Jeff Mitchell: Conservation No-Till Is One Option For Water Conservation

Jeff Mitchell Has Devoted Career to Conservation No-Till

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor

Jeff Mitchell is a Cropping Systems Specialist at UC Davis, based at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier. He has devoted 19 years to improving nitrogen and water use efficiencies in food, feed, fuel and fiber in no-till cropping systems.

Mitchell’s passion helped found Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center (CASI) in 1998. CASI operates under the auspices of the University of California Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

His no-till research focuses on soil quality management and potential roles of cover crops and compost in intensive row crop production systems, and the use of cover crop mulches as a means of conserving soil water, suppressing weeds and increasing organic matter in no-till production systems.

He often cites a book called Plowman’s Folly by Edward H. Faulkner, published following the ruinous Dust Bowl. Faulkner dropped an agricultural bombshell when he blamed the then universally used moldboard plow for disastrous pillage of the soil.

This book is the 11th all-time cited, read, or acknowledged a piece of work related to the soil in the history of scientific literature.

“When it was written in 1943, it caused great arguments. The government got involved with the USDA trying to defend the science of the day,” Mitchell said.

The reason the book was so controversial is that it proved that there had been no scientific reason for plowing.

“He was getting in people’s faces by saying, ‘This might not be the way to do it,’ ” Mitchell said. “Faulkner’s stance was embroiling people.”

Mitchell’s work centers on conservation, no-till production of vegetable and cotton crops. The idea is to plant in the crops’ residue, which builds up a rather thick layer of mulch on the bed—leading to reduced water and nitrogen, as well as minimizing weeds.

Mitchell cited several growers in the Midwest and in California that are successfully practicing conservation no-till agriculture. And there is much more recent attention on soils with the Healthy Soils Program (HSP)—stemming from the California Healthy Soils Initiative, a collaboration of state agencies and departments to promote the development of healthy soils on California’s farmlands and ranch lands.

Jeff Mitchell describing the no-till soil that he has been working with for 19 years.

The HSP has two components: the HSP Incentives Program and the HSP Demonstration Projects. The HSP Incentives Program provides financial assistance for the implementation of conservation management that improves soil health, sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The HSP Demonstration Projects showcase California farmers’ and ranchers’ implementation of HSP practices.

“The principles that we are pursuing are allowing growers to keep excellent yields and maybe increase sometimes, cut out some inputs like fertilizers to save money, and to do it with less—less disturbance and fewer operations,” Mitchell explained. “None of this is new. It was 90 years ago when the Natural Resources Conservation Service established the principles of good soil management

  1. Healthy soil holds more water (by binding it to organic matter), and loses less water to runoff and evaporation.
  2.  Organic matter builds as tillage declines and plants and residue cover the soil. Organic matter holds 18 to 20 times its weight in water and recycles nutrients for plants to use.
  3. One percent of organic matter in the top six inches of soil would hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water per acre!
  4. Most farmers can increase their soil organic matter in three to 10 years if they are motivated about adopting conservation practices to achieve this goal.

“In 2013, a group of 30 farmers came up with a similar kind of a list,” Mitchell said. “They brainstormed on what would be good soil management, and they came up [with] feed the soil organic matter, reduced disturbance, increased diversity—the same as the NRCS list.”

Mitchell cited a newspaper article published in 1931. “People were finding benefits of cover crops in San Joaquin Valley farming systems. Now with the Healthy Soils Initiative, farmers are trying these techniques and evaluating it. There’s a lot of activity that is going on at many different sites in the state.”

Mitchell’s work at the West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points on the conservation no-till approach has been with scientific protocol and replicated over 19 years.

“Initially, we would have several systems. In the no-till system, rotations of cotton, transplanted tomato, and a forage crops would grow back to back in a no-till system,” he explained. “Each crop would be planted in the residue of the previous crop. Over the years, the no-till plots have grey residue from last year plantings.”

A cover crop has been planted in a no-till field of cotton that followed tomatoes.

“Cover crops can also be part of the no-till system, which over the last 18 years have added 34 tons of biomass, which includes 13 tons of carbon per acre to the system, which is a good thing,” Mitchell said. “It adds fuel to the soil biology, but it’s not perfect.”

“My supposition would be that growing cover crops is more completed than people think. I have been at meetings where growers say: ‘are you kidding, I’m not going to grow cover crops because I do not have the water,’” Mitchell noted.

He said he understands the situation in not having enough water. But he explained, “In the winter time, yes there will be evaporation from the soil service every day. Radiation is beating down, and there will be evaporation.”

Evaporation in the cover crop field could be more nuanced. Maybe because the soil surface is shaded out, which would cool the soil, there may not be that much evaporation. The cover crops may increase infiltration of water in the ground, instead of it ponding on the soil surface.

“Yes, there will be some inevitable use of water by growing vegetation in the field in the winter, but it could be less than we think,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell then showed two large aluminum pans of soil. One showed soil dug up in an open field that has been tilled. The other container is soil with crop residue from the non-tilled plots.

He takes a handful of each and drops them into two individual gallon jars within an open metal grid with a few inches of water. This what Mitchell sees every time he does this. The large jar with tilled soil breaks up rapidly with soil particles dropping to the bottom. Within the no-tilled soil jar, the chunk of soil is very stable, with no soil particles breaking off.

“One thing that we are not doing now is looking at the potential benefits of these no-till systems and practices for conserving water and making better use of water that has been achieved in other areas of the world such as South America and the Great Plains and other regions of the United States. They do not have irrigation systems that California has; they have to wait for rainfall.”

“When we do the no-tilled system with lots of residue from back-to-back crops, with cover crops and with no disturbances, you may be able to keep 4 to 5 inches of water in the soil each year compared to a tilled crop.

More information on the Conservation No-Till system can be found here.

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Tea: A Potential High-Value Specialty Crop in California

California: The State That Really Grows It All—Even Tea

By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor

New opportunities for California Farmers are on the rise. Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center in Parlier, recently gave California Ag Today insight into a new project on growing tea in the state.

“The folks up at Davis have been able to propagate enough tea to get us at least half an acre or a bit more planted, so we’re trying to get that planted this fall,” he explained.

However, this isn’t the first time the idea of growing tea has been introduced to California. In fact, Dahlberg noted that Richard Nixon actually traveled to China to look into bringing it back to the states. Although the idea didn’t progress much further, plants were saved, and the project is being brought back to life.

Dahlberg said that tea has a lot of potential as a high-value specialty crop for those looking to grow it.

“There are a lot of really, really interesting things coming down,” he promised.

For more information on the Global Tea Initiative, visit GlobalTea.UCDavis.Edu.

For more information on the Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center, visit their website at: kare.ucanr.edu

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Tea: More Than Just a Drink

Rich American History Around Tea

By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor

As the weather starts to get colder in California, nothing sounds better than a cup of warm tea on a chilly day. When reaching for what might be your favorite winter drink, Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center, urges you to think about the rich history behind it.

Dahlberg explained that, “Americans have been drinking tea for a long time. Back in the 1700s, as I understand it, there used to be tea shops everywhere in the U.S.”

tea
Jeff Dahlberg

He further emphasized the importance of truly educating yourself on the drink, which will only add to your ability to select the teas that best suit your pallet.

Even better, Dalhberg believes that first-class teas can be grown right here in California—an opportunity that the Global Tea Initiative in Davis is already looking into.

“Bottom line, we can actually grow pretty high-quality, high-yielding teas here in the state, and the folks at Davis are really excited about that,” he said.

For more information on the Global Tea Initiative, visit GlobalTea.UCDavis.Edu.

For more information on the Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center, visit their website at: kare.ucanr.edu

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Sorghum Not Well Known in the U.S.

Sorghum Used in Different Ways in the World

By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor

The Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center is currently doing extensive drought tolerant research on sorghum, a plant with a variety of uses. Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearny Ag Research and Extension Center in Parlier, knows the complexity of the plant, and the need to educate farmers about it.

Sorghum
Sorghum is used for humans and animal feed around the world.

“The challenge here is that nobody knows very much about sorghum, and I have to kind of retrain our nutrition people about how to use it properly, and how to treat it so that you can get the most use out of it,” Dahlberg said.

He further added that in most parts of the world sorghum is primarily used for human consumption, however, here in the United States, we use it for animal feed. Dahlberg has been looking into introducing the plant to California dairies as an alternative for forages that require more water.

Even though producers that currently use sorghum are pleased with the results, a new problem has been brought to Dahlberg’s attention.

“We had this insect show up called the Sugarcane Aphid. It can be controlled, but it takes a bit of management,” he explained.

Although the aphid presents challenges, Dahlberg knows that with the proper training the issue can be resolved.

For more information on the Kearney Ag Research and Extension Center, visit: kare.ucanr.edu

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Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis

UC Davis Could Be Center of Global Tea Research

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Researchers at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier are testing whether or not tea can be grown in California. California Ag Today recently spoke with Jeff Dahlberg, director of the center. He told us about the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis. The Global Tea Initiative looks to explore the history and cultural importance of tea.

Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Fresno County
Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Fresno County

“There’s lots of excitement about it, and people are really starting to take to the initiative,” said Dahlberg. “People are starting to look at the Global Tea Initiative as a leader for research in the U.S.

Dahlberg believes that the support exists because of the wide variety of diverse crops in California.

We grow 400 different crops in the state because California is one of the few places in the world that has that kind of diversity.

“I think it’s going to offer some unique opportunities to some farmers who really would like to diversify and perhaps get into something that may be really unique,” Dahlberg said.

For more information on the Global Tea Initiative, visit GlobalTea.UCDavis.Edu.

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Drought Tolerant Sorghum in CA

California Ideal for Drough Research

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Research is being done on drought tolerance and sorghum. California Ag Today recently spoke with Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier about the topic.

“The sorghum research has gone pretty well for the drought tolerance; we have just finished publishing our fifth article on their first year of data,” he said.

There is a lot of interest in the research findings developing through all the drought work. California is a unique spot to do drought work on a field scale because it does not rain very often.

“That allows us to basically control the field through our ability to add water whenever we want to. I’m really excited about this,” Dahlberg said.

There are genes that are turned off and on with the application and/or lack of water.

Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Fresno County
Jeff Dahlberg, director of the Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Fresno County

“The challenge for us now is to start taking all this data and trying to make some sense out of it,” Dahelberg explained.

It is critical to find out which genes are needed for drought tolerance and how they can get them expressed in plants.

“I think this is long-term basic research but has long-term implications in our ability to produce more drought tolerant crops to help feed the world,” Dahlberg said.

Sorghum has a long-standing history in California. It was grown here in the late 1800s. The USDA brought sorghum to California as a drought-tolerant feed.

“In the 1960s, there were almost 400,000 acres of grain sorghum grown in the state, primarily as a rotation crop for cotton,” Dahlberg said.

This crop is making a come-back with all of the droughts California has been going through.

“It’s a very drought tolerant crop. Probably one of the most drought tolerance cereal crops that we grow worldwide,” Dahlberg explained.

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Almond Band Canker has No Cure

Almond Band Canker Creeping up Again

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director

Themis Michailides, a UC Davis Plant Pathologist based at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, recently told California Ag Today that almond band canker is becoming a big problem.

“This was a very old disease, and almost forgotten, but now we have major problems, particularly in the young orchards, first leaf, second leaf, third leaf, and it can also be found in six year old trees,” Michailides said.

Band canker is a fungal disease caused by a group of Botryosphaeria fungi that are very common in major crops like grapes, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, avocados, citrus and other crops, so they have a large range.

Band canker establishes itself as a spore inoculum that resides outside and also inside of orchards and waits for the right conditions, which are wetness and also high temperatures.

“It develops first like a ring, a canker that is a horizontal canker on the trunks of the trees and decays the wood and produces sap. It’s a disease that can kill young trees in the orchards,” Michailides said.

“Once you have the cankers developed in the trunks of the trees, there’s no cure, but we can prevent it by managing irrigation, trying to keep the trunks of the trees dry,” he said. “We need to develop protective sprays in order to avoid the development of the disease in young trees.”

“Once we have the water and the temperatures rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the conidia – the spores of this fungi – will germinate and infect vigorous varieties we have now through the growth cracks,” Michailides said.

“It’s getting more serious, especially now, because we see that the disease is uniformly distributed throughout the orchard, which indicates to me perhaps that the inoculum is in the trees and not coming from the outside sources. We don’t see the patterns we saw years ago, where we had the source and then a center of disease close to the source,” Michalides explained.

 

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Bill Chandler on Farming

Bill Chandler Builds a Legacy

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Deputy Editor

 

A third-generation farmer in Fresno County, Bill Chandler farms near Parlier, Selma, and Fowler. The family operation has traditionally produced tree fruit such as peaches, plums and nectarines, but they are certainly expanding their crop diversity. “We have gone more into almonds lately because of unavailable labor,” Chandler commented. “We are looking into citrus, which is not as perishable as soft fruit—which, if you don’t harvest it right away, you’ve lost the whole year’s effort.”

Like so many farm families in California, the Chandlers go back a couple of generations farming here. “My grandfather came out here in 1888 from Illinois,” Chandler expounded, “and looked at this area. It was appealing because the land prices were not that bad compared to Illinois. But the big deal was the weather; we don’t have all that snow in the winter time. We also  have relatively level ground and not a lot of rocks in our soil. We, too, have hardpan under the soil, but that can be worked out.”peaches

“My father got out of school in 1921 and started farming in this area,” said Chandler. “I was the only son and I always wanted to farm. I have a sister who was able to inherit some, and I bought my sister out, so that’s what our farm is now.”

Bill Chandler and his wife, Carol, have two sons, Tom and John, who are both back on the farm. “They both majored in ag, which was kind of neat; one in ag econ and the other in food science, and we are very proud that they are both back farming with us now. Tom, the older one, majored in ag econ at UC Davis and was in banking for about 12 years. Now he has come back and has been helping us on that side of the farming, which is very very important. He also did some land appraisal on the side. His brother, John, who majored in in fruit science at Cal Poly, is more into field work, and he does some beekeeping on the side as well.”

Chandler said a lot of success and wonderful things about farming have always been accompanied by a lot of challenges as well. “Yeah, there is always something,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s labor, weather or regulations. We are really fortunate; we stand at a place here, Kearney Field Station*, where the UC has done a great job helping us solve some of these regulations or pests.”

Chandler’s sons, Tom and John, are going to pick up where their dad leaves off, but that may be awhile, “You know,” Chandler philosophized, “a farmer never does retire. Fortunately, I am able to live on the farm. They are doing most of the farmwork, but they do ask me questions.”

This year’s above-average rainfall, along with the snowfall, has been great, but Chandler said,  “There is still going to be a lot of work to dig ourselves out of this four-year drought. I have experience and so do many other people. Not only are our trees suffering from lack of proper irrigation, but we are spending a lot of money putting in new wells or new irrigation systems so that we can handle this drought.”

Chandler doesn’t take nearby UC and USDA researchers for granted. He always attends meetings and takes notes. “We can go to these folks and have these seminars that are really helpful.”

____________________________________________

*Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension (KARE) Center

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