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Climate Hubs convene in New Mexico to plan for 2017 –

The annual Fall Forum of the USDA Climate Hubs was held in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on 14-17 November 2016. Almost fifty attendees (Directors, Coordinators, Fellows, and Liaisons) from all ten Regional Climate Hubs and the National Office shared their successes and challenges from 2016 and their ideas for 2017.

A theme that emerged in the discussions was the fact that Climate Hubs have managed to accomplish a lot so far, but that the Hubs’ small staff and limited resources mean that we cannot promise to be everything to everybody (at least not yet). After two years of operation, the Hubs have now delineated their partners, stakeholders, and priorities, which means new strengths and opportunities ahead but also means being more selective about which projects to pursue. We will prioritize efforts that clearly support the missions of the USDA departments we serve (foremost the Forest Service, Agricultural Research Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service).

Another key point of discussion was the potential for cross-Hub collaboration. For example, the Northern Forests Hub has created a flexible, menu-based Forest Adaptation Workbook that has recently been modified for Midwest agriculture. Several Hubs, including California, now plan to pursue region-specific versions of this workbook. This meeting catalyzed collaboration on specific research projects as well; for example, Midwest Hub Fellow Erica Kistner is a specialist in insect population dynamics, and she invited staff from other Hubs to work with her to simulate future ranges of emerging crop pests in their regions.

The Fall Forum was hosted by the Southwest Hub based at New Mexico State University, a regional leader in agricultural and natural resources research. We got our group photo taken in front of a sheep pen and enjoyed the stunning backdrop of the Organ Mountains. Climate Hub staff left the three-day meeting with a clearer view of our challenges and renewed enthusiasm for our shared goal of helping land users adopt climate-resilient practices in 2017.

The California and Southwest Hubs form working groups at the Hubs Fall Forum in Las Cruces, NM (11/17/2016). Front table, from L: Amber Kerr; Steve Ostoja; Jen Balachowski (CA). Back table, from L: Julian Reyes, Al Rango, Emile Elias, Caiti Steele (SW).

Number of dead trees in Sierras now exceeds 100 million –

Dead and dying trees in Sierra forests, August 24, 2016. Photo credit: USFS.
Dead and dying trees in the Sierras, August 24, 2016. Photo credit: USFS.

California has just wrapped up its fifth year of drought, and although it is too soon to tell what the 2016-17 water year will bring, there will be no immediate relief for Sierra forests. The latest US Forest Service aerial survey (released on 18 November 2016) has identified an additional 36 million trees in the Sierras that have died since the previous survey in May 2016, bringing the total to an unprecedented 102 million.

The official USDA press release provides the basic facts, and Brad Plumer at Vox.com provides a more in-depth look at the history, background, and science behind this mass mortality event. You can also check out the regularly updated USFS California Tree Mortality site for photos, videos, and advice for California forest landowners.

Updated to add: This striking pictorial essay by the online magazine BioGraphic describes the impending mortality of California’s giant sequoias – once thought to be nearly impervious to environmental disturbances.

Remembering Kelly Redmond (1952 – 2016) –

Kelly Redmond (undated photo, courtesy of Desert Research Institute).
Kelly Redmond (undated photo, courtesy of Desert Research Institute).

It was with great regret that we learned of the passing of Dr. Kelly Redmond, deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center and professor at the Desert Research Institute. Dr. Redmond passed away on November 4, 2016, after a long battle with cancer. He was a highly respected climatologist, a veteran science communicator, and an enthusiastic mentor to young climate scientists.

Ever since 1989, when NOAA created its six Regional Climate Centers, Dr. Redmond held the position of Regional Climatologist for the Western US. The NOAA RCCs were at the vanguard of federal attention to climate variability and change, and they helped pave the way for climate programs at other agencies, including the USDA Climate Hubs. Dr. Redmond provided advice and guidance to the California Climate Hub (and our sister Hub, the Southwest Climate Hub based in Las Cruces, NM) ever since our inception in 2014.

As Regional Climatologist, Dr. Redmond not only worked to improve data collection and analysis for the West’s complicated and variable climate, he strove to inspire and inform popular interest in these topics. He often gave public lectures (for example, on climate change and Western water at the Aspen Global Change Institute’s 2003 annual lecture) and media interviews (for example, to Capital Public Radio about ENSO influences on 2015 summer thunderstorms). His devotion to public service and outreach in no way diminished his prolific career as a research scientist.

At the 2015 US Drought Monitor Forum in Reno, NV, Dr. Redmond discussed the challenge of seasonal forecasts: land users want short-term predictions, but current models are unreliable at that time scale. “We need to consider the ‘angle of repose‘, Dr. Redmond said. “Some problems have a steep angle of repose: it doesn’t take long to stack the building blocks up tall and reach your answer. Other problems have a shallow angle of repose: you need to amass a huge base of additional knowledge before you can even begin to make headway. Which type of problem is this? The climate system is chaotic at monthly time scales, so I would argue that it is the latter – but it is still worth pursuing. We just need to be in it for the long haul.”

Thank you, Dr. Redmond, for your sustained effort on climate puzzles large and small, and for eloquently bringing these topics into the public view. Your Climate Hub colleagues will miss your insights and encouragement.

A memorial service for Kelly Redmond will be held at 2 PM on Friday, January 13, at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. You can RSVP here.

State of California funds Healthy Soils Initiative –

At the California Climate Hub, we were excited by the recent news that Governor Jerry Brown allocated $7.5 million in funding to the Healthy Soils Initiative. This initiative aims to build “soil organic matter that can increase carbon sequestration and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions” on California’s farms and ranches It is a collaboration between various state agencies led by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). CDFA announced the news in September 2016, and the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) analyzed the legislation in a recent blog post.

The USDA Climate Hubs aim to facilitate both climate mitigation and climate adaptation, especially where those two goals converge to provide long-term benefits for land owners. We look forward to working with CDFA and other agencies to realize the goals of the Healthy Soils Initiative. We will explore these synergies at the California Climate Hub’s upcoming workshop on Building Blocks of Climate-Smart Agriculture, tentatively scheduled for February 2017 in the Davis/Sacramento area – stay tuned!

California forests, fire, and meadows at the 2016 Natural Areas Conference –


The 2016 Natural Areas Conference (Davis, CA, 18-21 October) was a big success, with over 300 presenters on a wide variety of topics related to climate change, conservation, and natural and working landscapes.The California Climate Hub was proud to be a sponsor and organizer of this conference.

The California Climate Hub team at the 2016 Natural Areas Conference in Davis, CA. (From L to R: Dr. Jennifer Balachowski, Fellow; Dr. Steven Ostoja, Director; Dr. Amber Kerr, Coordinator.)

Though NAC is a national conference, this year’s meeting highlighted California ecosystems: for example, hydrological restoration of Sierra meadows; monitoring endangered fauna in California’s Central Valley; and managing cattle grazing to benefit rare plants in California grasslands.

A particular focus was the difficult question of how to manage California’s water-stressed forests under the assumption that future climate change will bring more droughts like the current one. In the organized session “Forests in the Oven,” researchers presented preliminary data on the effectiveness of techniques such as stand thinning and prescribed fire to reduce drought-related tree mortality. This is an active area of research for Climate Hub affiliates Jim Thorne and Mark Schwartz.

The final day of the Natural Areas Conference also included field trips near Davis. For example, Khara Strum from Audubon California led participants on a tour of Yolo Bypass, a local success story in integrating conservation lands, intensive agriculture, and urban development.

If you missed the conference, you can still catch up by taking a look at the abstract book and videos of the two plenary sessions – freely available to all.

Climate Hubs convene to discuss adaptation across North America –

On August 17-18, 2016, the North American Symposium on Climate Adaptation brought together practitioners from across the continent to discuss adaptation in a variety of systems from agriculture to resource-poor urban neighborhoods to coastal infrastructure. The USDA Climate Hubs were well represented, with members of the Northeast Hub (Dan Dostie, Lynn Knight), California Hub (Amber Kerr), and Northern Forests Hub (Todd Ontl) attending.

USDA Climate Hub staff at the 2016 North American Symposium on Climate Adaptation, New York City, 8/17/2016. From L: Dan Dostie (NRCS; NE Hub); Lynn Knight (NRC, NE Hub); Amber Kerr (UC Davis; CA Hub); Todd Ontl (FS; Northern Forests Hub).
USDA Climate Hub staff at the 2016 North American Symposium on Climate Adaptation, New York City, 8/17/2016. From L: Dan Dostie (NRCS; NE Hub); Lynn Knight (NRCS, NE Hub); Amber Kerr (UC Davis; CA Hub); Todd Ontl (FS; Northern Forests Hub).

All Climate Hubs shared some of the successes and challenges they’ve had in trying to connect their stakeholders with adaptation advice. Todd Ontl described the user-driven, iterative framework behind their Forest Adaptation Workbook and presented data on forest managers’ adaptation activities. Dan Dostie emphasized the need to find “win-win-win” approaches that maximize climate benefits, ecosystem services, and economic profitability. Lynn Knight highlighted the role that Climate Hubs play in educating other USDA staff about climate change. And Amber Kerr (also presenting on behalf of Isabel Pares of the Caribbean Hub) described the issues involved in working with diverse farmers cultivating a variety of annual and perennial crops in an area with complex microclimates – a challenge that Puerto Rico and California both share.

The discussion at the “Climate Change and Agriculture” session of the Symposium reflected the fact that farmers’ major climate risks vary quite a bit according to where in North America they are located – for example, in California, the biggest concern is generally drought and limited water supply, whereas in the Northeast, excess or heavy precipitation is a major concern. However, at the moment, the Northeast is having its worst drought in many years. Stay tuned for more drought-related collaborations between the California Hub, the Northeast Hub, and other Hubs nationwide.

The symposium proceedings will be published in 2017 in the book “Climate Change Adaptation in North America: Experiences, Case Studies and Best Practices,” part of Springer’s Climate Change Management Series.

UC Davis publishes new report on 2016 drought impacts on agriculture –

Researchers at the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis just published their third annual report on California’s ongoing drought, “Economic Analysis of the 2016 California Drought for Agriculture.” The report was authored by Josué Medellín-Azuara, Duncan MacEwan, Richard Howitt, Daniel Sumner, and Jay Lund.

The authors found that the economic impacts of the drought in 2015-16, though substantial, are less than in 2013-14 and 2014-15. They estimated the direct costs of the 2016 drought at $550 million, slightly more than 1% of California’s annual agricultural output. However, they caution that California’s water resources are still in vulnerable condition – depleted after several years of severe drought – and the possible impact of below-average precipitation in 2016-17 remains a major concern.

For the latest drought status in California, you can check the US Drought Monitor page for California, which is updated weekly. Current reservoir conditions are posted online by the California Department of Water Resources.

San Luis Reservoir, in Central California, was at 44% of capacity on May 12, 2016 (compared to a historical average of 51% for that date). Photo by Amber Kerr.

Can California lead the world in ag-tech? Josette Lewis thinks so –

“Sacramento region should lead the world in ag-tech innovation”
by Josette Lewis
JULY 21, 2016 2:00 PM

A solar-powered IRROmesh irrigation scheduling system measures and relays soil moisture data in a tomato field at Russell Ranch, near Davis, CA (June 2016). Photo by Amber Kerr.

Dr. Josette Lewis, associate director of the UC Davis World Food Center, is optimistic about California’s place in the world of ag-tech (agricultural technology). In a recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, Lewis outlined how stronger connections between producers, academia, and private investors can help California and the world grow more food while conserving water, energy, and the environment.

Lewis writes that “a triangle of innovation should be connecting our region to Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, further aligning California’s commitment to environmental sustainability with its success in delivering high-quality food.”

We at the California Climate Hub are looking forward to helping build these bridges. If you’re from an ag-tech startup, or if you’re a researcher or a grower with an idea for a new technology, please let us know if we can help connect you!

Save the Date: 2016 Natural Areas Conference, UC Davis, Oct. 18-21 –

The California Climate Hub is involved in planning and organizing the 2016 Natural Areas Conference, (the annual meeting of the Natural Areas Association), which will take place at the University of California, Davis on October 18-21, 2016.

This year’s theme is “Climate Change Adaptation and Natural Areas Management: Turning Words to Action.” Examples of topics covered in the concurrent sessions include: managing post-fire regeneration in conifer forests; using native seed sources to maintain genetic diversity on public lands; employing “living shoreline” techniques to cope with sea level rise; restoring the hydrology of Sierra meadows; monitoring and conserving wild pollinators; optimizing the use of remote sensing tools in restoration; and engaging stakeholders in productive conversations about climate.

Conference registration is now open (the early-bird registration deadline is September 23). Stay tuned and hope to see you in Davis in October!

California’s Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta, one of the largest estuaries on the West Coast of North America, is vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo by Amber Kerr (near Fairfield, CA, 2/2015).



A cornucopia of categories for crops –

For those of us who are not agricultural experts, the different categories used to describe crops can be bewildering. Field crops. Row crops. Horticultural crops. Specialty crops. Vegetable crops. Cash crops. What are all these designations? Which ones are mutually exclusive, and which ones overlap?

In fact, it can be confusing for the experts, too. Some of these terms have ambiguous or disputed definitions. Some are used differently in the US versus in other parts of the world. And some are based on cultural preferences rather than on agronomic or botanical distinctions.

This post lays out some of the most common ways that the USDA groups and describes crops. Although it is not definitive, we hope that it will be a useful brief reference for anyone new to this topic.

KerrA-Strawberries-RajasthanOliveProjectIndia-Feb2014-560x401 copy
Strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa) are technically perennials but are cultivated as annuals.

Annual crops vs. perennial crops
This is a fairly straightforward distinction: annual crops are those that must be replanted every year (such as corn and sunflowers), whereas perennial crops are those with a multi-year lifespan (such as almonds and oranges). Most vegetables, grains, and oilseeds are annuals, whereas most fruits are perennials. Some crops that are really perennials (such as strawberries) or biennials (such as carrots and cabbage) are, in practice, treated as annuals and replanted every year to maximize yields.

Field crops vs. specialty crops
This distinction is unique to the USDA: specialty crops are defined as fruits, nuts, and vegetables (including floriculture and nursery plants), while field crops are everything else (grains, dry legumes, oilseeds, fiber crops, and hay). This can lead to some unexpected dichotomies: for example, green beans are a specialty crop, while dried beans are a field crop. Walnuts are a specialty crop, while peanuts are a field crop (because they’re dry legumes). Sunflowers grown for oil are a field crop, while sunflowers grown for the floral industry are a specialty crop. And, although you probably think of potatoes as vegetables, the USDA categorizes all potatoes (including sweet potatoes) as field crops.

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Corn or maize (Zea mays) is usually considered a field crop, but fresh-market sweet corn is counted as a vegetable and therefore is a specialty crop.

Agronomic crops vs. horticultural crops
This is a less common terminology for making the same distinction as field crops vs. specialty crops, above. Agronomic crops are generally non-perishable crops such as grains, dry beans, oilseeds, and fiber, while horticultural crops are fruits and vegetables, mainly grown for their “contribution to the flavour and interest of food and for the supply of minor but essential nutrients.”

Row crops
Some non-technical dictionaries simply define “row crop” as “a crop planted in rows,” but almost all commercial crops – from delicate baby lettuces to massive olive trees – are grown in rows. In practice, the term “row crop” usually refers to annual crops that are mechanically harvested on a large scale. This makes it roughly synonymous with field crops / agronomic crops, but not exactly: “row crop” can include some mechanically harvested annual specialty crops (such as tomatoes and onions). Note that perennial orchard crops such as grapes and almonds are never referred to as row crops, even when grown in rows and mechanically harvested.

Fruit vs. vegetable crops
Botanically, a fruit is the mature reproductive part of a plant (containing seeds), while a vegetable can be any other part of the plant, such as leaves, stems, roots, or tubers. However, USDA uses colloquial definitions: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and squash (even melons!) are all classified as vegetables by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), even though they are botanically fruits. Nearly all “vegetables” are annuals and nearly all “fruit” are perennials, with the notable exceptions of strawberries (an annual fruit) and asparagus and artichokes (perennial vegetables).

A schematic showing some of the different ways to classify crops in the United States (not intended to be comprehensive).

Cash crops and commodity crops
A cash crop is simply a crop that is sold for cash, and a commodity crop is a cash crop that is traded on a large scale (usually globally). In the realm of international agricultural development, “cash crop” is often contrasted with “staple crop” or “subsistence crop” – i.e., a crop that a farmer grows for her own family’s sustenance. However, in the United States where nearly all farm output is sold rather than directly consumed by the farm family, you’re more likely to hear “cash crop” contrasted with “cover crop,” i.e., a crop that is primarily grown to improve the soil, not to be sold for a profit.

One final fact: Trees as crops
Trees and forests managed for timber are not considered crops by USDA (though felled orchards may produce salable wood as a byproduct). The only timber trees that appear in the NASS agricultural statistics are fresh Christmas trees, which are classified as a nursery crop. (In 2007, the most recent year for which NASS data are available, sales of cut Christmas trees totaled more than $210 million – that makes them a bigger player than many other specialty crops, such as asparagus or kiwifruit.)

Are there any other crop classifications or definitions you’d like clarified? Please let us know and we can discuss them in a future post!

Photos by Amber Kerr.