June 30, 2006
by Ali Bay, Capital Press Staff Writer
DAVIS — Sustainable agriculture researchers had their day in the sun June 22 as they showed off some of their latest work designed to help farmers reduce inputs.
University of California-Davis graduate students and scientists rolled out demonstrations of productive and environmentally friendly farming practices at the Sustainable Farming Systems field day. The university’s Sustainable Agricultural Farming Systems Project is designed to produce results that could help farmers and ranchers.
This year’s field day included research highlighting the pros and cons of conservation tillage, organic insecticides, crop rotation, cover cropping and organic corn production.
Most of the research at the Russell Ranch, home to long-term ag studies and the university’s new Agricultural Sustainability Institute, focuses on the benefits or difficulties associated with reduced tillage, said Steve Kaffka, a researcher and director of the UC-Davis Center for Integrated Farming Systems.
“This is a very appropriate activity,” he said. “Reduced tillage is going to be a major feature of field crop and major crop production in the future.”
While the Sustainable Agricultural Farming Systems Project studies focus largely on tomatoes and corn, conservation tillage is also being explored in other crops, including wheat.
The project was established in 1988 as a way for the university to study the possible transition from conventional farming to low-input or organic growing. The program has historically explored issues such as pesticide misuse, food safety, water use and contamination and natural resources conservation.
One of the program’s key goals is to make sure that sustainable farming systems are economically viable for growers, said Will Horwath, a professor of soil biogeochemistry.
“We’ve always looked at economics, which is sort of a central point to our research,” he said. “Can it be viably adopted by our growers?”
In keeping with the times, university leaders are hoping they can soon take a closer look at the potential for biofuels production in California.
“There’s a huge interest currently in biofuels production,” Kaffka said. “It’s going to happen. But what about the sustainability of intense biofuels production? Here we can assess some of the long-term consequences.”
Sustainable agriculture leaders recognize that biofuels could benefit the industry, but Rick Roush, director of the statewide UC Integrated Pest Management Program, said he’s skeptical the nation’s energy problems will be resolved with biofuels, which could require a significant amount of energy to create.
“If there’s a future in this it’s probably to generate ethanol out of cellulose,” Roush said, adding that more research needs to be done to determine its value.
Nevertheless, he recognizes the importance of being energy efficient on the farm.
“Energy sustainability on the farm must become a priority, lest we end up being forced to depend solely on horse-drawn plows,” he said. “We have much to gain by supporting projects like the CIFS sustainable agriculture farming systems research, which will help us adapt to whatever the future brings.”- Ali Bay is based in Sacramento. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.