Dedicated growers and research support from the University of California have made avocados a California success story. As part of the UC Global Food Initiative, which is channeling UC resources toward sustainably feeding the world's growing population, the California avocado experience can help alleviate food insecurity and poverty overseas.
Two UC Cooperative Extension specialists found a way to do that in Tanzania, Africa, where 69 percent of the population live below the poverty line and 16 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. In March 2017, UCCE biocontrol specialist Mark Hoddle and UCCE subtropical crops specialist Mary Lu Arpaia traveled to the east African nation to help growers there with their fledgling avocado industry.
In the late 19th Century, German missionaries introduced avocados to Tanzania when it was colonized by this European nation. Germany lost influence over the African country following World War I, but huge non-commercial avocado trees still thrive in the landscape.
Recently, attempts at commercial production growing the popular Hass variety are gaining momentum.
With proximity to a European market hungry for fresh avocados, Rungwe Avocado Company planted 250 acres of the Hass variety in the southern highlands around Mbeya near Lake Malawi, which establishes the border of south western Tanzania with Zambia and Malawi. In order to grow production to a level that would make the export to Europe practical and to support rural residents with a viable business option, approximately 3,700 small landholder farmers, known as outgrowers, were recruited to grow avocados. They manage small plots with as few as 20 trees to larger acreage with more than 200 trees, with participating farms ranging in elevation from 1,200 to nearly 6,000 feet.
However, this fledgling industry is experiencing production challenges, prompting the company to contact UC Cooperative Extension. UC faculty, specialists and advisors have conducted research on Hass avocados for decades in California and worked closely with growers to extend information that has supported the development of an industry with high-yielding trees producing premium fruit valued at more than $400 million per year.
“One of the aims of the Global Food Initiative is to deploy UC's best research and extension practices to address the key challenge of improving food production,” Arpaia said. “That's why we went to Tanzania.”
Hoddle and Arpaia visited growers, extension technicians, packing house managers and logistics experts. They identified production, pest management and fruit handling challenges faced by the avocado industry.
“The situation in Tanzania is quite different than California, and also different compared to Central and South America, where we have also worked on avocado production issues,” Hoddle said. “But we identified familiar issues that affect management for which there are solutions.”
Hoddle examined the Tanzanian avocado trees and fruit, and collected insect specimens. He said the insect damage was minimal at the time of the week long visit.
“That surprised me because of the insect biodiversity in Africa,” he said. “There was little evidence of heavy leaf feeding. There was some evidence of fruit damage caused by insect feeding on the skin, but they don't seem to have fruit boring weevils or caterpillars that we commonly see in parts of Mexico, Central and South America.”
A critical issue is extending entomological information to the outlying farmers to improve their ability to identify and manage beneficial insects and crop pests.
“They don't have the magnifying loops, collecting vials and insect boxes that we regularly use for insect identification,” Hoddle said. “I showed them my Leatherman tool, which can be used to open up fruit and look for damage. They need these basic tools.”
A post-harvest expert, Arpaia was able to identify ways to improve picking, handling, storage and shipping practices that would result in top quality fruit arrival in Europe.
The two scientists produced a report, which emphasized the need to provide outlying growers with basic equipment and agronomic information.
“We want to help them be better avocado farmers so the crop can be a greater contributor to the country's economy,” Arpaia said. “Boosting this industry will also give people all over Tanzania the opportunity to add nutritious avocados to their diets.”
California's K-12 teachers are being challenged by the Next Generation Science Standards to find new and more engaging ways to teach science. Adopted by California in 2013, the science-education standards guide how science, technology, engineering and math education are delivered to students in the classroom. The Forestry Institute for Teachers (FIT) offers free environmental education training for teachers in a northern California forest.
“Teachers who participate in the Forestry Institute for Teachers learn to apply Next Generation Science Standards concepts as they develop or refine class lessons using the forest as a lens through which all classroom subject matter can be taught,” said Mike De Lasaux, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources advisor for Plumas and Sierra counties and a FIT instructor.
Learning science through FIT's participatory model is more exciting than memorizing facts from a textbook. In the forest, FIT instructors point out opportunities for students to use technology, engineering and math to better understand the world around them. For example, math can be used to estimate the height of a towering tree. Seeing the “web of life” relationships, such as the effects of rainfall and insects on tree growth, leads to more critical thinking to solve problems.
“The goal of the Forestry Institute for Teachers is to provide K-12 teachers with knowledge, skills and tools to effectively teach their students about forest ecology and forest resource management practices and much more,” said De Lasaux.
California teachers from rural and urban settings are invited to spend a week during the summer working outdoors with natural resources experts to gain a deeper understanding of forest ecosystems and human use of natural resources. The participants are organized by grade level for age-appropriate activities. They take field-trips and do hands-on activities such as examining the rings in a tree's cross-section to learn about events – such as wet or dry periods, insect or disease damage – that have occurred during the tree's lifetime.
The Forestry Institute for Teachers has been providing science education and other subject content to California K-12 teachers since 1993 with more than 2,500 educators completing the program.
FIT is a week-long residence program developed by the Northern California Society of American Foresters in collaboration with the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources' Cooperative Extension, the USDA Forest Service, CALFIRE and other entities. The FIT Program is underwritten by a consortium of public and private sources.
FIT is offered in forested settings in four different Northern California locations:
- June 11-17 in Plumas County
- June 18-24 in Tuolumne County
- July 2-8 in Shasta County
- July 9-15 in Humboldt County
There is an application fee of $25, but training, meals and lodging are free for first-time participants.To watch videos of past participants discussing their FIT experience and to apply to attend, visit www.forestryinstitute.org.
Current wildfire policy can't adequately protect people, homes and ecosystems from the longer, hotter fire seasons climate change is causing, according to a new paper led by the University of Colorado Boulder.
Efforts to extinguish every blaze and reduce the buildup of dead wood and forest undergrowth are becoming increasingly inadequate on their own. Instead, the authors—a team of wildfire experts—urge policymakers and communities to embrace policy reform that will promote adaptation to increasing wildfire and warming.
“Wildfire is catching up to us,” said lead author Tania Schoennagel, a research scientist at CU Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “We're learning our old tools aren't enough and we need to approach wildfire differently.”
This means accepting wildfire as an inevitable part of the landscape, states the new paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The western U.S. has seen a 2-degrees-Celsius rise in annual average temperature and lengthening of the fire season by almost three months since the 1970s; both elements contribute to what the authors refer to as the “new era of western wildfires.” This pattern of bigger, hotter fires, along with the influx of homes into fire-prone areas—over 2 million since 1990—has made wildfire vastly more costly and dangerous.
“For a long time, we've thought that if we try harder and do better, we can get ahead of wildfire and reduce the risks,” said Schoennagel, who also is an adjunct faculty member in CU Boulder's Geography Department. “We can no longer do that. This is bigger than us and we're going to have to adapt to wildfire rather than the other way around.”
As part of this adaptation process, the authors advocate for actions that may be unpopular, such as allowing more fires to burn largely unimpeded in wildland areas and intentionally setting more fires, or “controlled burns,” to reduce natural fuels like undergrowth in more developed areas. Both these steps would reduce future risk and help ecosystems adapt to increasing wildfire and warming.
They also argue for reforming federal, state and local policies that have the unintended consequence of encouraging people to develop in fire-prone areas. Currently, federal taxpayers pick up the tab for preventing and fighting western wildfires—a cost that has averaged some $2 billion a year in recent years. If states and counties were to bear more of that cost, it would provide incentive to adopt planning efforts and fire-resistant building codes that would reduce risk.
Re-targeting forest thinning efforts is another beneficial reform suggested by the authors. The federal government has spent some $5 billion since 2006 on thinning dense forests and removing fuel from some 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of land, often in remote areas. But these widespread efforts have done little to reduce record-setting fires. Directing thinning projects to particularly high-risk areas, including communities in fire-prone regions and forests in particularly dry areas, would increase adaptation to wildfire, the authors said.
Additionally, as climate change forces species to move their ranges, some may vanish entirely. Familiar landscapes will disappear, a fact that makes many people balk. But such changes, including those caused by wildfire, could be necessary for the environment in the long run, says Max Moritz, University of California Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist and a co-author on the paper.
“We need the foresight to help guide these ecosystems in a healthy direction now so they can adjust in pace with our changing climate,” Moritz said. “That means embracing some changes while we have a window to do so.”
Critical to making a policy of adaptation successful, said Schoennagel, will be education and changing people's perception of wildfire. “We have to learn that wildfire is inevitable, in the same way that droughts and flooding are. We've tried to control fire, but it's not a control we can maintain. Like other natural disasters, we have to learn to adapt.”
How did we get here and where shall we venture together?
This spring, the 100th California Naturalist class is being offered in Sonoma County – the very same county where we first piloted the curriculum. The UC Agriculture and Natural Resources California Naturalist Program is designed to introduce Californians to the wonders of our unique ecology and engage the public in study and stewardship of California's natural communities. The program mission is to foster a diverse community of naturalists and promote stewardship of California's natural resources through education and service. California Naturalist certification courses combine classroom and field experience in science, problem-solving, communication training and community service. Students are taught by an instructor and team of experts who are affiliated with the University of California, local nature-based centers, community colleges, land trusts, or natural resource focused agencies such as California State Parks and cooperating “friends groups.”
What inspired the first California Naturalist class? Georgia, Florida, Texas and 22 other states have Master Naturalist-like programs, so why not California? After all, California is a global biodiversity hotspot filled with nature enthusiasts. It took a volunteer, Julia Fetherston, to get excited about the potential for a California program before our director Adina Merenlender was convinced to attend the 2005 National Master Naturalist Annual Conference in Estes Park, Colo. She was impressed with the impact these programs were having and decided to see what we could do in the Golden State. A good deal of effort followed to advance the cause within UC, secure grant funding, write the California Naturalist Handbook, develop ways to work with organizations across the state, and build a team to run California Naturalist. In 2012, we officially launched the program with five intrepid institutional partners (Santa Rosa Junior College/Pepperwood Foundation, Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station, and Santa Barbara Botanical Garden). Four years later California Naturalist received Program of the Year from the national network, the Alliance of Natural Resource Outreach and Service Programs.
The 100th California Naturalist class is being offered at Stewards of the Coast and Redwood this spring. Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods is a non-profit, environmental and interpretive organization that works in partnership with California State Parks in the Russian River Sector of the Sonoma Mendocino Coast District to support volunteer, education and stewardship programs. Participants in this year's spring class have worked hard on a wide range of capstone projects, including multiple wildlife monitoring citizen science projects, improving fish habitat in the watershed, and creating educational materials on ticks, wetland birds, water quality and more. Co-instructors Meghan Walla-Murphy and David Berman have been teaching California Naturalist courses since 2013, first with Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and now with Stewards. Meghan is the author of Fishing on the Russian River and a well-respected wildlife tracker whose workshops are not to be missed. David is an extraordinary environmental educator, watershed expert, and Project Wild facilitator with the Sonoma County Water Agency.
Now that we have 100 classes under our belt, oh, the places we can go! California Naturalist is a community of practice started deliberately with the goal of gaining natural history knowledge. We are working on releasing a citizen science challenge to provide an opportunity for California Naturalists to discover more about California's ecosystems - Discovery!
Surveys show that California Naturalists feel more empowered to address environmental challenges after their training and knowing they can lean on their fellow naturalists. We would like to know more about how California Naturalists are participating in civic engagement. With a new volunteer management system on the horizon, we plan to learn more about the many ways Naturalists are becoming involved in issues that affect their communities. - Action!
In particular, what activities are Naturalists doing that will help communities and natural ecosystems be more resilient to climate change – improving habitat connectivity, restoring riparian areas, or pre/post fire management? We are looking for support to start an advanced training aimed at helping today's climate stewards learn more about climate science and adaptation to support their efforts on climate-wise - Stewardship!
Congratulations to the graduates of the 100th California Naturalist class and all those who went before you.
Have you seen the blaze of super blooms popping up alongside orchards and field crops in our rich agricultural Central Valley? The corridors of poppies, tidy tips, yarrow, baby blue eyes, and redbud planted by farmers, dazzle us with color, but they serve a purpose, too.
The flowers provide nectar and pollen for the pollinators, including honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees. Look beyond the buzz, and you'll see other beneficial insects, such as lady beetles (ladybugs) and their larvae devouring aphids, and tiny parasitoid wasps preying on stinkbugs and armyworms. They're (unpaid) pest control agents at work.
Farmers are taking notice. Knowing that most beneficial insects rely on floral resources to survive and reproduce, they're bordering their field crops with strips of flowering plants. In addition to gaining pollination and pest control services, they're gaining financial benefits. University of California researchers documented that pest control and pollination benefits will help pay the cost of a 1,000-foot-long-flowering hedge planting within 7 to 16 years. Their research, Pest Control and Pollination Cost-Benefit Analysis of Hedgerow Restoration in a Simplified Agricultural Landscape, was published last year in the Journal of Economic Entomology.
Other benefits of field edge habitat plantings can include weed exclusion, air quality improvement, erosion reduction, wind protection, shade, and wildlife habitat.
What plants are best to attract beneficial insects to farms and gardens? The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) has just published a list of insectary plants on its website. The list includes native California perennial flowering shrubs and wildflowers suited for field-edge plantings.
UC IPM defines insectary plants as “those grown to attract, feed, and shelter insect parasites (parasitoids) and predators to enhance biological pest control. Insectary plants provide nectar and pollen for adult natural enemies to consume. Even if pests are abundant, certain natural enemies may be less abundant, shorter-lived, or produce fewer offspring unless nectar and pollen resources are available. Insectary plants can also host alternate prey that will feed the natural enemies and keep them abundant locally.”
Are you concerned about rodents and food safety issues from hedgerows plantings? Not to worry. A recent study by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) researchers found minimal adverse influence on larger agricultural landscapes. A bonus: Migratory songbirds, like goldfinches, often seek out the seeds from the flowering plants in the hedgerows and offer their own display of color. What about weeds? Yes, they can be problematic. Be sure they're well-controlled before planting wildflowers; think soil solarization and herbicides.
Another UC ANR-associated study, Determinants of Field Edge Habitat Restoration on Farms in California's Sacramento Valley, published this year in the Journal of Environmental Management, found that landowners and farmers familiar with the benefits were more likely to adopt these small-scale habitat restoration plantings on their farms. Also important is technical support from agencies such as the USDA, UC Cooperative Extension Service, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and the sharing of information from farmer-to-farmer and neighbor-to-neighbor.
Something else we can all do: Share your photos of field-edge habitat plantings and your observations on social media. They tell an important story and can inspire landowners to diversify farmlands. This will help drive home the point that providing flowers for beneficial insects, including bees and natural enemies, will build resilience in our farming systems. Natural pollination and pest control services help counter the disastrous effects of colony collapse disorder and other honey bee maladies, and pesticide resistance.
And it's a counter-punch of color.