- Author: Richard Smith
Richard Smith, Joji Muramoto, Tim Hartz and Michael Cahn
UCCE Emeritus Farm Advisor, Extension Specialist, Emeritus, Extension Specialist and Irrigation and Water Resources Farm Advisor.
The winter of 2023 had the highest rainfall years in the last 25 years. The high rainfall resulted in flooding onto farmland along the main branch of the Salinas River in both January and March. The flood waters disrupted planting schedules as well as inundated established plantings resulting in a disruption to the beginning of the vegetable production season.
The river also deposited a layer of sediments in flooded fields (Photo 1). The sediments came from several sources: river sediments from as far away as San Luis Obispo County; sediments from side channels; and soil sediments scoured from upstream farms. Several growers and industry personnel have asked what is the composition of these sediments? In April after the flooding had subsided, we collected samples at river crossings from San Lucas to Salinas. The layer of sediment left by the flood waters tended to curled up as it dried out and were easy to collect. Any field soil was brushed from the bottom of the sediments and they were sent to the UC Davis Analytical Laboratory for analysis.
Tables 1 and 2 have analysis of the sediments collected. The data in the table is arranged with sites from south to north; the two side channels, Arroyo Seco and Monroe Canyon are listed separately. Monroe Canyon is the drainage that comes from the west side of Hwy 101 just south of the intersection of Hwy 101 and Central Avenue north of King City; it cuts through a large section of the Monterey shale formation that contains elevated levels of cadmium.
The San Lucas, Arroyo Seco and Monroe Canyon samples are coarser indicating that they were transported by rapid water movement, while the rest of the samples are dominated by silts and clays, indicating that they were transported by slower moving water. In general, there is a good correlation between the clay content of the sediments and nutrient and organic matter content. Higher nutrients in the silt and clay sediments include total nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, sulfate, zinc and iron. The sediments are generally fertile which may indicate that they are at least partially composed of soil eroded from farmed fields farther upstream. Sediments that are low in phosphorus likely originated from non-farmed or vineyard areas.
The elevated cadmium levels measured in sediments from the Arroyo Seco and Monroe Canyon indicate that these side channels carried sediments from the Monterey shale formation which has naturally high levels of cadmium into the Salinas River. Presumably these sediments originating in the Monterey shale formation are transported to areas further downstream by flood waters.
Photo 1. Sediments deposited in a field along the Salinas River
Table 1. Analysis of river sediment samples from locations from San Lucas to Salinas and two side channel locations.
Table 2. Analysis of river sediment samples from locations from San Lucas to Salinas and two side channel locations.
- Author: Mike Hsu
Salinas Valley lettuce growers lost about $150 million in 2022 due to diseases
A stormy winter could portend another devastating year for the lettuce industry in the Salinas Valley, which saw approximately $150 million in lost gross revenue in 2022 due to INSV (impatiens necrotic spot virus) and associated diseases. Recent drenching rains might mean more weeds – overwintering “reservoirs” for the tiny insect, the Western flower thrips, that carries INSV.
Or the extreme precipitation could benefit growers, as thrips in the soil – during their intermediate stage of development – might be drowned in the waterlogged fields.
As with so many aspects of the INSV crisis, the ultimate effects of flooded fields on thrips populations remain unknown.
“We don't know if thrips are just so persistent and so stable in that pupal stage that maybe they will emerge unaffected,” said Kirsten Pearsons, University of California Cooperative Extension integrated pest management farm advisor for Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties. “There's just so much about their biology and ecology in the Salinas Valley that we just don't know.”
The mystery of thrips, INSV and soilborne diseases (namely Pythium wilt) is why UC Agriculture and Natural Resources assigned Pearsons to the area last November and hired Yu-Chen Wang in October as UCCE plant pathology advisor for the three counties.
“They're stepping in at a critical moment,” said Richard Smith, the region's UCCE vegetable crop production and weed science advisor who retired in January after a 37-year career. “They've gotten grants funded already – and that's just incredible. They're hitting the ground running.”
Experienced in disease diagnosis and collaboration with growers and industry partners, Wang said her pathology background – paired with Pearsons' entomology expertise – will be crucial in addressing INSV and other diseases.
“It is important for Kirsten and me to work together and provide different insights for the vector and the pathogen, respectively,” Wang said.
‘It's going to take everything to get a crop'
One priority is untangling the dynamics of INSV and Pythium wilt co-occurrence – the subject of ongoing research by JP Dundore-Arias, a plant pathologist at California State University, Monterey Bay. While the vegetables may tolerate one disease or the other, their one-two punch often deals the lethal blow.
“The challenge is – which is why it's great to have Yu-Chen and Kirsten – is that we have so many problems now, whether it's Fusarium (wilt), or Verticillium (wilt), or Pythium, or INSV,” said Mark Mason, pest control adviser for Nature's Reward, which primarily grows lettuces on 5,000 acres across the Salinas Valley.
Mason said that co-infections on his crops (sometimes with three or four diagnosed diseases) make it difficult to assign monetary damages to a specific pathogen, but he noted he has seen fields with “100% loss.” According to the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, about 11,500 acres were deemed not harvestable in 2022, representing 12% of lettuce industry acreage.
Given the gravity and complexity of the disease dilemma, Pearsons said she has been fielding calls from growers seeking new and better solutions – ways to improve existing tools, techniques borrowed from other crop systems, and additional biological or chemical means of control.
And although there are a couple of pesticides that manage the disease-carrying thrips reasonably well, growers and researchers are worried about their diminishing efficacy due to overuse. Plus, they only constitute a short-term fix.
“Managing the thrips will only reduce the amount of INSV that can get transmitted,” Pearsons explained. “You can kill 99.9% of the thrips, but you get one thrips that has INSV that enters a field, and now you have an infected lettuce plant. All of the thrips are going to come and they can spread it from there; pesticide slows things down, but it's not going to eliminate it.”
Finding disease-tolerant lettuce cultivars is a more sustainable approach. Trials conducted last year by Smith, Wang and others identified several varieties that appeared to hold up well to Pythium and INSV. While additional research could maximize their potential benefit, Wang said even the hardier cultivars will lose their resistance over time, and a multi-layered INSV strategy with “integrated management tools” is crucial.
“We realized, when this thing started happening, that we cannot spray our way out of this problem,” Mason said. “We need varieties; we need management practices; we need pesticides…it just seems like it's going to take everything to get a crop.”
Weeds key to disease control
An all-hands-on-deck approach helped control thrips-harboring weeds last winter. With fields drying out from January storms, Smith said communities must get back to weed management – with a focus on prominent weed hosts for INSV and neglected areas adjacent to farms. Hotspots of infection last year were traced to industrial lots that were overlooked during the weeding process.
“People can't lose sight of the fact that we still need to be controlling the weeds in key areas, because that's the reservoir of the virus during the winter,” Smith said. “We have to stay on task with that.”
Yet despite the diligent weed abatement, crop damage from INSV and Pythium was widespread in 2022, and Smith said it's “very possible” that high heat during the summer was a contributing factor to especially prevalent disease in fall. Thrips populations tend to thrive in warmer weather, Smith said, but much more research needs to be done to understand the basic biology of the insect, including how they acquire the virus and how they spread it.
High hopes for future
Pearsons cited the work of Daniel Hasegawa, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who leads teams in monitoring thrips populations in several locations across the Salinas Valley. Currently the counting of thrips on sticky card traps is done manually, but Pearsons and Mason mentioned the possibility of using AI and machine learning to expedite that process.
Mason said that the grower community is excited about the new technologies and ideas that Pearsons and Wang are bringing to the region. As a participant in the search for candidates to fill the advisor positions, Mason said “they were, in my opinion, by far the best fit for what we were looking for.”
“I hope they stay here for 30 years,” he added.
The new advisors both noted the palpable energy and cooperative spirit in the Salinas Valley to proactively meet the challenge.
“Looking to the past, there have been other outbreaks and diseases that they've managed to overcome,” Pearsons said. “These farmers are resilient and creative and I fully believe that lettuce will still be growing here for years to come – it might look a little different, and it might take a little bit of a painful period to get to that point, but I think that we're going to be able to come up with some solutions.”
And while there are concerns that some lettuce growers might decide to leave the region, Wang said she also believes in the industry's strong roots and rich history.
“Salinas Valley has had a beautiful climate for lettuce for so many years; there are some undeniable advantages here,” she said. “This is still the best place in the United States – and maybe the world – to grow lettuce.”/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Mike Hsu
Population explosion of insect vector contributed to $100 million in losses in 2020
While most Californians are wholeheartedly embracing the wet start to winter, one group is welcoming the rain more warily (and wearily) – lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley.
“It's a blessing, yes, we need the water,” said Tony Alameda, managing partner of Topflavor Farms, which grows a variety of produce in Monterey and San Benito counties. “But, oh gosh: with that water, here come the weeds, here comes the habitat, here comes all the other problems that go along with it.”
Weeds are overwintering havens for a tiny insect called the Western flower thrips, which in turn carries the impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) – a plant virus that caused $100 million in lost gross revenue for Salinas Valley growers in 2020.
The agricultural community called it “the biggest problem we've seen in a long, long time,” said Mary Zischke, facilitator of a task force convened by the Grower-Shipper Association to address INSV and a related affliction, Pythium wilt.
Widespread crop failure in 2020
Since INSV was first observed in the state in 2006, the virus – which poses no threat to people – triggered significant crop losses in 2019, leading up to a catastrophic 2020. As Alameda's lettuces began to show the telltale “bronzing” of the leaves, efforts to bag up or remove the infected plants had no effect on the virus' implacable spread.
“Nothing seemed to work,” he recalled, “and you just watch those fields collapse, week after week, until you're just like, ‘Ugh, there's nothing here to even harvest.'”
After “100% crop failure” that year in his prime fields at the heart of the Salinas Valley, Alameda tried to dodge the virus in 2021 – shifting lettuce plantings to San Benito County and instead using his most valuable land for unaffected crops such as cilantro, leeks and radishes. By decamping to San Benito, Alameda was able to harvest 70% of his usual lettuce yield.
Generally, growers enjoyed a reprieve from virus pressures in 2021. Even in this “good” year, however, about one-third of all lettuce plantings in the Salinas Valley had at least a low level of infection, according to Zischke.
“Since we were attributing a lot of our so-called good fortune – on having less damage this year – to the cooler weather, we know we can't count on that to get us out of this problem,” Zischke said. “All the models point to the fact that we're in a warming climate, so we were fortunate this year.”
More research needed on thrips
Heat waves were a major driver of the INSV disaster of 2020. Although researchers have established a link between warmer temperatures and population increases of thrips, science still has a lot to learn about those disease vectors.
“Thrips are something we're trying to understand as much as we can, but it's pretty tough because they're a little mysterious in the way they get around and where they overwinter,” said Richard Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable crops and weed science farm advisor for the Central Coast region.
Smith – along with U.S. Department of Agriculture research entomologist Daniel Hasegawa and California State University-Monterey Bay plant pathologist JP Dundore-Arias – provided an INSV update during an Assembly agriculture committee hearing in December.
Recent studies have identified several weeds as key “reservoirs” of thrips, including malva, marestail, and hairy fleabane. The ubiquitous mustards, fortunately, appear to be poor hosts for thrips, although their pollen serve as potential food sources.
Controlling those weeds – which are beginning to spring up as the days lengthen – is a top priority during the winter months, according to Smith. Aggressive weed management in the preceding winter was an important factor in limiting the virus' spread in 2021.
And because weeds recognize no boundaries, experts are also urging managers of non-agricultural lands to keep their properties as clean as possible, including industrial sites, equipment yards and the edges of roadways – namely U.S. Route 101, which runs through the center of the valley. Some growers have been volunteering to weed their neighbors' vineyards.
“We're encouraging everybody – as best they can – to knock down known weed hosts; that's really critical,” Zischke said.
Search for long-term solutions
Within the grower community, there is “nervous optimism” for the coming year, said Alameda, as he continues to hope for an innovation that would aid in the fight against INSV – whether a more targeted pesticide application or a beneficial insect that could deter the thrips.
However, both Alameda and Zischke pointed to the breeding of more resistant lettuce varieties as the ultimate solution to INSV – albeit one that is years away.
“We have a lot of different types of lettuce that we grow, so to move resistance into all the different types of lettuce we grow throughout the season … that's going to take time,” Zischke explained.
Research funding from the state and USDA – as well as projects supported by the California Leafy Greens Research Program – can help expedite that process. But, for Alameda, the INSV crisis underscores the need for more resources and farm advisors such as Smith, who has spent more than three decades cultivating relationships and building trust within Salinas Valley communities.
Alameda would like to see a renewed focus on bringing “bright, young, passionate people who live and breathe this stuff” to the region, so growers are better equipped to handle the inevitable next calamity.
“Hopefully this is a wakeup call to all,” he said. “This is a valued industry – you have to take care of it; it cannot be taken for granted. The ‘salad bowl of the world' cannot rest on its laurels.”/h3>/h3>/h3>/h2>
- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
But thrips do pack a powerful punch.
A major pest of many agricultural crops, including lettuce, they damage plants by (1) sucking their juices and (2) transmitting viruses.
If you've been following the thrips damage in the lettuce production in the Salinas Valley, or want to know more about thrips, the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's virtual seminar on Wednesday, Jan. 20 should interest you.
Research entomologist Daniel Hasegawa of the Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit, Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, will speak on "Landscape and Molecular Approaches for Managing Thrips and Thrips-Transmitted Viruses in the Salinas Valley" at the department's first seminar of the winter quarter.
The hour-long virtual seminar, via Zoom, begins at 4:10 p.m., announced agricultural Extension specialist Ian Grettenberger, seminar coordinator. To access the seminar, fill out this Google form link at https://bit.ly/3oWYjnt. (Contact Grettenberger at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
"In 2019-2020, lettuce production in the Salinas Valley of California was devastated by thrips-transmitted impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV)," Hasegawa says in his abstract. "Due to the inherent challenges in managing thrips using conventional chemical tactics, and no direct means for managing the virus, there is a strong need for new management strategies."
This seminar, he says, will provide an overview of
- The challenges in managing thrips and INSV in lettuce production
- What we've learned about the epidemiology of thrips and INSV, and
- Opportunities to improve cultural practices and develop biotechnology tools, such as RNAi for managing thrips and INSV in the Salinas Valley.
Hasegawa joined the Salinas USDA-ARS team in May 2019 after serving as a postdoctoral research associate (molecular biology) for three years with the USDA-ARS in Charleston, S. C. He specializes in vector entomology, molecular biology and biotechnlogy. "My lab uses a variety of techniques to understand insect vector-virus relationships that impact plant health and agriculture," he says on Linked In. "We use molecular, genetic, and epidemiological concepts to understand drivers of vector-borne transmission of pathogens and utilize genetic technologies (e.g. RNAi and CRISPR), to improve agriculture productivity and sustainability."
Hasegawa received his bachelor of science degree in biochemistry in 2007 from UC Riverside and his doctorate in biology from Clemson University in 2013.
The mission of the Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit is to improve germplasm of lettuce, spinach and melon, determine basic biology of viral, fungal and bacterial diseases affecting these crops, develop alternatives to methyl bromide as a soil fumigant for control of soilborne pests in strawberry and vegetables, reduce postharvest losses of lettuce, develop scientifically based organic crop production practices, and develop methods for control of weeds. (See more on the Pacific West Area website.)
"More than 90 percent of the lettuce sold in the United States is grown in California, and the majority of production from April through October occurs in the Salinas Valley, while production form November through March occurs in California's Imperial Valley," according to keepcaliforniafarming.org.
The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) says this about thrips: "Thrips, order Thysanoptera, are tiny, slender insects with fringed wings. They feed by puncturing the epidermal (outer) layer of host tissue and sucking out the cell contents, which results in stippling, discolored flecking, or silvering of the leaf surface. Thrips feeding is usually accompanied by black varnishlike flecks of frass (excrement). Pest species are plant feeders that discolor and scar leaf, flower, and fruit surfaces, and distort plant parts or vector plant pathogens. Many species of thrips feed on fungal spores and pollen and are often innocuous. However, pollen feeding on plants such as orchids and African violets can leave unsightly pollen deposits and may reduce flower longevity. Certain thrips are beneficial predators that feed on other insects and mites."
"Thrips can readily move long distances floating with the wind or transported on infested plants, and exotic species are periodically introduced," UC IPM notes./span>
- Author: Shimat Villanassery Joseph
Springtail (Protaphorura fimata) (Figure 1) is a serious pest of lettuce in the northern part of Salinas Valley of California. The direct seeded young lettuce seedlings in fields with high densities of springtail show retarded or stunted growth and do not emerge in a synchronous pattern (Figure 2). Springtails are reported to feed on soil fungi, decaying plant materials and live roots.
Springtails attack the germinating seeds of the lettuce, but it is not certain if irregular or inconsistent plant stand is due to the persistent feeding by springtail on both germinating and developing seedling stages of lettuce. Springtail continue to occur in the soil beyond 30 days after planting. Knowing the most vulnerable stage(s) of lettuce to springtail feeding will help in determining the best timing for control measure intervention to achieve a uniform lettuce stand.
Lettuce fields are heavily irrigated at least once before and up to three weeks after planting the seeds for uniform seed germination and seedling establishment. However, the behavioral response of springtail to feeding injury on lettuce under high soil moisture condition has not yet been studied in the central coast of California.
Similarly, the temperature has a profound impact on lettuce plant development as well as the growth and activities of springtail. Springtail has been found causing crop losses during February to May in the Salinas Valley and beyond June, springtail related problems are not widely reported. Perhaps slower lettuce seed germination and subsequent development during cooler seasons (January to May) is the pre-disposing factor as seedlings are exposed to springtails for an extended time frame than during the rest of the year. The relationship between temperature and springtail feeding of germinating lettuce seeds has not been investigated.
A study was conducted to determine the effect of germinating stages of lettuce seeds (up to 7 days after planting), soil temperature and moisture to springtail feeding injury.
Germinating seeds or one day old lettuce seedlings were the most vulnerable stage to springtail feeding, resulting in reduction in seedling growth. Thus, it appears that once the roots are established in the soil, lettuce is less susceptible to springtail feeding injury. Because the germinating phase of the plants is more likely to be injured, springtail monitoring activity should start prior to planting the seeds to determine the presence of springtail in the soil. Previous studies showed that, beet or potato slice baits attract springtail if placed in the top layer of the soil; thus, these baits could be used for monitoring springtail activity in the soil. If the soil is not moist, the baits may not capture springtail and springtail activity may go undetected.
When the experiments were conducted with germination phase in the temperatures as low as 41°F, springtail feeding was still evident. This suggests that although the seed germination and seedling development is progressing slowly in the cooler temperatures, springtail can be still active in feeding if there is sufficient moisture in the soil. Also, this suggests that lettuce seedlings might require prolonged protection from springtail with additional insecticide sprays until the seedlings are established in the cooler temperatures especially in spring and early summer (January to May). In the later part of summer and fall, the temperatures are higher than 60°F even at nights, which allows the seeds to germinate and develop quickly and not providing springtail to persistently feed and cause economic damage. In these circumstances, an at-plant application of insecticide is likely to provide adequate springtail control and multiple applications may not be required.
High moisture content in the soil will favor springtail feeding on the germinating lettuce seeds. In the Salinas Valley, before the lettuce seeds are planted, fields are pre-irrigated to aid land preparation and bed shaping. It has been observed that the springtail density increased from the sub-surface of soil when the field was recently irrigated or after a rain event. This cultural practice which maintains high moisture levels for seed germination on the sub-surface profiles of the soil might be favoring the faster buildup of springtail populations. Springtail captures in bait traps were greater immediately after irrigation.
Clearly, this study demonstrates that early lettuce seed development stages are the most vulnerable to springtail feeding injury. Moisture has a profound effect on springtail feeding on germinating lettuce seeds. This study also suggests that springtail can attack the germinating lettuce seeds at all growing temperatures in the Salinas Valley, although the seed germination and subsequent seedling development at cooler temperatures would increase the vulnerability of lettuce seeds to springtail feeding. This information provides insights not only on the timing of protection but the extent of protection under various temperature ranges also in managing springtail in the Salinas Valley. Plants growing the cooler temperature need prolonged protection for springtail if adequate moisture is present in the top soil of the bed. In the warmer temperatures, seed development would occur rather quickly which suggests that prolonged protection against springtail is not necessary. These results warrant the need for more field studies on protecting lettuce seeds from springtail in the cooler temperatures especially during spring and early summer lettuce plantings in the Salinas Valley.
If interested in the details of the study, please read the published article: