Posts Tagged: Jeff Mitchell
Organic farmer Phil Foster has developed a creative way to nurture the soil on his 200-acre farm near Hollister. He plants cover crops in a single line at the top of the planting bed, saving water and seed while keeping the furrows clear for irrigation.
"We were finding we couldn't use cover crops because of water," Foster said. The narrow strip makes the best use of the limited water supply, while garnering the benefits of cover crops - which buffer soil temperatures, inhibit weeds, increase soil microbial activity, improve water infiltration and add nutrients. Growing cover crops prepares the soil for the production of high-quality vegetables.
Foster is one of eight organic vegetable growers who are working with researchers at Chico State, Fresno State and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources on a project funded with a USDA grant designed to make significant improvements in soil care in organic production systems. He guided project participants around his farm, equipment yard and compost operation in early November to share the techniques he and his staff have developed over three decades to promote soil health.
Tour participants marveled at the soil characteristics, admiring tiny pores and roots in clods of dirt, evidence of the soil's capacity to move water and nutrients. They studied the plant and soil conditions after farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled a carefully crafted implement for rolling down the cover crop across the field with a tractor.
Foster credited Contreras, a 30-year employee, for his role in building the soil on the farm. Labor, Foster said, is his biggest cost. He has 50 full time staff, many with 5 to 20 years of experience.
"They are the key to to the success of the ranch," Foster said.
Minimizing and, eventually eliminating, soil disturbance can be combined with organic groundcover, year-round root growth and robust biological activity in the soil to further promote soil health. Following the tour, the farmers talked about ways to attain the goal on their farms of no-till organic vegetable production.
Foster said he will experiment with reducing soil disturbance to determine whether doing so will maintain or increase yields. Another farmer in the project, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, said he will dedicate eight acres of his organic farm to comparing the results when the cover crop is chopped and left on the soil surface to chopped and incorporated with tillage.
Paul Muller and Andrew Braitt of Fully Belly Farm in the Capay Valley suggested the researchers could help the farmers by identifying optimal, effective cover crop rolling techniques. Retired organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera suggested grant funds be used to purchase appropriate scale cover crop seeders for on-farm experimentation.
"We're making great progress," said project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. "By getting together regularly, we're seeing opportunities for moving further toward reduced-disturbance on the farms, identifying the equipment needs and establishing effective channels of communication."
Over the project's three-year term, the farmers and researchers will continue to experiment with soil-building techniques and share results.
A USDA grant will allow a group of California organic farmers to team up with researchers from the University of California, Chico State and Fresno State to determine whether tilling less soil on the farm will improve production of vegetable crops.
The aim is to duplicate the soil environment found in natural areas – typically concealed by plants, leaves and other organic debris – to improve agricultural soil health, increase production, reduce water use and avoid leaching nutrients out of the root zone.
“Tilling the soil is common on farms, but our research shows that it often isn't necessary, and can even be detrimental,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy specialist. “In nature, organic matter on the soil surface creates a protective layer and promotes biological activity that is beneficial to plants and the environment.”
The three-year project, funded with $380,000 from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's Conservation Innovation Grant program, involves six organic farmers who are already experimenting on their own with cover crops, compost and minimum tillage to grow high-quality organic produce.
“This is a group of outstanding farmers,” Mitchell said. “It's very encouraging to see this sort of care for the soil. They recognize that taking care of the soil biology is useful to produce crops.”
One of the participants, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, has been building the soil on his farm for 38 years.
“We put 10 to 15 tons of biomass on every acre every year,” Park said. “This has given me good soil structure, water percolation and water retention, and we're having some really good results.”
Park said he tweaks his farming practices each year. To date, he has tinkered with reduced tillage, but isn't sold on a no-till system.
“I'm doing minimum till now, but it can be better,” Park said.
Teasing out those improvements is a goal of the project, which includes trials on four farms and two 12-acre demonstration plots, one at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points and the other on the Chico State campus.
“Each of us will be trying to get closer to the goal of reducing tillage to promote soil health. We all want to develop strategies that might work, and not repeat mistakes,” Mitchell said.
The USDA grant funds will enable the farmers and researchers to gather accurate data about the agronomic and economic impacts of the new farming systems and use state-of-the-art equipment and technologies as they experiment with new techniques.
For example, the team is working with a Salinas company that is bringing a Spanish transplanting technology to California. The company, Tanimura & Antle Produce, will allow a demonstration of a plant tape that holds sprouts spaced ideally for a broccoli field planting in the West Side REC plot. (See video below or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/6pkmQVNjH1I .) The technology holds promise for reducing tillage, cutting back on labor, using less seed, and bringing the crop into production earlier in the season.
Planting cover crops is another way farmers and researchers will seek to improve soil health, though this process is a challenge in organic farming systems. On conventional no-till and minimum-till farms, the cover crop may be sprayed with an herbicide before planting seedlings in the cover crop residue. Possible solutions are chopping up the cover crop or using a roller-crimper machine.
“These technologies would provide considerable advantages in organic systems, but very little research has been done to quantify how these practices might influence soil function and cropping system resilience in California,” Mitchell said.
As part of the project, a farmer network will be developed for information sharing, 18 public extension events will be held, six videos will be created and curriculum will be developed to extend the research outcomes.
For more information, contact Jeff Mitchell at email@example.com, or (559) 303-9689.
In the video below, see an overview of transplanting technology developed in Spain that will be part of the soil building research.
“Mike McRee has been extremely willing to share his experiences with others and has graciously hosted numerous public field days at his dairy farm over the years,” said Jeffrey Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist and CASI founder.
The dairy producer, who milks about 2,000 cows at his farm west of Chowchilla, double crops his own dairy forage along with tomatoes and alfalfa crops on about 850 acres. After his pioneering efforts with strip-till – some of the very earliest in the entire San Joaquin Valley – McRee soon found that the conservation agriculture practice saved him time and money as he had anticipated, and yielded other important benefits for his farm as well.
McRee noticed improved water-holding capacity of his soil since working with strip-tillage, as well as increased consistency in the soil's ability to absorb water, mellower soil overall, and more consistent crop stands and yields overall.
Improved soil tilth, increased soil organic matter and earthworms give him consistent yields year to year without extreme highs or lows.
McRee's quest to improve the performance of his silage production systems began back in 2007.
He readily admits that he faced challenges early on.
He tried no-till wheat, but was limited in this effort by hard, compacted soils. Having the right equipment is a key to the whole endeavor, McRee points out.
He has worked with local NRCS partners and the EQIP program, which assists growers with implementation of practices to improve our soil, water and air resources.
Following a great deal of consultation with other growers and experimentation, he developed a very successful strip-tillage system for his silage corps. The change was spurred initially by his interest in reducing the number of times he had to drive a tractor through his fields to save fuel and labor.
He now does fall primary tillage using a Wilcox 7-shank subsoil ripper with a crumbler. Vertical tillage has replaced disc plowing to achieve a smooth seedbed without turning the soil over.
After winter forage is harvested, preparation for corn silage planting begins. McRee explains that he rips the soil down 13 to 14 inches and uses coulters to prepare the seedbed. After pre-irrigation, he uses the Dawn Pluribus strip-till row unit, a tool that preps an eight-inch band of soil for planting. Using GPS, he can run his tractor 6 to 7 mph for this pass.
“With three passes, I can do everything,” McRee said.
“Additionally, McRee has recently installed subsurface drip irrigation that utilizes dairy lagoon water for his silage crops,” said Priscilla Baker, NRCS soil conservationist in Madera. “This project is in partnership with the organization Sustainable Conservation.”
McRee received the award Oct. 13 at the annual meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Resource Conservation Districts held at the Wool Growers' Restaurant in Los Banos.
In 2005, the University of California, NRCS and the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center established the Conservation Agriculture Farmer Innovator Award as a means for providing greater visibility to conservation agriculture pioneers in California. The criteria for this award are demonstrated innovation and leadership in the development, refinement and use of conservation agriculture systems within the California crop production environment.
For more information about conservation agriculture systems, visit http://casi.ucanr.edu.
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.
How do you cut your water use by a third, cut your nitrogen use in half, maintain your tomato yield and improve your fruit quality?
“With patience, perseverance and by treating your soil like a living ecosystem — which it is,” says Jesse Sanchez.
Sanchez should know. He and Alan Sano have been experimenting with soil enhancements for 15 years on Sano Farms in Firebaugh. They believe they have hit upon a winning strategy — though their experiments continue.
Today, they grow 50-ton-per-acre tomatoes with half of the nitrogen (120 units) and a third less water than before. They also report fewer weeds and better tomato quality.
The soil organic matter (SOM) — the living portion of the soil that turns crop residue into minerals needed by growing plants — has gone from 0.5 percent to 3.0 percent, report Sano and Sanchez.
“The soil is like day and night,” says Sanchez. “You can dig it with your hands,” he says, cupping a handful to prove his point.
So how do you transition largely inert soil into the ecological powerhouse found on Sano Farms?
Cover crops, reduced equipment passes, and subsurface irrigation have been key, according to Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. These practices combine to feed and protect the soil microorganisms often ignored in agricultural systems. Mitchell has been coaching the Sano/Sanchez team for over 10 years, witnessing their progress and connecting them with like-minded farmers and organizations.
“Farmers sometimes worry that cover crops will compete with the cash crop for water and nutrients,” says Mitchell. “We're starting to see at Sano Farms — looking long term — that the tradeoffs might actually be favorable.”
Sanchez says he terminates the cover crop before the tomatoes are planted, leaving the dead residue to smother weeds and feed the soil microorganisms.
The SOM also builds the sponge that allows the farm to thrive on less water, says Zahangir Kabir, soil health specialist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“A one percent increase in SOM builds your soil's ability to hold water by 19,000 to 25,000 gallons per acre. Calculating conservatively, Sano Farms' fields hold 50,000 gallons of water more per acre than they did before," Kabir said.
You can see this in action at Sano farms. “When it rains here the water soaks into the field. It stays put,” says Sanchez. “It doesn't run off like some farms.”
Sanchez, who received a White House Champions of Change Award last summer, says he knows farmers resist change. “But we can't stop change,” he says. “It's all around us.”
And, if they (farmers) do change the way they work with their soil, says Sanchez, “they are going to like what they see. ”
Sanchez will be a featured speaker at the second annual Latino Farmers Conference on Nov. 15 at the Monterey Hyatt Regency. The event is free but registration is required. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/events/ca/newsroom/events/?eventid=584#584 .
USDA NRCS produced a three-minute video profile of Alan Sano and Jesse Sanchez at Sano Farms in Firebaugh. View it here: