Greener pesticide use to be tested in Merced County

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation awarded the University of California Cooperative Extension in Merced County with $182,817 in grant money to pay for studies on pesticides used on almonds and pistachios, according to a press release.

To help find greener ways to tackle soil-borne pests, the release stated, the department announced late Wednesday that it will provide funding from its Pest Management Research Grants Program. The money is supposed to help California find ways to reduce its dependence on chemicals known as soil fumigants.

“All three of these grants are innovative approaches to develop methods of producing food that (is) less dependent upon fumigants,” Director Brian Leahy said in the release. “Yet they still provide the necessary certainty to growers to allow them to survive and remain in business."

Almond orchards are often fumigated before the trees are planted to prevent damage from soil-borne diseases or nematodes, which are microscopic worms. The grant will make it possible to examine whether healthy almond orchards can be grown using a reduced amount of fumigation or through planting almond varieties that resist nematode or disease damage, the release stated.

Almond kernels are the second-biggest farm commodity in Merced County, which produced more than $471 million worth in 2012, according to the latest numbers available from the county’s report on agriculture. The almond hulls were worth about $26 million the same year.

The yield of pistachio trees can be reduced by nematodes. The study aims to examine whether fumigation can be completely eliminated from sandy soils and still produce healthy pistachio trees unaffected by nematodes, the release said. It also looks at whether there are particular varieties of pistachios that resist nematode damage better than others.

Merced County produced about $35 million worth of pistachios in 2012.

The department also awarded $298,472 to the Camarillo-based California Strawberry Commission to research how to improve the effectiveness of a strawberry-growing method known as anaerobic soil disinfestation.

Last year, the department awarded nearly $1 million in research grants.