Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

UC blogs

Organic farmers and researchers strive to advance soil care

Organic farmer Phil Foster has developed a creative way to nurture the soil on his 200-acre farm near Hollister. He plants cover crops in a single line at the top of the planting bed, saving water and seed while keeping the furrows clear for irrigation.

"We were finding we couldn't use cover crops because of water," Foster said. The narrow strip makes the best use of the limited water supply, while garnering the benefits of cover crops - which buffer soil temperatures, inhibit weeds, increase soil microbial activity, improve water infiltration and add nutrients. Growing cover crops prepares the soil for the production of high-quality vegetables.

Organic farmer Phil Foster stands in front of a field with cover crops planted in strips at the top of the planting bed.

Foster is one of eight organic vegetable growers who are working with researchers at Chico State, Fresno State and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources on a project funded with a USDA grant designed to make significant improvements in soil care in organic production systems. He guided project participants around his farm, equipment yard and compost operation in early November to share the techniques he and his staff have developed over three decades to promote soil health.

Tiny pores and roots can be seen in the soil at the Foster farm.
 
UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Sarah Light examines a soil sample. The agronomy expert, who serves Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties, is a cooperator on the project.

Tour participants marveled at the soil characteristics, admiring tiny pores and roots in clods of dirt, evidence of the soil's capacity to move water and nutrients. They studied the plant and soil conditions after farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled a carefully crafted implement for rolling down the cover crop across the field with a tractor. 

Foster credited Contreras, a 30-year employee, for his role in building the soil on the farm. Labor, Foster said, is his biggest cost. He has 50 full time staff, many with 5 to 20 years of experience.

"They are the key to to the success of the ranch," Foster said.

Farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled an implement through a mature cover crop to show how the field can be prepared for planting.

Minimizing and, eventually eliminating, soil disturbance can be combined with organic groundcover, year-round root growth and robust biological activity in the soil to further promote soil health. Following the tour, the farmers talked about ways to attain the goal on their farms of no-till organic vegetable production. 

Foster said he will experiment with reducing soil disturbance to determine whether doing so will maintain or increase yields. Another farmer in the project, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, said he will dedicate eight acres of his organic farm to comparing the results when the cover crop is chopped and left on the soil surface to chopped and incorporated with tillage.

Paul Muller and Andrew Braitt of Fully Belly Farm in the Capay Valley suggested the researchers could help the farmers by identifying optimal, effective cover crop rolling techniques. Retired organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera suggested grant funds be used to purchase appropriate scale cover crop seeders for on-farm experimentation.

"We're making great progress," said project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. "By getting together regularly, we're seeing opportunities for moving further toward reduced-disturbance on the farms, identifying the equipment needs and establishing effective channels of communication."

Over the project's three-year term, the farmers and researchers will continue to experiment with soil-building techniques and share results.

Andrew Brait of Full Belly Farmers, foreground, looks at roots and nodulation of rhizobia on the cover crop. Kelly Mulville and Esther Park of Paicines Ranch are in the background.

 

A safflower and vetch cover crop growing in the autumn light.

 

Workers, in the background, manually weed the safflower and vetch cover crop.

   

Project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist, and Phil Foster.
 
UCCE farm advisor Amber Vinches, center with sun glasses, is a cooperator on the project. Vinchesi serves vegetable crop farmers in Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties.
Posted on Monday, November 26, 2018 at 8:35 AM

Trying leafy greens from a sweet potato plant

This time of year, it can be hard to resist the pull of sweet potatoes — roasted, mashed with butter, and topped with a combination of delectable treats from maple syrup to pecans to marshmallows. But did you know that the green leaves of the sweet potato plant also have the potential to be a tasty, nutritious food?

In Ethiopia, where sweet potatoes can be a staple crop, UC Davis graduate student Lauren Howe recently helped farmers taste test the leaves and consider this familiar crop in a new culinary light.

Watch a video to learn how to prepare sweet potato leaves:

The leaves of this drought-tolerant plant offer farming households there an alternative — and nutritious — food in the lean season, while they are waiting for its starchy, tuberous roots to be ready to eat. Introducing sweet potato leaves as a food option is intended to help farmers better diversify their families' diets, to include a wider variety of vegetables in addition to staple foods, especially during the dry season.

Lauren shared her experiences in Ethiopia on the Agrilinks website, where she recently won the Agrilinks Young Scholars blog contest with her writing and a short video from the field.

From right, Lauren Howe of UC Davis and Tesfaye Kassa of SACE interview farmers about how they currently manage sweet potato crops on their farms.

Boots on the ground with sweet potato farmers in Ethiopia

Lauren traveled to Ethiopia this summer to work with an organization called Send A Cow Ethiopia (SACE), on a Trellis Fund project. As part of the Horticulture Innovation Lab, each Trellis Fund project connects an organization in a developing country with a grad student from a U.S. university, to work together to benefit local farmers, while building the capacity of both the local organization and the student.

In Ethiopia, SACE helped Lauren better understand local contexts by connecting her with farming households to interview about their current farming practices and the role of sweet potatoes in their diets.

Later they traveled to meet with a group of about 25 farmers in the Ukara community to harvest leaves, cook together and discuss their perceptions of the leaves as a vegetable option.

“We are producing a huge amount of sweet potato per year," explained Feleke Lera, a son of farmers in Ukara. "But before, we had no knowledge about the leaves.”
 
Lauren harvests sweet potato leaves with farmers in Ukara.
 
In Ukara, the group prepared the sweet potato leaves three different ways – sauteed, cooked with corn or maize flour in a dish called fosese, and in a salad.
 

Reflecting on taste tests, new foods, and rural communities

After preparing and tasting the sweet potato leaves, the group in Ukara discussed which dish they preferred, whether they would adopt this new practice of eating sweet potato leaves, how this practice might affect their forage supply to feed their livestock, and what their friends and family members might think of this new food. 
 
"I deeply appreciated how food is truly a universal language and the preparation, cooking and act of eating itself are relatable across cultures," Lauren wrote in her blog post.
 

Lauren's own passion for food and witnessing how food can help build community is an important part of her reflection on this experience:

"This project is about creating tasty dishes to persuade people about the nutritional benefits of a new ingredient. It is gathering families, friends and neighbors to sit down to a communal meal (already a strong Ethiopian practice), breaking bread together, sharing stories, experiences and hopes for the future."

For more, go read the rest of Lauren's blog post and check out her short video too.

Lauren at a taste test in another community called Gurumo Koysha, where farmers overwhelmingly preferred the sautéed sweet potato leaves to the sautéed kale. The activity was intended to be a blind taste test, but Lauren reported that keeping the dishes secret was more difficult to do than originally planned.

Background and related international agricultural research

Lauren's experience with a Trellis Fund project in Ethiopia was supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, a research program led by Elizabeth Mitcham of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. With a focus on fruit and vegetable innovation, the Horticulture Innovation Lab seeks to empower smallholder farmers in developing countries to earn more income and better nourish their communities — as part of the U.S. government's global Feed the Future initiative.

Past research from the Horticulture Innovation Lab has focused on other leafy greens, specifically African indigenous vegetables, and also on sweet potatoes themselves (orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, that is). Though the program has not done in-depth research on sweet potato leaves for human consumption beyond this small Trellis Fund project, you can find more information about eating sweet potato leaves and tips in this bulletin from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, and a wealth of information about sweet potato farming and gardening from the University of California Vegetable Research and Information Center. 

Related Food Blog posts:

 

Sweet potato leaves in Ethiopia - Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Lauren Howe/UC Davis
Sweet potato leaves in Ethiopia - Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Lauren Howe/UC Davis

close-up on sweetpotato leaves, stems and plant

Posted on Monday, November 19, 2018 at 9:02 AM

Catastrophic wildfires and climate change lead to growing acceptance of ‘pyrosilviculture’

For millennia, fires periodically burned through California forests, thinning trees, reducing shrubbery and clearing out downed branches and debris. Without periodic fire, the forests became more dense, with spaces between large trees filling in with a thick carpet of duff, seedlings and shrubs.

As a result, today's forests are prone to more intense and damaging fires, like the Rim Fire, King Fire, and — most recently — the Camp Fire in Butte County. These fires are burning with unprecedented severity and speed, threatening large swaths of forest, towns, and even urban areas.

The Camp Fire in Butte County on Nov. 8, 2018. (Photo: NASA)

Using fire as part of forest management is not a new concept. Native Americans were known to burn brush to open up hunting grounds and clear shrubbery for gathering. Decades ago, iconic Berkeley forestry professor Harold Biswell said, “Fire in the Sierra Nevada is as important as rain.”

Competing forces, however, pushed foresters and fire officials toward fire prevention and suppression, particularly the cataclysmic fires of the early 20th century that leveled entire towns and left dozens of residents and firefighters dead. The fear of out-of-control blazes and the perceived damage to timber resources launched a war on fire that has lasted a hundred years. Some forest managers are urgently trying to negotiate a truce.

Making peace with fire and turning it into a useful tool, rather than a raging threat, was the objective of an October meeting in Shaver Lake of UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources scientists, Southern California Edison forest managers, CALFIRE officials and U.S. Forest Service representatives.

Participants in the pyrosilviculture training gather at a recent prescribed burn site near Shaver Lake.

The event also raised awareness of “pyrosilviculture,” a new forest management term coined by UC fire scientist Rob York to emphasize the importance of fire in silviculture, the management of forests for wood.

Forests have myriad benefits – recreational, environmental and economic. Nature lovers value the whisper of pine trees in the wind and green shade over hiking trails and ski slopes. Owls, bears, deer and other wildlife make their homes among firs, pines, oaks and cedars. Forests stabilize mountain slopes, which store water as snow for agriculture and drinking. People build their homes, businesses and schools out of the planks and boards cut from the straight, soft wood of conifer trees.

The value of California forest products was about $429 million in 2017, according to the USDA. Because fires can damage and destroy trees, the timber industry has historically been reluctant to use fire as a tool. That's changing.

“Fire is such an important ecological process, you can't manage for timber without fire,” York said.

York is the manager of the Blodgett Forest Research Station, UC Berkeley's 4,000-acre mixed conifer and oak forest near Georgetown where researchers study forest management practices for increasing timber yield while taking advantage of fire to enhance forest health and make forest stands more resilient to wildfire.

Controlled burning can be used to treat fuels and reverse these trends, but it has been inhibited by a number of barriers, including landowners' concerns about liability, risk aversion among fire management agencies, narrow burn windows, air quality limitations and other regulatory challenges. Now, public demand for prescribed fires is growing.

“I believe what moved the needle was, for several years in a row, there were high-severity fires in the news,” York said. “Wildfires were in the pubic zeitgeist. People began asking, ‘Why aren't we doing more prescribed fire?'”

Climate change is also intensifying the interest among the public and silviculture professionals. Because California is getting warmer and fire seasons are growing longer, high-severity fires are expected to increase.

“There would logically be a tipping point. Even though we reduce the growth of trees when we use fire, if it can prevent the loss of the forest entirely, it would be meeting the timber objective,” York said.

The vast tree die-off during the 2011-2016 drought was another jarring sign that the Sierra Nevada ecosystem is out of balance.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages 20 million acres of forest in California, is using prescribed fire to reduce fire risk on federal forestlands, but scientists say it's not nearly enough to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. CAL FIRE is ramping up its controlled burn efforts, but it will take time to address far-reaching areas of overgrown forestlands. The agency sometimes uses mechanical measures such as mastication and chaining before burning to pre-treat fuels and prepare units for burning.

“We need to work around communities first, and then move out to the wider landscape,” said CAL FIRE division chief Jim McDougald. “If a prescribed fire moves into a subdivision and burns houses, we take 100 steps back.”

UC Cooperative Extension forestry and natural resources advisor Susie Kocher. (Photo: @UCsierraforest)
UC Cooperative Extension is working with private landowners to encourage more prescribed burning to reduce fire risk, protect communities and timber. UCCE forestry and natural resources advisor Susie Kocher coordinated training sessions this year in four mountain communities. The sessions included local fire history and current fire research, prescribed fire permitting and legal considerations, fire weather forecasting and online tools, air quality and smoke management, fire terms and fire behavior, burn plan development, burn unit preparation and fire tools and equipment.

“Burning is a key element of forestland management and it can be safe if done properly,” Kocher said. “We provide classroom instruction and invite participants to join a live prescribed fire at Blodgett Forest as part of their training so they become familiar with the process.”

At the training sessions, UC Cooperative Extension advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson said that in some cases, private landowners can conduct burns themselves. In her hometown in Trinity County, many ranchers and landowners conduct small broadcast burns to reduce fuels and improve forage. These burns are typically quite small and usually conducted in the winter.

“This can be a good option for landowners who wish to burn small areas, but we need other options for bigger, more complex burns” Quinn-Davidson said.

In other parts of the country, landowners have formed Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) that allow landowners to work with neighbors and other community members on controlled burns, sharing equipment and labor while developing skills. The PBA model provides a low-cost, grassroots option for prescribed burning, and empowers landowners to work together, and with other key experts and partners, to bring fire back to the landscape, says Quinn-Davidson.

“People are desperate to do something about fire, and the PBA model gives them an option to actively engage with each other and with fire as a tool—it's very empowering,” said Quinn-Davidson.

UC Cooperative Extension area fire advisor Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

 

Posted on Thursday, November 15, 2018 at 8:31 AM

Watch livestream: Food leaders convene in San Diego Nov. 14

Food Tank is hosting its inaugural summit, titled “Growing the Food Movement,” on Nov. 14 in San Diego at the Illumina Theater. The event is co-sponsored by the Berry Good Food Foundation, the University of California's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the San Diego Bay Food and Wine Festival.

More than 30 speakers and panelists from the food and agriculture world in the San Diego area and around the globe, including David Bronner, Ryland Engelhart, Jessica Greendeer, ANR's own Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor in Los Angeles County, and Gabriele Youtsey, chief innovation officer, and many more are participating. Journalists Kirk Siegler from NPR and Mari Payton of NBC 7 will moderate the panel discussions between these diverse and engaging food leaders.

“Food is the ultimate bonding experience,” said Youtsey, “Cook a meal at home with your family and sit down to eat it together.”

Rachel Surls
"I'm excited to be on the "Farming for a Better Food System" panel, and hope to share how urban farm are strengthening local food systems,” Surls said. “They are often managed by nonprofit organizations with varied missions, from food justice to job training to youth development. It's exciting to see how these emerging projects around California and the U.S. get everyday Americans in cities and suburbs engaged with farming and food systems."

“One of the nation's largest concentrations of people are in Southern California, yet it's often left out of critical conversations about the food system,” said Rose Hayden-Smith, who worked behind the scenes to persuade Food Tank to hold a summit in Southern California.

"San Diego County has 6,687 farms, more than any other county in the United State,” said Hayden-Smith, a UC Cooperative Extension advisor for youth, family and community development and editor of UC Food Observer. “Although 68 percent of those farms are 9 acres or less, the county's farmers rank number one in both California and the nation in production value of nursery, floriculture and avocados.”

The varied topography and microclimates allow San Diego farmers to grow more than 200 different agricultural commodities from strawberries along the coast, to apples in the mountain areas, to palm trees in the desert.

Rose Hayden-Smith
Tune into the FREE livestream on Food Tank's website and Facebook page and engage in the discussions on social media using #FoodTank. Hayden-Smith will be live-tweeting from the event for UC Food Observer.

After the event, all videos will be immediately archived on Food Tank's YouTube Channel. Some content will also be shared through the podcast “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg.”

Here is a preview of the all-star speaker line up at the 2018 San Diego Summit to advance the conversation about growing the food movement.

Alina Zolotareva is the Senior Marketing Manager and Product Champion at AeroFarms, the largest indoor vertical farm in the world, growing local, nutrient-dense, responsible leafy greens year-round. A natural communicator, connector, and problem-solver, Alina is passionate about driving transformational change and innovation in the realms of food, nutrition, public health, and urbanization as a registered dietitian nutritionist, marketer, and product developer.

Candice Woo is the founding editor of Eater San Diego, a leading source for news about San Diego's restaurant and bar scene. Keep up with the latest Eater San Diego content via Facebook or Twitter, and sign up for Eater San Diego's newsletter here.

David Bronner is the Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner's, the top-selling brand of natural soaps in North America and producer of a range of organic body care and food products. He is the grandson of the company's founder, Emanuel Bronner, and a fifth-generation soapmaker. David is an activist, philanthropist, and ardent supporter of fair trade, animal rights, drug policy reform, and regenerative organic agriculture among other issues.

Evelyn Rangel-Medina is Chief of Staff for Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, whose mission is to improve wages and working conditions for the nation's low wage restaurant workforce. An experienced manager, public interest lawyer, public policy advocate, and campaign director, she has worked with a broad range of nonprofit organizations to advance lasting social change. At ROC-United, she manages two worker centers that organize hundreds of immigrant low-wage workers of color to advocate for higher labor standards and dignified working conditions.

Gabe Youtsey
Gabe Youtsey is the Chief Innovation Officer at University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), providing leadership to UC ANR's information technology unit to support programmatic, educational, administrative, and marketing-oriented projects. He has been active for many years in EDUCAUSE and Internet2 and speaks regularly on cloud computing, big data, collaboration technologies, the role of technology in academia, and cyber-security.

Heather Lake of Fox 5 San Diego has covered some of the city's largest events including Comic-Con and opening day at the Del Mar Races. Before heading to the West Coast, Heather was an anchor, reporter, and bureau chief at WCTI in Jacksonville, North Carolina, working closely with the military community at Camp Lejeune. Many of her most memorable assignments include working alongside Hope for The Warriors as the nonprofit granted “warrior wishes” to many of our service men and women.

Jeff “Trip” Tripician joined Niman Ranch in 2006 and has grown the brand to a national industry leader by expanding distribution channels and geographies as General Manager. Under his direction, the company has more than tripled in size while maintaining its core values and mission of raising livestock traditionally, humanely, and sustainably. He is passionate about helping the family farmer thrive in rural communities.

Jennifer Burney is an Associate Professor at the School of Global Policy & Strategy at UC San Diego. As an environmental scientist, her research focuses on simultaneously achieving global food security and mitigating climate change. She designs, implements, and evaluates technologies for poverty alleviation and agricultural adaptation, and studies the links between “energy poverty”—the lack of access to modern energy services—and food or nutrition security, the mechanisms by which energy services can help alleviate poverty, the environmental impacts of food production and consumption, and climate impacts on agriculture.

Jenny Ramirez is the Human Resources Director for California Harvesters Inc., an employee trust farm labor company in Bakersfield, California. Early in her business career she identified that the best way she could support workers was to be directly involved with setting policies and procedures, a role that she is reinventing at California Harvesters. Bringing over a decade of experience in California agriculture, she is passionate about using her position and training to improve working conditions for farm workers.

Jessika Greendeer is the founder of Waxopini Wiiwamasja, which is Ho-Chunk for “nourishing spirits.” She is responsible for stewarding Indigenous seeds, teaching others how to grow and preserve Ancestral foods, protecting her traditional foods and carrying out her vision of feeding her people. Jessika is a US Army veteran, who completed a Veteran-to-Farmer training program in Pennsylvania with Delaware Valley University and the Rodale Institute. She has brought her knowledge of organic farming back to her community by growing out ancestral landrace varieties and market vegetables within the Ho-Chunk Nation community gardens, working to heal and regenerate the earth throughout her ancestral homeland of Southern Wisconsin.

Josh Henretig is a Senior Director for Microsoft and is responsible for leading the Artificial Intelligence for Earth and Corporate Sustainability programs for the company. Over the years, Josh has contributed to all aspects of Microsoft's environmental strategy, from implementing responsible business practices that have led to the company's commitment to become carbon neutral and to be powered by 100% renewable energy through an internal price on carbon, to projects and programs that advance social opportunity and environmental sustainability in the communities.

Karen Archipley owns and operates a USDA certified HydroOrganic farming enterprise, headquartered in Escondido, California.The Archipley's founded Archi's Acres, Inc. in 2006 with two core objectives: to create a viable, sustainable, organic-produce farming business and develop a business that would provide entrepreneur opportunities for veterans in sustainable organic agriculture, bringing to light the many issues that veterans face when they leave the military and choose farming as a career.

Keith Maddox is the Executive Secretary Treasurer at the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and the 134 unions it brings together. The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council is the local central body affiliate of the AFL-CIO, founded in 1891. The Labor Council offers an avenue for local unions to come together as a unified group, with a membership of more than 250,000 local working families.

Kirk Siegler of National Public Radio (NPR) covers the urban-rural divide in America, exploring the intersection between urban and rural life, culture, and politics. Based at NPR West's studios in Culver City, CA, but frequently roaming the country, Kirk's reporting has also focused on the far-reaching economic impacts of the drought in the West while explaining the broader, national significance to many of the region's complex and bitter disputes around land use. His assignments have brought listeners to the heart of anti-government standoffs in Oregon and Nevada, including a rare interview with recalcitrant rancher Cliven Bundy in 2014.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher is Assemblywoman for District 80, California State Assembly, elected in May of 2013 to fight for California's working and middle classes. In 2015, The Atlantic Magazine labeled her “The California Democrat setting the National Agenda” for her practical, progressive legislation aimed at alleviating real issues in people's lives. Lorena is the first Latina in California history to chair the Assembly Appropriations Committee. She is also Chairwoman of the Select Committee on Women in the Workplace and Vice Chair of the Latino Caucus.

Maria Hesse is the Managing Editor for Edible San Diego, a food and lifestyle designer, pug photographer at PugsMutt.com, and co-author of The Intentionalist Cooks! You can find her at MariaHesse.life or get in touch at maria@ediblesandiego.com.

Mannah Gbeh owns and runs Bee Valley Farm. He is skilled in horticulture and agriculture, seasoned in public education and tours, and passionate about eradicating hunger in the world. As a young boy growing up in Liberia West Africa, agriculture was the way of life for Mannah. In 2007, he was Honorably Discharged from the United States Navy after serving seven years and doing three tours in the Middle East. In 2010, he started the Nursery Technology program at Cuyamaca College.

Mari Payton of NBC 7 is a senior investigative reporter leading the award-winning NBC 7 I-Team. Mari's stories have prompted local, state, and federal investigations and caused law and policy changes. She's reported breaking news live on the TODAY show, MSNBC, and other NBC stations across the country. She's also received numerous awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and Press Club.

Michael Gardiner is a food writer for San Diego CityBeat and a licensed California attorney. In addition to San Diego CityBeat, he is the monthly food columnist for L'Chaim San Diego Magazine and the primary writer for the San Diego Food & Travel Blog, www.sdfoodtravel.com.

Michael Hamm is Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. Michael founded the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Agriculture in 2003 and was founding director of the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems from 2011-2015. Michael is affiliated with the departments of community sustainability; plant, soil and microbial sciences; and food science and human nutrition. Community food security and community, regional, and sustainable food systems are research interest areas.

Michelle Lerach is a lawyer, entrepreneur, activist, and President of the Berry Good Food Foundation. In 2008, she received the Consumer Attorneys of California Women's Law Caucus Outstanding Consumer Advocate Award before leaving the practice to commit herself fully to social activism. An “agvocate” for sustainable food, she founded Berry Good Night and Berry Good Food Foundation to advance a healthy, integrated food system by educating, connecting, and supporting food producers and consumers. An outspoken critic of current GMO labeling policy, she serves on the steering committee of Californians for GE Labeling.

Michelle Parente is the Dining, Wine + Lifestyle reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune. Her areas of expertise include the Valle de Guadalupe wine region, fashion, television, women's issues, and coverage of aging, such as the impact of Alzheimer's and dementia and family caregiving. A native New Yorker, Michelle received her B.A. in political science and Italian Literature at UC Berkeley. In 1980, she studied at L'Università di Urbino, in Italy. One of her life's goals is to make her way through each of the world's great wine regions.

Nate Looney is an urban farmer, army veteran, entrepreneur, and owner of Westside Urban Gardens. Founded in 2015, Westside Urban Gardens is an urban agricultural startup, using controlled environment techniques to cultivate gourmet leafy greens and microgreens. These crops are Homegrown By Heroes. A graduate of the Veterans to Farmers Controlled Environment Course, Nate also completed a Farmer Veteran Coalition internship, funded by The San Francisco Foundation at Ouroboros Aquaponic Farms in Half Moon Bay, CA.

Neil Nagata is the President of the San Diego County Farm Bureau and Nagata Bros Farms, a third generation Oceanside farmer with over 30 years' experience in fresh fruit, vegetable, and strawberry substrate/hydroponic production and research. He has worked with regulators and legislators to support fruit and vegetable production in the United States and internationally. As the founding president of the non-profit California Strawberry Growers Scholarship Fund, he has helped provide scholarships for children of California strawberry farm workers, raising over US $2 million.

Rachel Surls is the Sustainable Food Systems Advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension Los Angeles County. Involved in a variety of projects related to urban food systems, she has worked with UCLA students to conduct the “Cultivate LA” survey of urban agriculture in Los Angeles. She recently led a UC ANR team that carried out a statewide needs assessment of urban farming. Rachel and a co-author recently published a book on the local history of urban agriculture, titled From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles.

Ryland Engelhart is the Mission Fulfillment Officer and co-owner at Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre, as well as Co-Founder of Kiss the Ground, educating and advocating about the connection between soil, human, and planetary health. He is also a co-creator of the award-winning, transformational documentary film, “May I Be Frank.” He is an entrepreneur and activist, using his restaurants as a platform to inspire more gratitude in our culture. He speaks on sacred commerce, tools for building community, and regeneration.

Sarah Mesnick is an Ecologist, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries, and Adjunct Professor, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. Focused on social evolution in the ocean and on the role of social behavior in explaining patterns of species diversity, the main goal of her research in recent years is to provide a social framework within which to investigate stock identity, population trends, and fishery interactions in cetaceans. She serves as liaison between CMBC and NOAA SWFSC and leads the Sustainable Local Fisheries project.

Stepheni Norton is the owner of Dickinson Farms, a retired Chief Petty Officer and decorated military Veteran, with over 20 years of entrepreneurial experience. Stepheni's farming journey began after purchasing the Dickinson homestead, subsequently deploying and falling ill. After almost three years of misdiagnosis, she was properly diagnosed with stage 3 Lyme Disease, and promptly started daily IV treatment. Designing a farm layout and business plan from the IV chair, she successfully built the first and only licensed farm in National City—an heirloom fruit, vegetable, and herb farm. Norton contributes her free time to help aspiring and small business owners build and grow their businesses.

Vince Hall is the CEO of Feeding San Diego, with extensive nonprofit and public sector management experience, including serving as Staff Director for Governor Gray Davis. He also served as a lecturer at San Diego State University and his previous community involvement included serving on the San Diego Community College District Trustee Advisory Council, the San Diego Unified School District Citizen Bond Oversight Committee, and the boards of the National Conflict Resolution Center, San Diego Regional Technology Alliance, and the San Diego Diplomacy Council.

 

Posted on Monday, November 12, 2018 at 2:16 PM

A nutty idea: A little stress could be good for walnuts

When it comes to watering walnuts, most California growers believe you need to start early to keep trees healthy and productive throughout the long, hot summer. But according to striking results from a long-term experiment in a walnut orchard in Red Bluff, growers can improve crop production if they hold off irrigation until later in the season and directly measure their trees' water needs.

The findings from researchers at the University of California may help farmers optimize water use.

“It's a game-changer,” said walnut grower Hal Crain, who welcomed researchers on to his orchard to test irrigation optimization. “It's clear to me you can improve nut quality and yield by applying water based on what the tree wants and needs, rather than just watering when it's hot outside and the soil is dry. That's a big deal for walnut growers and for the entire agricultural industry.”

Hal Crain's family has been growing walnuts for 55 years.

 Changing the paradigm

Crain is a second-generation farmer whose family has been growing walnuts in Butte and Tehama counties for 55 years. Like most walnut farmers, Crain had always started irrigating in early to mid-May when the days grew warmer and the trees sprouted leaves.

“That's standard practice for probably 90 percent of California's walnut growers,” said Crain, walking amid his trees on a sunny afternoon. “The theory is that when you irrigate early, you preserve the deep moisture in the soil that trees need to survive the heat of summer.”

But that's not how it works, the research shows. Instead, trees that grow in saturated soil early in the season don't develop the deep roots they need to thrive.

“With all the water right there at the surface, the lower roots suffer,” explained Bruce Lampinen, UC Cooperative Extension orchard management specialist with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “Trees end up with a very shallow root system, which doesn't serve them well as they try to extract moisture from the soil later on.”

Lampinen has long suspected that walnuts were getting too much water in the spring.

“A lot of the symptoms we see like yellowing leaves and various diseases can all be explained by overwatering,” said Lampinen.

So Lampinen did what scientists do: He set up an experiment. Five years ago, with funding from the California Walnut Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he joined forces with Ken Shackel, a plant sciences professor with UC Davis, and Allan Fulton, an irrigation adviser with UC Cooperative Extension. Together, they led a team of scientists testing irrigation on Crain's ranch. 

“Hal is an exceptional partner,” Fulton said. “Farmers have a lot to accommodate when they host an experiment like this, with researchers going in and out of the orchard at all hours. He had to work around our people and the timing of our water treatments. He's always eager to experiment with technology and learn new things, and he shares what he learns with other growers. Hal completes the circle.”

Tough nut to crack

When is the best time to irrigate? Researchers say the trees hold the answer. Scientists use pressure chambers, which are air-pressure devices that measure a leaf or small shoot to gauge how hard the plant is working to pull moisture from the soil.

“Just because the soil looks dry doesn't mean the plant is suffering,” said Shackel, who specializes in plant physiology. “Pressure chambers let you ask the tree how it's feeling — sort of like taking a human's blood pressure — which is a much more accurate way to measure a plant's water needs.”

Professor Ken Shackel and Cooperative Extension Specialist Bruce Lampinen test pressure chamber in UC Davis walnut grove.

For the last five years, the team has been applying different water treatments to five blocks of trees. One block is getting standard, early irrigation. Crain's orchard managers begin irrigating the other blocks when the trees reach different levels of water stress based on pressure-chamber readings.

The trees that experience moderate stress are doing the best. Their irrigation usually starts in mid-to-late June, several weeks later than when standard watering begins.

“You can tell just by looking at that block that the trees are healthier,” said Crain, standing beneath a canopy of lush, green trees. “And, we're starting to see greater yields and better nut quality.”

Translating the research

The research is helping scientists advise farmers on irrigation.

“My biggest take-away is knowing when to start watering is a really important factor to the health of your trees,” Lampinen says.

Pressure chambers — sometimes called pressure bombs — can cost more than $3,000, and high-tech versions are under development.  

“I tell growers a pressure bomb would pay for itself even if you just used it once a year to determine when to start watering,” Lampinen said.

Crain is certainly convinced.

“When you irrigate based on your trees' needs, you optimize water,” Crain says. “I'm not using less water overall, but the water I do use is producing more food. That's good news for everyone.”

This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Outlook Magazine, the alumni magazine for the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. 

Posted on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 9:20 AM

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