Posts Tagged: Sustainable Food Systems
UC SAREP's Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems grant helps support Second Chance garden
Fifteen-year-old Xavier knows the anger within him will never leave. “I can't ever get rid of it,” he said.
“I've always wanted to just fight for no reason; I just had an anger issue, losing my temper quick with people,” added Xavier, a ninth-grader in San Diego County. “I have high expectations of myself.”
Xavier is working to keep his emotions under control, and he has found a sense of calm through his volunteer work. He was an intern – and then a peer supervisor – in the youth-run garden of Second Chance, a San Diego-based organization that works to break the cycles of poverty and incarceration by providing housing and job training to adults and young people.
Operating their garden as a small farm business, youth in the program, ages 14 to 21, offer produce to the community through their farm stand and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model.
“The project incorporates a ‘farm to fork' approach in which youth not only experience how to grow food, but how to cook and eat healthfully,” said Gail Feenstra, director of the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, which has a grant program that funds research and education projects – such as the youth garden – supporting sustainable food systems.
“Second Chance works primarily with youth in communities of color, providing them with training and also helping them develop confidence in themselves,” Feenstra said.
Filling a critical need for fresh produce
Caelli Wright, program manager of the Second Chance youth garden, said that grant funds from SAREP – a program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources – have been used to purchase the supplies needed to sustain the program. The garden has filled a critical need for produce during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“After the pandemic hit, we recognized the increased need for fresh food in our neighborhoods,” Wright said. “That need was already there – southeast San Diego is considered a ‘food swamp' or ‘food apartheid', if you will – and with the onset of COVID, that need just escalated with unemployment and complications in our food production systems.”
Through a partnership with UC San Diego Center for Community Health and Encanto Elementary School (located down the block from the garden), donations enabled the program to give its CSA shares to about 25 families at Encanto. Over the course of the pandemic, the youth have grown 10,000 pounds of produce to donate.
At the same time, the program helps the young participants grow. For Xavier, being outdoors with peers empowered him to develop positive relationships. Previously, as a student in a charter school program, he was not accustomed to interacting with people and groups. Volunteering in the youth garden has given him a fresh perspective and understanding of others.
“Learning to be patient with people and [to] accept sometimes that if I don't know something, I need to ask about it, because I used to be so in my ego that I thought I knew everything,” Xavier explained. “But I don't know everything – I just learned to accept some things…that's just being part of life. And that's something that the garden has helped me with, personally.”
Opportunities for personal, social growth
Developing – and redeveloping – social skills are especially important for students, as they return from the disconnections associated with remote learning.
“Right now, with a lot of students facing the aftermath of COVID and being restricted to learning at home and not getting as much social interaction in their daily lives, it's led to a lot of challenges, mental health-wise, and social and emotional learning-wise,” Wright said. “The garden program provides that opportunity that some youth have been missing out on.”
In southeast San Diego, such crucial opportunities for personal growth and career exploration are harder to come by, and Second Chance started the garden in 2012 to give youth a unique work experience and valuable skills. About 400 young people have participated in the program.
“The youth that we serve are coming from low-income neighborhoods that are underserved with resources,” Wright said. “They just are not exposed to the same opportunities [as those in higher-income areas] to build skills or be ready for the workforce or to reach higher education – so that's where our program comes in and helps deliver those needed services.”
Xavier, who originally came to the garden because he heard that landscaping could be a lucrative career, recently finished his second stint as a peer supervisor in the youth garden. With his new skills, he and his cousin are looking to start a business of their own, cutting grass and doing yardwork in their community.
And, late last month, Xavier transferred to a more traditional high school environment.
“Being in a charter school after two, three years,” he said, “I've realized I miss being around more people.”/h3>/h3>/h2>
When agricultural advisors came to the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico during the 1940s, they lined the irrigation ditches with concrete, in the name of boosting efficiency and productivity. But in single-mindedly focusing on water delivery, they neglected to consider how the previously inefficient seepage sustained nearby fruit trees.
Their actions, as well-intentioned as they might have been, disrupted the local ecosystem and killed the trees that had fed many generations, according to A-dae Romero-Briones, who identifies as Cochiti and as a member of the Kiowa Tribe.
“In my language, we call the extension agents ‘the people who kill the fruit trees,'” said Romero-Briones, director of the Food and Agriculture Program for the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit that serves Tribal communities across the mainland, Alaska and Hawaii.
The historically tense relationship between Indigenous peoples and government-affiliated programs is one of the many complex dynamics discussed in a six-part webinar series, “Racial Equity in Extension,” facilitated by UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.
Making communities of color in the agricultural sector more visible is a priority for Victor Hernandez, a sociologist and outreach coordinator for the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Hernandez, who has organized “Growing Together” conferences for Latino and Black farmers, is trying to get more farmers of color to participate in the upcoming 2022 Agricultural Census.
“If we cannot quantify the demographic, we cannot justify the need,” emphasized Hernandez, explaining that his office uses the data to direct resources that advance equity in service, program delivery and distribution of funds.
A legacy of mistrust
At the same time, however, Hernandez also acknowledged the challenges in registering growers of color for the census, conducted by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. (According to Brodt, USDA's most recent agricultural census, dating to 2017, counts approximately 25,000 producers of color among 128,535 total producers in California.)
“Many of us that are considered socially disadvantaged or historically underserved…a lot of times our peoples come from [nations with] oppressive governments,” Hernandez said. “And so when you come to the United States and you begin to build your life here, to go and engage with the federal government is not the first knee-jerk reaction.”
On top of government mistrust and fears of deportation or detention, other immigrant groups have seen mainstream agriculture – borne by the “Green Revolution” wave across the globe – replace deep-rooted cultural practices, said Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm in Winters.
“It just makes these small farmers distrust our own knowledge, the knowledge that's existed for centuries – before the kind of current iteration of agriculture that we're situated within right now,” said Leach, who works to preserve the agricultural heritage of her Korean ancestors, and facilitates a farmers' collaborative called Second Generation that adapts Asian crop varieties to climate change.
According to Romero-Briones, a collective memory of supplanted culture also lingers in Indigenous communities. In the Cochiti Pueblo, “primarily a subsistence agriculture community” with a long history of corn cultivation, their practices are distinct from those in the mainstream – including regenerative and sustainable agriculture.
Building relationships takes commitment
Given that legacy of cultural displacement and appropriation, how do extension professionals and other agricultural advisors slowly rebuild trust with communities of color? For Romero-Briones, it begins with a genuine respect for Indigenous practices, and she urges interested people to contact their local tribal historic preservation officer to begin strengthening those connections and understanding – beyond a couple of phone calls.
“As someone who works with Indigenous people all day, even I need to recognize sometimes I have to meet with people up to 12 times before we actually start talking about the work that I initially wanted to talk to them about,” Romero-Briones said.
In a similar vein, Chanowk Yisrael, chief seed starter of Yisrael Family Farms, encouraged listeners to reach out to members of the California Farmer Justice Collaborative – an organization striving for a fair food system while challenging racism and centering farmers of color.
“To use a farm analogy: we've got this ground, which is the farmers of color who have been neglected for a long period of time,” said Yisrael, who has grown his farm in a historically Black neighborhood of Sacramento into a catalyst for social change. “It's not just going to be as simple as just throwing some seeds and things are going to come up; you're going to have to do more – that means you got to get out and do much more than you would do for any other community.”
Investing time in a community is one thing – and backing it up with tangible resources is another. Technical expertise is only the “tip of the iceberg,” Leach said, as historically marginalized groups are also seeking land access and tenure, more affordable cost of living, and access to capital.
“All of those things are actually much bigger burdens to bear for most communities of color than not having the knowledge of how to grow the crops that we want to grow, and not knowing how to be adaptive and nimble in the face of climate change," Leach explained, highlighting California FarmLink as an essential resource. (The “Understanding Disparities in Farmland Ownership” webinar includes a relevant discussion on this subject.)
Bringing diverse voices to the table
Another key is ensuring that farmers and farm workers of color are represented in management and decision-making processes. Samuel Sandoval, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources and UC Cooperative Extension specialist in water management, develops outreach programs in English and Spanish for everyone from farm workers to the “boss of the boss of the boss.”
“It has to be changed,” he said, “because at the end, the person who is going to operate the irrigation system and turn on or off the valves, the person who is looking if there's a leak or not – that's the person who's not being informed, or has not been informed on purpose.”
That exclusion of certain groups can lead to a loss of invaluable knowledge. Leach said there is a real danger in ignoring the wisdom of communities that have contributed so much to the foundation of food systems in California and around the globe.
“These really kind of amazing, sophisticated and elegant agroecological systems that we don't often legitimize through the scientific language and perspectives aren't seen as being really technically proficient – but, in many ways, they're more dynamic and more resilient than the things that we're perpetuating right now,” she said.
As a concrete example, Sandoval said that while extension advisors and specialists conduct studies to remedy a plant disease, farm workers might be developing – separately and in parallel – their own solutions by asking for advice from their social networks via WhatsApp, a phone application.
A reimagining of collaboration, Sandoval said, would include (and compensate) people working in the field for sharing their perspectives – bringing together academics and farmers, integrated pest management experts and pesticide applicators, irrigation specialists and those who do the irrigation.
A need to look within
Concerns about inclusion and validating alternate sources of knowledge apply also to the recruitment process in extension. Leach said that she has seen listings for advisor jobs that would require, at a minimum, a master's degree – which would automatically disqualify her, despite her extensive knowledge of Asian heirloom vegetables.
“When you look at a job description and you see ‘Asian crop specialist,' only required qualification is a master's degree, and then somewhere down the long list of sort of secondary desired, recommended things is some knowledge of Asian crops or communities…you know that just says a lot in terms of what has weight,” Leach explained.
Before organizations can authentically connect with communities of color, they should prioritize diversity in their own ranks, said Romero-Briones. First Nations Development Institute had to ensure that they had adequate representation across the many Tribes that they serve.
“Before we start looking out, we have to start looking in,” she explained, “and that means we have to hire Indigenous people who know these communities.”
For extension professionals and other members of the agricultural community in California, the UC SAREP webinar series has helped spark that introspection and a meaningful reevaluation of institutional processes and assumptions.
“These discussions have been tremendously illuminating and eye-opening,” Brodt said. “But hearing and learning is just the start – it's incumbent on us, as an organization and as individuals, to take action to ensure that farmers of color and their foodways are truly respected and valued.”
The “Racial Equity in Extension” series is made possible by professional development funds from Western Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education./h2>/h2>/h2>/h2>
In today's food system, large scale food distribution has become the standard way food moves from farm to market. The system works well to feed a lot of people, and has allowed us to eat tomatoes in December and send produce far distances while keeping it fresh. But the system is not without its sacrifices.
Through large scale food distribution, farmers can lose the ability to set their own prices, and small-scale farmers can be cut out from the system for not being able to fill high volume orders. On the consumer side, this system can make local food harder to find and identify. Institutions interested in providing locally grown produce at their cafeterias may need the efficiency buying from large distributors provides, but find they're unable to source food the way they'd like.
Food hubs are businesses popping up around California and the U.S. trying to create a food distribution system that supports regional food systems. By aggregating food from small and mid-sized farms and selling it to large businesses and institutions, food hubs are able to help realize the consumer's desire for local food while helping small and mid-sized farmers succeed by connecting them with buyers who may otherwise be out of reach.
To help ease the challenge of starting these unique businesses, a network of food hubs in California, organized by the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, is learning how to conquer their business start-up and growth challenges together.
Food hubs as business innovators
Thomas Nelson, president and co-founder of Capay Valley Farm Shop, a food hub in California's Capay Valley, has built his business around a vision of a thriving regional food system where small farmers succeed. Thomas purchases food from 50 different farms in and near the Capay Valley, and sells primarily to corporate food service in the Bay Area.
“Our model is farmer-focused," Thomas said. “Farmers set the price for their food, and we add on our margin. We help tell the story of the farms so that their identity is kept throughout the supply chain. We let our buyers know about new products or new farms we're working with, and our buyers ask for produce by farm name.”
Thomas works closely with his 50 farmers, helping them plan their crops to best meet the demands of their clients, and working with the beginning farmers to get them through the hurdle of learning how to sell wholesale.
“It can be a challenge to accurately predict the next harvest,” Thomas said. “And it's our responsibility to mitigate some of those risks for the buyers as much as possible, but our buyers also get it. The reason they choose to work with the food hubs is they want to support local farms. What really makes this work are shared values.”
Thomas is one member of a new statewide food hubs network created in collaboration with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP), a statewide program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources whose work includes improving marketing opportunities for small farmers. The network, funded in part by the UC Global Food Initiative, brings together food hub mangers to learn from one another and collectively pave the way for successful food hubs in California.
The food hub business model is a relatively young one, few food hubs existed in the United States before 2008. Today, hundreds are in business across the country, and they're all trying to figure out similar things: how to best work with farmers and customers to make the business model effective, how to run a food business in a regulation-laden environment, how to increase efficiency without sacrificing price, quality, and the value of local agriculture.
“Food hubs are really working with farmers in their local areas to help them reach markets beyond selling directly at the farmers' market,” said Gwenaël Engelskirchen, who leads the food hub projects at UC SAREP. “We brought a group of northern California food hubs together for their first convening in February of 2015 and they realized that they all had a lot to learn from each other. They realized that there's opportunity in them working together.”
There's a hashtag on Twitter for what they're doing: #collabatition, or, collaborating with your competition. UC SAREP acts as the organizing body for the food hub network — coordinating resources to help the hubs wade through the many rules and regulations of operating a food business, and working through the visions of their own businesses and the network collectively.
“This is a newish space, so there is a ton to learn and share,” Thomas said. “By having a network we are supporting each other on the journey of growing successful businesses that serve local farms and regional buyers. Working with UC SAREP, we can have conversations with larger buyers that would be hard for us independently to access.”
One of those potential larger buyers is an organization close to home — the kitchens of the University of California.
“UC SAREP plans to interview kitchen directors from UC campuses all around the state to see what keeps them from buying local food, and whether the food hub business model is one that can support the desire they have to incorporate local food into their kitchens,” Gwenaël said.
And past successes show that food hubs can play an important role in linking UC dining programs with local farms. According to a recent report from the UC Global Food Initiative, through a relationship with the food hub Harvest Santa Barbara, UC Santa Barbara is currently able to source 23 percent of its produce from within 150 miles of campus.
“By linking UC food buyers with food hubs, we want to see if that success can be replicated around California," Gwenaël said. "In 2014, UC Santa Barbara alone served nearly three million meals, so the entire UC becoming a local produce buyer could be a major boon to regional food systems.”
The UC SAREP website offers a number of resources that can assist food hubs as well as farmers looking to see their produce wholesale. Find those resources here. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on food hubs in the next issue of California Agriculture journal.
Innovation is key to keeping California farmers globally competitive. On Friday, May 5, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, California Farm Bureau Federation, California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, UC Davis and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources will forge a formal agreement to better connect the state's farmers with each other and with science-based information sources to assure the sustainability of the state's agricultural systems. Representatives of the six organizations will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to form the California Farm Demonstration Network.
The scarcity of water, fossil fuel use, carbon emissions, groundwater quality, labor cost and availability, air quality and loss of soil fertility are some of the challenges to the long-term viability of farming in California. Soils and their sustained health play a major role in keeping California's agriculture viable for future generations.
“What we are striving to accomplish with the California Farm Demonstration Network is to create a means for farmers to learn, to discover and to innovate,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist, who is leading the effort with technical and funding assistance from MOU partners.
- Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture
- Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation
- Ron Tjeerdema, associate dean of UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences
- Glenda Humiston, University of California vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources
- Karen Buhr, executive director of California Association of Resource Conservation Districts
- Carlos Suarez, state conservationist for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
WHEN: Friday, May 5
12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. – Demonstration of differences in soil function resulting from management practices.
1 p.m. to 2 p.m. – Network partners describe their respective roles.
WHERE: Dixon Ridge Farms, 5430 Putah Creek Road, Winters, CA
VISUALS: A rainfall simulator will spray water over trays of different soils to show how on-farm management practices help the soil hold together.
Network partners will sign the memorandum of understanding.
The statewide farm demonstration network builds upon and connects efforts across California including one created in Glenn County last year.
In Glenn County, the farmer-driven effort has provided the opportunity for local farmers to share innovative practices and hold honest discussions about opportunities and challenges related to these systems.
“The collaborative effort of the partners presents the opportunity to leverage resources based on local needs and increases the likelihood that innovative agricultural practices will be adopted sooner than they might have been without the networking opportunity,” said Betsy Karle, UC Cooperative Extension director in Glenn County.
With the California Farm Demonstration Network, the organizers hope to create more opportunities to connect local people, showcase existing farmer innovation, engage in new local demonstration evaluations of improved performance practices and systems, evaluate the demonstration practices, and share information with partners. They also hope to expand and connect other local farm-demonstration hubs throughout the state via educational events, video narratives and a web-based information portal.
On a recent late-summer Wednesday, a freight container filled with cases of expired Muscle Milk protein drink awaited unloading at the UC Davis Renewable Energy Anaerobic Digester (READ) while a front-loader scooped heaps of spoiled vegetables into a mechanical processor. Nourished by a diet of assorted food waste from the UC Davis campus and area restaurants and markets, READ harnesses the activity of billions of microbes to produce biogas capable of generating 5.6 million kWh per year of clean electricity for UC Davis.
But a by-product of READ and other anaerobic digesters – the slurry of leftover solid and liquid material, or digestate – has caught the attention of UC Davis researchers interested in “closing the loop” on food production, consumption, and waste. When processed through an anaerobic digester, organic materials like food discards, expired or off-spec food products, or animal manure can be transformed into concentrated biofertilizers and soil amendments that are highly effective and easily applied to crops.
In an interdisciplinary collaboration at the Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility, funded by the California State Water Resources Control Board and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, UC Davis faculty and students have developed a pilot-scale process for commercial production of several forms of this biofertilizer using digestate from READ and other nearby digesters. They are also evaluating their effects on yield and other agronomic metrics in corn and tomato field trials – paving the way for farmers and growers to take advantage of a highly sustainable source of plant nutrition.
The challenge and opportunity of fertilizer from anaerobic biodigesters
The digestate from READ and other digester facilities can be applied directly to soil as a fertilizer, but, because it has a limited shelf-life, it usually must be applied to land in the immediate region of the facility. With the input of food waste that can vary widely from day to day, a facility's digestate is inconsistent in texture and composition, making it difficult to transport and apply to fields using common farm fertilizer equipment.
Filtering and drying this digestate, however, results in solid and liquid forms that can be concentrated, homogenized, easily transported, and applied to soil through existing drip irrigation systems or surface spreading equipment.
This process could allow farmers and growers located further away, and working with common irrigation and fertilizer application equipment, to supplement or replace their synthetic fertilizer consumption with biofertilizers from food waste or animal manure.
How do biodigestate products measure up to synthetic fertilizers?
The research, co-led by professor Ruihong Zhang from the UC Davis Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering (who also designed READ in partnership with Sacramento-based tech company CleanWorld) and Professor Kate Scow from the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources, developed pilot-scale systems to efficiently and consistently separate the solid and liquid portions of food- and manure-based digestates. The researchers then examined the nutrient composition of the solid and liquid biofertilizer products, finding that biodigestate-based fertilizers contain valuable nutrients and microbes not found in many synthetic fertilizers.
In current field trials, the researchers are investigating the effects of each of the biofertilizer products on crop yield and quality. Their preliminary results show that it is possible to grow irrigated processing tomatoes and short-season corn using biofertilizer products as the sole source of fertilizer. The origin of the fertilizer matters, however – manure-based liquid fertilizer formed additional large particles after the final filtration, creating concerns about clogging the drip irrigation system. The team thinks an environmentally benign chemical sometimes added to manure digesters to clean the biogas may be the culprit of the problem, but future research is needed. The solid biofertilizer pellets they developed show much promise, as they can be applied using existing methods for spreading compost and can be economically transported farther away from the digester.
In addition to better understanding the best processes for producing and using the biofertilizers, further research is needed to understand how much of the nitrogen in each of the fertilizer products is available for uptake by the crop, as well as economic analyses to determine the commercial-scale production and transportation costs. The researchers will be able to narrow in on the agronomic and economic potential of biofertilizers through the upcoming analysis of the yield of the corn and tomato experiment plots at Russell Ranch. The results of a tomato experiment recently showed that the digestate fertilizers produced just as much fruit as a popular synthetic fertilizer.
Interdisciplinary research for agricultural innovations
Russell Ranch, a program of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, is designed as a shared space for interdisciplinary research and innovation. The biofertilizer research, among other active projects at Russell Ranch, is an example of the fulfillment of that intention. “The soil scientists are learning engineering, the engineers are learning biology, and the biologists are learning about soil,” Professor Zhang remarked.
The exchange also extends beyond the university: a recent UC Davis Biofertilizer Field Day drew attendees from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, several public agencies, the agricultural sector, other universities, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and food processors. If the research continues to illuminate a way forward for biofertilizers, these audiences may fill important roles in bringing this new technology into practice – and in recycling your lunch leftovers back into a more efficient and sustainable food system.
More information: UC Davis READ, Russell Ranch, and the biofertilizer research
The UC Davis Renewable Energy Anaerobic Digester was unveiled in 2014 as the nation's largest anaerobic biodigester on a college campus, and represented a unique private-public partnership. Professor Ruihong Zhang invented the anaerobic digestion technology used by CleanWorld, which developed it into one of the most advanced commercially-available digester systems in the country.
Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility is a “living laboratory” for interdisciplinary field research and innovation. Its flagship project, the Century Experiment, measures the long-term impacts of energy, water, carbon, and nitrogen inputs on agricultural sustainability in the flagship Century Experiment.
The biofertilizer research collaboration includes Zhang Lab graduate students Tyler Barzee and Hossein Edalati, Scow Lab postdoctoral researcher Daoyuan Wang, and Russell Ranch manager Israel Herrera. Collaborating institutions include CleanWorld, California Bioenergy, New Hope Dairy (Galt, CA), Fiscalini Dairy (Modesto, CA), and Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
This story en español.