Small Farm Blogs
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.
In Placer and Nevada counties, UCCE received a CDFA Specialty Block Grant to encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables and support the local agricultural industry by buying the produce from them. The project led to the creation of the “Eat Local Placer Nevada” campaign.
“Buying locally grown products supports local farmers and ranchers and it keeps land in agriculture,” said Cindy Fake, UCCE farm advisor in Placer and Nevada counties. “Simply put, it's the right thing to do.”
To give consumers extra incentive to eat local, the group launched a seven-month study to compare prices at farmers markets and grocery stores. Volunteers and staff collected price data at four farmers markets and six grocery stores from January to July 2014. Specials and sale items were not part of the study. The data suggests that organic produce at farmers markets is priced about the same as organic produce at grocery stores.
In terms of conventional produce, grocery stores had cheaper prices on 6 out of 11 items; however, consumers would still save money picking up red apples, beets and chard at the farmers markets. The cost of conventional butternut squash and sweet potatoes was virtually equal at the two venues.
“Contrary to many consumers' perception, farmers market prices are competitive with regular supermarket prices,” Fake said. “Some prices are slightly higher, some slightly lower, but they are in the same range. “
However, there are other factors shoppers should keep in mind when deciding to buy supermarket produce or fruit and vegetables grown by their neighboring farmers.
“Produce at the farmers market is sold the same day or the day after it is harvested,” Fake said. “Because of that, its shelf life is two to three times longer than what is found in the supermarket. And because it is so fresh, you have a higher nutrient content and it will taste better.”
Fake said experts believe buying local also supports the local economy. She is collaborating on a project led by Shermain Hardesty, UCCE specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, to document the economic impact of local food systems in Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties. The researchers will gather data about farmers' purchases of inputs and local sales of produce.
“This project will provide science-based evidence to guide public policy and program design aimed at supporting local farmers and local food systems into the future,” Fake said.
The study – titled Measuring the Impact of Local Food Marketing on the Local Economy – is supported with a $226,048 grant from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The UC small farm program held a series of two-day workshops around California to outline the provisions of the new law. Shermain Hardesty, UC Cooperative Extension specialist, was the coordinator and an instructor for the series. The class was popular, but many of the farming participants found that the letter of the law tended to hinder their creativity rather than open new business avenues.
Hardesty said the Homemade Food Act (AB 1616) was designed to, among other things, help farming families take their surplus produce and make dried products, jams, jellies and butters. However, the California Department of Public Health is requiring cottage food operators to do all of their processing in their home kitchen, to comply with the Statutory Provisions Related to Sanitary and Preparation Requirements for Cottage Food Operations (Excerpts from the California Health and Safety (H&S Code, including H&S 113980 Requirements for Food), specifically, the CDPH requires that cottage food operators comply with the following operational requirements:
"All food contact surfaces, equipment, and utensils used for the preparation, packaging, or handling of any cottage food products shall be washed, rinsed, and sanitized before each use. All food preparation and food and equipment storage areas shall be maintained free of rodents and insects."
Cutting fruit and laying it in the sun to dry, for example, is not permitted. For jams and jellies, the law stipulates sugar-to-fruit ratios that require more sugar than fruit. For some cooks, the rules defeat the unique character of their homemade, gourmet products.
“I really try not to put a lot of sugar in my jellies. I want it to taste like fruit,” said farmer Annie Main, who took the UC class.
Main and her husband Jeff run an organic fruit, vegetable, flower and herb operation on 20 acres in the Capay Valley of Yolo County.
“I've been doing value-added for 20 years,” Main said. “In the '90s, I started making jams and jellies in a rented certified kitchen. But it's a trek to get labor, jars, supplies and fruit to the restaurant kitchen after hours and then work till midnight. We thought with the new law, I could do it in my own kitchen, which would be fabulous.”
However, she found that the rules of the law are so restrictive as to be prohibitive.
“Farmers in the class were asked whether the law extended their ability for economic return on their products. Every single one shook their heads,” Main said. “The new law doesn't help us at all.”
Hardesty said there may be other options for these producers to process and sell their foods. She is planning to offer another class this fall, “Cottage Food Plus,” to help growers find workable mechanisms for selling their food.
“They may be able to use a co-packer to do the processing or a commercial kitchen or become registered as a processing food facility,” Hardesty said.