Posts Tagged: Jeff Mitchell
Historically, chickens were not a rare sight on farms, where they contributed to soil fertility as they freely pecked and scratched around vegetable gardens and crop land. Now, UC Cooperative Extension specialists have launched a research project to quantify the potential for chickens to be part of safe and sustainable commercial organic vegetable production.
“It's not a new idea. A lot of farmers are trying this kind of thing,” said UC Davis International Agriculture and Development graduate student Faye Duan, the project coordinator. “But there is currently little scientific information for using chickens on a bigger scale, especially in terms of food safety concerns.”
The California trial is part of a national effort to diversify organic vegetable farms with chickens. Last year, the USDA-funded study was launched by Iowa State University horticulture professor Ajay Nair. The project also includes UC Cooperative Extension specialists Maurice Pitesky and Jeff Mitchell, based at UC Davis, and University of Kentucky entomology professor David Gonthier.
In the trials, chickens are introduced as part of a rotation that includes cover crops and a variety of vegetable crops. In California, chickens were placed on research plots in April following a winter cover crop of vetch, peas, fava beans and oat grass.
“We don't let the chickens run around the field,” Duan said. “We keep them inside of chicken tractors to protect them from predators.”
Twenty-nine birds live in each 50-square-foot tractor, essentially a floorless chicken coop on wheels. The tractors, built by UC Davis students Mallory Phillips and Trevor Krivens, are wood frames covered with mesh and plywood. Each day, the tractors are moved to a different part of the plot, where the birds can graze on cover crop residue and deposit manure. Adjusting to the daily move took time, Duan said.
“The first day, the chickens were confused. We had to go slowly. It's a learning process for the chickens and us,” she said. “But now, the chickens are excited to move to a new spot where they have fresh food to graze on.”
After 24 days on pasture, the chickens will be removed, and become part of the project's meat study.
“We have broiler chickens that are raised for meat,” Duan said. “Some people believe chickens that graze and eat grass taste better and are more nutritious. It will be part of the study to look at the chicken's meat quality.”
Once the chickens have done their part on the research plots, vegetables are planted amid the leftover cover crop residue and chicken manure. This summer, the experiment in California will grow processing tomatoes. Subsequently, melons, eggplant, spinach and broccoli will be part of the vegetable rotation in California or the other states involved in the project. Other replications of the trial will have the chickens immediately follow the vegetable harvest so they can graze on the crop leftovers before the cover crop is planted. Comparing the soil health, fertilizer needs, chicken quality and other factors will help the scientists optimize the rotation.
“Vegetable yield will be an important indicator of success,” Duan said.
Soil samples will be tested to determine the presence or absence of Salmonella bacteria after the chickens have been removed, said Pitesky, a poultry specialist and a project lead. Salmonella is a bacterium that can be part of poultry's microbiome. If the bacteria contaminates human food, it can cause illness.
“Since Salmonella lives in the chicken gastrointestinal system, when it gets into the soil, it will eventually be out-competed by bacteria more adapted to soil than the gut of a chicken,” Pitesky said. “There are many different types of Salmonella, and only a select few found in birds are the ones that are harmful to humans. Nevertheless, it is very important to test and use various practices to mitigate the presence of Salmonella on land that will be used for crop production following poultry.”
Early results of soil tests in Iowa and Kentucky detected Salmonella in the soil where chickens grazed, however, the bacteria disappeared very quickly.
West Side farmer John Diener had flash of inspiration. Why not plant butternut squash?
Diener is a long-time research cooperator with UC Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell, who has studied innovative, sustainable farming practices for 21 years at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center under four different treatments: no-till plus cover crops, no-till with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.
Since it was established, the research plots have been managed in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and, more recently, sorghum, garbanzo beans and melons. When trying to decide what crop to bring into the rotation for 2020, Diener thought of butternut squash, a relatively large, thick-skinned squash that has little pest and disease problems and a long-shelf life. He suggested the squash could be donated to the Central California Food Bank and made available to local families in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
CCFB provides food to more than 220 agencies in Fresno, Madera, Kings, Kern and Tulare counties, serving more than 280,000 people each month. Last year, CCFB supplied over 40 million pounds of food in all.
Diener arranged for butternut squash seed to be donated by David Bodine of AgSeeds. He generously paid for several days of labor to harvest the crop. Diener contacted family friend Joan Minasian, who serves on the Food Bank board, to make arrangements for delivering 101 bins of squash – more than 70,000 pounds – to the food bank's Fresno distribution center.
“The Central Valley Food Bank is working on diversifying the food we offer in meal boxes and distributions,” Minasian said. “I'm really proud of the food bank's efforts to increase healthy foods. We're always looking for farmers to partner with.”
Butternut squash, a winter squash, has a 90-day shelf life without refrigeration. It is grown in the summer; the name is derived from the fact that the mature vegetable can be stored for winter eating.
In addition to supporting farmers with research and advice, UC Cooperative Extension offers nutrition education programs to low-income Californians. Deepa Srivastava – UCCE nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor for Kings and Tulare counties – manages two programs that extend information to families on healthy eating, food safety, food resource management, gardening, physical activity and youth engagement.
Srivastava said butternut squash is a nutritious addition to family diets. The vegetable is a good source of vitamin A and vitamin C, and also supplies vitamin B-6, protein, fiber, magnesium, potassium and iron.
The squash's buff exterior protects golden flesh that is nutty and sweet. It can be baked, boiled or grilled whole or chopped. Cooked squash can be pureed for soup or baby food, added to casseroles, pies, salads and stuffing. The cooked flesh adds beautiful fall color to everyday meals or holiday spreads.
One easy way to prepare butternut squash is roasting in the oven. Preheat the oven at 350 degrees. Carefully cut the squash in half and scrape out seeds and strings with a spoon. Place cut side up in an oven-safe pan, then brush the flesh lightly with olive oil. Season to taste with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, fresh or dried herbs and spices. Bake for one hour, or until it can be easily pierced with a fork.
Consumers who purchase luxury cotton textiles want more than cool, soft, absorbent fabric. Increasingly, they demand clothing made from fiber grown using ecologically sound practices and they're willing to pay for it, said speakers representing the textile industry at a UC Cooperative Extension webinar on Healthy Soils for Healthy Profits.
A recording of the three-hour Sept. 17 webinar – which features clothing manufacturers, farmers and scientists – may be viewed on YouTube at https://youtu.be/rEm8pjbbnaE.
At the beginning of the webinar, UC Cooperative Extension conservation agriculture specialist Jeff Mitchell recalled the tragic 1991 dust storm on the west side of Fresno County, which reduced visibility on Interstate 5, causing a 104-vehicle pile-up that took 17 lives. The devastating accident foreshadowed debates about agriculture's role in reducing dust emissions, he said.
“It turns out that air quality was just the beginning,” Mitchell said. “There is now a whole cascade of expectations that buyers, consumers and the public are demanding of farmers about how food, fiber, feed and fuel crops are actually produced.”
Speakers from non-profit and commercial fashion and fiber organizations said they are anxious to get access to cotton grown using practices that promote soil health and sequester carbon to give their products climate-change mitigation cachet.
“What we envision when we look at the fields is groundcover year-round. Living roots in the soil year-round,” said Rebecca Burgess, director of Fibershed, a California non-profit organization that develops regional and regenerative fiber systems. “No-till or strip-till practices have garnered interest to protect soil from disruption, to avoid breaking up fungal networks. To produce cotton in a system that isn't eroding top soil.”
Wrangler jeans is a clothing brand that has successfully incorporated sustainably produced cotton into its products. The company worked with a group of Tennessee cotton farmers and the Soil Health Institute to produce 100% sustainable cotton jeans and sell them in its Wrangler Rooted Collection. Men's jeans in the collection run about $100 a pair. Ordinary cowboy cut Wrangler jeans range from $39 to $41 a pair.
Burgess said the fashion and textile industry is organizing itself to align with the 1.5-degree pathway, a target set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that limits the rise in global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.
“We want to work with farmers to enhance the ecosystem function of the landscape,” Burgess said. “We need to embed the cost of transitions into the cost of the cotton.”
Growing regenerative cotton in California comes with challenges that farmers are facing head on. Firebaugh farmer John Teixeira this year grew a multi-species cover crop that he terminated with a flail mower rather than a herbicide. He is making compost on the farm and in some parts of the farm spreading 8 to 10 tons per acre.
“We spread it on soil and also on cover crops to digest the cover crop,” Teixeria said. “We're adding bacteria. We would love to have more fungal diversity in the compost, but that's really hard. Fungi don't like to be disturbed. I believe microbes are the future. The key is to keep them alive.”
Gary Martin of Pikalok Farming in Firebaugh was using poultry manure on the farm, until it became prohibitively expensive. He then turned to cover crops and municipal compost to improve water infiltration, soil structure, water retention and increase organic matter. After three years, he added gypsum to improve the soil health.
He found that planting a cover crop without irrigation is a gamble.
“The net value of the cover crop is negative if it doesn't grow (because of a lack of rain),” Martin said. “Composting is more of a sure bet.”
Bowles Farm is experimenting with using a native plant cover crop.
“Native plants are designed to grow when we get moisture, and go away when we don't,” said Bowles Farm executive vice president Derek Azevedo. “It could be a habitat for pollinators.”
The company is also working on writing a carbon plan to map out how much carbon a cotton farm in Merced County can capture. The trial is managed with a multi-species cover crop, strip tillage, untreated seeds, fungal-dominated compost inoculation and a reduction in synthetic nitrogen.
“I can tell you already that the results of that carbon plan are being awaited by one of the brands in the San Luis Obispo area,” Burgess said. “They want to work with that cotton. They are excited to know what this can do for the climate.”
“We're interested in making products that stand the test of time, stay out of landfills, eliminating waste,” Daeschner said.
The company currently sources its high-end materials mainly from Italy, but is interested in transitioning to fabrics that are not only high quality, but also have a reduced environmental footprint. A new line, CO Natural World, focuses on the highest levels of sustainability, organic and regenerative materials, climate-beneficial wools, organic cotton, organic linen and recycled cashmere from garments that can no longer be salvaged.
“To create a garment that goes beyond the very least amount of harm to a garment that actually benefits the planet is the ultimate luxury,” Daeschner said.
The company is part of a network of five clothing brands that are working together to create the California Cotton and Climate Coalition, or C4 Coalition.
“We can do more together than we can do alone to boost the demand for beneficial cotton,” she said. “We are sharing pre-competitive information and pooling our financial resources to overcome existing gaps in the supply chain. And we will share our findings and results to attract new brands to the coalition.”
Calla Rose Ostrander, climate change communicator with the People, Food and Land Foundation, spoke from her home base in Colorado about opportunities for incentives to assist farmers in transitioning to healthy soils practices. She has been working with Maurice Marciano, the founder of Guess Jeans, and his daughter Olivia, who provided funding for part of the Bowles Farm project.
“They want to give back to the cotton community given the legacy of their company,” she said.
Ostrander said there is a network of philanthropic funders who may be interested in supporting the evolution of the cotton production system.
“There's a lot of commitment out there,” Ostrander said. “We're all trying to figure out how to do it and make sure that we can support the farmers in this transition. I'm really glad to see that the emphasis has stayed on supporting the producer and this idea has evolved. It takes time to build things.”
Well-known appellations, powerful marketing and excellent products make California wines very valuable. Could the same be done for California's cotton crop?
California farmers produce high-quality cotton, but currently take in only 62 cents per pound, a price that makes turning a profit challenging. UC Cooperative Extension is working with a team of soil health and fiber sustainability experts to offer an online workshop from 9 a.m. to 12 noon Sept. 17 that will explore ways to increase cotton's value. Speakers will share new soil-building practices and ideas for marketing the crop's sustainable production system to make California cotton more valuable to consumers.
“Buyers and markets are paying attention to sustainability, climate change mitigation and protecting natural resources,” said UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell. “We want to seize the moment for cotton.”
The webinar will start with discussions led by Rebecca Burgess of Fibershed and Cala Rose Ostrander of the People, Land, and Life Foundation about what clothing and textile brands are interested in and what they may be willing to pay in support of healthy soil management systems for California cotton.
Three cotton farmers – Gary Martin of Mendota, John Teixeira of Firebaugh and Cannon Michael of Los Banos – will share their motivations and experiences with cotton soil health management approaches.Cary Crum, a crop consultant with California Ag Solutions, Inc., will discuss striking progress on regenerative ag silage systems with relevance for cotton.
David Lamm, former NRCS National Soil Health Coordinator and now part of the Soil Health Institute in Greensboro, N.C., will share experiences from the Southern U.S. cotton belt to improve soil health.
The program also includes a discussion about long-term soil management research conducted at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points by UC Davis doctoral student Geoff Koch and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell.
Registration for the general public is $10; registration is free for farmers. To register, visit http://ucanr.edu/sjvcottonwebinar
Webinar sponsors are:
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center, California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Health Institutes, Fibershed, California Climate Investments, California Department of Food and Agriculture Healthy Soils Program, Rodale Institute California Organic Center.
For more information contact Jeff Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org, (559) 303-9689.
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.