Posts Tagged: water
UC Davis to study agave sustainability as tequila, mezcal industry grows
Agriculture in California faces an uncertain future as drought, wildfires and other climate extremes become more commonplace in the West. But a fledgling industry focused on growing and distilling agave plants, which are used to produce tequila and mezcal in Mexico, could be California's answer to fallowed fields and a lack of water.
Earlier this year a group of growers, distillers and retailers formed the California Agave Council to foster collaboration and offer a chance to share knowledge among members who previously had no formal network.
Now, the University of California, Davis, has established the Stuart & Lisa Woolf Fund for Agave Research to focus on outreach and research into the plants and their viability as a low-water crop in the state.
“The rainfall patterns and growing conditions in California are different from those where tequila is made,” said Ron Runnebaum, an assistant professor of viticulture and enology. “It is exciting to begin to harness the capabilities at UC Davis to determine which agave varieties can be grown commercially in California and what flavors can be captured by distillation to make unique California agave spirits.”
The fund was created with a $100,000 seed gift from Stuart and Lisa Woolf, who are Central Valley farmers and have a test plot of about 900 agave plants on 1.5 acres. They hope this gift will encourage others to also contribute.
The gift is focused primarily on optimizing production in California relative to Mexico, where labor costs are lower, and the farmers rely on rain rather than irrigation for water. Stuart Woolf believes California producers could grow larger plants with higher sugar content.
“I really believe we could be very competitive with Mexico,” he said.
The research also offers a chance to better understand the impact of location on the growth of the plant, which can be a source of fiber and alternative sweetener as well as the distilled spirits it can produce.
“As a drought-tolerant plant, agave holds great potential in water-stressed California,” Woolf said. “It's a crop that could get by with little to no water during periods of extreme drought.”
A crop with low water needs
Mezcal can be made from any agave variety in Mexico while tequila, Runnebaum said, comes solely from the blue agave plant grown within the geographically defined region of “Tequila.” In California, blue agave plants can weigh 110 pounds or more, and it takes about 11 pounds of agave to produce one bottle of tequila, according to a UC Davis article published last year. The plants in Mexico weigh 50 to 60 pounds on average, Woolf said.
Agave plants require minimal watering, can serve as firebreaks from wildfires and offer a chance for farmers to plant crops on land that would otherwise have to be fallowed, or abandoned because of a lack of water. It takes roughly six to eight years for the plants to mature.
“If we enter a severe drought, this is a crop I think we can avoid watering totally,” Woolf said. “For me, this plant is kind of coming around at the right time.”
Craig Reynolds, the California Agave Council founding director who has about 500 plants growing, says the industry is in “an embryo stage” and organizing can help the crop expand. He runs California Agave Ventures, which grows blue agave and sells starter plants to other growers.
“It's really taking off,” he said.
About 40 growers and distillers gathered for a symposium in May to talk about the crop, from economics and logistics to site planning and processes. It ended with a tasting and sensory analysis of California products.
UC Davis hosted the event to bring people together and introduce them to what the university could offer in terms of research, training and outreach, Runnebaum said.
“I think there's a lot of promise in this potentially being a drought-tolerant crop in California,” he added. “UC Davis can help organize and research.”
The Woolfs would like their gift to be used to answer early research questions about growing sites, plant attributes and possible funding agencies, as well as gathering harvest data and producing a database with that information, according to the gift agreement.
Some key questions to answer: Is frost risk in California too high in relation to Mexico, where the plants thrive? Can California produce a fast-growing, high-sugar, disease-resistant crop?
In addition to creating best agricultural practices for the crop and doing economic analysis, UC Davis could serve as a training ground, much as it does for brewing and winemaking.
“UC Davis also has the potential to train future leaders for this industry,” Stuart Woolf said.
Editor's note: Runnebaum is affiliated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources through the Agricultural Experiment Station at UC Davis./h3>/h3>/h3>
Study by UCCE advisor in Imperial County also shows 5% increase in yield
A new study suggests that drip irrigation for sweet corn can significantly conserve water, reduce fertilizer use and boost crop yield in the low desert of California – and likely in other areas of California with similar conditions.
Although Imperial County is California's top sweet corn-producing county, with about 8,000 acres planted on average each year, irrigation methods for this crop have been rarely studied in this region (or anywhere else in the state), according to Ali Montazar, UC Cooperative Extension irrigation and water management advisor for Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties.
Montazar conducted a study in the Imperial Valley over two crop seasons, 2020-21 and 2021-22, to demonstrate and quantify the potential benefits of switching to drip irrigation from the more common furrow irrigation method. The study, available in a recent issue of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Agricultural Briefs, will be published in a future issue of Vegetables West.
“I'm hoping with this project we can encourage growers to adopt it, because it seems very promising,” said Montazar, noting that drip irrigation is a “new practice” for sweet corn in California.
Among the 11 commercial sweet corn fields in the study over the 2021-22 season, the six that were under drip irrigation used, on average, 37% less water than the five under furrow irrigation. In absolute terms, the drip-irrigated fields saw an average water savings of 2.2 acre-feet per acre; for Montazar, who has studied drip for a variety of crops in the Imperial Valley, that was an astonishing result.
“I've worked with drip on processed onions, lettuce, alfalfa, spinach … we've never seen a figure like 2.2 acre-feet per acre, that's huge,” he said, attributing the dramatic drop-off to the high volume of water required to furrow-irrigate the sandy soil in the Imperial Valley.
More efficient irrigation also means less fertilizer is needed – a boon to the environment and Salton Sea water quality, as well as growers' bottom line. With fertilizer prices continuing to rise, sweet corn growers using drip could see a substantial 25% cost savings on fertilizer expenses – about $150 per acre less – compared to furrow irrigation, according to Montazar's study.
And by relieving plants of the stress from over- and under-irrigated conditions, drip irrigation helps keep soil moisture at its “sweet spot” – resulting in a 5% increase in marketable crop yield for sweet corn in the study.
“When we have a better, more efficient irrigation system, we can maintain soil moisture at a desired level, over time and space,” Montazar explained.
Because the benefits of drip appear to be linked to soil conditions (sandy loam, and other light soils), Montazar believes that this irrigation practice could deliver relatively similar water and fertilizer savings and improved crop yield in other regions across California, regardless of climactic differences.
“If you use drip in any part of the state, you have the benefits of drip – more uniform water application, more uniform fertilizer – that's not related to the desert,” he said. “That's part of the system's potential.”
Montazar plans to follow up on his preliminary study with additional research on sweet corn and drip irrigation during the 2022-23 crop season./h3>
Genetic insights help rice survive drought and flood
Plants — they're just like us, with unique techniques for handling stress. To save one of the most important crops on Earth from extreme climate swings, scientists are mapping out plants' own stress-busting strategies.
A UC Riverside-led team has learned what happens to the roots of rice plants when they're confronted with two types of stressful scenarios: too much water, or too little. These observations form the basis of new protective strategies.
“This one crop is the major source of calories for upwards of 45 percent of humanity, but its harvests are in danger,” said Julia Bailey-Serres, UCR geneticist and study lead. “In the U.S., floods rival droughts in terms of damage to farmers' crops each year.”
In particular, the researchers examined the roots' response to both types of conditions, because roots are the unseen first responders to flood and drought-related stress.
Their work is described in a new paper published in the journal Developmental Cell.
One key finding is about a cork-like substance, suberin, that's produced by rice roots in response to stress. It helps protect from floods as well as from drought.
“Suberin is a lipid molecule that helps any water drawn up by the roots make it to the shoots, and helps oxygen from shoots to reach roots,” Bailey-Serres said. “If we reinforce the plant's ability to create suberin, rice has better chances for survival in all kinds of weather.”
The researchers were able to identify a network of genes that control suberin production and can use this information for gene editing or selective breeding.
“Understanding suberin is particularly exciting because it is not susceptible to breakdown by soil microbes, so carbon that the plant puts into suberin molecules in the roots is trapped in the ground,” said Alex Borowsky, UCR computational biologist and study co-author.
The researchers also identified the genes controlling some of rice's other stress behaviors.
“One of our interesting findings is that when rice plants are submerged in water, the root cell growth cycle goes on pause, then switches back on shortly after the shoots have access to air,” Bailey-Serres said.
In the future, the research team plans to test how modifying these stress responses can make the plant more resilient to both wet and dry conditions.
“Now that we understand these responses, we have a roadmap to make targeted changes to the rice genome that will result in a more stress-tolerant plant,” Bailey-Serres said.
Though heavy rains and droughts are both increasing as threats, Bailey-Serres has hope that new genetic technology can increase its resilience before it's too late.
“With genome editing, the fact that we can make a tiny but targeted change and protect a plant from disease is amazing. Though our crops are threatened, new technologies give us reasons to hope,” Bailey-Serres said.
“I found so many things; I found a hermit crab, a starfish, a sea anemone,” exclaimed a Cherryland Elementary School student, his voice trailing off as he ventured back to the tide pools to explore more. The fifth grader from Hayward was participating in a 4-H Water Wizards course during a UC Cooperative Extension-sponsored field trip to Pescadero State Beach in San Mateo County.
In May, University of California Cooperative Extension bused 120 fifth and sixth graders from Hayward's Cherryland Elementary School – where the student population is 86% Hispanic and 6% Black – to UC Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center in Half Moon Bay to learn about different aspects of water.
“These Black and Brown grade-school children are learning about water from people who look like them and speak like them,” said Frank McPherson, director of UC Cooperative Extension in the Bay Area, who is leading the launch of 4-H Water Wizards in the Bay Area. “As the students visit each experiential learning station and the ocean, the instructors are asking them thought-provoking questions like ‘How do you think the water will move through the landscape?' and ‘What do you see in the water?'”
4-H Water Wizards is designed to give socially disadvantaged students of color opportunities to meet diverse scientists and imagine career possibilities in science, technology, education and math, or STEM.
“I'm really happy that we were invited by the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources to come out to Elkus Ranch so my kids can participate in an opportunity to engage in not only the fun that's out here, but also the animals,” said JoDana Campbell, Ed.D., Cherryland Elementary fifth grade teacher. “I was also really impressed with the number of scientists that are actually here on this ranch that were able to work with my kids at the varying stations about this idea of water and how we utilize water. Not only in California, but just generally in the world: how does water work?”
This spring UC Cooperative Extension educator Tanya Henderson, in collaboration with Cherryland Elementary School teachers and Nancy Wright, Hayward Unified School District elementary science partner teacher, introduced four classes at Cherryland Elementary to the 11-week 4-H Water Wizards curriculum. One of the classes has had a series of substitute teachers all year, making Henderson the most consistent instructor for a few weeks.
One teacher wrote to McPherson expressing her appreciation for the teaching assistance, saying, “I am especially grateful for Ms. Tanya, our teacher. Having another adult to co-teach is invaluable to say the least. Her teaching methods and care to engage students is remarkable.”
The field trip to Elkus Ranch and the ocean expanded on the classroom water lessons.
At the first of four learning stations, UC Davis graduate students used an Enviroscape model to show the Cherryland students how rainwater runoff moves through a community. The youngsters placed plastic houses on the landscape and fashioned clay into walls and dams to protect their houses from flood waters. After observing simulated rain on their community, the students discussed the results.
“The dam made it worse!” said one student.
“Maybe we should remove the dam,” said Cassie Bonfil, a UC Davis graduate student. “The water naturally wants to flow to the river. We're blocking it from going to the river, forcing it to go up into the houses.”
Using sand between sheets of plexiglass as a window into a cross section of soil and an aquifer, UC Cooperative Extension specialist Samuel Sandoval Solis led the students in demonstrating the movement of water when it filters through soil into the ground and when water is pumped from wells.
In the Elkus Ranch children's garden, Henderson encouraged students to touch and smell plants that could be used to make soaps, salves and other products.
The students also interacted with the sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens and other livestock that live at Elkus Ranch. Beth Loof, 4-H youth community educator, discussed the role of animals in agriculture as well as their relationships to soil, water and food systems.
“I just think it's a really good opportunity to engage inner city youth in something where they do not have an opportunity to engage in normally,” said Campbell, the Cherryland teacher. “This ranch is an awesome opportunity to come out to learn, there's a great museum up the way. My kids have been very excited about the whole process.”
The curriculum and educator are funded by a grant from USDA National Institute or Food and Agriculture, but to hire more buses to transport more schoolchildren to Elkus Ranch for the outdoor experience, McPherson is raising money. Donations to the Bay Area 4-H Water Wizards project can be made at https://donate.ucanr.edu/?program=California 4-H&county=Alameda.
California water-rights holders are required by state law to measure and report the water they divert from surface streams. For people who wish to take the water measurements themselves, the University of California Cooperative Extension is offering a virtual training to receive certification on May 26.
At the workshop, participants can expect to
- clarify reporting requirements for ranches.
- understand what meters are appropriate for different situations.
- learn how to determine measurement equipment accuracy.
- develop an understanding of measurement weirs.
- learn how to calculate and report volume from flow data.
“We are limiting the number participants for the water measurement training to 30 people per session,” said Larry Forero, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor. “If you need this training, please register soon.”
The scheduled trainings will be held Thursday, May 26, at two locations:
- Redding at Shasta College Farm. Registration is required and costs $25. To register visit https://ceshasta.ucanr.edu. For more information, contact Larry Forero (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sara Jaimes (email@example.com) or by calling the UCCE office in Shasta County at (530) 224-4900. Training will begin at 8 a.m. and conclude at 11:30 am.
- Woodland at the UC Cooperative Extension at 70 Cottonwood Street. Registration costs $20. To register, visit https://cecapitolcorridor.ucanr.edu. For more information, contact Morgan Doran at firstname.lastname@example.org or the UCCE Yolo County office at (530) 666-8143. Training will begin at 2:30 p.m. and conclude at 5:30 pm.
Senate Bill 88 requires all water right holders who have previously diverted or intend to divert more than 10 acre-feet per year (riparian and pre-1914 claims), or who are authorized to divert more than 10 acre-feet per year under a permit, license or registration, to measure and report the water they divert. Detailed information on the regulatory requirements for measurement and reporting is available on the State Water Resources Control Board Reporting and Measurement Regulation webpage. The legislation requires that installation and certification of measurement methods for diversion (or storage) greater than or equal to 100-acre feet annually be approved by an engineer/contractor/professional.
California Cattlemen's Association worked with Assemblyman Frank Bigelow on a bill that allows a self-certification option. Assembly Bill 589 became law on Jan. 1, 2018. This bill, until Jan. 1, 2023, allows any diverter who has completed this instructional course on measurement devices and methods administered by the University of California Cooperative Extension, and passes a proficiency test, to be considered a qualified individual when installing and maintaining devices or implementing methods of measurement.