ANR Green Blog
Two UCANR Cooperative Extension specialists have recently launched CalLands, a powerful online tool that can help users understand how land ownership impacts California's croplands.
To build the CalLands' interactive website, Luke Macaulay and Van Butsic — both assistant UC Cooperative Extension specialists based in UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management — combined satellite-generated maps of land cover created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with publicly available land ownership records. Next, they anonymized ownership identity and pulled data from all 58 California counties to include parcels of land larger than five acres. The result is a database that features 543,495 privately-owned properties across the state, creating a data-rich map of crops and ownership boundary lines in every county. The interactive map can be filtered by county to display characteristics of land ownership, percentages of private and public ownership, breakdowns by crop-type, and summaries of land-use statistics.
CalLands allows users to explore how crops are distributed within a county or across the state or understand how ownership size impacts how land is used. In a 2017 study on cropland ownership published in California Agriculture, Butsic and Macaulay discovered that the largest five percent of properties account for 50 percent of California cropland. The two created CalLands with the aim of helping a wide variety of stakeholders understand land cover and land use at the county and individual land ownership scale.
“CalLands helps expand people's understanding of the landscape and how farmers across the state are using their land,” Macaulay says.
The website tells the story in visual terms of the location of key crops over time, including water-intensive plants like alfalfa and almonds, and illustrates the locations and acreages of both annual and perennial crops. This information may be useful for those seeking to understand agricultural water use and expansion and change of crops over time. The team hopes that the tool will also help scientists conduct research that is beneficial to many agricultural stakeholders, such as UC Cooperative Extension specialists creating outreach programming, county officials proposing regulations, and resource managers hoping to understand cropland production.
Currently, CalLands features cropland data from 2013-2017, allowing users to toggle between these annual datasets. Macaulay and Butsic plan for future versions of CalLands to include the capability of producing graphs to help users understand how crop planting changes over time as farming shifts and land changes hands. “We look forward to adding more features to CalLands,” Butsic said. “We want to implement changes on the site based on what Californians need.”
UC Cooperative Extension plays an active and ongoing role in the effort to increase agricultural sustainability and minimize the industry's environmental impact, a role that was showcased at the third Ag Innovations Conference in March. Held in Santa Maria, the event was centered on the potential for using biological solutions for the challenges faced in agricultural production – such as pest control and nutrient management.
Many organic growers are already using these products successfully. Conference organizer Surendra Dara, UCCE advisor in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, believes increasing the use of biologicals in conventional agriculture, which represents a much larger part of the industry, holds promise for reducing the use of chemical pesticides, cutting back nitrogen inputs and sequestering carbon in healthy farmland soil.
The market for biologicals in agriculture is growing. Organic farming is increasing in acreage because of consumer demand for food grown without synthetic inputs. In the conventional sector, farmers are wary of the new biological projects, probably because of past experiences with “snake oil” products that made glowing claims, but came up short. They are looking for scientific research that confirms their effectiveness.
“The most important thing we can do is remove the stigma about efficacy,” Dara said. “Conventional options are inexpensive and they are generally perceived to work better. It is a hard thing to shake.”
Finding funding for research in biologicals is another obstacle.
“Much more funding is available to research in conventional practices,” Dara said. “It's challenging for us. We must rely on industry support.”
Dara has conducted multiple studies demonstrating the potential of biologicals in crop production. At the March conference, he shared the results of experiments in tomato, strawberry and grape production in which he compared products containing seaweed extracts, silicon and beneficial bacteria and fungi.
“Many of the treatments worked well,” Dara said. “We saw some improved yield and good pest control.”
Research results are a key for mainstreaming biologicals in the ag industry, said Bill Schwoerer a speaker at the conference who represents Concentric Ag in San Luis Obispo, a company that produces biological optimizers for soil, seed and plant vigor. Concentric and other companies that are marketing biologicals said expectations need to be managed.
“It's not a silver bullet,” he said. “It's a tool to help you farm and produce a better crop.”
Concentric's product is a unique metabolite brew that contains seven bacteria and three fungi.
“It mimics a healthy soil microbiome,” Schwoerer said. “It's important to note, with these products, we see more improvements under stress conditions. That's the nature of the product.”
Ashraf El-kereamy, the former UCCE viticulture advisor in Kern County who was recently promoted to UCCE specialist at the UC Lindcove Research and Extension Center, presented results of his first year of research on seaweed extract applications on Flame seedless and Allison grape varieties in Kern County.
The products are derived from wild and cultivated seaweed from oceans around the world. Their potential as agricultural inputs stem from seaweed's rapid cell division and growth, a function that is controlled by natural plant hormones.
“Increasing color on red seedless grapes is important for marketing,” El-kereamy said. “Growers in the southern San Joaquin Valley are having an issue with coloring. Some growers had to dry their red grapes to raisins or sell to the juice companies because stores didn't accept the crop without good color.”
The research results are preliminary. And more potential impacts of the seaweed products still need to be studied – such as the impact on vine growth and stress tolerance, and the impact of the compounds on grapes grown in other areas or in different varieties.
But El-kereamy is encouraged by the early findings. The increased value of the redder grapes more than offsets the cost of the seaweed treatment, he said.
Other speakers representing firms that produce biological compounds for the ag industry also shared information at the Ag Innovations Conference:
- Paul Zorner, chief executive officer of Locus Agricultural Solutions, said the products made by the company target the soil microbiome and focus on high-value horticultural crops. The company has found that their probiotic supports more robust, consistent root growth by creating better nutrient status and a better microbial environment.
- Drew Jackson, vice president of Cool Planet, shared information about biochar, a product made by burning organic matter in an oxygen-deprived environment. He said biochar has unique properties that lend themselves healthy soil biology. “It's like luxury condos for microbes,” Zorner said.
- Antonin van der Lely of Biobest USA is working to move biocontrols that are used successfully in the greenhouse industry into outdoor agriculture.
- Katherine Walker, a technical service representative for BASF, discussed a biological fungicide from the company that can suppress root and foliar fungus. The product, called Serifel, can be used along with a chemical fungicide for added protection and resistance management.
- Melissa O'Neal of Marrone Bio Innovations presented information about two new Marrone products, Stargus and Ennoble. These products can also be used to alternate with conventional products to prevent resistance, she said. Stargus is a liquid fungicide that can inhibit botrytis in grapes and strawberries, sclerotinia in lettuce and downy mildew in lettuce. Ennoble is a granular bio fumigant that is incorporated into the soil, where it releases volatiles into plants' rootzones.
- Deb Shatley of Terramera said the company is formulating a product with cold-pressed neem oil that mixes with water in an application tank and stays in solution for days. Neem is a tree native of India and other South Asian countries that is a natural miticide, fungicide, insecticide and nematicide. The Terramera product, called Rango, provides more consistent neem spray coverage in the field.
Grapevine red blotch virus, a disease that is dramatically reducing the value of winegrapes in California's premium wine production region, is harming plants by inhibiting photosynthesis in the leaves, according to research published this month in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.
The new research also showed that infected vines weren't able to conduct water effectively, leaving whatever sugar that was created by photosynthesis stuck in the leaves. The accumulation of sugar in the leaves results in reduced sugar in the berries and lower-quality wine, said UC Cooperative Extension specialist Kaan Kurtural, one of the study authors.
According to the report, sucrose and its monosaccharides were the vast majority of soluble sugars found in the leaves. The leaf sugar tended to decrease in the ripening process on red blotch negative vines. But this was not the case in red blotch positive vines. As a result, grapevines infected with the virus produce winegrape clusters with reduced sugar content, poor color development and increased acidity.
Kurtural said the research will inform winegrape growers as they consider possible treatments in vineyards with grapevine red blotch-infected vines.
“There are some treatments that are being offered to growers, but now that we better understand the disease, we know they won't help,” Kurtural said. “Growers don't have to replace the infected vineyards immediately. But if 40 percent of vines are infected, they may want to consider replanting. At least now we know what the disease does, so they won't pay for snake oils.”
Grapevine red blotch virus was first discovered in the Oakville Experiment Station, UC Davis' research vineyard in Napa Valley, in 2008. Since then, researchers found the virus in grapevines throughout California and in 11 other states.
For the new research, the scientists compared naturally infected winegrape vines at the Oakville Station on two rootstocks – 110 R and 420 A – with vines grown on those two rootstocks that were not infected. Grape clusters were collected to examine differences in berry weight, titratable acidity, pH and total soluble solids.
“All those characteristics are important for wine quality,” Kurtural said. “Acidity and pH effect palatability and storage potential. Berry weight and soluble solids impact the physical characteristics of the wine.”
The grapevine red blotch virus impact on anthocyanidins and tannins are a still greater concern for winegrape growers as they change the flavor profiles sought in premium wines.
“High-value winegrapes are sold between $7,000 to $23,000 a ton. If the winegrapes don't have the profiles that wine makers are looking for, they may only be valued between $1,500 to $2,000 per ton,” Kurtural said.
The research was conducted by UC Davis post-doctoral students Johann Martinez-Buscher, Cassandra Plank, Runze Yu and Luca Brillante in collaboration with Kurtural, UCCE viticulture specialist Anita Oberholster, UCCE advisors Monica Cooper and Rhonda Smith and UC Davis Foundation Plant Services academic administrator Maher Al-Rwahnih.
A $4.6 million grant to UC Merced and UC Irvine will help UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researchers develop new tools and methods for California land owners to better manage the state's forests, shrub lands and grasslands.
California's Strategic Growth Council agreed to fund the Innovation Center for Advancing Ecosystem Climate Solutions, a three-year program co-led by UC Merced Professor Roger Bales and UC Irvine Professor Michael Goulden. The money comes through California Climate Investments, a statewide initiative that puts billions of cap-and-trade dollars to work
The goals include reducing wildfire risk, improving long-term carbon sequestration and bolstering resilience in the face of climate change, with an emphasis on California's rural regions and low-income communities.
“Our part of the project is to work with stakeholders and identify areas where we can focus management practices to promote healthy forests, minimize wildfires, improve water security and increase carbon sequestration,” said Toby O'Geen, UC Cooperative Extension soil resource specialist at UC Davis.
“Right now, many of California's forests, shrub lands and grasslands are carbon sources, and we need to change them into carbon sinks,” said Bales, director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute and distinguished professor of engineering. “Our research will address information bottlenecks to guide decision making, build local capacity for science-based land management and develop methods for translating benefits of land restoration into financing for land restoration.”
California's recent drought, tree die-offs, wildfires and rising temperatures all point to the necessity of improved forest stewardship, Goulden said.
“Officials in the state government and agencies recognize this need, but uncertainty over how to proceed has sometimes slowed progress,” he said.
Most of the work will be conducted by scientists at Merced and Irvine, but collaborators from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Stanford University, San Diego State University and the University of California Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, as well as state agencies, will play important roles.
“This research will enable UC Cooperative Extension advisors to provide better advice to land managers to reduce the severity of wildfires,” said Glenda Humiston, UC vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “Severe wildfires are not only releasing greenhouse gases, but polluting the air of many communities, aggravating the health of people in less-affluent, inland areas such as Tulare, Yuba and Mariposa counties.”
At UC Merced, an interdisciplinary group of researchers from two departments — Civil & Environmental Engineering and Management of Complex Systems — will collaborate with UC Cooperative Extension and engage with local stakeholders. The group will study and identify the most-effective land-management practices, in terms of water conservation, forest health, fire resistance and carbon capture.
“We will develop the spatial data and analysis tools to plan landscape restoration, develop local capacity for better managing the state's wildlands in a warming climate, and enumerate the greenhouse gas and other benefits from investments in land management,” Bales said.
Goulden, professor of Earth systems science, said UC Irvine researchers will use a big-data approach to analyze observations collected by satellites since the 1980s to measure the efficacy of thousands of past and ongoing forest treatments, while UC Merced takes a different approach.
“We will work with groups in rural communities to systematically evaluate how well, or poorly, our products can support decision making,” Bales said, “and then develop both implementation pathways and policy recommendations to better and more-quickly implement landscape-restoration and carbon-capture projects across the state.”
Because there are critical gaps in the understanding of carbon cycles, uptake by forests and negative feedback from climate change, this project initiative has been established to develop new knowledge through measurements and modeling. Researchers will synthesize the resulting data to produce actionable information for stakeholders.
Bales and Goulden agreed the Innovation Center will target low-risk, high-yield opportunities to reduce California's greenhouse-gas contributions.
Just a small improvement in management efficiency will have meaningful benefits — on the order of several million metric tons of CO2 per year, Goulden said.
The program will also benefit low-income communities in the state by reducing wildfire risk, which disproportionately impacts poorer areas in California; by maintaining water quantity through better vegetation management; by fostering tourism in disadvantaged locales; and by preparing students in these areas for careers in sustainability and climate resilience.
UC Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist Jeff Mitchell is issuing a standing invitation to the public to visit the site of an ongoing conservation agriculture research project and see for themselves the results of long-term soil-building practices.
“Every Friday morning from 9 o'clock till noon, beginning in February and going through June, I invite folks to come to the project site to see up close and personal just what soil health means,” Mitchell said.
The research site is at the University of California's West Side Research and Extension Center, 17353 W. Oakland Ave., in Five Points.
“I promise to be out there every Friday morning from Feb. 15 through June 26,” Mitchell said.
The project, funded by the National Research Initiative, compares plots that have been managed for more than 20 years in an annual rotation of cotton, processing tomatoes and more recently sorghum, garbanzos and melons, under four different treatments: no-tilled plus cover crops, no-tilled with no cover crops, conventionally tilled with cover crops and conventionally tilled without cover crops.
“What we've got at this site is a very long-term example of exactly what implementation of a small set of soil care, or soil health, principles really means for soil function and management,” he said.
Mitchell says that the study site in Five Points is a valuable resource for the people of California because of its dedicated adherence to principles that are widely touted to improve production efficiencies, reduce dust emissions, sequester carbon and reduce inputs over time.
“I recently heard about the value of publicly showcasing long-term sites such as the one we've got in Five Points. It's being done in several other places, including the Dakotas and in Europe,” Mitchell said. “It just seems to make sense to open up our field more widely to folks who might be interested in seeing the remarkable changes we've seen and monitored for a long time.”
According to Mitchell, the NRI Project field is already “the most visited research field in the state,” but with this new invitation, he is hoping to have a still broader impact. “We've got a simply amazing resource here and I want folks to see it,” he said.
The study has been selected as one of the monitoring sites of the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements that has been initiated by the Soil Health Institute of Morrisville, N.C. More than 20 peer-reviewed scientific articles have been published based on work done in this study field.