Reinventing agriculture at Russell Ranch

Jun 6, 2012

The size, scope and intensity of research at Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility at UC Davis make the 300-acre experiment like no other in the world. The ranch’s unique focus on sustainability research is what draws producers, researchers and students to its annual Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Field Day.

Located just west of the main UC Davis campus, Russell Ranch is a testing ground for the long-term sustainability of various farming methods. Research at the ranch focuses on fundamental components of agricultural production – energy, water and land resources – to help address the big questions of the future.

“The human population on the planet is going to increase from about 7 billion people to 9 billion people in 2050, which raises questions about food supply,” said Tom Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, which houses Russell Ranch. “There is a great success story with agriculture and food production in the last 40 or 50 years – roughly doubling food supply. What that took, though, was doubling of nitrogen, tripling of phosphorus, a lot of advanced research. Now, are we going to be able to do this next doubling to feed the next two billion with business as usual? Or are we are going to have to discover new ways of combining sustainability with intensification to increase productivity?”

A majority of the ranch is comprised of a century-long research project devoted to better understanding the relationships between inputs like fertilizers and cover crops, and various indicators of sustainability. The rest of the ranch hosts a variety of other experiments conducted by researchers not involved in The Century Experiment.

Russell Ranch Field Day
Just as spring gives way to the heat of summer every year Russell Ranch hosts a field day to highlight the research in sustainable farming that is being conducted at UC Davis and primarily at the ranch. This year’s field day focused on issues involving nitrogen, water and climate change.

More than 160 growers, scientists and students learned about greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, California’s new carbon market and soil microbial communities. Researchers from UC Davis and the company PureSense presented the results of research on a novel method for determining local, crop-specific water demand levels in real time to improve irrigation scheduling.

Thomas Harter, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources, shared the results of a new report, “Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water,” which is the first comprehensive scientific investigation of nitrate contamination in two of the most agriculturally rich areas of California – the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley. Harter and his team found that more than 90 percent of human-generated nitrate contamination of groundwater in these basins is from agricultural activity.

“First and foremost, this is about getting safe drinking water to people,” Harter said.

Problems like these inspire researchers at Russell Ranch to help agriculture develop in a way that will feed the planet’s growing population without creating health and environmental problems, Tomich said.

“California agriculture has always had this spirit of innovation. It has basically reinvented itself every generation. So, a lot of what we’re about here and throughout the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis is asking: What’s going to be the scientific foundation for the next generation of California agriculture?”

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By Eve Hightower
Author - Communications Coordinator