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Keeping Our Environment Healthy Blog

Earthworms signal success on innovative tomato farm

If the return of earthworms to farm fields is an indication of success, then Sano Farms is on the right track.

“I haven’t seen earthworms in these fields in years,” said Firebaugh farmer Alan Sano. Sano and his partner, Jesse Sanchez, combine subsurface drip irrigation, winter cover crops and strip tillage to consistently produce a high-yielding crop of processing tomatoes.

In addition to boosting yield, the system they developed for the 4,000-acre farm is cheaper, increases soil organic matter and improves the tilth of their silty clay soil.

The farmers took several trips to the Midwest and consulted with UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell to learn the improved management techniques they applied on the farm.

After switching from furrow irrigation to drip, Sano and Sanchez began experimenting with cover crops.

"It wasn’t always an easy transition into cover crops," Mitchell said. "It did take some time to learn the best way to manage them."

As the benefits of years of cover cropping accumulated, they saw that they didn’t need to till the entire field to get good soil-seed contact; they only needed to till a strip of soil a few inches wide.

Recently, they shared their innovative farming system with other growers at an open house event sponsored by California's Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup.

Farmers interested in adopting conservation tillage techniques may contact Mitchell for more information at mitchell@uckac.edu.

Posted on Monday, August 2, 2010 at 11:42 AM

Woodpecker-ready siding to cover new conference center

Many people consider acorn woodpeckers' incessant rapping and acorn storage to be a nuisance. But the UC officials who are developing a new conference center at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Mendocino County view the woodpeckers' activities as just another part of the natural system to incorporate into their plans.

The University of California will break ground on the new 5,000-square-foot building this fall. In addition to providing meeting facilities for 200 and display space for a collection of natural and Native American museum pieces, the building itself will be a model of integrated green design, according to center director Bob Timm.

"This won't be a steel box with an air conditioner on the roof," Timm said. "We want a building that fits in the natural landscape, that is in itself teachable. We want a building people will talk about when they come to meetings here."

The architects' inspiration in designing the new conference center was old barns on the research center property that were built when it was still a commercial sheep ranch more than 60 years ago. The barns are riddled with woodpecker holes that the birds use over and over again.

To allow woodpeckers access to the new conference center without compromising the long-term integrity of the building, the facility will be protected with galvanized wire mesh then covered with cedar siding harvested from UC's own Blodgett Forest near Georgetown in the Sierra Nevada.

"This is just one of the ways we will be integrating the building into our rural landscape and making it look like Hopland," Timm said.


Blodgett Forest manager Rob York with cedar siding for the new conference center.

Posted on Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 10:11 AM

Cattle ranching offers notable public benefits

The Sierra Nevada and Coastal Range foothills are replete with wide open spaces - a home for birds and other wildlife, majestic oaks and grazing cattle. The bucolic countryside vistas that come courtesy of California’s ranchers are among the many public benefits of rangeland grazing.

“The public doesn’t always realize what ranchers are doing and how that benefits everyone,” said Bill Tietje, UC Cooperative Extension natural resources specialist based in San Luis Obispo County.  “No one really thinks about it, until it’s gone.”

Many rangeland benefits can be grouped as “ecosystem services.” According to scientists:

  • Rangeland plays a role in the state’s water cycling. Eighty percent of California water flows through rangeland.
  • The diversity of plants and animals is greater on grazed, managed grassland than on unmanaged grassland.
  • Wild raptors overwinter on grasslands managed for beef cattle.
  • Half the habitat for the tiger salamander is grazed stockponds, created by ranchers to provide water for their cattle. The stockpond’s edge of clipped grass and the absence of crowding shrubbery mimic the rare species’ natural habitat – vernal pools.
  • Rangeland provides habitat for insects that are valuable for pollination.
  • Cattle reduce the dry grass that could fuel wildfire.
  • Grazing improves the habitat for the Bay checkerspot butterfly, a threatened California insect.
  • Rangeland sequesters carbon in the soil.

There are threats to the long term viability of cattle ranches in California that put all these benefits at risk:

The sale of the ranch for development is very attractive for a rancher who isn’t making a sufficient profit on the land. Also, the division of a ranch for inheritance purposes can make it difficult to keep a ranch intact and in the business of raising cattle.

UC Berkeley professor of rangeland management and ecology Lynn Huntsinger said public misunderstanding of and a lack of appreciation for ranching is another way the system is threatened.

“Imposing regulations that aren’t needed and not valuing ranchers as stewards can have a demoralizing effect,” Huntsinger said.

Much of the land grazed by ranchers is public and grazing is supported by public and environmental agencies - the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, parks and preserves - because of the many benefits it provides.

Posted on Monday, July 19, 2010 at 11:45 AM

Invasive reed arundo is choking state waterways

In the early 1800s, European immigrants introduced the fast-growing giant reed arundo (Arundo donax) into California to use the canes for musical instruments. The plants were also used for erosion control and the reeds used for thatched roofing. However, it has since naturalized and become a serious pest in the state's natural waterways.

Arundo can grow at a rate of four inches per day and can reach heights of 30 feet. It reproduces and spreads when sections of the stem or root break off and float downstream.

Dense stands of arundo displace native riparian species. The plant requires a significant amount of water, reducing fish, wildlife and people. In addition, clumps of arundo and the soil around their roots can break off, causing streambank erosion. The clumps can also create channel obstructions that lead to flooding.

Arundo is highly flammable and can quickly carry fire along waterways. After a fire, arundo quickly grows back from its roots. With other nearby plants burned by fire, arundo can spread even more quickly, leaving no room for native plants to recover.

Californians can help reduce the spread of arundo by taking the following actions:

  • Learn more about arundo, including how to identify it
  • Report sightings to local conservation groups
  • Join local eradication efforts or help to start one
  • If you own land with an arundo infestation, request help and provide access for control efforts
For more information, see the UC Riverside Center for Invasive Species Research website.
Posted on Monday, July 19, 2010 at 11:45 AM
  • Author: Chris M. Webb
Tags: Arundo (1), erosion (4), fire (5), flooding (3), invasive species (10), native species (4), natural resources (3), water (15), wildlife (23)

UC aims to educate a corps of California Naturalists

The University of California’s newly launched California Naturalist program is a way for the institution to spread research-based knowledge about environmental stewardship and nature preservation. Rather than simply educating students, the program engages citizens of all ages through discovery and action in the science of conservation.

After completing the program, California Naturalists will become a committed corps of citizen scientists trained and ready for involvement in natural resources education and restoration.

“To ensure the sustainability of natural resources in California, we need citizens who participate in natural resource conservation, understand the importance of land use decisions and climate change resilience,” said Julie Fetherston, a UC Cooperative Extension program representative for Mendocino and Lake counties. “The California Naturalists will understand the need for biodiversity, be informed about limitations of our water and energy resources, and be aware of the role that science and UC play in sustaining our natural ecosystems.”

Participants in the program take a 40-hour course that combines classroom and field experience in science, problem-solving, communication training and community service. The course materials are offered to sponsoring organizations across the state that have a need for volunteers with an appreciation for natural systems and a desire to be involved in their protection. The curriculum covers ecology, geology, plant communities, interpretation and wildlife. Regional modules are also being added.

“We have developed a flexible curriculum that can be adapted by many different organizations,” Fetherston said.

Organizations that might offer the California Naturalist training are the California Native Plant Society, Audubon societies, land conservation organizations, nature conservancies and state and national parks.

Fetherston and UC Berkeley natural resources specialist Adina Merenlender pilot-tested the program in Sonoma County, where the coursework was offered in collaboration with the Pepperwood Preserve, a coast mountain range nature preserve, and the local community college. The result was a committed and informed group of card-carrying California Naturalists ready to extend their knowledge as volunteers for the Pepperwood Preserve.

For more information or to inquire about offering the program, see the California Naturalist website.

Posted on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 10:35 AM
Tags: conservation (8), education (3), nature (6), volunteer (1)

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