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Digging Deep: Exploring the diversity of soils in the Sacramento Valley

Participants gather around the first soil pit of the field tour, as Toby O'Geen provides a brief natural history of the land.

Not more than three months on the job and Konrad Mathesius is hard at work bringing farmers together to discuss the unique challenges that Sacramento Valley farmers face. As the new UCCE agronomy advisor for Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, his role is designed specifically to help growers with their crop issues – pests, disease and fertility – but with a strong background in soil science, Mathesius hopes to shed light on the diversity of soils in the region and the unique management considerations that each necessitates.

In hopes of highlighting this diversity of soils and encouraging growers to dig a little deeper to better inform their management practices, Konrad enlisted the help of UCCE soil resource specialist Toby O'Geen to lead a field tour of three major soils in the southern Sacramento Valley. The event included three pit stops on two Yolo County farms and brought out a diversity of participants from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service agents, to resource conservationists, to farmers and crop advisors.

Kicking things off at Rominger Brother's Ranch -- a diversified family farm in Winters that grows everything from wine grapes to processing tomatoes to rice, wheat, corn, onions, alfalfa and hay -- O'Geen took the audience on a journey back in time, describing the rich natural history of the former floodplain that has given rise to the rich, productive soils that support California agriculture today. After introducing himself as a pedologist, or a scientist who studies the nature and properties of soil, he went on to introduce the five soil forming factors and their role in molding initial (1) parent material (i.e. rocks), under the influence of (2) climate, (3) topography and (4) organisms and over a given period of (5) time into soils. 

Yolo County farmers and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Toby O'Geen, right,peer deep into the processes that formed the land just beneath their feet.

Proving that soil scientists take the term “pit stop” literally, Mathesius shifted the conversation to a 1.5-meter deep hole in the ground, dug out the day before with a back hoe. Step by step, he walked participants through the process of analyzing a soil pit – cleaning the face, identifying horizons or individual layers and using the senses to assess soil properties and determine function. As he struck the face of the pit with a rock hammer, an audible difference was detected between the surface layers and the subsurface. 

Working backwards from the sound, he explained that the subsurface was significantly harder, which he attributed to a finer texture and ultimately identified as a clay pan, a restrictive layer that prevents roots from penetrating deeply and has the capacity to waterlog soils, due to poor drainage. O'Geen offered some tangible advice as to how to manage these soils, quipping that a deep rip would be no better than cutting butter with a knife (eventually it all just settles back into place) while likening a slip plow to a giant shank that just inverts the soil, mixing things to about a depth of 6 feet and permanently eliminating the problem.

UCCE agronomy advisor Konrad Mathesius, left, talks soil texture and water-holding capacity.

From there, Mathesius segued into a hands-on exercise to determine the soil texture, or percent distribution of various size particles, allowing participants to work on their pottery skills making balls and ribbons with the clay-rich soils.  Discussing the many functions that soil texture controls, led the conversation down a rabbit-hole around water holding capacity and how to calculate the range of plant available water for your soil.

With the demos out of the way, they voyaged to the next pre-dug pit, bringing participants face to face with the harsh reality of soil heterogeneity. Just 300 feet away and it was as if we had ventured into another environment altogether, yet these soils formed in the same place, under the same climate and similar vegetation, but in a completely different time with slightly different starting material.

By changing just a couple of the ingredients in the special sauce of soil formation the results are completely different featuring a clay dominant surface soil and entirely different water management challenges. And these aren't just any clays, but a special class that swell and shrink as they wet and dry, oftentimes shearing roots under the pressure and creating a hospitable environment for disease to thrive.  O'Geen suggested trying to keep them in the sweet spot where they are consistently moist, but not wet, and never allowed to dry out. Unfortunately, there is no precise measurement to that formula, “you just have to be almost like an artist. It's a lot of feel to it and the numbers sometimes just don't work out. It just comes with years of experience. Its one of those native intelligence things that you just have to feel your way through,” he noted.

Up close and personal with a soil pit, showing participants how to use basic tools of observation to assess soils!

Caravanning 20 miles back towards Davis, the tour arrived at the third and final pit, located at Triad Farms, a tomato operation in Dixon. Well-drained, young and fertile, Yolo loam soils are the poster children of agriculture, owing in large part to regular deposits of silts from past flood events. With not many management challenges to speak of, conversation immediately shifted towards an undocumented challenge that farmers on the eastern side of the Sacramento Valley are all too familiar with – the unavailability of potassium, even under intensive fertilization regimes. While the jury is still out on the cause and while it contradicts what soil scientists expect to find in those regions, possible explanations were tossed around and O'Geen used the opportunity to stress the importance of speaking up about things growers or advisors see going on in their area. Turns out the USDA-NRCS is working on updating its inventory of soil surveys, documenting soils across the nation and is currently seeking input on what's working for growers and where things are differing on the ground.

Ultimately, in closing, Mathesius called for more engagement between the university, extension and growers. O'Geen reminded everyone that “You can really learn a lot by digging a hole, looking at stuff, and developing theories.  Sometimes you're wrong, but they're kind of fun to talk about."

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2017 at 3:03 PM

Cannabis crop expansion into forests threatens wildlife habitat

This series of satellite images shows the development of a greenhouse complex in a Humboldt County forest.

Planting cannabis for commercial production in remote locations is creating forest fragmentation, stream modification, soil erosion and landslides. Without land-use policies to limit its environmental footprint, the impacts of cannabis farming could get worse, according to a new study published in the November issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

“Despite its small current footprint, the boom in cannabis agriculture poses a significant threat to our environment,” said co-author Van Butsic a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and the UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “To mitigate the anticipated environmental impacts, now is the time for policymakers and land-use planners to set regulations to manage the spatial pattern of cannabis expansion before crop production becomes established.”

Earlier studies have shown that cannabis production causes environmental damage, including rodenticide poisoning of forest mammals and dewatering of streams due to improper irrigation.

Cannabis grows near a salmon stream Humboldt. Diverting water to irrigate cannabis can dewater streams during the summer and impact wildlife.

Cannabis, as either a medicinal or recreational drug, is now legal in more than 30 U.S. states and in several countries. In California, where medicinal marijuana has been legal since 1996, voters in November approved the sale and possession of one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. As a result, cannabis production is ramping up.

Effective policymaking for a new crop can be challenging without scientific data. In this study, Butsic and Ian J. Wang, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, and Jacob C. Brenner, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College in New York, present an approach for early assessment of landscape changes resulting from new agricultural activities. 

Their approach uses per-unit-area analysis of landscape change. To study forest fragmentation in northern California, the scientists compared the effects of cannabis cultivation to those of timber harvest from 2000 to 2013 in Humboldt County.  

Based on the size, shape and placement of the cannabis grows among 62 randomly selected watersheds, they quantified the impacts relative to those of timber harvest.

Satellite image A shows a clearing with greenhouses (upper left in clearing) and rows of cannabis plants (lower right in clearing), surrounded by a buffer area. Image B shows a typical pattern of large areas of clear‐cuts for timber harvest and various stages of regrowth.

“We found that although timber has greater landscape impacts overall, cannabis causes far greater changes in key metrics on a per-unit-area basis,” Butsic said. 

On a per-unit-area basis, the cannabis grows resulted in 1.5 times more forest loss and 2.5 times greater fragmentation of the landscape, breaking up large, contiguous forest into smaller patches and reducing wildlife habitat.

“The results show how important it is to consider environmental impacts at different scales,” Brenner said.

Current California law caps the size of outdoor cannabis production to 1 acre per parcel, to prohibit the development of industrial-scale cannabis operations outdoors. An unintended consequence of this law may be small dispersed cannabis grows that edge out wildlife.

While the long-term effects of cannabis cultivation on the environment are unknown, the researchers concluded that land management and agricultural policy informed by further research may reduce these threats in California and in other states and countries where cannabis production can be regulated.

“Studies like this one have the potential to directly inform local land-use policy and state environmental regulation,” Brenner said. “It's exciting to be a part of this research because it is capturing a human-environment phenomenon at the moment of its emergence.” 

 

 

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2017 at 3:03 PM

Sources of Rice Straw for Mulch and Erosion Control

Post fire inventories include a lot for ranchers, e.g. stock, forage, fence, buildings and equipment losses immediately come to mind. Equally important is an inventory of potential sediment sources from hill slopes, fire cut roads and riparian areas that will need mitigation to prevent soil loss and sediment movement into streams.

Rice straw as mulch, in bales for check dams and in the ubiquitous waddles all come into play for the recovery process. Sometimes the mulch is also used in reseeding sites too. The following sources of rice straw were put together by Rachel Elkins, pomology advisor and were forwarded to me by Greg Giusti, forestry and wildlands advisor - emeritus.

Paul Buttner of the California Rice Commission (https://twitter.com/PaulTheRiceGuy). His website is: http://www.ricestrawmarket.org/index.html. It is a buyer-seller website. His phone number is (916) 206-5340. His twitter page links to http://calrice.org with more contact information.

Ken Collins, a rice grower in Gridley (Butte County) is a large rice straw dealer. His phone number is (530) 682-6020.

EarthSavers makes straw wattles. They are in Woodland: http://www.earth-savers.com/.

Once you have an inventory of potential sediment sources identified, contact the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for technical help with mitigation and design of erosion control structures. I've included Carol Mandel's contact information below. Many of these mitigation techniques will have cost share programs to help. 

Carol Mandel

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

1252 Airport Park Blvd. Suite B-1

Ukiah CA 95482

Bus: (707) 468-9223

Email: carol.mandel@ca.usda.gov

 

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2017 at 12:12 PM

Livestock Indemnity Program for Fire Stock Losses

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) to reimburse producers up to 75% of the market value of animals lost due to adverse weather conditions. Adverse weather conditions under LIP include wildfires. All classes of cattle are eligible for reimbursement including cows, bulls and calves. For 2017, a claim for a bull is paid out at $1,350.34, a cow at $1,038.73 and non-adult cattle (calves) from $471.22 per head to $1,001.12 per head depending on weight.

Sheep, goats and other stock including poultry are also eligible. There reimbursement rates for them are shown in tables in the document link included at the end of this post.

 
In order to be eligible to receive payment under LIP, a producer must notify their local county Farm Service Administration (FSA) of their intent to seek a claim within 30 days of the loss (see Katie Delbar's contact information below).

Katie Delbar
1252 Airport Park Blvd., Ste B-1
Ukiah, CA 95482
Bus: 707) 468-9225 ext. 2
Email: Katie.Delbar@ca.usda.gov

A final claim must be submitted within 90 days of informing the county FSA office of the loss and the final claim must also be made within the same calendar year as the loss. Documentation will be requested by the county FSA office to verify the claim including any photographs that can be made available documenting the loss or the impact of the fire, records to prove ownership, etc.

 

A fact sheet about the Livestock Indemnity Program can be found here.

 

 

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2017 at 12:00 PM

Save the Date: Post Fire Recovery Workshop

See the attached flier for date, time and location of a joint agency sponsored workshop for those impacted by the recent fires.

 

November 15 Fire Meeting
November 15 Fire Meeting

Posted on Monday, October 30, 2017 at 11:56 AM

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