UC food-safety specialist tests biosensors to ensure safe produce

Courtesy of the UCANR News

Ahmed El-Moghazy joined UC Agriculture and Natural Resources as a UC Cooperative Extension food safety specialist in February and is based at UC Riverside. Food safety, according to El-Moghazy, are measures that ensure food is free from harmful contaminants, prevent foodborne illnesses and is safe to eat. El-Moghazy is responsible for assisting California farmers and food processing facilities to enhance food safety practices by training appropriate personnel and addressing food-safety issues on their farms.

As the principal investigator for the 2-SAFE Lab at UC Riverside, El-Moghazy is investigating the accuracy and applicability of point-of-use biosensor technology. The small, lightweight and easy-to-use sensor can be used while out in the field or in a packing house to test contamination of liquids such as irrigation and washing water or solids like food samples.

Testing for foodborne pathogens traditionally takes two to three days and the process can be costly. The biosensor technology that El-Moghazy is using is inexpensive and can provide results within one work shift, which allows businesses that grow fresh produce to confirm the safety of their products before sending them to the market.

The alternative, selling contaminated food to consumers, is not only detrimental to human health, but can ruin the reputation of businesses, making way for unanticipated costs associated with recalling contaminated products and regulatory consequences including fines and sanctions.

El-Moghazy is also developing the next generation of antimicrobial surface coatings and materials that can rapidly control the foodborne pathogens and hinder the transfer of harmful bacteria from contaminated food to non-contaminated food.

El-Moghazy is optimistic that his research can safeguard public health, reduce the burden of foodborne illness and protect the integrity of businesses. Although El-Moghazy serves the entire state, he is dedicating a large part of his needs assessment and efforts in Southern California where high-value specialty crops such as avocados and citrus are grown.

“Did you know that one in every six Americans get sick from eating food contaminated with a foodborne pathogen?” asked El-Moghazy. Understanding the fatality of foodborne illnesses, El-Moghazy believes that increasing awareness through education is an essential aspect of his role. “It’s true, but not many people realize this, or that 40% of foodborne illnesses stem from fresh produce.”

To protect consumers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires farms with a certain level of annual sales (adjusted for inflation) of fruits and vegetables typically consumed raw to have one employee who has completed an FDA-approved Produce Safety Rule Grower Training.

In addition to certified trainings, El-Moghazy offers technical assistance to ensure growers comply before and after inspections, as well as resources for several topics including produce safety, agriculture water, flooding, soil amendments, worker health, hygiene and training and postharvest handling and sanitation. He can also assist in developing food-safety plans and other general farm food-safety protocols. His technical expertise covers all aspects of food production and supply including irrigation water quality, hygiene of harvesting tools and transportation.

Before joining ANR, El-Moghazy completed two years as a visiting scholar in the UC Davis Biological and Agricultural Engineering department before continuing as a postdoctoral fellow in the UC Davis Food Science and Technology department for 5 years. Much of his work was rooted in the development of biosensors and antimicrobial materials for food safety. While in Davis, he collaborated with local farms and food processing companies on food safety research and extension.

El-Moghazy earned a Ph.D. studying developmental biosensors for food safety applications to detect pesticides residues from a joint program offered by University of Perpignan in France and Alexandria University in Egypt. He also earned a master’s degree in developmental biobased fungicides and a bachelor’s in agriculture science from Alexandria University. Finally, he completed a fellowship at the Institute of Plant Protection, Szent Istvan University in Hungary, where he studied how to extend shelf-life of fresh produce using biomaterials.

El-Moghazy is based at UC Riverside in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology. He can be reached at aelmogha@ucr.edu or  (951) 827-0257.

2024-07-01T14:25:52-07:00July 1st, 2024|

UC ANR offers scholarships for agriculture students, May 13 deadline

Courtesy of UC ANR News 

Applications and nominations of outstanding students pursuing careers in agriculture will be accepted through May 13, 2024, for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scholarships and awards.

Students, faculty and colleagues are encouraged to take advantage of these opportunities to honor academic excellence and provide additional support for undergraduate and graduate students. 

Bill and Jane Fischer Vegetation Management Scholarship is for students enrolled at ANY accredited California university, with preference given to graduate students. The recipient of the $1,000 (multiple awards possible) will be selected from students who are enrolled in fall 2024 pursuing degrees in vegetation management, weed science or agriculture specializations plant science, soils and plant nutrition, agricultural engineering, agricultural botany, plant pathology, plant protection and pest management, or agricultural economics. Students apply directly.

Howard Walton Clark Prize in Plant Breeding and Soil Building is for students enrolled at UC Berkeley, UC Davis or UC Riverside. The $5,000 (multiple awards possible) will be awarded to a promising student who will be enrolled as a senior in fall 2024 in the College of Agriculture and/or Natural Resources with demonstrated scholastic achievement and talent for independent research with reference to either plant breeding (leading to new/improved crops and new/improved varieties using appropriate tools) or soil building (leading to improving soil quality related to soil productivity and sustainability as a resource). Nomination by faculty member required.

Knowles A. Ryerson Award in Agriculture is for students enrolled at UC Berkeley and UC Davis. $2,500 (minimum one award for each campus) given to an international undergraduate student who will be enrolled in fall 2024 in the College of Agriculture and/or Natural Resources, in any curriculum, preferably after completion of the junior year. The award is based on high scholarship, outstanding character and promise of leadership. Nomination by faculty member required.
More information about the application process can be found on at https://ucanr.edu/anrscholarships.

For questions, please contact Andrea Ambrose, UC ANR director of advancement, at apambrose@ucanr.edu.

2024-04-17T08:39:47-07:00April 17th, 2024|

New pest infesting almonds and pistachios in the San Joaquin Valley

Courtesy of UCANR News

Crop sanitation will be key to controlling the invasive carpophilus beetle

Growers and pest control advisers (PCAs) should be on the lookout for a new pest called carpophilus beetle (Carpophilus truncatus). This pest was recently found infesting almonds and pistachios in the San Joaquin Valley, and is recognized as one of the top two pests of almond production in Australia. Damage occurs when adults and larvae feed directly on the kernel, causing reductions in both yield and quality.

Populations of carpophilus beetle were first detected in September in almond and pistachio orchards by University of California Cooperative Extension Specialist Houston Wilson of UC Riverside’s Department of Entomology. Pest identification was subsequently confirmed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Wilson is now working with Jhalendra Rijal, UC integrated pest management advisor, North San Joaquin Valley; David Haviland, UCCE farm advisor, Kern County; and other UCCE farm advisors to conduct a broader survey of orchards throughout the San Joaquin Valley to determine the extent of the outbreak.

To date, almond or pistachio orchards infested by carpophilus beetle have been confirmed in Stanislaus, Merced, Madera and Kings counties, suggesting that the establishment of this new pest is already widespread. In fact, some specimens from Merced County were from collections that were made in 2022, suggesting that the pest has been present in the San Joaquin Valley for at least a year already.

“It has likely been here for a few years based on the damage we’ve seen,” Rijal said.

This invasive beetle overwinters in remnant nuts (i.e. mummy nuts) that are left in the tree or on the ground following the previous year’s harvest. Adults move onto new crop nuts around hull-split, where they deposit their eggs directly onto the nut. The larvae that emerge feed on the developing kernels, leaving the almond kernel packed with a fine powdery mix of nutmeat and frass that is sometimes accompanied by an oval-shaped tunnel.

Carpophilus beetle has been well-established in Australia for over 10 years, where it is considered a key pest of almonds. More recently, the beetle was reported from walnuts in Argentina and Italy as well. Carpophilus truncatus is a close relative to other beetles in the genus Carpophilus, such as the driedfruit beetle (C. hemipterus) that is known primarily as a postharvest pest of figs and raisins in California.

Monitoring for carpophilus beetle is currently limited to direct inspection of hull split nuts for the presence of feeding holes and/or larvae or adult beetles. A new pheromone lure that is being developed in Australia may soon provide a better monitoring tool for growers, PCAs and researchers.

“We’re lucky to have colleagues abroad that have already been hammering away at this pest for almost a decade,” said Haviland. “Hopefully we can learn from their experiences and quickly get this new beetle under control.”

The ability to use insecticides to control carpophilus beetle remains unclear. The majority of the beetle’s life cycle is spent protected inside the nut, with relatively short windows of opportunity available to attack the adults while they are exposed. The location of the beetles within the nut throughout most of their life cycle also allows them to avoid meaningful levels of biological control.

In the absence of clear chemical or biological control strategies, the most important tool for managing this beetle is crop sanitation.

“Given that this pest overwinters on remnant nuts, similar to navel orangeworm, crop sanitation will be fundamental to controlling it,” Wilson said. “If you needed another reason to clean up and destroy mummy nuts – this is it.”

In Australia, sanitation is currently the primary method for managing this pest. And here in California, new research and extension activities focused on carpophilus beetle are currently in the works.

“It’s important that we get on top of this immediately,” said Wilson. “We’re already starting to put together a game plan for research and extension in 2024 and beyond.”

If you suspect that you have this beetle in your orchard, please contact your local UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor (https://ucanr.edu/About/Locations/), County Agricultural Commissioner (https://cacasa.org/county/) and/or the CDFA Pest Hotline (https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/plant/reportapest/) at 1-800-491-1899.

2023-11-03T09:08:09-07:00November 3rd, 2023|

USDA awards $2 million to study livestock grazing in organic orchards

Courtesy of UC ANR News

UC, The Organic Center, University of Rhode Island partner on $3.5m food safety study for organic produce growers

Grazing sheep and other livestock can help convert cover crops to fertilizer for orchard crops. To develop best management practices, the University of California and The Organic Center are collaborating on research to help organic orchard growers safely incorporate livestock grazing into their farming practices. The project is funded by a $2 million grant recently awarded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative research program.   

Interest in grazing livestock on cover crops in nut orchards has increased in recent years. However, research is needed to determine the best way to improve soil health and pest suppression, and to address concerns about food-borne pathogens and food safety.   

“Organic farmers typically follow the USDA National Organic Program standards for raw animal manure, waiting 90 to 120 days between incorporating raw manure into the soil and harvesting the crop,” said Alda Pires, UC Cooperative Extension urban agriculture and food safety specialist in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis.

“Little research has been conducted to verify adequate waiting periods to reduce contamination risks in integrated crop-livestock production systems,” she said. “This research will fill the knowledge gap and facilitate the development of science-based food safety guidelines for grazing small ruminants in orchards.”  

For this four-year project, “Influence of Orchard Grazing on Soil Health and Pest Control While Mitigating Food Safety Risk,” the scientists will study organic almond, walnut and pistachio orchards in two distinct nut-growing regions in California – the Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin Valley. The scientists will assess the effects of livestock grazing of cover crops on bacteria populations, soil health, pest control and economics.

Building soil health

“Growers have consistently raised the need for more information on grazing impacts on nutrient availability during tree growth, as well as potential to build up the biological, physical and chemical pillars of soil health,” said Amelie Gaudin, associate professor and endowed chair of agroecology in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences.

Livestock grazing may provide an opportunity to quickly enhance the amount of nitrogen that can be used by plants and microbes when the cover crop is terminated. “This project will help growers develop nitrogen budgets for these more diversified systems and quantify additional benefits and potential tradeoffs for soil health – such as compaction and salinity – to guide the development of place-based best management practices,” Gaudin said  

Pest management

Houston Wilson, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Entomology at UC Riverside, will be studying the effects of livestock grazing on orchard pests.

“Navel orangeworm, or NOW, is by far the most destructive pest of almonds and pistachios,” Wilson said. “These moths overwinter in unharvested nuts in the orchard, and so removal and destruction of remnant nuts over the winter is the foundation of NOW control. While farmers typically use machinery to do this, grazing with animals may present a unique alternative that is more cost-effective and provides additional ecosystem benefits, such as soil health and weed control.”

Outreach to farmers

As part of the project, The Organic Center was awarded $75,000 to work with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources to direct national extension and education outreach activities. These will include a social media campaign, webinars and educational sessions and a technical report for growers.  

“There is an increasing interest from organic farmers to learn how to incorporate livestock into their operations to gain better soil health and fertility,” said Amber Sciligo, director of science programs at The Organic Center. 

“This research is very exciting because it will holistically explore the potential risks and benefits of livestock not just to soil health, but also pest control – a truly interdisciplinary project that matches the whole system of the organic farm.”

Produce food-safety management tools 

For another organic food-safety project, Pires and Sciligo will be working with Patrick Baur, professor of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems at the University of Rhode Island.

The University of Rhode Island and The Organic Center received $3.5 million from USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative research program for the new organic food-safety education project. 

“We’re going to develop a new food safety management tool designed specifically for organic soil amendments,” said Baur, who is leading the project. “We’re also going to develop a suite of new communication and training tools aimed at the entire fruit and vegetable sector to build a shared language between organic agriculture and the food safety community and help them work better together.” 

As part of the produce project, Pires of UC Davis was awarded $1.16 million to conduct a risk assessment and create a publicly accessible dashboard to meet the specific needs of organic growers, from small-scale to larger farms, under different cropping systems, in different regions. 

Also participating in this project will be Beatriz Martinez Lopez, professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, and Abhinav Mishra and Govindaraj Dev Kumar of the University of Georgia.  

2023-10-05T08:08:18-07:00October 5th, 2023|

New UC ANR scientists bring expertise in ag tech as well as crop production

Courtesy of UC ANR News

This spring more scientists joined University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources to share their practical knowledge in counties across the state. UC ANR recently hired UC Cooperative Extension advisors and academic coordinators who bring expertise in small-scale farms, tree and field crops, water resiliency, weed management and pest management. In a sign of our changing times, UC Cooperative Extension added an urban agriculture technology area advisor.

UC Cooperative Extension advisors work directly with community members to apply research-based information to improve the lives and livelihoods of Californians. Increased funding from Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature has enabled UC ANR to expand its expertise across the state.

To see a list of UC Cooperative Extension advisors who have joined in the past few months, visit https://ucanr.edu/About/DirectorySearch/Recent_Hires. The most recently hired scientists are introduced below.

Wheeler-Dykes returns to roots with tree crops, weeds

For Becky Wheeler-Dykes, the UC Cooperative Extension orchard systems and weed ecology advisor for Glenn, Tehama and Colusa counties, her new position is deeply rooted in her background.

“I was born and raised on a small prune and walnut farm in Gridley, in nearby Butte County, and am very excited to be putting down roots close to family,” said Wheeler-Dykes, who started in this role on June 1.

Covering olives, prunes, walnuts and almonds, with an emphasis on weed management research in those cropping systems, Wheeler-Dykes is spending her first months on the job getting to know the region’s growers and broader agricultural community.

“I hope to form great relationships with the clientele in my counties, providing a resource that they can trust and rely on,” she said. “I want to serve as an advocate for our region in developing research and finding answers for the unique systems we have here. My interests are alternative weed management in orchard systems and canopy management, but I look forward to hearing what other areas need to be addressed.”

After earning both a bachelor’s in crop science and business management and a master’s in entomology (with a focus on integrated pest management in tree crops) from UC Davis, Wheeler-Dykes has conducted extensive agricultural research.

“I’m excited to bring those experiences to the Sac Valley as the newest advisor,” she said, encouraging growers and producers in the region to contact her with the challenges they are facing. 

Based at the UCCE Glenn County office in Orland, Wheeler-Dykes can be reached at bawheeler@ucanr.edu.

Castiaux expands role with Small Farms and Specialty Crops Program

Marianna Castiaux began her new role on June 1 as the Small Farms and Specialty Crops Program academic coordinator serving Californians statewide. In this role, Castiaux will be focused on improving workshops across all grants, creating new curriculum and teaching staff in other counties.

Aiming to build capacity to address growing challenges across California agriculture, she is excited to continue with the Small Farms and Specialty Crops Program in Fresno, where she has been working for the last three years as a project manager for the Healthy Soils Program.

Castiaux earned a Master of Science in conservation leadership from Colorado State University and a bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from UC Santa Cruz. She has eight years of practical cross-cultural experience in agriculture, teaching and implementing climate-smart agricultural practices and summarizing complex topics in a more simplified form to various diverse audiences.

Fluent in Spanish, Castiaux was a bilingual lead educator for community-based participatory climate change resiliency programs for sugar cane farmers in Paraguay and coffee farmers in Mexico. She also worked with the California Strawberry Commission as a grower education specialist for three years teaching farmworkers and growers food safety, practices and research.

Castiaux is based in Fresno County and can be reached by email at mjcastiaux@ucanr.edu

Angeles brings weed expertise to San Joaquin Valley

Jorge Angeles started on May 8 as the UC Cooperative Extension weed management and ecology advisor for Tulare, Kings and Fresno counties. Angeles will be right at home – in place and in vocation.

“I was born and raised in Tulare County and have been working in agriculture my entire life,” he said.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in plant science from Fresno State, Angeles conducted pesticide efficacy trials at the DuPont Research Farm in Madera. He later earned a master’s in plant science from Fresno State, writing his thesis under the supervision of weed science professor Anil Shrestha and retired UCCE advisor Kurt Hembree.

An employee of UCCE for the past six years, Angeles worked with a pair of emeritus UCCE academics, Steve Wright and Bob Hutmacher.

Currently, Angeles is talking with growers, pest control advisers and other farm advisors about the pressing weed-management issues across the region.

“One of my main goals is to find alternative control methods for some of the herbicide-resistant and invasive weeds that are a problem in different agricultural crops,” he said. 

Based in Tulare, Angeles can be reached at jaangeles@ucanr.edu and (559) 684-3300.

Johnson joins UC ANR as urban ag tech advisor

Grant Johnson joined UC ANR on May 1 as the UC Cooperative Extension urban agriculture technology area advisor for Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Johnson provides unbiased, research-driven information to people working in urban agriculture, with a focus on controlled environments such as greenhouses. His clientele is interested in adopting technologies that can improve plant production, ranging from nurseries and commercial growers to community members managing local gardens.

In his newly created role, Johnson’s efforts will influence the scope of work for urban agricultural technology advisors to come. One of the challenges that he anticipates is “focusing knowledge” or choosing a specific problem to prioritize. 

“I’m really interested in irrigation, soil and plant culture. There’s a lot to consider and there’s a lot that can be done,” said Johnson.

Before he was hired as an advisor, Johnson worked as a staff research associate for five years at the South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine under Darren Haver, director of UC ANR’s Research and Extension Center system.

“I learned a lot while I was an SRA, but there was only so much that I could do. I wanted more freedom to explore as a researcher, so I decided I wanted to become an advisor,” Johnson said, adding that his career goal inspired him to return to school.

Johnson earned a master’s degree in horticulture and agronomy from UC Davis, as well as a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

One of the exciting aspects of the job, according to Johnson, is the ability to get creative and explore new territory. “I have some fun research interests, like how to grow wasabi or maximize saffron production using hydroponics,” Johnson explained. 

“I’m interested in the kind of things that might be culturally important or significant to certain communities, and how they can be made more affordable and accessible,” he added. 

Johnson is based out of the South Coast Research and Extension Center and can be reached at gejohnson@ucanr.edu.

Cohen joins UCCE as entomology advisor in Ventura County

Hamutahl Cohen joined UC ANR as a UC Cooperative Extension entomology advisor in Ventura County on June 1. Her primary responsibility is to develop environmentally sustainable pest management in local agricultural systems.

Cohen earned her Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied how to develop agricultural practices to promote a diversity of beneficial insects and ecosystem services. She then conducted postdoctoral research at UC Riverside, where she studied pollinator health in Yolo County sunflowers.

Her research has been presented at national and international conferences, published in more than 14 peer-reviewed publications, and shared through blogs, fact sheets and field days with her local grower community. 

Prior to joining UC ANR, Cohen worked as a commercial horticulture agent with the Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. This summer she will work with industry and university partners across Ventura County to evaluate the needs of the local growers and design an applied research and extension program.

Cohen is excited to address a myriad of issues related to pest management, including identification and monitoring, pest biology and phenology, crop loss assessment, pesticide resistance prevention, and evaluation of integrated pest management methods with an emphasis on biological and cultural controls. She is eager to conduct this work in regional crops such as berries, avocado, citrus and more.

“Ventura County is an important place to advance agricultural practices that reduce economic damage from pests while minimizing impacts on the environment, farmworkers and consumers,” said Cohen.

Cohen is based out of the UCCE office in Ventura and can be reached at hcohen@ucanr.edu. Follow her on Instagram @beescientista.

Tang joins UCCE in Napa County to work on water issues

Qicheng Tang joined UC Cooperative Extension in Napa County on April 10 as an assistant project scientist for water resources and water resiliency.

Tang will be developing water resiliency strategies for stakeholders and diverse ecosystems across Napa County. In addition, he will design and implement creative research, acquire and share technical knowledge, and promote stewardship of surface and groundwater resources to meet the needs of competing users and natural systems.

This summer, Tang will collaborate with growers, UC Davis researchers and UC ANR colleagues to measure the crop coefficient of Napa grape vineyards.

“This work aims to support groundwater sustainability planning with water budget calculations and to provide crucial information for irrigation management,” he said.

Prior to joining UC ANR, Tang earned a Ph.D. in soil science from Pennsylvania State University, where his work focused on the ecohydrology of oak-maple forest. Fluent in Mandarin, he also holds a bachelor’s degree in hydrogeology from Nanjing University in China. Tang took a one-year training at North Carolina State University as a postdoctoral scholar working on large-scale nutrient modeling. 

He Is looking forward to applying his experience and learning new skills in his new role. 

“I am very excited about this new journey,” said Tang. “Water problems are pressing, important and interesting.”

Tang is based at the UCCE office in Napa and can be reached at qictang@ucanr.edu, LinkedIn and on Twitter @qicheng_tang.

Galdi named UCCE farm advisor in Merced County

Giuliano Galdi joined UC Cooperative Extension in Merced County on May 1 as an agronomy and crops advisor. In Merced, he will be working with alfalfa, corn, cotton, and small grain crops as well as helping with weed management and other issues related to crop production.

He had served as a UC Cooperative Extension agronomy advisor in Siskiyou County since 2019.

While in Siskiyou County, he worked on managing blue alfalfa aphids and investigating crop injury to Roundup Ready alfalfa with Rob Wilson, director of Intermountain Research and Extension Center and UCCE in Siskiyou County, and Tom Getts, UCCE weed and crop systems advisor for Lassen County. Galdi also conducted research on irrigation efficiency, winter groundwater recharge, and soil moisture sensors. 

Prior to joining UCCE, Galdi was a junior specialist at UC Davis, where he worked on a variety of field trials, mainly alfalfa and forage crops, with the objective of improving the sustainability of water use and hay quality. As a master’s student and student research assistant at Fresno State, Galdi evaluated salinity tolerance in different alfalfa varieties. He speaks Portuguese fluently. 

He earned a M.S. in plant sciences from Fresno State and a B.S. in agronomy engineering from University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Galdi is based in Merced and can be reached at gcgaldi@ucanr.edu.

Reyes joins UCCE as orchard systems advisor

Clarissa Reyes joined UC Cooperative Extension on March 1 as an orchard systems advisor. Her role focuses on walnut, cling peach and kiwifruit production in Sutter, Yuba, Butte and Placer counties. Reyes serves as a point of contact for orchard owners when they need support diagnosing and solving problems. 

Reyes is excited about developing climate-adapted management practices and working with the recently expanded team of orchard advisors serving the northern Sacramento Valley, but she also anticipates encountering some challenges. 

“Some of the challenges I expect to face are low crop prices despite increasing costs to farmers, including labor and inputs; water scarcity; and more frequent and higher temperature heat waves affecting fruit development and quality,” explained Reyes.

Reyes earned a master’s degree in horticulture and agronomy from UC Davis. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from UC San Diego. 

When describing her journey into agriculture, Reyes said that she “likes the way food makes it easy to connect with people.” She also said that after realizing a career in biotech was “not a good fit,” she let her love for gardening alter her career path. 

“I’m really into food systems and food is an important part of culture,” said Reyes. “So, it was the overlap of research and food. Even though the science part can go over someone’s head, everyone understands food.”

Before joining Cooperative Extension, she worked as a junior specialist studying plant-water relations at UC Davis. While her research was focused on grapevines, she started working with walnut trees, which exposed her to opportunities in orchard systems. Afterwards, she became a staff research associate in orchards systems in Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties. 

Reyes is based out of the UC Cooperative Extension office in Yuba City and can be reached at clareyes@ucanr.edu.

2023-09-12T13:27:12-07:00September 12th, 2023|

Harvest-assisting robot wins Farm Robotics Challenge top prize

UC Davis, University of Nebraska and UC Santa Cruz teams honored for ag tech innovation

A robot designed to reduce farmworker injuries and streamline harvest took the top prize in the Farm Robotics Challenge 2023.  The challenge spotlighted the exceptional innovation and technical prowess of students from universities across the United States. Teams from UC Davis, the University of Nebraska and UC Santa Cruz were presented awards in a virtual ceremony June 3. Organized by the AI Institute for Next Gen Food Systems (AIFS), The VINE, Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation and farm-ng, the inaugural annual event celebrated student innovators’ contributions to the advancement of agricultural technology.

The Farm Robotics Challenge, sponsored by Beck’s Hybrids, provided a platform for students to demonstrate engineering, computer science, critical thinking and business skills. They engaged in real-world farming scenarios, creating and programming farm robots using the farm-ng platform. The contest demonstrated how students can apply technology and innovation against challenges in agriculture.

The awards ceremony recognized the following teams for their exceptional contributions:

Grand Prize Winner: Amiggie from UC Davis, a robot designed to assist human pickers and streamline harvest operations. The robot monitors risky postures, carries harvested crops, and streamlines the unloading process for increased efficiency.

Team advisors: Juan Fernando Villacres, Lance Halsted


  • Kaiming Fu
  • Yuankai Zhu
  • Xuchang Tang
  • Qikai Gao
  • Shuchen Ye
  • Hualong Yu
  • Yihan Wu
  • Jinduo Guo
  • Hang Ji
  • Xiaotan “Molly” Mo

Complexity in Design Prize: Huskerbot from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an innovative robot that combines machine learning and precise herbicide application for more sustainable farming.

Team advisor: Santosh K Pitla


  • Amlan Balabantaray
  • Shaswati Behera
  • Nipuna Chamara Abeysinghe Herath Mudiyanselag
  • Krishna Muvva
  • Kaden Monk
  • Kashish Syed
  • Zane Rikli
  • Ryleigh Grove

Elegance in Design Prize: Robo-ag from UC Davis, an autonomous robot designed to target pesticide application to minimize chemical waste and environmental impact.

Team advisors: Mason Earles, Alex Olenskyj, Vivian Vuong


  • Heesup Yun
  • Earl Ranario
  • Nishi Bhagat
  • Riya Desai
  • Connor Davainis
  • Summer Reeves
  • Amir Mazraawi

Small Farms Robot Design Prize: Electrified Slugs from UC Santa Cruz, autonomous navigation software that efficiently weeds plant lines on small organic farms.

Team advisors: Dejan Milutinovic, Darryl Wong


  • Oliver Fuchs
  • Joshua Gamlen
  • Katherine Rogacheva

Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources and founder of the VINE, commended the competition’s success.

“The Farm Robotics Challenge is about shaping the future of agriculture by inspiring the next generation of ag tech pioneers,” said Youtsey. “The ideas that emerged from this competition are solutions for today’s farming challenges, highlighting how technology can contribute to a more sustainable, productive and resilient food system.”

Ethan Rublee, CEO/Founder of farm-ng, was highly impressed by the dedication, creativity and vision demonstrated by the student teams.

“The innovative solutions these students have engineered is a testament to their determination and ingenuity,” Rublee noted. “They’re not just addressing the challenges facing agriculture today — they’re proactively anticipating the problems of tomorrow. It’s truly exciting to imagine where their ideas will take us in the future.”

Steve Brown, AIFS associate director, commended the students for being a part of a meaningful moment in the history of agriculture.

“With 2 billion more people to feed in the next 25 years, there are grand challenges that this generation realizes are directly in front of them, and they are meeting those challenges,” Brown said. “It was encouraging to see the imagination of this generation of makers of all talents leveraging technology, which is now able to bring their ideas to life.”

In addition to recognition and prize money — $10,000 for the Grand Prize Winner and $5,000 for each category winner — the Farm Robotics Challenge winners will have the opportunity to showcase their innovative projects at FIRA USA 2023 in September. This premier event in Salinas California serves as a global stage for agricultural technology innovation, presenting an opportunity for these young innovators to make their mark on an international level. Learn more about FIRA USA 2023 and register at https://fira-usa.com

“All participating teams deserve recognition for their dedication, hard work and innovative solutions,” said Youtsey.

Other competitors included Autonomous Pasture Weeding Robot and Autonomous Lettuce Weeding Robot from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo; Team Klaatu from UC Santa Barbara; The Maize Runners from Brigham Young University; Team 307, Team 306, and Bobcats from UC Merced; TartanPest from Carnegie Mellon University; Children of the Corn, Dig Doug, and PruneScape from Purdue University; and SARDOG from Fresno State.

For more information about the Farm Robotics Challenge and future events, please visit https://farmbot.ai.

2023-06-09T08:06:59-07:00June 9th, 2023|

UC Ag Experts Talk About Upcoming Webinars

May 31, 2023 (3:00 to 4:00 pm) – Flatheaded Borer Concerns in California Walnuts

In this webinar, Dr. Jhalendra Rijal, UCCE Area IPM Advisor in Merced and San Joaquin Counties, will discuss flatheaded borer and how it is an old pest but has become a new problem in California walnuts. This presentation will cover various aspects of flatheaded borer IPM management including the behavior and biology of the borer, adult emergence timing, monitoring tools, and cultural and insecticidal control methods.

1.0 CEU (other) from DPR, 1.0 CEU (IPM) from CCA, and 1.0 CEU Certified Arborists, 0.5 CEU Board Certified Arborists from WC-ISA are approved.

Register Now

May 30, 2023 (1:00 to 3:00 pm) – Science for Citrus Health: Research Update on Asian Citrus Psyllid Development

The Science for Citrus Health Webinar will focus on recent research on the survival and development of Asian citrus psyllid under California conditions and research from the University of Florida on biological control of Asian citrus psyllid.

2.0 CEU (other) from DPR and 2.0 CEU (IPM) from CCA are approved.

Register Now

June 5 to 9, 2023 (12:00 to 1:00 pm each day) – Invasive Species Action Week Lunchtime Talks

Invasive species are arriving in California with increasing frequency. The best time to stop them is before they arrive, and federal, state, and local agencies are keeping their eyes out for new arrivals and threats on the horizon. When they do arrive, Early Detection and Rapid Response are critical to their management. Many detections are made by individuals not associated with any agency or university, and through community/participatory science programs, almost anyone can help to spot the next invasive.

Webinars are free, but registration is required for each day. Visit the California Invasive Species Action Week Lunchtime Talks website for more information and registration.

There are NO CEUs offered for these webinars. Please contact Randall Oliver (rdoliver@ucanr.edu) with any questions.

  • Monday, June 5 – Rapid Response and Eradication of Caulerpa in California: Lessons Learned by Rachel Woodfield
  • Tuesday, June 6 – Participatory Science as a Tool to Monitor Invasive Tree Pests by Dr. Beatriz Nobua-Behmann
  • Wednesday, June 7 – Proactive Biological Control of Invasive Pests by Dr. Ricky Lara
  • Thursday, June 8 – Early Detection and Rapid Response for Invasive Plants in California by Dr. Chris McDonald
  • Friday, June 9 – Rapid Spread of Invasive Aquatic Plants in the Changing San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary by Dr. Brenda Grewell

Register Now

2023-05-25T08:34:10-07:00May 25th, 2023|

Study offers insights on reducing nitrate contamination from groundwater recharge

By Mike Hsu

With California enduring record-breaking rain and snow and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently easing restrictions on groundwater recharge, interest in “managed aquifer recharge” has never been higher. This process – by which floodwater is routed to sites such as farm fields so that it percolates into the aquifer – holds great promise as a tool to replenish depleted groundwater stores across the state.

But one concern, in the agricultural context, is how recharge might push nitrates from fertilizer into the groundwater supply. Consumption of well water contaminated with nitrates has been linked to increased risk of cancers, birth defects and other health impacts.

“Many growers want to provide farmland to help recharge groundwater, but they don’t want to contribute to nitrate contamination of the groundwater, and they need to know how on-farm recharge practices might affect their crops,” said Matthew Fidelibus, a University of California Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology.

A recently published study by UC scientists sheds new light on how nitrates move through an agricultural recharge site and how growers might reduce potential leaching. Researchers analyzed data from two grapevine vineyards at Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Fresno County – one flooded for two weeks, and other for four.

Understanding initial nitrate levels crucial

A key factor in mitigating contamination is understanding how much nitrate is in the soil at the outset, said study author Helen Dahlke, a UC Davis hydrologist and leader of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ strategic initiative on water. In areas with little precipitation and cropping systems that require greater amounts of synthetic fertilizer, the accumulation of residual nitrate – resulting from nitrogen in the fertilizer not taken up by the plants – can be quite high.

“The percentage of nitrates in some soils can really increase over the years, particularly if you have many dry years in a row where you don’t have access to irrigation water or natural precipitation flushing some of those nitrates out of the soil,” Dahlke said.

While intense rains in recent weeks have helped dilute nitrate concentrations naturally, farmers looking to participate in recharge during the dry years ahead should consider flooding their fields with greater volumes of water.

“If you’re doing this for the first time – on-farm recharge in the winter – check your residual soil nitrate levels because if they’re very high, you should apply a lot of water in order to make sure that the residual nitrate is diluted down,” said Dahlke, who also added that growers should check their soil properties for suitability of recharge projects.

She recommended using, as a “good first approximation,” the online Soil Agricultural Groundwater Banking Index map, a project led by Toby O’Geen, a UC Cooperative Extension soil resource specialist.

Researchers looking at other ways to reduce nitrates

Even before flooding the fields for recharge, there are several practices that can lower initial nitrate levels and risk of leaching. Cover crops such as alfalfa and triticale, for example, can help take up residual nitrates that accumulate from fertilizing a main crop over time.

Dahlke and Fidelibus – a co-author of the San Joaquin Valley vineyard study – both pointed to pre-flooding irrigation that encourages denitrification, a process in which soil microbes transform nitrates into gaseous forms of nitrogen.

“Those denitrifying microbes need to be stimulated to do the work,” said Dahlke. “What we have found is that if you do a little bit of irrigation before you start the flooding, increasing the soil moisture can get those microbes started and they can take out more nitrate from the soil.”

The timing and quantity of fertilizer applications are also major factors in reducing leaching. Although more growers are following high-frequency, low-concentration practices to maximize uptake by crops, Dahlke said there needs to be more emphasis on incorporating nitrogen transformation processes – such as denitrification – in the nutrient management guidelines that farmers follow.

“Implementing thoughtful nutrient management plans will play a particularly important role in participating farms,” Fidelibus added.

A more holistic view of groundwater recharge

In short, choices made during the growing season can affect those in the winter recharge season – and vice versa. For example, applying compost or other organic amendments to soil can give microbes the “fuel” they need for sustained denitrification.

“What we have found is that our denitrifying bacteria often run out of steam because they don’t have enough carbon to do the work,” Dahlke said. “Like us, microbes need energy to do the work, and for microbes this energy comes from soil carbon.”

Then, adding moisture via recharge to that field with high organic content can stimulate mineralization and nitrification, processes in which microbes transform the organic nitrogen into ammonium – and subsequently nitrates – that the plants can then take up. Those naturally occurring nitrates would thus reduce the need for the grower to apply synthetic fertilizer.

“The winter on-farm recharge experiments have shown that altering the moisture regime in the winter has consequences for the nitrogen budget in the summer growing season,” Dahlke explained. “Theoretically, what we need to be doing is better integrating both seasons by keeping an eye on the soil-nitrogen balance across the whole year so that we can ensure, at the end of the growing season, the residual nitrate in the soil is minimized.”

The study, published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, was part of the post-doctoral work of former UC Davis researcher Elad Levintal. In addition to Fidelibus and Dahlke, other authors are Laibin Huang, Cristina Prieto García, Adolfo Coyotl, William Horwath and Jorge Rodrigues, all in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis.

2023-03-23T08:08:07-07:00March 23rd, 2023|

UC ANR receives $1 million for VINE Climate-Smart Agrifood Innovation Program

By Pam Kan-Rice

University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) has been awarded a $1 million UC Climate Action Innovation & Entrepreneurship grant for its VINE Climate-Smart Agrifood Innovation Program. The VINE, a UC ANR program advancing sustainable agriculture and food innovation, will use the grant to develop new technologies and techniques that help California farmers adapt to climate change.

“Expanded programming from The VINE will improve UC ANR’s overall ability to serve our mission of improving the lives of all Californians,” said Glenda Humiston, UC vice president for agriculture and natural resources.

California’s agricultural sector is the largest in the United States, producing over 400 crops that account for 25% of the nation’s food production and 40% of its fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.

However, climate change is expected to have a significant impact on the productivity and resilience of California’s working landscapes. Higher temperatures and changing precipitation patterns are projected to increase water demand for crops and create a more limited growing season that will produce lower yields in some crops. Additionally, climate change may increase weed growth and insect damage, leading to higher uses of herbicides and pesticides.

“We are thrilled to receive the UC Climate Action Innovation & Entrepreneurship Award,” said Gabe Youtsey, UC ANR’s chief innovation officer. “With this grant, we will be able to support even more entrepreneurs and innovators in developing climate-resilient solutions for California’s agriculture and food systems.”

“Our ultimate goal is to build a bioeconomy in California’s food valleys that rivals Silicon Valley in size and importance to the future U.S. economy, while also addressing urgent climate crises and advancing equity for underserved populations,” Youtsey said.

The VINE Climate Smart Agrifood Innovation Program is designed to identify, commercialize, and scale science and technology breakthroughs that make food production more sustainable. The VINE team has already supported entrepreneurs in the areas of controlled environment agriculture, precision agriculture, robotics, biologicals, climate-resilient crops, livestock health, and other topics that have direct or indirect mitigating effects on climate change.

The UC Climate Action grant will enable The VINE program to expand its support for startups and entrepreneurs developing climate-resilient solutions for California’s food system. The program will include the creation of a VINE Climate Solutions Seed Fund, which will provide project support for testing, trialing and demonstrating agrifood technology products or services to support commercial expansion.

The VINE Navigator Service will be expanded to provide matchmaking, mentoring, talent identification, finance connections and technical assistance to entrepreneurs from UC campuses, across California, or startups around the globe that have climate solutions in the agrifood sector.

An example of this work is farm-ng, a farm robotics start-up based in Watsonville that The VINE has been advising. With the networking opportunities facilitated by The VINE, farm-ng was able to secure 20 new customers, generating an estimated $500,000 in revenue. The VINE’s involvement also enabled farm-ng to establish a professional manufacturing facility and employ local talent from disadvantaged communities.

The UC Climate Action award is part of a historic $185 million partnership between UC and the state of California to tackle the climate crisis, from developing new methods for carbon capture to creating innovative coping strategies for drought, wildfire and other impacts of a warming planet. 


The VINE program aims to create a next-generation agrifood technology bioeconomy in California’s food valleys to promote sustainable economic growth, address climate crises, and advance equity for underserved regions and populations. The VINE team will work closely with local and regional partners to identify key industry-driven gaps and opportunities across the food system and provide critical support to startups and entrepreneurs developing new solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation.

For more information, please visit The VINE website: thevine.io.

2023-03-03T08:08:46-08:00March 3rd, 2023|

Richard Smith retires after 37 years of translating science into solutions for vegetable growers

By: Pam Kan-Rice

For four decades, when a new plant disease infects fields of lettuce or a new regulation is issued for agriculture, vegetable farmers across the state have turned to Richard Smith, the University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor, for answers. After 37 years of service with UCCE, Smith retired on Jan. 4.

“The whole industry has been dreading Richard’s retirement!” exclaimed Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the California Leafy Greens Research Program. “Richard is a wealth of knowledge and has a great ability to translate science into real-world practical solutions.”

In the past few years, the leafy greens industry has lost millions of dollars of crops due to infections of impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) and Pythium wilt. Smith is among the researchers investigating the diseases.

“Richard has conducted important variety trials and led efforts in identifying the ‘top 10’ weed hosts for INSV and strategies to reduce the wintertime ‘green bridge’ for this virus,” Clarke said.  

Smith also has kept policymakers informed of the latest research. In 2021, he testified before the Assembly Committee on Agriculture about leafy green plant diseases. 

A legacy of practical advice, service to community

By serving on numerous grower and county committees and working directly with growers, Smith has built a reputation for understanding growers’ needs and developing practical solutions. He has found it rewarding to see his research results used. 

“The research that I have conducted with my collaborators has helped the water board to better fit their regulations to the reality of farming and to minimize the economic constraints,” Smith said.

Smith and his colleague Michael Cahn, UCCE irrigation and water resources advisor, also have become trusted and respected voices when discussing AgOrder 4.0 with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, according to Clarke. AgOrder 4.0 calls for farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer they apply to crops. 

Field trials conducted by Smith and Cahn showed growers they could use nitrogen from high nitrate wells toward meeting a crop’s nutritional needs. 

“Richard has also done important research to develop nitrogen removal coefficients for AgOrder 4.0,” Clarke said. “Recently he and Eric Brennan of USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) looked at cover crops and identified a system to predict shoot biomass and allow for nitrogen scavenging credits. His work has been pivotal in helping growers comply with AgOrder 4.0 in a cost-effective and realistic manner.”  

Growers also use his research to manage cadmium, a heavy metal that is naturally present in soils. 

“He led the effort to help growers find a best management practice that reduces cadmium uptake in various crops,” Clarke said. “The Central Coast has areas of productive agricultural land where there are naturally occurring shale deposits. The ability to amend soil to reduce plant uptake of this heavy metal has allowed these important production areas to continue to farm nutritious vegetables.”

‘Never had a bad day as a farm advisor’

Growing up in Watsonville, Smith began working at a young age in agriculture for summer jobs.

“I was in 4-H and got to know ag advisors and was always impressed by them,” Smith said. “I was fortunate to be able to work as an advisor for my career. I never had a bad day as a farm advisor – it was very satisfying working with growers and helping them with their issues.” 

Smith joined UC Cooperative Extension as a farm advisor intern in San Diego County and San Joaquin County in 1985 after earning his master’s degree in agronomy from UC Davis. In 1986, he moved to the Central Valley to serve as an interim farm advisor for San Joaquin County, then became a vegetable crops farm advisor for Stanislaus County in 1987. 

In 1989, Smith moved to the Central Coast to serve as UCCE small farms advisor for San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. In 1999, he transitioned to UCCE vegetable crops and weed science farm advisor for those three counties, where he served for the rest of his career.

Mentoring the next generation of scientists

“Richard was my mentor, principal investigator on my first collaborative study at ANR, speaker at several of my extension events, and a dear colleague,” said Surendra Dara, former UCCE entomology and biologicals advisor and now director of Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research & Extension Center and professor of horticulture. “He is very kind, friendly, and most importantly has a good sense of humor. He is well-regarded both by his peers and stakeholders.”

Smith has been active in professional organizations, regularly attending the annual meetings of the American Society for Horticulture Science and the American Society of Agronomy. He served as president of the California Chapter of the American Society of Agronomy in 2014 and served on the board of the California Weed Science Society, which granted him the Award of Excellence in 2005 and an honorary membership in 2020.

As a public service, Smith served on the board of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, and taught classes and conducted outreach to their Spanish-speaking clientele. He was a regular guest speaker for vegetable crop and weed science classes at CSU Fresno, CSU Monterey Bay, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Hartnell Community College and Cabrillo Community College. 

As he winds down his career, Smith has been mentoring new UCCE farm advisors and scientists who have joined USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Salinas and California State University, Monterey Bay, acquainting them with local issues.

“Richard’s leadership and mentorship has been critical in the development of my career as a new researcher at USDA-ARS in Salinas,” said Daniel K. Hasegawa, research entomologist in USDA-ARS’s Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit. “Richard has taught me so much about agricultural practices in the Salinas Valley and has connected me with growers and pest control advisers, which has enhanced the impact of my own research, which includes projects addressing thrips and INSV.” 

Smith, who has been granted emeritus status by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, plans to complete nitrogen research projects that are underway.

2023-03-01T14:07:18-08:00March 1st, 2023|
Go to Top