View of Long Beach

Most of last week I spent in Long Beach, CA at the 2010 ASA (American Society of Agronomy), CSSA (Crop Science Society of America), & SSSA (Soil Science Society of America) International Annual Meeting. This is a phenomenal gathering of 3000 or more scientists, extension educators, industry personnel, federal, municipal and university employees, and graduate students whose careers and studies revolve around soils, water and crops. This year’s theme was ‘Green Revolution 2.0: Food+Energy and Environmental Security.’

New York Times’ columnist, Thomas Friedman, gave the opening keynote on Halloween Sunday. He addressed the main ideas contained in his new book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. In a world with declining natural resources, growing populations,  tumultuous climate change, transfers of wealth and power to ‘petrodictators’, accelerated losses of biodiversity and increasing numbers of  poor, disenfranchised people, he presents a viable solution especially for America. Instead of focusing on ‘Ten things you can do to lower your carbon footprint’, Friedman believes change is needed at the highest policy level and the United States should become a leader in green energy, greater energy efficiency and energy conservation. Listening to him, I felt many of his ideas are just the kind of action that is necessary. Implementing them, of course, would be a challenge but probably less of one than facing the consequences of inaction.

On to two whole days with so many talks on so many subjects that it was challenging to pick which ones to attend. There were way too many to even count! At this conference, topics are arranged into sessions which might spawn a half dozen to more than a dozen 15 minute or so presentations. I chose sessions on Organic Management Systems, Nitrogen Cycling, Soil Carbon, Emerging Contaminants in Wastewater, Integrating the Soil Medium into Current Cultural Media, and Trace Elements in the Environment. I picked up way too many tidbits to share but among them I found out that 27.8 million pounds of antibiotics are given to animals in the U.S. each year as of a 2007 Animal Health Institute report, people may be affected by plant viruses, and pinto beans can take up antibiotics when fertilized with biosolids because not all the human medicines that enter the sewerage treatment plant are degraded when the wastewater is treated.

Wednesday I treated myself to an Agronomy tour as I feel it is important to get out and see some of the science in action and to get a feel for the surrounding area. Plus, I needed to see the sunlight after spending two whole days indoors at the convention center. Our first stop was to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, host to two Olympic Games in 1932 and 1984. While both turf and football are not high priorities in my daily life, it was really fascinating to learn about some of the history behind this stadium – like the movie ‘Two Minute Warning’ with Charlton Hesston was filmed there, both World Series and Superbowl games were played there (the Grateful Dead also played there) and there are rocks there from the Coliseum in Rome and from Altos Olympia in Greece. Mostly I was amazed by the amount of maintenance that went into the playing field. They maintain a primarily bentgrass field with some overseeding of a ryegrass during the cooler months. We got to walk down on the field and it was plusher and more springy than many carpets I have walked on.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Next stop was the USDA-ARS Salinity Lab on the campus of UC Riverside. What a view I thought. But they did say we were there on a relatively smog-less day and that the mountains were not always that visible. Salinity is a problem in arid areas where crops are irrigated. In hot climates, water is continuously being drawn up to the surface by the heat of the sun. With this water, come salts of all kinds – sodium, potassium, chloride, sulfate, potassium, magnesium- as well as pesticides, heavy metals and boron, among other constituents below the soil surface. As their concentration increases as they move into the soil surface layer it is known that some of these substances are toxic to the crop plants that we depend upon for our food. It is important that adequate leaching and drainage is provided to these crops and also that varieties are developed that can produce a good crop and tolerate increasing salinity levels. It is estimated that at least 15 % of the world’s cultivated land is presently irrigated and that percentage will increase with population growth and face problems of salinity. Several salinity trials were being held when we visited and here is a picture of a strawberry cultivar trial.

Strawberries grown at varying salt levels

 Our visit to the UCR Citrus Variety Collection was impressive. Over 1300 species of citrus (minimum of 2 per species) was grown in these vast citrus groves. Many of you might not be aware that more citrus fruit is grown in the U.S. than all the apples, pears and peaches combined! We got to see, hear and taste some of the citrus collection and also got bags of freshly harvested dates to take with us. What a treat! Fresh dates are a far cry from what we normally have available to us at the local grocery store. If you ever get the chance, try some!

Citrus Collection at University of California, Riverside

After that we visited Milfeld’s Nursery, which specialized in azaleas but also grew camellias, gardenias and hydrangeas, and then Growest Nurseries who raised large specimens of mostly tree but some shrub species. Both were pretty impressive and both noted that since housing starts were down, their business was likewise. Oh, to grow camellias like Milfeld’s did and to have the view off of Growest’s office porch! I can see why folks move to this region of the country!

View from deck of Growest Nurseries

The grand finale of the conference was Jared Diamond’s closing keynote. For those of you not familiar with Jared Diamond he is a professor at UCLA’s geography department. He is also the author of several books including Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Being a soil scientist, his message was near and dear to my heart; many of the great civilizations of the past that collapsed were due in large part to their mismanagement of natural resources, especially soil. As their precious soil eroded because of poor stewardship, less food was able to be produced and this was an important factor that contributed to the destabilization of societies and led to their demise. It’s time we all, to quote a popular bumper sticker, ‘Stop Treating Our Soil Like Dirt!’

Incongruous pairing?

A lot has been written about California’s water shortage problems. I have to admit that visiting southern California was a bit of a dichotomy. Many of the residential and commercial landscapes I saw seemed to be too dependent on reportedly scarce water resources. While this past growing season was not as lacking in precipitation as some years (it had been raining in the area for a few weeks preceding my visit) I did expect to find more plantings of drought tolerant plants and fewer irrigated lawns and ornamental beds. Perhaps my uncertainty with their dealings with limited resources is best summed up in this picture with a beautiful drought-tolerant succulent bed on the right and an irrigated turfgrass strip on the other side of the walkway. Which is the best choice for this climate? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

A Weary Traveler,