Posts Tagged: Jeff Mitchell
Before the San Joaquin Valley was cultivated, vast grasslands stretched from the Sierra to the Coast Range with soil that contained significant organic matter – a diversity of live and dead plant material and microbes that are key to soil health.
Tilling the soil for farming exposed it to air and allowed the organic matter to oxidize, releasing greenhouse gasses and reducing organic matter to about 1 percent of soil volume. UC Agriculture and Natural Resources research has shown that soils with low organic matter inhibit water infiltration, nutrient cycling, biological diversity and carbon sequestration.
But techniques have been developed to return soil to a more natural, more healthful state.
Farmers, students, researchers and community educators gathered at Gary and Mari Martin's farm in Mendota Sept. 13 to share ideas and strategies for extending information to the greater farming community that will increase adoption of conservation agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farmland and at the same time improve soil health.
For two years, the Martins have opened their farm to research led by UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell. For the project, UC Davis doctoral student Geoff Koch is studying soil health indicators and greenhouse gas emissions at the Martins' farm and at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center, where plots have been cultivated using traditional methods and conservation practices side by side for 20 years.
Expanding the use of conservation agricultural practices is not limited to Central California.
“Our government endorses these principles of soil health,” Mitchell said. “It's part of a national campaign aimed at improving the health of our country's soils.”
- Minimize soil disturbance
- Emphasize biodiversity
- Keep living roots in the soil
- Keep soil covered with plants and plant residues at all times
Employing these techniques in the research project at the West Side Research and Extension Center for 20 years has shown that annual cover cropping has added 37 tons of organic matter per acre to the soil, captured 15 tons of carbon per acre and used only about 12 inches of water per acre.
At the workshop, three University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) climate-smart educators invited farmers to contact them for assistance in applying for state funds they can use to implement climate-smart farming practices.
Climate-smart educator Emily Lovell said the California Department of Food and Agriculture's State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) pays up to $100,000 to improve irrigation efficiency, reduce water use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers can use the funding to, for example, convert to drip irrigation systems, install moisture sensors or set up a weather station.
Lovell said it is a competitive and complex application process.
“We help with the applications,” she said.
Climate-smart educator Shulamit Shroder described the CDFA's Healthy Soils Program (HSP), which incentivizes farmers with up to $75,000 to implement such practices as planting cover crops, using no-till or reduced tillage techniques, applying mulch or compost, or planting hedgerows. The applications are due in February 2020.
For more details on the CDFA Climate Smart Agriculture programs and for technical assistance on applying, contact a local UCCE climate-smart educator.
A 26-episode weekly video series will debut May 13 on YouTube to help train the next generation of vegetable crop workers and increase their use of effective stewardship practices in vegetable production.
Projections for near-future retirements of people working in California's agricultural production, marketing and post-harvest handling sectors indicate severe re-staffing needs in the coming years. Technological advances have reduced manual labor in agriculture, but increased the need for skilled labor to maintain the sustainability of the vegetable industry.
“We already see it happening,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. “Robotic machines are now used for lettuce thinning in Salinas, but these technologies must be serviced by an educated workforce with knowledge in both mechanics and science.”
Mitchell assembled a team of professors from California's public universities with agricultural programs – UC Davis, Chico State, Fresno State and CalPoly San Luis Obispo - to pull together a series of videos designed to spark the interest and begin training future farmers and ag workers in sound agronomic, economic and environmental stewardship skills. The team received financial support from the California Department of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crops Block Grant Program.
“We know that maintaining California's leading role in producing abundant, safe vegetables is critical not only to Americans' health, but also to the state's economy,” Mitchell said.
The video series is offered on the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) YouTube page on a playlist titled “Training of a New Generation of California Vegetable Producers.” UC ANR is the outreach arm of the University of California which, among other services, provides agricultural research, teaching and advising in all California counties.
Each Monday morning from May 13 through Nov. 4, a new video will premiere in the playlist. The video length ranges from 47 minutes to 7 minutes. The videos will also be made available to high school and college ag professors to use in the classroom.
“We believe that this series of videos on vegetable production will have broad interest beyond the classrooms,” Mitchell said. “The agricultural industry, students in other parts of the United States and the world, and the broader public all have an interest in understanding how the vegetables we eat are produced at the ever-increasing scale at which they are needed.”
The videos depict state-of-the-art technologies and techniques that are in use in many production regions of California today, vegetable farming systems used in other parts of the world, and increasingly popular cottage farming systems that are popping up in urban areas for easy access to healthful foods.
The West Side research plots are one of 120 locations in Canada, the United States and Mexico where the SHI scientists are collecting data to evaluate soil health indicators at a continental scale.
The initiative will identify acceptable soil health measurements and standards, as well as launch a comprehensive evaluation program that relates soil health to productivity, economic and environmental outcomes. Cappellazzi is project scientist for the Western U.S. and coordinates the soil health team's pastures and rangeland research.
“Our project at West Side started in 1999 and is a unique research resource in California because of its dedication to reduced soil disturbance and soil biodiversity in food production systems,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist and leader of UC's Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation.
Since it was established, the research plots have been managed in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and more recently sorghum, garbanzo beans and melons, under four different treatments: no-tilled plus cover crops, no-tilled with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.
“There are few long-term study sites in California where this combination of core principles that underlie soil health have been applied for a long time frame like we have here at the West Side REC,” Mitchell said. “These principles include reducing disturbance of the soil, maintaining cover over the soil through the use of residues and cover crops, and accentuating diversity in crops and soil biology.”
“Our research project at the West Side REC has enabled scientists to reach many conclusions about soil health in the past. But this very exhaustive sampling by the Soil Health Institute is perhaps the most comprehensive battery of tests that have ever been performed on any study site in the San Joaquin Valley to date,” Mitchell said.
The research initiative is funded with a $9.4 million grant to the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and the Nature Conservancy to improve soil health and support positive economic and environmental outcomes for American farmers and ranchers.
The goal of this project is to support research and education that accelerates adoption and benefits of soil health management systems nationally. Farming practices that improve soil health can increase profitability while protecting natural resources like air and water for communities.
For more information about the sample collection process at the West Side REC, view a 14-minute video at https://youtu.be/WSNg6rJdvvE
UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell is issuing a standing invitation to the public to visit the site of an ongoing conservation agriculture research project and see for themselves the results of long-term soil-building practices.
“Every Friday morning from 9 o'clock till noon, beginning in February and going through June, I invite folks to come to the project site to see up close and personal just what soil health means,” Mitchell said.
The research site is at the University of California's West Side Research and Extension Center, 17353 W. Oakland Ave., in Five Points.
“I promise to be out there every Friday morning from Feb. 15 through June 26,” Mitchell said.
The project, funded by the National Research Initiative, compares plots that have been managed for more than 20 years in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and more recently sorghum, garbanzos and melons, under four different treatments: no-tilled plus cover crops, no-tilled with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.
“What we've got at this site is a very long-term example of exactly what implementation of a small set of soil care, or soil health, principles really means for soil function and management,” he said.
Mitchell says that the study site in Five Points is a valuable resource for the people of California because of its dedicated adherence to principles that are widely touted to improve production efficiencies, reduce dust emissions, sequester carbon and reduce inputs over time.
“I recently heard about the value of publicly showcasing long-term sites such as the one we've got in Five Points. It's being done in several other places, including the Dakotas and in Europe,” Mitchell said. “It just seems to make sense to open up our field more widely to folks who might be interested in seeing the remarkable changes we've seen and monitored for a long time.”
According to Mitchell, the NRI Project field is already “the most visited research field in the state,” but with this new invitation, he is hoping to have a still broader impact. “We've got a simply amazing resource here and I want folks to see it,” he said.
The study has been selected as one of the monitoring sites of the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements that has been initiated by the Soil Health Institute of Morrisville, N.C. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles have been published based on work done in this study field.
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.