Smith described as icon and heroine for work in advancing wine grape production
A scientist first and foremost, Rhonda steadily emerged as Sonoma County's resident expert on all things wine grape during her nearly 34 years as the viticulture advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension. Over the decades, she used her scientific know-how, meticulous research methodology and incredible work ethic to advance wine grape production in Sonoma County.
She cultivated real working relationships with growers and vineyard managers during her time setting up field trials and collecting data in vineyards throughout Sonoma County. As the years rolled by, she earned the respect and admiration of grape growers who wonder what they will do without her as she leaves her longtime post and heads into retirement.
“Rhonda Smith became a true icon in Sonoma County viticulture for her timely research and her effective way of communicating valuable information to the wine grape industry,” said grower Bob Dempel of Santa Rosa.
Tito and Janet Sasaki who farm wine grapes in the Sonoma Valley are among the growers who have benefited from Rhonda Smith's dedication to the wine grape industry. The Sasakis said Rhonda is continually studying the latest developments in viticulture science but is always ready to be in the field to help growers – often at a moment's notice when a new problem crops up.
“Rhonda Smith is the quiet heroine of the vineyards in Sonoma County. She has been the family physician of Sonoma County vines for more than three decades,” said Tito Sasaki, past president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a longtime agriculture industry leader. He marvels at how Rhonda has managed the challenges of raising a family while coming to the rescue of growers facing problems like red blotch virus, vine mealybug, Pierce's disease and many other threats.
“Her serene and relaxed demeanor conceals the rock-solid strength of her dedication to others,” Tito said.
Said Janet Sasaki, “Rhonda is the hardest working person I know. My friends and I have been working with her since 1989. No vineyard is too small for her to take an interest in the problem. She is very respected by everyone in the wine grape industry.”
For her part, Rhonda, who is 66 and the mother of two grown children, said she has been fortunate to work in a field she loves, particularly, being able to focus so much of her time and energy on plant pathology, which has intrigued her since her days as a student at the University of California, Davis. She was inspired by professors and Cooperative Extension farm advisors who used scientific research to find ways to combat the diseases that were impacting agriculture and causing economic losses to farmers.
Becoming the viticulture advisor in Sonoma County gave her the opportunity to do the research she loved while providing the best possible opportunities for growers to thrive and produce the world class wines that have made Sonoma County famous. She said her goal has always been to assist the industry in successfully navigating the delicate balance between grape quality and economically acceptable crop yields – the essential combination to prosper as a premium grower of wine grapes.
“It's been fun and rewarding to be part of the Sonoma County wine industry for so many years,” said Rhonda, a resident of Windsor. Over the years she has been recognized with awards and accolades for her many contributions. In 2008 the Harvest Fair board of directors named her “Friend of Agriculture,” noting her hard work “to keep agriculture part of the Sonoma County landscape.”
Rhonda arrived in Sonoma County in 1986 to fill the UCCE viticulture advisor position held for many years by Robert Sisson, who had helped orchestrate Sonoma County's transition to premium varietals like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. It was a move that took Sonoma County from jug wine producer to a celebrated player on the world's wine stage.
Realizing the importance of maintaining quality and economic viability for Sonoma County's most important farming endeavor, Rhonda rolled up her sleeves and plunged into research and grower outreach to assist the viticulture industry as it faced continued new threats.
Shortly before starting as viticulture advisor, there was a crisis: vineyards throughout Sonoma and Napa counties were in decline, displaying lackluster vigor and sharp drops in yields. The culprit was phylloxera, a tiny insect that feeds on grapevine roots.
At that time, more than half the vineyard acreage in Sonoma and Napa counties was planted on a rootstock that had become susceptible to the insect pest. As a result, the majority of the vineyard acreage had to be replanted once severely infested with phylloxera.
Growers desperately needed a path forward. Rhonda and other scientists from UC Davis launched trials to evaluate the performance of alternative rootstocks for vineyards in the North Coast counties.
Through her rootstock trials, Rhonda was able to inform growers of the suitability of specific rootstocks in sites with heavy, cracking clay, wet soil conditions and high nematode populations.
Stephanie Larson, who is the director of UCCE in Sonoma County, said Rhonda Smith's targeted work on so many important issues epitomizes what a UCCE advisor should be – diligent and dedicated to finding solutions to growers' problems and channeling information and research from the University to the field. She said Rhonda's work spanned the spectrum from identifying the best rootstocks to coping with powdery mildew.
“Rhonda was a solid advisor who was extremely dedicated to the wine grape industry. She held UCCE Sonoma County Grape Day each year, without exception since 1987. Grape Day provided growers the most current information on issues such as pests, water, diseases, clones and rootstocks,” said Larson.
For 20 years Rhonda also coordinated the Sonoma County Vineyard Technical Group's nine monthly programs each year, working collaboratively with grower-members to select topics and speakers – including those from out of state - to bring research-based information that addressed farming practices and pest management applicable to the local industry.
“Throughout her career, Rhonda collaborated with state and local regulatory and resource agencies to provide expertise on issues that directly affect wine grape production,” Larson said.
Larson said Rhonda's retirement leaves a huge gap in viticulture knowledge and expertise for the industry. Unfortunately, she said, because of the state's current budget crisis, the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources will not be filling Rhonda's position. But Larson said the University would entertain a discussion with the wine industry to hire a new viticulture advisor if the industry would fund half the cost of the position. She said there must be a five-year commitment for the funding.
Rhonda, who came from a military family, grew up in El Dorado Hills outside of Sacramento. She didn't have a farming background but early on knew she wanted to work outside, not in an office cubicle, after spending time at her uncle's walnut and hog ranch in Galt.
She went to UC Davis and in 1977 earned a bachelor of science degree in plant science, with an emphasis in plant pathology. In 1983 she completed a master's degree from Davis in horticulture, with an emphasis in viticulture.
Before taking the viticulture position in Sonoma County, she worked as a research associate for UC Davis, UCCE and the Department of Food and Agriculture in various parts of California.
Rhonda said her work in Sonoma County was more expansive and productive because of the tremendous cooperation of growers, vineyard managers and wine industry executives who provided vineyards and support for the field trials she conducted. She worked with dozens of vineyard industry professionals during her long career, often, bonding over mutual interests in chardonnay clones or vexed by the vagaries of Pierce's disease, caused by a bacterium spread by the blue-green sharpshooter.
Mark Lingenfelder, who was at Chalk Hill Estate Winery for many years, worked with Rhonda on a number of projects including chardonnay clonal studies and trials investigating the efficacy of a plant growth regulator to improve fruit set. Lingenfelder said because of Rhonda's expertise and professionalism it was a pleasure cooperating and collaborating on research trials that yielded valuable information that was shared with the viticulture industry.
“I was always amazed by Rhonda's energy, persistence and meticulous attention to detail. But she was not only a dedicated and tireless researcher. She was also a friendly, knowledgeable and patient advisor who was always incredibly generous with her time whenever I turned to her for advice,” said Lingenfelder. “We've had some great long conversations.”
Dana Grande, grower relations manager at Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg, said she first met Rhonda Smith in 1994, a time when there were few women working in the viticulture industry.
“At that time, you could count the number of women in Sonoma County viticulture on one hand. Our relationship has always been one of mentorship – her to me - and it encompassed not only viticulture expertise, but how to carefully balance the career/mom life,” said Grande.
From 2002 to 2008 Grande worked with Rhonda on a study of berry shrivel in a cabernet sauvignon block, which was known as “Rhonda's Rows,” at Jordan. The collaboration forged a long, lasting relationship and mutual respect between the two viticulture professionals.
“I can't imagine what Sonoma County viticulture will look like without Rhonda Smith,” said Grande. “I and many others have relied on her advice, experience, and expertise for decades.”
In retirement, Rhonda plans to take a deep breath and then catch up on projects around the house and do some traveling. She will also have more time to spend with husband Dana and her grown children. Her daughter Emma, 29, is a US Air Force Captain and a Medical ICU nurse now preparing for her second deployment to the Middle East. Son Charles, 26, recently graduated from Chico State University with a degree in criminal justice and is seeking a job in law enforcement.
And at some point, Rhonda plans to sit back and reflect on her long and fruitful career while savoring Sonoma County wines.
Like many who appreciate wine, Rhonda is intrigued by the sensory elegance of what wine grapes become when entrusted to the hands of a masterful winemaker. “I appreciate the growers who provide wineries with the best fruit possible by making critical farming decisions driven by experience, knowledge and research based information.”
“Sonoma County has an ideal climate for growing wine grapes, but it is up to growers to establish then farm a vineyard with a balanced crop load, adequate soil moisture and canopies that maximize desired fruit composition. All that while managing pests, diseases and labor shortages.
I feel honored to have been able to work with
the people who are in this industry.”
Written by Tim Tesconi
Here is a summary of some of the work our office is doing during shelter in place.
Fire & Resiliency
UCCE Sonoma is building on the foundational work of other county departments such as Sonoma Water and Permit Sonoma, by providing outreach to private landowners to address forest health, vegetation management and fire fuel reduction.
Lake Sonoma Decision Support System: Development of an online geo spatial reporting tool to help landowners assess:
Match.Graze: development of an online database that connects land owners and grazers.
- Filmed educational videos
- Creating website
- Current status: roll out in early June.
Good Fire Alliance: partnership with Audubon Canyon Ranch to assist landowners in managing fire fuels through prescribed burning on private and publicly owned lands. The following prescribed fires are in the active planning stage:
- 100+ acre burn unit at Cooley Ranch near Lake Sonoma; late May.
- Sonoma Ecology Center is planning a burn at Van Hoosear Wildflower Preserve; late May - early June.
- Bodega Pastures spanning several weekends in October/November.
Resilient Landscapes: Master Gardener collaborative project to:
- Host Firewise webinars
- Develop materials for Fire Safe Sonoma's Living with Fire brochure and webpage resource.
- Post Fire Survival/Mortality: research project to develop a quick and simple post-fire tree survival reference tool to aid with triage of burned landscapes.
- Working with local fire departments to homogenize fire-resilient landscape standards.
Oak Tree Health: organized, hosted and presented:
- California Oak Workshop with science based oak health information. Over 500 participants.
- Sudden Oak Death Blitz pivoted to online, educating and distributing 93 test kits to the public.
Food Systems & Security
- “Stay Home Grow Food” series has reached over 350 people with videos plus resources via an extensive social media campaign.
- Gardener Sense program delivered by video conference to help homeowners reduce water use.
- Master Gardener's are pivoting their classes to webinars.
The value of a strong, connected local food system to sustain the resiliency of our communities has never been more clear.
Coordinating with Sonoma County Food System Alliance and strategizing for a series of video conferences on longer term emergency food response planning & strengthening the local food supply chain looking to local production & distribution as part of meeting food need.
- Meeting on March 23 with over 50 emergency food responders to strategize on coronavirus response.
- Chairing the Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) Food group. Continue to collaborate with the group to meet the needs of emergency food organizations.
- Sonoma County Food Recovery Coalition
UCCE used connections to secure donations of over 12,000 wine boxes to
Redwood Empire Food Bank for boxing and distributing food.
Local Meat Supplies: Mobile Slaughter Unit (MSU)
UCCE is working with local livestock producers in Marin/Sonoma to create a business plan for an MSU which can assist local livestock producers with a local, safe option for processing livestock.
- Applying for USDA grant to assist these producers to determine the functionality of keeping it in production.
- Will develop educational and management strategies to ensure economic security for small-scale livestock producers.
Integrated Pest Management
- Collaborating with UC Davis researchers to continue projects that address soil and fungal pests that shorten the lifespan of vineyards.
Critical research on the newly detected invasive Mediterranean oak borer (pictured) found in valley oak in eastern Sonoma County. Collaborators include Cal Fire, US Forest Service, and CDFA.
4-H youth educational programs have continued to engage youth and adults with online technologies.
- Developed fact sheets to support volunteer educators in delivering online programs available at Youth Development Resources
- Short-term educational programs have been implemented reaching elementary-aged children with science and art content.
- Ongoing programming has been transitioning online focused for teens around college and career readiness (Juntos 4-H) and youth participatory action research.
Annual Sonoma 4-H Open House and ChickenQue transitioned from a full-day chicken BBQ lunch fundraiser to a radiothon.
- Partnered with local radio The Bull 93.7 to do a radiothon.
- The station promoted 4-H with interviews of staff, volunteers, and youth.
- The event also served as a public awareness campaign showcasing the program's legacy helping youth reach their full potential.
Working with local dairy and livestock producers to apply for grants from CDFA to reduce greenhouse gases:
- Alternative Manure Management Program
- Healthy Solis Program
If funded, these grants would bring over $5 million to reduce GHG by 4,154 MTeCO2
Support Local Producers
- Working with local creameries and FEED Sonoma, to develop a dairy CSA box option.
- Revisit the County Lands for Food Production program initiated by UCCE to increase the availability of county owned land to communities, farmers and ranchers.
- Find Local Food & Aid the Community
Providing information and updates.
Coronavirus Resources webpages provides information for agricultural enterprises focusing on financial resources, Ag worker safety and food safety and includes resources for where to find food from local farms and for opportunities to volunteer.
Sonoma county residents love their oak trees, and with good reason: Oak woodlands are a source of immense value not just to the more than 330 types of animals and hundreds of other organisms they support, but also to the cultural, economic, and social fabric of our society. Sudden oak death (SOD) threatens to unhinge these systems, imperil biodiversity, create hazard trees or fuel for fires, and potentially infect agriculturally or horticulturally important plants. So whether it means adapting educational events to virtual spaces, delivering materials by mail, training online, answering home phones instead of staffing the Master Gardener desk, or collecting leaves for the SOD blitz by bicycle while wearing a mask and social distancing, the UCCE Sonoma SOD Program is not letting COVID-19 slow us down.
A key endeavor of this group is the yearly Sudden Oak Death Blitz in partnership with UC Berkeley's Forest Pathology and Mycology Lab. This state-wide citizen science project allows landowners to receive free testing of California bay laurel and tanoak leaves, contribute to long-term scientific research, and update the SOD Map Mobile app used by landowners and professionals to assess disease risk in their area. As SOD Blitz creator Dr. Matteo Garbelotto wrote in a letter addressed to all Californians about this year's program,
“The SOD Blitzes have become a tradition for many, while providing key information to help us save our oaks from a devastating disease.”
UCCE Sonoma hosts six blitz events annually whereas most counties hold just one, and we were eager to test new areas of tree mortality that were discovered after last-year's blitz had already passed. Here's how we made it work:
- Training took place online.
- Three Zoom sessions were set up with SOD team members for participant questions.
- Collection packets were mailed to most participants, and the rest picked up following strict safety guidelines supervised by staff.
- Leaves were collected at homes and on public land by walkers, cyclists, and others engaging in outdoor exercise.
- Kashia Pomo staff continued to sample on their land.
- In collaboration with SSU's Center for Environmental Inquiry, we hosted the only SOD blitz in the state that was fully bilingual in Spanish and English.
Despite limitations posed by COVID-19 regarding how to train volunteers, access areas where leaves could be sampled, and safely pass materials and samples between participants and blitz organizers, this year's campaign is on track to be even more successful than 2019. Returning leaves by mail instead of in-person allowed residents on the coast and other remote areas to participate easily, leading to a better geographic distribution of sampling. Online trainings and Q&A sessions, though less personal and lacking physical demonstrations, encouraged people with schedule constraints to give the blitz a try. One participant with extra time on his hands reported that he thought this was a great way to give back to the community in a time of need. Based on the number of participants and collection packets requested, we estimate a 15% increase in sampling from last year, including all major areas of Sonoma county and most of Mendocino county.
And things are just getting started. Though a SOD-themed Plant Walk with the local Milo Baker chapter of the California Native Plant Society was postponed, discussions are underway about creating a live virtual field trip in its place, complete with 360 degree photos of highlighted spots along the trail. Similarly, SOD Specialist Master Gardeners have been presenting at public library series' for years, and are now hoping to create a recorded version to be posted on UCCE Sonoma's Sudden Oak Death webpage. Check back for announcements on these and other happenings.
Our gratitude goes out to every volunteer who has invested their time in staying educated, spreading the word, and participating in citizen science with us over the years, especially during the current shelter-in-place, with special recognition for our dedicated team of SOD Specialist Master Gardeners. We couldn't help our oaks without you!
- Author: Lisa A Blecker, coordinator for the UC Pesticide Safety Education Program and Office of Pesticide Information and Coordination
- Author: Whitney Brim-DeForest, UC Cooperative Extension rice advisor in Sutter and Yuba counties
- Author: Katrina Hunter, UC Integrated Pest Management Program pesticide safety writer
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice, UC ANR Assistant Director, News and Information Outreach
While most Californians are staying home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, California farmers, farmworkers and other agricultural professionals are out in the fields and packing houses working to produce food.
With increased demand for personal protective equipment, or PPE, to protect against COVID-19, these essential workers are facing shortages. Agricultural commissioners in 28 counties are hearing from farmers who are having trouble getting PPE for their employees and farmers in another 11 counties who are worried about running out of PPE in the next month or twoaccording to a California Department of Pesticide Regulation survey.
To reduce the spread of COVID-19, workers may wear homemade face coverings, but for applying pesticides, they must wear respirators specified on the pesticide product label, said Whitney Brim-DeForest, UC Cooperative Extension rice advisor.
Pesticide applicators may use gear that is more protective than required by the product label and regulations.
“Although this could change in the days ahead, half-mask and full-mask respirators are more available than disposable N95 respirators for now,” said Lisa Blecker, coordinator for the UC Pesticide Safety Education Program.
Before the pandemic, 10% of N95 respirators from 3M went to health care, but that number is now 90%, the company said in a letter to distributors. This has led to significant backorders of PPE supplies for distributors.
Carl Atwell, president of Gempler's, an online distributor of worker supplies, said that before the crisis, normal lead times for PPE was up to 10 days. He estimated disposable respirators will become available in the fall and other PPE supplies in August.
In the meantime, there is alternative PPE that agricultural professionals can use during the shortage.
Atwell suggests looking for lesser known brands of PPE as opposed to the first tier of choice: “It's sort of like searching for Purell hand sanitizer. Purell brand might be out of stock, but can you find a different disinfectant?
On Gempler's website, the more recognizable Tyvek coverall from Dupont is sold out, however disposable protective clothing is available from other brands. Reusable chemical-resistant clothing is also available as opposed to their disposable counterparts. Supplies in high demand are reusable and disposable nitrile gloves, protective clothing, disposable respirators and certain protective eyewear, such as goggles and face shields.
For workers who will be applying pesticides, Blecker and Brim-DeForest offered some guidelines on how to meet PPE requirements as the shortage continues.
General PPE requirements: “Remember, the label is the law,” said Brim-DeForest. “PPE requirements for agriculture are not being loosened.” The UCCE advisor recommends purchasing only what you need for the season and choosing reusable PPE whenever possible. Growers who have excess supplies of PPE can coordinate with their county agricultural commissioner or UCCE advisor to help other producers in their area.
Respirators: If you can't find the respirator required on the label, Blecker said, “Use an alternative, more-protective respirator. For example, if an N95 is required, you can use a half-mask with N95 particulate filters; these can be stand-alone filters or ones that attach to an organic vapor cartridge. You could also use a different pesticide that doesn't require a respirator. Consult with your PCA (pest control adviser) for options.”
Gloves: Chemical-resistant gloves, usually 14 mil or more in thickness are required for most California pesticide applications and should be worn by mixers, handlers and applicators. If nitrile gloves are not available, viton and laminate gloves are universal chemical-resistant materials for most pesticide labels. If the glove material is specified on the label, that instruction must be followed.
“Disposable gloves less than 14 mil can be worn, but not for more than 15 minutes at a time,” Blecker said. “Farmers should also note that thinner gloves cannot be layered on top of one another.”
Coveralls: Coveralls should be worn when required by the pesticide label or when the signal word is “WARNING” or “DANGER,” or when applying by backpack or airblast. “Coveralls can be made out of high-density polyethylene fibers (Tyvek and other brands), which are disposable, or cotton, which are reusable,” Brim-DeForest said. “If reusable coveralls are worn, the employer must ensure employees are provided clean coveralls.”
Goggles/face shields: Face shields are required for mixing and loading pesticides only if it's stated on the label. “If a face shield is unavailable, a full-face respirator can be used,” Blecker said. “Goggles or protective eyewear should always be worn in California when handling pesticides, regardless of what the label says. The face shield, goggles or safety glasses must provide front, side and brow protection and meet the American National Standards Institute Z87.1 standard for impact resistance.
For more information about PPE, contact your county agricultural commissioner or see the California Department of Pesticide Regulation's posters:
4-H families have been working hard sewing cotton masks for nurses, essential workers, and friends and family!
Now that home sewn fabric masks are required in Sonoma County, and N95 masks are reserved for first responders, we are busy sewing up a storm. It has been a challenge with fabric stores closed for regular shopping so it is a good thing that sewists (sewing artists) tend to have extra supplies on hand!
The count thus far is 277 masks sewn by 7 families and that is just the start! They were donated to hospitals, nurses, mental health workers, medical offices, Senior Center, to essential workers that must stay on the job and some to friends and other families in need.
Way to go 4-Hers, learning and helping is a beautiful thing!
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