- Author: Jeffrey P Mitchell
About 80 Master Gardeners of the UCCE group in El Dorado County came together to learn about the principles and practices of conservation agriculture in a lively discussion with CASI Workgroup Chair, Jeff Mitchell, on June 23rd at the group's monthly meeting in Placerville. The meeting was organized by Master Gardener event coordinator, Catherine Mone, and drew a very animated and engaged group of participants.
Mitchell talked about the core principles of conservation agriculture and the extent to which they're now being used around the world and recently in California. He showcased examples of pioneering innovation that have been achieved in a number of cropping contexts and also provided information and ideas as to why it will be increasingly likely that these sorts of production system options may have greater receptivity and resonance in California in the future. He ended his discussion with some examples of motivation that he has benefited from over the years from his professional mentor, Dwayne Beck of South Dakota State University. "Take the E out of ET and the T out of can't," was Beck's encouragement to Mitchell. This can be accomplished by protecting the soil surface with crop residues that cool soil temperatures and reduce soil water evaporation, and by not giving in to merely accepting the status quo, but by identifying bold, ambitious, and long-term cropping system goals and then coming up with the ways to achieve them. This is, according to Beck, "Nothing short of the agronomic and ecological equivalent of the space race back in the 1960's" and we are going to need to really dedicate tremendous creativity and effort toward achieving it.
CASI was very honored to be invited by the Master Gardeners of El Dorado County and we look forward to returning to Placerville in late September!
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
Mitchell, the chair of the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center, made the comment at the 6th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Winnipeg, Manitoba, last month.
After attending the congress, Mitchell said he is more strongly convinced that greater efficiencies and brighter economics in California agriculture could be achieved by employing conservation principles.
“Focusing on soil care will improve soil water intake and storage,” he said. “Reducing soil water evaporation can be achieved by preserving surface residues. Together these steps reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions – very important goals.”
The Manitoba congress drew more than 350 participants representing 47 countries. It was co-sponsored by the Conservation Agriculture Systems Alliance, the Conservation Technology Information Center, and the Canadian Soil and Water Conservation Society. California's CASI was represented by Mitchell and Monte Bottens, president of California Ag Solutions of Madera, a consulting and custom fertilizer support company.
Speakers at the conference suggested conservation agriculture principles are “transformative and not merely incremental means for achieving the kinds of change must be made to meet the global challenges of food production and natural resource conservation in the 21st Century,” Mitchell said. Modestly tweaking today's conventional agricultural systems, he said, “is not an option.”
Today conservation agriculture is used on about 11 percent of the world's total arable land. Implementation is increasing at an annual rate of about 7 to 8 million hectares, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization. Nearly half of the world's conservation agriculture acreage is found in the developing world. The South American countries of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, where the movement had its beginnings as a farmer-led process dating back to the mid-1970s, has about 80 percent implementation.
During his keynote address at the conference, David Montgomery, University of Washington professor of geology and author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, issued a “call to action.”
“Global soil degradation,” he said, “is an under-appreciated environmental crisis that occurs because of how we farm. We need to be more creative in terms of how we're intensifying agriculture to feed the post-oil world without cheap, fertilizer-intensive agriculture.”
Congress speaker Dwayne Beck, agronomy professor at South Dakota State University, also sounded an alarm.
“Never in history has mankind knowingly faced this type of impending catastrophe,” Beck said. “It is time to stop doing incremental things and start doing transformative things. You do not cross a chasm in two steps. We need to focus on where we want to be and emphasize systems, not details; actions, not reactions; and commitment, not merely involvement.”
CASI members are working with foundations and granting agencies to better position the organization to support implementation of conservation agriculture in California. For more information, contact Mitchell at (559) 303-9689.
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
Extensive research by UC scientists and innovative farmers has shown that making the changes can be challenging at first, but in time results in more efficient, environmentally sound and profitable food production systems.
“There’s a sense of inevitability now that these systems will be more widely adopted in California annual cropping systems,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.
|View a two-minute
video snapshot of the
field day and farm tour
at the end of this post.
The growing interest was demonstrated at a UC field day and farm tour in September in which more than 200 participants visited three farms already successfully implementing conservation practices and three sites at the field station where research on conservation farming practices is underway.
At Five Points Ranch, field day participants stood on an alfalfa field and inched along with an operating center pivot system. Farmer Armando Galvan has added “boom backs” behind the wheels that roll the system through the field. The boom backs make sure the wheel tracks stay dry until the wheels have passed, which prevents wheels from carving deep trenches in wet soil.
At the Morning Star dairy farm, John and JoAnne Tacherra irrigate rolling acres of forage with a center pivot irrigation system and have put the employees who used to undertake the punishing task of moving sprinkler sets to work inside the dairy barn. The center pivot system is controlled with the touch of a button. The combination of advanced nozzle packages and software that manages the pivot speed allow the Tacherras to distribute precise quantities of water and dispense the water with the ideal droplet size for each stage of the crop’s development. The couple now plans to experiment with the application of dairy lagoon water through the center pivot system.
At Farming “D” Ranch in Five Points, logistics manager Scott Schmidt experienced some problems with overhead irrigation this spring. Water was applied on cotton over triangular beds, slipped into the furrows and left seeds dry. Water infiltration was also inhibited when the wetted surface of the field dried into a crust and subsequent irrigation washed off. The crop had to be replanted.
“These sorts of problems can be solved,” Mitchell said. “Carefully designed nozzle packages and soil quality development practices will promote water infiltration.”
No-till farming and the use of cover crops have been shown at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center to enhance soil quality. When the tour returned to the center’s research plots, they viewed a 12-year study where plots have been maintained to compare the long-term effects of standard tillage techniques with no-till or minimum tillage systems, and both tillage methods combined with off-season cover crops.
The soil differences are dramatic.
Using clear canisters for a demonstration, Natural Resources Conservation Service soil conservationist Genett Carstensen poured a cup of water onto soil collected from a tilled plot and onto soil from a no-till plot managed with cover crops. The standard till soil repelled the liquid, which pooled at the top of the container; the no-till soil readily absorbed the water.
“This is what soil quality is,” Carstensen said.
She further demonstrated the soil quality differences by placing dirt clods from the two types of plots in canisters of water. The no-till clod maintained its composure; the clod from the tilled plot began dissolving immediately.
“The no-till clod has glued itself together with dead matter and dead microbes,” she said. “The standard till soil is going to erode and water is going to carry it off.”
At another research field, Steven Kaffka, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, is leading a study of what he calls “energy beets,” formerly known as sugar beets. The trial compares beet production under overhead irrigation and buried drip irrigation. Kaffka believes energy beets will be another competitive crop for California farmers because they can be used to produce ethanol, which will allow farmers to help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve climate change goals.
The field day also included a glimpse of future research at the northeast corner of the West Side REC where industry donors have teamed up with UC to create a facility for state-of-the-art overhead irrigation study. Reinke Inc. donated a center pivot system, Senninger Irrigation donated nozzles, and Rain for Rent created an infrastructure that gets water and power to the research plot.
Replicated plots will be pie shaped and different treatments can be applied to each segment with the use of multiple sets of drop hoses. Studies will begin immediately to research deficit irrigation of alfalfa, corn, sorghum and cotton.
“Because of the water situation in California, deficit irrigation is going to be something we will need to know a whole lot more about, for better or for worse,” said Bob Hutmacher, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciecnes at UC Davis and director of the West Side Research and Extension Center.
- Author: Jeffrey P Mitchell
For the past 20 years, I have taken Elkhorn Avenue just about every day from my home in Kingsburg out west to the small town of Five Points where I work. My travels along this 30-mile rural route have been one of life’s little joys as I have come to deeply respect the people I have met and the things I’ve seen along the way. In many ways, Elkhorn Avenue represents the very best of our Valley and it provides a lot that we might all be proud of.
Our Valley’s crop diversity is also apparent along this transition. On a recent drive this spring, I counted over 30 different crops being produced. From permanent trees and vines including almonds to walnuts, to diverse annual crops ranging from eggplant to wheat, a rich array of cropping can be seen along Elkhorn year round.
Different innovative systems are now used to irrigate these crops. Flood and furrow irrigation systems have been replaced in vineyards by drip and in orchards by micro-sprinkler systems and recently in annual crop fields by highly precise and uniform center pivot systems that can be seen at the dairy farm of John and Joann Tachara just east of Burrel. Their silage fields are now irrigated and fertigated to precisely match crop needs.
Further west and south of the small West Side community of Five Points is Red Rock Ranch, owned and managed by John Diener. In 2011, John received the Leopold Award for the many conservation techniques he uses to manage salty drainage water, achieve on-farm energy self-sufficiency by biofuel production and processing, and couple conservation tillage with center pivot irrigation. Another example of visionary and sustainable farming.
You may also notice smaller scale innovations along Elkhorn Avenue. A group of boys just west of Hwy 43 created their own soccer field complete with metal goal posts. They do all the maintenance for this field themselves and it has become a well used local resource. I also remember seeing two young girls having the times of their lives in their 50-gallon plastic drum ‘pool’ that they had filled with a garden hose. The fun they were having that day with this makeshift little pool brings a smile to my face even today.
The term “innovation” is sometimes overused, but from what I’ve seen through my travels along Elkhorn Avenue, it sure seems to apply to this place. “Innovation” not only means creating something new; it’s also about bringing something that exists elsewhere to a new place - and that is definitely happening here
Looking forward, the future of the agricultural systems that are evolving along Elkhorn Avenue ought to be quite bright. That is, of course, if the region’s other necessary resource, - water, - is made more reliable and available. Creative and visionary water policies and expanded development of efficient water capture, storage, and delivery infrastructure are going to be needed for this innovation to continue. The future of Elkhorn Avenue’s dynamic innovation thus rests with all of us. May we act wisely.