Last week I was fortunate to attend the 2014 International Annual Meeting of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), the Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) in Long Beach, California. The theme of this year’s meeting is ‘Grand Challenges, Great Solutions’. Most of the days are spent listening to 15 minute presentations or viewing research-based posters on a variety of topics ranging from adaptive nutrient management to zinc and everything in between.

Hollywood sign from Griffiths Park Observatory

Hollywood sign from Griffiths Park Observatory

One of the best parts of these conferences is being able to go on field trips to a variety of destinations depending on where the conference is held. Last Sunday was the Urban Soils, Agriculture and Brownfields of the Los Angeles Basin tour. The day-long tour started out at the Griffith Park Observatory at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. Most readers will recognize the iconic Hollywood sign in the distance but the true high point of this stop was examining some of the granitic saprolite (rotting bedrock) that was the parent materials of the soils in the southeastern part of the park. The soils were very light in color and sandy and vegetation on them was somewhat sparse especially on slopes. Trees damaged by forest fires a few years prior to our visit were also pointed out.

Granitic soils at Griffith Park

Granitic soils at Griffith Park

Next stop was the Taylor Yard Brownsfield and reclamation project. Taylor Yard is a 247 acre former railroad site that has about 2 miles of frontage on the Los Angeles River. This is very special as it is the largest undeveloped piece of land along this river. A group of citizens, spearheaded by Melanie Winters, for the River Project and has been advocating and fighting for the creation of an urban park for passive and active recreation uses as well as ecosystem recreation and stormwater detention. While the purchase of a final 44 acre parcel is still in the works, this area now supplies city residents with ball fields and nature trails.

Melanie Winters of the River Project

Melanie Winters of the River Project

At Echo Park, we got to see an Anthraltic Xerorthent. Soil scientists classify soil by their defined properties in a manner similar to how botanists classify plants or zoologists, animals. What this basically tells us is that it is a young, well-drained soil developed in human transported material without a lot of subsoil development yet. Some of the neighbors joined our group to hear our NRCS guide describe the soil to us.

Randy Riddle of the NRCS showing us an anthraltic xerorthent

Randy Riddle of the NRCS showing us an anthraltic xerorthent

La Brea Tar pits was really quite fascinating and I wish we could have spent more time there. It is really hard to fathom that we are able to view bones from creatures that existed up to 40,000 years ago.

The bones of many animals are glued together in this tar. Scientists carefully separate them out bit by bit.

The bones of many animals are glued together in this tar. Scientists carefully separate them out bit by bit.

Animals were attracted to the thin layer of water on top of the sticky tar. Once they went over to take a drink, they were trapped in the tar and either died of hunger or thirst or became dinner for carnivores who in turn also became trapped,  and died.

The tar pits are covered by a shallow layer of water that attracts animals even to this day.

The tar pits are covered by a shallow layer of water that attracts animals even to this day.

Last stop was Ocean View Farms, the largest community garden in Los Angeles County. It was established in 1977 and sits on a hillside overlooking Santa Monica Bay. There are over 500 plots and they have quite a long waiting list. The gardens varied considerably in their contents – from vegetables and herbs to roses and other ornamentals. Fruit trees are also planted and the harvest is shared.

Their composting system was most impressive. Garden trimmings and debris get put in a large pile, except for a couple of noxious weeds which get sorted into a trash container. Then, on Saturdays, dedicated volunteers come and put the trimmings through a shredder and into a large pallet bin. The trimmings are layered with horse manure from a neighboring stable. The compost is turned by hand and when it ends up in the finished bin, it is first come, first serve for the gardeners.

Composting system at Ocean View Farms

Composting system at Ocean View Farms

Long Beach is really beautiful and the days were warm and sunny. I couldn’t wait to get back to the East Coast, however. There are just way too many overly pruned plants out  there! Plants are not meant to be square!

One of the many square plants

One of the many square plants

Soils rule!

Dawn P.

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,

Dawn