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Muramoto hired as first UC Cooperative Extension organic specialist

Joji Muramoto is the first UC Cooperative Extension specialist dedicated to organic agriculture. Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta

For the first time, the University of California has hired a Cooperative Extension specialist dedicated to organic agriculture.

Joji Muramoto, a longtime research associate with the University of California Santa Cruz, will coordinate a statewide program focused on the organic production of strawberries and vegetables. His first day in the new position will be May 29.

Muramoto is highly regarded for the depth of his knowledge of soil science and for his pioneering contributions to the organic production of strawberries—a high-value crop that is notoriously vulnerable to pests and soil-borne disease. He will have a joint affiliation with UC's Cooperative Extension (CE) and the Environmental Studies Department and the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) at UCSC.

CE specialists serve as liaisons between the university and the agricultural sector, building research programs that align with the needs of farmers and conducting collaborative on-farm studies that address problems growers are facing.

"I'm honored and humbled to have this position," said Muramoto, who plans to focus on soil fertility and the organic management of soil-borne diseases. In his position as assistant specialist, he looks forward to expanding his reach statewide and to coordinating short courses on organic pest management and organic soil fertility management.

CASFS Director Daniel Press said the establishment of an organic specialist is long overdue — and that Muramoto was an excellent choice.

"This is highly visible, public recognition of the significance of agroecology and organic agriculture," said Press. "It signals to the community of organic growers that we are a partner with them. They know this is for them, and they really love it."

UC Santa Cruz has played a vital role in the flourishing of organic farming on the Central Coast and beyond, through undergraduate education, training provided by the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture, CASFS, and faculty research projects, many of which Muramoto supported in his capacity as a research associate. Thirty percent of agriculture in Santa Cruz County is certified organic, said Press, who called the figure "astonishing."

"Joji is an exceptionally accomplished, skilled, talented, and respected scientist," said Press. "His list of publications is as long as many of my colleagues.' Now it's his show. He's the organic production specialist in the state."

It is also a sign of the times that UC Santa Cruz was selected to partner with UC's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) to create this CE position, said Press. Despite its strength in agroecology, Santa Cruz is not one of UC's traditional "ag schools." But times are changing, and the Berkeley, Davis, and Riverside campuses are no longer the only hosts of these valued positions.

"We have a long record of important ag research coming out of UC Santa Cruz, but it hasn't been part of a permanent program or a formal network," said Press, citing pathbreaking work by his colleagues in Environmental Studies, including Professor Emeritus Steve Gliessman, Professor Carol Shennan, former CASFS Director Patricia Allen, and former CASFS Associate Director Sean Swezey, all of whom Muramoto collaborated with. Most recently, in collaboration with Shennan, he helped pioneer the development of anaerobic soil disinfestation, a biological alternative to fumigants that has become a key strategy in conventional and organic strawberry production in coastal California.

"I can't overstate the different ways Joji has been engaged with campus research and undergraduate and graduate students," said Press. "He has played a key role in CASFS research for more than 20 years."

Tragedy inspires a commitment to organic agriculture

Muramoto's commitment to organic agriculture is almost as old as he is. When he was a boy growing up in Tokyo, Muramoto lost his 6-year-old sister to leukemia. His parents were shocked and devastated. Their loss took place when many people in Japan were concerned about pesticide residues in produce, spurred in part by Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring and the emergence of the organic movement in Japan.

"My mother wanted to do something," recalled Muramoto. "There was no direct evidence between pesticide residue and cancer, but she didn't want her daughter's death to have been in vain, so she joined the early organic movement. She started buying organic produce via the 'Teikei' system, which is similar to Community Supported Agriculture."

During middle school, Muramoto spent school breaks on organic farms in suburban Tokyo. "Organic farmers there told me repeatedly, 'Soil is the foundation of farming,'" he said. "That's when I got interested in soil science."

Today there is much more evidence showing an association between pesticide use and cancer, and Muramoto said, "It is important to increase our efforts to develop agroecological practices to manage pests without using pesticides."

Muramoto partnered with UCCE advisors Oleg Daugovish and Andre Biscaro in 2014 to study anaerobic soil disinfestation at Hansen Research and Extension Center in Ventura County.

Uphill battle to study organic processes

As a young assistant professor studying soil science at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, a private ag school, Muramoto found it difficult to get support for the work he wanted to do on organic production—while others in his department were well-supported for their work on conventional farming practices, including studies on chemical pesticides. The stress took a toll on Muramoto's health, and he left the university.

He reached out to Steve Gliessman after reading an academic article about Gliessman's early work on organic strawberries. Muramoto visited Gliessman in 1995 and joined Gliessman's agroeology lab at UCSC as a visiting scholar the following year. "I am so thankful, because he gave me the second chance I needed," said Muramoto. "I ended up working on organic strawberries ever since."

The Central Coast is well known around the world for the high concentration of organic production, and UC Santa Cruz is internationally recognized as a hub of organic activity and expertise.

Muramoto looks forward to building his research program; he hopes to develop ways to measure indicators of soil health, including levels of readily decomposable organic carbon and nitrogen. "Soil health has become a mainstream research topic among soil scientists worldwide, but there's no regional data for the Central Coast," he said. 

Intuition + scientific expertise = a winning formula

Jim Cochran, founder of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, met Muramoto shortly after he arrived in Santa Cruz. Cochran was the first farmer who managed to grow organic strawberries commercially, a success he credits to his collaboration with CASFS researchers, including Gliessman, Swezey, and Muramoto.

"I'm more of an intuitive farmer, but intuition isn't everything," said Cochran, who values the curiosity and scientific discipline Muramoto brought to their collaboration. "Science is super important. You don't want to live by one or the other."

Soil biology encompasses physics, chemistry, geology, and biology, making it extraordinarily complex, said Cochran. "There's no magic bullet, but Joji was ready to put a close scientific eye on the complexity of it," he said. "Joji embraced that complexity. Chemical farming was reductionist."

Unlike other academics who specialize in a particular segment of a complex problem, Muramoto takes a "holistic approach" to soil science and has kept his eyes on the larger picture, said Cochran. "He's been able to make some serious progress understanding soil biology, but there's a long way to go—which is good news for graduate students," he said. "It's wonderful to be able to call Joji and ask him what he thinks."

Benefits for conventional growers, too

Rod Koda of Shinta Kawahara Family Farms has grown strawberries in Watsonville since 1984. He has worked with Muramoto for nearly a decade and attended the "candidate talks" by the three finalists vying for the new organic specialist position. Still, he was "blown away" to learn how long Muramoto has been active in organic research, and the number of researchers across the country with whom he collaborates.

"For me, that was the game changer," said Koda. "Joji is this quiet, humble guy, but he's been working all over the place with so many people."

Koda farms 10 acres conventionally and seven acres organically, and he said "it's time" for organic to get the support it deserves. But all growers can benefit from paying close attention to soil health, he said. 

"Conventional growers, we don't have fumigants like methyl bromide anymore, so we've got to get smarter about how we farm," said Koda. "Joji is going to be a part of that."

Koda first started growing berries organically in 2006, steadily adding acreage over the years. "I eased into it, drawn by the sustainability of organic," he said, adding that organic alternatives to managing pests and controlling soil-borne disease were key to his willingness to make the leap. Muramoto and his colleagues' focus on maximizing soil health and using the functions of soil bacteria and organisms to suppress soil fungal diseases was eye-opening.

"I've learned a lot from Joji over the years," said Koda. "He's going to be the conduit that's going to bring that knowledge to other people—not just strawberry growers, and not just organic growers. Anyone who pays attention will glean some information from his work and his collaborations with other researchers."



Posted on Monday, May 13, 2019 at 3:17 PM
  • Author: Jennifer McNulty
Tags: Joji Muramoto (1), Organic (42)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

Organic farmers and researchers strive to advance soil care

Organic farmer Phil Foster has developed a creative way to nurture the soil on his 200-acre farm near Hollister. He plants cover crops in a single line at the top of the planting bed, saving water and seed while keeping the furrows clear for irrigation.

"We were finding we couldn't use cover crops because of water," Foster said. The narrow strip makes the best use of the limited water supply, while garnering the benefits of cover crops - which buffer soil temperatures, inhibit weeds, increase soil microbial activity, improve water infiltration and add nutrients. Growing cover crops prepares the soil for the production of high-quality vegetables.

Organic farmer Phil Foster stands in front of a field with cover crops planted in strips at the top of the planting bed.

Foster is one of eight organic vegetable growers who are working with researchers at Chico State, Fresno State and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources on a project funded with a USDA grant designed to make significant improvements in soil care in organic production systems. He guided project participants around his farm, equipment yard and compost operation in early November to share the techniques he and his staff have developed over three decades to promote soil health.

Tiny pores and roots can be seen in the soil at the Foster farm.
UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Sarah Light examines a soil sample. The agronomy expert, who serves Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties, is a cooperator on the project.

Tour participants marveled at the soil characteristics, admiring tiny pores and roots in clods of dirt, evidence of the soil's capacity to move water and nutrients. They studied the plant and soil conditions after farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled a carefully crafted implement for rolling down the cover crop across the field with a tractor. 

Foster credited Contreras, a 30-year employee, for his role in building the soil on the farm. Labor, Foster said, is his biggest cost. He has 50 full time staff, many with 5 to 20 years of experience.

"They are the key to to the success of the ranch," Foster said.

Farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled an implement through a mature cover crop to show how the field can be prepared for planting.

Minimizing and, eventually eliminating, soil disturbance can be combined with organic groundcover, year-round root growth and robust biological activity in the soil to further promote soil health. Following the tour, the farmers talked about ways to attain the goal on their farms of no-till organic vegetable production. 

Foster said he will experiment with reducing soil disturbance to determine whether doing so will maintain or increase yields. Another farmer in the project, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, said he will dedicate eight acres of his organic farm to comparing the results when the cover crop is chopped and left on the soil surface to chopped and incorporated with tillage.

Paul Muller and Andrew Braitt of Fully Belly Farm in the Capay Valley suggested the researchers could help the farmers by identifying optimal, effective cover crop rolling techniques. Retired organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera suggested grant funds be used to purchase appropriate scale cover crop seeders for on-farm experimentation.

"We're making great progress," said project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. "By getting together regularly, we're seeing opportunities for moving further toward reduced-disturbance on the farms, identifying the equipment needs and establishing effective channels of communication."

Over the project's three-year term, the farmers and researchers will continue to experiment with soil-building techniques and share results.

Andrew Brait of Full Belly Farmers, foreground, looks at roots and nodulation of rhizobia on the cover crop. Kelly Mulville and Esther Park of Paicines Ranch are in the background.


A safflower and vetch cover crop growing in the autumn light.


Workers, in the background, manually weed the safflower and vetch cover crop.


Project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist, and Phil Foster.
UCCE farm advisor Amber Vinches, center with sun glasses, is a cooperator on the project. Vinchesi serves vegetable crop farmers in Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties.
Posted on Monday, November 26, 2018 at 8:35 AM
Tags: Amber Vinchesi (2), Jeff Mitchell (43), organic (42), Sarah Light (4), vegetables (52)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

University researchers and organic farmers to build soil as nature intended

A USDA grant will allow a group of California organic farmers to team up with researchers from the University of California, Chico State and Fresno State to determine whether tilling less soil on the farm will improve production of vegetable crops.

The aim is to duplicate the soil environment found in natural areas – typically concealed by plants, leaves and other organic debris – to improve agricultural soil health, increase production, reduce water use and avoid leaching nutrients out of the root zone.

“Tilling the soil is common on farms, but our research shows that it often isn't necessary, and can even be detrimental,” said Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension agronomy specialist. “In nature, organic matter on the soil surface creates a protective layer and promotes biological activity that is beneficial to plants and the environment.”

A group of organic farmers, shown above, are working with UC researchers to minimize tillage and optimize soil characteristics on their farms.

The three-year project, funded with $380,000 from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's Conservation Innovation Grant program, involves six organic farmers who are already experimenting on their own with cover crops, compost and minimum tillage to grow high-quality organic produce.

“This is a group of outstanding farmers,” Mitchell said. “It's very encouraging to see this sort of care for the soil. They recognize that taking care of the soil biology is useful to produce crops.”

One of the participants, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, has been building the soil on his farm for 38 years.

“We put 10 to 15 tons of biomass on every acre every year,” Park said. “This has given me good soil structure, water percolation and water retention, and we're having some really good results.”

Park said he tweaks his farming practices each year. To date, he has tinkered with reduced tillage, but isn't sold on a no-till system.

“I'm doing minimum till now, but it can be better,” Park said.

Teasing out those improvements is a goal of the project, which includes trials on four farms and two 12-acre demonstration plots, one at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points and the other on the Chico State campus.

“Each of us will be trying to get closer to the goal of reducing tillage to promote soil health. We all want to develop strategies that might work, and not repeat mistakes,” Mitchell said.

The USDA grant funds will enable the farmers and researchers to gather accurate data about the agronomic and economic impacts of the new farming systems and use state-of-the-art equipment and technologies as they experiment with new techniques.

For example, the team is working with a Salinas company that is bringing a Spanish transplanting technology to California. The company, Tanimura & Antle Produce, will allow a demonstration of a plant tape that holds sprouts spaced ideally for a broccoli field planting in the West Side REC plot. (See video below or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/6pkmQVNjH1I .) The technology holds promise for reducing tillage, cutting back on labor, using less seed, and bringing the crop into production earlier in the season.

Planting cover crops is another way farmers and researchers will seek to improve soil health, though this process is a challenge in organic farming systems. On conventional no-till and minimum-till farms, the cover crop may be sprayed with an herbicide before planting seedlings in the cover crop residue. Possible solutions are chopping up the cover crop or using a roller-crimper machine.

“These technologies would provide considerable advantages in organic systems, but very little research has been done to quantify how these practices might influence soil function and cropping system resilience in California,” Mitchell said.  

As part of the project, a farmer network will be developed for information sharing, 18 public extension events will be held, six videos will be created and curriculum will be developed to extend the research outcomes.

For more information, contact Jeff Mitchell at jpmitchell@ucanr.edu, or (559) 303-9689.


In the video below, see an overview of transplanting technology developed in Spain that will be part of the soil building research.

Posted on Thursday, August 16, 2018 at 8:34 AM
Tags: CASI (19), Jeff Mitchell (43), organic (42)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture Environment

Start Smarter Part 2: Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Farming

In my first Starting Smarter blog post, I talked about hands-on education, business planning, market research, and crop selection (Starting Smarter Part 1). I could write a book on what I didn't know when I started farming. In Part 2, I will summarize key considerations for a successful start-up and things I would do in the first years.

If I had it all to do over again, what would I do differently in my vegetable operation?

Equipment & Infrastructure: I would invest in BCS (walk-behind tractor), used tractor, or make a rental equipment budget part of my start-up plan. My husband put his knees in jeopardy by using a shovel to break ground and farm our first ¼ acre. Rental equipment would have been a game changer in our first couple of years. We benefitted immediately from some key infrastructure investments: a cool room, washing area, high tunnel, germination area, and greenhouse. In our operation, these are important and I would get them as quickly as I could without taking on debt. Before buying, ask other farmers what were game changers for them. Develop a list, put the items in order of priority and buy them as you can. Go with inexpensive versions that get the job done and that you can afford. Debt is not the friend of a beginning farmer.

Land: A few things I would check when choosing land:

• Zoning and restrictions
• Flat/sloped and direction/aspect
• Water source and reliability
• Soil quality
• Drainage – how does the land behave during the dry AND rainy seasons?
• Delivery truck accessibility 
• Prior use and potential for organic certification
• Surrounding property use – is there anything around you that may require barriers or cause conflict? (e.g. noise or odor restrictions)
• Is there adequate fencing? If not add that expense into your start up budget.

Farmers' Markets: I would stick with one farmers' market until I was consistently making a profit before expanding to more.

Organic Certification: I would have become Certified Organic sooner. It really was not hard, the certifier was very helpful and guided me through the process. It would have helped me keep better records from the beginning.

Labor: I would estimate my annual labor budget and add in employees only when I had enough cash flow. I would calculate the full cost (loaded labor rate, including taxes and workers compensation insurance) of an employee before hiring. I would consider how much time I could afford to spend as a manager rather than a worker on my farm. I would hire people only for the time I was available to manage them.

Owner Salary: I would pay myself every month, even if it were only $100. Just to get in the mindset that the farm should pay me. Then I would work hard to get that up to a financially sustainable income. The median per capita income in Placer-Nevada is $34,000 year or $2,833 per month. I would attempt to track and limit my time working on the farm. This is a challenge but it's important to enjoy life and not allow the farm to work you to death.

Financing & Savings: I did know a few things in the beginning because I had managed and owned other businesses in the past and benefited from having a savings account and family backing. I knew that the business would not turn a profit for at least three years and I needed enough savings to live off during that time.

There are some things you just have to learn by doing. For me, I'm better at fielding questions from farmers' market customers now. I remember how to harvest, what temperature, and how long to store various types of produce. In the beginning, I had to constantly check a book or go online for this information. There are many things I am still learning and I'm sure there always will be.

Your unique situation will require your own solutions and methods. I hope these tips help you become a profitable farmer more quickly and efficiently. May you have a bountiful and successful farm!

Check out the New Farmers and Resources tabs on our Foothill Farming website: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/

Posted on Tuesday, May 30, 2017 at 12:08 PM
  • Author: Aleta Barrett
  • County: UCCE Placer/Nevada
Tags: Organic (42), Urban Agriculture (46), Urban Farms (8), urbanag (7)

Weed and nitrogen management in organic orchards in Washington and relevance to Sacramento Delta orchards

Figure 1. Wonder Weeder (photo by David Granatstein)

The following article is from the UCCE Tree & Vine News newsletter (Jan. 2017).  *Chuck Ingels is a Farm Advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension Capitol Corridor, Sacramento County office.   According to the 2014 USDA-NASS Organic Survey, Washington State was the largest U.S....

Figure 1. Wonder Weeder (photo by David Granatstein)
Figure 1. Wonder Weeder (photo by David Granatstein)

Figure 1. Wonder Weeder (photo by David Granatstein)

Figure 2. Weed badger
Figure 2. Weed badger

Figure 2. Weed badger

Figure 3a
Figure 3a

Figure 3b. Drip tubing (for microsprinklers) raised for mechanical weed control.
Figure 3b. Drip tubing (for microsprinklers) raised for mechanical weed control.

Figure 3a-b. Drip tubing (for microsprinklers) raised for mechanical weed control

Figure 4. Spreading wood chips (normally the spreader would be set to apply a wider strip)
Figure 4. Spreading wood chips (normally the spreader would be set to apply a wider strip)

Figure 4. Spreading wood chips (normally the spreader would be set to apply a wider strip)

Figure 5. Spreading compost in the tilled strip where landscape fabric is used (photo by Jaime Reyes)
Figure 5. Spreading compost in the tilled strip where landscape fabric is used (photo by Jaime Reyes)

Figure 5. Spreading compost in the tilled strip where landscape fabric is used (photo by Jaime Reyes)

Posted on Tuesday, January 17, 2017 at 8:58 AM
Tags: orchard (9), Organic (42), weed management (21)

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