Vision of ‘Soil Nutrient Management in Drought’ Series & Forage Crop Segment Kick-off!

Participants in the Nutrient Management Series: Please take UC SAREP’s two-minute survey to let us know what was helpful or not; and what information *you* would like to see in the future to help better manage soil nutrients and the reduced water supply.

Alfalfa hay at Prather Ranch, near Mt. Shasta.  – UC ANR

It has been five months since FarmsReach, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (UC SAREP), and Sustainable Conservation together launched our Nutrient Management Solutions series.  These online, moderated forums and complementary Toolkit offer farmers of all experience levels practical information to manage soil nutrients in times of drought.

Now more than ever, farmers and ranchers seek solutions to maintain productivity despite the shortage of water, and today we’re sharing more of the background and vision for this timely, collaborative project.

We sat down with our partners at UC SAREP, Aubrey White and Ryan Murphy, to capture their story of how this project came about, and what they envision for the series in the future.

Today also marks the kick-off of the third topic in the series: Forage Crops.  The first two segments of the series covered orchards and trees, and wine grapes and vines.

To follow the conversation in the series or to participate, join the Nutrient Management Solutions group in FarmsReach.  (It’s free and takes minutes!)

FarmsReach (FR): First things first, why should farmers of all skill levels and all crop types be concerned about soil nutrient management, and especially now?

UC SAREP Aubrey White and Ryan Murphy: Soil nutrient management is so important to grow healthy crops, and every farmer always has an opportunity to improve how he or she uses and manages the soil.

Some practices are intended to build up the long-term fertility of the soil, while others (like nitrogen use) are meant to meet immediate needs, like building healthy foliage on crops. When done incorrectly, some practices may actually be harmful to the environment and human health.

For farmers today, water is probably their top concern.  And since soil nutrient management is closely linked with soil moisture and irrigation, farmers must adapt their nutrient management strategy as the water source, quality and quantity change in these drought years.  Thinking about the two issues together can help a farmer manage their farm more holistically and be better prepared for the likely upcoming years of drought.

Aubrey White, Communications Coordinator, UC SAREP

Aubrey White, Communications Coordinator, UC SAREP

FR: We often hear that newer farmers have a steep learning curve in managing their soil.  Do you have a sense of how skilled the typical newer farmer versus experienced farmer is regarding soil nutrient management? 

UC SAREP: Well, knowledge can be all over the map, and farmers work very differently.  Some are agronomists and depend on frequent soil sampling and data-driven information.  Others monitor and understand soil fertility based on sight, touch, and smell. Both types of farmers can be just as successful, but both need a set of practices they can use and trust to guarantee healthy crops.  Because farming doesn’t require any sort of formal training (no degree required), many farmers may start at ground zero.  I think a lot of the learning curve is in understanding your own soil and how to see the signs of healthy or unhealthy changes.  But yes, that can be a steep learning curve!

We know that farmers seek out informational resources, and there are a lot of resources available out there to get started.  But, when you’re in the field in mid-May and your crops are looking damaged and you have to troubleshoot, the vast amount of resources available can be overwhelming to sift through.   When you have an immediate problem, talking to someone with knowledge and experience can be invaluable.  It’s great to see farmers ask soil questions in FarmsReach and get answers from others in the community!

FR: Can you share a bit about how the UC SAREP Solution Center for Nutrient Management project came about?

UC SAREP: The Solution Center for Nutrient Management began as a project in 2013.  We want agricultural research to be easily digestible, available at the right time to growers, and relevant to the diversity of growers throughout the state. We also want to build a statewide network of people who are knowledgeable about nutrient management—growers, researchers, crop consultants, and others.  We think the power of information-sharing is in these networks, so we hope to create a variety of ways to open up communication on the topic, and use our collective minds to address big challenges growers face.

Initially, the Solution Center focused on the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and agriculture research of UC Davis’ Martin Burger and Will Horwath.  Going forward, though, the Solution Center will focus on nutrient management in general.  Currently, we have a small (but growing) database of research on our website, searchable by categories growers are interested in, with research summaries and links to related publications. We’re organizing field days, building toolkits on our website, and, of course, partnering with FarmsReach and Sustainable Conservation to host this series of online discussions on a variety of topics, and curating the Soil Nutrient Management Toolkit in FarmsReach. We hope to see this project grow over the years into a reliable source of information for growers, and a helpful tool for researchers who want to get the word out about their research.

FR: What is the relationship between UC SAREP, FarmsReach and Sustainable Conservation?

UC SAREP: As I see it, our three organizations have similar goals and complementary skills and resources. UC SAREP houses the Solution Center for Nutrient Management on the UC website, and we’d been brainstorming hosting an online forum as part of the project.  With the robust community already participating in FarmsReach’s Conversations forum, we realized it was much wiser to partner with you rather than slave over building our own platform.  Sustainable Conservation works closely with dairy producers, so our partnership has allowed us to bring our university research to this additional segment of dairies and forage producers as well.

Of course, the agricultural community in California is huge and diverse. Each of our organizations works with different (and sometimes overlapping) areas in the community.  Without these partnerships, I don’t think the Solution Center statewide network that we envision would be possible to create.

Ryan Murphy, Agriculture, Resources & Environmental Analyst, UC SAREP/ANR

Ryan Murphy, Agriculture, Resources & Environmental Analyst,               UC SAREP/UC ANR

FR: How do the online, moderated forums within FarmsReach fit into the larger UC SAREP Solution Center project, and how might they guide what researchers focus on in the future? 

UC SAREP: Every few months, we start up a new, moderated forum topic in the Soil Nutrient Management group on FarmsReach.  The next one’s focused on forage crops, and starts Monday, April 6th – today!  We’re expecting several more in the series throughout 2015.  We host these forums on different research topics relevant to nutrient management, and then simultaneously prepare related resources for the UC SAREP Solution Center. These could include field days, in-person discussions, research summaries, self-guided curriculums, and more.

We also hope that, through the forums, we’ll see which issues people want to know about, so researchers can focus attention where it’s needed most.  We really want the Solution Center to be able to respond to the needs of the community, and we see the forum as a key way to understand those needs.

FR: Who are the moderators of the forums?  How did you select these ‘experts’?

UC SAREP: “Expert” is a funny term, and often used for lack of a better one. We try to pick a diverse set of moderators—consultants, growers, and farm advisors—who know about and are interested in the topic we’re discussing.

At the same time, our moderators are extremely experienced and can offer a lot of insights! This forum is a great opportunity to connect with them and tap their knowledge.

Their role is in part to answer questions that participants have, and to provide helpful resources to the community.  We also hope that any participant in the discussion who has experiences or knowledge to share will do so!  The moderators are intended to spark the conversation and introduce new topics, but we hope that everyone will take part in sharing any issues, solutions and ideas they want to.

FR: How did you select the first three topics in the series: nut & tree crops, wine grapes and vines, and forage crops?  What future topics do you foresee?

UC SAREP: We know drought is on everybody’s mind.  And the situation is particularly dire for growers with perennial crops and crops grown for animal consumption, in part because those crops take such a large initial investment.  Growers will see new challenges in the coming years that need to be talked about now.

Despite the limited research on how to deal with nutrient management during drought specifically, researchers are able to apply their years of scientific experience together and come up with some good principles to guide growers during this time.

We’re looking at our next topics to cover.  We’re planning for a few different topics right now: managing greenhouse gas emissions, methods in soil monitoring, and properly assessing the nutrient value of composts.   We’re very interested in which topics people are interested in learning about, and what kind of forum discussions would do justice to those topics.  Should we discuss specific research findings, or general principles in agricultural management?  Should we cover specific crops, or try to stay more general?  We are trying to make the process iterative, so the form might change a bit as we move forward.  We would love the community’s input!

Switchgrass used primarily as a forage crop and groundcover

Switchgrass used primarily as a forage crop and groundcover

FR: What do you hope to do achieve in this next series topic on forage crops, or in the future series topics? 

UC SAREP: We hope that the forum can be accessible to people with a range of experience.  We want beginning farmers to be able to troubleshoot nutrient management in their first few years of farming, and we want long-time farmers to be able to discuss new methods in soil monitoring and newly available technologies.

We’re still learning how to create the space that will generate good conversation.  We’ll try to provide background materials on the topics beforehand so newer growers can establish some baseline knowledge ahead of time, and we’ll pose some questions to kick off the discussion that we think the community are interested in.

If we miscalculate, tell us about a topic you are interested in!  Don’t be shy to pose your own question, or reframe the discussion in a way you think your community will better respond to.  We are still learning, and really want this to be about the power of the group to push important conversations forward.

FR: How has the recent media coverage about California’s extreme drought affected your work on the Solution Center? Or has it?

UC SAREP: It’s told us to keep the conversation going!  There are no quick answers to the drought, and I think growers often feel like they don’t have much control – some literally have no control because they have no water allocations.  We know conversation won’t make it rain, but at least they can help us think creatively to keep our farms growing.

FR: If you could give our farmer readers one word of wisdom or practical advice to manage their soil in these times of drought, what would it be?

UC SAREP: Our first thought is: monitor, monitor, monitor.   In reality, though, it’s hard to give one single word of wisdom when each farmer has his or her own unique circumstances.  I’d suggest everyone join the Soil Nutrient Management Group and voice questions and issues in the discussions!

FR: How can the community help this project be more successful?  How can we help?

UC SAREP: Participate and spread the word!   It takes minutes (and is free) to join the Soil Nutrient Management Group in FarmsReach.

If you are interested in being even more involved in the project, there are lots of opportunities.   Help moderate a discussion, participate in a field day to share your nutrient management practices, submit your research to be added to our website, etc.  Help this resource grow!

One of Sustainable Conservation's project works with dairies and their use of water

Sustainable Conservation also works with dairies and their impact on fresh water

FR: Anything else you’d like to add?

UC SAREP: Aside from the UC SAREP Solution Center and the FarmsReach Nutrient Management forums, both UC SAREP and Sustainable Conservation run a lot of other in-person and on-farm programs that support sustainable agriculture and food systems in California. Check out the UC SAREP site to find out about our other programs, and go to the Projects pages in the Sustainable Conservation website to learn more about their great work.

And, we hope to have your participation in the next Soil Nutrient Management Series for forage crops starting Monday, April 6th

Thank you, Aubrey and Ryan, for spearheading this important project!

To stay up-to-date on the Soil Nutrient Management Series and see recent posts, all you have to do is join the group.  It’s free and takes minutes!  Also, check out our Soil Nutrient Management Toolkit, with categorized practical resources.

If you have ideas for future series topics or have any feedback about the series so far, please do get in touch.  We’d love to hear from you!

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