Almonds and All Other Crops Borrow Water Via Transpiration

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Associate Editor

Editor’s note: We interviewed Allan Fulton, UC Cooperative Extension Irrigation and Water Resources Farm Advisor, Tehama County, on an important, yet overlooked, process of a plant’s water use in agriculture. We zeroed in on a major process all plants have called transpiration in which crops borrow water.

Allan Fulton
Allan Fulton, UC Cooperative Extension Irrigation and Water Resources Advisor,
Tehama County

California Ag Today (CAT): We hear in the media that our crops are using too much water. And while all plants need water to grow food, we also know that a big percentage of the water taken up by all plants actually transpires out of the plant, back into the atmosphere, to form clouds and precipitation, right?

Fulton: Yes, the water just returns to the hydrologic cycle.  Most of the crops we are distributing, whether within the US or globally, are actually very low in water content.

CAT: When we think about transpiration, the plants are actually borrowing the water. Isn’t that true?

Fulton: We get a lot of questions from the general public about why we irrigate our crops so much.

The truth is, plant transpiration is a necessary biological process. The water cools the tree so it stays healthy. The water exits the leaves through special cells called stomata. While they are open, stomata allow water to transpire and carbon dioxide to enter the plant for photosynthesis, making sugars and carbohydrates, which, in turn, are used to make the fruits and the nuts that we eat.

So if we don’t have an adequately watered plant that is allowed to transpire, the plant won’t get enough carbon dioxide. The plant will grow defective fruits, and nuts—smaller, shriveled, cracked, all the things that the typical consumer does not want to buy.

CAT: Now, when we are talking about transpiration, can we say  most of the water taken up by the plant ends up being transpired back to the environment for reuse? So the water transpired by the plant is definitely not being wasted?

Fulton: Definitely. Since we converted to pressurized systems, micro-sprinklers and mini-sprinklers, we have a lot more control over how much water we apply at any one time. We no longer measure water output in depths of acre-feet, or even 4-6 inches at a time anymore. Much like rainfall, we measure it in tenths of an inch, or 1 or 2 inches at most.

As a result, we use less water, so it doesn’t penetrate the soil very deeply, maybe only 1 or 2 feet each irrigation. We are very efficient with the water; but, we have to irrigate very frequently because we apply it in small doses, and we run our irrigation systems a lot. So,   we are definitely using systems that stretch the water supply, not waste it.

CAT: But again, the vast majority of the water that the tree takes up is transpired, right?

Fulton: Yes. Most of the time, at least 90% of the water we apply is taken up through the tree and transpired for photosynthesis to occur.

CAT: Does transpiration increase on a hot day?

Fulton: Yes, plus the plant looses a bit from surface evaporation  from the wet soil, but we try to control that with smaller wetting patterns and drip-confined wetting patterns.

When you think about it, the heat of the day occurs in the afternoon, and many systems don’t run because of energy costs.  There are incentives not to pump in the middle of the afternoon; but for those who do, try to confine the wetted area to limit evaporation. The hot hours of a day comprise about 4 hours of a 24-hour cycle, so a lot of irrigation occurs at night-time or in the early morning hours to lesson evaporative loss.

CAT: Growers are doing everything they can to conserve water. If the trees and vines are all transpiring most of the applied water, what is the problem with using water to grow food?

Fulton: I think the concept throughout the United States has always been to secure our food supply. That security has many benefits—economically and politically. In the end, we are trying to provide the general public with great quality, safe food, at the best price possible.

CAT: And nutritious food. We are growing the food people need more of.

Almond Growers Conserve Water

Almond Growers Conserve Water…Period!

By Laurie Greene, Editor, California Ag Today

At a recent drought forum, California Ag Today spoke with Mike Mason, an almond grower and partner with Supreme Almonds near Wasco, as well as  chairman of the Almond Board of California. Noting breakthroughs in the almond industry, Mason said, “Facts bear out that we use 33 percent less water today than we did 20 years ago for every pound of almonds grown. There’s no reason  not to expect a similar result over the next 20 years given the ongoing research and funding we do through the Almond Board. We will continue to become more and more efficient, not just with water use, but with fertilizer and everything else we do in farming as well,” said Mason.

“Keep in mind that almonds, like all flowering plants, transpire 95 percent of the water they take up,” said Mason. “Water moves through the vascular system of the plant and exits the stomata of the leaves. When the stomata open, pure water exits and carbon dioxide enters the leaves. The carbon is used in photosynthesis to make carbohydrates that enable the almond almond tree to produce almonds. It’s all part of the universal water cycle that enables life to exist on the earth!”

Though current public opinion on water use seems to focus on almonds primarily, Mason remains confident that the facts will speak for themselves. It is simply a matter of getting the information out there. Mason elaborated, “We’ve got to go back to education because there are so many ways of comparison, and it is pretty hard to refute some of the things people are saying out there. But I think, over time, as we get the facts out there, public perception will be different.”

Because almonds are proving to be profitable at the moment, other countries are starting to take notice and planting more almond orchards of their own. Currently, California accounts for about 80 percent of the world’s supply of almonds. Mason believes, in spite of increased international competition, California will remain a world leader. “I wouldn’t call it a threat;” he said, “it is more like an opportunity than anything else. I think California will continue to be the world’s supplier, but there are other areas around the world where almonds can be grown, and that’s perfectly fine,” said Mason.

American consumption of almonds has increased roughly 220% since 2005. As a result, almonds have become the most-consumed nut in America, after  surpassing that of peanuts. This explosive increase in demand has been the driving force for almond production expansion.

Now, almonds cover about one million acres in California. On maintaining this level of success, Mason commented, “Markets go up, and markets go down. There are all kinds of different factors that cause these fluctuations, from oversupply to environmental issues. We think we have a bright future with a healthy product. Time will tell,” he said.