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Farmers See Chippers as an Option to Burning E-mail
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Wednesday, 09 November 2005
Farmers See Chippers as an Option to Burning


The Modesto Bee (Modesto, California)

By John Holland

Farmers, faced with a ban on burning orchard prunings, can pay people like Bert Walters to shred the stuff instead.

The service typically costs $30 to $35 an acre, said Walters, who expects his Turlock-based business to grow as burning is phased out by 2010.

But it's an investment farmers will get back quickly, he said, because the shredding machines leave a mulch that enriches the soil.

"It will keep working for you year after year after year," Walters told more than 200 people at a demonstration Thursday in a walnut orchard north of Modesto.

The event featured nearly a dozen types of shredding and chipping machines that dealers hope to sell to farmers or to companies that do this work. It was sponsored by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, based in Davis, and the University of California Cooperative Extension.

The burning ban took effect in June for some of the Northern San Joaquin Valley's major crops, including peaches, apricots, cherries and nursery plants. Growers of almonds, walnuts, grapes and a few other crops can burn until 2010.

The ban is aimed at reducing air pollution, especially tiny particles that can lodge deep in people's lungs and worsen asthma and other conditions.

"We all have to breathe," said James Goddard, a Chico-based representative for Rear's Manufacturing Co., which showed off a shredder it makes.

The machines on display ranged from a $10,000 chipper towed by a pickup to a $275,000 rig the size of a fire engine.

One at a time, they rumbled between rows of newly pruned trees, loud enough to drown out any conversation about their merits. The farmers, many of whom have long burned prunings in fall and winter, followed on foot and examined the fresh mulch.

The chips and shreds ranged from hairlike material to twigs 2 inches long.

Experts said that in almond and walnut orchards, the pieces need to be small enough to decompose in less than a year. Otherwise, they can get mixed up with the next crop of nuts when they are shaken to the ground in late summer and fall.

Neatness affects the cost Goddard said custom shredding can cost as little as $15 an acre with young trees or as much as $100 an acre in an old orchard that had gone years without pruning.

Walters said the cost also depends on how well the landowner stacks the pruned branches between the rows of trees.

Joe Dickens, a third-generation grower of peaches, almonds and walnuts near Empire, said the cost of chipping could go down as more and more companies enter the market.

He added that burning is not an easy practice, as the branches have to be swept into piles and burn permits are becoming hard to get.

Dickens said he likes the idea of returning organic matter from chipped branches to the soil.

"This is like putting humus in your flower bed at home," he said. "The more you can fluff up your ground, the better your trees will grow."

C.D. Boone of JackRabbit Inc., a Ripon company that makes orchard equipment, brought a chipper than can put the pieces back on the ground or in a trailer. He said the soil can handle only so much mulch, and the surplus chips should be hauled to wood-burning power plants, such as the one near Chinese Camp.

Walters said mulching adds nutrients to the soil and helps make it porous, allowing efficient use of water. He said the enriched soil in turn draws earthworms, which improve it further by digesting woody material and creating tiny tunnels.

Walters said he sees plenty of opportunity ahead as the age-old practice of burning prunings flickers out.

"The demand has been great," he said. "We're running four machines now and hope to keep them busy."

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