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UC ANR to work with farmers to apply artificial intelligence technologies in the field

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources will receive $865,000 to help farmers in the Colorado River basin and the Salinas Valley integrate digital tools and artificial intelligence into their growing systems. The funds are part of a $10 million Sustainable Agricultural Systems grant from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture to improve the sustainability of the nation's food supply.

The intensive agricultural industry of the Colorado River basin – which includes the Palo Verde, Coachella and Imperial valleys in California; the Yuma Valley and other areas, such as Wellton-Mohawk Valley in Arizona – produces vegetables in the winter that are shipped across the country. Salinas Valley farms produce vegetables in the summer for markets throughout the nation.

“Vegetables are an essential part of a healthful diet. With this grant, NIFA is recognizing the role that California, Arizona and Colorado play in growing nutritious food for Americans,” said Khaled Bali, UC Cooperative Extension irrigation specialist. “The sustainability of these production systems into the future, particularly in light of challenges like climate change, increased drought and limited access to surface and groundwater, will require sophisticated technology.”

U.S. agriculture industry professionals are world leaders in the use of technology, including automation, drip irrigation, sensors and drones. “What's new is how you can now integrate technology into making decisions,” said Bali, who is leading the digital agriculture education and outreach aspect of the grant.

UC Cooperative Extension specialist Khaled Bali (center) says field days will be part of the outreach effort to increase the use of artificial intelligence in agriculture.

Bali said new farming tools work like smart thermostats in homes, which have sensors throughout the house and learn family patterns to make conditions perfectly comfortable throughout the day and night.

On the farm, instead of applying the same amount of water and fertilizer over hundreds of acres, sensors, valves and digital management allow small sectors to get treatments based on soil type, size of plants, pest pressure, salinity and disease management.

“This project will lay the foundation for a long-term shift to highly automated mechanized farm management systems – with full implementation likely decades in the future,” Bali said. “The precise application of inputs in agriculture will save water, reduce the percolation of fertilizer below plant roots, reduce the need for manual labor in the industry, increase yields and decrease expenditures, enhancing the industry's economic viability.”

Field demonstrations, training sessions, videos and handouts will bridge the gap between ongoing farming practices and academic and industry state-of-the-art digital technology. These activities are expected to increase the productivity and competitiveness of major crop growers.

The new project will expand the usage of a smartphone and website app called CropManage, a system developed in 2011 by Michael Cahn, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. CropManage allows farmers in the Salinas Valley to input information about their crops and soil, and then automatically receive recommendations about irrigation and fertilization needs that take into account weather conditions reported by the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS), a network of automated weather stations managed by the California Department of Water Resources.

More than 2,000 Salinas Valley users have signed up to use CropManage.

Currently, CropManage makes about 2,000 recommendations to Salinas Valley farmers each month during the growing season. The new funding will allow for the expansion of CropManage to help farmers manage salinity.

“To minimize salt toxicity to the crop, farmers may need to apply water to leach salinity below the root zone. But we don't want to leach nitrates,” Cahn said. “We want to decouple these processes and do the leaching when there are lower nitrogen levels in the system. Determining timing and water amount is something we will build into CropManage.”

The grant will also provide funding for new training and outreach that will enable more farmers to use the CropManage app.

The overarching $10 million grant awarded to UC Riverside is led by professor Elia Scudiero, an expert in soil, plant and water relationships. He and a team of UC Riverside scientists will develop artificial intelligence data needed for smart farming systems with new statistical and algebraic models that find repeated and generalizable patterns.

Another key piece of the effort will be supplying the agriculture industry with the next generation of growers, managers and scientists. Funds from the NIFA grant will establish a Digital Agriculture Fellowship program to recruit more than 50 data, environmental or agricultural science students over the next five years to develop and learn the technology. Internships with key commercial partners are also a feature of the program.

Intensive farms in California provide vegetables to the nation in the summer and winter. (Photo: Pixabay.com)
Posted on Wednesday, June 24, 2020 at 10:53 AM
Tags: Khaled Bali (11), Michael Cahn (6), vegetables (22)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

UCCE advisor speaks about vegetable grafting at neighboring university

Zheng Wang, vegetable crops advisor with UC Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus County, visited an ag class at Stanislaus State to discuss a state-of-the-art vegetable production practice that involves grafting, reported Alivah Stoeckl in Stan State News.

Grafting plants onto specially bred rootstocks is a practice that is common in tree crops. Grafting confers resistance to soil-borne diseases and pests, requiring less inputs and leading to sustainable crop productivity. It is now being used in  some vegetable and fruit crops, such as tomatoes, eggplant, watermelon, cucumbers and cantaloupe.

“Grafting conveys a lot of merits in terms of disease resistance and yield maintenance. It enriches the production practices by introducing more variety. And by making impossible things become possible,” Wang said.

Vegetable grafting has been used since early 2000s, but to many agriculture students the idea was new, reported Stoeckl.

“We're moving forward and advancing with our food which I think is interesting because we used to be all natural and simple but now it's all scientific,” said senior agriculture major Madeline Morataya.

A grafted tomato plant. (Photo: UC Davis Tomato Genetics Resource Center Image Library)

 

Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2019 at 8:46 AM
Tags: grafting (2), vegetables (22), Zheng Wang (1)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

New video series to spark interest in vegetable production of the future

A 26-episode weekly video series will debut May 13 on YouTube to help train the next generation of vegetable crop workers and increase their use of effective stewardship practices in vegetable production.

Projections for near-future retirements of people working in California's agricultural production, marketing and post-harvest handling sectors indicate severe re-staffing needs in the coming years. Technological advances have reduced manual labor in agriculture, but increased the need for skilled labor to maintain the sustainability of the vegetable industry.

“We already see it happening,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. “Robotic machines are now used for lettuce thinning in Salinas, but these technologies must be serviced by an educated workforce with knowledge in both mechanics and science.”

The first video in the series focuses on urban farming, and the myriad social, economic, ecological, recreational, therapeutic and nutritional benefits of urban agriculture.

Mitchell assembled a team of professors from California's public universities with agricultural programs – UC Davis, Chico State, Fresno State and CalPoly San Luis Obispo - to pull together a series of videos designed to spark the interest and begin training future farmers and ag workers in sound agronomic, economic and environmental stewardship skills. The team received financial support from the California Department of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crops Block Grant Program.

“We know that maintaining California's leading role in producing abundant, safe vegetables is critical not only to Americans' health, but also to the state's economy,” Mitchell said.

The video series is offered on the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) YouTube page on a playlist titled “Training of a New Generation of California Vegetable Producers.” UC ANR is the outreach arm of the University of California which, among other services, provides agricultural research, teaching and advising in all California counties.

Each Monday morning from May 13 through Nov. 4, a new video will premiere in the playlist. The video length ranges from 47 minutes to 7 minutes. The videos will also be made available to high school and college ag professors to use in the classroom.

“We believe that this series of videos on vegetable production will have broad interest beyond the classrooms,” Mitchell said. “The agricultural industry, students in other parts of the United States and the world, and the broader public all have an interest in understanding how the vegetables we eat are produced at the ever-increasing scale at which they are needed.”

The videos depict state-of-the-art technologies and techniques that are in use in many production regions of California today, vegetable farming systems used in other parts of the world, and increasingly popular cottage farming systems that are popping up in urban areas for easy access to healthful foods.

To receive a notification of each video premiere, follow the UC ANR Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/UCANR or set a reminder by visiting the playlist on YouTube.

UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist Jeff Mitchell shoots video for the vegetable production series.
Posted on Thursday, May 9, 2019 at 9:34 AM
Tags: Jeff Mitchell (41), Vegetables (22)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

Organic farmers and researchers strive to advance soil care

Organic farmer Phil Foster has developed a creative way to nurture the soil on his 200-acre farm near Hollister. He plants cover crops in a single line at the top of the planting bed, saving water and seed while keeping the furrows clear for irrigation.

"We were finding we couldn't use cover crops because of water," Foster said. The narrow strip makes the best use of the limited water supply, while garnering the benefits of cover crops - which buffer soil temperatures, inhibit weeds, increase soil microbial activity, improve water infiltration and add nutrients. Growing cover crops prepares the soil for the production of high-quality vegetables.

Organic farmer Phil Foster stands in front of a field with cover crops planted in strips at the top of the planting bed.

Foster is one of eight organic vegetable growers who are working with researchers at Chico State, Fresno State and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources on a project funded with a USDA grant designed to make significant improvements in soil care in organic production systems. He guided project participants around his farm, equipment yard and compost operation in early November to share the techniques he and his staff have developed over three decades to promote soil health.

Tiny pores and roots can be seen in the soil at the Foster farm.
 
UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Sarah Light examines a soil sample. The agronomy expert, who serves Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties, is a cooperator on the project.

Tour participants marveled at the soil characteristics, admiring tiny pores and roots in clods of dirt, evidence of the soil's capacity to move water and nutrients. They studied the plant and soil conditions after farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled a carefully crafted implement for rolling down the cover crop across the field with a tractor. 

Foster credited Contreras, a 30-year employee, for his role in building the soil on the farm. Labor, Foster said, is his biggest cost. He has 50 full time staff, many with 5 to 20 years of experience.

"They are the key to to the success of the ranch," Foster said.

Farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled an implement through a mature cover crop to show how the field can be prepared for planting.

Minimizing and, eventually eliminating, soil disturbance can be combined with organic groundcover, year-round root growth and robust biological activity in the soil to further promote soil health. Following the tour, the farmers talked about ways to attain the goal on their farms of no-till organic vegetable production. 

Foster said he will experiment with reducing soil disturbance to determine whether doing so will maintain or increase yields. Another farmer in the project, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, said he will dedicate eight acres of his organic farm to comparing the results when the cover crop is chopped and left on the soil surface to chopped and incorporated with tillage.

Paul Muller and Andrew Braitt of Fully Belly Farm in the Capay Valley suggested the researchers could help the farmers by identifying optimal, effective cover crop rolling techniques. Retired organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera suggested grant funds be used to purchase appropriate scale cover crop seeders for on-farm experimentation.

"We're making great progress," said project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. "By getting together regularly, we're seeing opportunities for moving further toward reduced-disturbance on the farms, identifying the equipment needs and establishing effective channels of communication."

Over the project's three-year term, the farmers and researchers will continue to experiment with soil-building techniques and share results.

Andrew Brait of Full Belly Farmers, foreground, looks at roots and nodulation of rhizobia on the cover crop. Kelly Mulville and Esther Park of Paicines Ranch are in the background.

 

A safflower and vetch cover crop growing in the autumn light.

 

Workers, in the background, manually weed the safflower and vetch cover crop.

   

Project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist, and Phil Foster.
 
UCCE farm advisor Amber Vinches, center with sun glasses, is a cooperator on the project. Vinchesi serves vegetable crop farmers in Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties.
Posted on Monday, November 26, 2018 at 8:35 AM
Tags: Amber Vinchesi (2), Jeff Mitchell (41), organic (25), Sarah Light (3), vegetables (22)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

USDA's nutrition advice doesn't align with spending

USDA recommends Americans fill half their plates with fruit and vegetables.
According to the USDA's dietary recommendations - which are represented in the MyPlate infographic - half the food Americans eat should be fruit and vegetables. However, the same agency allocates under one-half of 1 percent of agency funds to specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, reported Helene Bottemiller Evich in Politico.

For the story, Evich spoke to Glenda Humiston, vice president of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), the research and outreach arm of the University of California. UC ANR extends science-based agricultural production and nutrition information to California farmers and communities. Humiston said California agricultural industry leaders have made it clear that they don't want traditional subsidies, like price supports.

"They want help with the infrastructure to do their jobs better," she said, including more funding for research labs and data collection that can help industry solve problems.

It isn't clear whether subsidies would reduce the cost of fruits and vegetables, nor does the potential of lower-cost healthy food ensure that people will eat it, the article said.

Many consumers also lack the time or the skills to prepare and cook their perishables. And some don't care for the flavor of healthful produce like kale, kohlrabi and rapini, to name a few.

The top fruits and vegetables consumed by Americans are potatoes (french fries) and tomatoes (primarily driven by ketchup). Only 14 percent of Americans consume 1.5 to 2 fruits and veggies per day, according to State of the Plate, a 2015 study on Americas' consumption of fruit and vegetables. (See below.) The USDA's dietary guidelines recommend 9 to 13 servings of fruit and veggies per day.

Fruits and vegetables are highly perishable, which makes growing, harvesting, storing and shipping complicated and expensive.

 

Posted on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 at 10:55 AM

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