UCANR Strategic Initiatives
University of California
UCANR Strategic Initiatives

Sustainable Food Systems Research

Research Topics

The Sustainable Food Systems Strategic Initiative has targeted four key areas of inquiry for preferred research and extension projects:

  • Water resources
  • Food safety
  • Improving competitiveness and productivity of agriculture
  • Supporting the sustainability of small farms

Current Research Projects

Enhancing Conservation Practices and Supporting Emerging Markets for Niche Hog Production in the SF Bay Area and Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Principle Investigators: Theresa Becchetti (Lead), Sheila Barry, Morgan Doran, Stephanie Larson, and Susan Ellsworth.

Expected completion: 2016

Hog production has all but disappeared from the San Francisco Bay Area and surrounding food-shed. Growing interest in locally and sustainably produced food has led to a surge in demand outdoor pork. Despite a small but growing number of outdoor, small-scale and niche hog operations, demand currently outstrips supply. This demand is accompanied by concern about the potential environmental impacts of outdoor hog production systems. This project will provide locally and ecologically relevant information, while minimizing potential production impacts such as deterioration of ground cover, soil disturbance, erosion, and impaired water and air quality. Additionally, it will support increased adoption of niche hog production systems in northern California.


A Peach and Nectarine Orchard for the Future: An Experiment to Integrate, Test, Train, and Transfer Pomological Technology.

Principle Investigators: Kevin Day (Lead) and Ted DeJong

Expected completion: 2019

Over the past 30 years, ANR specialists and advisors have been conducting experiments to develop and evaluate orchard systems and management practices for California peach and nectarine production. This research included the development of new planting/pruning systems, new recommendations for fruit thinning/crop load management, improved methods for monitoring water stress and irrigation scheduling, greater understanding of tree nutrition and optimal fertilizer regime, and the development of size-controlling rootstocks to reduce excessive tree growth and improve labor efficiency. While individual experiments have been conducted, the transfer of new technologies and practices to growers has been slow because there has not been a comparison of the varying practices. This project will do exactly that: apply these strategies within an integrated orchard management system and compare to the current standard orchard management practices.


Measuring the Impact of Local Food Marketing on the Local Economy.

Principle Investigator: Shermain Hardesty

Expected completion: 2016

Local food markets represent a growing opportunity for small- and mid-scale farms. These include local buying initiatives, new regional food aggregation, and distribution and processing initiatives. To provide the opportunity for these farmers, science-based evidence is needed to guide public policy and program design related to food system interventions. The project findings will be reported in a policy brief that will be shared extensively—in written form and through presentations--to producers, local grower organizations, local Farm Bureau chapters, and policymakers. A regional forum will be organized to review the findings.


Sustainable Production of Agronomic Crops in California - Agronomy Research and Information Center.

Principle Investigators: Dan Putnam (Lead), Shannon Mueller, Bruce Linquist, Steve Kaffka, and Robert Hutmacher

Expected completion: 2017

Agronomic crops occupy over 5 million of the approximately 8 million irrigated acres in the state, and have large impacts on water use and nutrient management, farm profitability and human health. While the university is involved in a lot of research on these crops, there is currently no comprehensive organized outlet for this information to be delivered to farmers and other stakeholders. This project will develop a coordinated web-based center for science-based UC information and on-line learning tools for an important group of agronomic field crops grown in California. Key crops are rice, alfalfa, wheat, cotton, and biofuels. Other crops as well as new/alternative crops such as sorghum, teff, kenaf and berseem can be included once key crops have been addressed and there is sufficient interest.  


Expanding Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Sales and Access in California.

Principle Investigator: Ryan Galt

Expected completion: 2015

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a relatively new type of direct marketing relationship in which consumers commit to supporting local producers. As originally conceived, CSA members receive shares of produce from the supported farm, usually each week, in return for paying in advance, often for a full season. CSA is an increasingly important market channel for medium- and small-scale farms in the United States and California. Within California, the number of CSA farms has gone from a few in the early 1990s to at least 300 currently. The research objectives are to determine: the motivations and socio-economic and demographic characteristics of CSA member households compared to ex-member (non-renewing) households and non-member households, and the general population, how member characteristics vary in relation to CSA marketing strategies and other characteristics (e.g., farm location, geographic focus of marketing, payment types and flexibility, engagement with USDA’s food entitlement programs, etc.), the CSA characteristics that correspond with higher and lower levels of member retention, and successful strategies that CSA farmers can use to expand their member base to groups historically underrepresented in CSA.


Sorghum as a Low-Input Crop for Bioenergy, Food and Feed in California.

Principle Investigators: Jeffrey Dahlberg (Lead) and Peggy Lemaux

Expected completion: 2016

Sorghum is a globally important crop, ranking as the fifth most important cereal crop in the world in terms of total production. It is able to be consumed within the food chain, used as bioenergy, or feed for livestock. The United States is the world’s largest sorghum producer, with only limited production in California. Despite this, sorghum is an attractive crop for the state as it could be a suitable alternative to corn for silage production, and may require as little as 65-75% as much irrigation water and significantly less nitrogen fertilization for similar biomass yields. Sorghum could therefore help reduce irrigation and nitrogen fertilizer use in California while maintaining productive agricultural out-put. This project will evaluate different cultivars of sorghum and evaluate their feasibility for production within California.


New Winter Annual Oilseeds are Promising Alternative Crops for Food, Feed, and Biofuel in California.

Principle Investigator: Stephen Kaffka, CE Agronomist, Dept. of Plant Sciences, UC Davis

Expected completion: 2015

Canola is the third most important oilseed globally, it can be grown as a cool season crop and is commonly used to diversify cereal-dominated cropping systems. There is little commercial canola production in California but there are large potential markets that could be exploited by Californian growers. Canola oil is widely used for human consumption and canola seed meal is already used commercially to feed poultry, pigs, dairy- and beef-cattle. Current demand for both oil and meal in the United States exceeds domestic production. Canola, however, has areas in which research is needed: it is unreliable in low rainfall conditions and it may not be compatible with existing California rotations. To address these shortcomings, this project will determine the feasibility of cropping Canola in California cool season rotations as well as evaluate other oilseed species, such as Camelina, which may be more suitable due to smaller resource demands and a shorter growing season.


Description of Current Silage Management Practices and Identification of Obstacles that Prevent the Implementation of Best Management Practices.

Principle Investigators: Noelia Silva-del-Río (Lead), Jennifer Heguy, and Deanne Meyer

Expected completion: 2015.

High feed prices have placed greater emphasis on home grown forages and reducing feed losses (shrink). Feedback received from seminars held throughout the state indicate that the topics of feed shrink and ensiling practices are a high priority for our dairy clientele. This project will address these concerns. Through our research and extension efforts, we will open lines of communication among all the parties involved in on-farm silage management as well as bridge the needs of the dairy industry (feed quality) and the demands of regulatory agencies (mitigation strategies) with regard to silage management practices. Furthermore, current management recommendations and mitigation measures were created with limited California data, and this research will help bridge the gap between current practices and BMP for feed quality and environmental protection.



Completed Research Projects

UC ANR: A Resource for Urban Agriculture.

Principle Investigator: Rachel Surls

Increasingly, very small-scale urban agriculture is viewed as an important part of sustainable food systems. Whether based in community gardens, on vacant land, or other spaces in metropolitan areas, urban agriculture is becoming popular throughout California and the US. Many cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have recently changed their zoning codes to support urban agriculture. More urban consumers are oriented towards eating locally produced food, creating market opportunities for small-scale urban growers. There is a need for research-based information to inform this movement and guide local decision-making. This widespread interest presents an opportunity for UC ANR to expand its role in extending relevant research-based information.


Improving the Food Safety Practices of Small and Immigrant Farmers in California.

Principle Investigators: Christy Getz (Lead), David Lewis, Deborah Giraud, Theresa Spezzano, and Concepcion Mendoza

In 2010, deer feces found in strawberry fields in Oregon were the source of E. coli 0157:H7 infections that killed one person and sickened at least 14 others. The farmer had not been aware that the deer feces around the farm could contaminate the berries. This project will help small and immigrant California farmers avoid situations like the one in Oregon, and to improve their ability to participate in the marketplace. Buyers (including school districts, retailers and even wholesalers) increasingly require farmers to supply documented evidence of a food safety program. Small farmers across the country are struggling to develop food safety programs in anticipation of new regulations and market demand. Minority and limited English farmers are at an added disadvantage due to the complexity and inaccessibility of most food safety training materials. This work is additionally supported by a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development grant.


Train the Trainer in Edible Landscaping for Industry Professionals and Master Gardeners.

Principle Investigator: Melissa Gable

Currently, the body of training materials regarding non-commercial edible landscaping lacks science-based information and recommendations. Despite the fact that we have more and more backyard gardeners landscaping with edibles and other specialty crop plants, we also lack skilled ‘experts’ to train the public in successful edible gardening. Through this project, we will compile research-based information on the best practices for edible landscaping and publish them through the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Division. With quality educational materials, we will complete five regional advanced trainings. Evaluation of changes in knowledge and motivation as well as behavior will be conducted for the Master Gardeners, their county programs, and the general public who participate in their trainings.


Strategic postharvest handling systems for sustainable California agriculture.

Principle investigators: Carlos Crisosto (Lead) and Beth Mitcham

Important strategies to increase the sustainability of agriculture are to reduce the waste of agricultural products after harvest, and maintain commodity postharvest quality. As much as 23% of California produce is never consumed due to poor handling or poor quality, with approximately 12% of losses occurring before produce reaches the consumer.[3]   When wastage is reduced, agriculture is more sustainable at every level.   Food safety implications and risks related to postharvest handling practices are another critical element. To assist California producers in meeting these challenges, the Postharvest Technology Center proposes to design a short course targeted to the needs of the California produce industry entitled “Emerging Postharvest Technologies for California Agriculture”. 


Food Safety Training for Smaller Growers.

Principle investigators: Shermain Hardesty (lead) and Richard Molinar

This project is a targeted short-term outreach project that addresses a critical component in the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative: food safety issues in plant systems. It is designed to educate smaller fruit and vegetable growers regarding food safety such that they will be able to pass food safety verification audits conducted by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) or another certifier.



Increasing competitiveness of the California Dairy Industry through Genetic Selection.

Principle Investigators: Anita Oberbauer (lead), Thomas Famula, and Steven Berry

We will characterize the prevalence of the predominant hoof lesions detected in California dairy cattle, profile the occurrence of the lesions during several lactations, and assess the heritability of those lesions. As a corollary, the occurrence of hoof lesions may reflect susceptibility to infection. This will allow us to provide producers with concrete estimates of the occurrence of hoof lesions contributing to lameness, evidence of whether lesions are associated with particular lactation stages that may be ameliorated with different management techniques, and heritability estimates to permit selection that may enhance the longevity of the cow in the production herd. This work will build upon our ongoing studies characterizing the prevalence of hoof lesions detected in California dairy cattle and could be combined with the current selection tools to improve dairy herd health.



Outreach and Extension Programs for Co-Management of Food Safety and Ecosystem Services in Fresh Produce.

Principle Investigators: Mary Bianchi (Lead) and Karen Lowell

Food safety professionals, and the buyers they serve, may be directing on-farm management decisions with limited understanding of the impact of those decisions on ecosystem services, including surface water quality, riparian systems, and wildlife species and habitat. Although produce buyers may directly affect on-farm decisions, they may not be guided by science based information regarding impacts of food safety decisions on ecosystem services. Pressure from buyers, processors, food safety auditors and others has led to changes in on-farm management practices that have negatively impacted conservation goals in the Central Coast of California. The audit checklists that record the practices of interest to these diverse interests are a critical focal point for evaluating co-management balance. This project is designed to provide knowledge to appropriate target audiences which will increase the understanding of causal relationships that lead to shifts in management strategies, resulting in a more effective blending of sustainability and food safety goals.

Contact Information

For more information about current research projects, please contact the primary researcher listed below. 

Urban Agriculture
Rachel Surls
Sustainable Food Systems Advisor

Improving Food Safety
Christy Getz
Associate CE Specialist

Expanding CSA Sales
Ryan Galt
Assistant Professor, Human and Community Development

Jeffery Dahlberg
Director of Kearney Research and Extension Center

Food Safety Training
Shermain Hardesty
Small Farm Program Extension Economist


Webmaster Email: mozbell@ucanr.edu