Diener removes troublesome minerals from soil
By WES SANDER
Like farmers everywhere, John Diener wants the family business to thrive despite environmental challenges that always seem to get worse.
Having made strides in adopting techniques that control erosion, increase irrigation efficiency and reduce fuel use, Diener has most recently turned to an endeavor that could save San Joaquin Valley soils while opening new markets to valley farmers.
That endeavor is the extraction of minerals, which have built up in the soil to problem levels over the decades.
"We have a million-and-a-half acres that have a drainage issue that needs to be addressed," Diener said.
Like many valley farmers, Diener has had to fallow much of his land -- about a quarter of his 5,000 acres -- as federal water deliveries dried up this year.
So his efforts over the years -- involving techniques for erosion control, water efficiency and mineral mining, which can control soil salinity -- seem a perfect fit to modern circumstances, helping to make farmland management more sustainable while improving farmers' economic viability.
"Now a lot of people are implementing the things we've done," Diener said. "People are probably more aggressive out here about change."
His efficiency efforts are lauded by climate researchers and even organic farmers, despite the fact that he doesn't grow organically. Now that water supplies to the San Joaquin Valley have again become choked, Diener's efforts, in cooperation with the University of California and state and federal agencies, seem all the more visionary.
Underlying the soils on the valley's west side is a layer of impermeable clay that keeps water from percolating into the aquifer. That water deposits minerals near the surface as it evaporates, leaving farmers with an ever-worsening problem.
So Diener, with researchers from UC-Davis, USDA and the state Department of Water Resources, is perfecting a technique that can turn valley farmers into miners. It involves first growing salt-tolerant crops, like sugar beets, canola and mustard.
Once salinity has built up, Diener's system removes water from the ground, then extracts minerals such as selenium, nitrate and boron, which have viable markets.
Diener said that although there are well-established markets for these minerals, it's still too early to say what a farmer might get for what he extracts from his soil. He and the researchers are close to finishing development of the extraction process. Development of those particular markets will come later.
Diener's work has long been watched by other farmers, including Russ Lester, a producer of organic walnuts in the Sacramento Valley who has spent years making his farm carbon-neutral.
"John is one of the innovators out there doing some wonderful things in the conventional area," Lester said.
Diener's family has farmed the local land since early in the 20th century. In the 1980s, Diener planted almond trees where the family spread ascends the coastal hills. That soon led to erosion problems, with winter rains cutting rills down the orchards' flat, bare soil.
Diener controlled that problem by planting native grasses, which are largely self-sustaining in the valley climate.
Following that, he adapted a pivot water system to work efficiently, modifying its wheels so they wouldn't get stuck in the clay soil. He also adopted no-till techniques, which reduce tractor use and fuel costs.
Diener says these techniques have allowed him to maintain a lean labor crew that enjoys strong pay with medical and retirement benefits.
"The issue is, how do you pass the land on to the next generation in as good a shape as you received it?" Diener said.
Staff writer Wes Sander is based in Sacramento. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hometown: Five Points, Calif.
Education: Bachelor's degree in agricultural economics and business management, University of California-Davis
Quote: "The issue is, how do you pass the land on to the next generation in as good a shape as you received it?"