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Urban farms can help feed the hungry

(The Sacramento Bee published an op-ed by Rachel Surls, UC ANR urban agriculture advisor for Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County, in its editorial pages today. The op-ed is reprinted below.)

A potential solution to hunger and food insecurity is growing vegetables in backyards and vacant lots, says Rachel Surls, UC ANR urban agriculture advisor.
Urban agriculture is in the local spotlight as the Sacramento City Council is expected to vote Tuesday night on allowing farming on city lots and making it easier for residents to sell produce they have grown.

In similar discussions around the state on the desire of residents to raise their own food with fewer restrictions, there is a core issue that should be front and center. In California, where we grow half of the country's fruits and vegetables, our own citizens too often go hungry.

Fifteen percent of households – roughly 5.5 million Californians – are “food insecure,” according to a 2013 federal report, meaning they do not have “consistent access throughout the year to adequate food for healthy active living.” Families with children are even more likely to run short on food.

We know that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is key to a healthy diet, but not everyone has ready access to a grocery store, or can afford to buy fresh produce. One potential solution is to make it easier to grow food in backyards and on vacant land.

The University of California's Global Food Initiative aims to help the world sustainably and nutritiously feed itself. One way that UC Agriculture and Natural Resources is working toward that goal is by providing information for urban farmers and decision-makers interested in urban agriculture to improve food security in their communities. While hunger and food security are complex issues, urban farming can be used with other strategies to help ensure access to affordable, nutritious food.

And the idea seems to resonate with Californians. Interest in urban food production can be seen around California. Following strong advocacy efforts at the grassroots level, Assembly Bill 551 was passed in 2013, allowing local governments to designate urban agriculture incentive zones. San Francisco has enacted the state's first one.

Several other cities have developed local policies to promote urban agriculture. San Diego, for example, has made it easier for residents to keep chickens and bees in their backyards, and to establish farmers markets, produce stands, community gardens and small urban farms. Oakland updated its city code in 2014 to allow community gardens in most of the city without a special permit.

But obstacles to urban agriculture remain in many cities, including land use restrictions, difficulty accessing water, soil contamination and a lack of information on local regulations. After conducting a statewide study, my colleagues and I found a number of common challenges and came up with six steps that local officials can take to break down common barriers.

They are: Make zoning and regulatory information accessible; develop a transparent process for using city-owned land; create an urban agriculture incentive zone; update zoning to make it urban-ag-friendly; make water accessible while promoting efficient use; and provide guidance and support for soil testing and remediation.

An easy way to let urban farmers know what is allowed is to post information on a website, as San Francisco has done. Through AB 551, cities can entice property owners to lease their land for gardens and farms in exchange for reduced property taxes. Cities can also partner with urban farmers and local food policy councils to identify concerns and ways to address them.

In addition to health benefits, urban gardens beautify the community and provide common ground for people of different ages and cultures to work together. They can also create jobs, learning opportunities and economic savings on food. Given the numerous potential benefits, local officials can better serve their communities by making it easier to cultivate food locally.

Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 at 8:57 AM

Strawberry season opens in the San Joaquin Valley

San Joaquin Valley strawberry season is about two weeks early.
Strawberries in the central San Joaquin Valley are ripening about two weeks earlier than normal in 2015, reported Robert Rodriguez in the Fresno Bee. The story was localized and also used in the Merced Sun-Star and Modesto Bee.

Normally strawberry season starts in early April, but in the Fresno area Rodriguez found a dozen roadside stands already selling the springtime favorite.

Rodriguez spoke to Michael Yang, an agricultural assistant with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension in Fresno County. Despite warmer temperatures and a shortage of water for some growers, the overall quality of the crop looks good, Yang said.

“You may see that on some farms where the growers have had trouble getting enough water,” Yang says. “The fruit may not size up, but that sweet taste will still be there.”

Most of the region's growers produce Chandler or Albion strawberries, two cultivars that were developed by University of California researchers.

Merced Sun-Star reporter Ana Ibarra interviewed UC ANR advisor David Doll, who said the strawberry industry in Merced is small but important. According to Doll, the success of this year's strawberry season will be mainly dependent on the heat. Just as the heat accelerated the season, it also can be cut short if the high temperatures continue, he said.

Posted on Monday, March 23, 2015 at 1:29 PM

UC ANR plays a role in the California Small Farm Conference

More than 600 Californians convened in San Diego last week for the annual California Small Farm Conference, which connected farmers, ranchers and farmers market managers as they addressed the drought, farm bill, specialty crops, changing laws and marketing, reported Katie Thisdell in The Daily Transcript.

A host of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources academics took part by offering workshops, presentations and field courses. The conference also included presentations from innovative and entrepreneurial farmers trying to find new avenues to success.

Among them were Jay Ruskey, who owns Good Land Organics in Goleta. He has worked closely with Mark Gaskell, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension farm adviser in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, to develop a viable coffee production system in the Golden State.

Ruskey has been growing coffee plants under avocado trees in coastal areas with farmers from Morro Bay to Oceanside, and has plans to market and brand a California-grown coffee that he says can rival Kona coffee. According to the article, his coffee has sold for as much as $90 per pound.

Former California Secretary of Agriculture A. G. Kawamura addressed the conferences on Skype from Abu Dhabi, where he was speaking at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture.

“Whether you're large or small, whether you're organic or conventional, many of these challenges we face, we all face together,” Kawamura said. “This agricultural renaissance, if you will, comes at a time when many people are criticizing the food supply and criticizing agriculture. Agriculture is not the problem. As we move forward, agriculture has to be the solution. We see that all over the world, and all over our country exciting things are happening."

Posted on Monday, March 16, 2015 at 8:56 AM

California coffee can be grown amidst avocado trees

Coffee can benefit from the environment within an avocado orchard.
Planting coffee shrubs right next to avocado trees is allowing a Central Coast farmer to grow a commercial crop of coffee without using any additional land, water or fertilizer, reported Parma Nagappan in TakePart.com.

The farmer, Jay Ruskey was working with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources advisor Mark Gaskell when they had a "eureka moment," the story said. Coffee bushes can benefit from the environment created by an avocado plantation.

"I went through lots of cycles of plantings looking at options for using unused land," Rusky said. "Interplanting works for a lot of reasons, and coffee fits perfectly with avocados because it has similar nutrition requirements."

Americans' coffee is typically grown in tropical areas of Hawaii, and Central and South America. Gaskell, who worked with coffee growers for Central America for several years prior to joining UC in 1995, approached Ruskey with the idea of growing coffee in 2001.

“My job is to help small farms with problem solving, so I'm always looking for these kinds of synergies,” Gaskell said of the interplanting technique. “Commercial water rates are high, so ‘How are we going to get the most efficient utilization of land and water?' is at the back of every grower's mind.”

Gaskell said it is important to note that coffee also does just fine by itself in open field planting as long as it is irrigated. It doesn't require avocado interplanting for success, but avocado interplanting is an additional opportunity for coffee growing in California.

In 2014, Coffee Review rated Ruskey's coffee - sold under the name Good Land Organics - among the top 30 in the world.

The publication's top ranking of Good Land Organics has made coffee associations elsewhere sit up and take notice of the potential for a high-quality, domestic crop, the Take Part article said.

“All of a sudden I'm thrown into the spotlight of the coffee world because I'm a disruption, which is something it needs, because it does not have a lot of research going on, like with other crops,” Ruskey said.

Posted on Friday, March 13, 2015 at 9:12 AM

UC app helps growers monitor water and fertilizer use

Farmers can access CropManage from the field with a smart phone or tablet computer.
A UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientist will hold a workshop in April to teach farmers how to use an online application available free from UC ANR that calculates the precise water and fertilizer needs of their crops, reported the Salinas Californian.

CropManage compiles information about the crops' soil, growth and water needs from years of UC ANR Cooperative Extension Research, said Michael Cahn, UC ANR Cooperative Extension irrigation and water resources advisor in Monterey County.

"It's repackaging research into a format that's accessible to everybody," said Cahn, who developed the program."It takes 10 steps to do the calculations by hand and (CropManage) does it in a second."

Using CropManage helps farmers avoid wasting expensive fertilizer, reduces the likelihood fertilizer will leach into the groundwater, and makes efficient use of water, a factor that is increasingly important as the state struggles through what may be the fourth consecutive year of drought.

CropManage can currently be used for head and romaine lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and strawberries. It will expand to other crops in the future.

"We want to develop things carefully," Cahn said. "We're not trying to make money on this, we're just trying to help the growers."

The workshop will be from 8:30 a.m. to noon Thursday, April 2, at the Monterey County Agricultural Center Conference Room, 1432 Abbot St., Salinas. RSVP by email to Michael Cahn at mdcahn@ucanr.edu.

Posted on Wednesday, March 11, 2015 at 10:38 AM

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