Record winter rainfall during the 2016-17 winter has enabled farms to emerge from survival mode in the short term, but scientists are still working hard to be ready for the next drought, reported Tim Hearden in Capital Press.
Hearden spent a day at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier to learn how researchers at the facility and the UC West Side Research and Extension Center near Five Points are combining technology with management practices to put every drop of irrigation water to work.
“This is one of the few places in the world where you can do drought research on a field level,” said Jeff Dahlberg, director of the 330-acre Kearney facility. “What I'm planning is a world-class drought nursery.”
At the West Side REC, researchers are working with farmers to perfect micro-irrigation efficiency and test drought stress on the area's most prevalent crops.
“We'll grow a tremendous number of cultivars of a crop” and identify “what seem to be the most promising cultivars when you grow them under drought conditions,” said Bob Hutmacher, a cotton specialist and the center's director.
Hearden spoke to Jeff Mitchell, UCCE cropping systems specialist and director of the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation center (CASI). CASI is encouraging farmers to adopt farming practices that save water, reduce dust and help improve the condition of soil, such as subsurface drip irrigation, overhead irrigation, minimum tillage, cover crops and crop residues.
“This is not done right now in California,” Mitchell said. “In the future, there may be a strong likelihood of certain agricultural sectors adopting these practices.”
Other subsurface irrigation trials are showing dramatic increases in yields. Khaled Bali, an irrigation water management specialist at Kearney, said underground drip systems in alfalfa fields have achieved 20 to 30 percent more yields while in some cases using 20 percent less water.
Kevin Day, a UCCE pomology advisor in Tulare County, is trying subsurface drip in a peach and nectarine orchard after working with the USDA to use it for pomegranates. He's seen as much as a 90 percent reduction in weeds because there's no surface water to feed them.
“Fewer weeds, fewer pesticides,” he said. “We use high-frequency irrigation. We irrigate as the crop needs it. When you do that, you keep the roots deeper, which makes for better aeration.”
Improved soil promises to help farmers use less water and reduce carbon in the atmosphere, reported Ezra David Romero on Valley Edition, a one-hour weekly program that airs on KVPR-FM.
The five-minute story, which begins at the 30:30 mark, focuses on CDFA's new Healthy Soils Initiative. The program is expected to allocate $7.5 million for farmer incentives to use practices that will improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These are practices that are already in place on some innovative valley farmers, including two that are active in the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation center.
Jesse Sanchez, manager at Sano Farms in Firebaugh, said 15 years ago, tractors were rolling across the 4,000-acre tomato farm all the time. Now, the farm features cover crops in the winter, reduced soil tillage, irrigation with super-efficient buried drip tape and lower fertilizer needs. The result is a one-third drop in water use and a 75 percent reduction in diesel to fuel tractors, Romero said.
Many of the farm's tractors have been sold. "We don't want to see them no more," Sanchez said.
Retired Madera County farmer Tom Willey discussed the critical importance of soil care he learned as a long-time organic vegetable grower.
"It's the survival of our species," Willey said. "The soil is the thin skin of the earth that we all exist on. Our lives are bound up in the health and productivity of the soil."
UC Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell noted the challenges that farmers face in making soil care changes. “A real part of the challenge for California farms is the high-value nature of the production systems, the crops themselves, and some difficult challenges in terms of the diversity of the crops," he said.
In California, 40 percent of agriculture is still irrigated by pouring water onto farmland, a much less efficient practice that drip and overhead irrigation. But those numbers are changing, reported Matt Weiser on Water Deeply.
Weiser interviewed UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell about the water-saving potential of using overhead irrigation, a system that is popular in other parts of the nation and world, but only used on 2 percent of California farmland. Mitchell was the primary author of a research article in the current issue of California Agriculture journal, which said that water and money can be saved using overhead irrigation in production of wheat, corn, cotton, onion and broccoli.
Mitchell said California researchers are looking more closely at overhead irrigation because they anticipate future constraints on agriculture, including water and labor shortages. Additionally, the system is ideal for combining with conservation agriculture systems, which include the use of cover crops, leaving crop residue on the soil surface and reducing tillage disturbance of the soil. The combination of overhead irrigation and conservation agriculture practices reduces water use, cuts back on dust emissions, increases yield and improves the soil.
Weisner asked how overhead irrigation could be as efficient as drip, when people typically see "water spraying everywhere from these roving sprinklers high off the ground."
Mitchell said farmers use pressure regulators and a variety of nozzles on hoses hanging down from the system to deliver water at precisely the rate and location where it is needed through the season.
"So, they're not spraying water. These are low to the ground, and there are various delivery nozzle practices that can be used," Mitchell said.
The article featured a number of California farmers who sang the praises of the no-till farming method.
- "We definitely save money through higher production, less water usage and lowered equipment and fuel costs," said Modesto farmer Jesse Sanchez
- "We started in 1985 using the no-till method, and since then we've doubled our yield potential," said Fritz Durst, a Yolo County farmer
- "I not only get great production, I save a great deal by not buying expensive tilling equipment, and I look to double my production in times of little rainfall because no-till increases the water-storing capacity of the soil," said Michael Crowley, a Turlock farmer
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) conservation agriculture expert Jeff Mitchell said the slow implementation of no-till in California is "largely a matter of our farmers not being familiar with no-till practices."
Tillage became popular in California in the 1930s. The agricultural systems developed in the state were wildly successful.
"Because they worked so well, and were so profitable, nobody has felt they should make a change," said Mitchell, who is a UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
Mitchell is chair of the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center, a group of farmers, researchers, USDA scientists and ag industry professionals who are working together to spread the word about and encourage adoption of no-till production. Key CASI messages were shared in the Comstock article.
“Since water does not evaporate as quickly in no-till fields, savings in water cost are easy to determine,” Mitchell said. “In addition, fewer pesticides are often needed and farmers also save money by the diminished need to buy the expensive tilling equipment and to pay people to run them.” He adds that soil in the fields, no longer exposed by the tilling, remains richer in its biodiversity and can sustain higher yields. Compaction of the soils, caused by the heavy tilling equipment, is reduced.
Sanchez is an active member of the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center (CASI), a diverse group of UC researchers, farmers, and representatives of public agencies, private industry and environmental groups that work together to develop knowledge and exchange information on conservation-oriented production systems in California.
In 2009, CASI named Sanchez and his employer, Alan Sano, its "Conservation Agriculture Innovators of the Year." The 2015 honor from the White House is another recognition for efforts to make soil health a priority on the 4,000-acre farm that produces garbanzo beans, garlic, processing and fresh market tomatoes, along with pistachios and almonds.
Jeff Mitchell, UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist and CASI chair, said the White House's acknowledgment, which honors 'everyday Americans who are doing extraordinary things,' is a very fitting recognition for Sanchez and all of Sano Farms.
"They're very much pioneers, very innovative and persistent as well," Mitchell said. "What they've done through the vision they have had, sticking with it, learning step-by-step how to improve the system how to adjust things."
A story about Sanchez' White House honor also appeared on the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service website.
The NRCS article noted that Sanchez and Sano have long shared their work with Mitchell, and through Mitchell with other farmers interested in conservation agriculture systems.