#CDFACentennial – Centennial Reflections video series with A.J. Yates

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state agency in 2019. Throughout the year this blog will feature a number of items to commemorate this milestone. Today we continue with the Centennial Reflections video series, featuring CDFA employees remembering their histories, and the agency’s.

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New technology may improve California spinach harvest capacity while easing labor challenges – from the Salinas Californian

Picture of the spinach guard.
The spinach guard.

By Kate Cimini

A new tool to more efficiently harvest Monterey County’s $143 million spinach crop might bring relief for farmers struggling to find enough fieldworkers to pick it. 

The spinach guard, developed by Harvest Moon Automations Inc., looks like nothing so much as a series of piano keys, splayed mere inches above the ground. It attaches to the front of a harvester, sticking just a few feet out in front of the machine.

When the tiny cameras positioned above the keys sense irregularities in the spinach — such as downy mildew, bird droppings, or something else you wouldn’t want showing up in your salad — the piano keys depress that patch of spinach, pushing it below the reach of the bandsaw or laser that slices through the stems of spinach leaves.

Last year spinach was the tenth-highest grossing crop in the county, valued at $143,376,000 by the 2018 Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner’s Crop Report. More than 16,000 acres were dedicated to cultivating spinach.

With a dwindling, aging farmworker labor market, Harvest Moon Automations co-founders Stephen Jens and Tom Garnett hope to appeal to farmers who find themselves short on laborers.

Sitting on either side of a John Street diner booth one March morning, gripping mugs of coffee, Garnett and Jens were eager to show off their technology but aware they have a long way to go before they earn the trust of farmers, despite strong early results.

“You can assume we are snake oil salesmen before (we) prove (ourselves),” Garnett said, smiling broadly. But, he said, they intended to help farmers and farmworkers with their machine.

“The first thing we hear about is a lack of labor,” Jens said. “If we gave them a machine that helps with that, they can have their laborers do something else where they can add value to the work.”

Monterey County’s 2018 “Farmworker Housing And Action Plan” for the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys shows more than 91,000 agricultural workers lived and worked in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties in 2016.

An estimated half of California farmworkers are undocumented and the average age of documented farmworkers is dramatically increasing. As such, the area is in need of an injection of younger, documented laborers. 

Farmers have also seen labor shortages over past years due a deficiency in H-2A programs, which allow people from certain countries to enter the U.S. for farmwork.

The U.S. Department of Labor recently announced plans to modernize and improve the existing H-2A program.

After several years of development, the spinach guard is due to hit the market in 2019. Earthbound Farms was among some of the farms that were willing to test out the harvester for Harvest Moon.  

David Martinez, who worked for Earthbound Farms until they were bought by Taylor Farms, was a maintenance supervisor who oversaw the pilot use of the spinach guard.

He said the guard allows Earthbound Farms to harvest far more spinach out of a mildew-contaminated field than it used to, though he added that there were still some kinks to work out. 

“Like every piece of technology, it’s a work in progress,” Martinez said. “I heard from the guys in the plant that when it came down to mildew, instead of wasting the field and discing it, they would get a lot more (spinach) out of it with the guard.”

Some, though, are worried that machines like Harvest Moon’s will put fieldworkers out of business, cutting jobs for which skilled pickers might earn about $25,000 a year, according to a 2017 article by the Economics Policy Institute.

“Ag is place-specific,” said United Farm Workers Vice President Erik Nicholson. “As there’s conversations in other areas where tech’s being introduced, new jobs will flow from that. There could be new jobs but it’s doubtful that they’re going to be in Spreckels, California. Most likely those jobs are going to be high-tech, high-income, far from where the tech is being deployed.”

Although Nicholson said he is unaware of laborers being replaced by high-tech machinery yet, he felt it was only a matter of time. However, he saw some light in the creation of what he called “unintended jobs.”

“It’s kind of like what supermarkets have tried to do with self-checkout,” said Nicholson. “The original idea was that we could pay for our products and check out but now they realized they have to keep them staffed. They break down or have issues. It’s created a different type of job. We’re starting to see that in the field – it’s unintended jobs.”

Nicholson added that when farmers tie themselves to one crop via expensive machinery like the spinach guard, they have a harder time resetting when that crop takes a nose dive on the open market, like spinach did after the 2009 E.coli scare.

However, Jens and Garnett don’t see their company as tying growers to any one thing.

Harvest Moon is looking at expanding its tech, finding ways to modify the spinach guard or create new guards using the same technology that will aid in the harvesting other crops like romaine, iceberg or even soybeans, a Midwestern-grown crop.

Furthermore, Jens and Garnett believe this guard could even cut down on farmers’ application of fungicides or pesticides to their crops. 

“We’re looking at this from a sustainability standpoint, using machine vision to replace herbicides,” said Jens. “We’re just touching the potential.”

“We all have to believe in tech, right?” Asked Martinez. “It takes time.”

This guard, which will cost between $250,000 and $285,000, is made in Boston, where Jens is located, and shipped to the Salinas Valley, where Garnett has spent most of his life. They monitor the machines though data collection to diagnose issues, which they then contract with local Salinas Valley mechanics to fix.

Link to story in the Salinas Californian

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#CDFACentennial – Centennial Reflections video series with Islam Siddiqui

CDFA 100 year logo

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a state agency in 2019. Throughout the year this blog will feature a number of items to commemorate this milestone. Today we continue with the Centennial Reflections video series, featuring CDFA employees remembering their histories, and the agency’s.

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#CDFACentennial – CDFA recognized for 100th anniversary by California Ag Heritage Club

CDFA undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt (front left) displays a plaque from the California Agriculture Heritage Club honoring the agency for its 100th anniversary serving the state of California. The Heritage Club recognizes honorees each year with a breakfast during the California State Fair, spotlighting farms, ranches and Ag organizations with histories of 175 years, 150 years, 125 years, and 100 years. Also in the photo, from left, former CDFA director Richard Rominger (1977-1982), State Fair board members Rex Hime and Rina DiMare, and CDFA deputy secretary Rachael O’Brien.

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USDA announces $16 million in funding to support socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers

USDA News Release

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced up to $16 million in available funding to help socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers own and operate successful farms. Funding is made through the USDA’s Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the 2501 Program). The program is administered by the USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE).

“All farmers and ranchers deserve equal access to USDA programs and services,” said Mike Beatty, director of the USDA Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement. “2501 grants go a long way in fulfilling our mission to reach historically underserved communities and ensure their equitable participation in our programs.”

For 30 years, the 2501 Program has helped reach socially disadvantaged agricultural producers – farmers and ranchers who have experienced barriers to service due to racial or ethnic prejudice. The 2014 Farm Bill expanded the program’s reach to veterans. The 2018 Farm Bill boosts mandatory funding for the program through FY 2023. With 2501 Program grants, nonprofits, institutions of higher education and Indian Tribes can support underserved and veteran farmers and ranchers through education, training, demonstrations, and conferences on farming and agribusiness, and by increasing access to USDA’s programs and services.

Since 1994, the 2501 Program has awarded 451 grants totaling more than $103 million. Among recent 2501 projects, an FY 2018 grant awarded to the Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance in Okolona, Mississippi helped agricultural community leaders connect senior farmers and new and beginning farmers to preserve farming legacies. A 2501 grant to Florida International University helped veterans and young urban farmers build sustainable urban agriculture operations in South Florida.

Eligible 2501 Program applicants include not-for-profit organizations, community-based organizations, and a range of higher education institutions serving African-American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Hispanic, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities. 

The deadline for applications is August 15, 2019. See the request for applications for full details.

OPPE will host two teleconferences during the open period of this announcement to answer questions from interested applicants.   

July 23, 2019, 2:00 p.m. ET, 800-230-1085, passcode: 469845

August 6, 2019, 2:00 p.m. ET, 800-230-1059, passcode: 469846


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California State Board of Food and Agriculture Seeking Public Input on California’s Water Future (Meetings in Redding and Fresno)

Picture of Irrigation Canal at Sunset in Imperial County

The California State Board of Food and Agriculture is hosting a series of public forums to allow farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders opportunities to provide input on the California’s Water Future.

Public Forums on California’s Water Future

ReddingTuesday, August 6, 2019, 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sheraton Redding Hotel at the Sundial Bridge 820 Sundial Bridge Drive Redding, CA 96001

FresnoThursday, September 5, 2019, 1:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Fresno County Farm Bureau 1274 W. Hedges, Ave Fresno, CA 93728

State agencies are asking Californians to help shape a roadmap for meeting future water needs and ensuring environmental and economic resilience through the 21st century.

This effort seeks to broaden California’s approach on water in the face of a range of existing challenges, including unsafe drinking water, major flood risks that threaten public safety, severely depleted groundwater aquifers, agricultural communities coping with uncertain water supplies and native fish populations threatened with extinction.

Input from the public will help the Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Food and Agriculture craft recommendations to Governor Gavin Newsom to fulfill his April 29 executive order calling for a suite of actions to build a climate-resilient water system and ensure healthy waterways.

To see a calendar of additional events and learn how to provide input directly to the state agency team, please visit WaterResilience.ca.gov.

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CDFA welcomes new Deputy Secretary Arturo Barajas

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross and newly appointed Deputy Secretary Arturo Barajas face each other with right hands raised as they read the oath of office. Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt stands to the left as an official witness to the oath.
California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Secretary Karen Ross (right) conducted a swearing-in ceremony this morning for newly appointed CDFA Deputy Secretary Arturo Barajas, with CDFA Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt serving as witness. Barajas comes to the department after serving as a legislative aide in the Office of Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula since 2016. He was campaign manager for Dr. Arambula for Assembly 2018, and a constituent affairs representative in the Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. from 2015 to 2016. He was raised in the Central Valley and is a CalPoly grad, and worked for a vineyard management company while he was a student.

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Riverside County key partner in protection of California agriculture

Secretary Ross at Gless Ranch with Riverside County agricultural commissioner Ruben Arroyo (R)

By CDFA Secretary Karen Ross

I was pleased to visit Riverside County earlier this week to learn more about two major efforts to protect California agriculture.

The day started with a visit to the joint CDFA/USDA virulent Newcastle disease (VND) incident command center. Nearly 300 employees representing both agencies are doing yeoman’s work to protect commercial and non-commercial poultry, and working with local communities to ensure bio-security to prevent the spread of VND. I was grateful for the opportunity to thank them for their efforts, and I also enjoyed meeting CHP officers who are assisting in the program. We really appreciate their presence. It’s important to note that there hasn’t been a new detection of VND since June 4th, so fingers are crossed that we’re nearing the end of this project.

Following that I went to the Citrus State Historical Park, where three generations of the John Gless family farm the trees and operate a farm stand. The modern-day commercial citrus industry was born in Riverside County in 1873 when Eliza Tibetts planted two small trees of the Washington navel orange. Protecting the county’s commercial groves from huanglongbing, a disease spread by the Asian citrus psyllid, is a federal/state/local/industry partnership. 

Secretary Ross learns about a nursery robot (lower right)

The highest value crop in Riverside County today is nursery stock. I had the pleasure of visiting two very impressive nursery operations, Village Nursery and Altman Plants. The capital investment, innovation, and customer-focused passion of these two companies is a hallmark of California agriculture.  I loved seeing every aspect of these impressive operations.  But it was especially fun to observe robots named Tom, Jerry, Batman and Robin as they moved potted plants to precise locations, reducing the strain on human backs!!

I want to thank Riverside County agricultural commissioner Ruben Arroyo for hosting me. Our ag commissioners are tremendous resources for the state and their local communities.  Ruben just finished a term as president of the ag commissioners and sealers association, CACASA. I enjoyed the day with him and his great staff.

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Best practices to prevent the spread of citrus disease huanglongbing – from the Sun-Gazette

By Kaitlin Washburn

The Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee (an advisory body to CDFA and citrus growers) has endorsed a set of best practices on how to combat huanglongbing (HLB), a disease that devastates citrus orchards.

The recommendations were developed by growers from throughout California and scientists to thwart the spread of the Asian citrus psyllid, the pest that carries HLB, or citrus greening disease.

“Our state’s citrus industry has held the line against HLB since the first detection seven years ago. We should commend our efforts but must not forget the devastating impact HLB could have on our orchards and our livelihood,” said Jim Gorden, chair of the Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Program and a Tulare County citrus grower, in a news release from the committee.

HLB has yet to be detected in a commercial grove in California, though the disease is spreading through residential communities in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

Citrus greening disease has infected more than 1,400 citrus trees, and 1,003 square miles are under quarantine for HLB, according to the committee’s release. Trees infected with the disease bear small, asymmetrical fruit that are partially green, bitter and unsellable.

The Asian citrus psyllid, a spotted brown insect smaller than a grain of rice, has been found in 28 California counties, including Tulare. Growers can voluntarily follow the practices, which are a supplement to CDFA’s required action plan on targeting HLB and the Asian citrus psyllid.

The practices for combating HLB offer four scenarios a citrus grower might experience. The four possibilities are if a grower’s orchards are outside of an HLB quarantine, between 1 and 5 miles from HLB detection, within 1 mile of HLB but not infected or infected with HLB.

The guidelines vary within each scenario and offer actions a grower can take, such as surveying for Asian citrus psyllid in their orchard, controlling Asian citrus psyllid with insecticides and repellents and providing additional protections for young trees.

HLB wasn’t detected in the Western Hemisphere until 2004 when it was reported in Brazil. In 2005, HLB was detected for the first time in the United States, in Florida. Before that, it was known to occur in Asia, specifically from Japan to southern China, Southeast Asia and from India to Pakistan.

“We know the cost to manage the Asian citrus psyllid is far less than any potential costs or loss to the industry should HLB take hold throughout our state,” said Keith Watkins, chair of the task force that developed the best practices and vice president of farming at Bee Sweet Citrus, in the release.

For the 2016-2017 marketing year, California citrus production valued $3.4 billion. The total economic impact of the citrus industry on California’s economy in 2016-2017 was $7.1 billion.

The Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program was established in 2010 to advise the CDFA secretary and agricultural industry about efforts to combat serious citrus pests and diseases.

Link to article

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Positive step for feeding expanding world population – UC Riverside scientists decode DNA of black-eyed peas

By Jules Bernstein, UCR

UC Riverside scientists have decoded the genome of black-eyed peas, offering hope for feeding Earth’s expanding population, especially as the climate changes. 

Understanding the genes responsible for the peas’ drought and heat tolerance eventually could help make other crops tougher too.

Black-eyed peas are small beans with dark midsections. They’ve been a global dietary staple for centuries due to their environmental toughness and exceptional nutritional qualities, such as high protein and low fat. In sub-Saharan Africa they remain the number one source of protein in the human diet.  

A genome is the full collection of genetic codes that determine characteristics like color, height, and predisposition to diseases. All genomes contain highly repetitive sequences of DNA that UCR Professor of Computer Science and project co-leader Stefano Lonardi likens to “hundreds of thousands of identical jigsaw puzzle pieces.”

Lonardi described the process of figuring out how the jigsaw puzzle sequences fit together as “computationally challenging.” In order to do so, Lonardi’s team assembled the genome many times with different software tools and parameters. Then they created new software capable of merging these various genome solutions into a single, complete picture.

With the success of this project, the black-eyed pea joins only a handful of other major crops whose genomes have been fully sequenced. The team’s work on the project was published in the June issue of The Plant Journal, where it was featured as the cover story, and Lonardi’s free software can be downloaded online.

Research on black-eyed peas, a legume also known as cowpea, started at UC Riverside more than 40 years ago. But cowpeas’ presence in Riverside predates the university by about 200 years.

“The cowpea has been here supporting people since early colonial times,” said project co-leader Timothy Close, a UCR professor of botany and plant sciences. ‘It’s nice that we’ve brought this plant with so much local history up to state of the art for scientific research.”

This is the first high-quality reference genome for the cowpea. Work on it began three years ago, made possible mainly by a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF. An additional $500,000 NSF grant also supported the computational efforts. 

A clue to the complexity of the project is the size of the research team. In addition to Close and Lonardi, the many other UCR scientists on the team included María Muñoz-Amatrían, Qihua Liang, Steve Wanamaker, Sassoum Lo, Hind Alhakami, Rachid Ounit, Philip Roberts, Jansen Santos, Arsenio Ndeve, and Abid Md. Hasan. Additional team members inside the U.S. came from UC Davis, the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute in California, the National Center for Genome Resources in New Mexico, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Iowa. International team members came from Finland, France, Brazil, and the Czech Republic.

As with humans, there are differences between individual cowpeas. Knowing which genes are responsible for qualities in individuals such as color, size, or pathogen resistance will help breeders develop new varieties even better able to withstand external challenges. 

“Having the genome sequence helps scientists make decisions about the choice of parent plants to crossbreed in order to produce their desired progeny,” Close said. 

One of the cowpea traits that scientists are now trying to understand is its remarkable ability to recover from drought stress. 

“We’re trying to figure out why cowpeas are so resilient to harsh conditions,” said Close. “As we move into a world with less water available to agriculture, it will be important to capitalize on this ability and expand on it, taking the lead from cowpeas to guide improvements in other crops that are vulnerable to climate change.”

Link to UC Riverside news release

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