Small Farm Blogs
Some consumers are willing to pay a hefty price at trendy restaurants, farmers markets, roadside stands, and even local grocery stores for tomatoes with irregular shapes, vivid colors and rich tomato flavor.
The consumer demand presents an opportunity for small-scale farmers, and a challenge.
“It's not easy to grow heirloom varieties,” said Margaret Lloyd, the UC Cooperative Extension small-scale farm advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties. “They often have less disease resistance, are lower yielding and cannot tolerate as much stress as improved modern varieties.”
When Lloyd joined UCCE last summer, she began visiting small-scale producers in the counties she serves.
“I realized very quickly how important fresh market tomatoes are to these growers,” Lloyd said.
Because she holds a doctorate degree in plant pathology from UC Davis, Lloyd is well-positioned to begin her research program with a small tomato grafting project on UC Davis farmland. Her idea is grafting the particularly delicious heirloom varieties onto tomato roots that are resistant to soil-borne diseases.
“Grafting is an old technology,” Lloyd said. “It works in the same way we graft fruit trees and grapevines onto favorable rootstocks. Vegetable grafting has also been done for years.”
Lloyd said the process is simple and an individual can easily learn to graft tomatoes. But to do so cost effectively with the quality and success rate necessary for economically viable production, it may make most sense to work with a commercial nursery.
Lloyd is conducting a quarter-acre field trial with the three most common heirloom varieties – Brandywine, Cherokee purple and Marvel stripe – plus the yellow-hued Sun Gold cherry tomato and a non-heirloom salad tomato, Charger. Several growers in the area have also planted them in their commercial operations.
In addition to collecting data from the trial that will help small farmers decide whether grafted tomatoes make sense for their operations, Lloyd and her research associates will harvest many bushels of fresh tomatoes from the plots. Some will be sold at the UC Davis farm store to help support the research, and as for the rest, “We're definitely going to eat them,” Lloyd said.
“I enjoy them raw with olive oil, salt, vinegar and a little basil,” she said.
"We have 3 million consumers in San Diego County and maybe 17 to 18 million consumers in Southern California. It makes an opportunity for someone to find a niche and find a place to succeed in this world and sell their product," said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources has an advisor dedicated to agricultural economics and small-scale farm production in San Diego County. Ramiro Lobo, who is based in the UC Cooperative Extension office in San Diego, said new and veteran small farmers face tough odds.
"Most of the land that is available in San Diego County is already being farmed. People are paying (standard) real estate prices for agricultural land," he said.
For existing farmers, the challenge is simply to stay afloat financially, Lobo said.
Decades ago, most small farms grew avocados and citrus, the article said. Because of water challenges, today's small-scale farmers typically grow high-value crops like cut flowers and other nursery items. Another crop that is growing is popularity is pitahaya, or dragon fruit. Lobo is testing pitahaya varieties at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine. Each summer he invites farmers and the public to the center to sample the fruit and learn about pitahaya production.
NPR's Valley Public Radio ran a story about salt buildup in almond orchards. Without rainfall to move salts below almond trees' rootzone, harmful levels of salinity are building up in the soil. “We've been seeing this increasing problem over the past couple years, due to the lack of winter rain, of sodium burn or salt burn on leaves," said UC ANR Cooperative Extension farm advisor David Doll. “Rain will do it (leach salts) naturally for us, but if we don't get rain we've been encouraging farmers to actually fill the profile with irrigation water, whatever they can by December. And then hopefully whatever rain we do get will help aid with the flushing of the root system of the tree.”
KCOY,KEYT andKKFX TV in Santa Maria ran a story on new technologies being used by a local strawberry farmer to irrigate efficiently. The farmer installed microsprinklers and moisture sensors on his strawberry field to monitor water and fertilizer inputs. Mark Gaskell, UC ANR Cooperative Extension farm advisor, developed the technology. "By identifying and carefully documenting how much water or nutrients are lost or how much variation there is, a grower can modify their management so that they can be more efficient when applying water," Gaskell said.
KQED Science posted an eight-minute interview with UCANR Cooperative Extension urban forestry advisor Igor Laćan. He explained how to irrigate young and mature trees so they won't die during the drought. Why protect trees, even as lawns are turning brown? Laćan says they boost property values, provide shade, filter the air and makes cities more “livable.”
Scientific American ran a story about the wildfire that swept across I-15 in Southern California last week, setting dozens of vehicles on fire. Firefighters were puzzled by the rapid spread of the fire. “There are two factors that help fires spread - winds and topography,” explained Scott L. Stephens, a professor of fire science in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. “The thing about wind is, it can change so quickly and the fire will change with it — it can happen in 15 seconds,” Stephens said. A fire can also race up a slope very rapidly, he added.
More than 600 Californians convened in San Diego last week for the annual California Small Farm Conference, which connected farmers, ranchers and farmers market managers as they addressed the drought, farm bill, specialty crops, changing laws and marketing, reported Katie Thisdell in The Daily Transcript.
A host of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources academics took part by offering workshops, presentations and field courses. The conference also included presentations from innovative and entrepreneurial farmers trying to find new avenues to success.
Among them were Jay Ruskey, who owns Good Land Organics in Goleta. He has worked closely with Mark Gaskell, a UC ANR Cooperative Extension farm adviser in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, to develop a viable coffee production system in the Golden State.
Ruskey has been growing coffee plants under avocado trees in coastal areas with farmers from Morro Bay to Oceanside, and has plans to market and brand a California-grown coffee that he says can rival Kona coffee. According to the article, his coffee has sold for as much as $90 per pound.
Former California Secretary of Agriculture A. G. Kawamura addressed the conferences on Skype from Abu Dhabi, where he was speaking at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture.
“Whether you're large or small, whether you're organic or conventional, many of these challenges we face, we all face together,” Kawamura said. “This agricultural renaissance, if you will, comes at a time when many people are criticizing the food supply and criticizing agriculture. Agriculture is not the problem. As we move forward, agriculture has to be the solution. We see that all over the world, and all over our country exciting things are happening."
The farmer, Jay Ruskey was working with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources advisor Mark Gaskell when they had a "eureka moment," the story said. Coffee bushes can benefit from the environment created by an avocado plantation.
"I went through lots of cycles of plantings looking at options for using unused land," Rusky said. "Interplanting works for a lot of reasons, and coffee fits perfectly with avocados because it has similar nutrition requirements."
Americans' coffee is typically grown in tropical areas of Hawaii, and Central and South America. Gaskell, who worked with coffee growers for Central America for several years prior to joining UC in 1995, approached Ruskey with the idea of growing coffee in 2001.
“My job is to help small farms with problem solving, so I'm always looking for these kinds of synergies,” Gaskell said of the interplanting technique. “Commercial water rates are high, so ‘How are we going to get the most efficient utilization of land and water?' is at the back of every grower's mind.”
Gaskell said it is important to note that coffee also does just fine by itself in open field planting as long as it is irrigated. It doesn't require avocado interplanting for success, but avocado interplanting is an additional opportunity for coffee growing in California.
In 2014, Coffee Review rated Ruskey's coffee - sold under the name Good Land Organics - among the top 30 in the world.
The publication's top ranking of Good Land Organics has made coffee associations elsewhere sit up and take notice of the potential for a high-quality, domestic crop, the Take Part article said.
“All of a sudden I'm thrown into the spotlight of the coffee world because I'm a disruption, which is something it needs, because it does not have a lot of research going on, like with other crops,” Ruskey said.