This year’s Western Region CCA Crop Consultant of the Year, Keith Backman, has been advising farmers in the San Joaquin Valley since the mid-1970s on fertilizer and irrigation management and the wisdom of matching those nutrient and water applications to the needs of the crops. Today, in an environment of increased regulation and costs related to fertilizer inputs, that prudence has grown more and more important.
Backman went to work with Nat Dellavalle out of college in the 1970s and has been with Dellavalle Laboratory in one way or another ever since. Today, he splits his time in semi-retirement between traveling with his wife Gail and imparting his wisdom on plant nutrition and water analysis to a new generation of agronomists as part owner of Dellavalle Labs.
Jerome Pier, outgoing Chairman of the Western Region CCA announced Backman as the winner of the new CCA of the Year Award at this year’s Crop Consultant Conference in Visalia this past September. Pier said Backman sets the standard for the region’s 1,300 CCAs for his contributions to plant nutrition and soil science over his 40-year career and his contributions to the industry.
“He’s made a big impact on a lot of people in the Central Valley and on Central Valley ag for sure,” Pier said. “His understanding of nutrition in permanent crops is world class.”
Backman is known for having an advanced understanding about taking and interpreting soil tests, and making preplant and in-season recommendations for fertility and irrigation management that are well suited to crop needs and soil status while also being environmentally sound.
Career of Service
As a member of the Western Plant Health Association’s Soil Improvement Committee for more than 20 years, Backman helped write the chapters on irrigation management and nitrogen management for the revised editions of the Western Fertilizer Handbook. The latest edition was just released and has Backman’s expertise throughout.
He was also in on the ground floor of developing nitrogen management plans and was instrumental in drafting nitrogen budgeting and checkbook methods that have been adopted for nitrogen management plans by water quality coalitions.
“He basically authored these nitrogen management plans, and without those plans agriculture was going to get shut down by environmental activists,” Pier said. “This was the only way to show a good faith effort that we are doing something about it.”
Those principals are based on the relationship between nutrient and water management.
“Over the years I’ve come to realize that so many of our deficiencies are irrigation related,” Backman said. “Especially with nitrogen, you can’t have a good accurate nitrogen program unless you have an accurate irrigation program.”
Farmers and PCAs today have a much clearer understanding about the timing of fertilizer applications and rates at those particular times, he said.
Where growers might have done a single or split application of 150 pounds of N fertilizer a year, for instance, they now make multiple applications based on yield estimate, soil conditions, crop timing and soil and leaf analysis.
“This is where the CCA earns their money is helping a grower understand that,” Backman said. “Growers can’t guess anymore. They need proven solutions and so more and more they are relying on the diagnosis of a CCA.”
Humble Ag Roots
Raised on a small farm south of Yuba City, Backman was seventh out of eight children in an agricultural family. While getting a Master’s degree in pomology at UC Davis, Backman focused his studies on boron toxicity in orchard crops. This is a problem that became more of an issue as deep-rooted permanent crops went in up and down the Valley and water shortages made leaching out of those root zones more difficult.
He worked early on in his college career under Kay Uriu, a professor in the UC Davis pomology department in the 1970s, who did ground-breaking research on tree nutrition status and was known for being able to spot nutrition imbalances by looking into an orchard.
As a result, Backman said even today he “can’t help driving by an orchard and looking at it and thinking ‘what can I do to get it growing more efficiently?’”
In addition to his service for the industry, Backman has been a scout master in his community for more than 20 years and until recently was an active member of his church choir.
It is Backman’s dedication to his industry, community and exceptional dedication to training new agronomists that led to his nomination as CCA of the Year, Pier said.
“I was honored by the selection,” Backman said. “I appreciate the recognition; it’s nice to know what you have done for the past 45 years is valued and to be able to see the changes in the industry from some of the things I’ve introduced.”
Among the changes he has seen in recent decades: more accurate nitrogen and water applications; more accurate monitoring to take appropriate actions at the appropriate times; and the application of science in making those applications using plant science and physiology to guide those decisions.
This is the second year Western Region CCA presented an annual Crop Consultant of the Year award to recognize outstanding individuals who have advanced crop consulting throughout their careers. For information on nominating a CCA visit the Western Region CCA website at https://wrcca.org/cca-of-the-year.