Increasing Yields and Reducing Inputs

Almond Trees

In farming, we are always striving to produce two outcomes: Increasing yields while reducing input costs. Of course, that’s much easier said than done. A couple years ago, after presenting a budget to a farmer, I received a common response: “Rich, It’s not always what you make, but what you save that matters…” Well, that only makes sense if you have already maximized your production. Let’s dive a little deeper into that math.

Increasing Yields

Let’s say a farmer makes a 2000 pound almond crop. At an arbitrary price of $250 per pound our gross yield is $5000 per acre. That’s simple math. Now let’s look at two different scenarios:  Farmer Bill spent $1000 per acre to get that yield. Farmer Bob spent $1200 per acre to produce his nuts. Both farmed about the same with their inputs and timing. Obviously, Farmer Bill made $200 per acre more profit. What if they can increase their yields to 2500, 3000 or even 4000 pounds per acre? If both farmers are at max capacity of 4000 pounds per acre and Farmer Bill spends $200 more per acre than Farmer Bob it is definitely imperative that he find a way to save $200. But only if he can stay at 4000 pounds.

Solid Postharvest Program

Now let’s change the playing field. What if spending a little more can dramatically improve yields?

  • Farmer Bill goes into 2020 with a solid postharvest program in 2019 calculated off July tissue tests to see where he was short. He times his applications to make sure his calcium (Ca) inputs aren’t over applied and followed too closely with phosphorus (P) inputs. The early focus is on soluble applications of Ca to feed the trees and ionic adsorption to actually offset sodium, not just help with water penetration. Plant ready P gets applied at rates a plant can actually take up and not lock up extra free lime or insoluble calcium over winter. Sodium leaching fractions are improved. He sprays his insufficient minor nutrients upstairs with properly buffered applications adding a shot of P for energy. K (potassium) can be added to assist in moving carbohydrates to the roots for winter storage. Studies have shown growers realizing as much as a 7:1 improvement over a ground application of iron, for instance. Compost and any other major soil amendments are applied after the trees have been fed. Biology and organic matter increase over winter as he incorporates them into his soil. A cover crop is planted to greatly increase green manure and organic matter. Next spring, the cover crop is mowed and weed control is greatly enhanced. Water penetration and retention is improved, soil nitrogen (N) assimilation is increased, soil carbon is increased and pest pressure lightens. That pest control budget can be   Extra organic matter in the soil chelates more nutrient inputs and keeps them in the root zone with deeper aerobic activity. Healthier plants secrete more root exudates, soil biology improves and flourishes. Nutrient assimilation increases again. Yield goes up. Let’s say it’s only a 10 percent improvement per year for three years. Farmer A spent an extra $150 per acre in calculated inputs and $100 per acre in extra labor. A 10 percent improvement gets him to 2200 pounds in 2020, 2420 pounds in 2021, and 2662 pounds in 2022. At the same price of $2.50 per pound he grossed $18,205 per acre. His expenses went up a bit to $3750 over Farmer B for the three years. His net return was $14,455.
  • Farmer Bob does the exact same thing he has always done expecting the same yields he has always realized. (Because Albert Einstein warned us, “Doing the exact same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes is the definition of insanity”, we should avoid that thought process) He spends $1200 per acre every year and nets $15,000. His inputs were still $3600 so he netted $11,400.

That’s an extra $3000 per acre over the three years. However, I don’t consult for any one acre farmers. On a small, 40 acre farm like mine that’s an extra $120,000 in three years. My clients with 1000 acres or 5,000 acres ramps things up to $3,000,000 and $15,000,000 respectively. I don’t know about you but to me, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

There’s No Guarantee

Here’s the rub: No one can actually guarantee you a specific year over year increase in yields. Mother Nature throws us those curve balls we spoke about in a previous article, the state can reduce our water AGAIN, pest pressure can ramp up in a crazy cool, wet spring, and markets can fall. We get it. Manure happens. However, just doing the same thing over and over again will almost always average out to the same yields we’ve always seen. Can we improve yields by 10 percent by doing things differently and more deliberately over the course of a few years, absolutely. Healthier trees may produce more yields. Healthier trees will definitely receive less pest pressure according to a conversation I had with a great entomologist, Dr. Joel Siegel. The benefits of increasing soil biology and organic matter may have much more significant and lasting soil health increases. As water gets more expensive and less available, increasing the soils holding capacity and flocculation will be a huge benefit. That water savings could be the biggest of all in California. Maybe 10 percent is even a low expectation.

It’s important to note, the human eye can’t see a 10 percent difference in an orchard hanging in the trees. But that same human’s eye can definitely see a fatter wallet when his yields go up! Pay yourself for your efforts by being smart. We’ve heard the old adage of “work smarter not harder”. As hard as farmers work, we have to be focused on that motto. Saving more money can be a great benefit to increasing profitability on a farm. But maximizing yield every year will put much more money in your pocket over the course of an orchard’s lifetime. We plant a finite resource. Make sure you’re maximizing it.