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Specialty Crops


Ellie Andrews 
Specialty Crops Advisor
Sonoma, Marin, and Napa Counties
University of California Cooperative Extension
Email: eandrews@ucanr.edu
Instagram: @specialtycrops
Youtube: UCCE North Bay Specialty Crops
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed on this Instagram page and YouTube channel do not represent the views, thoughts, and opinions of the University of California. The material and information presented here is for general information purposes only.  The "University of California" name and all forms and abbreviations are the property of its owner and its use does not imply endorsement of or opposition to any specific organization, product, or service.

Introduction Letter - Specialty Crops Advisor (EN)
Introduction Letter - Specialty Crops Advisor (ES)

Donate to the Program
If you would like to provide a gift donation to support this program, please click this link and find "UCCE Sonoma, Marin, Napa Specialty Crops" in the drop down menu. 

What are specialty crops?
USDA definition
UC Small Farms - Specialty Crops

What do you do?
Grower-focused science-based education, outreach, and applied research centered on key common needs identified in my assigned region. I primarily work with commercial vegetable and (non-grape) fruit crop systems. I take a grower-driven, participatory approach to applied agricultural research which is often interdisciplinary. Here is more information about participatory action research. 

If you are a backyard grower, please learn about our excellent Master Gardener Program and reach out to them with any questions. If you are a backyard grower exploring going commercial, please see "Resources for Backyard Growers Interested in Going Commercial" (one of the sub-tabs to the left side of this webpage). 

What's wrong with my crops? 
This resource is a good place to start assessing plant health issues: Plant Health Assessment Questions

Where can I learn more about local farms?
Sonoma county Farm Trails Map
Farmers' Markets of Sonoma County
Farmers' Markets of Marin County
Farmers' Markets of Napa County
FEED Sonoma's "Get to Know Your Farmers" webpage
Many local farms are on social media!

Program Orientation Diagram

North Bay Climate-Adaptive Organic Specialty Crop Production

Interactions between the environment, crop genetics, and management approaches profoundly influence crop production. Environmental factors include climate, soil type, topography, and other regional characteristics. Interdisciplinary agricultural sciences can help us better understand and respond to these environmental factors, but they are difficult to influence.

On the other hand, growers and agricultural professionals can thoughtfully guide crop genetics and management to ensure environmentally-conscious and economically viable commercial specialty crop production. Crop genetics encapsulates the crop types and varieties that farmers choose to grow. Sustainable agricultural management includes soil and nutrient management, water and irrigation management, and integrated pest management. All of these topic areas are critical to producing local high-value, high-quality produce. The goal is good plant health that supports good crop yield, both quality and quantity.

This Specialty Crops Program will focus on soil, water, and pest management and strategic crop/variety selection. Guided by an in-depth needs assessment described below, this program will promote the use of science-based organic and climate-adaptive practices that help increase resiliency of crop systems in our region. This program focuses on (non-grape) fruit and vegetable crop systems. The majority of commercial fruit and vegetable growers in this region use organic practices, so this Specialty Crops Program will focus on organic approaches to building plant health in the face of increasing climate extremes and constraints.

Considering key topics identified by this Needs Assessment, the UC ANR Condition Changes for this program include: improved land management, protected and conserved soil quality, improved water use efficiency, increased ecological sustainability of agriculture, and increased resilience to extreme weather and climate change.

Key Topic Areas Identified by Needs Assessment in 2023

Soil Management: soil health assessment options, soil test interpretation, and use of organic matter amendments, fertilizers, compost, cover crops, and no-till practices

Organic Integrated Pest Management: insect pest and plant pathogen identification, effective organic IPM plans for key regional pests, pest ecosystem ecology, understanding the safe & effective use of organic pesticides

Water Management: dry farming, phenology-based deficit irrigation in tree crop systems, crop water requirements, assessing soil and plant water status, irrigation quantity, quality, duration, and frequency

Crop Selection: low water-use, climate-resilient, high value, high quality, culturally relevant crop types & varieties

Needs Assessment Methods 
1. Informal interviews with growers to discuss key needs related to field topics via phone calls, emails, and 101 farm visits. 
2. An online survey for growers to identify key needs related to field topics. 
3. Regional Meet & Greet events to gather growers' input in groups. 
4. Small focus groups with growers to discuss key topics in more depth together with UC Specialists and other Advisors. These focus groups are laying the groundwork for future applied research driven by growers' key needs. 

146 commercial (non-grape) specialty crop growers have been identified thus far in Sonoma, Marin, and Napa counties through this needs assessment. 109 growers actively engaged in the needs assessment activities described above. I reached out to growers using county office contact lists, online resources, word of mouth, and through recommendations from local organizations working with growers. My goal was to cast a wide net and actively reach out to invite growers to participate in this needs assessment, including growers who may not be aware of agricultural Extension.

During the informal interviews, I explained my role and asked growers to share their interests related to field topics, key challenges, and to describe what types of resources would be most useful in addressing these challenges. We focused on field topics because I am an applied interdisciplinary agricultural scientist with expertise in this area. I took detailed notes and then coded my notes by highlighting key field topics of interest, challenges, and resources needed. I quantified how often each topic, challenge, and resource was mentioned. Then I organized these into broad key categories outlined above (such as "water management") and subcategories (such as "dry farming") which matched the online survey. The key categories and subcategories most often referenced by growers are outlined above. 

Specialty Crops Needs Assessment Survey Results - 2023
Meet and Greet Feedback - 2023

Grower Profile
Participants described their farm production approaches in a variety of ways including "organic practices" (47%), "certified organic" (35%), "regenerative" or "beyond organic" (8%), and "conventional" (2%). The most common organic certification agency reported was CCOF. While there are some large and mid-scale growers, the majority of growers farm on a small scale (<10 acres). Key crop types in our region include apples, olives, strawberries, and mixed vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, cucurbits, and brassicas. Most vegetable growers are diversified. Growers reported sales outlets such as farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, FEED Sonoma (a local aggregator cooperative), farm stands, grocery stores, restaurants, chefs, wineries, wholesale, and local processors.

Thank you!
I would like to thank all growers who participated in this needs assessment. Thank you for the warm welcome and for openly sharing your perspectives, challenges, successes, ideas, and questions with me. I look forward to working with you more in the future and to developing my program to address your key priorities. I would also like to thank the many technical service providers and folks working in the local food system who helped me connect with growers this year.