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Nickels Soil Lab Research Supports New Orchard Plantings

The Issue

Significant acres of California farmland are lost each year to residential and commercial development. The consequent economic and environmental impacts are of great concern to most Californians. To maintain rural environments and ag productivity, farms are relocating to the edges of the Central Valley, away from prime soils. Alternative farming practices must be developed to maintain production under these challenging conditions.

What Has ANR Done?

In an innovative cooperative arrangement between UC ANR and the private Leslie J. Nickels Trust, retired UC farm advisor Tom Aldrich established an experimental orchard, located in southern Colusa County, in 1973. This public/private collaboration, the Nickels Soil Lab (NSL), is unique within the ANR research system, using private farmland and financial resources to conduct University research for the betterment of local agriculture. As stipulated in Mr. Nickels' will, ANR manages 200 acres of orchard land to develop and investigate farming practices that allow profitable ag production on marginal soils.

UC campus-based faculty and farm advisors address a broad research agenda targeting five key areas: irrigation, soil modification or fertility, variety or root stock evaluation, pollination and orchard design. From these efforts a complete package of recommendations emerged, including drip irrigation, fertigation, the use of optimal varieties and rootstocks, and a hedgerow orchard design. Surprisingly, yields in the test orchards are nearly comparable to the best in the Central Valley, proving to local growers that high yields are attainable under these challenging conditions.

NSL also serves as a teaching facility where large research plots demonstrate the viability of newly developed orchard practices. Growers from throughout the Central Valley attend annual Nickels Field Days, where researchers report trial results and discuss ways to implement the new concepts.

The Payoff

Billion Dollar Boost to California's Economy

Some 250,000 acres of orchards have been planted in the Central Valley in the last two decades, representing $1.6 billion in additional agricultural production. By adopting techniques first developed for almonds and walnuts at NSL -- such as hedgerow planting, drip and micro-irrigation and minimal pruning -- growers are now producing profitably on the outlying, marginal land of the Central Valley.

Clientele Testimonial

“I don’t take chances on things. We probably wouldn’t be farming on the west side if it weren’t for the Nickels trials. Boy, what a valuable asset it has been.” -- Floyd Perry, a farmer since 1972 who works 6,000 acres in Northern California.


Supporting Unit: Colusa County

John Edstrom, farm advisor
Mike Murray, county director
UC Cooperative Extension, Colusa County
(530) 458-0570, jpedstrom@ucdavis.edu