The latest University of California Cooperative Extension Orchard Systems Advisor certainly knows the lay of the land in his new territory.
Luke Milliron, who’s based in Oroville and serves Butte, Glenn, and Tehama Counties, grew up in Chico and studied Crop Science at Butte College and California State University, Chico. While attending Chico State, he worked as a student assistant to Tree Crop Farm Advisor Bill Krueger, out of the Glenn County Cooperative Extension office.
Luke got his Master’s at University of California, Davis in the midst of the drought, a good time to study the measurement of almond tree water stress during dormancy.
He’s most recently been working as an Agronomy Technician at Dellavalle Laboratory, assisting growers with analytic crop nutrient management through soil and plant tissue sampling and irrigation management support in almond, walnut, grape, and processing tomato systems. You can drop him a line at [email protected] or 530-538-7201.
Q: How come you decided to stay so close to your childhood home?
A: After living for the last few years in Davis and Sacramento, it feels great to be home in the Northern Sacramento Valley. I really enjoyed working most recently with growers in Yolo and Solano Counties and found tremendous beauty in that area. However, I always feel that I am home when driving on Highway 99 or 70 in Butte County and looking out at the crop development in the fields and orchards I pass. Butte, Glenn, and Tehama Counties are a gorgeous part of the Central Valley, with tremendous soil and crop diversity. My wife and I also look forward to raising a family in a region that we found to be such a great place to grow up.
Q: Is your family in farming?
A: My family does not have a farming background, instead both of my parents worked for the Business Department at California State University, Chico. Discovering Agricultural Science while a student with Bruce Hicks at Butte Community College really connected me with this whole world that surrounded me growing up in Chico, and is such a huge part of the economy and life in the Northern Sacramento Valley. Although I found a very different career path than my parents or siblings, I feel I was drawn to the academic role of teaching and researching in agriculture because of the influence of my parents.
Q: What interests you about farming in general and nut growing in particular? Why?
A: Farming fascinates me because it covers so much of the landscape and yet is not well understood by much of society. In addition, farmers are some of the friendliest people and have great humility, operating in a business where a lot of factors are beyond their control. Farming is also fascinating because you contend with a whole new set of opportunities and challenges brought by each new season.
Nut growing is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. We are blessed in California’s Central Valley to be able to grow a number of crops that can’t be grown anywhere else in the United States and in only a few regions across the rest of the world. Nut crops, in particular, are complicated, with a high value that affords some increased crop management. The complexity of an orchard system that is affected next year by the actions you take now, together with a higher level of management that allows for monitoring, intervention, and innovation is a fantastic opportunity. The aesthetics of where you work also matters, and orchardists get to work in some of the most beautiful landscapes. Finally, any crop that provides shade while you work in the heat of a Central Valley summer is OK by me!
Q: Have you set any short-term goals as of yet? Any long-term goals?
A: In the short term I am working to meet with tree crop growers and beginning to assess their research interests. Although I grew up in the area, I grew up in the urban context and still have a lot of people to meet and lot of ground to cover and learn about. I really look forward to learning about the growing practices and history of local farmers and the areas in which they are most excited for innovation.
In the long term, I look forward to following the crops and the people who grow them. University of California research invests a lot of time partnering with growers on long-term trials that test new varieties, rootstocks, spacing, and management practices. I look forward to being part of those evaluations and extending the information we glean to the grower community. In my research efforts, l would like to integrate more cost/benefit analysis before growers make these long-term orchard investment choices.
Q: As you know, after years of rising prices, nut growers have seen some headwinds in recent years. What can you bring to the table to help growers succeed?
A: Nat Dellavalle, who co-founded and lent his name to the agricultural laboratory I previously worked for, centers his business on first looking out for the profitability of growers. I would like to bring that mentality, as well as the influence of parents who worked in a university business department, to my career with Cooperative Extension. In my experience, the best growers will often find a way to be profitable, even in years with low nut prices. They know where they can cut costs and where they need to invest to avoid harming the health of their perennial cropping systems. In my work, I want to vet practices both on their scientific and cost/ benefit merits, before communicating those findings to growers.
Q: Because it’s your area of expertise, please tell us what lessons growers should take away from the last drought, and what THEY should be thinking about as they prepare for the next one?
A: Drought is a tough challenge; it’s critical that growers start that fight by getting the basics right. Checking their irrigation system uniformity with the help of a local Resource Conservation District or another outfit is an important starting point. It’s critical to have a uniform and regularly maintained system. Once you have confidence in knowing how much water is being applied and that it’s being applied uniformly, you can use evapotranspiration to determine how long to irrigate.
It is critical to have soil- and plant-based techniques to help adjust the initial estimate of crop water need provided by the weather-based data (evapotranspiration). These tools are critical to drought strategies such as not beginning irrigation too early in the season, providing a continuous deficit irrigation across the season, or providing a shorter (regulated deficit irrigation) cutback during a particular crop stage, such as almond hull split.
Many of the orchards I have been in during the last drought were actually being over-irrigated. It is critical to supply irrigation based on the changing weather conditions, have a uniform system to meet the demand, and follow up with a soil- or plant-based technique such as a pressure chamber.