BioConsortia Invents the Future

BioConsortia Plans New Ag Bio Products

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Associate Editor

Marcus Meadows-Smith is with BioConsortia, a research and development biodiscovery company in Davis, Calif. He and his company have big plans to invent the future for Ag.

“The company was founded about 20 years ago in New Zealand and was funded by a U.S. private equity,” said Meadows-Smith. “We decided to globalize the technology, and I became the founding global CEO of the company as it was established in the U.S. about 1 year ago.”

The company in New Zealand is called BioDiscovery. For many years, it was a contract research company that was very successful in the microbial space, working with companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. Then Biodiscovery made a R&D breakthrough. “We have totally restructured the company so that the global headquarters and global R&D are now run out of the United States,” noted Meadows-Smith, “and the New Zealand company has become the subsidiary that handles complementary R&D functions.”

Meadows-Smith mentioned that UC Davis and surrounding areas such as West Sacramento are teaming with bioscience researchers. “It’s turning into a bit of a hub for microbial expertise with several of the big players. Obviously you’ve got UC Davis, which is always credited as being the number one U.S. agricultural university. I’ve heard that it is now the world’s best agricultural university, so it’s a great place to be.”BioConsortia Logo

“We’ve got an excellent team of scientists in Davis, and the historic team in New Zealand has a lot of experience. They’ve been working together now for about five years, so the R&D down there is really humming at a great pace,” said Meadows-Smith.

“We’ve been able to rapidly bring together a group of scientists in the U.S.,” said Meadows-Smith, “that have jelled. We have set up a series of experiments, and we’re putting discoveries together. It’s a very exciting time to be doing pure research in the lab.”

“The other very exciting progression for us is we have just planted our second year of field trials, having completed our first year of field trials in 2014–just after the company was established,” he said.

The company is biological- and microbial-based. “We are looking at teams of microbes to improve plant traits and increase plant yield . We are developing products for fertilizer-use efficiency, abiotic stress tolerance, and biotic stress,” said Meadows-Smith.

“Pests and disease control are important, as well as metabolite expression,” he continued. “We’ve identified teams of microbes that instruct or enable the plant to deposit more sugar. As you can imagine, this provides the double productivity benefit of increasing both yield per acre and sugar content per plant.”

“While getting the plant to have increased sugar deposited in its leaf structure is a good thing; but that is actually not our main focus,” Meadows-Smith said. “We look at all the crops we want to target and ask what are the biggest needs today?”

“Fertilizer, for example, is a significant cost for the grower, so fertilizer-use efficiency products, we believe, would experience a large demand,”  Meadows-Smith stated. “There are also concerns about fertilizer leaching into groundwater, so the more efficient you can make plant take up the fertilizer, the better,” he added. “And of course, living in California, we are acutely aware of the importance of drought, so we are working on that as well. We are hoping for a yield increase per acre for the grower in everything we do.”

“We are moving products down the pipeline as we speak,” he commented, “and, obviously, we want a large body of data to demonstrate to growers how to best use our products. We are looking for two years of good field trial results and then we’ll go through the registration process. So we are expecting to get our first product on the market by 2017.

“We are developing products that contain beneficial bacteria, beneficial fungi, and good plant colonizers,”  Meadows-Smith declared. “Some will colonize the root system, and some the outside of the plant. Still others, endophytes, that will actually grow through the plant tissue. Just as we humans have microbes in our guts to aid digestion, plants actually have beneficial microbes, bacteria and fungi growing within the plant tissue,” Meadows-Smith explained.

Meadows-Smith said BioConsortia’s revolutionary platform will take biologicals to the next level “by assembling teams of microbes that perform complementary functions; so while some microbes will enhance the root system, others will aid the root in nutrient uptake,” he said. “This will bring consistency and superior performance to the marketplace. It’s a very exciting time for the industry as a whole,” he said.

“We are looking to transform food production in a way that is sustainable, bringing benefits to the grower and feeding the world with nutritious, affordable food. That’s what we are in this industry for. These are very exciting times!” Meadows-Smith said.

Featured photo: Marcus Meadows-Smith, with Bio Consortia Scientists.

Farm employment: Drought impact adds uncertainty to hiring outlook

Source: Ag Alert

Even though reduced crop production caused by water shortages may reduce on-farm employment in California, farmers and farm labor contractors say they expect continued trouble in filling agricultural jobs this spring and summer.

“The drought is still ongoing, which means that there will be a lot of land left uncultivated,” said Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of employment policy and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service. “This will probably soften the blow of the shortage of labor some, but everything I am hearing is that the labor market is still pretty tight.”

Little said most of the farmers with whom he speaks “are finding that labor is still pretty scarce.” He said farmers are expressing increasing interest in the federal H-2A guestworker program—despite its signficant drawbacks—while “relying more and more” on farm labor contractors.

San Luis Obispo County farmer Carlos Castañeda, who is also a farm labor contractor, said the growing season kicked off in his region earlier than usual. So far, he said, he has been able to hire the people he needs but, he added, there isn’t an abundance of workers.

“My growers are cutting plantings back tremendously,” Castañeda said. “Unfortunately, the shortage of water is helping the shortage of labor—but as soon as the water issues are solved, the labor one is going to go into warp speed.”

About a month from now, Castañeda said, he expects several commodities will be ready for harvest at the same time, which will increase the need for on-farm employees and reduce the number of workers available.

Michael Frantz, co-owner of Frantz Wholesale Nursery in Hickman, said he remains concerned about finding enough people to do the highly technical work at his horticultural company, which specializes in landscape trees, shrubs and drought-tolerant plants.

“We have full-time employment that requires learning the skills of a trade that are taught on-farm. There are a lot of technical skills, whether it is grafting or budding and training of trees to be grown to retail-grade specifications, that take years to master,” Frantz said. “For a nursery to grow consistent quality product, we need a workforce that looks at our nursery and our company as a career choice. Our best employees have been here 10 to 30 years.”

Frantz said he has had problems hiring skilled workers for the past several years. In 2013, his nursery supplemented its own hiring with the use of farm labor contractors. Last year, he said, was “the first year that we were unable to fill all of the positions.”

Frantz said his business printed fliers describing the company, its pay rates, benefits and other amenities.

“For the first time, we felt we had to sell ourselves to the community as opposed to expecting people to show up looking for work,” Frantz said. “We set up card tables at the employment office and had human resources people there handing out fliers. That outreach had minimal results.”

As a result, he said he is very concerned about locating reliable workers for this season, adding that many other nurseries share the same concern.

“This year, we are running ads on Spanish radio. We have ramped up our hiring efforts and already, it is early, but it seems that 2015 is going to be more difficult than last year,” Frantz said. “The lack of a dependable ag workforce is preventing us from adding additional jobs and growing our family businesses like we would like to be able to do.”

Earl Hall, owner of Hall Management Corp., a farm labor contractor headquartered in Fresno, said he is aware that agriculture faces a shortage of available employees, but says he has avoided shortages by being “real careful” not to expand unless conditions warrant.

“You have to be in this industry for a long time like I’ve been so that you know the trends and what is happening,” said Hall, whose company reaches 50 years in business this year.

Castañeda said more growers are opting to use the federal H-2A program to hire immigrant employees, which he called an “expensive and absolutely bureaucratic nightmare, but it is the only tool available.”

Little said use of the H-2A program among California farmers and ranchers remains relatively slight because of a variety of problems with the program, including its lack of the flexibility agricultural employers need to hire people on a timely basis.

Another factor affecting the availability of potential on-farm employees is reduced migration by Mexicans to the U.S., according to research conducted by Edward Taylor, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, and doctoral student Diane Elise Charlton. Their research found fewer potential farm employees migrating to California due to growth in Mexico’s non-farm economy, falling birth rates and an increase in rural education.

Because of this trend, Little said, Farm Bureau and other groups have advocated for a permanent solution to agricultural labor shortages through immigration reform.

Without legislation to address the country’s current labor situation, bills such as the Legal Workforce Act would harm farms and ranches, Little said. The bill, which would require agricultural employers to use the E-Verify system to prove employment eligibility for agricultural workers, was approved last week by the House Judiciary Committee.

“We are absolutely, adamantly opposed to moving forward with mandatory E-Verify until we know we are going to get a workable guestworker program,” Little said.

California agriculture relies on about 400,000 employees during peak season. Some experts estimate that 70 percent or more of hired farm employees responsible for U.S. fruit, vegetable, dairy, livestock, nursery and other production are not authorized to work in the United States, despite presenting apparently legitimate work documents, Little added.

Fresno State to host commencement for state ag leaders

The Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State will host the California Agricultural Leadership Program commencement ceremony for the first time at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 7 in North Gym, Room 118.

The commencement will cap a three-day seminar for the 44th graduating class of emerging or mid-career agricultural leaders. Graduates of the program acquire skills to enhance the long-term success of their businesses, farms, ranches and organizations.

Over the past 17 months, the group has focused on leadership theory, effective communication, motivation, critical and strategic thinking, change management, emotional intelligence, and complex social and cultural issues.

Four Fresno State graduates – Dustin Fuller, Trevor Meyers, Heather Mulholland and Carissa Koopman Rivers – are among the 24 members who will graduate and were inaugurated in October 2013 at Fresno State.

Each fellow has participated in 55 seminar days, including a 10-day national travel seminar to Gettysburg, Penn., Philadelphia and Washington D.C., and a 15-day international travel seminar to South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“We congratulate the 24 fellows on their important achievement of completing the Ag Leadership Program,” said Bob Gray, president and CEO of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, which operates the program. “These leaders will continue to learn and grow, take on new challenges, assume leadership roles and make a difference.”

The 45th class, inaugurated in October 2014 at Fresno State, will also convene on campus during the three-day event. The class includes four additional Fresno State graduates –- Chris Jensen, Stanley Kjar, Lauren Reid and Justin Spellman.

Fresno State animal sciences Professor Dr. Michael Thomas serves as the Jordan College’s core faculty member for the program’s education team and as the foundation’s director of education.

“We are grateful to the Jordan College for its ongoing support of Ag Leadership and are very pleased to hold our inauguration and commencement ceremonies on campus,” Gray said. “Commencement has been held in Pomona for many decades, but we felt it was important to move it to the more centrally-located Fresno State. We also thank Wells Fargo for their generous sponsorship of commencement.”

Fresno State is one of four California universities that partner with the program. The others are Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly Pomona and University of California, Davis.

More than 1,200 men and women have participated in the program since the first class was introduced in 1970, making it the longest continuously-operating agriculture leadership training experience in the nation.

For more information, contact Meredith Rehrman Ritchie at 916-984-4473 or mritchie@agleaders.org.

Global Food Safety Agreement Signed by China and UC Davis

Officials from China’s Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University in Shaanxi province, and the University of California, Davis, signed a memorandum of agreement on July 23, 2014 that lays the groundwork for establishing the Sino-U.S. Joint Research Center for Food Safety in China.

The signing ceremony was held in the city of Yingchuan, China, during a meeting between high-level officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

“Today’s agreement is a landmark event for UC Davis and for our World Food Center and serves as yet another indication of our worldwide leadership in food and health,” said UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. “We are incredibly pleased to join forces with Northwest A&F University and look forward to making discoveries and realizing solutions that will promote food safety in China and around the world.”

Signing the agreement today were Harris Lewin, vice chancellor of research for UC Davis, and Wu Pute, professor and vice president of Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University. Also present were Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for research, education and economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Vice Minister Zhang Laiwu of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

The memorandum of agreement, which will extend over the next five years, calls for the center’s two lead universities to form a joint research team and research platform, carry out collaborative research projects and cooperate on other food safety-related projects. UC Davis’ World Food Center will identify a director to coordinate the research program. The Chinese partners will provide substantial funding for the new center, with details to be announced this fall.

“This is clear evidence that the entire UC system is fully committed to be front and center on the critical issues of food security, sustainability and health,” said UC President Janet Napolitano. She recently launched the UC Global Food Initiative as a systemwide collaboration to put the world on a path to feed itself nutritiously and sustainably.

Both the Sino-U.S. Joint Research Center and the UC Davis World Food Center will contribute to the UC Global Food Initiative.

“With UC Davis’ commitment to food safety research and China’s ever-increasing demand for food, the Joint Research Center is a natural partnership,” said Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “Food safety will benefit from global scientific collaboration, and new findings will help the food and agriculture sector meet new challenges, improve the health of consumers and maintain the integrity of the global food supply chain.”

Roger Beachy, executive director of the UC Davis World Food Center, noted that the new food safety center is a logical outgrowth of many well-established research collaborations between scientists from UC Davis and China.

“Working closely with Chinese scientists and policymakers, the new center will have significant impacts on food safety in China and elsewhere around the globe,” he said.

Beachy said that the catalyst for the new collaborative effort was a visit to China last fall by Chancellor Katehi. During that visit, Chinese officials and UC Davis alumni identified food safety as a topic of key importance for China. Beachy, who has longstanding ties with China’s research community, became head of the World Food Center in January and has shepherded the collaborative agreement for UC Davis.

About the new food safety center

The Joint Research Center for Food Safety will promote international collaborative research and extension for food safety in China and the U.S. It will conduct research on global food safety-related policies; establish an international, high-level research platform for food safety research; propose solutions for hazards in the food-industry value chain; and develop models for implementation of international food safety standards and risk management. UC Davis and Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University will engage other research faculty from the U.S. and China in the new center.

Students from both UC Davis and China will be offered opportunities to study and train in each other’s countries. UC Davis faculty members currently have extensive collaborations with several Chinese universities, and the new joint research center is intended to expand these and initiate new activities.

On the September 12, 2014 celebration of the 80-year anniversary of the founding of China’s Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, working details for the new center will be laid out.

“The food industry has become the largest industry in China; and food safety is a critical area for China and the U.S. to have creative cooperation and learn from each other,” said Zhang Laiwu, China’s vice minister of science and technology. “It not only involves technologies, but also policies and management. The fruitful cooperation will also be important to ensure food security.”

He added that the new cooperative agreement among UC Davis, Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University, Yangling National Agricultural High Tech Demonstration Zone, and Zhuhai Municipality of China is a creative platform for cooperation in improving food safety.

World Food Center at UC Davis and the UC Global Food Initiative

The World Food Center at UC Davis was established in 2013 to increase the economic benefit from campus research; influence national and international policy; and convene teams of scientists and innovators from industry, academia, government and nongovernmental organizations to tackle food-related challenges in California and around the world.

The UC Global Food Initiative is building on existing efforts such as the World Food Center and other endeavors at UC Davis, while creating new collaborations among the 10 UC campuses, affiliated national laboratories and the systemwide division of Agriculture and Natural Resources to support healthy eating, sustainable agriculture and food security. More information about the UC Global Food Initiative.

Other food-related collaborations with China

UC Davis faculty are currently involved in numerous collaborative research projects in China, including four food-safety efforts that specialize in the genomics of food-borne diseases, dairy safety, waterborne diseases and livestock, and environmental chemicals.

Additionally, the campus hosts the BGI@UC Davis Partnership, which focuses on genome sequencing, and the Confucius Institute, a cultural outreach program emphasizing food and beverages.

 

Graphic Source: Food Safety News

Fresno State Plant Science Students Earn top Honors at UC Davis Weed Day

A team of four Fresno State plant science students took first place in the weed identification category at the 58th annual Weed Day seminar hosted by University of California, Davis.

Seniors Sarah Parry of Sonora, Isaac Giron of Terra Bella and Mala Tu of Cambodia and graduate student Rama Paudel of Nepal correctly identified 17 of 20 weeds to win the contest among almost 200 students on July 10.

Students were asked to identify different types of weeds during a tour of current weed research plots at UC Davis. The plots involved herbicide research in annual fruit and vegetables crops, crop safety and herbicide symptomology demonstrations, aquatic weeds and grassland weed invasion and restoration research.

The students were invited to a dinner after the seminar for one-on-one interaction with UC Davis weed science graduate and post-doctoral students, extension specialists and professors.

“It was a great experience that opened my eyes to new opportunities in weed science and it has encouraged me to pursue my master’s degree,” Perry said. “I’m excited to see what the future has in store.”

Each year, Weed Day brings together pest control advisors, farm advisors, chemical company cooperators, college faculty and students and regulatory officials to learn about current weed science research at UC Davis.

For more information, contact Steve Wright, farm advisor at sdwright@ucdavis.edu or 559.684.3315.

$9 Per Hour Minimum Wage Starts Next Week

By Christine Souza; Ag Alert

Starting July 1, the California state minimum wage increases to $9 per hour, a hike that growers say will result in more challenges on the farm and higher costs overall.

Monterey County strawberry grower Ed Ortega said, “In agriculture, nobody can pay just minimum wage.

“People will find a job doing something else that is much easier work than working in agriculture for minimum wage. They’d rather go and flip burgers for nine bucks,” Ortega said. “Our work demands more than a minimum wage employee, so every time the minimum wage goes up, the whole ladder in our entire pay structure goes up. There’s no such thing as paying the bottom guy more and not the top guy. The whole ladder rises.”

California’s minimum wage increase to $9 per hour is a result of the passage of Assembly Bill 10 by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, in 2013. AB 10 also provided for a second hike in the California minimum wage to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016.

Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of labor affairs and chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service, said raising California’s minimum wage might have happened through a ballot initiative had AB 10 not become law last year.

Proponents of increasing the minimum wage argue it is needed to reduce poverty, while business groups and those opposed believe raising the hourly minimum wage would increase business costs and jeopardize California’s economic recovery.

“The majority of farmers already pay their employees much higher than minimum wage, so when these changes occur, employees making more than minimum wage expect to stay that much ahead of the increased rate,” Little said. “In the short term, it will increase costs to employers, but the labor supply is tight right now, so workers are already able to demand fairly high wages, but the increase still impacts operating costs and business profitability.”

Phil Martin, professor of Agriculture Economics at the University of California, Davis, confirmed that higher minimum wages affect some employers and workers more than others.

“Most farm employers have a wage structure, with some employees earning the minimum wage and others more. If the minimum wage rises by $1 an hour, workers earning more than the minimum wage normally expect a similar increase in order to keep their status in the wage hierarchy,” Martin said. “Employers often respond to higher wages with productivity increasing steps, from providing tools that enable workers to work faster to harvesting fields and orchards less often.”

Martin added that fewer new immigrants have already put upward pressure on farm wages and encouraged more use of labor-saving and productivity-increasing machines.

The new minimum wage has triggered other wage concerns for agriculture employers, Little said.

“A number of other costs associated with employing people are tied to employee earnings, like Workers’ Compensation and Unemployment Insurance; the increase in the minimum wage will directly and immediately impact employers’ costs for that. Also, if farm employers augment their workforces by bringing in farm labor contractors, the farm labor contractor is likely to increase the price of the workers they provide to cover that minimum wage increase and related costs.”

Farm labor contractors can be more efficient, and employ people year-round and spread their employment costs across more jobs than a farmer who employs a small number of people can, Little added.

“Farmers face several challenges in 2014, including implementing the Affordable Care Act and dealing with the effects of the drought,” Martin said.

This season, when it comes to the availability of employees, Ortega said, he is again experiencing a shortage of workers.

“We are experiencing the normal shortage that we experienced last year, which is a pretty extreme shortage of labor. Those who have less of a crop to harvest have a more severe labor shortage than those who have a crop to harvest,” Ortega said.

Whether a farm will attract the workers that are needed, Ortega said, depends on the size of the ranch and whether there is enough work to keep employees working. Smaller farms will have more limited opportunities.

“Any farmer who is experiencing a decrease in the water supply will also be experiencing extreme pest pressures, and if you have increased pest pressure, it means higher cost to the farmer,” Ortega said. “It’s an exponential factor. It’s not just raise the minimum wage a dollar; the associated costs go a lot higher than that.”

California is one of 18 states and the District of Columbia that have minimum wages above the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour and California’s $10 minimum is likely to be among the highest in the nation in 2016. Washington currently has the nation’s highest state minimum wage at $9.19 an hour.

UC Davis Report Shows Startling, Accurate Water Crisis Snapshot

The report issued today by the California Department of Food & Agriculture and the University of California, Davis presents an accurate water crisis picture of the reality resulting from federal decisions that will reduce the production of food and fiber, according to California Citrus Mutual.

Unfortunately, this picture is not complete. The report indicates the losses which have been incurred to-date, but does not and cannot begin to predict future impacts as permanent crops continue to be ripped out of production as we enter into the hottest months with zero access to surface water,” says CCM President Joel Nelsen.

“The report is a compilation of what the authors know is happening as a result of April calculations. Since then, the Bureau of Reclamation has challenged the Administration’s focus on obesity prevention, school lunch programs, and other campaigns focused on healthy eating by holding water that could otherwise be used for the production of food and fiber.

As such, growers are being forced to make difficult farming decisions that have and will continue to result in reduced plantings of annual crops and the removal of permanent crops.

“If there is a flaw in the report, it is the assumption that ground water supplies are available to offset surface water loss, which may be true in some production areas but certainly not all.

The authors do fairly acknowledge that the impacts to the Friant service area in particular are not yet calculated into this water crisis report.

“The report demonstrates the costs associated with the inability of the Central Valley to produce a viable crop due to zero or minimal water allocation.

As the actions of the shortsighted agencies manifest themselves into reality, the cost will be borne for years to come until permanent crop plantings are replaced and production is regained. Production, revenue, and jobs are in abeyance for several years to come.”

Image courtesy of TeddyBear[Picnic]/FreeDigitalPhotos.net