University of California students are taking a long journey through California to trace the state's complicated and critical water supply. The recent graduates and upper-division co-eds from UC Merced, UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley and UC Davis are part of the UC Water Academy, a course that combines online training with a two-week field trip for first-hand knowledge about California water.
The tour began June 18 at Lake Shasta, the state's largest reservoir, and followed the water's course to the Sacramento Valley, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and south along the Delta-Mendota Canal. Since a key water destination is agriculture, the UC Water Academy toured the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension June 23, where research is underway to determine how the state's water supply can be most efficiently transformed into a food supply for Americans.
“You're visiting a place ideal for growing high-quality fruits and vegetables, because of the Mediterranean climate and low insect and disease pressure,” said Jeff Dahlberg, director of the UC KREC.
UC Cooperative Extension water management specialist Khaled Bali joined the students next to his alfalfa research plot, where different irrigation regimens are compared to determine the maximum yield that can be harvested with the minimum amount of water.
“It used to be that the No. 1 objective was to maximize yield,” Bali said. “But with the limited supplies and the cost of water, now the No. 1 objective is to get the maximum economic return. Growers might be better off selling some of their water to other jurisdictions.”
A water tour wouldn't be complete without an introduction to drought research. A recently planted sorghum trial provided the backdrop.
“California is a great place to study drought tolerance,” Dahlberg said, “because you can induce a drought by withholding irrigation.”
The sizable field contains 1,800 plots with 600 sorghum cultivars under three irrigation schemes: one irrigated as usual, one in which water is cut off before the plants flower, and the final one where water is cut off after the plants flower.
“Every week, a drone flies over to collect data on the leaf area, plant height and biomass,” Dalberg said. “Hopefully we will get associations with gene expression and this phenotype data. “
Dahlberg and his collaborating researchers believe identifying the genes responsible for drought tolerance in sorghum will help scientists find drought-tolerant genes in other cereal crops – such as wheat, corn, rice and millet. “This will go a long way to feeding the people of the world,” he said.
There is still much to learn about sorghum drought tolerance – is it conferred by the plant's waxy leaves, the way stomata are controlled, accumulation of sugar in the leaves, or a mechanism in the roots?
“These are all questions you will have to answer to feed the world,” Dahlberg said. “That's why I would encourage you to continue studying water. There's a lot for you to get into.”
A third-year earth science student at UC Santa Cruz and a member of the academy, Denise Payan, said the sense of responsibility for the future is not daunting, but encouraging.
“It makes me feel like I can make a difference,” she said. The tour through California is shaping her plans for the future, which may include a career at the intersection of geology and biology.
“This has opened my eyes to a lot of issues,” she said.
The next stop for the UC Water Academy is the vast Tulare Lake basin to learn about groundwater recharge before heading east to the Owens Valley and the shores of Mono Lake. From there the academy turns to the Sierra Nevada to visit San Francisco's water supply, which is collected by Hetch Hetchy Dam. The field trip ends with a two-day rafting trip on the American River.
The UC Water Academy is offered through UC Water and led by UC Merced professor Joshua Viers and UC Cooperative Extension water management specialist Ted Grantham. In addition to the two-week tour, students participated in weekly online meetings and complete a project on communicating California water issues to public stakeholders. Students receive 1 unit of academic credit.
Bees are the most important pollinators of California agriculture — helping farmers grow field crops, fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Honey bees receive most of the credit for crop pollination, but many other kinds of bees play an important role as well. There are 1600 species of bees in California! Take time during Pollinator Week to learn about the different kinds of bees and what you can do to help them flourish.
Why should I care about other kinds of bees?
Bees other than honey bees contribute significantly to crop pollination. For example, alfalfa pollination by alfalfa leafcutter bees is worth $7 billion per year in the United States. Other bees can also boost the result of honey bee pollination — in almond orchards, honey bees are more effective when orchard mason bees are present. The more bee species, the merrier the harvest.
While growers often rent honey bee colonies to pollinate their crops, some wild bees pollinate certain crops even better than honey bees do. For instance, bumble bees are more effective pollinators of tomato because they do something honey bees do not: they shake pollen out of flowers with a technique known as buzz pollination. Likewise, native squash bees are better pollinators of cucurbits — unlike honey bees, they start work earlier in the day, and males even sleep in flowers overnight.
How can I help honey bees and other bees?
When it comes to land management and pest management practices, some bees need more accommodations than others. That's why it is important to know what bees are present in your area and important to your crop, and plan for their needs. Use this bee monitoring guide to identify bees present on your farm.
You can help all kinds of bees by using integrated pest management (IPM). This means using nonchemical pest management methods (cultural, mechanical and biological control), monitoring for pests to determine whether a pesticide is needed, and choosing pesticides that are less toxic to bees whenever possible. Check out the UC IPM Bee Precaution Pesticide Ratings to learn about the risks different pesticides pose to honey bees and other bees, and follow the Best Management Practices To Protect Bees From Pesticides.
Bees also need plenty of food to stay healthy and abundant. Plant flowers that provide nectar and pollen throughout the year. See the planting resources below to find out which plants provide year-round food for specific types of bees.
Like honey bees, native bees need nesting areas to thrive. Bumble bees, squash bees, and other bees nest underground. Ground-nesting bees may require modified tilling practices (such as tilling fields no more than 6 inches deep for squash bees) or no-till management to survive. For above-ground nesters, like carpenter bees and mason bees, consider planting hedgerows or placing tunnel-filled wooden blocks around the field. See the habitat resources below for more information about native bee nesting in agricultural areas.
Bee habitat resources
- Habitat for Bees and Beneficials
- Managing Wild Bees for Crop Pollination
- Native Bee Nest Locations in Agricultural Landscapes
- Farming for Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms
- Hedgerow Planting for Pollinators: Central Valley, Central Coast, Southern California
- Conservation Cover for Pollinators: Central Valley, Central Coast, Southern California
- The Integrated Crop Pollination Project: Tools for Growers
- Insect Pollinated Crops, Insect Pollinators and U.S. Agriculture: Trend Analysis of Aggregate Data for the Period 1992–2009.
- Native bees are a rich natural resource in urban California gardens. (PDF)
- Honey bees are more effective at pollinating almonds when other species of bees are present.
Healthy soil does much more than hold plants upright on the surface of the earth. It is a mix of mineral bits and old plant particles teeming with microbes to form a mysterious and complex web of life scientists are just beginning to understand.
While scientists use high technology to study heathy soil – painstakingly counting soil worms and bugs, sequencing the DNA of soil bacteria, for example – some farmers know intuitively whether the soil is healthy just by walking on it.
Scott Park is a first-generation Meridian, Calif., farmer. “When I step on a field and it feels like a road, something is wrong,” he said. “If it feels like a marshmallow or sponge, that's good.”
Park shared his farming experiences with 200 farmers, industry representatives, University of California Cooperative Extension scientists, Fresno State students, news media and others during a half-day UC workshop at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points.
“The last 31 years I've been on a mission of building soil,” Park said. “I discovered it by accident and I've made lots of mistakes. But yields trend upwards every year on every crop. Being sensitive to building soil, I'm making a lot of money. And if I'm doing something for the earth, all the better.”
Park said he adds 10 to 15 tons per acre of biomass to his farm every year. He's using less fertilizer, up to 20 percent less water, and even experimenting on the farm by growing a commercial crop with just four inputs: cover crops, water, seed and sun.
“We got high-yielding, good-quality crops,” Park said. “Nobody was more shocked than I am that I got a good crop.”
Researchers are now using the scientific method to figure out the root causes of these empirical observations.
“There's a lot going on in soil,” said Radomir Schmidt, a UC Davis soil microbiologist who spoke at the soil health field day.
A teaspoon of soil has a billion bacteria and six miles of fungal hyphae, the filaments that branch out through the soil from fungi, Schmidt said. The microbes' interaction with living plant roots, the larger pores left by decomposing vegetation and tunneling worms and insects create a system that confers resilience to unforeseen challenges – such as pest pressure, torrential rainfall and plant diseases.
The field day was held under a tent pitched adjacent to an 18-year research trial at the 320-acre facility. The trial compares four farming systems side by side:
- Conventional system, with annual soil tillage and no cover crops.
- Conservation agriculture, with no tilling whatsoever and annual winter cover crops.
- No-till without the cover crop.
- Conventional tilling with a cover crop.
“Take a look over my shoulder to see the difference,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and the study leader. “We've found the cover crops and no-till reduce water needs, cut dust, and lower costs. And there may be more benefits than we realized.”
For example, a graduate student counted the worms, bugs, beetles and other microfauna in soil samples from each of the treatments. There were double the amount in the no-till, cover crop plots compared to the conventional farming system.
UC Cooperative Extension specialist Sloan Rice found that cover crops promote water retention in the soil after rainfall. There is very little water evaporation from the soil surface and water transportation from the cover crop plants in the winter, so little water is lost. Cover crops also promote more water infiltration below three feet.
Healthy soil management also shows promise in confronting global climate change by sequestering carbon in the soil, rather than depleting it.
Manager of Sano Farms in Firebaugh, Jesse Sanchez, was a speaker at the field day. He wasn't surprised by the overflow crowd.
“Farmers are more and more curious. They see some of us using cover crops, and they want to learn more,” Sanchez said. “There has been a swell of interest. I have a tremendous number of visitors every year.”
For more information about soil building, see the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation website at http://casi.ucanr.edu.
Memorial Day Weekend has just passed, bringing with it the unofficial start of summer. The warm weather we've recently experienced following a rich rainy season is the perfect combination for the luscious growth we see in lawns and landscapes.
Business picks up this time of year for the many maintenance gardeners who are hired to mow lawns, clean up landscapes, or get rid of unwanted insects, diseases, or weeds. What many people may not realize is that maintenance gardeners who apply pesticides as part of their services must be certified by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR). Even if pesticides are not used often, such as a single herbicide application, a Qualified Applicator Certificate in the Maintenance Gardener Category Q (QAC-Q) is required. This certification allows maintenance gardeners to legally apply general use pesticides as part of their services.
According to DPR, approximately two-thirds of pesticide exposure-related illnesses reported between 2005 and 2014 in California came from urban settings such as parks, gardens, schools and homes. Maintenance gardeners with a QAC-Q are qualified to follow California laws and regulations that help them to use, transport, store and dispose of pesticides safely in order to avoid human injury and contamination of the environment. They are also trained in pest identification and alternative methods to managing pests without the use of pesticides.
If you are a homeowner and use maintenance gardener services or are looking to hire, be sure to use one that is certified by DPR to ensure that they have the qualifications to follow the law and apply pesticides safely around your home. View the DPR Maintenance Gardener leaflet for homeowners and consumers (PDF) for more information on what you can do.
If you are a maintenance gardener and not yet certified, visit the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website for resources to help you. The exam preparation page lists several materials such as a study guide available for purchase as well as free online modules and practice exam questions, available in both English and Spanish.
Those who already hold a QAC-Q must renew it by taking eight hours of DPR-approved continuing education (CE) courses every two years, with at least two hours in the laws and regulations category. Find approved online courses on the UCIPM training page.
In 2013, a group of graduate students in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) at the University of California, Berkeley sought out faculty support and successfully collaborated with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) to launch the Program for Graduate Students in Extension (GSE). Participants receive up to a year of funding to conduct applied research and outreach to California communities, coordinate workshops and training events, and co-author materials with ANR academics. Over the course of the three-year pilot program, 14 students from across the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley have participated.
“There's really no program quite like this, where students can gain hands-on, graduate-level training in extension and outreach,” says ESPM professor John Battles, who chaired the program's steering committee. He adds, “We're grateful to all the UC ANR advisors and specialists who have offered invaluable mentorship to student fellows.”
Sustainable Food Systems and Climate Education
Alana Siegner (Energy and Resources Group, 2016–17 fellow) believes that to ensure the environmental sustainability of agricultural landscapes and to improve health outcomes for young people, it's important that students understand the scientific and social causes and consequences of climate change as it plays out in the U.S. food system. During her fellowship, she adapted existing climate change curricula to fit within farm-to-school programs, integrating food- and farming-specific examples into general lessons on climate adaptation and mitigation. The lessons, designed for students in grades 8 through 10, are hands-on, interdisciplinary, and solutions oriented, unfolding in both the classroom and the school-garden environments. Siegner piloted the curricula and other professional development resources with teachers at schools in Oakland and in Washington State's San Juan Islands.
Despite several advances in modeling techniques, climate projections are not widely used in agricultural decision-making. Kripa Akila Jagannathan (ERG, 2015–16 fellow) wanted to bridge this gap between climate science and decision-making needs by improving the understanding of what farmers consider relevant climate information. She interviewed almond growers in California about how they'd previously used climate information, what climatic variables were most relevant to them, and the content and communication methods that could make information on future climate more usable. Jagannathan's interviews showed that almond growers have experienced changes in climate over the past few decades that have affected plant growth. She hopes that providing growers with appropriate information on past trends and future projections can help them to make decisions that are better adapted to future climate.
Forestry and Ecosystem Education
Stella Cousins (ESPM, 2014–15 fellow) collaborated with the Forestry Institute for Teachers, a free program that provides K–12 teachers in California with knowledge and tools for teaching their students about ecosystem science and forest resource management. In addition to presenting current research to participating educators, she shared do-it-yourself miniature microscopes that can help learners of all ages explore seeds, cells, fur, and other tiny wonders. Magnifying tree-core samples from the Sierra Nevada as an example, she demonstrated how a lesson in dendrochronology can facilitate classroom learning on the ways forests grow and are shaped by climate. Cousins says, “I hope that this project will support existing efforts to make sound and sustainable ecosystem-management choices, and also help foster lifelong curiosity in California's youth about the natural world.”
Conservation and Land Easements
Conservation easements are currently one of the primary channels for protecting private land. Since easements restrict development for both current and future owners, resale value is presumably diminished, and landowners are typically compensated with a one-time payment from a conservation group. Reid Johnsen (Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2016–17 fellow) wanted to explore the relationship between rancher identity, community, and potential preferences for alternative payment structures. He surveyed landowners in Marin and Sonoma counties to gauge their support for different options, including leases and annual payments for ecosystem services. He also constructed an economic model of stakeholder behavior to help assess which payment structure delivers the greatest combined welfare to landowners, conservation groups, and the public.
Hunting and Conservation
Luke Macaulay (ESPM, 2014–15 fellow) surveyed private landowners and land managers in California to determine how recreational hunting may influence decisions regarding land-use and conservation practices. He regularly spoke on his survey findings and ran a workshop in Montana to encourage cooperative conservation efforts between hunters and environmentalists. “The feedback from the advisors on my mentorship team was invaluable in improving the quality of my research,” he reflects. The experience also had an impact on his career: In 2016, Macaulay was hired by CNR as a Cooperative Extension specialist in rangeland planning and policy.