The farmers’ friend

Scientist Dani Lightle is the go-to gal for local orchardists

Dani Lightle joined the University of California Cooperative Extension in 2014.

Dani Lightle joined the University of California Cooperative Extension in 2014.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Orchards Farm Advisor Dani Lightle is a woman in demand.

That’s because she’s the University of California Cooperative Extension’s point person for orchardists in Glenn and Butte counties, and with tens of thousands of acreage planted with several crops, she not only gets a lot of questions from farmers, but a great variety as well.

The main commodities she deals with are walnuts, almonds and prunes, but both regions are also home to olive, pistachio, pecan and fruit orchards.

“Basically, if it grows on a tree, it comes my way,” said Lightle, referring to the calls she receives at her Orland office.

During a recent interview at a café in this farming community of about 7,500 residents, Lightle went into some of the history of the UCCE, which is overseen by the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR). She noted that it’s part of a national system of cooperatives throughout the nation that was established in 1914 through an act of Congress, the Smith-Lever Act.

The system’s purpose was to be a bridge between public universities and the general public; to bring the knowledge gained through academic research to those in the private sector in multiple areas of study, including agriculture. Generally, there is an extension program in every county, although some of the more sparsely populated counties may share a single one (there are 57 for California’s 58 counties). Lightle is one of the state’s 130 cooperative extension specialists, according to ANR.

While many folks may not be familiar with ANR, they likely are familiar with its 4-H program, as more than 250,000 California youth are members, or its Master Gardener program, which provides professional training to citizens interested in gaining gardening expertise. Afterward, the master gardeners volunteer their time working with the community, passing on knowledge in everything from pruning techniques to insect identification. The latter is right up Lightle’s alley, as she earned her doctorate in entomology from Oregon State University. Before that, the Ohio native did her undergraduate work in biology at a small liberal arts college in that state. She was hired for her advising position about a year and a half ago.

Lightle never knows what sorts of calls she’s going to get on a day-to-day basis from farmers, whether they will relate to ongoing issues or something out of the blue. On occasion, she’s encountered some surprising questions and situations. “Once it was, ‘A goat ate all the bottoms of my trees,’” Lightle said.

So, what sorts of issues are local farmers concerned with? When it comes to walnuts, the dominant crop in Butte County at 44,000 bearing acres, crown gall is a biggie. The disease is caused by a bacterium and results in rough bulging tissue on the roots and trunks that damages the internal structures that supply the trees with nutrients. Lightle can explain the proper ways to treat for crown gall. That’s the advising component of her position. She also shepherds info from local growers to the proper researchers at universities. Additionally, she conducts her own research and organizes educational programs.

One of the big issues this year for growers, she said, is the navel orangeworm. To nonfarmers that may not sound like a big deal, since there are few navel orange growers in the area. But that pest affects nut crops, too, and can be devastating to yields if not addressed through preventative techniques (removing the so-called “mummy nuts”—the nuts that stay on trees after harvest and become hosts for the insects) or the application of pesticides. Fortunately, Lightle and her colleagues at UCCE had detected the worms’ presence locally and got the word out early about the insect, whose larvae feed on the nut meats.

Climate change is another issue farmers have had to endure. Aside from drought, the warmer temperatures, which have cut into the amount of “chilling hours” trees need to come out of dormancy, can delay flowering, disrupting pollination, and result in a lower crop yield and quality. Last year was particularly strange, Lightle said, noting the extended blooming periods for prunes in particular. Poor pollination and fruit set was the outcome.

In other words, farmers have a new set of complications to deal with, although that’s a recurrent theme for them over the generations.

The orchards of choice in Glenn and Butte counties have gone through many phases, trends and challenges over the years. The regions used to be home to a lot more citrus, for example, but a devastating frost in the 1990s resulted in many orchardists pulling out those trees and planting other crops, especially nuts. The Glenn County Agriculture Commissioner’s Office is behind on publishing its annual crop report, but as of two years ago, 38,000 acres of the county’s entire 78,000 acres of fruit and nut crops were almonds. Lately, however, there appears to be a trend toward walnuts. That mirrors Butte County’s increasing walnut acreage.

Lightle said she sees a lot of potential in pistachios and pecans locally, but it’s difficult to predict what the next big crop will be. She’ll leave that up to the farmers.

“It’s constantly evolving and it’s very much a business decision,” she said.