Don Curlee: Intense research supports farming
Putting food on the table involves such astounding amounts of research that few people can fathom it, even farmers whose livelihoods depend on it.
One of the speakers at the recent Grape Symposium held in the farm community of Easton on Fresno's outskirts overwhelmed his farmer audience with the voluminous research involved in just one project conducted for their benefit.
Andrew Waterhouse, a researcher and professor in the Viticulture and Enology and Plant Pathology departments at the University of California, Davis, simplified his presentation enough that an eighth-grader could have understood every aspect, but would have been overwhelmed.
The goal of the research was very practical, trying to learn why grapes grown in Northern California, along the coast and at higher elevations develop more color (translated "flavor" by wine grape buyers) than wine grapes produced in the intense summer heat of the San Joaquin Valley.
The presentation was timely because the 2,000 plus growers of wine grapes whose farms are in the hot valley are seeking ways to increase the value of their grapes, even to the extent of planting varieties that are new or different from those that have been traditional survivors of the valley's summer heat.
The research by Waterhouse and his students at Davis started from scratch, by gathering grapes at various stages of growth from both the cooler climes and the simmering San Joaquin. An early comparison revealed that grapes growing near elevated Placerville produced a minute amount of moisture on their skins in the early morning. Grapes of the same varieties growing in the valley were bone dry.
The intrepid researchers wondered why the difference and whether it might be a key to the flavor differential when the grape berries reach maturity. They still don't know, but not knowing is one of the frustrating milestones on the path of basic and successful research.
Because the lack of color might be the result of heat-related degradation a sophisticated technique for measuring the cause was developed. An isotopic label was utilized, based on techniques and procedures that grew out of radioactive technology.
Additional research is required to continue these measurements and determine the fate of the pigmentation of the grapes. Waterhouse told the audience of mostly grape growers that the project was more complicated than he and his research-oriented students thought it would be.
That rang a bell with members of the audience, because the entire issue had become more involved than they were prepared to follow. Agricultural researchers are used to reaching that criteria, and know when to shut down before eyelids get too heavy. But complex research underlies some of the simplest, most basic decisions that growers of high value crops such as grapes must make.
Bridging the gap between the sophisticated laboratory techniques, the complex compounds and the patience-demanding trials stands the University of California Cooperative Extension. Its well rounded farm advisers transfer– extend – the research findings to growers. farm managers and crop advisers.
It is an amazing path of discovery, learning and teaching that places modern agricultural production light years ahead of the methods known by the "sod busters" of early American history.
Farmers of today might not be familiar with all the terms and techniques employed by the agricultural researchers who visit them regularly. Even the colorful charts and graphs presented can be confusing.
What consumers need to know is that growers depend on a foundation of careful and experienced agricultural research. Farmers not only trust it, they depend on it. Should consumers of food products do any less?
CONTACT Don Curlee at firstname.lastname@example.org