Learning one’s way around one university campus can be daunting in most cases. Glenda Humiston has 10 campuses and nine research and extension centers stretched from the international border with Mexico to literally a few feet from the Oregon border.
She’s well on her way to learning them all but it takes time, what with 200 locally-based cooperative extension (CE) advisors and specialists, 57 local CE offices, 130 campus-based CE specialists, nine research and extension centers and 700 academic researchers in 40 departments at three colleges and one professional school.
All this is literally stretched border-to-border in California. The distance from the Intermountain Research and Extension Center (REC) at Tulelake to the Desert REC in Holtville California is about 800 miles.
A little over six months ago University of California President Janet Napolitano selected Humiston to lead the university’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR). Among the many parts of the division includes the cooperative extension, which provides science-based applied science to help solve agricultural challenges in a complex world.
That’s not all as ANR also oversees the 4-H youth development program, the Agricultural Issues Center, California Institute for Water Resources, Integrated Pest Management Program and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Program, among others.
Humiston was named vice president of ANR last August after serving several years as the California State Director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development. No stranger to the UC system, she comes to ANR with graduate degrees from UC Davis and Berkeley.
Humiston’s current mission is one of promotion. She is working to build the public knowledge of and support for ANR through a multi-pronged approach.
Scientific literacy needs improving
One of her more pressing concerns is “the deep, scientific illiteracy that too much of our population suffers from,” hence the reason she is enlisting CE advisors and researchers to talk about the importance of agricultural research.
Humiston is working to train university staff, farm advisors and researchers on how to better communicate scientific matters to the general public and policy makers. She has already selected a host of researchers and cooperative extension advisors to serve as experts across an array of subjects, including agricultural pest and disease issues, drought issues, viticulture, crops and food safety.
Yet another of her concerns is the lack of updated maintenance at the various research facilities around the state.
“It has become obvious that our agricultural research facilities are suffering from 30 to 40 or more years of deferred maintenance,” she said. “We’ve got facilities out there where my staff have to go home or to Starbucks to do large uploads and downloads: that’s an embarrassment to the University of California.”
The goal, she says, is to bring agricultural research facilities into the 21st Century and “ensure that our folks have the tools and the facilities they need.”
Funding a public institution and world-class research will be a challenge as public funding has arguably not maintained pace with growing research needs.
Public funding continues to be inadequate, which is why the land grant colleges like the University of California must partner with private corporations to continue the necessary agricultural research. Humiston believes these public-private partnerships can be done in a way that protects the university’s unbiased approach to agricultural research while achieving quality results.
“The reality is there is a lot of money in the private sector (for agricultural research),” she says. “To the degree that we can responsibly use these funds in a peer-reviewed fashion I think we can do this.”
Already, agricultural research in California has a host of partners willing to fund the necessary research, she says. Recently California pistachio growers, through the California Pistachio Research Board (CPRB) donated $1 million to the University of California to create two endowed chairs to address tree nut research and the challenges growers face. The CPRB previously donated $1.5 million to the University of California and an equal amount to California State University Fresno for applied research.
“We’ve got a lot of great partners out there willing to help us,” Humiston said.
West Side Research
Resting in the rain shadow of California’s coastal range along the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley is the West Side Research and Extension Center.
The West Side REC is one of three research stations with strategic plans in place that Humiston will help shape. Sierra Foothill and the South Coast RECs also have completed strategic plans. The remaining plans are marked for completion in 2016.
West Side REC conducts important studies on cotton and a host of other crops in a climate where water can be tightly controlled because of the lack of rainfall the region receives annually. This allows researchers to purposefully “drought stress” crops and test irrigation systems.
Ironically, water availability remains an issue for the research facility that thrives on controlled drought. The location generally receives a few inches of rain per year. It will be one of the locations to benefit from Humiston’s goal to achieve 21st Century communications and other tools as the center is far from the kinds of high-speed communications tools common in urban settings.
California’s drought and the lack of surface water deliveries have forced West Side researchers to curtail the amount of research they conduct at the station. The wells on site are insufficient because of volume and quality; though they can be used to blend with surface water to stretch supplies when they are available.
Among strategic plan goals for West Side includes improving water availability and quality. Much of that will have to come from the kinds of public policy decisions that can come from improved scientific literacy.
UCANR is home to world class research scattered among the research and extension centers, universities and on-farm trials.
Among this research is a grape variety trial now being led by Lindsay Jordan, a cooperative extension farm advisor hired last year as the viticulture specialist for the counties of Madera, Merced and Mariposa.
Jordan is working with Constellation Winery on a variety trial that includes more than 50 different little-known wine grape varieties. The purpose is to test which ones work best in the San Joaquin Valley’s (SJV) Mediterranean climate.
The project began several years ago under another viticulture specialist to identify wine grape varieties that naturally produce quality wine in the warm climate of central California, Jordan said. One of the challenges in the SJV climate, she says, is the ability to get good color from red wines and maintain some of the quality juice characteristics.
Wine grapes for the trial are currently being grown at the university’s Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Fresno. Root stock has been provided by Foundation Plant Services, which works under the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences on the UC Davis campus.
Another project under way with UCANR is a detailed look into soils that lend themselves to groundwater recharge.
Toby O’Geen is the soil resource specialist with the UC cooperative extension who developed the model that ranks soils by their ability to aid in groundwater recharge. This led to the Soil Agricultural Groundwater Banking Index, which seeks to find the most suitable soils and locations for groundwater banking.
According to O’Geen, part of these studies include a look at various crops, such as almonds, pistachios and alfalfa, to see if irrigation water can be over-applied to aid in the recharge of aquifers. These over-applications of water would happen only with the use of excess surface water supplies during wetter-than-normal winters.
Cooperative Extension Cropping Systems Specialist Jeff Mitchell is another in a long list of scientists looking at ways to help growers conserve water and preserve soil health to make farming practices more sustainable in California.
Mitchell’s work is helping fuel an increase in conservation tillage acceptance among growers in the state. For instance, Mitchell says that as of 2012, 45 percent of dairy producers growing corn for silage now use conservation tillage methods, which helps reduce total irrigation used, dust emissions and increases carbon in the soil.
A food safety issue being looked at by university scientists includes a naturally-occurring compound produced by two soil-borne fungi.
Themis Michailides, a pathology researcher based at Kearney, is studying the use of a non-toxic strain of fungi as a biocontrol method to reduce aflatoxin in tree nuts and figs. Already there are promising results from his work through research trials and commercial applications.
“This is just tip of the iceberg,” Humiston says of the research examples cited at a recent university-sponsored seminar called to highlight current efforts under way by the land grant university.
Other work Humiston highlighted through several of her researchers and cooperative extension advisors included the use of sorghum as a drought-tolerant forage option for dairy producers; the ongoing work by entomologists and others to address the Asian citrus psyllid and Huanglongbing in citrus; and, ongoing livestock research to help poultry and cattle producers.
We want people to know that UCANR is here and that we have some great experts working to solve challenges for agriculture and the public.
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