Julia Scott

Posts Tagged ‘farming’

Superlettuce! Extreme weather calls for extreme crops

Monday, September 30th, 2013

It’s hot. By 9 a.m., a dusty desert film radiates hazy stillness over thirsty fields of produce. The air is dry as static, and temperatures are well on their way to a blistering peak of 103 degrees in the desert town of El Centro, California, 13 miles from the Mexican border. But Beiquan Mou, a research geneticist with the U.S Department of Agriculture, is buoyant, because his acre-wide field of green and purple lettuce is thriving in these oven-like conditions.

Lettuce is a delicate mistress; it must be coddled and kept below 85 degrees or it will struggle — bad news for America’s salads, as scientists claim climate change is poised to turn central California, home to the nation’s “salad bowl,” into a dust bowl by the end of the century. Most of the year, 60 percent of all the lettuce Americans consume grows in the Salinas Valley, 500 miles from here, cooled by the Pacific breeze. Temperatures there hover at an average of 68 degrees. In El Centro, highs of 106 are not unusual. And that is why Mou is here. Someday, much of America’s prime agricultural land will be subject to the same weather conditions that conspired to make 2012 the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. Over the course of this century, North America will see longer periods of extreme heat. Farmers could see annual losses of $5 billion or more.

Superlettuce in Beiquan Mou's field / Julia Scott

Meet the Superlettuce

Mou, tall and serious in a round straw hat, armed with clipboard and pen, is picking thick, green heads of iceberg and juicy-looking romaine in leaf-wilting heat. “The Margarita looks good,” he says, touching a tender butterhead cultivar, blooming in the cracked roseate sand.

Since 2010, Mou has been on an epic quest for the world’s most heat-tolerant lettuces. Backed by a three-year federal grant, part of a $38 million effort to cope with climate change, he has growtested more than 3,500 varieties of lettuce and spinach in a heat chamber laboratory, exposing them to scorching temperatures and recording the results. The goal: Identify the hardiest species, and isolate their survival genes.

Someday, hopefully, the winners of this gladiatorial death match will wind up on salad plates. The lettuce of the future may look and taste the same, but thanks to the research Mou has begun, its DNA will contain a heat-resistant gene to help farmers cultivate it pretty much anywhere — even the desert.

By late May, Mou’s 84 finalists — 28 icebergs, 28 romaines and 28 butterheads — are ready to be picked and analyzed. They even have superhero names like Gladiator, Jericho, Sniper and Invader. Crouching in pristine, button-down ensembles, Mou and his assistant pile lettuce heads into containers and carry them back to their shade tent. They weigh them, test their firmness, split them open and measure their cores, taking note of tip burn and leaf stress.

Measuring lettuce / Julia Scott

Many of Mou’s plants have grown into mutant parodies of supermarket lettuce. Some green-leaf varieties are more than a foot wide with heads bigger than wedding bouquets. Others have cooked in the sun so long they look like burnt marshmallows.

The weirdest-looking lettuces have shot their stems 2ó feet into the air, growing leaves in the shape of Christmas trees. Called “bolting,” this is a survival tactic in which lettuce under heat stress tries to flower quickly in an attempt to reproduce.

But Mou’s lettuce has to do more than look good. He bites into a tasty-looking iceberg cultivar called Glacier and makes a face. It is piercingly bitter. “In the Salinas Valley, that one tastes just fine,” he says, shaking his head. He uses his knife to slit open a neighboring iceberg. He nods in approval. It’s sweet. It will take trial and error to produce a lettuce that is both hardy and tasty.

Global warming will dictate the world’s salad bar selection in the not-so-distant future, and Mou isn’t the only one rushing to condition our unprepared produce.

One of the USDA’s top objectives in coming years is to identify crop varieties with the most resilient all-weather genes. In addition to Mou’s work, USDA plant physiologists in North Carolina are looking for soybean cultivars that can tolerate elevated ozone and carbon dioxide levels. In Wisconsin, scientists are adapting cranberries to unexpected frost snaps — another regional effect of climate change. In Maryland, researchers are studying crops that deliver better yields with higher levels of carbon dioxide.

Mou won’t have results until 2014. But finding the world’s first superlettuce is only half the challenge. It will take time — and money — to find a way to crossbreed the lettuce genotypes with other existing strains. Charles Walthall, acting deputy administrator of the USDA’s Natural Resources and Sustainable Agriculture Systems program, says industry leaders like Monsanto are already focused on similar research. Syngenta, for example, has taken an interest in Mou’s study, and sent representatives to one of his lettuce fields.

If all goes well, our lettuce may be more primed than we are to survive the hot, dry times ahead.

“You think this is hot?” laughs Mou, sweating. “Maybe every day in the future will be this hot.”

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Unaffordable land stunts new generation of small farmers

Monday, January 24th, 2011

PESCADERO — In 2005, would-be farmers Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson spotted an old barn along Highway 1 that would make a good produce stand, along with 13 acres of prime coastal property, available for $1.25 million. They jumped at the chance to buy it.

“We were incredibly lucky,” Vail said. “It’s a lot of money, but it’s actually pretty good.”

Indeed, Vail and Lawson, who operate Pie Ranch, a nonprofit educational farm on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, were lucky to find land to farm.

(John Green/Bay Area News Group)
(John Green/Bay Area News Group)

They are part of a new and growing generation of farmers who aspire to deliver locally grown organic food to their communities but can’t usually afford the land to do so.

Access to land is the main impediment to beginning farmers and ranchers today, said Reggie Knox, Central Coast coordinator for California FarmLink, a nonprofit that works to preserve family farming and conserve farmland in California.

“Small farmers like to be close to urban areas,” said Knox, who has a long waiting list of people who are looking for affordable farmland. “Land values are going up around all the urban areas, so it’s harder to get into land.”

Owning coastal farmland, or fertile farmland almost anywhere in California, is a pipe dream today for nearly everyone but well-established corporate farmers and dot-com millionaires, experts say.Across the U.S., development pressure claims an acre of farmland or ranch land every minute, although that pace may have slowed since the economic crisis, according to the American Farmland Trust. If trends continue, California is expected to lose 1.2 million more acres of farmland by 2040.

But even though the amount of California farmland in production has been falling for decades, and the average California farmer is now 58 years old, the latest agricultural census reveals another trend: The number of small farms — 49 acres or less — in the state has grown by more than 4,000 since 2002.

Many of these operations are founded by people in their 20s and 30s for whom earning a profit may be secondary to their real goal of producing wholesome, seasonal food and teaching others about farming.

“We see young people coming from urban areas with a desire to make a connection from the farm to the fork,” said professor Scott Vernon of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. “They’re not intending to be big farmers or make a living out of it. In many ways it’s gardening — but they don’t even know how to garden.”

Vernon said student enrollment in Cal Poly’s farming program has spiked in recent years, as have admissions to similar community college programs across the state. An organic farming apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz receives more than 200 applications every six months but admits only a fraction of those who apply.

Most farm program graduates won’t be as fortunate as the founders of Pie Ranch, who turned to the Peninsula Open Space Trust to help them buy the first 13-acre parcel and the old barn. The farm produces many ingredients found in a pie, such as eggs to strawberries. It connects high school kids to the land and sells produce in the old barn.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust applied a conservation easement to the land to prevent development. Pending a capital campaign, Pie Ranch will soon own the land outright.

The other 14-acre slice of Pie Ranch came from a friend who helped Vail and Lawson cofound the farm. Then she let them buy her out with the help of some other loans for $500,000.

“This is part of a larger vision of a sustainable agriculture corridor from San Francisco down through Santa Cruz,” Vail said. “We need to have more farmers, and they need to be able to access land and make a living and pull it off. We can’t be the only ones doing that.”

Even leasing land in California can be prohibitively expensive.

TLC Ranch, located in Aromas east of Watsonville, went out of business in November after six years of selling free-range farm-raised eggs and pork to California’s Central Coast community. In a final letter to customers, co-founders Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop said the astronomical price to lease their ranch land — 48 acres at a cost of $800 an acre per year — was a major factor in their decision to pack it in.

Thistlethwaite and Dunlop founded TLC Ranch, which stands for Tastes Like Chicken, six years ago. Their products were a huge success, but it wasn’t enough. If the couple made a mistake, it was the fact that they both came from modest backgrounds and didn’t have any land wealth, Thistlethwaite said.

“Pretty much every farmer at the farmers market has some sort of resources that were not available to us,” Thistlethwaite said. “Some of them did buy farmland 30 years ago, back in the day when you could buy land on a middle-income-type salary. No one’s able to do it today unless their parents bought them the farm.”

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