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Lessons from six California soil care farmers

Firebaugh farm manager Jesse Sanchez speaks at a soil care demonstration.
Despite the growing interest in soil health in many parts of the country, the notion hasn't captured the imagination of most farmers in California. The Golden State's lackluster attention to soil care is likely due to “phenomenal yield increases over the past several decades, the sheer diversity of cropping systems, and widespread perception that California's environment and crop production mix doesn't lend itself to soil health improvements,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy specialist.

A series of farm visits this summer in the Central Valley prove this rationale wrong, Mitchell said. The farm visits were sponsored by the UC Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center (CASI), USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts. The farm visits showcased the soil health goals and experiences of six farmers who are familiar with soil care principles across a wide range of local cropping contexts.

The series of visits demonstrated the use of no-till and minimum tillage farming, cover cropping, enhancing the diversity of above-ground species and underground soil biology, surface residue preservation, and compost applications.

John Teixeira is a diversified farmer in Firebaugh working to develop integrated crop and livestock systems that are not reliant on external inputs. Pursuing a diverse rotation that includes alfalfa, cover crops, and a variety of heirloom grain crops that are marketed as both raw seed and value-added pasta, Teixeira is working to enhance soil function and fertility so that all external impacts are eliminated.

Michael Crowell and his son Adam grow silage crops near their Turlock dairy and dryland small grain crops using no tillage along Highway 4 in the rolling hills south of Dixon. They use no-till as a means to reduce soil water evaporation and to increase the water holding capacity of their soil, thereby enabling them to produce economically viable crops on the region's typical 14 inches of winter rainfall.

Darrell Cordova and his son Trevor of Denair also use no-tillage for their summer silage corn and winter small grain forage mixes and as a means for stabilizing the soil, adding surface residues, increasing infiltration and reducing runoff under their center pivot-irrigated crops growing on undulating terrain. These practices also cut costs and eliminate considerable labor.

Tom Willey of Madera uses compost applications ahead of each of his organic vegetable crops to build the nutrient-provision and water-holding capacities of his soils. His sustained dedication to these amendment applications and his farming goal of attempting to mimic natural systems in terms of active, high-functioning soil biology enable him to produce a great diversity of very high quality vegetables.

Alan Sano and Jesse Sanchez in Firebaugh have combined the conservation ag/soil care practices of reduced disturbance and cover crops for more than 10 years in their processing tomato fields. They report lower costs, improved soil tilth, and the ability to reduce nitrogen fertilizer inputs by about half.

“These six soil care farmers share an uncommon dedication to the principles that are at the core of soil health and conservation agriculture systems,” Mitchell said. “Each of them reported tangible value that they are receiving from their attention to caring for the soil and working to improve soil function.”

Mitchell and the network of organizations that are part of CASI now seek a new wave of farmers who are interested in evaluating conservation agriculture, climate-smart practices at their farms.

For information on how to become involved with farm performance monitoring and the educational activities, see the CASI website at http://casi.ucanr.edu/

 

The rapidity of water infiltration into the soil is a measure of soil health.

 

Posted on Thursday, July 21, 2016 at 8:10 AM
Tags: CASI (2), Jeff Mitchell (11)

How to make something sweet even sweeter

There's still time to enter your honey in the Good Foods competition. Beekeepers across the country are invited to do so. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Honey, they say, is the "soul of a field of flowers."

It's more than that if you're a beekeeper. It's your pride and joy.

Whether beekeeping is your livelihood, your leisure activity, or something you do to help the declining bee population, that byproduct of your bees--honey--can also be an opportunity for bragging rights.

Entries are now being accepted for the nationwide honey competition sponsored by Good Food Awards.

If you're one of the nation's beekeepers, there's still time to enter your honey, says contest coordinator Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center.

The deadline to do so is Sunday, July 31. The four subcategories are Liquid and Naturally Crystallized, Creamed, Comb, and Infused Honey.  

The contest is divided into five regions--East, South, North, Central and West--with seven or more states assigned to one region, Harris says.

  • West: California, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Hawaii and Alaska.
  • North: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Minnesota
  • Central: Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky
  • East:  Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland and West Virginia
  • South: Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas

"Finalists from each region are selected on a tasting day in September," Harris explains.  "They are vetted according to criteria on this page. Winners are selected during the fall months and announced at the end of the year. The awards will be presented in mid-January."

Harris says there are more than 300 unique types of honey in the United States. The Good Food Awards will showcase honeys most distinctive in clarity and depth of flavor, produced by beekeepers practicing good animal husbandry and social responsibility. The honey can come from hives located in numerous places, from rooftops to fields to backyards.

Last year's top awards went to:

To enter the competition, access this page: http://www.goodfoodawards.org/honey/

The Honey and Pollination Center is affiliated with the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science and the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. For more information, email Harris at aharris@ucdavis.edu

Posted on Wednesday, July 20, 2016 at 10:15 AM

A moth's night out: Celebrate moths at Bohart Museum

Moths are attracted to porch lights, like a moth to a flame. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
If you're the kind of person who deliberately allows cobwebs or spider webs to grace your porch light, you may be the curious type - or have a little bit of entomologist in you.

Like a moth to a flame?

Yes, and you can learn more about moths at the Bohart Museum of Entomology's "Celebrate Moths!" open house on Saturday night, July 30 from 8 to 11.

The Bohart Museum is located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane at UC Davis.

The event is in keeping with "International Moth Week: Exploring Nighttime Nature,"  July 23-31, a citizen science project celebrating moths and biodiversity.

It promises to be  informative, educational and engaging, according to Bohart Museum director Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology and the recipient of the UC Davis Academic Senate's 2016 Distinguished Public Service Award.

Free, open to the public and family friendly, the three-hour open house will include:

  • outdoor collecting
  • viewing of the Bohart's vast collection of worldwide moth specimens
  • information on how to differentiate a moth from a butterfly
  • family arts-and-crafts activities
  • free hot chocolate

Tabatha Yang, the Bohart Museum's public education and outreach coordinator, said that after the sun sets, a black light demonstration will take place just outside Academic Surge. You can observe and collect moths and other insects from a white sheet, much as you may do around your porch lights.

Moths are considered among the most diverse and successful organisms on earth. They continue to attract the attention of the entomological world and other curious persons. Scientists estimate that there may be more than 500,000 moth species in the world.

“Their colors and patterns are either dazzling or so cryptic that they define camouflage,” according to International Moth Week spokespersons. “Shapes and sizes span the gamut from as small as a pinhead to as large as an adult's hand.”

Most moths are nocturnal, but some fly during the day, as butterflies do.

Among the thousands of moth specimens at the Bohart is the Atlas moth, Attacus atlas. One of the world's largest moths, it's found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia, and commonly found across the Malay archipelago. And it's huge! A record specimen from Java measured 10.3 inches.  Atlas moths may have been named after the Titan of Greek mythology, or their map-like wing patterns. It apparently inspired the movie, Mothra.

Scientists participating in the Bohart Museum's Moth Night will include UC Davis entomology graduate student Jessica Gillung, who speaks fluent Spanish and Portuguese, in addition to English. A fourth-year graduate student, she is a member of the UC Davis Linnaean Games team that won the Entomological Society of America's national championship last year. The Linnaean Games are a college-bowl type game in which competing university teams answer trivia questions about insects and entomologists.

The Bohart Museum is a world-renowned insect museum that houses a global collection of nearly 8 million specimens. It also maintains a live “petting zoo,” featuring walking sticks, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and tarantulas. A gift shop, open year around, includes T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.

The Bohart Museum's regular hours are from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. The museum is closed to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and on major holidays. Admission is free. 

More information on the Bohart Museum is available by contacting (530) 752-0493 or bmuseum@ucdavis.edu.

Posted on Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 1:20 PM

Organic symposium proceedings now available

Summaries of presentations from the 2016 Organic Agriculture Research Symposium (OARS) held in Pacific Grove are now available online at http://eorganic.info/node/16778. Many of the workshops and keynote presentations were recorded live and may be viewed via the eOrganic YouTube channel.

Ten acres at Kearney are set aside for organic research.
The event, which was co-sponsored by the Organic Farming Research Foundation and UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, covered topics ranging from soil health, seeds, plant breeding, and biological control, to biodiversity, economics, and livestock — all with a focus on organic production.

“We are making these presentations available free online to extend the reach of all the valuable information shared at the symposium,” said Jeff Dahlberg, director of the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “We're now planning the 2017 symposium and it will build on the cutting edge research shared by scientists this year.”

In the opening address, president of Organics International, André Leu, said organic agriculture offers the promise of a future to produce and distribute food and other farm products in a healthy, economically sound, truly sustainable and fair way. He called the current state of organic agriculture “Organic 3.0.”

“This is a concept we put out a year ago and it is resonating around the world,” Leu said. Organic 1.0 dates back to the 1920s and represents organic farming founders and visionaries, he said. Organic 2.0, beginning in the 1970s, represents the establishment of private standards, public regulations and global recognition. The current stage of organic farming is a time for market reinvention, widespread conversion and performance improvement.

Financial support for the 2016 OARS was provided by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture Organic Research and Extension Initiative and the Gaia Fund.

"The OARS conference was very successful in bringing national and international scholars and farmers together to present findings about the latest research and how it is advancing organic farming and ranching," said Diana Jerkins, OARF research director. "OFRF will continue to encourage and participate in events such as these to ensure current research, education, and extension efforts are widely disseminated."

Organic Farming Research Foundation is a non-profit foundation that works to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems. OFRF cultivates organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production.

The UC Kearney Agricultural REC is one of nine UC Agriculture and Natural Resources research and extension centers across the state of California. Ten acres at the 330-acre center are certified organic and available for organic research.

Posted on Monday, July 18, 2016 at 10:31 AM
Tags: Jeff Dahlberg (6), Kearney (4), Organic (13)

Tackling childhood obesity: A systems change approach

Murals in schools visually reinforce key healthy lifestyle messages. The above mural is at Sierra House Elementary School in Lake Tahoe.

On paper, the charge was clear: launch a statewide effort to integrate the nutrition education programs of USDA SNAP-Ed funded partners. Address childhood obesity and food insecurity holistically, yet specifically. Do this through policy, systems and environmental approaches that will leverage community participation and resources in order to create sustainability at the local level, and do it as funding is declining in SNAP-Ed programs.

But what would this integrated effort actually look like in practice? How could a single effort weave together the many agencies, actors, and systems that influence a child's earliest years, a family's food selection, and school and community activities? How could the people around a table, some meeting for the first time, coalesce around a shared vision, let alone mutually agreed strategies?

A problem as multifaceted as childhood obesity requires a similarly complex public health approach to meet the challenge. It is with this charge that over the past four years UC CalFresh has been working across California on nutrition education and obesity prevention with the California Department of Social Services, the California Department of Public Health, the California Department of Aging, and Catholic Charities to redefine Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed, which is funded by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service). 

The SNAP-Ed mission in California is to inspire and empower underserved Californians to improve their health and the health of their communities by promoting awareness, education, and community change through diverse partnerships, resulting in healthy eating and active living.

SNAP-Ed work is executed through county-led integrated workplans which now embody policy, systems and environmental (PSE) change in the body of work previously seen as a direct education program in schools and communities. Adding PSE activities to SNAP-Ed work acknowledges that a systems change approach that comprehensively addresses nutritional health where people live, learn, work, shop and play most effectively assures that children and their families will benefit from SNAP-Ed educational efforts.

The first years of children's lives can determine the rest of their development.
Technical assistance through education on food and food resource management coupled with assisting community members in making changes to their environment is a viable method of creating sustainable change. These types of comprehensive changes in schools and communities have been cited by a recent Robert Wood Johnson report to help children grow up at a healthy weight.

  • Tackling obstacles such as access to affordable fresh fruit and vegetables, safe areas to recreate, safe routes to school, and programs/curricula that encourage physical activity are important aspects of initiating long lasting community health and lifestyle changes.

  • Teaming with the Department of Transportation or environmental programs such as Resilient Schools can fuse nutritional work with those working in other areas that contribute to and foster a safe, healthy community.

  • Wellness policies in schools that encourage good nutrition and physical activity institutionalize healthy lifestyle choices.

  • Programs like the Smarter Lunchroom Movement help schools and students make the healthy choice in food and beverages the easy choice.

  • Environmental supports such as murals in the lunchroom or on school/community grounds visually reinforce key messages. On the playground, stencils depicting fruits and vegetables with key messages help motivate student's movement and play while reinforcing lessons learned in the classroom.

  • Garden-based learning facilitates student and community members' exploration of low-cost methods to add fresh fruits and vegetables to their daily meal plan. Research shows that nutrition and gardening experiences, linked to academic standards for a specific age group, can increase vegetable and fruit consumption and physical activity.

Now, let's explore how these changes in the type of work executed through SNAP-Ed is poising California communities to tackle childhood obesity.

There is general agreement through research that the first years of children's lives can determine the rest of their development. Across ideological divides, there is consensus that investing early makes sense — it helps children develop healthy habits that can last a lifetime — creating a high return on the investment of public dollars.

As described, SNAP-Ed funded and non-funded partners in communities are tackling childhood obesity and food insecurity on multiple fronts. It has been initiated with five broad-based levers for change:

  • Offering evidence-based direct nutrition education curricula and technical assistance
  • Developing state and local partnerships
  • Using data to inform strategies
  • Building commitment among stakeholders
  • Tackling policy and practice change

However, in the end, support in counties from SNAP-Ed funded partners requires community leadership and long term ownership to succeed. Each community is armed with essential knowledge about local context to make sense of these levers and to pursue emergent opportunities.

At the state and local level, the development and implementation of integrated workplans with community members input is a blueprint charting each counties course.

At the state level, the past four years of developing SNAP-Ed integrated workplans created several lessons in systems change evolution:

Listen and learn

The more we listen and support community members, bringing their ideas to the forefront of our work, the more sustainable our efforts will be.

Connect the dots and engage

Fragmentation and silos create a diverse but disconnected sector. Communicate and connect as much as possible.

Create mission and values statements that unify - then operate transparently

As you get to know the community members and organizations that you are working with— together create your mission and values statement and make that your solidifying “call to arms” — then work transparently to fulfill your mutual objectives.

Embrace tensions

Different settings, standards, and social norms create tension — successful systems change efforts face, rather than circumvent, these tensions…be respectful and “lean in”.

Foster a long term approach/celebrate short term “wins”

As we review the many factors that lead to childhood obesity and food insecurity, use long term systems change strategies, foster sustained commitment, and celebrate successes, no matter how small.

Be adaptable but purposeful

Reflect on how different organizations work and understand that your perspective may be a result of your vantage point. Try to be in another organization's or person's shoes, recognize their impediments, then work together with this in mind. Good strategies are shaped by reflection and steered with an understanding that there may be a need for course correction.

Keep a unified resolve

A recent Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report concluded that between 2005 and 2010 California saw “a modest but significant decline” in childhood obesity of 1.1 percent in grades 5, 7 and 9. In addition, a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report indicated progress in the health of California preschoolers enrolled in federal health and nutrition programs. The report cited that “obesity rates among 2-4 yr olds from low income families dropped 2.9 percent from 17.7 percent in 2008 to 16.8 percent in 2011.” This data speaks to the significance of a comprehensive approach in preventing childhood obesity. Further, it emphasizes the importance of the teamwork provided by a network of state and local agencies, acting with community members, to make a difference in the lives of children.

California data reported by the 2016 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

  • Since 2004, schools have removed soda and other sugar sweetened beverages from premises.
  • Since 2007, schools have limited the calories, fat saturated, fat and sugar in snacks sold on their premises.
  • Since 2012, school districts have been required to make free, fresh drinking water available in school food service areas.
  • Since 2006, $40 million has been committed in annual dedicated state funding for elementary school physical education.

 

Posted on Wednesday, July 13, 2016 at 8:30 AM
Tags: nutrition (114), obesity (25), SNAP-Ed (1)

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