Safe, healthy and happy Thanksgiving
A group of California organic farmers is sharing information about their efforts to combine reduced tillage with the use of cover crops, which they have been planting on their vegetable farms for decades to protect soil while adding carbon and diversity to their production systems.
“Every one of the pioneering farmers has seen tremendous benefits from the practices,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. “These are the very growing practices that we have demonstrated over two decades of research to benefit soil health, environmental conservation and the bottom line on plots near Five Points in Fresno County.”
The organic farmer research project is funded with a Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) and aims to develop crop production system alternatives for vegetable crops. The farmers are seeing evidence of the ecological benefits, and also benefits that promote the public good.
“Consumers prefer food that is grown in ways that improve soil health as well as environmental health and human health,” Mitchell said. “Farmers must not become obsolete by ignoring ever-evolving buyer demands and environmental imperatives. Make changes, or you'll lose markets.”
The need for California farmers to adjust to changing times was to have been part of the dialogue at a public field day in March at Teixeira & Sons Farm in Firebaugh. It was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. The event was to showcase Mitchell's data and the experiences of long-time cover crop farmer John Teixeira of Firebaugh.
Teixeira began cover cropping 30 years ago in one of his organic fields. He wanted to build fertility, organic matter and water holding capacity in the soil. Ever since, he's been growing cover crops ahead of tomatoes and several other commodities. This past winter, he grew a mixture of common, hairy and purple vetch, white oats, biomaster peas and bell beans. Teixeira estimates that it provided over 5,000 pounds per acre of dry biomass, which is supporting his 2020 tomato crop with elevated biological activity in the soil.
Mitchell's study in Five Points has tracked impacts of winter cover cropping coupled with no-till since 1999. Over the 21 years, some 37 tons of organic matter, or about 15 tons of carbon, have been added to the soil. These inputs averaged about 3,700 pounds per acre of organic matter, or 0.8 tons of carbon annually. Year-to-year variability has been high, ranging from 8,800 pounds in 2000 when supplemented by irrigation, to 54 pounds in 2007 when, as in most years, the cover crops were grown with rainfall only. Cover crops were typically seeded by Nov. 15 each fall and terminated around March 15.
Several key soil-health indicators improved over the years, including aggregation (or soil structure), porosity and water-holding capacity. Work at the Five Points site conducted by UC Merced professor Teamrat Ghezzehei and Ph.D. student Samuel Araya, has shown 20% higher water-holding capacity in the system with cover crops and no-till compared to the standard bare system.
Earlier results from the study field have shown that when the cover crop and other crop residues are converted to a mulch and left on the soil surface, as much as five inches of water that would normally evaporate during a typical summer crop period stays in the soil.
Mitchell is coordinating the group of organic farmers who are conducting cover crop, tillage and mulch experiments. The farmers cultivate vegetables up and down the Central Valley from Meridian and Guinda in the north, to Dixon, Hollister, Madera, Five Points and Buttonwillow in the south.
“They are an incredible group of people,” Mitchell said. “They have taken soil, farm and human health goals to dramatically important lengths.”
As organic farmers, they have always been in the forefront of soil care and attention to soil biology, Mitchell said, but they're now working together to implement such innovations as virtually year-round soil cover, reduced disturbance tillage, and integration of grazing animals into their fields. Their objective is to enhance the health of their soils, the health of their farms, and the quality of the vegetables that they produce.
Tom Willey, one of the project's farmers from Madera, puts it this way, “What we're attempting to do is up our game on natural systems mimicry on our farms, break through the barrier of over-dependence on tillage in organic systems.”
Eric Brennan, a USDA Agricultural Research Services organic systems horticulturist in Salinas, and integral partner in the effort, has studied cover crops in the Salinas Valley.
“Cover cropping regularly, every winter if possible, is one of the ‘lowest-hanging fruit' practices that vegetable farmers can use to improve soil quality and nutrient management in their production,” Brennan said.
Mitchell believes it's time for broad adoption of practices to promote soil health.
“Everyone used to talk about ‘barriers to adoption' when it came to cover crops. Now the question will more aptly be, ‘What happened to those folks who didn't change and adopt?'” Mitchell said.
"Start modestly and in a way that you can manage it,” Gable said. “If you've never done this before, don't transform a quarter acre.”
She recommends beginning by assessing space you have available for gardening - whether in the backyard, front yard or the corner of a balcony.
“Get to know the space, and watch to see how light moves around," Gabe said.
Most plants need about six hours of direct sunlight a day. Then figure out what kind of soil you're dealing with: Is it dry or rocky? Does it have the consistency of clay? Is there good drainage or does the water often pool? None of these results are “bad” or should dissuade you from planting there, but understanding what you're starting with will inform what you do next.
Gable recommends planting fruits and vegetables that you love to eat.
“For a starting gardener, depending on what your family is most interested in, I always recommend the standards: tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, carrots, radishes, Swiss chard, eggplants. Those are fun and easy," she said.
If you have kids, Gable recommends including some plants that have a shorter yield time, so they can see the results faster. “Radishes are a really nice place to start,” she said. “They mature really quickly, and it's a fun way for kids to see the fruits of their labor quickly so then they're invested in the plants that take a little longer, like tomatoes.”
The UC Master Gardener Program trains volunteers to extend research-based gardening information to the public. Gable recommends looking up your local UC Master Gardener Program to get accurate information based on local conditions.
Theories abound as to what life will be like when we come out of our current predicament. And who can say?
However, the focus for many is simply on dealing with the immediate. What can I eat? How do I visit the supermarket safely? Can I drink the water? I want to get outdoors, but is it safe? Can I garden? If so, how? How can I provide my kids meaningful engagement?
In response to these pressing needs, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, like many other universities and extension organizations across the country, are moving quickly to get more information online. While I haven't seen the actual numbers, we know millions of students (both high school and university) are quickly transitioning to online classes.
In addition, millions are seeking information on topics from agriculture and food to gardening to nutrition to wellness. The activity behind the scenes is at times frantic. We at UC ANR already have large amounts of credible, practical “how to” information online, but we know we can provide more. Our 12 statewide programs and institutes (links below), along with our network of advisors and specialists, are moving quickly to enhance out virtual connections and getting more useful information online - videos, fact sheets, courses, etc. - to ensure our outreach continues. For example, the UC California Naturalist program already had its first virtual graduation. Advisors are providing virtual consultations to farmers and others.
Do you need help navigating life during the coronavirus crisis? Explore our portal - ucanr.edu/covid19communityresources - to find information on gardening, safe outdoor exploration, food access, water and food safety, nutrition, wellness and more.
Learn about our statewide programs:
UC Integrated Pest Management Program (how to manage pests)
Nutrition, food, water and wellness
Enjoying the outdoors
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With Californians sheltering in place to stop the spread of new coronavirus COVID-19, the annual citizen science project to map sudden oak death disease has been redesigned to ensure the safety of participants. The first in a series of SOD blitzes of 2020 will be April 11 in Napa. The events are free.
“We have been able to redesign the 2020 SOD Blitzes to make them a safe and legal activity that allows volunteers to exercise outdoors, and this powerful citizen science program will help us protect our forests' health,” said Matteo Garbelotto, UC Cooperative Extension forest pathology specialist and adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and event organizer.
Sudden oak death disease has killed more than 50 million of the state's iconic oaks and tanoak trees between Humboldt County and Monterey County, threatening survival of several tree species. In 2019 alone, 1 million tanoaks succumbed to sudden oak death, according to 2019 tree mortality data released by the U.S. Forest Service.
“The presence of new SOD strains is alarming and the SOD blitzes are the best, if not the only, program to intercept them before they spread,” Garbelotto said.
SOD Blitz volunteers will register online and take the training online at www.sodblitz.org to learn how to identify SOD symptoms and to carefully collect symptomatic leaves from California bay laurels and tanoaks. Collection and survey materials, which have been prepared in a sterile environment, will be picked up by participants at a local SOD Blitz station conveniently located near a parking lot. They can return samples to the same SOD Blitz station or by mail.
As citizen scientists, volunteers should focus on following safety guidance as well as adhering to research protocols. Social distancing – at least 6 feet away from other volunteers – and clean “housekeeping” rules will be strongly enforced when picking up or returning materials and during leaf collection.
For parents who are home schooling their children, this is an activity that the family can do together.
Garbelotto encourages tree care specialists to participate in the SOD blitzes.
“Besides offering free bay laurel and tanoak tests for their clients, we now offer tree care professionals free enrollment in UC Berkeley Forest Pathology Laboratory's OakSTePprogram, which allows them to test oaks for SOD infection,” Garbelotto said.
For more information, visit www.treefaqs.org or email the organizer of the SOD Blitz in your community (See schedule below).
Sudden Oak Death Blitzes 2020
All collection materials will be provided, but participants need a mobile phone or GPS device to install the free SODmap mobile app.
New format due to COVID-19
1. Training (30 minutes) and sign-up (5 minutes) must be done online at www.sodblitz.org before collecting the sampling materials at the SOD Blitz Stations in the locations specified below. Please sign up before you start the survey, and preferably when you take the online training.
2. Once at your local SOD Blitz Station you can pick up one or two collection packets following the social distancing rules of the State of California clearly specified in the online training. Stay at least 6 feet from other collectors. Bring your own pencil. Each packet allows you to sample 10 trees. Do not pick more unless you discussed it with the organizer.
3. Before you start the survey, make sure you have downloaded the free App “SODmap mobile” to determine the exact location of the trees you sample.
4. Each SOD Blitz has a start and end date, including the hour. You can pick up materials at the start time and you have to return your samples and any unused collection materials by the end date and cutoff time.
5. You can sample private properties with the owner's permission, alongside public roads and in parks or open spaces that are open to the public.
6. If you have any questions, please email your local organizer. Thank you so much for your participation.
Saturday, April 11 at 10 a.m. to Tuesday, April 14, 10 a.m.
SOD Blitz Station located on front porch of the Napa County Agriculture Commissioners Office Building 1710 Soscol, Napa
Please mail samples to UC Berkeley using the preprinted mail labels and postage included in each packet.
Contact: Bill Pramuk firstname.lastname@example.org
For a schedule of SOD Blitzes at other locations, visit https://nature.berkeley.edu/matteolab/?page_id=5095.
UC Cooperative Extension advisor Scott Oneto and retired insurance executive Staci O'Toole are researching conditions in a Placerville hazelnut orchard that best support the production of highly prized Perigord truffles, reported Becky Grunewald in the Sacramento Bee.
“Whether this will be the next big commodity in California? I would love to say yes, but that goes with a lot of hesitancy and uncertainty," Oneto said. "There's a ton of things we need to figure out to make this industry successful.”
O'Toole had asked Oneto for assistance.
“When I have a farmer or rancher who is presented with problems, whether it be a new pest, weed, pathogen, or the effects of climate change, we help them solve those problems so they can continue to be successful in agriculture,” Oneto said.
During a sabbatical leave, Oneto researched scientific literature about truffle cultivation. Last spring, he and O'Toole set out an experiment in four plots of her hazelnut orchard to compare different growing conditions, with varying levels of moisture, shade, pH and soil amendment.
The hazelnut trees were planted, pre-inoculated with truffle mycelium, over a decade ago by the former ranch owner. The trees are all the same age, same variety, and same condition, making the location ideal for scientific investigation.
O'Toole is keeping close track of truffle production in the orchard, the article said. In time, Oneto hopes to publish the results of their experiment in a peer-reviewed journal to help other would-be truffle growers.