May 5, 2016
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of blog posts highlighting Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) projects. Our last SARE: Stories from the field blog featured a Virginia project that used SARE funds for innovative public seed breeding.
For over 25 years, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has enabled farmers, non-profits and institutions to conduct innovative research in sustainable production practices. SARE programs are tailored to meet regional and local needs, serving farms and agricultural organizations through four regional offices: Northeast, Western, Southern, and North Central. Research projects through SARE encompass a myriad of topics, from the economics of cover crops to nutrient management of pastureland, all working toward creating a more sustainable agricultural system.
Competition for agricultural land has grown fierce recently in the narrow, fertile crescent of California’s Salinas Valley. Thanks to a boom in demand for organic meat and produce, farmers in the area have had more business than ever. However, because land is in limited supply, they must fill this demand not by expanding in acres, but by maximizing efficiency.
Facing rising land rents, a group of ten farmers in Salinas partnered with the Agriculture and Land Based Training Association (ALBA) to apply for a Western SARE on-farm research partnership grant titled “Empowering Socially-Disadvantaged Farmers to Investigate Nitrogen Management in High-Value Vegetable Crops.” Through this research project the farmers sought ways to make more efficient use of farm inputs through improved nutrient management in order to increase farm productivity as well as to reduce input costs and environmental degradation.
Nathan Harkleroad, Agriculture Education Program Manager at ALBA, led the application effort for the group, helping to ensure that the Salinas farmers could successfully carry out their proposed research project on nitrogen management for two of California’s high-value organic crops: cilantro and kale.
Having worked with local farmers for a number of years, Harkleroad knew that nitrogen fertilizer use in the Salinas Valley required improved management, and that the research conducted through this SARE grant would provide much needed data for the agricultural community.
“Organic crop nutrient management is highly complicated and there is little guidance in our region for organic nitrogen fertilizer management,” said Harkleroad. “There are serious environmental and health concerns with nitrate contamination of surface and groundwater in our area. At the same time, our farmers also need to maximize their production rates because the market here is highly competitive.”
The research ALBA and the Salinas farmers were able to conduct through their SARE grant revealed that cilantro grown in rotation with other crops may not respond to additional nitrogen fertilizer, indicating that a reduction in inputs could help to optimize cilantro production. The field trials also indicated that kale planted in strawberry beds would benefit from any excess nitrogen in the soil. This planting technique reduces ground preparation costs, recycle nutrients, and produces a high yield of fall and winter kale.
Farmer-Led Research Builds Capacity for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers
By sharing their results broadly, the Salinas SARE project was able to empower farmers to research organic nutrient management on their own farms, and also created positive ripple effects in the wider Salinas farming community.
“For us, SARE has really helped farmers who face market pressures become connected with the resources and innovations out there, and access research on what other farmers have done,” said Harkleroad. “There aren’t many opportunities like the SARE Farmer/Rancher Grant and the SARE Professional/Producer Grant which allow farmers to come up with innovative solutions. The SARE grant allowed us to develop a framework for creating solutions and provided the resources to carry out a very targeted project.”
The partnership component of the SARE grant helped ALBA to connect with a group of ten socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers, all of whom received individual attention from ALBA staff to design field research and fertilizer trials. Beyond working directly with these farmers, ALBA shared trial results and taught improved management practices to 30 of its aspiring student farmers through its beginning farmer education program.
One farmer who partnered on the project, Javier Zamora, was so inspired by the impact of the program in his community that he traveled to meet with his state and congressional representatives in Washington D.C. during NSAC’s March fly-in.
Zamora reflected on federal programs that support socially disadvantaged farmers and sustainable agriculture research, saying, “If we didn’t have these programs, I don’t think I would have made it to where I am.”
The outreach requirement of the SARE-funded project also led ALBA to expand farmer interest in federal conservation programs. During project trainings, ALBA coordinated with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff to connect training on nutrient management practices with working lands conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Dozens of farmers met with cooperative extension agents for the first time during the project, sharing resources with other farmers and applying for federal conservation programs at project training events.
“We work with a community that faces challenges in reaching federal programs, so events like these highlight for them the problems that federal programs can help solve,” said Harkleroad.
ALBA reached over one hundred additional farmers and agricultural professionals through their education and outreach workshops on nutrient management and Farmer Education Course.