Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

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Newly minted UC fire scientist Kate Wilkin moves into fire country

Kate Wilkin inspects a ponderosa pine on her property with an old fire scar, undeniable evidence that fire has swept through her neighborhood in the past.

Fire scientist Kate Wilkin was on the job just a few weeks when ferocious winds whipped up the Northern California firestorm of 2017. The national media focused on Napa and Sonoma counties, where the deadly Tubbs fire became the most destructive wildfire in California history, while devastating fires also broke out in Butte, Nevada, Yuba and other counties.

It was crunch time for Wilkin, who stepped in as the new forestry, fire science and natural resources advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Sutter, Yuba, Nevada and Butte counties that fall. Four lives and 200 homes were lost in her new work community. Wilkin will now host workshops to help families and businesses recover from the firestorm and rebuild in a way that is more resilient to fire. Fire resiliency will start at her own home.

The Wilkin-Johnston home is at the top of a rise dotted with cedars, ponderosa pines and black oaks. The dying plants in the foreground are Himalayan blackberry bushes that were treated with glyphosate (RoundUp) to remove them. The invasive weed forms a continuous understory that climbs into tree canopies and can carry fire with it. Wilkin removed one blackberry stem from a cedar tree that was more than 30 feet long.

From the Bay Area to the small town of Grass Valley

Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston moved into their first home, a ranch-style rambler atop a hill in Grass Valley, on Sept. 15, three days before Wilkin reported to work in the Sutter-Yuba County UC Cooperative Extension office in Yuba City.

The couple moved from a small apartment in Berkeley, where Wilkin was conducting research as a post-doc in the lab of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher and UC Berkeley fire science professor Scott Stephens. The move from a hyper-urban Bay Area city to a small hamlet in the hills wasn't too much of shock to their systems. Johnston was raised on a farm with chickens and goats. Wilkin grew up in the rural Appalachia community of Abingdon, Va. After completing her bachelor's degree at the College of William and Mary, an internship with the Nature Conservancy in Kissimmee, Fla., introduced Wilkin to fire science.

“In the Disney Wilderness Preserve, the landscape would burn then flood every year,” Wilkin said. “I became fascinated with how these disturbances catalyzed diversity.”

What better place to continue a fire education than California?

Wilkin enrolled at CalPoly, San Luis Obispo, earning a master's degree in biology. She spent the next three years in Yosemite National Park, working with a team of scientists to understand the impacts of packhorse grazing in mountain meadows.

“We found that the current policies led to meadow degradation,” Wilkin said. Yosemite then changed its policy to reduce the amount of horse grazing on these tender, sensitive mountain resources.

Kate Wilkin and her husband Josiah Johnston in front of their Grass Valley home.

In 2011, Wilkin started work on her doctorate at UC Berkeley, where she studied the relationship between fire, forest diversity and water. Wilkin signed up for the pilot Graduate Students in Extension program at Berkeley, launched in 2014 to train and recruit graduate students for careers in research and outreach.

“The … internship gave me an amazing set of professional skills that I could practice, including media relations, public speaking to different audiences, and conference organizing and facilitating,” Wilkin told Science Magazine for an article about the innovative program. “Many of my colleagues and I see environmental problems and want to do applied research because we want to help find solutions.”

The railing and both sides of the siding on the deck were covered in wooden lattice by the previous homeowners. Wilkin and Johnston found a squirrel cache between the layers of lattice, with acorns, pinecones, needles and other dry plant debris. “It was the perfect place to start a fire,” Wilkin said.

Beginning at home

With full knowledge of the dangers of living in fire-prone areas, Wilkin and Johnston purchased a home close to the outdoor amenities they adore – hiking, backpacking and skiing.

“Tahoe is just an hour away,” Wilkin said. “I love the view from the house and the wooded setting. But we live in an area CalFire has designated as very high fire danger.”

As a fire scientist, Wilkin was well equipped to make changes to the home and landscape to minimize the risk.

“We moved in during peak fire season,” Wilkin said. “We didn't hang artwork. My priority was to make the home and deck more fire resistant. We put in one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents, caulked around doors and windows, blew leaves off the roof and deck, removed lattice wrapping the deck and cleaned the gutters. Then we created defensible space starting close to the house and working our way outward."

The couple labored about 200 hours and spent about $800 in the first six weeks buying and renting tools, including a chipper, saw and a truck to haul away tinder-dry lattice, foliage and pine needles. With the most critical fireproofing completed, the couple is now tallying the work that should be done to further enhance the fire safety of their home.

“We probably need another $6,000 to $7,000 of work,” Wilkin said.

To reduce large, hot embers from drifting into the basement and starting a fire in the home, Wilkin and Johnston installed one-eighth-inch mesh over the vents. Before next fire season, they will upgrade to vents that close during fires.

When the North Winds blow

Wilkin recalled the terrifying time about a month after moving into their new home when howling winds whipped around the house and fires were breaking out across Northern California.

“The North Winds are haunting,” she said. “I hadn't felt wind like that since I lived in Florida and experienced hurricanes.”

Wilkin and Johnston were fortunate. The closest fire to their home was the McCourtney Fire, which burned 76 acres in Grass Valley. The wildfire stayed two miles away.

A thick hedge of camellias borders the side of the home. Although ideally homes should have a five-foot zone immediately surrounding the house clear of burnable objects and plants, she didn’t have the heart to pull them all out when they were full of flower buds, but removed them after they bloomed.
 
Complex features on the roof – such as skylights, solar panels and a valley that can capture debris – require frequent maintenance to keep the roof fire safe. Johnston tacked down loose flashing on the roof and blew leaves off the roof and out of the gutters.
 
The previous homeowners installed a shrub-lined wood fence that went under the deck and attached to the house. “It was a perfect way for a fire to wick into the house,” Wilkin said. The couple removed the shrubs and fence slats and plan to remove the posts as well.
Posted on Tuesday, January 16, 2018 at 8:40 AM

UCCE works with CDFA to help Hmong farmers conserve water and reduce emissions

California farmers Fong Tchieng and Vang C. Thao have a lot in common. They both have farming operations in the Central Valley. They both belong to the state's vibrant – and growing – Hmong farming community. And most importantly, they have both partnered with state agencies to save water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Funded through California's Cap-and-Trade Program and administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program, or SWEEP, has helped both these growers conserve water and reduce emissions by installing water and energy saving technologies.

Both Mr. Tchieng and Mr. Thao have used SWEEP dollars to invest in technologies like energy efficient pumps, drip irrigation systems and flow meters. According to the growers, these investments have helped them save water and reduce energy costs.

“This is a big upgrade compared to what we had,” said Kong Thao, who helps his father run their 34-acre farm in Fresno, Calif. “With the water system that we have now, we're finally at a point where we can relax a little and be able to do this for many years to come.”

Like other growers, California Hmong farmers have also struggled with the prolonged effects of the State's historic drought. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), 52 separate operations said the drought had affected their farm.  The survey also found that 22 percent of growers said their wells had dried up, and 51 percent reported a decreased water flow.

But unlike larger growers, many Hmong farmers do not always have the resources or necessary information to get help. To help bridge this gap, CDFA has partnered with UCCE to assist farmers in the SWEEP application process.

“California's Hmong community plays an integral role in this state's agricultural bounty,” said CDFA Secretary Karen Ross. “We need to continue working with our partners to make sure that SWEEP dollars are available for all those who qualify, regardless of their size or resources.”

UCCE advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard (right) demonstrates how to evaluate soil moisture with a soil sampler. In the center is UCCE Hmong ag assistant Michael Yang.

Since its inception in 2014, SWEEP has extended funding to 587 projects, totaling more than $62 million.  To learn more about SWEEP, please visit: https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/sweep/.  You can also click here to see more videos on additional SWEEP awardees.

The article and video are from the CDFA Planting Seeds Bloghttps://plantingseedsblog.cdfa.ca.gov/wordpress/?p=14436.

Posted on Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 8:03 AM

Trends we're watching in 2018: experts weigh in on water, GM, science communication and more

As we settle into 2018, it's natural to wonder what the New Year may bring. There have been dozens of "trend pieces" discussing what's in store. In this wrap, we consider possible 2018 trends in water, the GM debate, science communication, and food and nutrition.

Water

After one of the driest Decembers on record, many Californians continue to worry about water supply. I turned to UC ANR water expert Faith Kearns. Faith is a scientist and communicator at the California Institute for Water Resources, a UC ANR-based "think-tank" that integrates California's research, extension, and education programs to develop research-based solutions to water resource challenges. Faith writes about water issues for a number of publications, including UC's Confluence blog. She was recently

 quoted in a Rolling Stone article about California's "climate emergency," penned by meteorologist/writer Eric Holthaus

Faith told me this:

"Water quantity and human use tend to be the dominant lenses that we use to talk about water in California, but they're not the only thing we need to be paying attention to. For example, water quality issues loom equally as large, and are of course related. But, even beyond that, there are also many non-use oriented ways that water impacts our lives - through recreation, aesthetics, and culture, just to name a few. A trend that I hope to see in 2018 is a broadening of the conversation on water, and an expansion of the kinds of knowledge that are brought to bear on water issues."

Editor's note: The quality of American drinking water continues to be a point of local and national concern; it will undoubtedly be an important topic in the 2018 midterm elections in certain congressional districts. Learn more about this vital public health and social justice issue by visiting the National Drinking Water Alliance website (NDWA). NDWA is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and coordinated by UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute.

The debate over genetically modified food: Entering a new era?

UC Davis associate professor and plant pathologist Neil McRoberts - who was recently named co-leader of UC ANR's Strategic Initiative in Sustainable Food Systems - shared his ideas about where we might be headed in terms of framing the GM discussion.

"...The GM debate is entering a new era with the growing use of gene editing - CRSPR-Cas9technology. Interestingly, this time around the ethics and socio-economics debate seems to be keeping pace with the science, as witnessed by the latest issue of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, which focuses on gene drive technologies and their uses. The special issue grew out of a workshop hosted at NCSU last year. The use of CRSPR has re-opened debates about how genetic modification should be regulated and labeled."

Editor's note: You can learn more about Neil's work here. He recently wrote a guest blog post for UC Food Observer about the importance of cash crops to smallholder farmers in Uganda and Malaysia. For more about the GM debate, read the text of Mark Lynas' speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, in which he tries to "map out the contours of a potential peace treaty" between GM proponents and the technology's opponents. h/t Nathanael Johnson.

Will 2018 usher in an era of more civil communication around science-based topics?

*It depends on us.

Across the board, our public discourse took a dive in 2017 ... and that's a shame. Here's to a New Year ... and resolving to do a better job at communicating with clarity, integrity and with less judgment. The advancement of science (and perhaps the preservation of our sanity) depend upon it.

I loved this piece by Tamar Haspel, which recently appeared in the Washington Post and specifically addresses science communication and agriculture/food issues. Shorter: If we want to persuade people, we have to be respectful. She writes:

“Rudeness can increase polarization and entrench disagreements even further. Nasty begets nasty; it's regression toward the mean ..."

As both a scientist and a communicator, UC ANR's Faith Kearns also informed my thinking on where the communications trend line ought to go for 2018, telling me that:

"One of the bigger challenges, and opportunities, facing the science communication community is how to really push ourselves to better incorporate more perspectives from the social sciences and humanities. This is particularly true on issues like food, agriculture, and the environment where so much of what is truly challenging is related to human behavior, decision-making, and psychology. It's not just a matter of using research on science communication to inform practice, but also of responsibly integrating different forms of knowledge into communication efforts." 

Food and nutrition trends

There are an overwhelming number of food trend pieces out right now. The Hartman Group is a good account to follow to stay apprised of food trends throughout the year. Their Year in Review blog post is definitely worth a read. It identifies some trends from last year that will likely carry forward, including consumer demands for transparency, "conscious" consumerism, customized health and wellness, and the ways in which snacking is disrupting food culture. Bonus: you can access some of Hartman's industry reports via links included in the blog post.

For a largely culinary perspective of 2018 trends, check out the BBC's Good Food piece. Nationally-known dietitian Christy Brissette has written an interesting piece about nutrition trends (think algae, Stevia, chicory root fiber and eating for "Diabetes 3" - aka Alzheimer's).

And if you're having trouble keeping that New Year's resolution to exercise more, consider reading this piece, which reports on a study indicating that exercise alters our microbiome - which could improve our health and metabolism. Gretchen Reynolds for the New York Times.

Have a great week!

This article was first published in the UC Food Observer blog.

Posted on Tuesday, January 9, 2018 at 8:27 AM

San Joaquin County gardeners boost business with UC Cooperative Extension Green Gardener qualification

For a healthier family and environment, San Joaquin County homeowners can select a UC-qualified Green Gardener to take care of their lawns and landscapes.

Green Gardeners are landscape professionals who are trained and tested on up-to-date, environmentally friendly, science-based landscape practices.

“We're improving the knowledge and skill sets of workers who manage an enormous amount of urban acreage,” said Karrie Reid, the UC Cooperative Extension horticulture advisor in San Joaquin County. “We're helping them understand that they have the power to effect change in water conservation, quality of storm water runoff, and the amount of pesticides that are in the environment.”

UCCE advisor Karrie Reid (center) with Green Gardener training participants in San Joaquin County.

To become qualified as a Green Gardener, participants attend classes eight weeknight evenings and two Saturday mornings. The first module addresses the importance of healthy soil for healthy landscapes. UC Cooperative Extension scientists provide training on soil building, pest control and green waste management. The second module focuses on mastering efficient irrigation and conducting an irrigation audit. The final sessions focus on plants in the California landscape, including turfgrass, trees and shrubs.

Because the Green Gardener program is partially funded by a dumping fee paid by residents to the county landfill, green waste management is a key component of the program.

“We have to reduce our green waste,” Reid said. “Our urban soils are in need of organic matter. By building soil with green waste, we are solving two problems that inhibit our urban landscapes' sustainability.”

Beginning with Module 1, the Green Gardener qualification program is being held for the fifth time Jan. 16 to March 12, 2018. The registration deadline is Jan. 12.

On the first day of an earlier session, a landscaper wondered aloud if the $90 fee and, particularly, the time commitment, would be worth it. “Well, I know the answer is that it was worth it,” he said.

Qualified 'Green Gardeners' may use this logo in advertising.
In addition to all the knowledge gained, after passing the class, the participants can place the Green Gardener logo on their advertisements and be added to the online list of qualified UCCE Green Gardeners.

One Green Gardener, Jacob Wilson, wrote to Reid about a visit to a customer's property after a four-week break and found the lawn was significantly greener.

“I asked the customer if she had her sprinklers repaired,” Wilson said. “She said, ‘No, my sister adjusted the water schedule to two or three times during the night with shorter watering duration each time instead of watering once; like you said.'”

As his customer made her way back to the house, Wilson said he was feeling more like a professional.

Home gardeners aren't the only ones who can take advantage of the program. Reid has reached out to landscape professionals working in the county parks department and school districts. There are landscapers who tend apartment complex landscapes, commercial building landscapes, street medians and highway rights-of-way.

“I successfully pitched the program to the Sherriff's Department for their grounds landscape personnel,” Reid said.

For more information, visit the Green Gardener of San Joaquin County website at http://ucanr.edu/sites/GreenGardener.

Green Gardener training participants conduct a sprinkler test.
Posted on Monday, January 8, 2018 at 8:30 AM

No joke: The reality of the starving student and what UC is doing to help

As we celebrate the winter holiday season with its many joyful occasions, it's sobering to think how many people are in need of nutritious food. Millions of people are at risk of going hungry, says Feeding America. And according to groundbreaking studies by the University of California, we now know that a large number of college students are among the hungry.

A significant problem, “starving students” are not a lighthearted joke: students are going hungry and sometimes homeless, too. Food and housing insecurity among college students threatens their health, as well as their academic achievements.

Gauging college student food insecurity

The University of California began examining the issue of student food insecurity in 2015 with the Student Food Access and Security Surveys funded by President Napolitano as part of the UC Global Food Initiative. The resulting Student Food Access and Security Study was authored by the UC ANR Nutrition Policy Institute's Lorrene Ritchie and Suzanna Martinez and UC Santa Barbara's Katie Maynard.

The Student Food Access and Security Study examined the results of two surveys administered online in spring 2015 to a random sample of more than 66,000 students across all 10 UC campuses. Fourteen percent of the students -- 8,932 undergraduate and graduate students in all -- responded.

Nineteen percent of the students responding to the survey had “very low” food security, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as experiencing reduced food intake at times due to limited resources. An additional 23 percent of survey respondents had “low” food security, which the USDA defines as reduced quality, variety or desirability of diet, with little or no indication of reduced food intake.

Added together, an alarming 42 percent of the students surveyed were food insecure.

Communicating best practices and lessons learned

Soon after the Student Food Access and Security Survey results were published, partners of the UC Global Food Initiative throughout the UC system began developing the Student Food Access and Security toolkit.

The toolkit compiles best practices that have evolved at UC campuses as the university advanced efforts to nourish and support students.

Each section of the toolkit provides examples across multiple campuses to highlight the range of activities underway, as well as lessons learned.

Meeting basic needs: Food security and housing security

Expenses other than tuition can make up more than 60 percent of the cost of attending college today. The cost of living for college students has risen by more than 80 percent over the past four decades.

To better understand the prevalence of food insecurity among University of California students, the university has continued to examine the issue of student food insecurity and is beginning to assess students' housing insecurity. Food security and housing security are basic needs that students must meet to maintain their health and well-being so that they can focus on achieving academically.

Moving forward: implementing a basic needs master plan

A new report, “Global Food Initiative: Food and Housing Security at the University of California” was released December 20, 2017, and an executive summary is also available. This new report recognizes student basic needs as a statewide and national issue.

UC has done much over the past three years to help students meet basic needs. The findings from the new report will help UC go even further. The new findings will inform strategies for addressing basic needs security, including the creation of a UC basic needs master plan.

Perhaps we can retire the “joke” of the starving student after all.

Additional resources:

Posted on Friday, December 29, 2017 at 12:56 PM

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