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'Torture Orchard' At UC Davis Stresses Trees To Find Which Ones Are Drought Tolerant

WINTERS (CBS13) — It's come to be known as a "torture orchard" - researchers stressing trees to determine which are drought tolerant and design varieties for commercial food production.

"When it comes to overhead irrigation, there's a lot of water on the plants - a lot of water on the roots - and this is going to encourage disease," said Thomas Gradziel, a plant breeder.

Gradziel goes with the flow when it comes to water and what it does to plants and trees.

"With drip irrigation with smaller trees, we're getting that water directly to the roots," Gradziel said.

He walked us through an almond orchard outside Winters part of a research facility for UC Davis. On the 80 acres they have 20 different varieties of trees and 30,000 seedling trees and they test those and pick the best ones based on production, quality and tolerance to adversity - things like drought and pests.

"Our goal in terms of breeding new varieties is a future variety that can produce consistently 2000 pounds per two acre feet of water," Gradziel said.

Researchers are using practices put into play by UC Davis professor Ken Shackel.

"My brother says I torture plants for a living," said Shackel.

Hence the nickname "torture orchard." The idea is to see how much stress they can take by measuring their so-called "blood pressure."

"What you're doing is you're having to watch the tree; it's in stress now, we need to irrigate. Versus, well, it's Monday. We irrigate on Mondays, trees don't know Mondays," said Shackel.

Shackel has been looking at data for over 20 years.

In some cases, it's been quite surprising at how smart those trees are and they can kind of avoid that stress by rooting deep into the wet soil.

Shackle hopes his water research spills over into other areas—like landscaping. 

"A lot of cities say you can only water every other day or something like that, and that completely ignores how the plants feel about this and it may be you can get away with watering once a week on some soils," said Shackel.

This week, Shackel is speaking to a group of growers in Chile about this practice.

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