Posts Tagged: Rob Bennaton
A summer of smoke and ash in many parts of California has raised questions about the safety of produce growing on farms and in the garden, eggs laid by chickens who peck around in ash-laden areas, and remediation needed to safely and effectively grow food in the future.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brought together experts who have researched the effects of previous fires' fallout and studied soil contaminants to share their insight in a two-hour webinar now available on YouTube.
“The No. 1 health concern during a fire is smoke inhalation, and it's been well documented that wildfire smoke can negatively impact both the heart and the lungs,” said Claire O'Brien, a pharmacology and toxicology doctoral student at UC Davis. “However, the chemicals found in the smoke don't just stay in the air. They can deposit onto plants and into soil and water.”
Although every fire is unique, some generalizations can be drawn from research conducted following previous fires. UC Cooperative Extension food systems advisor Julia Van Soelen Kim detailed a study conducted following the October 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County and across the North Bay.
With the help of UC Master Gardener and community volunteers, the researchers collected over 200 samples of homegrown collard greens, lettuces, kale and chard that were exposed to wildfire smoke and ash. A subset of the samples were analyzed by a private laboratory.
“There was very low concern about chemicals on produce,” Van Soelen Kim said. “No samples had detectable levels of lead, arsenic, mercury or chromium. And that's a huge sigh of relief.” However, analytical results vary by site, site history and by fire event, and few have pre-fire baseline data to compare with.
Van Soelen Kim said basic food-safety practices should be followed when preparing to eat food grown in a home garden, regardless of ash or smoke contamination.
“You should always wash your hands before and after harvesting, and wash your produce in running water to mitigate any kind of potential risk,” she said.
Are backyard chicken eggs safe to eat?
Another study outlined at the webinar used a similar process to determine whether there might be contaminants in the eggs laid by backyard poultry that live and feed in areas exposed to wildfire ash and smoke.
Scientists know from previous research that chickens exposed to lead in their environment can produce eggs with high lead content and that heavy metal content of ash from urban wildfires is higher than from rural wildfire.
“We combined those two pieces of research with what we know that chickens do all day: they peck at the ground for hours on end,” said Todd Kelman, a veterinarian in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. “That makes for a pretty good hypothesis that urban wildfire could pose a risk for the production of eggs and poultry that contain heavy metals.”
Kelman and his team put out a call for eggs from backyard poultry and received samples from 344 premises in fire-affected and non-fire-affected areas of California.
Surprisingly, egg samples that contained higher lead levels came from parts of the state that were not directly impacted by ash and smoke.
“Did our data support our hypothesis that proximity to urban wildfire is a driving source for lead in eggs of backyard poultry? The answer is not so much,” Kelman said. “So, is it safe to eat eggs from your backyard poultry? We can't give you a definitive answer to that question. But we do suggest you assess your risk and reduce the risk of contamination.”
Practices that reduce the risk include keeping chickens off the ground, using a chicken feeder that prevents spillage onto the ground and making calcium readily available, for example in the form of oyster shells, because calcium can prevent the absorption of lead. Making sure that chickens are provided uncontaminated water is also an important part of risk reduction.
For confirmation on the safety backyard chickens and their eggs, lab tests for eggs are available for $60 from the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis, or chickens may be submitted to CAHFS for necropsy.
Are soils safe for growing food after a fire?
Fire effects on soil is another consideration in burned areas, said UC Cooperative Extension urban agriculture advisor Rob Bennaton.
“Fires heat topsoil layers. They reduce the amount of living micro-organisms at the site of the burn, and also affect organic matter and nutrients. Ash deposits over time may make soils more alkaline,” he said. “As a result of these combined factors, there are temporary changes in nutrient levels and the capacity for soils to exchange nutrients for optimal plant growth and nutrition.”
With proper land care and management, soils can be remediated over time.
“It won't happen overnight. Soils were developed over millions of years,” he said.
Some ways to improve safety when gardening in fire-affected areas including keeping the soil covered with wood chips or other landscape mulch to reduce airborne soil dust. Use drip irrigation to prevent up splash onto the undersides of growing vegetables. Promote good drainage, especially at the bottom of slopes to prevent the concentration of contaminants.
Lab tests are often needed to determine the soils' post-fire characteristics. “Don't guess, but test,” Bennaton said.
The UC Master Gardener Program can provide technical assistance to help home gardeners find resources for home soil testing, he said.
Additional resources and information shared during the webinar include:
Post-fire soil resources and soil testing information
- UCCE publication on Soils in Urban Agriculture with soil testing & sampling information
- The UC ANR Healthy Soils Website, which has many resources worth reviewing.
- Tips for Interpreting Soil Analysis
- UC Master Gardener of Sonoma County 2018 workshop video “Effects of fire on soil”
Post-fire food safety
- Research on produce safety and backyard chicken egg safety after the 2017 wildfires in California is available on this web page. To view a past webinar recording with these research findings, click this link.
- Poultry wildfire resources from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine:
- Best Practices for Produce Safety After Fire
- Understanding Risk: A community guide for assessing the potential health impacts of locally grown produce exposed to urban wildfire smoke
Firewise and sustainable home landscaping design in the defensible space zone
- Visit the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County firewise landscaping web page.
- For a recent firewise & sustainable design and maintenance video by the Resilient Landscapes Coalition.
Impact of smoke & ash on plants
[This article was first published Nov. 3, 2020]
UC ANR's activities are free and scheduled for both days:
10 a.m. Be a Master Gardener – Rob Bennaton, UC ANR Cooperative Extension urban agriculture advisor for the Bay Area, will discuss water-wise gardening and answer questions about UC Master Gardener training classes.
11 a.m. Fun with Seeds – Steve Andrews, UC Master Gardener Program coordinator for Alameda County, will demonstrate how to make a greenhouse out of a zip-top plastic bag. Kids can choose the seeds they want to plant and customize their greenhouse by decorating it on site.
12 p.m. Be a Master Gardener – Bennaton will discuss water-wise gardening and answer questions about UC Master Gardener training classes.
1 p.m. Worm Composting – Andrews will demonstrate how to turn waste into fertilizer with the help of earthworms.
Kids are invited to become part of the “Pollen Nation” by wearing an antenna headband, available for free at the UC ANR booth.
UC ANR gardening publications including “California Master Gardener Handbook,” “Landscape Pest Identification” cards, “Healthy Roses,” “Pests of the Garden and Small Farm,” “Wildlife Pest Control around Gardens and Homes” and more will be available for purchase at the booth. For more information about urban agriculture and the UC Master Gardener Program, visit http://ucanr.edu/UrbanAg and http://mg.ucanr.edu.
The UC ANR booth will be located in the Eco Alley section of the book festival, on Allston Way between Shattuck and Oxford, across the street from the Brower Center.
The Bay Area Book Festival is a free event and will feature nearly 300 authors, as well as panels, performances and public art displays at Civic Center Park and surrounding indoor and outdoor spaces in Berkeley. For more information about the festival, visit http://www.baybookfest.org.
To find out how to help people who want to grow food in their communities in California, Rachel Surls, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor, and several UC ANR colleagues interviewed urban farmers as part of a statewide study of urban agriculture needs.
Surls, who specializes in sustainable food systems in Los Angeles County, and her colleagues identified several common challenges that UC ANR and local governments could address to cultivate a more urban agriculture-friendly environment.
In an op-ed published March 24 in the Sacramento Bee, Surls listed the following six things that local officials could do to encourage urban farming:
- Make zoning and regulatory information accessible
- Develop a transparent process for use of city-owned land
- Create an urban agriculture incentive zone
- Update zoning to make it urban-ag friendly
- Make water accessible while promoting efficient use
- Provide guidance and support for soil testing and remediation.
There seems to be growing interest in cities encouraging urban farming. For example, last year Oakland updated its city codes to allow planting of community gardens in most zones of the city without obtaining a special permit. San Diego has made it easier for residents to keep chickens and bees in their backyards. The Sacramento City Council recently voted to allow residents to farm on urban lots and sell produce they grow at farm stands. And now, Santa Clara County is considering tax breaks for property owners who allow crops to be planted on their unused parcels.
Urban farmers told the researchers that UC ANR could help by providing educational materials on topics such as pest management, water management, design of community urban agriculture projects and soil testing and remediation.
To begin providing the public with information about urban agriculture, UC ANR has created a website at http://ucanr.edu/urbanag. Visitors to the website will find science-based information on raising crops and livestock, selling farm products and links to policies for farming in a backyard, at a school or a community garden.
“Many urban farmers are beginning farmers so the website offers basic information on planting, pests and irrigation, and on navigating local laws and regulations that impact farming,” said Surls. “But the website is also intended to be a resource for policymakers who are making decisions that impact local farming in their cities.”
For the latest information about urban farming, visit http://ucanr.edu/urbanag and follow @UCurbanag on Twitter.
The University of California Global Food Initiative aims to put the world on a path to sustainably and nutritiously feed itself. By building on existing efforts and creating new collaborations among UC's 10 campuses, affiliated national laboratories and the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the initiative will develop and export solutions for food security, health and sustainability throughout California, the United States and the world.