For the first time ever, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) researchers harvested an industrial hemp crop at one of its nine research and extension centers this fall.
“It's an interesting crop,” said UC Cooperative Extension specialist Bob Hutmacher. “There is a tremendous amount of research that can be done to understand its growth and best cultural practices, optimal planting dates either by seed or transplants, irrigation and fertilization management, and, particularly, to address pest and disease management.”
The research project is part of a two-location study, one at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center (WSREC) in Five Points, in western Fresno County, and an identical companion study at the UC Davis farm headed by UC Cooperative Extension specialist Dan Putnam and UC Davis professor and plant breeder Charles Brummer. These initial studies included a planting density by variety trial and a breeding observation block representing a wide range of genetics. The research was launched mid-summer this year after the 2018 Farm Bill declared that hemp should no longer be considered a controlled substance, but rather an agricultural commodity.
Industrial hemp can be produced for grain and fiber, however, many growers currently consider the most profitable component of the crop to be cannabidiol, or CBD, and related compounds. CBD is valued for its purported health benefits. It is said to reduce inflammation, pain, nausea, depression and anxiety, among other conditions.
Hutmacher said he and colleagues around the state are interested in learning about industrial hemp production opportunities, and feel there is a place for UC ANR research to support the fledgling industry. Already, there are some observations coming out of these small trials.
“Some people believe that hemp is a pest- and disease-free plant. That's not what we found,” Hutmacher said. “In the absence of suitable measures for control, corn ear worms seemed to thrive in hemp, and did an astounding amount of damage to cultivars in our small plots.”
The scientists were forced to use a pesticide to control the pest and reduce damage to developing buds. The hemp produced in the trial will be destroyed after harvest data has been collected. The experience with corn ear worm and other pest issues demonstrate that pest control will require significant study, particularly if a goal is to produce the crop organically.
“Markets for some industrial hemp products may require low pesticide residues. If hemp is produced organically, some preliminary observations this year suggest farmers will have to put a big effort into pest and disease control,” he said.
Plant breeding can be another area of UC research. Hemp's natural genetic variations produce plants that vary widely in growth habit, size, response to day length, and time to maturity. There are hemp cultivars that mature when the plant is 18 inches tall and others that shoot up 12 feet high at maturity. Hemp grown for CBD production from seed or as transplants can vary greatly in size and other characteristics, such as amount of branching and the number of flower structures per plant. Multiple plant and production system factors also will influence options for mechanical versus hand harvesting.
Another breeding concern for growers is producing a crop with economic levels of CBD or other compounds of commercial interest, while staying within regulatory limits for THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive compound found in marijuana, a related plant. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, an industrial hemp crop grown in the state may have no more than 0.3% THC when plant samples are analyzed.
“This will be a challenge for growers. You don't want to risk too high a THC level,” Hutmacher said. “Farmers must test to make sure THC is at a level to meet regulations. If it's too high, CDFA regulations would require the crop be destroyed.”
Working with UC breeders, integrated pest management scientists, agronomists, irrigation specialists and agricultural engineers, there should be good opportunities to finesse hemp production at UC ANR's network of research and extension center system across California.
Research center locations stretch from Holtville, in the low desert at the California-Mexico border, to Tulelake, just south of the Oregon border. Other centers ideal to answer hemp research questions include the UC Davis campus, the Hopland REC in Mendocino County, the Hansen REC in Ventura County, and the South Coast REC in Orange County.
UC ANR plans to expand its hemp research in 2020. For more information, contact Bob Hutmacher at (559) 260-8957 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From robot vacuum cleaners and doorbell cameras to social media and e-commerce, technology is continually transforming lives and businesses. The world's oldest industry – agriculture – is no exception.
Remote sensors are all but eliminating the need for farmers to walk plant rows and make decisions based solely on observations, experience and intuition. New technologies that gather and analyze data can optimize crop needs, reduce environmental impacts, increase efficiency, cut energy costs and save water. The latest innovations were on display at the fourth annual Open Farm conference Oct. 23 in Tulare.
A demonstration by PowWow Energy showed artificial intelligence technology not only improving farming, but also spinning off new ideas and local businesses in rural communities. PowWow supports farms who have solar panels with information to optimize their return on investment. By monitoring weather, utility rates and meters, and the panels' energy generation, the company calculates precisely when energy losses caused by dust on the solar panels are valued higher than the cost of cleaning them. When it's time to wash the panels, farmers receive a text notification.
That got Tulare County dairy farmer Justin Roeloffs thinking about the growing need to efficiently clean dust from solar panels. He built a solar panel cleaning system that was so effective, he started a business – Roeloffs Solutions – to offer panel cleaning to other solar owners, creating new jobs in the farming community.
“The almond season is a disaster for solar panels,” Roeloffs said. “Some farmers buy a kit and do it themselves, but we had many calls for our service the first month in business.” Last summer, Roeloffs Solutions cleaned panels that generate 30 megawatts of power.
The founder of Concentric Power, Brian Curtis, explained the business he built to manage the energy usage and needs of large food processors, beginning in the Salinas Valley. The system allows businesses to save money on their energy bills, maximize the use of renewable energy and maintain reliable energy availability, even during blackouts and brownouts. Concentric Power combines wind, solar, co-generation and battery storage to develop a company's own micro-grid.
“The recent public safety power shutoffs are ringing our bell,” Curtis said. “The stars have aligned for us.” So far three Salinas Valley food processors and one in Bakersfield have installed the micro-grid systems. Curtis said energy intensive ag industries – such as dairies, cheese processors and wine producers – are potential clients.
A variety of other automation solutions were also shared at Open Farm:
- Darryl Hadlich of WiseConn said the company's precision irrigation timing system – monitored by infield sensors and controlled by in-field nodes – allows farmers to schedule, start and end irrigation and fertigation using their cellphones or desktop computers. The associated software also shows when energy companies offer lower, off-peak rates to enable irrigation scheduling when the cost to operate the pump will be at its lowest.
- Conner Kingman of Kingman Ag Service is perfecting technology to reconfigure the tractors farmers already own with artificial intelligence-aided computers to pull a wide variety of farm implements through the field, such as a spring tooth cultivator, mower, shredder and sprayer. The driverless tractors reduce labor needs, and enable farm work to continue around the clock without breaks or worker safety concerns.
- Jose Baer at PowWow Energy detailed programmable irrigation systems for small and large farming operations. The field is monitored with aerial images and uses data from in-field sensors for targeted water application.
- John Cardoza of Sustainable Conservation explained a collaborative research project that studied methods for dairy wastewater management using sensors, sand media filters and drip irrigation. In the study, nitrous oxide emissions were cut by 70%, water use by 36% and nitrogen applications by 45%.
During a researcher and industry panel on the state of technology integration from the grower's perspective, participants reflected on how technology will help prepare for the future. The panel was moderated by Dennis Donahue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology:
- Director of the Tulare County Resource Conservation District Mike Chrisman, a long-time Tulare County farmer, noted that data will be increasingly critical for farming as California agriculture enters the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act era in 2020. The law requires that California groundwater usage be “sustainable” by 2040 – meaning that the amount that is drawn out must match the amount that is recharged. “This will change the way we all do business,” Chrisman said. “Agriculture in 20 years won't look like it looks today.”
- Jeff Dahlberg, director of the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center and a sorghum extension specialist, said high technology companies will rely on UC researchers to confirm that their products are meeting expectations. UC scientists can contribute by applying their knowledge on plant growth and development. “We understand biology and how plants use water,” he said. “We will be asked to ground truth technology.”
The event is a collaborative effort by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, Fresno State's BlueTech Valley, the California Energy Commission, PowWow Energy, West Hills College and the Western Grower Center for Innovation and Technology. Open Farm 2019 was hosted at the Southern California Edison Energy Education Center.
For UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE), attention to climate change goes beyond an increase in severe wildfires, droughts, floods and heat in California, and their impact on natural resources, agriculture and the state's economy.
The program focuses on the health and resilience of people in California, particularly those most vulnerable to climate change – those who can't afford air conditioning, who work outside on farms and in construction, those who are already disadvantaged by a low income, racial inequity or advanced age.
“UCCE climate change efforts must account for people and communities that face socioeconomic and political barriers to prepare for, adapt to and recover from the effects of climate change,” said Clare Gupta, UCCE public policy specialist.
UCCE advisors, educators and specialists are working in their local communities across the state to prepare residents to adapt to the warming climate and make changes that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions to make climate change less severe. They convened Oct. 7-8 at UCCE's Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center in San Mateo County to learn about projects currently underway to confront the crisis, share resources for adaptation, identify future research and education needs, and add their voices to a growing chorus of experts speaking out to protect the future of planet earth.
“We are at a momentous time,” said Janaki Jagannath, a law school student and climate activist who spoke at the meeting. “California is waking up to environmental justice problems and climate change.”
The plight of underprivileged California residents at the forefront of climate change impacts became crystal clear to UCCE small farms advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard when she was hired during the state's devastating 2011-2016 drought.
In the summer of 2014, many small-scale family farms in the San Joaquin Valley saw their wells dry up due to dropping groundwater levels. Some Hmong farmers were calling suicide hotlines, in fear of losing their crops and livelihoods. Dahlquist-Willard said these farms, with shallower wells and limited resources to cope with the effects of drought, are more vulnerable to climate change.
“I worry about the snowpack,” she said. “Every winter during the drought, I would look at the mountains and wonder if there would be more wells going dry next summer. When surface water from the snowmelt isn't there, farmers use more groundwater. And the snowpack is probably going to be less reliable due to climate change.”
To help Hmong farmers and other small-scale farms prepare for the next drought, Dahlquist-Willard and her team began helping them with applications for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), which provides grants to improve irrigation systems. Improvements funded by SWEEP help farmers use less water and cut back on electricity for pumping.
So far, 38 Fresno and Tulare farmers have received SWEEP grants with technical assistance from Dahlquist-Willard's program, for a total of 878 acres.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which goes into effect in 2020, also imperils small-scale farmers. The new law will limit both large-scale and small-scale farmers' ability to pump groundwater, however, small-scale farmers often are not in a position to influence the agencies that will be governing groundwater use.
“There will be competition for water under SGMA,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “Whether the small farms still have access to water depends on how the rules are set up.”
SGMA poses another threat to vulnerable rural community members. Experts predict the imposition of regulations on groundwater use is likely to put 500,000 to 1 million acres of California farmland out of production, reducing jobs for farmworkers and putting a strain on businesses in the rural communities where they live and shop.
The expected shift in crops grown in California due to climate change also potentially reduces income for workers who have specialized in specific crops, said Federico Castillo, UC Berkeley agricultural ecology professor.
“They work longer hours to compensate,” Castillo said. “Their income is impacted.”
On a recent trip to Huron, a San Joaquin Valley city with highest proportion of Latino residents in the U.S., Castillo said he passed by vast solar farms that now cover formerly productive farmland.
“Solar farms are a benefit for society, but there are not local benefits. The problem is, this displaces farmworkers,” he said. “We have to think hard about economic policy. This is just one example. There are many others.”
In addition to the threat climate change poses to their employment, farmworkers are particularly susceptible to the warming temperatures the world faces. Castillo is studying the potential impact of weather extremes on people who do the planting, weeding, irrigating, pruning and harvesting that makes California's $50 billion annual agricultural output possible.
“Heat and humidity impacts ag workers negatively,” Castillo said. “It impacts the heart, liver and kidneys.”
What's more, many farmworkers don't have health insurance and don't visit medical doctors. Some, particularly those who hail from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, Castillo said, rely on home remedies, putting their health at still greater risk.
Sylvia Chi, policy director with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, spoke about her constituency's concern about the future.
“How do we deal with labor market displacement from phasing out fossil fuels?” she asked. “We need to transition all communities.”
Transition in farming
A large part of UC Cooperative Extension research and extension targets the agricultural industry, which joins other industries in emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, resulting in our warming climate. A key part of mitigation is tied in new brands of farming that aim to address these issues: climate-smart, emergent, sustainable, regenerative and conservation farming.
A component of all these farming philosophies is soil health. Improving soil health traps more carbon underground, where it can't immediately escape into the atmosphere and contribute to increasing warming. Improving soil health has co-benefits, such as improving soil fertility, water infiltration and yield.
The CDFA Healthy Soils grant program offers financial incentives to eligible farmers for implementing soil-building practices. CDFA provided UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), UCCE's parent organization, with $1 million to hire climate-smart educators to provide technical assistance to farmers applying for Healthy Soils and SWEEP grants to improve their irrigation systems, plant cover crops, eliminate or reduce tilling, and implement other practices. A target in their effort is helping underprivileged farmers determine eligibility and navigate the complicated application process.
UC ANR hired nine community education specialists, who are now working with farmers in Mendocino, Merced, Glenn, Yolo, Solano, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Kern, Ventura, San Diego and Imperial counties. Their contributions to farmers in those areas go beyond the grant applications and reach farmers that can't take advantage of CDFA grant programs.
“Because this is a new program, we have the luxury of helping figure out our role,” said Britta Baskerville, the community education specialist in Mendocino County. “We're all coming up with ways to educate farmers in climate-smart practices.”
Climate change resilience
The UC ANR Infomatics and GIS Program is supporting climate change resilience by creating an online networking platform for local governments, such as city councils and boards of supervisors, to empower their communities' resiliency efforts. Called the California Resiliency Alliance, the resources include case studies, planning guides, incident maps, and weather watches, warnings and advisories, plus a platform for sharing information across public-private sectors and across industry sectors.
IGIS is also involved is gathering peer-reviewed data sets for downscale climate projections. UC Berkeley Ph.D. student Lucy Andrews is conducting interviews to identify climate needs and social vulnerability information. The information will make the state's Cal-Adapt website, the primary repository of knowledge about the California climate of the future, an even more useful tool.
“Our strategy is to make climate data accessible,” said Andy Lyons, IGIS statewide program coordinator. “People can get climate data and decision support tailored to specific audiences.”
Diversity in the UC California Naturalist program
California Naturalist's new Climate Stewards Initiative, which will provide training to extend information about climate change mitigation, resilience and adaptation, is being created with diversity, inclusion and equity woven in from the outset. Trainees will learn about psychology, sociological and cognitive sciences, in addition to the hard sciences that touch climate change – meteorology, physics, natural resource management and biology.
“The certified climate stewards will be able to communicate and work with others as to how climate change will affect them. It will be an ongoing social learning community that provides a transition from a sense of helplessness to a sense of empowerment,” said Sarah-Mae Nelson, the UC Climate Stewards Initiative academic coordinator.
Traditional CalNat certification courses are provided fully in-person and partially outdoors. Climate Stewards training will be available in a hybrid online/in-person format to increase the course's availability to a wider circle of community members.
“The flexibility will increase accessibility,” Nelson said.
Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a series of bills aimed at improving California's wildfire prevention, mitigation and response efforts. AB 38, a bill aimed at reducing wildfire damage to communities, incorporates University of California research to help protect California's existing housing.
“Prior to AB 38, the State's wildfire building policy focus was centered around guiding construction standards for new homes and major remodels,” said Yana Valachovic, UC Cooperative Extension forest advisor for Humboldt and Del Norte counties. “How do we help incentivize homeowners to upgrade and retrofit the 10 million or more existing homes in California to help them become more resilient to wildfire? AB 38 is an attempt to start that important work and to protect Californians.”
AB 38, introduced by Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa) provides mechanisms to develop best practices for community-wide resilience against wildfires through “home hardening,” defensible space and other measures based on UC ANR research. This bill is especially important to Wood because wildfires in 2017 destroyed lives and hundreds of homes in his district and because of his work as a forensic dentist following the Santa Rosa and Paradise wildfires.
“AB 38 was a huge effort by many partners as we sought the best policy solutions to address what is today one of our state's biggest challenges,” said Assemblymember Wood. “I could not have accomplished it without the support and guidance of the people at UC Cooperative Extension Humboldt-Del Norte, especially Dr. Steve Quarles and Yana Valachovic. Their expertise proved invaluable as we worked through this process.”
Studies conducted by Steve Quarles, emeritus UC Cooperative Extension advisor, and his continued work at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety have identified building materials and designs that are more resistant to flying embers from wildfires. Embers are small, fiery pieces of plants, trees or buildings that are light enough to be carried on the wind and can rapidly spread wildfire when they blow ahead of the main fire, starting new fires on or in homes.
Evaluating the homes lost in wildfires that ravaged Paradise, Redding and Santa Rosa have also informed Valachovic and Quarles' recommendations.
Hardening a home to withstand wildland fire exposure does not have to be costly, but it does require an understanding of the exposures the home will experience when threatened by a wildfire.
Their recommended best practices for hardening homes against wildfire can be found in UC ANR Publication 8393 “Home Survival in Wildfire-Prone Areas: Building Materials and Design,” which can be downloaded for free. More information is also at the ANR Fire website https://ucanr.edu/fire.
A UC Cooperative Extension survey of California registered and unregistered marijuana growers will help researchers, policy makers and the public better understand growing practices since cannabis sales, possession and cultivation first became legal for recreational use.
“This survey is a starting point from which UC scientists could build research and extension programs, if possible in the future,” said lead author Houston Wilson, UC Cooperative Extension specialist with UC Riverside. A report on the survey results was published in the July-December 2019 issue of California Agriculture journal, the research publication of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“I'm there, I'm seeing it. I wanted to know more about this,” Wilson said. “To me, it's a new crop. We've never studied it.”
In 2016, when legalization was in the works, Wilson decided to conduct a survey to better understand the scope of cannabis production in California. A year later, Wilson took a position with the Department of Entomology at UC Riverside as an orchard/vineyard IPM Cooperative Extension Specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. He maintained his interest in cannabis and continued to lead the survey project and analyze the data.
The new research report is part of a growing body of knowledge about an industry that represents an estimated $10 billion in retail sales— likely the most valuable of all crop sectors in the state, but largely a mystery to scientists, regulators, growers and civic leaders. Cannabis production has not been widely researched in California because of its legal status before Proposition 64 passed in 2016 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2018.
Under federal law, cannabis remains illegal.
“Since UCCE is federally funded, and cannabis is not legal at the federal level, we cannot conduct any research that has potential to increase yield, improve quality or profitability,” said Robin Sanchez, UC ANR attorney and interim director of administrative policies and business contracts. “We are very careful to conduct research only about its scope and impact, but not production practices.”
Wilson and his colleagues gathered the information in July 2018 from 101 growers who responded to an online survey. Survey questions focused on farm size, operational features, pest and water management, labor, farm revenue and grower demographics. Respondents were recruited by 15 cannabis grower organizations, who together were able to supply approximately 17,500 contacts.
The respondents were aged from 34 to 72, with 69% male and 29% percent female. Two-thirds were married or living with a partner. More than half had household annual incomes from $50,000 to $99,000; and about 10% from $100,000 to $200,000. Thirty-four percent of growers earned 80 to 100% of their annual gross income from cannabis, while 33% reported no income from cannabis at all.
Most of the respondents produce cannabis in Humboldt, Mendocino and Nevada counties – 55% combined. The rest hailed from 12 other California counties, the furthest south in Los Angeles, and one respondent from Josephine County in Oregon.
Of the growers who responded to the survey, 74% were classified as small-scale growers because their farms were sized at 10,000 square feet or less. The rest were almost evenly divided as medium (10,000 to 20,000 square feet) or large. The majority of respondents (53%) reported that they had not applied for a state license to grow cannabis.
Highlights of findings
- Growing outdoors in open air with sunlight was the most common practice (41%). Twenty-five percent of growers combined outdoor and greenhouse production. Just 10% said they grow the crop entirely within greenhouses.
- Total yield per plant varied by growing location. Outdoor crops yielded on average 2.51 pounds per plant (about 40 ounces per plant), greenhouse crops yielded about 10 ounces per plant, while plants grown indoors with artificial light averaged about 3 ounces per plant.
- The average growing season for outdoor growers was 190 days and they harvested one crop per year.
- In the fall of 2017, the average cannabis sales price was $853 per pound for flowers and $78 per pound for leaves and other non-flower parts.
- The respondents reported using no synthetic pesticides in their cultivation of the crop, suggesting reliance on organic pesticides, biologicals and biocontrol.
- Most growers reported that groundwater was their primary water source for irrigation. Of those, 97% of the water extraction happened from June to October. Many growers said adding water storage was either cost prohibitive or limited by regulatory constraints.
- Growers reported using more than 30 different soil amendments and foliar nutrient sprays. The most common was organic fertilizer, followed by composts and various animal manures and meals, compost tea and worm castings.
- Growers are dealing with 14 different insect pests, 13 diseases and nine vertebrate pests, including gophers, mice, rats, deer and wild boars.
- Powdery mildew was the most commonly reported disease, and mites, thrips and aphids were the most commonly reported insect pests.
- Growers who hired laborers for harvest paid a per-pound piece rate from $50 to $200. The growers who hired seasonal hourly workers offered a starting pay of $15 to $20 per hour.
Project co-authors were UC Berkeley visiting scholar Hekia Bodwitch, Nature Conservancy senior scientist Jennifer Carah, UCCE biocontrol specialist Kent Daane, UCCE natural resources specialist Christy Getz, UCCE climate and water specialist Theodore Grantham and UCCE land use science specialist Van Butsic. Daane, Getz, Grantham and Van Butsic are affiliated with UC Berkeley.