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New video series to spark interest in vegetable production of the future

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.”

The first video in the series focuses on urban farming, and the myriad social, economic, ecological, recreational, therapeutic and nutritional benefits of urban agriculture.

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.

To receive a notification of each video premiere, follow the UC ANR Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/UCANR or set a reminder by visiting the playlist on YouTube.

UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist Jeff Mitchell shoots video for the vegetable production series.
Posted on Thursday, May 9, 2019 at 9:34 AM

Fiddleneck on Rangelands

Fiddleneck inflorescence

Fiddleneck (Amsinckia spp.) is a native plant in California. It occurs in grasslands and open, disturbed areas (DiTomaso, Kyser et al. 2013) and is sold as a pollinator plant in native plant seed mixes. Its bright yellow flowers catch the eye of those...

Posted on Monday, May 6, 2019 at 6:13 PM

Weeds and Wildfire

SJER Burned Site

Thanks to the recent hot weather (already surpassing 90 degrees several days in a row), we are starting to see the lush green hills near Fresno transition into gold. The much-needed rain we received this spring could unfortunately create a problem in the...

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2019 at 8:14 AM

Birds are beneficial too!

Across the globe, scientists have shown that birds can be farmer allies. Insectivorous birds feed on damaging insect pests in many crops including coffee, cacao, oil palm, corn, cabbage and apples. Raptors, including hawks and barn owls, feed on rodents, including gophers, voles and mice (see blog, Barn owls help clean up rodents naturally).

Despite this deep historic knowledge that birds are important predators of crop pests, over time the perception of birds as natural enemies of pests has been generally replaced with the idea that birds are often major crop pests themselves. Indeed, some bird species — like some types of insects — can cause trouble for farmers, but many others — especially those that eat insects and rodents — can be beneficial.

Western bluebird eating a caterpillar pest. Image by Glen Bartley/VIREO.
Western bluebird eating a caterpillar pest. (Photo: Glenn Bartley/VIREO)

 

Do birds control insect pests on farms in California's Central Valley?

They do! Recent studies by Dr. Sacha Heath, UC Davis, and Rachael Long, field crops and pest management advisor, UC Cooperative Extension, showed that birds help control insect pests in walnut orchards. Dr. Sara Kross (UC Davis postdoctoral alumnus, now with Columbia University) showed that birds help control alfalfa insect pests.

Birds are voracious predators of codling moth pests in walnuts

Codling moth is a major worm-like pest that infests walnuts, apples and pears. The larvae go dormant during winter, living in cocoons in crevices in trees. Adult moths emerge in the spring, lay eggs and infest crops.

 

Codling moth larva feeding on walnuts. During winter, the larvae form cocoons and live the bark of trees.
Codling moth larva feeding on walnuts. During winter, the larvae form cocoons under bark flakes and in crevices of orchard trees.
 

We evaluated bird predation of codling moth using “sentinel prey” and exclosure cages. We glued codling moth cocoons to walnut trunks and covered them with cages, allowing insects and spiders to access the cocoons, but not bird predators. This allowed us to count how many larvae were eaten inside and outside of the cages to estimate pest reduction by birds.

 

Codling moth larva cocoon in a cage, excluding birds. Image by Sacha Heath.
Codling moth larva cocoon in a cage, excluding birds. (Photo: Sacha Heath)

 

Codling moth larva cocoon outside a cage, eyed by a northern flicker, a predator of codling moth pests. Video still by Sacha Heath.
Codling moth larva cocoon outside a cage, eyed by a northern flicker, a predator of codling moth pests. (Video still: Sacha Heath)

 

What did we find?

Natural enemies, like parasitic wasps and lacewings, alone reduced codling moth larval numbers by 11%; adding birds into the pest control system reduced them by 46%! Nuttall's woodpeckers and white-breasted nuthatches did a lot of the work; these birds travel up and down the trunks of trees, searching for insects.

Above, a white-breasted nuthatch preys on a codling moth larva “sentinel cocoon” on a walnut tree. Video by Sacha Heath.

 

Alfalfa weevils are no match for insectivorous birds

Alfalfa weevils are key pests of alfalfa, reducing yields and hay quality if left uncontrolled. Dr. Sara Kross looked at bird predation of this pest by excluding birds from alfalfa plants via cages, and counting the number of weevils inside and outside the cages. She found that birds reduced the number of weevils by more than 30%, showing their importance in helping to protect alfalfa from this serious pest.

 

Bird exclusion cages were used to show that birds feed on alfalfa weevils, helping to protect alfalfa from this key insect pest. Image by Sara Kross, Yolo County alfalfa field.
Bird exclusion cages were used in a Yolo County alfalfa field to show that birds feed on alfalfa weevils, helping to protect alfalfa from this key insect pest. (Photo: Sara Kross)

 

Does field edge habitat, like hedgerows, help attract beneficial birds?

Yes! Hedgerows are important habitat for beneficial birds, serving as nesting, foraging and roosting sites. In a study in the Sacramento Valley, crop margins with hedgerows, tree lines and riparian buffers harbored up to six times more birds and up to three times more bird species than bare or weedy margins.

Walnut orchards adjacent to hedgerows and riparian areas had higher numbers of beneficial birds along with more species. In alfalfa, there were more beneficial birds in fields when at least two tall trees were present along the field edges. More beneficial birds were associated with better pest control, that is, fewer codling moth cocoons and alfalfa weevils.

 

A native plant woody hedgerow in Yolo County, California. Image by Sacha Heath.
A native plant woody hedgerow in Yolo County, California. (Photo: Sacha Heath)
 

Birds have large territories, fly long distances, and are influenced by what happens on the farm as well as by what happens in the landscape around the farm. For example, we found that codling moth predation by birds greatly increased in walnut orchards as the amount of habitat in the landscape around the orchards increased (including hedgerows, tree lines, riparian and oak woodlands, and grasslands).

More habitat in agricultural landscapes (such as riparian habitat along Cache Creek, left) brought in more beneficial birds to farms compared to less habitat (right). Google Earth image.
More habitat in agricultural landscapes (such as riparian habitat along Cache Creek, left) brought in more beneficial birds to farms compared to less habitat (right). (Image: Google Earth)

 

Will hedgerows increase the numbers of pest birds?

Pest birds are present on farms regardless of field edge habitat (such as weedy vegetation or hedgerows). Cases will be different, depending on the crop, but in the fields and orchards of Yolo County, researcher Hillary White (formerly with UCCE and now with U.S. Fish and Wildlife) found that three of the most common avian crop pests (American crow, red-winged blackbird and Brewer's blackbird), were up to 10 times more abundant in agricultural fields with bare or weedy margins than in fields with hedgerows.

A red-winged blackbird in winter wheat, Yolo County, California. Image by Sacha Heath.
A red-winged blackbird in winter wheat, Yolo County, Calif. (Photo: Sacha Heath)

 

What can I do to attract beneficial birds to my farm?

Our avian research team has been quantifying the conditions under which birds are helpful or harmful to growers. We are looking for ways to help farmers create bird habitat on their farms to harness the beneficial pest control services birds can provide, while also protecting crops from the damaging effects of some bird species. This information is available in the new publication “Supporting Beneficial Birds and Managing Pest Birds,” co-authored by the Wild Farm Alliance and Drs. Kross and Heath, and technically advised by UC Cooperative Extension and several farmers. This is a user-friendly guide for farmers and conservation practitioners, with the goal of co-managing farmlands for biodiversity and farming.

A loggerhead shrike, an insect predator, perches on elderberry on a Sacramento Valley farm.  Image by Sacha Heath.
A loggerhead shrike, an insect predator, perches on elderberry on a Sacramento Valley farm. (Photo: Sacha Heath)

 

Dr. Sacha Heath received her PhD from UC Davis's Graduate Group in Ecology and will soon be starting a postdoctoral fellowship with the Living Earth Collaborative in St. Louis, Missouri.

A white-breasted nuthatch preys on a codling moth larva “sentinel cocoon” on a walnut tree. (Video still: Sacha Heath)
A white-breasted nuthatch preys on a codling moth larva “sentinel cocoon” on a walnut tree. (Video still: Sacha Heath)

A white-breasted nuthatch preys on a codling moth larva “sentinel cocoon” on a walnut tree. Video still by Sacha Heath.

Posted on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at 8:37 AM

Education and research needed in battle against California wildfires

UC ANR vice president Glenda Humiston presented the keynote address, 'Moving Toward a Fire-Resilient California,' at the April Fire Summit. (Photo: Evett Kilmartin)
I'm trained in soil chemistry, what on earth could I get from a Fire Summit? If you get the right speakers together, you can learn a lot! UC ANR and the California Fire Science Consortium sponsored a Fire Summit in Redding in April for some 150 participants representing more than 50 organizations. The intent was to help California better understand the wildfire challenges and to identify actionable solutions. The ongoing and seemingly increasing number of wildfires across the state was the background for bringing people together. As one speaker said, “It's not a matter of if, but when” the next fires comes. We need to accept fire as a part of our system - just as we accept the potential (and take the necessary steps to counter) earthquakes. So how can we better live with fires?

Why are we in this situation? Multiple factors are involved. We suppressed wildfires in our forests for 100 years, and stopped using prescribed fire as a tool for ecosystem benefits and fuel reduction. Further, we have been experiencing hotter summers (so the window for burning is wider) and we've continued to build into wildfire-prone areas with home construction, lot layout and community planning that often are not up to the fire challenge. 

Is there hope? I present these as my take always, noting there is more detail to be seen at the UC ANR fire and other websites (e.g., CFSC). I was impressed by the three relatively clear battle grounds we need to attend to:

  1. Our homes: how we build, layout and landscape our homes
  2. Our communities: how we structure our neighborhoods and communities
  3. Our forests and beyond: how we manage (what I'll call) the forests and wildlands. Each has particular needs and opportunities

Tom Garcia, fire management officer with the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, spoke at the UC ANR Fire Summit. (Photo: Evett Kilmartin)
There is no single simple solution. We need to integrate options, including firefighters, decreasing fuel loads, prescribed fires, better community layout, better home construction and appropriate landscaping. And perhaps the biggest need of all is the sharing of information! In this respect, much is known, but to be successful, will require a massive educational and extension effort supported by ongoing research. While many organizations have a role to play, we have to ensure that funding gets to the organizations best suited to play the roles needed. 

While the above focuses on prevention and management of fires, the Summit had good representation of the health sector, reminding us of the need to help humans, domestic animals and wildlife affected and traumatized by fire events.

The Summit was deemed by the participants themselves as very successful. Kudos to the many organizations who participated. There is momentum building with a genuine desire to work together to help the people of California. 

Want to learn more? Contact some of our experts, who served as the chairs of the Summit coordinating committee:

David Lile, Leader, Sustainable Natural Ecosystems Strategic Initiative, UC ANR

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire advisor, Cooperative Extension, Humboldt County, UC ANR

Yana Valachovic, forest advisor, Cooperative Extension, Humboldt and Del Norte County, UC ANR

Want more? See UC ANR fire

 

Some 150 participants representing more than 50 organizations took part in the 2019 Fire Summit. (Photo: Evett Kilmartin)
Posted on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at 8:36 AM
  • Author: Mark Bell

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