Posts Tagged: Crops
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.
KQED reporter Mark Schapiro discovered a "center of insurrection" at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points, where UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell has been building soil on a research plot for 20 years.
Schapiro's story was part of a series titled "Reckoning in the Central Valley," a collaboration between Bay Nature magazine and KQED Science examining how climate change is exposing the vulnerabilities of California agriculture.
In the Central Valley, climate change is disrupting the predictability that is key to maintaining a profitable industrial agriculture system. Mitchell believes that employing practices that build soil - such as reducing or eliminating tillage and planting cover crops - will help farmers ride the wave of climate change.
It's that cover-cropped field “that is the real disruptor here," Mitchell said.
The soil in test plots where cover crops were grown are loaded with far more organic matter than soil in fields where cover crops were not grown. The organic matter improves water absorption, making the land more resilient to drier conditions. Fields with cover crops also sequester carbon and produce crops that may be more nutritious.
“What you see in Five Points,” said Daphne Miller, a physician who studies the links between the health of the foods we eat and the soil in which they're grown, “is that the plots with the greatest diversity of cover crops had the most diverse microbiome in the soil.”
Livestock operations and fresh produce growers in California are among the most highly regulated in the country, but confusion often exists about what each community does to keep our food safe. The California Good Agriculture Neighbors Workshop: The Produce-Livestock Interface Workshop aims to clarify those roles.
Fruit and vegetable growers, livestock owners and others interested in assuring the safety of fresh produce grown in the vicinity of livestock and wildlife are invited to explore collaborative methods that advance food safety.
At locations in the Central Valley and Imperial Valley, food safety scientists, regulators, growers and ranchers will share what they know about the produce-livestock interface and discuss how we can make food even safer.
“Produce and livestock farmers in Southern California won't want to miss this seminar on food safety June 11 at Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville,” says Jose Luis Aguiar, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor for Riverside County. “Come and hear directly from scientists and regulators about the latest research and regulatory news. The agricultural industry is doing its part to be a good neighbor and work collaboratively to make food safer.”
Participants will gain a better understanding of how co-management of neighboring farms can further enhance food safety, reduce potential for fresh produce outbreaks, and limit liability for both growers and ranchers.
In the morning, speakers will cover laws, regulations and practices that already exist to protect food and environmental safety. In the afternoon, participants will break out into groups to examine how these practices can be leveraged.
There will be time for discussion with Ag Innovations facilitating the meeting. Participants will be encouraged to share their experiences and to ask produce safety questions.
The free workshop, subsidized by a grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, is being offered in Holtville and Stockton. Lunch will be provided. For more information and to register, visit www.wifss.ucdavis.edu/good-ag-neighbors.
June 11, 2019
9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Desert Research & Extension Center
1004 East Holton Rd
Holtville, CA 92250
June 13, 2019
9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Robert J Cabral Agricultural Center
2101 E. Earhart Ave
Stockton, CA 95206
The produce safety-livestock interface workshops are sponsored by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Western Center for Food Safety at UC Davis, Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources using cooperative funding from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Western Growers and California Beef Council are sponsoring the lunches.
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.”
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.”
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.
George Washington, the father of our country, said it well when he proclaimed he grew “crops to eat and sell” and “crops to replenish the soil.”
Generations of farmers follow his footsteps.
Cover crops (also known as green manures) are plants primarily grown for the benefit of the soil rather than for crop yield. With autumn only a few months away, now's a good time to think about planting cool-season cover crop seed mixes for your farm or garden.
Why grow cover crops?
The benefits of cover cropping include reduced soil erosion, adding organic matter, nutrients, and mycorrhizae to the soil, and weed and nematode suppression. Cover crops also increase nutrient retention and water infiltration. And some, such as radish, break into compacted soil layers, making it easier for the following crop's roots to develop more fully. Flowering cover crops on farms also increase beneficial insects, including bees and natural enemies, that provide pollination and pest control services in crop production.
How do cover crops benefit natural enemies?
Beneficial insects need nectar and pollen to survive and reproduce. For example, adult parasitoid wasps feed on flowers, while the parasitoid larvae prey on pests such as aphids, caterpillars, and stink bugs. Lady beetle, aka ladybugs, feed on flowers, especially during times of prey scarcity. In addition to flowers, cover crops, such as vetch and bell (fava) beans, have extra-floral nectaries or spurs at the base of the leaves. These secrete a sugary syrup that attracts beneficial insects, such as syrphid flies to control aphids.
Insectary cover crop seed mixes.
Winter mixes that attract beneficial insects (aka Insectary Plants) and fix nitrogen include bell beans, clovers, field peas, and vetch. Other insectary plants to add to a cover crop mix include forbs such as baby blue eyes, poppies, phacelia, purple Chinese houses, sweet alyssum, and tidy tips. Small grains (triticale, barley, and rye) are good pollen sources for beneficial insects. It's a good idea to order insectary cover crop mixes from local sources to avoid potential introduction of non-native forb-type plants from other areas.
Cover crops to perhaps avoid in some crop rotations.
Avoid cover crop species that host arthropod pests or plant pathogens that can damage nearby crops. For example, bell beans are a key host for tomato spotted wilt virus vectored by thrips insects, UC IPM. Mustards attract beneficial insects, but are significant hosts for pests such as stink bugs, cucumber beetles, flea beetles, and lygus bugs. Alfalfa has extra-floral nectaries, but is not a recommended insectary plant because it hosts pathogens, including alfalfa mosaic virus that infects a number of crops, including tomatoes (UC IPM).
How important are floral resources for natural enemies?
In a 1998 research article, Beneficial insects move from flowering plants to nearby crops, published in California Agriculture journal, I pointed out that beneficial insects extensively use flowering cover crops. In a mark-and-recapture study in an almond orchard with a cover crop, 80 percent of the syrphid flies and 40 percent of the lacewings (both aphid feeders) trapped in the trees fed on flowers and extra-floral resources that the insectary plants provided, as did 10 percent of the parasitoid wasps, which prey on peach twig borer.
Balancing multiple needs of cover crops.
Note that legumes need to be mowed or disked prior to full bloom for maximum nitrogen fixation, limiting floral resources. To favor beneficial insects, don't mow or disk all of your cover crop at once; instead, leave occasional strips of flowering plants on your farm. Beneficial insects will find the flowers, as they move around (at least 600 feet for many natural enemies and over a mile for bees). If frost is a concern in your orchard, consider planting strips of low-growing insectary plants, such as tidy tips and other forbs listed above. Be sure to select seed mixes that work with surrounding crops.
George Washington used cover crops to replenish the soil; they're also good for the soul when you savor the benefits, especially all the flowers and beneficial insects attracted to them. Why not play a game of “I Spy” in your cover crop and see if you can find a bumble bee or one of the myriad of natural enemies featured in the UC IPM poster, Meet the Beneficials.
Flowering cover crops support wild bees and a regional sustainability agenda, part of the June 2018 research update in California Agriculture journal.
UC ANR publications on cover crops: