Jeff Dahlberg is not just an academic. He’s a good spokesman for agriculture and an equally-effective apologist for the benefits of applied research.
That is important in Dahlberg’s role as director of the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center (KARE) in Parlier, Calif. The Kearney Ag Center, as it is called, just celebrated its 50th anniversary in the University of California system.
Kearney is one of nine University of California research and extension centers (REC) in California that stretch from border-to-border. It is perhaps the most diverse in the kinds of crops researchers study with about 50 different crops studied at the station. Kearney is one of three REC facilities located in the agriculturally-rich San Joaquin Valley (SJV).
The nine REC facilities in California include:
- Desert – Holtville
- Hansen – Ventura
- Hopland – Hopland
- Intermountain – Tulelake
- Kearney – Parlier
- Lindcove – Exeter
- Sierra Foothill – Browns Valley
- South Coast – Irvine
- West Side – Five Points
Kearney is 15 miles southeast of Fresno in the heart of the SJV's diverse growing region. Literally across the street from the 330-acre campus are commercial operations growing fruit, vegetables, tree nuts and grapes grown for wine, raisins or the table.
“We are surrounded by three of the most important Ag counties in the nation,” Dahlberg said of the station. Those counties include Fresno, Tulare and Kern, which are consistently the top three Ag counties by value in the United States.
The three counties combined in 2013 to produce about 350 different commodities worth over $21 billion in gross receipts. If not for the drought, the figure could have been significantly higher.
Of the 50 different crops that researchers study at KARE include common commodities to the SJV including tree nuts and grapes. There is much more including figs, asparagus, organic alfalfa, blueberries, blackberries, sorghum, stevia and many other crops.
The research station also has an insectary to rear insects used for studies. It also hosts a medical entomologist who works in disease-vectoring mosquitos. There are several mosquito ponds on site to assist with these studies.
Dahlberg is a self-confessed sorghum geek. His own academic background is in the forage crop. For growers experimenting with sorghum as a forage crop for SJV dairies, this will be an added benefit as local research and experience will be available to growers.
While the crop’s existence in California augment’s the large dairy industry in the state, elsewhere in the world the gluten-free cereal grain has significant human implications.
“Half of the sorghum grown globally goes for human consumption,” Dahlberg said.
The rest goes for animal feed. For instance, poultry producers in Mexico use the crop to feed the birds.
Dahlberg expects to continue his work in sorghum at Kearney and just planted several acres of the crop for continued research.
Researchers already know some of the benefits of sorghum as a forage crop. It can easily be included in a dairy ration and is known to be more drought tolerant than other forage crops.
“It takes from one-third to one-half the water needed for corn,” Dahlberg said.
Sorghum also fits well into rotational schedules for row crops and works well with no-till conservation programs.
Other work performed at KARE includes root stock work in trees and grapes and pathology studies.
Pathology studies into aflatoxins, a carcinogen with significant food safety concerns, are under way at the station.
For pistachio growers, the discovery of aflatoxins has led to the rejection of hundreds of thousands of pounds of nuts each year due to the presence of Aflatoxin.
Research conducted by Themis Michailides, a plant pathologist at KARE, has made great strides in understanding and combating Aflatoxin
University of California scientists discovered how to expose pistachio trees to the spores of a beneficial fungus that displaces the fungi that produce aflatoxin. The reduction in contaminated nuts has been up to 45 percent and was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Pesticide Regulation in time to benefit 60,000 acres of the 2012 California pistachio crop.
KARE scientists are now expanding their research in Aflatoxin to almonds and figs.
The blueberry industry and consumer availability of the tasty berry has also benefitted from work at Kearney. Through researcher Manuel Jimenez’s work in the berry crop, production was greatly increased as blueberry variety trials at KARE led to new varieties for growers.
Because of Jimenez’s work at KARE, about 200 small farmers are now invested in blueberry farming in California.
Work at KARE has also been done in walnut blight, dry-on-the-vine techniques for raisin grapes, and much more.
Though Dahlberg spent time on farms owned by his uncles in the Sacramento Valley while growing up, his academic career did not begin at a big-name Ag school. After graduating Occidental College in Los Angeles 1980 he went into the Peace Corps where he served as an agricultural extension agent in West Africa.
His interest in drought tolerance in plants eventually took him to the University of Arizona where he earned his master’s degree in agronomy and plant genetics. He then moved onto the sorghum program at Texas A&M University where he earned his Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics in 1992.
The path to studying sorghum would continue after college with the USDA in Puerto Rico. He spent about eight years as a research geneticist there working in sorghum.
The National Sorghum Producers later hired him to be their research director.
“I did a lot of work in Washington D.C. lobbying on the Farm Bill,” he said.
Dahlberg later helped write the national check-off program for sorghum.
It was likely through those efforts early in his career, coupled with a desire to get back to California that Dahlberg wound up with his post in the University of California and then as director of KARE in Central California.
“The UC system is completely different than the rest of the land grant colleges in the United States,” Dahlberg says.
While other states have one campus in one location to serve as that state’s land grant college, California’s UC system spreads that out over campuses in Berkeley, Davis and Riverside.
The different cultures and focuses within the various campuses combine to make the UC system unique among land grant colleges, Dahlberg says. It also bodes well for agricultural research in a state with a diversity of crops that numbers about 350.
For Dahlberg, education can sometimes mean helping political leaders and others understand what makes the UC Ag and Natural Resources system across three campuses unique and necessary to a state that produces much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, and where U.S. citrus research saw its genesis over 100 years ago at the citrus experiment station on what is now the UC Riverside campus.