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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 26 · Number 1 · Fall 2008

Land of Plenty

How UC Davis helped turn California agriculture into a global powerhouse.

Photo: agricultural collage


It’s easy to brag about California agriculture. We have been the country’s leading agricultural producer for 60 consecutive years, generating far more farm income than any other state. Nearly half the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables—and three-quarters of the cut flowers—are grown here. Some commodities, such as almonds, artichokes, figs, olives, prunes and walnuts, are produced only in California. More than 400 different types of crops and livestock generated $31.4 billion in 2006 for the state’s farmers and ranchers, and billions more for packers, processors, truckers, wholesalers, marketers, retailers and others. If California were a country, it would rank in the top 10 as an agricultural powerhouse—ahead of Canada, Mexico, Germany and Spain.

Many factors make this bounty possible. An ideal climate, prime farmland and high-quality irrigation water give us a natural edge. California farmers have long displayed an entrepreneurial spirit that called for scientific refinement and innovation. UC Davis has provided both, creating an impressive legacy of new crop varieties, irrigation and cultivation techniques, pest-control practices, harvesting technologies, postharvest handling and storage, and improved animal health and nutrition.

“In industry after industry, throughout the spectrum of crops and livestock we produce in California, you can see the impact of university research,” says Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “The agricultural practices and new technologies generated by UC Davis in the last century have helped create a marvelous food system that benefits everyone, from those who work the land right on down to the consumer.”

Beginning with butter

At the turn of the 20th century, California dairy farmers and creamery operators were big boosters of the new University Farm in Davis. Farmers’ short courses were offered in October 1908, and instruction to improve creamery practices, butter quality and cheese began in January 1909.

Over the years, research has improved milk flavors, raw milk handling, sanitation procedures, and the quality of many dairy products like ice cream and cottage cheese. In the 1950s, fortification of reduced-fat milk with milk solids improved its body, nutrition and flavor. Research since the 1970s led to the use of whey proteins, a byproduct of cheese manufacturing, in processed foods and, more recently, in edible films to protect food from spoilage. UC Davis has also helped the dairy industry address air and water quality concerns.

Breeding success

UC Davis plant-breeding research created dozens of new varieties of fruits, nuts, vegetables, forages, grains and field crops adapted to California. These advances were made possible by scientists like botanist Charles Rick, who joined the faculty in 1940 and traveled extensively in search of wild tomato specimens to improve California varieties. Agronomist Paul Knowles developed new safflower varieties high in heart-healthy fatty acids. And virtually all walnuts produced in California were developed through a UC Davis program begun in 1948 by Eugene Serr and Harold Forde.

Another globe-trotting scientist was Harold Olmo, a professor of viticulture and enology, who bred many varieties of table and wine grapes. Olmo developed the Perlette table grape in 1946 and winegrapes such as Symphony, Ruby Cabernet and Emerald Riesling. Grapes with different maturities and suited for diverse growing conditions helped expand the California wine industry. New varieties are among many advances by the university’s viticulture and enology program, which dates back to 1880.

Strawberries are another UC Davis success story. New varieties and cultivation techniques developed in the last 50 years by Doug Shaw, Kirk Larson, Royce Bringhurst and Victor Voth have significantly boosted yields, improved consumer appeal and extended availability year round. Strawberries generate $1.3 billion annually for farmers and $4.5 million a year in licensing revenue for the university.

Water wise

Irrigation research on the University Farm began on sugar beets in 1908, soon followed by other crops. A Division of Experimental Irrigation, established in 1913, investigated water rights and helped map out the first irrigation districts. Nearly 30 years of research by irrigation scientist Frank Veihmeyer and pomologist Arthur Hendrickson in the first half of the 20th century helped establish principles of soil, water and plant relations, and shaped orchard and vineyard practices throughout California and arid lands worldwide.

Horticultural research in the 1980s led to reductions in water (and fertilizer) use in flower and nursery operations. California farmers also now use a system developed in 1982 by UC Davis and state water resources scientists to irrigate crops more efficiently with localized weather information.

Homegrown know-how

Early “investigations” on the University Farm led to new fruit-tree pruning practices and improved irrigation and cultivation of orchard crops. Farmers from all over the state came to Davis to learn these techniques.

UC Davis advances in plant nutrition have had worldwide impact on crop management. In 1938, for instance, Perry Stout and Daniel Arnon demonstrated the essential role of molybdenum in plant growth. Michael Reisenauer and Constant Delwiche uncovered the role of cobalt in the nitrogen-fixing bacteria of legumes. Emanuel Epstein is renowned for work on salinity tolerance and silicon in plants. Building on this knowledge, UC scientists today study new cultivation practices, such as conservation tillage, to improve soil and water quality.

Crop disease and pest research has been essential to California agriculture. In the 1950s, for instance, research by plant pathology professor Ray Grogan helped lettuce growers battle a serious disease called “June yellows.” UC Davis scientists pioneered the use of roundworms (nematodes) to biologically control insect pests. Many farmers today use monitoring and pest-control practices developed by the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), which began at UC Davis in 1979.

UC Davis has also helped make farming safer. In 1956, agricultural engineers designed a structure to protect tractor operators from injury in accidental rollovers. Redesigned vineyard picking tubs, orchard ladders and nursery industry tools, as well as pesticide education programs, have improved safety in the agricultural workplace.

Bountiful harvests

Commercial rice farming was an inefficient, labor-intensive process until the 1930s, when UC Davis engineer Roy Bainer refined a mechanized direct combine and drying technology system that cut harvest costs and paved the way for large acreage increases. That, in combination with improved varieties, fertilizer management, pest control and grain quality, has made California rice yields the highest in the United States and among the highest in the world. Rice research has also addressed water-quality issues, straw-burning alternatives and improved wildlife habitat.

In the 1940s, vegetable crops researcher Jack Hanna began breeding tomatoes that ripened uniformly and could withstand mechanical harvesting. Agricultural engineers Coby Lorenzen and Steven Sluka later joined Hanna in developing a tomato harvester that transformed the industry within the span of a few years in the 1960s. The machines cut harvesting costs significantly and led to large increases in processing tomato acreage and tonnage, as well as boosting overall employment in the processing tomato industry.

Development of mechanized tree-shaker systems also revolutionized how virtually all nuts and many tree fruits are harvested. “The mechanization of harvesting helped farmers to reduce costs and expand acreage of suitable crops,” notes Dan Sumner, a UC Davis economist and director of the Agricultural Issues Center. “It led to one of the most important trends in the transformation of California agriculture and is a major factor in productivity gains.”

Farm fresh quality

Concern for the postharvest handling, storage and shipping of California produce is evident throughout campus history, starting in early years with the processing, storage and packing of dried fruit.

In the 1970s Professor Shang Fa Yang and colleagues discovered how the plant hormone ethylene regulates ripening of fruits and the freshness of flowers, opening the door to new technologies that have enhanced product shelf life. Forced-air cooling—the most widely used method of nearly all harvested and packaged tree fruit, berries, melons, flowers, tomatoes and many other vegetables—was developed at UC Davis in the 1950s by Rene Guillou, an agricultural engineering specialist.

A vision realized

Early 20th century California was indeed a very different world, as a 1954 memoir by Peter J. Shields made clear. “Every farm had its flock of chickens, but no effort was made to breed them for better egg production. We knew nothing of such a possibility. . . .
Science had not then been applied to the common affairs of life, and the farmers of that time were too busy with routine to invade the field of speculation.”

Shields helped convince the public 100 years ago of the promise a University Farm would bring to California. Time has proved him right. The Davis campus today is the heart of a thriving system that succeeds through its capacity to experiment, innovate and learn how to do things better than they were done before. It’s a grassroots system with many partners: stakeholder groups and commodity organizations, a statewide network of UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors and specialists, and public agencies at many levels of government. And many a UC Davis graduate has helped keep this enterprise of land, water, hard work and imagination an integral part of our world.

The University Farm that sprouted in the hinterlands of the Central Valley a century ago has been a boon to California agriculture. In an increasingly competitive global marketplace beset with unprecedented environmental challenges and social concerns, UC Davis will be needed in the years ahead to ensure that California remains a land of agricultural abundance unmatched anywhere in the world.

John Stumbos received his degree in 1977 in renewable natural resources from UC Davis and is now senior writer in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.