Ag Today Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Ag Today

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Riverside Press-Enterprise

ENVIRONMENT: Supreme Court won’t disturb protections for Santa Ana sucker fish

By Janet Zimmerman

A years-long battle over habitat protections for the Santa Ana sucker fish came to an end Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a case brought by a dozen Inland water agencies.

The water districts have been fighting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of 9,331 acres along the Santa Ana River in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and a few waterways in Los Angeles County, as critical habitat for the fish.

Critical habitat is land deemed crucial to the survival of a species. While a critical habitat designation does not prohibit development, affect land ownership or create a refuge, it does require federal agencies that fund or permit activities on the land to consult with Fish and Wildlife to ensure critical habitat is not destroyed or adversely modified.

The districts said the designation was based on flawed science and did not comply with Fish and Wildlife’s obligations to cooperate with local agencies to resolve water resource issues and protect endangered species. It jeopardized billions of dollars in future water capture and groundwater recharge projects, they said.

To move those projects forward, 21 agencies are developing a habitat conservation plan for the upper Santa Ana River watershed. The plan will protect the fish while allowing the agencies to proceed with their projects, said Doug Headrick, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, one of the agencies involved in the lawsuit.

“Of course we’re disappointed, but we weren’t waiting around for this decision. Some years ago we went down the path of developing a habitat conservation plan in cooperation with state and federal resource agencies,” he said.

As part of the conservation plan, Headrick’s district is planning to breed 1,500 of the fish in captivity to transplant in the San Bernardino Mountains, where they historically lived.

Environmentalists lauded the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case.

“This is a big win for the Santa Ana sucker,” said John Buse, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, which defended the critical habitat decision with three other agencies. “These protections will help make sure this tiny fish has a future, but they’ll also protect many other kinds of wildlife that depend on these rivers for their survival.”

The center and two other conservation groups began fighting in 1999 to protect the sucker, which has vanished from nearly 95 percent of its historic range. In 2000, the fish was listed as threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act.

Results are pending from a U.S. Geological Survey study of 18 sites on the Santa Ana River to determine the current sucker population. The fish live in a 2- to 3-mile stretch of the river between the Rialto Channel in Colton and the Mission Avenue bridge in Riverside.

Contact the writer: 951-368-9586 or


Eureka Times-Standard

Lawsuit calls for increased northern spotted owl protections

By Will Houston

An environmental organization has filed notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the agency did not render a decision in 2014 on whether to add further protections to northern spotted owl, according to a Center for Biological Diversity news release on Monday.

“In light of the ongoing declines of spotted owl populations on our national forest lands, it’s urgent to protect these beautiful birds under the Endangered Species Act and allow them to recover,” center attorney Justin Augustine said in a statement.

Native to the western U.S. forests, the northern spotted owl is currently listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act after years of decline and habitat loss caused by logging, natural factors, and being outcompeted by the invasive barred owl.

A recent study conducted by a federal, state, and tribal researchers found the spotted owl to be declining more rapidly in recent years despite decades of conservation efforts. In some areas, spotted owl populations have declined by as much as 77 percent from 1985 to 2013, with the study identifying the primary cause of this decline to be barred owl invasion.

In its news release, the center states the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to issue a decision on whether the spotted owl warranted further protections or uplifting to “endangered” status after being petitioned by environmental groups in December 2014. The center had previously petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide further protections in 2000 and claims to have filed many lawsuits over the issue.

In a previous interview with the Times-Standard, Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC) program and legal coordinator Tom Wheeler in Arcata said that EPIC filed a petition to uplift spotted owls to an endangered status had been filed with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but that it was not expected to be decided on until 2017.

“We need to do something and we need to do something fast,” Wheeler said.

Fish and Wildlife Service spotted owl specialist Betsy Glenn at the agency’s Oregon state office stated in a recent interview with the Times-Standard that EPIC had petitioned the agency to have the spotted owl status uplifted to endangered in 2012. However, she said there have been delays.

“We have a backlog of species on our listing list,” Glenn said.

The Center for Biological Diversity states in its news release that the agency is more than a year late in issuing a 12-month finding that would either propose or deny changing the spotted owl’s status.

“The center’s lawsuit will require the agency to commit to a legally binding date to make a final decision,” he said. “While the agency delays the decision, the Forest Service and private timber companies continue with plans to increase logging of spotted owl habitat, despite the published science showing that spotted owls are in serious decline.”

Glenn said that the 12-month finding was conducted last year, and is expected to be published in early 2017.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.



Stockton Record

Spraying case under scrutiny

By Alex Breitler

Twenty months after a helicopter herbicide spraying operation over two Delta islands allegedly went awry, the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office is investigating whether civil or criminal prosecution is warranted.

At least nine lawsuits have been filed by farmers claiming their crops were harmed after winds pushed the chemicals past their intended targets. Claims totaling at least $20 million have been filed by as many as 200 growers, according to court documents. And one of the parties involved in the spraying already has been fined.

Officials have said the public health risk from the incident was low. But it illustrates how spraying operations can go wrong in a county where millions of pounds of pesticides are applied each year.

The case has received relatively little public attention. Growers who are involved in settlement discussions are reluctant to talk publicly, and a full account of what happened still is not available.

“It’s a very complex case and we’re not going to jump the gun,” said Kelly McDaniel, a deputy district attorney in San Joaquin County. “We want to make sure we understand exactly the details of what was going on out there.”

‘Severe losses’

Court papers do provide some details, with farmers reporting damage to vineyards, orchards and field crops. Those reports focus on incidents spread across miles of farmland, mostly east of Bouldin Island and Webb Tract where the spraying operation was supposed to kill only weeds.

J & A Solari, a group farming on King Island near Eight Mile Road northwest of Stockton, reported suffering “severe losses” to trees and crops, including “the complete loss of entire crop fields.”

Another case filed by farms controlled by prominent landowner Dino Cortopassi says that the chemicals delayed the flowering of tomato plants, caused growth of abnormal and unmarketable fruit and reduced yields. That lawsuit, which has since been settled, also claimed that olive and walnut orchards were harmed to the extent that some damaged trees had to be removed.

As bad as it sounds, it could have been worse, said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation.

The spraying happened months before harvest. Had it happened during harvest, food safety for the public might have been a greater concern, he said.

“I don’t want to diminish the fact that there are people who lost crops or had damage to their farming operations,” Blodgett said. “But in terms of food safety, we couldn’t have been in better shape.”

The San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, which initially investigated the case, also has suggested the damage was limited. Still, the case involves far more growers than routine investigations of this sort.

“It’s at quite a higher level,” said Kamal Bagri, assistant commissioner.

A complex case

Ultimately, her office decided to hand the investigation over to the district attorney’s office due to its complexity. Multiple parties are involved:

  • The Semitropic Water Storage District, based in Kern County, leases the islands and arranged for the spraying to take place. For decades, Semitropic and the Swiss insurance company that owns the islands have been working on a plan to convert Webb Tract into a reservoir and Bouldin Island into wildlife habitat, with the goal of making more Delta water available for the southland. Most recently, Los Angeles’ urban water supplier has expressed its desire to purchase the islands in question.
  • Semitropic consulted with San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis, a global company reporting $3 billion a year in sales, for a plan on how to control the weeds. Wilbur-Ellis recommended the pesticides glyphosate, commonly sold as Roundup, and imazapyr, known by the brand Polaris.
  • Lodi-based Alpine Helicopter Service actually applied the spray.

Who shoulders the blame for what happened now is a question for the courts and the district attorney’s office. Some of the lawsuits target all three of those parties as defendants, and Wilbur-Ellis is now suing Semitropic to recover some of the millions of dollars that Wilbur-Ellis says it has paid out to farmers who filed claims.

“We don’t really know the culpability of each party,” said McDaniel, the deputy district attorney. “All I can say is we’re looking at everybody.”

The agricultural commissioner’s office already has fined Dennis Pelucca, a licensed pest control adviser for Wilbur-Ellis, saying that his recommendation failed to follow certain labeling restrictions and that the “severity of the actual adverse environmental effect in this matter was substantial.” The $5,000 fine was imposed last month.

None of the defendants involved in the litigation offered comment beyond what is contained in court papers.

Farmers’ claims

According to court papers filed by Wilbur-Ellis, farmers’ individual claims ranged from $3,017 to $2.2 million.

Brad Lange, a family vintner near Lodi, said that while tests determined no detectable levels of pesticide in the grape crop that year, the spray drift did appear to stunt the growth of young vineyards.

But he isn’t bitter. Wilbur-Ellis responded quickly to his claim and hand-delivered a check, Lange said.

“They really stepped up,” he said. “They didn’t argue anything at all. They were top-notch.”

Still, the pending cases include allegations of negligence. Attorneys for the J & A Solari farmers wrote that the defendants knew — or should have known — that the herbicides shouldn’t be used near cropland, but did it anyway in a “willful and conscious disregard of the rights and safety of the plaintiffs and others.”

— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or Follow him at and on Twitter @alexbreitler.



Davis Enterprise

Grapevine damage might be from newly ID’d enzyme

By Pat Bailey

UC Davis plant scientists have identified an enzyme that appears to play a key role in the insect-transmitted bacterial infection of grapevines with Pierce’s disease, which annually costs California’s grape and wine industries more than $100 million.

The researchers hope that the discovery, which runs counter to existing theories, will lead to new diagnostics and potential treatments for Pierce’s disease. Their findings were reported Tuesday, Jan. 12, in Scientific Reports, an online journal of the Nature Publishing Group, at

“With a bacterial disease — much like cancer — if you understand how the virulent form spreads, you can better control or remove it, ” said Abhaya Dandekar, a professor of plant sciences and senior author on the study.

“We anticipate that this discovery could open new ways to think about dealing with Pierce’s disease and highlight other areas of immune response, in general, that haven’t yet been considered,” he said.

About Pierce’s disease

Pierce’s disease, first identified in the 1890s, is caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa and is characterized by yellowed and browning leaves that eventually drop from the vine. The disease is transmitted from vine to vine by small, winged insects called sharpshooters.

Pierce’s disease is established in Northern California, where it is transmitted by the blue-green sharpshooter, which lives near rivers and streams. The disease became a serious threat to California agriculture in 1996 when the glassywinged sharpshooter — another Pierce’s disease carrier native to the Southwest — was discovered in the Temecula Valley of Southern California.

How infection progresses

It’s been known for a number of years that when Xyllela fastidiosa invades a grapevine, it produces a biofilm or gel in the xylem — the vascular tissue that transports water and some nutrients throughout the vine.

Scientists have theorized that this biofilm damages the vine by clogging up the xylem, preventing the flow of water to the leaves. That theory seemed to explain the yellowing of the leaf edges and eventual death of the leaf tissue.

But not all of the evidence stacked up to fit that theory, Dandekar said. For example, a heavy accumulation of Xyllela fastidiosa in grapevine leaves was not always accompanied by severe disease symptoms in leaves. And, in some infected grapevines as well as other host plants, the leaves showed severe symptoms but the xylem had very little blockage.

So Dandekar and colleagues set out to investigate an alternative mechanism by which Xyllela fastidiosa might be wreaking havoc with the vine’s physiology.

Secrets of the ‘secretome’

The research team began by analyzing the bacteria’s secretome — the entire collection of enzymes and other proteins secreted by a disease-causing agent like Xyllela fastidiosa during the infection process. Such secreted proteins are known to play key roles in triggering many plant diseases.

The resulting data indicated that an enzyme, which the researchers named LesA, was quite abundant during Xyllela fastidiosa infections and shared characteristics with similar enzymes known to be capable of breaking down plant cell walls.

The researchers went on to confirm their suspicions by demonstrating that a mutant strain of Xyllela fastidiosa bacteria — with a specific gene knocked out, or inactivated — lacked the ability to cause infection in grapevines.

“The LesA enzyme has the ability to move through cell membranes, equipping the Xyllela fastidiosa bacteria to invade the grapevine and to live in its xylem tissues, where it feeds on fatlike compounds called lipids,” Dandekar says.

In this way, the LesA enzyme triggers the process that causes the typical Pierce’s disease leaf damage — a process completely unrelated to the xylem blockage and water stress that had previously been thought to cause the symptomatic leaf damage.

The research for the newly published study was conducted by Rafael Nascimiento and Hossein Gouran, both graduate students in Dandekar’s laboratory. Dandekar said that his research team plans to move forward with Pierce’s disease research in hopes of developing ways to counteract the disease.

Funding for the newly published study was provided by the Pierce’s Disease Board of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

— UC Davis News




From the Ground Up

No-till farming is still a hard sell in California — despite worldwide acceptance and cleaner air

By Ken James

At first glance, the concept of no-till farming seems a quaint relic of the past, a footnote in a history book, perhaps. Farmers in California’s central farmlands have been using large disks and tills to rip and turn their soil for almost a century. But no-till could have substantial human health benefits for Central Valley residents, as well as financial gains for farmers, according to some agricultural experts at UC Davis and across the country. According to experts, the potential positive results of no-till farming include water conservation, maximizing soil health, decreasing equipment costs and reducing the sometimes dangerously high dust levels in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys.

No-till farming, which is sometimes called zero tillage, is very much what it sounds like — a method of farming without disrupting the soil. Tilling, which is used to create irrigation furrows and reduce weeds, digs up from 4 inches to a foot of soil. Since most of California’s 156,000 square miles of agricultural fields are tilled when dry, dust can be a significant by-product. The California Air Resources Control Board has publicly stated that: “The dust pollution problem in California is widespread and severe. People in California are exposed to more unhealthful levels of PM10 (dust particulates 10 microns or smaller) than any other air pollutant.”

Although most countries and more than 35 percent of America’s farmlands are using no-till, California lags far behind with only 3-percent utilization, according to Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, a cropping system specialist and no-till expert at UC Davis. Lack of knowledge and a reluctance to change management techniques are two key reasons, says Mitchell.

However, for area farmers like Yolo County’s Fritz Durst, who has been using the no-till method for 20 years, the benefits have been many and may include substantially increased crop production. ”We started in 1985 using the no-till method, and since then we’ve doubled our yield potential,” says Durst, whose farm is on the western edge of the Sacramento Valley.

Michael Crowley, who has used the no-till method on 400 acres just west of Fairfield and another 270 acres near Turlock for about 10 years, agrees. “I not only get great production, I save a great deal by not buying expensive tilling equipment, and I look to double my production in times of little rainfall because no-till increases the water-storing capacity of the soil,” Crowley says. “At the same time, the dust reduction is incredible. When the wind blows, I collect dirt from my neighbors who use tillage, but they don’t get any of mine.”

For those crops that lend themselves to no-till farming, savings average about $50 an acre. “There are tremendous opportunities for farmers in no-till,” says Mitchell. “These include soil function and health and increased water, nitrogen and carbon storage.”

One of the leading proponents of no-till in the San Joaquin Valley is Jesse Sanchez, who manages a 4,000-acre farm south of Modesto. “We definitely save money through higher production, less water usage and lowered equipment and fuel costs,” says Sanchez, who was recently asked to the White House to talk to President Obama’s advisors on the practice. “We’ve been doing it for 10 years. I can see a significant improvement in the quality of the soil over that time. There are so many ways it benefits us. For example, before we went to no-till, we used about 13 gallons of diesel in our equipment per acre, now we use about three.”

According to Mitchell, tilling came into fashion in California in the 1930s — ironically, about the same time tillage methods were being blamed for the Dust Bowl in the Midwest — when irrigated farming began in the valleys. It was used extensively until the 1990s, when farmers in the U.S. and worldwide began re-discovering the benefits of no-till. Battling weeds is still an issue with no-till, as it is with farms under tillage, but researchers are working on developing weed-free cover crops.

Despite California’s reputation as a leader in agricultural innovation and the fact that most countries worldwide utilize no-till, California has been slow to try it. “It’s largely a matter of our farmers not being familiar with no-till practices,” Mitchell says. “At the same time, though, there is a risk-management element involved. The systems developed here 80 years ago were phenomenally successful for area farmers and because they worked so well, and were so profitable, nobody has felt they should make a change.”

Randy Southward, a soil scientist and colleague of Mitchell’s at UC Davis, agrees. “I think California farmers may not yet realize the immediate benefits of no-till,” he says. “Those include using less fuel, an increased yield and measurable water savings.” In addition, scientific studies have indicated that a few major crops, like cotton, may not reap major benefits from no-till, although Sanchez disagrees. He found savings with cotton and many other crops.

Most of the focus on no-till has been on its agricultural applications, but the substantial reduction in air pollution may ultimately emerge as a key factor in its acceptance. A 2013 study done by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found that more than 130,000 Californians die prematurely each year from air pollution. Bakersfield, Merced and Fresno topped the American Lung Association’s list of American cities with the most persistent air pollution in 2013. Schools in Fresno sometimes fly color-coded flags to tell students whether it is healthy to play outside, depending on the air quality. Some of this comes from automobile and other pollutants blown in from coastal cities, but a substantial amount of the problem is the dust.

“Like most no-till farmers, I only plant when the soil is moist, but those using tillage can’t open their soil when it’s wet because it will compact,” says Crowley. “That’s why they tear open the soil when it’s dry. That’s where the dust comes from.”

The recent drought has spurred some interest in no-till, and many experts say there is a role for the California State Legislature to play in building on that interest. Supporters say financial incentives such as tax credits could help focus positive attention on the process. A surprising possible benefit of no-till is that many experts believe that carbon, which is associated with greenhouse gases and global warming, is more likely to remain sequestered in the soil when it is not disturbed by tillage. Although some researchers have questioned this, most believe this sequestering does occur and therefore no-till farmers would be eligible for tax credits available for those who help reduce carbon emissions.

It’s important to know that there are some differences of opinion among experts in terms of the yield created by no-till. While reports indicate that no-till is especially adaptable to dry-land conditions where farmers rely on rainfall rather than irrigation, an international team led by UC Davis researchers found that worldwide, no-till may not always result in the overall “sustainable intensification of agriculture.” Yet, the same report states that several opportunities still exist for the no-till method to match or even exceed conventional tillage methods.

“I think part of the problem is it took me three years after switching to no-till to see all the benefits,” says Crowley. “It takes that long for the damage to the soil from tilling to heal. Soil doesn’t automatically restructure itself. I’m not saying you won’t have decent crop production during that time, but a lot of farmers get fearful and turn back before the big advantages kick in. I think a lot of researchers may not realize this when they compare no-till to tilled production.”

Mitchell summarized the most obvious benefits. “Since water does not evaporate as quickly in no-till fields, savings in water cost are easy to determine,” he says. “In addition, fewer pesticides are often needed and farmers also save money by the diminished need to buy the expensive tilling equipment and to pay people to run them.” He adds that soil in the fields, no longer exposed by the tilling, remains richer in its biodiversity and can sustain higher yields. Compaction of the soils, caused by the heavy tilling equipment, is also lessened.

Because the soil is not disturbed in no-till, the soil biota is left in its natural state and is more erosion- and pest-resistant than tilled soil. Underground creatures such as worms, which are crucial to good soil health, thrive in no-till conditions, while tillage can radically change underground ecosystems. “Turning the soil over puts all the good organisms, which like air, down where they can’t get it — and the ones that don’t like air up on the surface,” says Crowley. “You destroy the homes of the soil organisms that create healthy crops. Why mess with their lifestyle?”

Although proponents like Mitchell and Sanchez are optimistic about the future spread of no-till conservation methods in California, there is little evidence to show the state is moving to catch up with the rest of the nation and world. Farmers, many of whom are still paying for expensive tillage equipment, are slow to change and government officials, despite the potential dust reduction and subsequent human and soil health benefits of no-till, have not moved to create incentives. Those farmers who are already utilizing the process, though, are convinced.

“Whether California wakes up and realizes what no-till offers — and I hope it does — I’ll just continue to enjoy all its advantages,” says Crowley. “I tell everybody who wants to listen that it works.”

Michael Bowker is the incoming executive editor for Comstock’s magazine.



Woodland Daily Democrat

Backyard chickens – less healthy than you think

By Sean Nealon

Backyard chickens may not live as good of a life as most people think.

Researchers at UC Riverside, have found backyard chickens are more likely than chickens on commercial chicken farms to be infested by ectoparasites, which are parasites such as fleas, lice and mites that live on the exterior of an organism.

The research comes at a time when several states, including California, have banned or limited the use of isolated “battery cages” in favor of enriched cages or cage-free operations. The European Union has also banned battery cages. And a bill that would have banned those cages in the United States was introduced in Congress but failed to pass.

The researchers – Amy C. Murillo, a graduate student and Bradley A. Mullens, a professor of entomology – believe that these more open, cage-free or free-range type habitats increase the risk of acquisition and transmission of ectoparasites.

Such infestations increase stress on the chickens and may cause economic damage such as decreased egg production and feed conversion efficiency, the researchers note. The researchers also note that there is no risk to humans who eat eggs or the meat of infested chickens.

The researchers surveyed 100 adult hens in 20 different backyards in southern California and searched the birds and their coops for ectoparasites. They found a much greater diversity of ectoparasites on the backyard chickens than has been found in commercial flocks.

Ectoparasites were found on 80 percent of the flocks surveyed, and lice were the most common and abundant. Six different species of louse were found on the chickens, and some individual chickens had hundreds of lice. Sticktight fleas were found in only 20 percent of flocks, but infestations could be quite severe.

Commercial poultry flocks suffer from a few of the same ectoparasites. But most commercial birds presently are housed in suspended cages that give them little or no contact with the ground that immature stages of parasites such as fleas and some mites need to develop. In addition, these cages provide fewer crevices that might harbor ticks or bed bugs when they aren’t feeding on birds. Finally, birds in commercial flocks are generally all the same age and breed which may affect types of parasites that they host.

The results of this study suggest that some of the perks of being a backyard chicken, such as comfortable coops and access to the outdoors, also increase the birds’ availability to ectoparasites. According to Murillo, many of the chicken owners that participated in this study were surprised to learn that their chickens had ectoparasites, and almost none of the owners were practicing parasite prevention.

With that in mind, she recommends backyard chicken owners focus on preventing ectoparasite infestations because control products are limited. Chicken owners should practice “biosecurity,” which includes excluding wild birds and other animals from coming into contact with the flock, limiting the addition of new birds to the flock, temporarily quarantining birds that are brought into the flock and limiting outsider visitation (many of these parasites can hitchhike on people or equipment).

If a chicken owner decides to use insecticides, she said to make sure to read and follow the label. The label is the law, and helps prevent unsafe insecticide exposure. If products not meant for use on laying hens are used, chicken owners risk exposure to insecticides when consuming the eggs or meat from the birds.