Crucial organic farming issue addressed by UC workshops, collaborations

A scientist in an agricultural food with supplies
Patricia Lazicki preparing organic amendments for a field trial on nitrogen mineralization. Photo: UCANR


A pile of compost in a field with with mountains in the distance
A pile of compost ready for spreading. Photo: UCANR
Soil with earthworms held in a person's hand
Earthworms are abundant in this organically-managed field. Photo: UCANR

Originally published by UCANR

Hundreds of growers of organic vegetables and fruit across California and industry professionals have learned how to manage nitrogen fertilization in a series of workshops, thanks to a collaboration spearheaded by UC Cooperative Extension small farms advisor Margaret Lloyd, with support from UC Santa Cruz-based organic production specialist Joji Muramoto. The program is helping to improve the state’s organic farming production, which can ultimately benefit every Californian’s access to organic food.

“Nitrogen management is a major issue affecting organic growers,” said Lloyd. “It’s important to them from an economic standpoint, from a regulatory standpoint and from an environmental standpoint. We have many researchers who can speak to this topic and we wanted to provide training and targeted resources focused on organic production.”

“Inherently the organic system is more complex than conventional systems because microbiological activities are involved that are affected by the climate, by moisture and by other factors,” said statewide UCCE organic production specialist Joji Muramoto. “We strive to provide the most current information, continually updating it to accurately reflect the latest science – which changes quickly – in a way that’s easily understandable.

“And we work to improve participants’ understanding of management dynamics and management strategy for organic production so they are more prepared for reporting their nitrogen budgets according to the regulations,” he added.

Other collaborators include Daniel Geisseler, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in nutrient management at UC Davis; Richard Smith, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor; and Patricia Lazicki, Vegetable Crops Advisor, UCCE Capitol Corridor (Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties).

Significant learning opportunities

Muramoto, who is based at UC Santa Cruz, values the continual learning that happens when working with his colleagues. “I’ve learned what is going on in the Central Valley, which is so important,” he said. “I learned from Daniel Geisseler’s strong background in nitrogen dynamics and from Patricia Lazicki’s great Ph.D. work on organic fertilizer mineralization. And I always enjoy working with Richard Smith because of his dedication, vast knowledge, and experience in fertility management in vegetable production.”

Lloyd said she has deepened her knowledge of each collaborator and of the extension process of developing materials, conducting statewide workshops, and publishing collaborative articles. “I'm not a soil scientist or a nutrient scientist, so I was starting from scratch from a thematic standpoint,” she commented. “I learned a lot and continue to learn each time I hear the presentations as well as the questions and comments from participants.”

Workshop topics, which continually evolve, have included completing a nitrogen budget, synchronizing nitrogen release with nitrogen demand, using soil tests, estimating nitrogen release from different sources, regulatory compliance and more.

“We keep tweaking and updating the content, which is a real strength of the collaboration,” Lloyd said. “And I’m proud of the strong visuals and tools we developed that are user-friendly from a practitioner standpoint.”

In response to participant feedback, the collaborators added a major component on microbes and included Spanish interpretation. “Continuing to listen to our participants to improve what we’re doing is key,” Lloyd emphasized. “And it’s rewarding to continually tap into our UC resources and invite different guests to the workshop. It keeps it fresh and interesting.” 

“One particularly valuable part of these workshops is the opportunity for discussion with the participants,” Lazicki agreed. “We often get thought-provoking questions which challenge our assumptions, help us refine our messaging or suggest areas where more research is needed.”

Enrollment in 2022 was higher than the previous year, underscoring the importance of the work and the growing reputation of the program. “It’s so encouraging how positive the feedback has been, and we continue to have people sign up, which signals the demand and validates that it’s a valuable workshop,” Lloyd observed. She is frequently invited to speak on the topic by professional groups and conference organizers, further demonstrating the increasing demand for the information.

Impact multiplies through collaboration

This collaborative effort grew from a chance meeting at a new-hire orientation event, showing the importance of basic networking to advance research and develop extension programming. “I met Daniel on the bus tour, where we started talking about the issue, and later put two and two together and submitted a proposal,” said Lloyd. 

Muramoto and Lloyd urge early career and newer academics to reach out to colleagues and develop collaborations. “UC ANR colleagues are very open to collaboration,” said Muramoto. “It’s a huge organization and hard to grasp, but it covers the whole state. Don’t hesitate to reach out to specialists and advisors, and to other UC researchers.”

Lloyd added, “The impact of your work, the quality of your work and the fun in the process is all expanded and multiplied when you bring in collaborators. It’s very rewarding.”

Lloyd encourages people not to be afraid to take on topics outside their main areas of focus. “It can be overwhelming to come in as an entomologist or weed scientist and think, ‘How do I tackle a research and extension project outside of my discipline?’” she said. “But just go for it, and the specialists and colleagues who do have that expertise are right there for you. Don’t let that stop you from doing what's needed in your region.”

Muramoto reflected that it took him several years to build relationships and a network when he came to UC Santa Cruz from Japan. “That social capital is so important,” he stressed. “Without trust, it's hard to do on-farm research and hard to know what their needs are. I had to build the network first and foremost, by visiting people. Now I’ve brought my whole network to this position, and I keep expanding the network.”

“Talk to your farmers,” he added, “because they need everything – entomology, soil science, pathology, economic support. Why not band together to meet as many needs as you can?”