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Alternatives to fumigation and improving fumigant efficacy

Synthetic soil fumigants such as chloropicrin and 1,3-D are used by some commercial growers to control soilborne pathogens, weeds and nematodes prior to planting strawberries, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and spinach. These fumigants and all other biocidal products with the potential to harm the environment and human health are highly-regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, and county agricultural commissioner's offices.

UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Oleg Daugovish and his collaborators work hard to find effective, environmentally-safe and economically-viable ways to improve efficacy of fumigants and to investigate alternatives to soil fumigation. The Ventura County Cooperative Extension website has archived audio and visual presentations, which includes the following topics:

  • Assessment of permeability of commercial tarps under a variety of cultural practices and in various soil and environmental conditions is expected to lead to better understanding of maximizing fumigant effectiveness while reducing emissions.
  • Growing in substrate (soil-less culture) allows growers to produce crops with minimal plant disease and weeds without using fumigants.
  • Heating soil using steam is a successful way to disinfest it. However, the process to generate steam in a field can be slow and very expensive. Researchers are working to find ways to improve speed while reducing cost.
  • Most organisms, including plant pathogens, cannot survive without oxygen. Researchers are investigating an organic method to create anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions to treat soil before planting.
  • Planting mustard as a cover crop can provide many positive benefits, one of which is allelochemical compounds. These compounds found in mustard are similar to those found in fumigants. Current research shows it is possible to use this green biomass to prepare fields for production.

More environmentally-responsible research from Dr. Daugovish can be found here.

Posted on Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 8:14 AM
  • Author: Chris M. Webb

How does climate change impact plants?

All bets are off in terms of what will happen with plant species migration and crop production as the climate changes globally.

A common assumption has been that native plants and animals would “move,” or migrate, to higher elevations as temperatures rise, to maintain their “preferred” temperatures, but a new report by Jonathan Greenberg at UC Davis, shows that many California plant species moved downhill over the past 70 years.

According to Greenberg, “While the climate warmed significantly in this period, there was also more precipitation. These wetter conditions are allowing plants to exist in warmer locations than they were previously capable of.”

According to the news release summary:

“Many forecasts say climate change will cause a number of plants and animals to migrate to new ranges or become extinct. That research has largely been based on the assumption that temperature is the dominant driver of species distributions. However, Greenberg said the new study reveals that other factors, such as precipitation, may be more important than temperature in defining the habitable range of these species.

“The findings could have global relevance, because many locations . . . have had increased precipitation in the past century, and global climate models generally predict that trend will continue, the authors said.”

Many studies are showing that climate change is impacting plant and animal species, but because of the overlapping influence of so many factors, including temperature, precipitation, and elevation, and even factors such as increases in smog and carbon dioxide, it is too early to predict precisely how climate change will impact native species . . . and agricultural crop production.

Here are some UC Davis news summaries in just the last year on the impact of climate change on plant and animals species:

  • Plants moved downhill, not up, in warming world – news summary
  • Climate change impact on mountain plants at low elevations – news summary
  • Warmer ocean waters favor aliens over natives – news summary
  • Warming climate means harsher smog – news summary
  • Rising CO2 levels threaten crops – news summary
  • Changes in agriculture needed as world warms – news summary
  • Climate tipping points may give no warning – news summary
  • Butterflies reeling from impact of climate – news summary
Posted on Friday, January 21, 2011 at 4:51 PM

Green energy may generate more greenbacks for farmers

California’s role as an emerging world leader in the development of green energy technologies offers the state’s farmers the opportunity to diversify their cropping systems and increase their income.

Sacramento lawmakers have given the California Energy Commission an annual budget of $100 million to support the development of alternative and renewable low-carbon fuels. In addition, the State Alternative Fuels Plan set goals of reducing petroleum dependence by 15 percent and increasing alternative fuels use by 20 percent by 2020. These efforts are meant to help meet the growing fuel demands of the world population while reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California to 1990 levels.

“With the new mandates, there are new opportunities for using agricultural waste and dedicated energy crops for biofuels, but we’re not yet sure exactly what form it will take,” said UC Cooperative Extension alfalfa specialist Dan Putnam. “I would always encourage growers to experiment with the crop, but I wouldn’t jump in whole hog unless I had a buyer lined up.”

Switchgrass is a potential biofuel crop.

U.S. ethanol production in January 2010 was 818,000 barrels per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The United States uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day. If the EPA allows up to 15 percent ethanol blends for all vehicles, then the 10 million barrels per day of oil used by cars and trucks could allow ethanol and biofuels to make up 1.5 million barrels per day.

Cellulosic biomass is the only known resource for the sustainable production of liquid transportation fuels on a large scale and at low costs, according to UC Riverside environmental engineer C. W. Wyman.  Cellulosic biomass includes agricultural residues such as corn stems and leaves, forestry residues such as sawdust and paper, landscape waste, herbaceous plants such as switchgrass and sorghum, and woody plants such as poplar trees.

Since a dry ton of cellulosic biomass could provide about three times as much energy as a barrel of petroleum, the cellulosic biomass would have three times the value as a barrel of petroleum. That means cellulosic biomass would be worth about $200 per dry ton when crude oil sells at $65 per barrel.

“To utilize this abundant resource, we must develop low-cost technologies for transforming biomass into fuels that can compete with petroleum,” Wyman wrote in a California Agriculture article “Cellulosic biomass could meet California’s transportation fuel needs.”

Current and potential biomass crops include the grasses switchgrass and miscanthus, other perennial grasses, plus high biomass sorghum, alfalfa and other crops.

Across California, University of California scientists are studying potential biofuel crops. Putnam has four research trials under way, testing varieties from Ceres and Mendel Biotechnology, Inc.  He said switchgrass and miscanthus the top contenders so far in his trials.

“The yields of switchgrass under irrigation have been quite high,” Putnam said. “It is an efficient crop for converting solar energy into biomass under warm weather condition.”

Switchgrass does have relatively high water needs. Putname said scientists are looking into whether the crop can be grown under deficit irrigation to save water and still produce the biomass.

“The key issue with biofuels is not necessarily the total water requirement, but the water use efficiency and amount of biomass produced per unit of water,” Putnam said. “Even if a crop has high water use, if it produces a large amount of biomass, it may still be the best option.”

Steve Kaffka and UC Cooperative Extension advisors are involved in research on winter annual oilseeds such as canola, camelina and meadowfoam as potential biofuel feedstock crops.

“Recent economic modeling we have done suggests that at current market prices, canola is a competitive crop in California, but outlets have not yet developed for the seed,” Kaffka said. “Currently, petroleum prices are too low to support the use of canola for biofuel feedstocks, but that is changing rapidly. “

The director of the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center, Jeff Dahlberg, sees opportunities for California production of sorghum as a biofuel crop.

"Sorghum is one of the few crops that span all the different renewable fuel options," he said. "You can use the grain to convert into ethanol. We have sweet sorghum, a specialty sorghum which is very similar to sugar cane. You can press the juice out and convert it into ethanol. And, we can produce a lot of biomass."

Dahlberg previously served as research director for the National Sorghum Producers and the research director for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program in Lubbock, Tex. He currently is lead investigator on a $984,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant to study the composition of sorghum and its potential for cellulosic conversion to biofuel. In addition to continuing this research at Kearney, Dahlberg is interested in developing a center for on-farm green technologies at the Central California research station.

Posted on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 7:05 AM
Tags: biofuel (6), canola (1), Dan Putnam (4), energy (5), green (2), Jeff Dahlberg (5), sorghum (2), Steve Kaffka (2), switchgrass (2)

Jeffrey Mount and the Delta levee blues

Jeffrey Mount, a UC Davis geology professor and the Roy J. Shlemon Chair in Applied Geosciences, was included in “The Sacramento 100” — Sacramento News and Review’s 2010 round-up of the most influential, important and interesting people in Sacramento.

He was joined by an eclectic group of “interesting” characters, so whether being named on the list makes him notorious or famous is up to interpretation.


Jeff Mount

In any case, Mount was aptly described as “the man who knows everything about rivers in a region that owes its existence and continued survival to its rivers and Delta.”

As a local watershed expert and founding director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Mount was frequently called upon in the aftermath of the devastating levee breaks in New Orleans to estimate odds of a similar massive levee failure in the Delta.

The odds aren’t encouraging — Mount predicts a 64 percent chance of massive failure in the next 50 years. And some recent reports from the California Department of Water Resources suggest that is an optimistic estimate.

The strong late December storms sweeping through California had Mount keeping one eye on the levees and another on his kayak. So far this season, Californians have been lucky. But Mount doesn’t expect that luck to hold indefinitely.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supplies irrigation water for more than a million acres of agriculture in the Central Valley — some of the nation’s most productive farmland — and drinking water for two-thirds of California’s residents. But the levees that hold the Delta together are old and in crisis.

The 1,100-mile system of earthen embankments was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s to reclaim Delta marshland for farms. This creaky system of levees desperately needs a major overhaul. Over time, erosion, seepage and animal burrows have taken their toll. The levees have also been weakened by the gradual sinking of land behind the levees. Many of the Delta islands are now 25 feet below sea level.

Any major levee breach due to storm or earthquake could pull brackish ocean water into the Delta, contaminating irrigation and drinking water supplies and stopping the flow of water to the south and the Bay Area. Infrastructure such as rail lines, highways and gas pipelines would also be impacted.

The big picture of what could go wrong in the case of massive levee failure is scary if you stop and think about it, which has given Mount the name Dr. Doom in some circles. But Mount isn’t one to candy coat the situation. He was once quoted by a reporter that “New Orleans has lost the battle with the inevitable, and we will do the same.”

Jones Tract 2004

Jones Tract Flooding, 2004

Flooding Mossdale 1997
Flooding in Mossdale, 1997

Posted on Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 6:21 AM

How UC helped turn onion waste into clean energy

Ten years ago, a California family's food-processing business was booming -- so much so that it was in danger of drowning in its own success. A new idea out of UC Davis helped them stay on top.

In 1983, Gills Onions had been asked by La Victoria Salsa to provide large quantities of high-quality, fresh-cut onions when no automated equipment and processes existed. With typical farmers’ "can do" attitude, brothers Steve and David Gill and their 16 employees developed a system to peel, slice, dice and deliver the first fresh-cut onions in the food processing industry.

By 2000, the Gills and their 400 employees were processing millions of pounds of sliced and diced onions weekly for restaurants, salsa makers and grocery stores. They had become the largest fresh-cut onion processor in the nation.

But they were being buried in onion waste -- the unused tops, tails and skins, which account for about 40 percent of the original onion mass.

Previously, their solution had been to truck these onion leftovers from their Oxnard processing plant to surrounding farm fields and plow them into the soil as compost. But now they had so much waste – up to 1.5 million pounds every week - that this solution had become too costly and environmentally unsustainable.

So they went looking for new ideas. They found them in the bright minds and laboratories of UC Davis research scientists and students.

UC Davis engineering professor Ruihong Zhang, a leading innovator with a passion and genius for turning food waste into energy, determined that onion juice was very good food for methane-producing microbes. With her research data, Gills’ engineers and contractors developed an anaerobic digester system that turns their leftover onions into electricity.

They squeeze the onions, feed the juice to the microbes, and use the methane that the microbes excrete to run a fuel cell that makes electricity.

Today that electricity powers the Oxnard processing plant. This year, they expect to save $700,000 on power bills and $400,000 on trucking costs. (They even sell the squeezed-out onion pulp, as a high-quality cattle food.)

Thanks to Professor Zhang and the University of California, Gills’ waste problem is now an energy source and new product line. The firm expects to make back its $9.5 million capital investment in six years.

And they are famous in the produce and energy industries. People come from all over the world to learn from their experience. They are winning engineering and environmental awards. (They are especially proud of beating the Dallas Cowboys' new $3 billion super-high-tech football stadium in a competition by the American Council of Engineering Companies.)

The help Gills Onions needed with their business problem was available to them, and the rest of the world, in part because California's public research universities get financial support from the private sector. In Ruihong Zhang's UC Davis lab alone, in the seven years she has been perfecting waste-to-energy technology, six donors (including Gills Onions) have given $221,000 to pay graduate student researchers' stipends, tuitions and fees; pay postdoctoral scholars; and purchase bioreactors and laboratory supplies. They also have donated $305,000 worth of equipment.

In fact, California's public colleges and universities have done more to make this state an international agricultural powerhouse than most of us realize. Yet state funding for public universities is unpredictable, and when universities seek philanthropic support, they risk criticism that they are privatizing or selling out – even though private support remains a small percentage of public university budgets (at UC Davis, it’s less than 7 percent).

The University of California needs California businesspeople to support its programs -- with their influence and their wallets. What sector of the state has more to lose if the new ideas dry up?

Posted on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 8:08 AM
  • Author: Sylvia Wright

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