Ceres Imaging, an Oakland-based start-up, is working closely with UC Cooperative Extension on its aerial imaging of farm fields, a fact that is helping the company gain trust by association, reported Emma Foehringer Merchant on Grist.org.
Ceres puts equipment on low-flying airplanes to take pictures that will help farmers optimize water and fertilizer application. According to field tests, the imagery works. Since 2014, Ceres has teamed up with UC Cooperative Extension to conduct field trials, including one for the Almond Board that measured the response of nuts to different rates of watering.
In that study, data from Ceres' imaging matched well with the UCCE ground "truthing," said Blake Sanden, UC Cooperative Extension water and soils farm advisor.
According to the article, "Ceres' relationship with the extension program has helped the company gain trust with sometimes-skeptical farmers." Sanden called UCCE trials the "gold standard of efficacy" for new products in the ag market.
There is also increased interest in precise water management after years of drought and cutbacks on federal water allocation.
"The attitude (among farmers) used to be, 'I can find water,'" Sanden said. "I would say that 30, 40 years ago, there was an attitude of hope ... that some of the restrictions on pumping water (would) go away." He said growers expected decision-makers "to come back to reality and understand that we've got to make money in California and grow food."
But the restrictions didn't go away. Instead, they became stricter. The uncertainty about water deliveries has made farmers friendlier to new technologies, like the one offered by Ceres.
UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisor Blake Sanden was joined on the show, titled On Point, by CSUN sustainability professor Helen Cox and geography professor Amalie Orme. Sanden spoke to the issues related to the agriculture industry. He noted that well-known San Joaquin Valley farmer and rancher John Harris, who manages 7,000 acres of land, is fallowing more than half of it this year and using all the water he has available to irrigate tree crops planted on 2,800 acres.
Asked whether he felt agriculture played a role contributing to the drought, Sanden explained that farmers consider a complete water budget when planning crops and are cognizant of the drought situation in low-precipitation years. He acknowledged that there are human-caused issues related to the drought, noting that the state has placed a priority on environmental preservation, which also requires a great deal of water.
Sanden commented on the now commonly shared fact that it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond. Indeed, he said, it takes 50 gallons to grow one orange and as much as 100 gallons to produce a glass of milk from cows fed irrigated alfalfa.
"I hear these things going on and sometimes I just have to shake my head," he said. "Somebody is looking for a story with the gallon-per-nut catch phrase and they're not looking at the larger picture."
"Everyone smells the petrochemicals in the irrigation water," said Blake Sanden, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor in Kern County. "When I talk to growers, and they smell the oil field crap in that water, they assume the soil is taking care of this."
The farmers trust that organisms in the soil remove toxins or impurities in the water. However, the trust may be misplaced.
Microoganisms in soils can consume and process some impurities, Sanden said, but it's not clear whether oil field waste is making its way into the roots or leaves of irrigated plants, and then into the food chain.
It's unlikely that petrochemicals will show up in an almond, for example, he said, "But can they make it into the flesh of an orange or grape? It's possible. A lot of this stuff has not been studied in a field setting or for commercial food uptake."
The reporter also spoke to Carl Winter, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist based at UC Davis. He said some plants can absorb toxins without transferring them to the leaves or the flesh of their fruit.
Still, he said, "it's difficult to say anything for sure because we don't know what chemicals are in the water."
A visiting scholar at UC Berkeley who is a researcher analyzing hydraulic fracturing for the California legislature said the issue is "one of the things that keeps me up at night."
"You can't find what you don't look for," he said.
At the recent California Plant and Soil Conference in Fresno, multiple speakers showed pictures of what they labeled "California snow," the article said.
Plant toxins like selenium, boron and salt leach out with water, but water is in short supply this year. "That's why a lot of land is fallow," said Gary Banuelos, USDA-ARS researcher in Parlier.
At the conference, Rick Snyder, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis, said applying less water will reduce deep percolation and could result in higher salinity in the rooting zone. Eventually deficit irrigation will become problematic, especially if practiced over a longterm drought.
Snyder said it might be better to apply available water to a smaller area to maintain production. In the case of permanent crops, he suggested the same frequency of irrigation, but using less water with each application.
David Doll, UCCE farm advisor in Merced County, said almonds are sensitive to high levels of sodium, chloride and boron; and that some rootstocks are more tolerant of saline conditions than others.
Dan Putnam, UCCE specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, said alfalfa may be capable of tolerating higher salt levels than previously thought.
Some degraded water that could not be used on food crops can be used on alfalfa, he said, adding that alfalfa is in higher demand than many other salt-tolerant plants. While salinity may trigger a decline in percentage of germinated seeds, Putnam said, “that doesn't scare us; we can live with a 40 percent level.”
Blake Sanden, UCCE advisor in Kern County, said there are research gaps with regard to soil toxin tolerance in pistachios.
However, he said, a buildup of boron in the soil is "a potential boron time bomb."
Sanden's research showed a doubling of total boron in the soil after nine years. Without 6 to 10 inches of rainfall or fresh water winter irrigation for leaching every one to two years, he said, high levels of boron could render pistachio production unsustainable.