Merced County Cooperative Extension
Merced County Cooperative Extension
Merced County Cooperative Extension
University of California
Merced County Cooperative Extension

UC Food Blog

New UC study helps growers estimate cover crop costs and potential benefits

Sarah Light stands in a white mustard cover crop. A new study helps growers estimate the costs and potential benefits of a winter cover crop.

Cover crops offer many potential benefits – including improving soil health – but not knowing the costs can be a barrier for growers who want to try this practice. To help growers calculate costs per acre, a new study on the costs and potential benefits of adding a winter cover crop in an annual rotation has been released by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, UC Cooperative Extension and the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

Led by UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors Sarah Light and Margaret Lloyd, the cost study is modeled for a vegetable-field crop rotation planted on 60-inch beds in the lower Sacramento Valley of California. Depending on the operation, this rotation may include processing tomatoes, corn, sunflower, cotton, sorghum and dry beans, as well as other summer annual crops.

“This cost study can be used by growers who want to begin cover cropping to determine the potential costs per acre associated with this soil-health practice,” said Light, a study co-author and UC Cooperative Extension agronomy advisor for Sutter, Yuba and Colusa counties.

“Based on interviews with growers who currently cover crop on their farms, this cost study models a management scenario that is common for the Sacramento Valley. In addition, growers who want to use cover crops can gain insight as to what standard field management practices will be from planting to termination.”

At the hypothetical farm, the cover crop is seeded into dry soil using a grain drill, then dependent on rainfall for germination and growth.

“Given the frequency of drier winters, we included the cost to irrigate one out of three years,” said Lloyd.  

A mix of 30% bell bean, 30% field pea, 20% vetch and 20% oats is sown in the fall. Depending on winter rainfall, soil moisture and the following cash crop, the cover crop is terminated in mid to late spring. The cover crop is flail mowed and disced to incorporate the residue into the soil.

The study includes detailed information on the potential benefits and the drawbacks of cover cropping.

Another consideration for growers is that multiple programs such as CDFA's Healthy Soils Program, various USDA-funded programs (EQUIP, the Climate-Smart Commodities, etc.), and Seeds for Bees by Project Apis m. offer financial incentives for growers to implement conservation practices, such as cover crops.

“This study can provide growers with a baseline to estimate their own costs of using winter cover crops as a practice. This can be useful to calculate more precise estimates when applying for some of these programs and/or weigh the costs per acre with expected benefits in terms of soil health, crop insurance premium discounts or other benefits provided by the cover crops,” said Brittney Goodrich, UC Cooperative Extension agricultural and resource economics specialist and study co-author.

“Last year, the USDA's Pandemic Cover Crop Program gave up to a $5/acre discount on crop insurance premiums for growers who planted a cover crop, and there is potential this will get extended going forward,” Goodrich said. 

A list of links to resources that focus specifically on cover crops is included in the study. Five tables show the individual costs of each cultural operation from ground preparation through planting and residue incorporation.

The new study, “2022 - Estimated Costs and Potential Benefits for a Winter Cover Crop in an Annual Crop Rotation - Lower Sacramento Valley,” can be downloaded from the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics website at coststudies.ucdavis.edu. Sample cost of production studies for many other commodities are also available on the website.

This cost and returns study is funded by the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

For an explanation of calculations used in the study, refer to the section titled “Assumptions.” For more information, contact Don Stewart in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at destewart@ucdavis.edu, Light at selight@ucanr.edu, or Lloyd at mglloyd@ucanr.edu.

Posted on Wednesday, October 5, 2022 at 9:57 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

Pitahaya/dragon fruit growers gather to learn from UCCE research and each other

At Wallace Ranch in Bonsall, Ramiro Lobo (right) demonstrates how to control pitahaya/dragon fruit leaves as they grow. All photos by Saoimanu Sope.

Once you know what a dragon fruit looks like, you will never forget it. The bright red, sometimes yellow or purple, scaly skin makes for a dramatic appearance. One that will surely leave an impression. The flesh ranges from white to a deep pink and the flavor is often described as having hints of kiwi, watermelon, or pear.

Dragon Delights Farm begins harvesting early in the morning and fill up several crates of pitahaya/dragon fruit.

Since 2007, the Pitahaya/Dragon Fruit Production Tour, has united dragon fruit growers of all levels and backgrounds. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, registration for the 2022 tour filled up in less than 24 hours.

A group of 60 participants gathered Sept. 8 at the Wallace Ranch Dragon Fruit Farm in Bonsall to learn the latest research on growing the drought-tolerant specialty crop. Ramiro Lobo, a small farms and agricultural economics advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in San Diego County, introduced dragon fruit growers and other UC scientists. 

“I can't remember a year where this event was not sold out. So, the need and demand is there,” said Eyal Givon, a long-time participant and dragon fruit grower.

The tour not only demonstrates how to grow the fruit, but it also grants participants access to plant material for varieties that are unavailable elsewhere.

“We have given out about 50,000 cuttings through our festival and some varieties were unique to us because we introduced them to the U.S.,” said Lobo. 

During their time at Wallace Ranch, participants heard from the farm's owner, Neva Day, regarding the growing practices that have shaped her success today. Day has been growing organic dragon fruit since 2013 and has well over 5,000 plants on the ground and more than 20 varieties.

Kevin Brixey, owner of Dragon Delights Farm, shares his experience as a grower.
Eric Middleton, UCCE integrated pest management area advisor for San Diego County, talked about managing insects and pests that growers are likely to encounter such as Argentine ants. 

According to Middleton, Pecan Sandies are a balanced source of fat, protein, and sugar, making them excellent bait for the sugar-loving insects. 

Participants eventually made their way to Dragon Delights Farm located in Ramona. Kevin Brixey, the farm's owner, has been growing organic dragon fruit for six years.

Although Brixey was hosting this year's tour participants, he used to be one of them.

“I attended the Pitahaya Festival in 2014 and that's where I realized dragon fruit was something I could grow. There was a lot of good information being shared and a connection to other growers, so it was a major steppingstone for me,” he says.

Unlike traditional dragon fruit growers, Brixey uses shade to grow his dragon fruit after learning about the method from another grower. 

“I was impressed. I liked how the fruit performed under shade and now I use it as a management tool,” Brixey explained. In Inland Valleys, shade can shield fruit from intense sunlight and protect them from unwanted guests that eat the fruit, such as birds. 

To protect the fruit from insects and birds, the pitahaya/dragon fruits are covered with a mesh bag.

At the Farm Bureau of San Diego County offices, participants learned about the history of dragon fruit growing in California, food safety, pest management, best production practices and much more.

The presenters included experts like Paul Erickson from Rare Dragon Fruit, Lobo, Middleton, Johanna del Castillo from UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology and Ariana Reyes, a community education specialist from UCCE San Diego.

When reflecting on his time participating in the production tour, Givon, who has been growing dragon fruit for about 20 years and manages a 20-acre farm in Moorpark, said he enjoys reconnecting with other growers the most.

“What others are doing, might be better than what I'm doing,” Givon said. “Or what I'm doing, could be better than what someone else is doing. This time together is good for us to learn from each other.”

Lobo agreed with Givon and added, “I hope that these tours become self-sustained, and that we go back to a research field day at Southcoast REC with regional tours in San Diego and Ventura as we did before, or any other counties.”

The Pitahaya/Dragon Fruit Production Tour is an annual event hosted by UCCE San Diego. To learn more about UCCE San Diego events, visit https://cesandiego.ucanr.edu.

While at Wallace Ranch, Eric Middleton (center) explains how to effectively manage pests that are common to pitahaya/dragon fruits.
Posted on Monday, October 3, 2022 at 10:29 AM
Tags: Bonsall (1), Dragon Delights (1), dragon fruit (1), grower (1), IPM (3), organic (12), pitahaya (3), Ramona (1), San Diego (2), Wallace Ranch (1)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

San Joaquin Valley farm and food project awarded $16 million in federal funds

“This project will expand on current efforts to support small-scale farmers with access to equipment, new markets and technical support,” said Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, shown demonstrating how to assess soil moisture with Michael Yang. Photo by Ka Xiong

Local food marketing, business and market support for small-scale farmers and food producers, new agricultural products and technology development are parts of a University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources project designed to boost jobs and farm resiliency in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation Coalition, or F3, received a $65.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge. Of that award, about $16 million is designated for the Local Farm and Food Innovation initiative led by UCANR. With the addition of matching share of cost contributions, the total budget for UC ANR's project is over $20.5 million.

“As a key part of the broader F3 project, this Local Farm and Food Innovation initiative is going to be transformative,” said Glenda Humiston, University of California vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “By strengthening the parts of the food system to better support each other and drive innovation across the region, it's going to deliver many environmental and economic benefits to Californians.”

Gabriel Youtsey is chief innovation officer for The VINE, a UC ANR initiative that helps new technology make it to market and businesses get off the ground by connecting entrepreneurs with mentors and resources, and aligning university and startup technology development with industry needs.

“The Local Farm and Food Innovation initiative is a win for inclusive innovation in agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley and a critical part of the F3 project,” said Youtsey. “It provides a broad set of training and support resources and expertise to help farms, food producers and vendors of all sizes to grow their businesses profitably and sustainably, in alignment with the economic goals of the region.”

To ensure technology solutions address the needs of small-scale farmers, food business owners and local communities, they will be invited to participate in directing the innovation activities, Youtsey said.

“With our deep roots in the San Joaquin Valley, UC Cooperative Extension is uniquely positioned to draw expertise from other parts of UC and expand its efforts in helping farmers and food entrepreneurs realize enduring prosperity and community resilience,” Humiston said. “UC ANR experts are already helping immigrants and other underserved communities adapt to climate change, add flexibility to supply chains and grow grassroots innovations. We are excited the federal government is investing in making food systems more equitable and profitable, and the solutions more scalable.”

To assist small-scale farmers in complying with new regulations and production challenges, adapting to climate change and finding new markets for their produce, UC ANR is convening the Small Farms Technology and Innovation Alliance. They are collaborating with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers and other nonprofit organizations to provide translation services, training and marketing assistance to farmers and food producers. 

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, UC Cooperative Extension small farms advisor for Fresno and Tulare counties, and Houston Wilson, UC Organic Agriculture Institute director and UC Cooperative Extension tree crops entomology specialist based at UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier, are leading outreach and engagement with small-scale and organic farmers. 

“While we certainly need to create new tools to address the unique challenges of organic agriculture, it is critical that farmers and other end-users be involved from start to finish,” said Wilson. “The development of appropriate technology requires communication across a wide range of stakeholders.” 

To make new technology more accessible for small farmers and food producers, UC ANR will create a new team to test and demonstrate technology that is developed as part of F3 and by startups around the world. To promote adoption, the team will create a tool lending library so farmers can borrow and try out equipment and get training to use it.

“This project will expand on current efforts to support small-scale farmers with access to equipment, new markets and technical support,” said Dahlquist-Willard. “Our team is committed to meaningful engagement of farmers and San Joaquin Valley communities in the development of new tools and resources for the benefit of the region.” 

For local food entrepreneurs and vendors, UC ANR will launch the Cultiva La Salud Kitchen and Food Academy and the Saint Rest Food Entrepreneurship Program, which will provide a kitchen, equipment and training. These will create new jobs and, over time, provide a marketplace to sell those products. The Local Food Marketing Assistance Program will promote purchases of locally grown produce and food products.

The Fresno-Merced project was one of 21 projects funded of the 529 proposed for the Build Back Better Regional Challenge intended to uplift underserved communities.

Posted on Tuesday, September 13, 2022 at 1:22 PM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Economic Development

The scent that could save California’s avocados

A close-up view of an avocado weevil, an elusive pest that spends most of its time deep inside a fruit. Photo by Mike Lewis, UC Riverside

Scientists search for pheromone to disrupt insect mating

UC Riverside scientists are on the hunt for a chemical that disrupts “evil” weevils' mating and could prevent them from destroying California's supply of avocados.

Avocado weevils, small beetles with long snouts, drill through fruit to lay eggs. The weevil grubs or larvae bore into avocado seeds to feed, rendering everyone's favorite toast topping inedible.

“They're extremely hard to control because they spend most of their time deep inside the fruit, where they're very well protected from insecticides and natural enemies,” said UCR researcher Mark Hoddle, a UC Cooperative Extension entomology specialist.

UCCE entomology specialist Mark Hoddle in Mexico, hunting avocado weevils. Photo by Mark Hoddle, UC Riverside

Not only are the insects reclusive, they are also understudied, making information about them hard to come by. “All books on avocado pest management will tell you these weevils are bad. They're well recognized, serious pests of avocados, but we know practically nothing about them,” Hoddle said.

One strategy for controlling pests is to introduce other insects that feed on them. However, that is unlikely to work in this case. “Natural enemies of these weevils seem to be extremely rare in areas where this pest is native,” Hoddle said.

To combat avocado weevils in Mexico, an area where they are native, and to prevent them from being accidentally introduced into California, Hoddle is working with Jocelyn Millar, a UCR insect pheromone expert. They are leading an effort to find the weevil's pheromone, with the goal of using it to monitor these pests and prevent them from mating in avocado orchards.

Pheromones are chemicals produced and released into the environment by an insect that can be “smelled” by others of its species, and affect their behavior.

“We could flood avocado orchards with so much pheromone that males and females can't find each other, and therefore can't reproduce,” Hoddle said. “This would reduce damage to fruit and enable growers to use less insecticides.”

Alternative control strategies could include mass trapping, using the pheromone as a lure, or an “attract-and-kill” approach, where the pheromone attracts the weevils to small sources of insecticide.

The work to identify, synthesize and test this pheromone in the field is supported by grants from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, as well as the California Avocado Commission.

An avocado damaged by the weevil. Photo by Mark Hoddle, UC Riverside

An initial phase of the project sent Hoddle to a base of operations three hours south of Mexico City, an area with large weevil populations. Using a special permit issued by the USDA, Hoddle brought weevils back to UCR's Insectary and Quarantine facility.

Hoddle and Sean Halloran, a UCR entomology researcher, captured the chemicals that avocado weevils release into the air. Possible pheromone compound formulas were identified from these crude extracts and are now being synthesized in Millar's laboratory.

“Weevil pheromones have complicated structures. When they're made in a lab, they can have left- or right-handed forms,” said Hoddle. Initially, Millar's group made a mixture of both forms to see if the blend would work as an attractant, as it is far cheaper to make the blend than the individual left- or right-handed forms.

Field work in Mexico with the pheromone cocktail by Hoddle, his wife Christina Hoddle, an associate specialist in entomology, and Mexican collaborators did not get a big response from the weevils, suggesting that one of the forms in the blend could be antagonizing the response to the other.

As the next step, the researchers plan to synthesize the individual forms of the chemicals and test the insects' response to each in Mexican avocado orchards.

Because the levels of avocado imports from Mexico are increasing, the risk of an accidental weevil invasion is rising as well. Hoddle is hopeful that the pheromone will be successfully identified and used to lower the risk this pest presents to California's avocado growers.

“We've been fortunate enough to be awarded these grants, so our work can be implemented in Mexico and benefit California at the same time,” Hoddle said. “The tools we develop now can be used to make sure crops from any exporting country are much safer to import into California.”

Posted on Wednesday, September 7, 2022 at 10:48 AM
  • Author: Jules Bernstein, UC Riverside
Tags: entomology (3), IPM (3), Mark Hoddle (3), pests (1), pheromone (1), UC Riverside (4), UCR (3), weevil (1)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture, Food, Pest Management

UC study breaks down costs of growing organic strawberries

Growers can compare their own cost and return estimates with those in the UC organic strawberry cost study. Photo by Mark Bolda

Thinking about commercially growing organic strawberries on the Central Coast? 

To help prospective and current growers evaluate financial feasibility, the University of California has estimated costs to produce and harvest organic strawberries for fresh market in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties. 

“This revise of the last cost-of-production study incorporates the newest in labor costs along with updates on cultural techniques,” said study co-author Mark Bolda, UC Cooperative Extension strawberries and caneberries advisor in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties.

The new study, “Sample Costs to Produce and Harvest Organic Strawberries in the Central Coast Region-2022,” has been released by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

The analysis is based on a hypothetical well-managed organic strawberry farm using practices common to the region, but the costs, materials and practices shown in this study will not apply to all farms. Growers, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors and specialists, pest control advisers and others provided input and reviewed the methods and findings of the study. 

“Current growers can use it as a baseline to compare with their own cost and returns estimates to make sure they have an accurate picture of the profitability of their organic strawberry enterprise,” said co-author Brittney Goodrich, UC Cooperative Extension agricultural economics specialist. “Many agricultural lenders use these studies as a baseline to determine whether to approve operating or investment loan requests from current and potential strawberry growers.”

The study's section on labor includes information on California’s new minimum wage and overtime laws.

The researchers assume a farm operation size of 30 contiguous acres of rented land, with strawberries are planted on 27 acres. The study includes a list of suitable strawberry varieties for the region, but no specific variety is used in the study. The crop is harvested by hand and packed into trays containing eight 1-pound clamshells from April through early October, with peak harvest in June through August.

The authors describe the assumptions used to identify current costs for production material inputs and cash and non-cash overhead. Ranging analysis tables show net profits over a range of prices and yields. Other tables show the monthly cash costs, the costs and returns per acre, hourly equipment costs, and the whole farm annual equipment, investment and business overhead costs.

The study's expanded section on labor includes information on California's new minimum wage and overtime laws.

“It's reached a wider audience this time through presentations of the material to students at Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo] and also a group of USDA officials at the California Strawberry Commission,” said Bolda.

“All of this just underlines the value of these studies to California growers and others working in agriculture,” Bolda said.

Free copies of this study and other sample cost of production studies for many commodities are available. To download the cost studies, visit the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics website at https://coststudies.ucdavis.edu

This cost and returns study was funded by the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. 

For additional information or an explanation of the calculations used in the studies, contact Jeremy Murdock, UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, at jmmurdock@ucdavis.edu or UC Cooperative Extension's Bolda at (831) 763-8025.

Posted on Wednesday, August 24, 2022 at 2:57 PM
Tags: cost studies (7), Mark Bolda (3), organic (12), strawberries (21)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

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