Posts Tagged: Jeff Mitchell
“Mike McRee has been extremely willing to share his experiences with others and has graciously hosted numerous public field days at his dairy farm over the years,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist and CASI founder.
The dairy producer, who milks about 2,000 cows at his farm west of Chowchilla, double crops his own dairy forage along with tomatoes and alfalfa crops on about 850 acres. After his pioneering efforts with strip-till – some of the very earliest in the entire San Joaquin Valley – McRee soon found that the conservation agriculture practice saved him time and money as he had anticipated, and yielded other important benefits for his farm as well.
McRee noticed improved water-holding capacity of his soil since working with strip-tillage, as well as increased consistency in the soil's ability to absorb water, mellower soil overall, and more consistent crop stands and yields overall.
Improved soil tilth, increased soil organic matter and earthworms give him consistent yields year to year without extreme highs or lows.
McRee's quest to improve the performance of his silage production systems began back in 2007.
He readily admits that he faced challenges early on.
He tried no-till wheat, but was limited in this effort by hard, compacted soils. Having the right equipment is a key to the whole endeavor, McRee points out.
He has worked with local NRCS partners and the EQIP program, which assists growers with implementation of practices to improve our soil, water and air resources.
Following a great deal of consultation with other growers and experimentation, he developed a very successful strip-tillage system for his silage corps. The change was spurred initially by his interest in reducing the number of times he had to drive a tractor through his fields to save fuel and labor.
He now does fall primary tillage using a Wilcox 7-shank subsoil ripper with a crumbler. Vertical tillage has replaced disc plowing to achieve a smooth seedbed without turning the soil over.
After winter forage is harvested, preparation for corn silage planting begins. McRee explains that he rips the soil down 13 to 14 inches and uses coulters to prepare the seedbed. After pre-irrigation, he uses the Dawn Pluribus strip-till row unit, a tool that preps an eight-inch band of soil for planting. Using GPS, he can run his tractor 6 to 7 mph for this pass.
“With three passes, I can do everything,” McRee said.
“Additionally, McRee has recently installed subsurface drip irrigation that utilizes dairy lagoon water for his silage crops,” said Priscilla Baker, NRCS soil conservationist in Madera. “This project is in partnership with the organization Sustainable Conservation.”
McRee received the award Oct. 13 at the annual meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Resource Conservation Districts held at the Wool Growers' Restaurant in Los Banos.
In 2005, the University of California, NRCS and the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center established the Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator Award as a means for providing greater visibility to conservation agriculture pioneers in California. The criteria for this award are demonstrated innovation and leadership in the development, refinement and use of conservation agriculture systems within the California crop production environment.
For more information about conservation agriculture systems, visit http://casi.ucanr.edu.
Healthy soil does much more than hold plants upright on the surface of the earth. It is a mix of mineral bits and old plant particles teeming with microbes to form a mysterious and complex web of life scientists are just beginning to understand.
While scientists use high technology to study heathy soil – painstakingly counting soil worms and bugs, sequencing the DNA of soil bacteria, for example – some farmers know intuitively whether the soil is healthy just by walking on it.
Scott Park is a first-generation Meridian, Calif., farmer. “When I step on a field and it feels like a road, something is wrong,” he said. “If it feels like a marshmallow or sponge, that's good.”
Park shared his farming experiences with 200 farmers, industry representatives, University of California Cooperative Extension scientists, Fresno State students, news media and others during a half-day UC workshop at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points.
“The last 31 years I've been on a mission of building soil,” Park said. “I discovered it by accident and I've made lots of mistakes. But yields trend upwards every year on every crop. Being sensitive to building soil, I'm making a lot of money. And if I'm doing something for the earth, all the better.”
Park said he adds 10 to 15 tons per acre of biomass to his farm every year. He's using less fertilizer, up to 20 percent less water, and even experimenting on the farm by growing a commercial crop with just four inputs: cover crops, water, seed and sun.
“We got high-yielding, good-quality crops,” Park said. “Nobody was more shocked than I am that I got a good crop.”
Researchers are now using the scientific method to figure out the root causes of these empirical observations.
“There's a lot going on in soil,” said Radomir Schmidt, a UC Davis soil microbiologist who spoke at the soil health field day.
A teaspoon of soil has a billion bacteria and six miles of fungal hyphae, the filaments that branch out through the soil from fungi, Schmidt said. The microbes' interaction with living plant roots, the larger pores left by decomposing vegetation and tunneling worms and insects create a system that confers resilience to unforeseen challenges – such as pest pressure, torrential rainfall and plant diseases.
The field day was held under a tent pitched adjacent to an 18-year research trial at the 320-acre facility. The trial compares four farming systems side by side:
- Conventional system, with annual soil tillage and no cover crops.
- Conservation agriculture, with no tilling whatsoever and annual winter cover crops.
- No-till without the cover crop.
- Conventional tilling with a cover crop.
“Take a look over my shoulder to see the difference,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and the study leader. “We've found the cover crops and no-till reduce water needs, cut dust, and lower costs. And there may be more benefits than we realized.”
For example, a graduate student counted the worms, bugs, beetles and other microfauna in soil samples from each of the treatments. There were double the amount in the no-till, cover crop plots compared to the conventional farming system.
UC Cooperative Extension specialist Sloan Rice found that cover crops promote water retention in the soil after rainfall. There is very little water evaporation from the soil surface and water transportation from the cover crop plants in the winter, so little water is lost. Cover crops also promote more water infiltration below three feet.
Healthy soil management also shows promise in confronting global climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil, rather than depleting it.
Manager of Sano Farms in Firebaugh, Jesse Sanchez, was a speaker at the field day. He wasn't surprised by the overflow crowd.
“Farmers are more and more curious. They see some of us using cover crops, and they want to learn more,” Sanchez said. “There has been a swell of interest. I have a tremendous number of visitors every year.”
For more information about soil building, see the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation website at http://casi.ucanr.edu.
Innovation is key to keeping California farmers globally competitive. On Friday, May 5, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Farm Bureau Federation, California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, UC Davis and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources will forge a formal agreement to better connect the state's farmers with each other and with science-based information sources to assure the sustainability of the state's agricultural systems. Representatives of the six organizations will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to form the California Farm Demonstration Network.
The scarcity of water, fossil fuel use, carbon emissions, groundwater quality, labor cost and availability, air quality and loss of soil fertility are some of the challenges to the long-term viability of farming in California. Soils and their sustained health play a major role in keeping California's agriculture viable for future generations.
“What we are striving to accomplish with the California Farm Demonstration Network is to create a means for farmers to learn, to discover and to innovate,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist, who is leading the effort with technical and funding assistance from MOU partners.
- Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture
- Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation
- Ron Tjeerdema, associate dean of UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
- Glenda Humiston, University of California vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources
- Karen Buhr, executive director of California Association of Resource Conservation Districts
- Carlos Suarez, state conservationist for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
WHEN: Friday, May 5
12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. – Demonstration of differences in soil function resulting from management practices.
1 p.m. to 2 p.m. – Network partners describe their respective roles.
WHERE: Dixon Ridge Farms, 5430 Putah Creek Road, Winters, CA
VISUALS: A rainfall simulator will spray water over trays of different soils to show how on-farm management practices help the soil hold together.
Network partners will sign the memorandum of understanding.
The statewide farm demonstration network builds upon and connects efforts across California including one created in Glenn County last year.
In Glenn County, the farmer-driven effort has provided the opportunity for local farmers to share innovative practices and hold honest discussions about opportunities and challenges related to these systems.
“The collaborative effort of the partners presents the opportunity to leverage resources based on local needs and increases the likelihood that innovative agricultural practices will be adopted sooner than they might have been without the networking opportunity,” said Betsy Karle, UC Cooperative Extension director in Glenn County.
With the California Farm Demonstration Network, the organizers hope to create more opportunities to connect local people, showcase existing farmer innovation, engage in new local demonstration evaluations of improved performance practices and systems, evaluate the demonstration practices, and share information with partners. They also hope to expand and connect other local farm-demonstration hubs throughout the state via educational events, video narratives and a web-based information portal.
How do you cut your water use by a third, cut your nitrogen use in half, maintain your tomato yield and improve your fruit quality?
“With patience, perseverance and by treating your soil like a living ecosystem — which it is,” says Jesse Sanchez.
Sanchez should know. He and Alan Sano have been experimenting with soil enhancements for 15 years on Sano Farms in Firebaugh. They believe they have hit upon a winning strategy — though their experiments continue.
Today, they grow 50-ton-per-acre tomatoes with half of the nitrogen (120 units) and a third less water than before. They also report fewer weeds and better tomato quality.
The soil organic matter (SOM) — the living portion of the soil that turns crop residue into minerals needed by growing plants — has gone from 0.5 percent to 3.0 percent, report Sano and Sanchez.
“The soil is like day and night,” says Sanchez. “You can dig it with your hands,” he says, cupping a handful to prove his point.
So how do you transition largely inert soil into the ecological powerhouse found on Sano Farms?
Cover crops, reduced equipment passes, and subsurface irrigation have been key, according to Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. These practices combine to feed and protect the soil microorganisms often ignored in agricultural systems. Mitchell has been coaching the Sano/Sanchez team for over 10 years, witnessing their progress and connecting them with like-minded farmers and organizations.
“Farmers sometimes worry that cover crops will compete with the cash crop for water and nutrients,” says Mitchell. “We're starting to see at Sano Farms — looking long term — that the tradeoffs might actually be favorable.”
Sanchez says he terminates the cover crop before the tomatoes are planted, leaving the dead residue to smother weeds and feed the soil microorganisms.
The SOM also builds the sponge that allows the farm to thrive on less water, says Zahangir Kabir, soil health specialist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“A one percent increase in SOM builds your soil's ability to hold water by 19,000 to 25,000 gallons per acre. Calculating conservatively, Sano Farms' fields hold 50,000 gallons of water more per acre than they did before," Kabir said.
You can see this in action at Sano farms. “When it rains here the water soaks into the field. It stays put,” says Sanchez. “It doesn't run off like some farms.”
Sanchez, who received a White House Champions of Change Award last summer, says he knows farmers resist change. “But we can't stop change,” he says. “It's all around us.”
And, if they (farmers) do change the way they work with their soil, says Sanchez, “they are going to like what they see. ”
Sanchez will be a featured speaker at the second annual Latino Farmers Conference on Nov. 15 at the Monterey Hyatt Regency. The event is free but registration is required. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/events/ca/newsroom/events/?eventid=584#584 .
USDA NRCS produced a three-minute video profile of Alan Sano and Jesse Sanchez at Sano Farms in Firebaugh. View it here:
The biggest challenge for an endive producer, said entrepreneur Rich Collins, is marketing a product unfamiliar to most Americans. On average, U.S. consumers eat four leaves of endive a year; in France per consumer consumption is about 8 pounds a year, and in Belgium double that. Collins spent this morning touring about 50 food bloggers who are in Sacramento for the International Food Bloggers Conference around his endive operation so their increased awareness of this specialty vegetable will translate to greater appreciation among their readers.
Collins was introduced to endive in 1978 while working as a dishwasher in a Sacramento restaurant. The owner said he paid $4 a pound for imported endive and challenged Collins to grow it in California. Collins went to Europe as a "horticultural vagabond," he said, to learn the ropes. Back in California, Collins began producing endive in 1982, and never stopped.
"It took 10 years to learn how to grow endive in California," Collins said. "It's not an easy crop to grow."
The primary pest concern is bacterial or fungal problems since the sprouts are forced in a warm, moist environment. Early on, Collins got help from Robert Kasmire, UC Cooperative Extension post harvest specialist at UC Davis. A portrait of Kasmire hangs prominently in the California Endive Farms facility in Rio Vista.
"He helped me out quite a bit," Collins said.
Today, the company he built supplies 50 percent of the U.S. endive market. The California Endive Farms ships its products weekly year-round to Trader Joes and Whole Foods markets.
For Collins, however, it's now time to retire. He sold California Endive Farms to the grandson of one of his production mentors in France, but he won't be leaving agriculture.
This week, Collins sat down with UC Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell to plan his retirement on a 200-acre farm he and his wife own near UC Davis. Mitchell is chair of the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center, which promotes the use soil care practices to improve carbon sequestration, reduce dust emissions, save water and increase yield in agricultural production systems. The practices can include no-till and minimum tillage farming, cover cropping, enhancing the diversity of above-ground species and underground soil biology, surface residue preservation, and compost applications.
Currently Collins grows 30 acres of asparagus and allows four young farmers to use space on the property to get started in agriculture.
"We now want to get in the realm of soil development," Collins said.