Internet. One such tower stands in a row of almond trees at the research orchard. A sensor attached to a tree measures its stress levels, determining the effectiveness of one irrigation method versus another.

After this summer, the professor should have enough data to start drawing conclusion, as long as there is water, Niederholzer said.

The extension is also testing a new, self-fertile root stock. Most commercial root stock varieties can't use pollen from the same source. Farmers usually plant two types of root stocks, and bees travel to and fro, pollinating one tree using the pollen from the other.

Bees are a substantial start-up costs for orchard farming, costing hundreds of dollars per acre, Niederholzer said.

With a self-fertile tree, the bees have to travel inches instead of feet to pollinate the crop. The end result is that the farmer needs less bees and therefore spends less money, Niederholzer said.

The orchard is testing other things as well. One block compares the cost of conventional versus organic farming.

There's a study trying to determine the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created from adding fertilizer.

Another study is producing results that questions the commonly held practice of pruning walnut orchards for five to eight years after planting. It turns out pruning might not be necessary after the first couple years, Niederholzer said.

In all, the research spreads across 16 blocks. There are 17 acres of walnut trees, three acres of olives, and the rest are almonds.

It's research that will continue to yield results for local farmers. As long as there is water.

CONTACT reporter Andrew Creasey at 749-4780 and on Twitter @AD_Creasey.

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