Employee Q&A: Bob Curtis, Director of Agricultural Affairs

Posted July 31st, 2018

In our ABC Q&A series, we bring you brief interviews with some of the minds driving innovation at the Almond Board of California. We speak to a wide variety of folks who work here at the Almond Board, exploring topics from research, to conservation, to favorite almond recipes.

Today we are featuring an interview with Bob Curtis, who is retiring from his position as Director of Agricultural Affairs for the Almond Board of California (ABC) this month. From leading groundbreaking research to serving as a public spokesman for the almond community, Bob’s efforts have been key to adoption of responsible production practices. Read on for more about his tenure here are ABC.

What first interested you in joining the Almond Board?

My work in almonds began in 1973, while I was still in college studying entomology. I was the first graduate student funded by the Almond Board of California to conduct production research  and I worked on navel orangeworm management. After earning my master’s degree, I joined ABC on a full-time basis to manage its production research program.

What has been your day-to-day role at the Almond Board? How has that changed over the years?

Over the past 45 years my role has changed drastically, and my career has had some twists and turns. After several years in almonds, I went to work in the strawberry industry in 1988 and then transitioned to Campbell Soup Company in 1991. In 2006, I decided it was time to come back home to the almonds. This is a very proactive industry in dealing with issues, allowing me to manage the research program and then work with colleagues to see those findings applied in the field.

Throughout my career at ABC I have worked on pest management, bee health, irrigation efficiency and drought, and more like improved, environmentally responsible horticultural practices, collaborating closely with university and government researchers, and farmers in the field, to determine and define responsible almond farming and production practices.

What accomplishments from your time at the Almond Board are you most proud of?

In partnership with Almond Board-funded researchers, I helped develop a robust integrated pest management (IPM) program for navel orangeworm (NOW), which included a foundation of orchard sanitation to protect the developing crop and eliminate pest habitats.

This approach involves removing and destroying NOW’s overwintering hiding places — mummy nuts — from orchards by shaking nuts that remained after harvest from the trees and mowing them up. Farmers’ adoption of IPM and winter sanitation practices has significantly reduced the level of damage from NOW  in California almonds, from 8.8% in 1978 to around 1% today!

In fact, government agencies, including the California Department of Pesticide Regulation IPM Innovator Program and U.S. EPA, have awarded and recognized the Almond Board for this approach, which has made me very proud.

What was your favorite part of the job?

Amidst research project development, media interview requests, committee meetings, and maintaining relationships with multiple organizations, my favorite days were those spent in the orchard with farmers and researchers. I really have enjoyed learning how farmers run their operations, and I am especially thrilled when I see research conducted in the orchard adopted and implemented on a wider scale.

What is the most exciting part of your job from the recent past?

An exciting and important pillar of my work at ABC has been the area of honey bee health. Honey bees are essential to pollinating almonds so we must make sure almond orchards are a safe place for them.

My team and I have partnered with key groups such as beekeeper associations, the University of California Cooperative Extension, and organizations like Project Apis m. and the Honey Bee Health Coalition, to work to ensure farmers consider pollinator wellbeing both during bloom and throughout the year, as well as make sure they support beekeepers directly.

Because of this work and these partnerships, almonds were the first commodities that developed crop-specific principles for protecting honey bees, and several other groups across the nation have followed our lead. To ensure bee safety in balance with protecting the crop, we developed the Honey Bee Best Management Practices for California Almonds which include guidance on bee-safe bloom time pest management and explains the benefits of planting bee pastures in or around orchards to add diversity to the diets of honey bees.

What has been one of your biggest challenges?

California’s persistent water woes have been extremely challenging, so a key objective of mine has been increasing almond farmers’ water use efficiency. Doing so has involved partnership with specialists in ag research and education, environmental policy-making, and regulatory agencies.

Through the research supported by the Almond Board, and changes implemented by farmers, we have seen improvements in water management techniques like adoption of microirrigation and more precise water scheduling, in concert with advanced horticultural practices. Thanks to these changes, we’ve reduced the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds by 33% over the past 20 years. What’s more, the adoption of these practices has led to a doubling of almond yields in the last two decades!

What advice would you like to give to the California almond community?

We are a significant piece of California agriculture, and it's important for us to be good stewards in that leadership role. There are challenges are on the horizon but I believe that with the resources, tools, and overall enthusiasm, the almond community is well suited to take on those challenges and move the industry, and agriculture, forward.

What’s your plan after retirement?

Retiring from ABC will be a big step for me. I plan to remain involved in some key areas, but am looking forward to more time with my family and grandchildren.

I have also started on a new challenge, training my two Australian shepherds for agility. This sport requires trainers to direct their dogs through an obstacle course with tunnels, tires and seesaws. You know what they say about herding dogs -- they need a job to be happy.

Bob Curtis Dogs.png
Brothers Oski on left and Joey on right

 

What’s your favorite way to eat almonds?

Dry roasted and flavored snack almonds.

Check out some media coverage that has featured Bob’s expertise over the years!