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Organic farmer Tom Willey comments on UC’s new organic research land

Madera County organic farmer Tom Willey weighed in yesterday with what I would describe as cautious appreciation for the decision to dedicate 10 acres at the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center to research on organic farming. Willey’s comments were published in the weekly newsletter “What’s Growin’ On,” which accompanies the boxes of fruit and vegetables that go to his farm’s “subscribers.”

Willey runs a Community Supported Agriculture program, in which consumers pay a monthly subscription to receive a weekly box of fruit and vegetables. Here's a link to his farm's Web site. Since I am a subscriber, I receive the delicious fresh produce and the newsletter, which includes an update on the farm, recipes featuring fruit and vegetables in the box, and Willey’s column, “Farther Afield.” In the column, he notes that, when asked to comment about the land newly designated for organic research, he has “weighed my words judiciously.” “California’s organic farmers . . . over the last quarter century have conducted their own ‘bootstrap’ research and shared it through a uniquely open network. A conundrum with organic research is that wholistic growing systems mimic the multilayered complexity of natural ecologies and resist simple analysis for single input response so common to conventional agriculture’s inquiry.” He closes: “Let’s hope that tenacious local farm advisor Richard Molinar’s little plot at Kearney is a harbinger of an equally rapid growth of the too long dormant partnership between California’s great university and the burgeoning organic community.”

Click here for more on Kearney's organic research plot.

Posted on Monday, May 14, 2007 at 1:19 PM

UC Riverside tar pit story gets media attention

The news media can't resist a great story. That tenant was confirmed this weekend when fascinating results of a UC Riverside research project were shared with the media and then published widely.

UC Riverside environmental microbiologist David Crowley and postdoctoral researcher Jong-Shik Kim discovered bacteria in the La Brea tar pits that are uniquely adapted to the harsh environment and contain three previously undiscovered classes of enzymes that can naturally break down petroleum products, according to a news release by Iqbal Pittalwala of UC Riverside news service.

"We found some really great bacteria," the Los Angeles Times quoted Crowley. "The types we found are all very specialized for life in extreme environments."

Crowley also told Times reporter Jia-Rui Chong that the the petroleum-eating bacteria are interesting for their potential environmental applications -- for cleaning up oil spills or cleaning holds of oil tankers and degrading ticholoroethylene, a dry-cleaning and metal degreasing solvent that is a groundwater contaminant.

"These are definitely keepers," he said.

The story was picked up by a number of news media, including Fox News and Innovations Report in Germany.

Posted on Monday, May 14, 2007 at 10:31 AM

Bees are becoming scarce

Call it a sign of the times. As I drive around Fresno and Clovis, in the heart of the world’s No. 1 ag county, I see homemade signs posted on power polls and street signs with stark, bright red lettering imploring: “BEE SWARMS WANTED CALL ASAP."

The recent dwindling of honey bees has been well documented in the news over the past few months. Media reports ponder the possibilities that bee die-off may be due to a fungus that killed bee colonies in Asian and Europe or that a parasite is to blame. In compiling their stories, reporters frequently go to UC Davis Cooperative Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen for comment.

“If we eventually lose enough of our honey bees, then we will not be going to be able to pollinate the crops,” Mussen is quoted on the Web site of Seattle TV station KIRO.

“No one knows why this is happening, but we don't have a bee shortage yet," he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Bee keepers worried by the perplexing bee deaths got a boost yesterday when UC Davis announced the addition of an accomplished bee breeder and geneticist to the university’s bee biology laboratory. A news release by Pat Bailey of UC Davis news service said the program was once a powerhouse in bee biology research, but declined during the 1990s due to budget shortages and faculty retirements. The new researcher, Susan Cobey, will collaborate with Mussen as she focuses on strengthening ties between university research and the honey-bee industry.

Posted on Monday, May 14, 2007 at 10:01 AM

Biodynamic farming is in the news

Biodynamic farming takes organic agriculture one step further. In addition to rejecting synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the practice involves adding soil and plant amendment "preparations" and even evoking astrological inspiration. As such, the system is considered poppycock to some, indespensible to adherents. Recently, biodynamic agriculture has been in the news. Insidebayarea.com food writer Jolene Thym published a story yesterday about biodynamic farmer Mike Benzinger of Benzinger Family Vineyards in Glenn Ellen.

"In commercial farming, you push nature out to the borders," Benzinger is quoted in the article. "Here, we have invited it in to set up shop; to integrate with everything that we do here."

The same day, Joan Obra, the food editor for the Fresno Bee, wrote about Fresno biodynamic farmer Gina Nonini. Obra quotes Nonini:

"You start looking at planetary influences and the cosmic world. It's even more fluid and alive than organics."

UC Cooperative Extension is in on the conversation. Mendocino County farm advisor Glenn McGourty was part of a team that compared biodynamically and organically managed vineyards. Their results showed measurable differences in the grapes that were harvested. Look for a press release with details on the study's methodology and results later this month on the UC ANR News Web Site.

Posted on Thursday, May 10, 2007 at 11:55 AM

Marin Independent Journal cites UCCE expert

The director of the UC Cooperative Extension Sea Grant Extension Program, Paul Olin, was cited in a story published today by the Marin Independent Journal. His expertise was sought about a decision made by the Marin County Board of Supervisors to ask Sen. Dianne Feinstein to help one of the county's largest oyster farms stay in business.

National Park officials say the oyster beds threaten an important habitat for harbor seals and shorebirds and damage the growth of native eelgrass.

According to the article, written by Rob Rogers, Olin downplayed the effects of the oyster company on native eelgrass.

"Every farm has impacts, but it also has benefits," Olin said. "In this case, those benefits include food and maintaining the water quality of the estuary. There are approximately 700 acres in the estuary, and the farm only takes up 12 acres."

Click here for the complete article.

Posted on Wednesday, May 9, 2007 at 12:42 PM

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