That is beginning to change.
UC Cooperative Extension and Fresno State agricultural production scientists researched overhead irrigation at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center for five years, growing wheat, corn, cotton, tomato, onion and broccoli and comparing them with crops produced under furrow and drip irrigation. With all of them except tomato, overhead irrigation led to similar or increased yields, according to the scientists' report published in the current issue of California Agriculture journal.
“Overall, we are very encouraged by these results, and they reflect the experiences that many California farmers have recently been having with overhead irrigation systems,” said lead author Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist. “We've confirmed that overhead irrigation systems work in California. We also concluded that there are opportunities to get even better results with more research and experience, particularly when overhead irrigation is coupled with practices that preserve crop residues and rely on reduced tillage.”
The tomato yields under overhead irrigation were disappointing, particularly since tomatoes have a prominent role in many Central Valley annual crop rotations.
“This isn't a simple process,” Mitchell said. “You can't just turn it on and let it go. It will require focused and dedicated farmer and researcher attention and innovation to solve.”
The authors are working with a team of Central Valley tomato farmers, processors, irrigation experts and research colleagues to improve overhead irrigation management in tomatoes. They are encouraged by the success of Walnut Grove farmer Michael Boparai, who achieved profitable processing tomato yields with overhead irrigation.
Overhead irrigation systems were invented more than 60 years ago. They now irrigate 50 percent of total U.S. farm irrigated acreage. In Nebraska, 87 percent of irrigated land is under overhead systems. By contrast, in California overhead systems irrigate only 150,000 acres, just 2 percent of the state's irrigated farmland.
Mitchell and his co-authors outlined several factors that contributed to its slow rate of adoption in California:
- Early adopters ran into serious problems, giving the systems an undeserved bad reputation that persists even though in recent years California farmers are using the systems successfully.
- Center pivot systems typically leave the corners of the field unirrigated, which can reduce production.
- Purchase and installation cost of the overhead system is substantially higher than furrow irrigation.
However, the UC and Fresno State research has shown many advantages.
- Overhead irrigation can be managed remotely and automatically.
- The system can accommodate different terrain and soil types.
- Overhead systems requires less maintenance than drip systems in terms of avoiding clogging of emitters and repairing leaks.
- Overhead irrigation may also help with salinity management by uniformly leaching salts from a crop's root zone.
- Precision irrigation, including overhead systems, are becoming ever more critical with coming groundwater regulations, surface water cuts and the increasing cost of water for farmers in California.
A significant advantage of overhead irrigation is its compatibility with other farm management technologies that optimize the farming system and reduce costly inputs, including water, fuel, labor and fertilizer.
“We're committed to continuing our work on the whole package – reduced tillage, preserving residue, improving water infiltration, improving soil water-holding capacity and increasing productivity uniformity – a system that we refer to as conservation agriculture,” Mitchell said. “We are working to encourage adoption of conservation agriculture in crops where viability of the system is well established, and facilitate the research and innovation needed to optimize conservation agriculture production in additional crops.”
What are sixth-graders interested in these days? “Cooking!” “Growing food!” “Learning how to be healthier.” “Exercising.” “Meeting new friends!” These enthusiastic answers came from sixth-grade student leaders in Santa Maria, Calif., when asked by educators from the UC Cooperative Extension Youth, Families and Communities program in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
Through an integrated youth-focused healthy living project, called Food Smart Families, funded by National 4-H, the UC ANR 4-H Youth Development Program, and the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education program, 32 fourth- through sixth-grade student leaders were brought together from three schools in Santa Maria, Calif., for a full-day educational retreat that focused on engaging youth to explore their healthy lifestyle interests and see themselves as leaders.
Throughout the day, student leaders experienced physical activity games, learned cooking skills, participated in garden-based learning, and developed their presentation skills. They focused on skill development, as well as transference so that the student leaders could take these activities into their own schools to encourage and teach their peers. For example, the fun physical activity breaks that were incorporated throughout the day modeled games where no one is “out” or excluded, while moving enough to get heart rates up.
In the garden, student leaders learned the basics of growing food and how to lead a garden lesson. Students discussed garden tools and how to use them safely, then planted their own seeds to take home. The garden session ended with a gleaning of the school citrus orchard where students laughed and enjoyed the fresh air and fresh fruits growing around them. In their own school gardens, the student leaders have offered lessons and tastings to their peers.
By the end of the retreat, the student leaders were excited to take the information and skills back to their schools and start leading. Students shared their plans to help other students be more active during recess, be healthy, and help other kids be healthier too.
“This was the best day I have ever had,” said one of the students.
Through the efforts of the Food Smart Families program, the Youth, Families, & Communities program in San Luis Obispo & Santa Barbara counties merged the strengths of the UC CalFresh Nutrition Education program and the UC ANR 4-H Youth Development program to provide new opportunities and experiences for students in this community. With interested and caring adults, these student leaders learned to share their passions for cooking, gardening, and healthy lifestyle with their peers at school and others in their community. The rewards for the school, community and adult allies continue to expand as these inspired student leaders, with strong mentorship and support, take on some of the biggest challenges facing our society and world.
The reporter spoke with Robert Timm, UC Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist emeritus and a coyote expert.
"We all have a soft spot in our hearts for wildlife, it's why many of us went into the field," Timm said. However, left unchecked, coyotes kill pet cats and dogs, and even pose a threat to humans. "It's a very contentious issue and not an easy one to deal with. ... We all have our individual feelings about it and it's hard to separate that from what we know scientifically."
Coyotes have been making their way into Southern California suburbs since the 1970s, mostly living in the shadows. But when they become habituated to humans, conflicts can arise. Current management practices rely on deterrence and hazing. But when that isn't enough, trapping and removing some problem coyotes appears to send a message to the rest of the coyotes in the neighborhood, Timm said.
"If there are problem coyotes reported in a specific area and you go in and remove a few, it seems to wise up the rest of the coyotes and make them wary of people," Timm said.
However, many advocacy groups lobby against any kind of coyote management that uses traps or euthanization. Relocation of animals is illegal in California.
The coyote issue, Timm said, is fraught with emotion.
"It's a victory for consumers. The impact is going to be incredible," said Pat Crawford, director of research at UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute. "It's something in the nutrition field we've waited for years and years: to educate the public on how absolutely critical added sugar is and about the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dental caries."
The nutrition label changes were unveiled last week by First Lady Michelle Obama. The new label has bigger and bolder calorie information. It shows the amount of "total sugar" and below that, it shows "added sugars." The article gave an example of vanilla yogurt. On the current nutrition facts label, a consumer can see how much sugar it contains, but doesn't know how much of the sugar is from natural lactose in the milk and how much added.
Crawford noticed how hard it is to figure out when a friend asked how much added sugar was in Raisin Bran.
"I poured out a cup of cereal. I counted the raisins," Crawford said. She subtracted the amount of natural sugar in the raisins from total sugar listed on the nutrition facts label to determine the amount of added sugar.
Some consumers are willing to pay a hefty price at trendy restaurants, farmers markets, roadside stands, and even local grocery stores for tomatoes with irregular shapes, vivid colors and rich tomato flavor.
The consumer demand presents an opportunity for small-scale farmers, and a challenge.
“It's not easy to grow heirloom varieties,” said Margaret Lloyd, the UC Cooperative Extension small-scale farm advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties. “They often have less disease resistance, are lower yielding and cannot tolerate as much stress as improved modern varieties.”
When Lloyd joined UCCE last summer, she began visiting small-scale producers in the counties she serves.
“I realized very quickly how important fresh market tomatoes are to these growers,” Lloyd said.
Because she holds a doctorate degree in plant pathology from UC Davis, Lloyd is well-positioned to begin her research program with a small tomato grafting project on UC Davis farmland. Her idea is grafting the particularly delicious heirloom varieties onto tomato roots that are resistant to soil-borne diseases.
“Grafting is an old technology,” Lloyd said. “It works in the same way we graft fruit trees and grapevines onto favorable rootstocks. Vegetable grafting has also been done for years.”
Lloyd said the process is simple and an individual can easily learn to graft tomatoes. But to do so cost effectively with the quality and success rate necessary for economically viable production, it may make most sense to work with a commercial nursery.
Lloyd is conducting a quarter-acre field trial with the three most common heirloom varieties – Brandywine, Cherokee purple and Marvel stripe – plus the yellow-hued Sun Gold cherry tomato and a non-heirloom salad tomato, Charger. Several growers in the area have also planted them in their commercial operations.
In addition to collecting data from the trial that will help small farmers decide whether grafted tomatoes make sense for their operations, Lloyd and her research associates will harvest many bushels of fresh tomatoes from the plots. Some will be sold at the UC Davis farm store to help support the research, and as for the rest, “We're definitely going to eat them,” Lloyd said.
“I enjoy them raw with olive oil, salt, vinegar and a little basil,” she said.