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.”
Humiston visited local farms, the Salton Sea, and UC Desert Research and Extension Center and UC Cooperative Extension in Imperial County. She had discussions with local farmers and industry representatives about renewable energy, drought and water issues, and agricultural production.
"It's great ot have our new vice president here to learn about the programs that we have here and discuss how we can improve them and bring more resources to the area," said Khaled Bali, director of UCCE in Imperial County. "That is basically my objective, bringing more resources to the area and have more collaborative projects."
Andy Horne, a Imperial County executive, said that solar farms have expanded in the county. Projects in place and those approved will cover about 4 percent of Imperial County farmland, a level the county intends to maintain. Humiston told the reporter that she is an advocate for farmland protection because the planet as a whole has a limited surface for cultivating crops.
"As we are dealing with things such as climate change and invasive species and drought, not only protecting those acres so that they are available but keeping them healthy and making sure water is available becomes ever more important," Humiston said.
Delgado reported that Humiston's trip to the Imperial Valley is part of an effort to visit all the UC Cooperative Extension offices and the nine research and extension centers around the state to familiarize herself with UC ANR efforts throughout California.
“The issues going on here are completely different than the Central Coast, Northern Sierras or Sacramento Valley,” Humiston said. “What is important is that we, the University of California, we have these offices in each and every county and that we have these research centers because if we are going to develop knowledge and find solutions and be able to implement those, we got to be able to have people in the ground here that can really dig into the real problem. You got to have people on the ground.”
The drought is forcing farmers to reexamine the way they water their crops, but converting to drip irrigation in alfalfa is unlikely to be widely implemented, reported David Wagner on KPBS Radio News.
The drip irrigation system conserves water - almost by half, said farmer Jack Cato - but is expensive and requires regular maintenance. After six years, the drip system is yet to pay for itself.
"Drip irrigation is not the answer for everything," said Khaled Bali, irrigation advisor with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR). "I would not recommend switching every acre in the Imperial Valley to drip irrigation."
Cato added that new drip irrigation users face a steep learning curve.
"Whatever farm starts doing this, he needs to take baby steps," Cato said. "It's not something you learn overnight, or in a book. You have to study your fields daily."
For more on water use and alfalfa, see Why alfalfa is the best crop to have in the drought by Daniel Putnam, UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist based at UC Davis, in the Alfalfa & Forage Blog.
When Khaled Bali looks at ice cream he thinks about alfalfa, wrote Alejandro Davila in the Imperial Valley Press. The story highlighted the research contributions of UC's Desert Research and Extension Center, which this year is celebrating its centennial.
The director of UC Cooperative Extension in Imperial County and an irrigation farm advisor, Bali said that for some people the connection between ice cream and alfalfa is not quite clear. Since alfalfa feeds dairy cattle, it is an important "ingredient" of ice cream.
“Alfalfa is grown here 365 days a year,” said Bali, and uses most of the irrigation water in the Valley and the state.
The article also mentioned entomology farm advisor Eric Natwick's work on sweet potato whitefly and staff research associate Brent Boutwell's work on registering pesticides as part of the UC EPA's IR-4 program.