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
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.