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Winegrape growers concerned about drought

Foothill vineyards have water worries.
Winegrape growers who rely on groundwater are worried about the dismal rainy season so far, reported Ed Joyce on Capital Public Radio. He quoted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as saying that, barring "epic rain and snowfall," the drought will likely continue through the spring and summer.

Joyce spoke to a a dismayed winemaker, a worried vineyard manager and he gathered background for his four-minute story by interviewing Lynn Wunderlich, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties.

"There's a lot of concern out there amongst growers that I work with in the four counties in the Central Sierra," Wunderlich said. "Generally in the foothills we have a shorter depth in the soil from the surface to the bedrock, so that all impacts the available water that a grower has."

Because of the drought, Wunderlich said some growers are extending their wells or digging new wells to increase groundwater supply.

"I even had an email from a small grape grower who said he's collected rainwater this season," Wunderlich said. "So people are getting quite creative in their attempts to conserve water, knowing that we're going to have potentially a tough season."

Posted on Friday, January 23, 2015 at 3:17 PM

Air pollution is ravaging what’s left of California’s native coastal sage scrubland

Coastal sage scrub near Lake Skinner in Riverside County, an area of relatively low nitrogen deposition.
Before Americans of European descent began actively farming and developing the beautiful, temperate California coast, vast stretches from San Francisco to the Mexican border were covered with a low-growing, aromatic plant community called coastal sage scrub. The ecosystem supported an array of seasonal wildflowers, such as California poppy, lupins, wild onions and sego lilies.

Because of its gentle topography and proximity to coastal cities, however, two-thirds of the coastal sage scrubland has already been converted to housing or farming, said Edith Allen, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at UC Riverside. The remaining coastal sage scrub is threatened by an invasion of exotic species and nitrogen deposition.

“Nitrogen deposition is caused by nitrogen oxide emissions from cars and industry. In addition, another plant fertilizer, ammonia, is emitted from agriculture and livestock operations,” Allen said. “The airborne emissions eventually settle on the soil surface, throwing the fragile coastal sage ecosystem out of balance, even 100 miles or more away from the emission sources.”

The combined deposition of nitrate and ammonia is up to 30 kilograms per hectare per year in the Los Angeles air basin. In contrast, in areas without the basin's air quality problems, about 2 kilograms are deposited per hectare each year.

“Growers fertilize small grain fields with 30 kilograms per hectare, so this represents a substantial nitrogen input,” Allen said.

Further compromising the coastal sage scrubland, grass species from the Mediterranean have been accidentally introduced into the ecosystem by activities associated with a booming agriculture industry, population growth, grazing and road building. The high nitrogen favors these exotic annual grasses.

“We've made a bad problem worse,” Allen said. “The exotic grasses are able to take up nitrogen at a faster rate, grow faster than native plants and displace them.”

In recent years, Allen worked with graduate students Robert Cox and Kristine Preston to understand vegetation-type conversion rate and recovery in coastal sage scrublands in western Riverside County. They compared information gathered by the Forest Service 85 years ago with 2002 California Department of Fish and Wildlife maps updated to 2009 using Google Earth. The analysis included measures of climate, topography, vegetation, land use, nitrogen deposition and fire in 151 study sites.

Former coastal sage scrub converted to exotic annual grassland near Mt. Rubidoux, Riverside County, following frequent fire and high nitrogen deposition.
The research revealed that 34 percent of coastal sage scrubland in western Riverside County had been converted to exotic grassland between 1930 and 2009. The converted sites had higher nitrogen deposition, shallower slopes and were more often west-facing.

The analysis showed that 24 percent of the sites that were mapped as annual grassland in 1930 had recovered to coastal sage scrubland.

“In those parts of the county that did not receive much nitrogen, the native vegetation was able to recover,” Allen said. “Overall, the study shows that coastal sage scrubland conservation and restoration efforts are most likely to be successful on sites with low nitrogen deposition and low invasion of exotic grasses.”

For that reason, it only makes sense to try to restore coast sage scrub in areas where nitrogen deposition is low. For broader conservation, the best option is improving air quality.

This research determined that regions where nitrogen deposition is above the level of 11 kilograms per hectare per year will spontaneously convert to grassland.

“We have a value that can be used by regulatory agencies,” Allen said. “Right now, air pollution regulations aren't strong enough to protect the environment.”

Today, most passenger cars emit very low amounts of nitrogen oxides. The bigger problems in the Los Angeles Basin are diesel trucks and pollution generated in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“Our population is growing. The volume in the ports is growing. As we come up with better, cleaner technologies, we're staying at the same pollution levels,” Allen said. “People need to realize that we will need lower nitrogen emission levels to protect our natural plant communities.”

The research was published last fall in the journal of Global Ecology and Conservation.

An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems security is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Author: Jeannette Warnert

Posted on Friday, January 23, 2015 at 8:24 AM

UC ANR rebuilds its academic staff

Barbara Allen-Diaz, left, and Chris Greer spoke with AgAlert about their efforts to rebuild the ranks of UC Cooperative Extension academics.
By hiring 68 new UC Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists since 2010 - and with 23 positions being actively recruited plus more planned - UC leaders are reversing a downward trend in the number of UCCE academic staff, reported Ching Lee in AgAlert.

Barbara Allen-Diaz, vice president of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, noted in the story that 2013 was the first time in recent years that UC hired more Cooperative Extension faculty than had retired. In December, she approved hiring of another 29 advisors and 16 specialists for the 2015-16 cycle.

"So we turned the corner for the first time in this long downward spiral," she said. "My goal is to continue to rebuild the footprint of Cooperative Extension."

Lee also interviewed UCCE vice provost Chris Greer, who said he expects ANR to end 2015 with a net gain of academics.

"It's not huge leaps and bounds; it's a small gain, but we're hoping as we continue this process of filling these positions, that we'll start gaining some ground," he said.

Rather than automatically refilling vacant positions, Greer said much thought is put into revamping job descriptions or creating new positions to better fit the evolving needs of agricultural business. To help prioritize which positions should be hired first, UC sought public input, receiving more than 900 individual comments last year, including from agricultural organizations.

Jim Sullins, the UCCE director for Tulare County who is planning to retire in mid-2015, said more advisors are covering multiple counties and must travel longer distances to make farm visits, so they are turning to new communications strategies in their work, such as email, social media, and other web technology. But traditional farm calls are still a mainstay service.

Katherine Pope, the new UC Cooperative Extension orchard systems advisor in Yolo County, was also featured in the AgAlert story. She talked about the importance of having enough staff to enable advisors to call on farmers personally. Pope said going out to the farm gives her a fuller picture of what she's dealing with that she can't get over the phone or with photos via email. Sometimes she may notice other issues unrelated to the original problem, or the visit may prompt other questions from the farmer.

"My job is to spread information and knowledge, and doing that in person is absolutely the best way to do that," she said.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 at 9:28 AM

Exotic mange found in California golden eagles

Golden eagle before treatment
Golden eagles in the western United States may be at risk of infestation by an exotic and possibly new species of mite that causes a fatal skin disease, according to an Emerging Infectious Diseases case report published in October 2014. 

Two adult golden eagles that were recovered in California between July and August 2013 were infested by a mite with morphologic features similar to those of Micnemidocoptes derooi, a species of mite seen only once, in an African palm swift in West Africa more than 40 years ago.

Both eagles had substantial feather loss and scabbing on the head, neck, and legs and near the cloaca. One of the raptors was found grounded and so ill the animal was euthanized. The other was live-trapped, rehabilitated, and eventually returned to the wild. (She underwent 8 months of recovery and rehabilitation at the California Raptor Center, a program of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Read her story here.)

A third golden eagle, found in December the previous year in the same region as the others, was likely also infected by the Micnemidocoptes–like mite, according to the report. The bird had been struck by a car and died of its injuries.

In their report, the authors note that while wild raptors can sometimes become infested with mites, such debilitating mange in otherwise healthy animals is highly atypical.

“The severity and diffuse distribution of skin lesions of these eagles suggest a possible serious, unique outbreak,” they wrote. 

Additional golden eagles with suspicious feather loss have been spotted in California and Nevada since August 2013.

Ready for release
Dr. Michelle Hawkins is director of the California Raptor Center at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and one of the report's co-authors. Her team spent several months treating the golden eagle that was eventually healthy enough to be released. Dr. Hawkins said mites in the Knemidocoptinae subfamily typically infest a bird's non-feathered areas, such as its face, beak or legs. The mites on the golden eagles are unusual because they only affected the feathered areas.

Feather loss impacts an eagle's ability to maintain normal body temperature and may limit the animal's ability to obtain food, making it weak and susceptible to trauma. Severe mite infestation is unusual in birds, especially adult birds. No such infestation among golden eagles has been previously reported.

“It's all very strange,” Dr. Hawkins admitted. “It's not something that's been identified by any researchers that we're aware of at that point. This may be closely related to M derooi but has not been previously described.”

As for how this potentially novel species of mite arrived in the United States and is spreading, they are also mysteries. The entire life cycle of M derooi is reported to be spent on its host, so theoretically, transmission would require direct contact between birds. Dr. Hawkins supposes the mites could be passed along through an infested bird's nest, although additional research is needed in this and other areas involving this mite.

In the meantime, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is asking residents to report golden eagles or other large birds with severe feather loss. Dr. Hawkins has written a paper on the clinical treatment of eagles with mange, which is expected to be published in the near future.

The article, “Knemidocoptic mange in wild golden eagles, California, USA,” is also available online.

This article originally appeared in JAVMA News by Scott Nolen.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 at 9:27 AM

Southern Californians get another reason to love pizza

The newly planted pizza garden at the UC Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville.
People love pizza, so they are sure to enjoy the new garden growing at the UC Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville. A circle planted with wheat, tomatoes, bell peppers, herbs and spices, the garden looks like and produces the ingredients for pizza.

“Pizza can be a healthy meal, if you build it right,” said Stephanie Collins, outreach assistant at the Desert REC. “We can teach kids to add vegetables and educate them about whole grains and non-fat cheese.”

Collins initially envisioned the pizza garden teaching tool when she joined UC Cooperative Extension four years ago as a nutrition educator. The recent removal of a large tree stump made the location available.

The pizza garden will be part of the center's UC FARM SMART program, in which about 5,000 school children and “snowbird” winter residents annually visit the station to learn about UC's ongoing agricultural research in the desert area, tour the 255-acre facility on a hay wagon and taste products that are grown in the vicinity.

Green peppers growing in the pizza garden.
When they visit the pizza garden, they'll learn many of their favorite foods come from plants grown nearby in the productive agricultural region. The garden is divided into four wedges. The wheat, which is used to make the pizza crust, and alfalfa, which is an important feed for dairy cows, the source of cheese, is grown in one wedge.

“Alfalfa is cheese in the making,” Collins said.

Tomatoes, onions and arugula are planted in the next wedge. The tomatoes are used for traditional sauce and onions are a healthy and flavorful topping, but arugula?

“Arugula is great on pizza,” Collins said. “It has a strong, peppery flavor.”

In another section, visitors can smell, feel and taste the herbs that season pizza sauce. Oregano, basil, sage, thyme, chives, parsley and rosemary fill the third wedge.

The fourth section holds bell peppers and rhubarb.

Fresh herbs and spices fill one wedge of the pizza garden.
“The rhubarb is just for fun,” Collins said.

The garden is encircled with marigolds for the appearance of crust, and the wedges are dotted with a variety of non-pizza plants, like ornamental kale, vinca and lavender. These plants also serve an educational purpose, said Sam Urie, the UC FARM SMART manager at the Desert REC.

“A diversity of plants attracts beneficial insects, so they help the garden out,” Urie said.

The mostly senior citizen visitors pay $20 per person for the station tour, which includes a homemade lunch featuring locally produced foods. This year, the centerpiece of the meal will be carrot-ginger soup.

The visitors' fees help offset the cost of the tours for local children, who pay just $3 each.

For more information or to schedule a tour, contact Urie at (760) 791-0261, surie@ucanr.edu.

An initiative to enhance competitive and sustainable food systems is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 at 8:05 AM

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