If you ask Ben Faber about a typical day as UC Farm Advisor working on Subtropical Crops, Soils and Water issues, he’ll tell you they simply don’t exist.
“Nothing is typical,” explains Ben, who has worked 27 years as a Farm Advisor. “One morning, I could be at a California Women in Ag event with 1,500 kids aged 8 to 12. Another day I could be writing scientific articles for a journal. The next day, I could be out in the middle of the night measuring rainfall coming off a plastic tunnel to figure out the best way to control runoff. Every day is different.”
If you ask this veteran scientist why he enjoys being an extension agent at UC Cooperative Extension in Ventura County, however, he’s very clear about the reasons.
“I like working with people and doing the research,” he says. “Growers like to do experiments with us, because they want to learn more too. I spend my days talking to people, learning what they want to know and figuring out how to share that information. I’m doing a lot of writing, reading, talking and developing new information through research.”
Blueberries in Southern California
He makes it sound easy, but over the years this Ventura County extension agent has helped introduce a number of new crops to the area, including blueberries. That’s not a traditional crop for Southern California.
Here’s how it happened. About 20 years ago, “a Master Gardener told me he was growing blueberries in Thousand Oaks, California,” remembers Ben. “I said no way. We don’t have the chilling needed or the acidic soils. He brought in some fruit and I believed him. But that was a plant growing in a pot with acid peat moss.”
Ben found out that there are low chill varieties of blueberries, which do well along the California coast. In fact, they do very well.
“Unlike blueberries in most of the US, these blueberries are evergreen here and don’t lose their leaves. They produce flowers year round, and fruit 8 months out of the year. So, they produce blueberries when other areas in the US can’t. This gives these crops a competitive advantage.”
Figuring out what varieties to grow was important, as well as different characteristics like fruit size so the berries are easier to pick. “The trick was learning how to acidify soils in our soils, which are not acidic, don’t want to be acidic and fight you all the way,” he adds. “I probably have killed more plants than anyone else learning how to get the right pH and keep it down. And then the challenge of learning how to irrigate these shallow rooted devils, which dry out and die fast when Santa Ana winds blow across southern California.”
The hard work paid off. In 1995, there weren’t any blueberries grown commercially in Ventura County. Now there are 1,000 acres grown commercially in the two counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara. According to the 2014 Ventura Country Crop Report, blueberries were Ventura County’s twelfth leading crop with nearly $24 million sales.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the history of the nation’s Cooperative Extension in a California Agriculture article by our editor Rose Hayden-Smith and Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension Sustainable Food Systems Advisor, Los Angeles County.
Knowledge Sharing Here and Abroad
Along with helping to introduce profitable new crops into Ventura County’s economy, a large part of this farm advisor’s work is supporting food crops already grown in the area. “There is a constant barrage of issues having to be dealt with,” he explains.
For instance, “we have a raspberry trial where we’re looking at controlling runoff from plastic tunnels to prevent fertilizers, herbicides or soil sediment from flowing into rivers. Another trial involves root stocks of different varieties of avocados, and we just finished an herbicide trial with citrus.”
It’s not just partnering on scientific projects with growers in the U.S. either. Ben has worked internationally, since serving as a Peace Corps volunteer after college. Over the years, he has participated in US AID trips to Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Costa Rica, along with other educational exchanges to Brazil, Israel, Spain and other countries growing subtropical tree crops.
In 2010, Ben spent a year on sabbatical with Cukurova University, in the town of Adana in southeastern Turkey. “It is called the Mediterranean Region of Turkey and is right near the Syrian border,” he says. “Cukurova is the largest agricultural university in the country’s largest agricultural area, and the school sits on more than 4,000 acres of land dedicated to research. The crops include citrus, fig, pomegranate, avocado, grape, kiwi and others.”
Ben was accepted into the Horticulture Department in the Faculty of Agriculture, which includes soils, irrigation, agronomy, pest control, agricultural machinery, agricultural economics and food science departments. Some of his plans were unexpectedly canceled due to the “Arab Spring,” which at times made travel in the area unpredictable. However, the intrepid scientist was still able to meet with dozens of growers, horticulturists, scientists and graduate students over the year, sometimes in blazing hot temperatures over 120 F. He supervised 10 research projects, and even interested a few Turkish growers in blackberries as a new crop.
“International knowledge sharing is terribly important for sharing experiences and learning from our mistakes,” says Ben. “When you travel, you learn about new ideas that might apply to a California situation. When you go to other places, you see they are hungry for information and few countries have what we have here in our Extension programs.”
He also brought back several ideas to support growers in Ventura County. “In Turkey, I saw they were using sour orange as root stocks. We don’t use it here, because of its susceptibility to Citrus Tristeza Virus (CTV) when used with oranges. However, it’s not a problem with lemons and mandarins. So, now several area growers are using sour orange as root stocks on lemons with good results.”
Look to Soil First
Ben has a Ph.D. in soil science, and he says it all starts with the soil. But when you ask him how he got interested in the topic, he says it was a rather indirect path.
“I got a biology/botany undergraduate degree and went away to teach high school science and got turned on to growing dwarf apples,” he recalls. “I figured it would be good to learn about commercial fruit tree production so I got a Masters at UC Davis.”
As he became involved in fruit tree irrigation projects, Ben discovered he really needed to learn more about soil. “I needed to learn how water and dirt interact, besides making mud. And how trees and roots interact with soils and water, and how microbes then interact with trees and the chemistry, physics and biology of soils.”
“Give someone a hammer and they look for nails,” continues Ben. “Well I look first for soil problems and it usually boils down to something about how water is managed in the soil. If you don’t learn about soil, you are doomed to repeat your mistakes. I always hear the expression, ‘My soil is dead.’ It’s not dead, it’s just mismanaged. Just think of how weeds will grow in sidewalk cracks. The soil is not dead.”
Concerns and Inspirations
Ben thinks we should be concerned that fewer young people are going into agriculture and soil science in the United States. “Fewer people are going into applied fields – entomology, irrigation, pathology, soils, labor management, worker housing, food safety, on and on. If you want people to go into those fields, you put money there. It’s how you herd cats: move the food and they will go there. It’s sad, but one of the most critical workers is the irrigator. That person determines the health of a field. And they are often the lowest paid worker. You make a lot more picking avocados than you do irrigating them.”
Another thing that worries him is food waste. “We throw away 50 percent of what is grown,” says Ben. “A lot of it never makes it out of the field. Market prices change, and a grower will disc under the field because they can’t afford to pick it. I think people are learning that ‘tasting good’ is more important than ‘looking good,’ and that gleaning and food banks are becoming more popular.”
Despite these concerns, he continues to be inspired by his work and the people he interacts with daily.
“One of the best educations I have gotten has been from growers,” he adds. “Listening to them I’ve learned stuff that makes my work more relevant. Just because you can do it in a petri dish doesn’t mean it will have applicability in the field. It might. But it’s important to field check your work in order to ensure that it can be of use.”
Considering his record, we have no doubt that Ben’s work will continue to be of good use.
Ben’s work is an integral part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, launched in 2014, which addresses one of the most compelling challenges facing all of us: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population. It’s a bold initiative; the UC Food Observer editorial staff is proud to be part of this critical work. #globalfood #FoodDay2016 #UCFoodforAll
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