UC Cooperative Extension, a federally funded interface between agriculture and research, celebrates 100 years today, with activities planned across the state. The UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources is encouraging citizens to “Be a Scientist” and answer three questions about pollinators, water use and local food. Regional extension offices around the state will host their own activities. Yolo County’s runs from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at 70 Cottonwood St., Woodland. There will be cake.
One hand on the wheel of her 2006 white Dodge pickup, driving smoothly down Russell Boulevard toward Winters, Rachael Long knows most every piece of farmland. University trial fields with corn and canola and other experiments. Onion seed, grown to the daylight specifications of different longitudes.
“There’s alfalfa growing behind those fences.” She points.
A left on Road 95A, a right on Putah Creek Road. Long talks quickly, clear and excited, keeping pace with the farms blurring past us at 45 miles per hour.
“Ammonds,” she nods toward an orchard, and answers my question before I can ask. “It’s the industry standard. They have a saying: You knock the L out of them when you harvest.”
Then, “more ammonds” to our left. “Oh and those are walnuts, see their black trunks?” on the right.
Long has come to know the county intimately in the 22 years she has served as a farm adviser for UC Cooperative Extension, the state’s interface between agriculture and public research. Farm advisers are like doctors who make house calls to crops, answering questions about pests, illness and irrigation — though sometimes the cure takes years of study. For the past two years, she has directed Yolo County’s efforts.
On a warm afternoon in April, Long has picked me up for a tour of a tiny swath of the county, between Davis and Winters. Her exuberance is genuine and infectious. She never runs out of breath as she walks me through her research on onion seeds and lima beans.
We pull into the UC Davis Agronomy Field Quarters, where alfalfa treated with various fungicides dries in industrial, cabinet-like ovens. The quarters are comfortably dark; like a homey cellar, it smells like Ace Hardware. Neat brown bags of beans line shelves and tables and brown burlap sacks lie piled in a corner.
We weigh the alfalfa on a kitchen scale, then load all 25 grocery bags into the back of her covered truck bed, previously empty except for a stick to hold up her back door and a shovel.
“My most valuable tool,” she laughs. “I love my shovel.”
During field calls, she digs up soil and root specimens that need to be assessed in a lab. She keeps a couple of bags up front to transport them.
Along with alfalfa, Long specializes in other forage crops, pest management and dried beans.
“Sometimes I wish I worked on something more exotic. Like grapes,” she laments.
Grapes could take her to Italy, but California produces the nation’s supply of dried beans. So she stays here, makes her home on a ranch up in Zamora with her husband David, whom she met on a field call. Together, they grow almonds — trained as a scientist, her own life bridges the gap she addresses at work every day.
A farm adviser toils as both a researcher and a knowledge bank for agricultural best practices. After Congress signed the Smith-Lever act in 1914, Yolo County was the third county assigned an adviser. Dr. George Hecke worked for just $1, training Niles P. Searls, who took over in 1915. The program has grown since: The county has five advisers and will hire on two more in small farms and pomology, in addition to nutrition and technical staff.
Long has her hands in everything: managing four graduate students, writing books on dried beans and alfalfa, conducting field trials and running programs on hedgerows, all the while still visiting farms.
Her calendar is a tangle of blue ink, but our trip is unhurried. We stop to check on some bat boxes nailed above the doorway of white barn inside Sierra Orchards. High-pitched squeaks from above and a layer of guano below give them away: The bats moved back in after wintering south or along the coast.
“They feed extensively in walnut orchards; they love walnut orchards.” Bats are her thing, outside of crops.
Bats, like bees, face blight: A fungal disease dubbed white nose syndrome irritates and awakens bats hibernating in the winter. If they wake up too often, their fat stores can’t support them and they starve.
“We don’t know what the impact is going to be here.”
She helped install about 200 colorful boxes throughout Sierra Orchards, in other walnut orchards and under bridges. And she is working on the last book in her children’s adventure/mystery trilogy, aimed at educating kids about bats. The first two books have been printed by Tate Publishing.
Long may adore bats, but one of her graduate students, Sacha Heath, compares her to a wren: chatty, always singing and flitting around.
Heath, who studies birds as an ecology graduate student, found Long because she hoped to work at the intersection of science and real-world application.
“We need to figure out how to make the landscape where people live and work habitable to organisms,” Heath said.
As a way to manage pests and encourage biodiversity naturally, Long has been urging farmers to install hedgerows, quarter-mile strips of California natives planted along the edges of farmland. Traditionally, those strips are kept bare. While hedgerows provide habitat for native pollinators like bumblebees, farmers worry that they also will attract detrimental species.
“Birds can be voracious predators of insects,” Heath said. “At the same time, they are also considered pests.”
Long’s connections were vital for Heath’s research: She convinced walnut orchard owners to let Heath place more than 2,000 hibernating coddling moths to investigate whether hedgerows attracted helpful birds or pesky ones.
Coddling moths destroy walnut crops, but when Long requests access to a farm, “it’s just a given that you’re going to go along with it,” said Dan Hrdy of Citrona LLC.
Both he and his wife were academics before they planted their walnut orchard, but the Hrdys’ trust stems from Cooperative Extension’s history of effective research.
“(Cooperative Extension) has demonstrated that it is key to success in industrial agriculture in California,” Hrdy said.
Tagged with GPS coordinates, Heath made sure to remove all the moths before they emerged.
Changing of the guard
The Yolo County program will undergo a major overhaul this summer when the staff from three counties merge under a single director to become the Capitol Corridor arm of Cooperative Extension. The University of California will take over full responsibility for the employees, a boon for the organization but tough on county employees who likely will lose accrued sick leave and other markers of long careers.
Stepping down as director will allow Long to spend less time on administration and more time on research and field calls.
“There are a lot of pests and disease coming in because of worldwide travel,” she said. “I just want to go back to focusing on the needs of the agriculture industry.”
First, though, she’s taking a vacation: 10 easy days in Minnesota with her husband’s family.
Celebrate the centennial with Rachael Long and the rest of the Yolo County Cooperative Extension staff today from 4:30-6:30 at 70 Cottonwood Street, Woodland. There will be cake.
— Reach Elizabeth Case at [email protected] or 530-747-8052.