Posts Tagged: cover crops
This is one of a series of stories featuring a sampling of UC ANR academics whose work exemplifies the public value UC ANR brings to California.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life for everyone, with information about COVID-19 changing daily. For Californians who aren't fluent in English, obtaining reliable information is particularly difficult. Aparna Gazula, a University of California Cooperative Extension advisor who serves Santa Clara, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, has been providing COVID-19-related information in Chinese and Spanish for immigrant Bay Area farmers.
In March, when restaurants shut down to curb the spread of the virus, many restaurants and wholesale produce markets cancelled produce orders placed with farmers. Language, cultural differences, low computer literacy and limited access to computers created barriers for small-scale, immigrant farmers in the Bay Area to quickly find new buyers for their perishable produce. Gazula introduced them to food banks, hoping they would accept the produce donations, but the food banks were not set up to pick up donations from small farmers.
Most small-scale farmers lack the financial capital to absorb the revenue shock. To help offset losses from unsold specialty crops, the UCCE advisor and Qi Zhou, the small farm program assistant specialist, have been helping Asian and Latino farmers complete English-language disaster aid applications.
“Since March, we have helped farmers apply for Covid-19-related farmer relief funds,” Gazula said. So far, she said, four of the 17 immigrant farmers who applied to the American Farmland Trust Farmer Relief Fund have received a total of $4,000, and 10 farmers of the 30 who applied to the California Family Farmer Emergency Fund received a total of $42,500.
Recently the U.S. Department of Agriculture expanded the list of specialty crops eligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program to include bok choy, daikon and other vegetables with a deadline of Sept. 11. Communicating by phone and the app We Chat, Gazula and Zhou, who speaks Mandarin, notified local farmers, and advised them how to apply for the disaster funds. Zhou, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service rangeland management specialist Ling He and another NRCS staff member assisted 64 farmers in completing applications over the past week.
Bob Kuang, president of the Bay Area Chinese Growers Association, shares UCCE information with the association's growers.
“Most of my members don't understand English so they [UC Cooperative Extension] help, like for policy and safety,” Kuang said, providing information the growers can't find elsewhere in Chinese.”
When she was a girl, Gazula saw how hard farmers work to make a living off the land while spending summers and winter breaks at her grandparents' farm in India, where they grew rice, mung beans and chili peppers.
“Farmers are very hardworking people, and small farmers even more so as they manage everything on the farm,” said the small farms and specialty crops advisor. “Their grit, determination to succeed and hardworking spirit truly inspire me.”
“I'd like to help them be successful as much as I can,” she said, “be it research-based information to farm successfully or bilingual support to help them better navigate regulations or apply for grant funds.”
In addition to helping farmers apply for financial relief, Gazula alerted the farmers to shelter in place rules and is delivering COVID-19 safety information about masks, sanitation and social distancing requirements in Chinese and Spanish to them.
“We also helped farmers implement COVID-19-related protocols on their farms,” she said. “We are currently putting together 200 COVID-19 kits that will help farmers comply with worker health and safety-related protocols on their farms. The COVID-19 kits contain reusable masks, hand sanitizer, bilingual Cal OSHA guidelines for employers regarding COVID-19, and a resources sheet listing where to buy the enclosed items.”
When she's not involved in COVID-19 crisis communications, Gazula continues to conduct research on nitrogen uptake in bok choy and bell peppers and irrigation management. She collaborates with Linda Chu, Guo Ping Yuan, Han Qiang Kuang and other Santa Clara County growers who allow the farm advisor to study crops on their farms.
“They do research, like test irrigation systems for right amount of water for the crop and nutrition – fertilizer – for the crop. They do lot of things,” said Bob Kuang, of the Bay Area Chinese Growers Association, who provides land at his farm in Gilroy for UCCE studies.
Gazula also advises farmers on how to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) on their farms and fulfill irrigated land nitrogen reporting. Fines for not complying with regulations can threaten the economic sustainability of small family farms.
Although the majority of growers she works with regularly have limited English and need assistance filing reports to the government, others consult her for production information they can't get elsewhere for the specialty crops they grow. Farmers of Korean, Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese ancestry and others attend meetings to learn the latest research on Asian vegetables such as daikon radish, napa cabbage, bok choy, on choy and various Asian leafy mustard crops including gai choy and pea shoots.
Gazula, who joined UC Cooperative Extension in 2016, currently works with about 180 small-scale growers in San Benito and Santa Clara counties and hopes to expand her outreach to farmers in Santa Cruz County.
To help small farmers adapt to climate change, Gazula and Zhou partnered with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Healthy Soils Program staff and Santa Clara County Farm Bureau for technical assistance and held workshops during the winter. Zhou helped the farmers apply for grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture's State Water Efficiency & Enhancement Program and Healthy Soils Program. The 22 farmers who received CDFA grants brought a total of $424,111 into Santa Clara County.
The outreach work UC Cooperative Extension does wouldn't be possible without the help of bilingual staff such as Zhou, the scientist Gazula hired with grant funds in September, and some translation support from partner organizations and growers as well.
“Relying on partners for translation support isn't practical,” Gazula explained. “Outreach is most effective when it is targeted. It's not just literally translating words, but translating the information the words convey. Because we provide outreach materials to comply with regulations, the language in these materials is very technical and it's important that the information is presented accurately. We also depend on relationships with the farmers to extend the information within their communities. Long-term, it's easier to do outreach with support from our own staff.”
Competition is stiff for money to serve non-English-speaking Californians because the state is home to so many immigrants with different needs. The majority of the grants she uses for outreach are for food safety. The local Open Space Authority, which promotes preserving land for open spaces, has also provided funds for small and beginning farmer outreach and education.
Gazula draws on the expertise of fellow UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors across the state. For example, she said, Richard Smith, who specializes in vegetable production, and Michael Cahn, who specializes in irrigation and water resources, are always willing to help, even though they are not assigned to serve Santa Clara County.
“Farmers already have tremendous challenges when it comes to being successful,” Gazula said. “I feel language barriers and lack of access to the same resources as fluent English-speaking growers shouldn't be the reason they can't farm successfully.”
Central Valley residents from Visalia to Sacramento look forward every year to the beginning of strawberry season in early April, when roadside strawberry stands operated by Hmong and Mien farmers open to the public.
These farms grow strawberry varieties such as Chandler and Camarosa that haven't traded flavor for shelf life – they don't ship or store well, but they are far sweeter than varieties usually sold in stores, and they reach their peak ripeness and flavor in the fields next to the strawberry stands.
As strawberry season opens this year, farmers are hoping that customers will still stop by the stands to pick up their fresh, seasonal strawberries, and also that they will observe 6-foot social distancing and other guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19. UC Cooperative Extension agricultural assistant Michael Yang and I were interviewed on a local news station to encourage Fresno residents to practice these guidelines while supporting local farmers.
To assist Fresno strawberry farmers, the UCCE small farms team in Fresno County developed, printed, and distributed signs for roadside strawberry stands reminding customers to observe social distancing and other safety practices, as well as guidelines for farm stands to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Versions of the signs were also developed for strawberry stands in Merced and Sacramento, as well as a general sign for local produce at any farm stand.
Signs and safety guidelines were printed with funding from the Western Extension Risk Management Education Center, and Michael Yang distributed large printed versions of the signs to all strawberry stands on the Fresno County Fruit Trail map in Fresno County. These materials have also been shared with UCCE small farms and food systems advisors as well as nonprofit and agency partners and county Agricultural Commissioner's offices, and they are available for printing on the UCCE Fresno strawberry website.
Even as Californians shelter in place to contain the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, nutritious food remains vital to the health and well-being of our communities.
“Eating fruits and vegetables is known to benefit our overall health and help our immune system,” said Lorrene Ritchie, director of the UC Nutrition Policy Institute. “At a time when we need to be especially vigilant about staying healthy, eating healthy is essential.”
Farms, farm stands and farmers markets are listed as “essential businesses” in the state shelter-in-place order because they are important parts of the food supply. Urban farms are included in this category. As large produce distributors struggle to switch from selling large quantities to restaurants, schools and institutions to supplying supermarkets, these small businesses may offer a better selection of fresh foods, and may be closer to homes and less crowded.
To help minimize exposure and risk of spreading of the virus, urban farms need to follow some key guidelines from the CDC , said Jennifer Sowerwine, UC Cooperative Extension metropolitan agriculture and food systems specialist in the Department of Environment, Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.
UC Cooperative Extension has compiled a list of resources for farmers, community gardeners and other people working in the food system to ensure that they can continue supplying fresh, healthy and affordable food to Californians.
“Social distancing, heightened health and hygiene practices and cleaning and disinfecting reduce the risk,” said Sowerwine.
Although eating a nutritious diet can boost our immunity, the Los Angeles Times reported produce sales plummeted by 90% or more at Southern California produce markets after the statewide shelter-in-place rules went into effect.
“It's worrisome to see that sales of fruits and vegetables are dropping so sharply, but not surprising,” said Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor for Los Angeles County. “As people shop during the crisis, they may be prioritizing groceries that can be stored for a longer time in the fridge or pantry. And they may be on a very limited food budget, even more so than usual, so they are likely prioritizing essentials like bread and rice and baby formula.”
To support farmers in California, the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program created a directory at http://www.calagtour.org for consumers to find local farms to purchase produce directly.
For families who have lost jobs and income, the risk of food insecurity increases. Some families could supplement their food from gardens and urban agriculture during this crisis.
Consumers must practice safety, too, when visiting farmers markets and farm stands. UC Cooperative Extension small farm advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard explained, "Things like keeping the minimum six-foot distance from customers, not touching any produce that you're not planning to buy, leaving as soon as you've made a purchase and washing the produce when you get home would be some good guidelines."
The virus is thought to be spread mainly from person to person, however there is evidence that COVID-19 can last for days on hard surfaces, thus the need to ramp up good health and hygiene practices, social distancing and cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces.
University of California research and extension faculty have compiled a list of helpful fact sheets and resources for farmers, community gardeners and other food system workers to ensure fresh, healthy and affordable food for communities across the state:
- Food-related resources for consumers and members of the food industry for COVID-19
- on the UC Davis Food Safety website.
- Sowerwine's PowerPoint presentation Safe Handling Practices for Fresh Produce in a Time of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for urban farmers.
- A set of policies and procedures for safe food handling at the farm during COVID-19 provides step-by-step instructions for applying new food and health precautions on the farm including checklists, standard operating procedures and signage posting guidelines for preventing the spread of infection.
- COVID-19 safety guidelines for farm stands.
- Handouts for safe food-handling at home that can be distributed to customers receiving food from the farm.
All of these resources are posted on the UC Urban Agriculture website at https://ucanr.edu/sites/UrbanAg.
“During this challenging time, I am heartened by the quick and thoughtful responses by many extension, grassroots and institutional efforts, including Community Alliance with Family Farm's COVID-19 Responses and Resources for California Family Farms, Mutual Aid organizations where groups of young, healthy and lower-risk people are bringing food and services to vulnerable people who shouldn't be in public at all, and Bayareafood.info that seeks to support local restaurants, farmers, and food systems workers as they weather this latest storm,” said Sowerwine. “Crisis can spawn innovation, and I am hopeful that through this, we will come out the other end with a more compassionate and resilient food system.”
A group of California organic farmers is sharing information about their efforts to combine reduced tillage with the use of cover crops, which they have been planting on their vegetable farms for decades to protect soil while adding carbon and diversity to their production systems.
“Every one of the pioneering farmers has seen tremendous benefits from the practices,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. “These are the very growing practices that we have demonstrated over two decades of research to benefit soil health, environmental conservation and the bottom line on plots near Five Points in Fresno County.”
The organic farmer research project is funded with a Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) and aims to develop crop production system alternatives for vegetable crops. The farmers are seeing evidence of the ecological benefits, and also benefits that promote the public good.
“Consumers prefer food that is grown in ways that improve soil health as well as environmental health and human health,” Mitchell said. “Farmers must not become obsolete by ignoring ever-evolving buyer demands and environmental imperatives. Make changes, or you'll lose markets.”
The need for California farmers to adjust to changing times was to have been part of the dialogue at a public field day in March at Teixeira & Sons Farm in Firebaugh. It was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns. The event was to showcase Mitchell's data and the experiences of long-time cover crop farmer John Teixeira of Firebaugh.
Teixeira began cover cropping 30 years ago in one of his organic fields. He wanted to build fertility, organic matter and water holding capacity in the soil. Ever since, he's been growing cover crops ahead of tomatoes and several other commodities. This past winter, he grew a mixture of common, hairy and purple vetch, white oats, biomaster peas and bell beans. Teixeira estimates that it provided over 5,000 pounds per acre of dry biomass, which is supporting his 2020 tomato crop with elevated biological activity in the soil.
Mitchell's study in Five Points has tracked impacts of winter cover cropping coupled with no-till since 1999. Over the 21 years, some 37 tons of organic matter, or about 15 tons of carbon, have been added to the soil. These inputs averaged about 3,700 pounds per acre of organic matter, or 0.8 tons of carbon annually. Year-to-year variability has been high, ranging from 8,800 pounds in 2000 when supplemented by irrigation, to 54 pounds in 2007 when, as in most years, the cover crops were grown with rainfall only. Cover crops were typically seeded by Nov. 15 each fall and terminated around March 15.
Several key soil-health indicators improved over the years, including aggregation (or soil structure), porosity and water-holding capacity. Work at the Five Points site conducted by UC Merced professor Teamrat Ghezzehei and Ph.D. student Samuel Araya, has shown 20% higher water-holding capacity in the system with cover crops and no-till compared to the standard bare system.
Earlier results from the study field have shown that when the cover crop and other crop residues are converted to a mulch and left on the soil surface, as much as five inches of water that would normally evaporate during a typical summer crop period stays in the soil.
Mitchell is coordinating the group of organic farmers who are conducting cover crop, tillage and mulch experiments. The farmers cultivate vegetables up and down the Central Valley from Meridian and Guinda in the north, to Dixon, Hollister, Madera, Five Points and Buttonwillow in the south.
“They are an incredible group of people,” Mitchell said. “They have taken soil, farm and human health goals to dramatically important lengths.”
As organic farmers, they have always been in the forefront of soil care and attention to soil biology, Mitchell said, but they're now working together to implement such innovations as virtually year-round soil cover, reduced disturbance tillage, and integration of grazing animals into their fields. Their objective is to enhance the health of their soils, the health of their farms, and the quality of the vegetables that they produce.
Tom Willey, one of the project's farmers from Madera, puts it this way, “What we're attempting to do is up our game on natural systems mimicry on our farms, break through the barrier of over-dependence on tillage in organic systems.”
Eric Brennan, a USDA Agricultural Research Services organic systems horticulturist in Salinas, and integral partner in the effort, has studied cover crops in the Salinas Valley.
“Cover cropping regularly, every winter if possible, is one of the ‘lowest-hanging fruit' practices that vegetable farmers can use to improve soil quality and nutrient management in their production,” Brennan said.
Mitchell believes it's time for broad adoption of practices to promote soil health.
“Everyone used to talk about ‘barriers to adoption' when it came to cover crops. Now the question will more aptly be, ‘What happened to those folks who didn't change and adopt?'” Mitchell said.
Road side stands selling fresh strawberries and vegetables are opening up around the San Joaquin Valley, and are a excellent option for safe shopping, reported Dale Yurong on ABC 30 News in Fresno.
In keeping with social distancing guidelines, Yurong conducted remote interviews with UC Cooperative Extension advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard and agricultural assistant Michael Yang, who work closely with small-scale farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties.
Dahlquist-Willard suggested customers maintain a six-foot space from other shoppers at farm stands and follow other common sense precautions when purchasing the healthful fresh food by, "not touching any produce that you're not planning to buy, leaving as soon as you've made a purchase and washing the produce when you get home . . . . Similar to what we're seeing at farmers markets right now."
Some valley farmers have been selling their produce at farmers markets out of town and have noticed fewer people are out shopping, Yurong said. They hope more people will stop by the local farm stands, away from the crowded grocery stores, and pick up something straight out of the field.
"My farmers that go to farmers markets, even though the farmers market is still open, they only allow a few people at a time. You don't have a lot of customers walk by just like before," Yang said.
San Joaquin Valley strawberry stands were all expected to be open by April 10, Yurong said.