Empowering Socially-Disadvantaged Farmers to Investigate Nitrogen Management in High-Value Vegetable Crops

Final Report for OW13-062

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2013: $45,527.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


ALBA’s project, Empowering Socially-Disadvantaged Farmers to Investigate Nitrogen Management in High-Value Vegetable Crops, helped socially-disadvantaged (SDA), beginning and aspiring farmers answer questions related to their own production of high-value organic vegetable crops, as well as increase their understanding of organic nitrogen management. The project achieved these goals through a combination of specific workshops, direct hands-on technical assistance, and farmer engagement in the production of two crops that are increasingly economically important in our region, cilantro and kale.   


With the help of Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) staff and partners, SDA , beginning, and aspiring farmers improved their capacity to frame, ask, and answer questions related to their own real-life crop production challenges.  ALBA farmers plant an estimated 100 acres of organic kale and cilantro each year, yet there is little guidance available for our region regarding N fertilization management practices for these crops, especially using organic farming methods. Thus, due to the lack of guidance combined with many uncertainties regarding organic N fertility in general, farmers often have to optimize N fertilization through a combination of keen observation, on-farm experimentation, and years of experience.  This challenge exists within the context of an increasing need for accountability of total N applied to crops, particularly due to serious environmental and human health concerns of nitrate contamination of surface and groundwater. Nine ‘core’ SDA farmers conducted field trials on N fertilization rates in the aforementioned crops, with 100+ SDA, beginning and aspiring farmers and agricultural professionals in our tri-county region receiving workshop trainings on performing basic on-farm research, and specific techniques for better N management (e.g., N budgeting).  Informational materials were disseminated to a further 500+ SDA farmers and agricultural professionals to increase awareness on the topics.

Project Objectives:
  • Objective 1. Eighty (80) SDA farmers and agricultural professionals are educated on conducting on-farm research and nutrient management through workshops and field demonstrations.

Over 100 SDA, beginning, aspiring farmers and agricultural professionals were trained through workshops and field days.

One workshop on Innovation and Experimentation was held in July 2013 with twenty-two participants in attendance. Two seasoned local farmer mentors were invited to present, Israel Morales (formerly grower for Earthbound Farms) and Jim Leap (USDA-ARS Field Technician, Beginning Farmer Mentor, and former UCSC CASFS Farm Manager) talked about setting up field trials, the importance of observation and innovation, and gave tips for managing fertility.

One workshop on Organic Nutrient Management was held in July 2013 with twenty-three participants in attendance. This training was presented by Richard Smith (UCCE Monterey County) and Nathan Harkleroad (ALBA) and included a discussion of the environmental and human health consequences of nitrate contamination of surface and groundwater; conventional versus organic approaches to nitrogen fertility; sources of organic nitrogen; timing of application of fertilizer; resources for application rates; and an exercise calculating total applied nitrogen.

One field day on Nitrogen Management in Cilantro was held in September 2014 with twenty-one participants in attendance. This involved observing the replicated treatments in ALBA’s demonstration field. An experienced non-ALBA cilantro grower was invited to share his experience in growing this crop in both conventional and organic systems.

Additional workshops/trainings on relevant topics were offered from 2013-2015, including sessions on Crop Health, and Irrigation Principles in ALBA’s Farmer Education Course annually. These trainings reached an estimated 60 participants. Furthermore, a formal workshop was held on Nitrgoen Budgeting in May 2015 that had 8 participants. 

  • Objective 2. Provide direct technical assistance (200 hours) to ten (10) ‘core’ SDA farmers on implementing an experimental design related to N fertilization for organic kale and cilantro production; and directly engage same farmers in the project development, implementation and outcomes.

Direct technical assistance was provided to 9 ‘core’ farmers on setting up a fertilizer trial. In lieu of a tenth participant, ALBA set-up a replicated fertilizer rate trial in its demonstration field. This field trial directly engaged 20+ aspiring farmers as part of a student enterprise in ALBA’s Farmer Education Course (or ‘PEPA’ Programa Educativo para Pequenos Agricultores). The core farmers managed their trials and recorded yield for different treatments. The core farmers were interviewed, and many of their insights and experiences were captured in the adaptive research reports on kale and cilantro.

  • Objective 3. Provide informational materials to 500+ SDA farmers and agricultural professionals to raise awareness of ways to engage SDA farmer community in solving their own production.

ALBA’s network of SDA farmers and agricultural professionals received communications related to the project that included one newsletter article, two adaptive research reports, and postcard invitations to events.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Matthew Bowling
  • Rigoberto Bucio
  • Nancy Bustos
  • Sofia Colin
  • Jose Gallardo
  • Maria Gonzalez
  • Marsha Habib
  • Nathaniel Harkleroad
  • Maria Morales
  • Guilebaldo Nunez
  • Mike Oliver
  • Francisco Serrano
  • Javier Zamora


Materials and methods:

Table 1. Summary of Activities

Project Actions

Date Completed


Outreach to 500+ SDA farmers and agricultural professionals for workshop on on-farm research

August 2013

Workshop 1 completed

Direct technical assistance to 10 SDA farmers on experimental design and execution

April 2013 – December 2014

9 SDA farmers directly involved in research process in a range of soil and climatic conditions on the Central Coast; one replicated experiment was held in a demonstration field in lieu of a 10th participant

Outreach to 500+ SDA farmers and agricultural professionals for workshop on nutrient management

August 2013

Workshop 2 completed

Outreach to SDA farmers for field day highlighting farmers’ experiments

September 2014

Field day 1 completed

10 SDA farmers extensively interviewed on their experiences in project; SDA farmer group processes

September 2015

Quality of learning process assessed, experience captured through perspective of SDA farmers

Two (2) Adaptive Research Reports featured in ALBA’s biannual newsletter mailed to 500+ SDA farmers and agricultural professionals

September 2015

Reports created and distributed to 500+ regional farmers and ag professionals. Incorporated results from SDA farmers’ experiments, lessons learned, insights into N management for cilantro and kale, farmer testimonials

Hundreds of hours of technical assistance were provided to help farmers successfully grow and market kale and cilantro in a sustainable manner. All of ALBA’s farmer-tenants, as per Farmer Policies, were required to plant 1/3 – ½ of their fields in winter cover crop and any land that was not cover cropped received compost applications at a rate of 5 tons/acre. Farmers who marketed their produce through ALBA had to grow these crops to very high commercial standards.

Research results and discussion:

ALBA evaluated the effectiveness of project implementation through measuring: 

Value of learning activities:

The WSARE survey was administered at the end of each training delivered as part of this grant, i.e., two workshops and one field day. The evaluation response rate was 80% (53/66). To increase the reach and applicability of the survey, it was translated into Spanish.

Completion of deliverables:

ALBA completed all of its deliverables. This includes: 2 workshops, 1 field day, 9 SDA farmer field trials, writing 2 adaptive research reports, and 1 public presentation on sustainable land management.

Level of participation:

74 SDA farmers and agricultural professionals (+ an additional 60 aspiring farmers) participated in project trainings. The unique count of participants is estimated to be 100.

Quality of learning process:

Interviews with ‘core’ farmers indicated that they were very satisfied with the learning process and that the trainings have had a major impact on how they do their job. See “Adoption” section for specific management changes that were documented in the project. 

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

More than 500+ farmers and agricultural professionals were reached with project materials, including postcard invitations to educational events, one newsletter article, and two adaptive research reports. One article was published in The Californian related to the project (http://www.thecalifornian.com/article/20130603/BUSINESS/306030016). One webinar was held on land management that included ALBA’s approach to soil fertility (link to webinar: http://nesfp.org/node/1942). Fifty-three agricultural professionals participated in this webinar.

Adaptive Research Report I: Cilantro

Adaptive Research Report II: Kale

Spring 2015 Newsletter

Postcard Invitation to Workshop Series

Appendix A - Fertilizer Rate Trial on Organic Cilantro

Organic Soil Fertility Presentation - Spanish


Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Forty-nine SDA farmers and agricultural professionals have reported increased awareness of the training topics. Forty-eight reported that the trainings provided new knowledge; 46 that the trainings provide or modified attitudes and/or opinions. Furthermore, the participants reported that they would share information with at least 275 others. 

Table 2. Results of the Program Outreach Survey (2 workshops + 1 field day)






Improved awareness of the topics covered




Provided new knowledge




Provided new skills





Modified my opinions and/or attitudes





How many people do you estimate you will share some aspect of this project within the next 12 months?




Producers - In the next year I am likely to use some aspect of this project to


Adopt one or more of the practices shown





Increase the operation's diversifications





Reduce my use of purchased off-farm inputs





Increase my networking with other producers





Incorporate value-added into some aspect of my operation





Professionals - In the next year I am likely to use some aspect of this project to


In the education program that I plan or participate in





As a resource I will make available to producers





As a professional development tool for my peers





To improve advice/counsel I give to producers





Specific changes to ‘core’ farmers’ management of these high-value vegetable crops is captured in the adaptive research reports. Among the changes documented include: using soil tests as a basis for nutrient management, nutrient budgeting, and “spoon-feeding” particular crops with liquid fertilizer to maintain crop quality and yield.

The consensus on the trials was that:

  • Kale yield responded to increasing application rates of N fertilzier
  • Cilantro yield did not respond to increasing application rates of N fetilizer

The consensus about the lack of response in cilantro to increasing N fertilization was also supported by the results of a completely randomized experiment in ALBA’s demonstration field – the focus of the field day event. There was no difference in yield or crop quality with increasing application rates of nitrogen fertilizer. The cilantro had followed a crop of broccoli. Thus, there is some evidence that cilantro in rotation with other crops may not always need additional fertilizer in our growing conditions.

One unexpected outcome was that farmers began planting kale into strawberry beds. Strawberry production usually ends in our region around October or November. At that time, some farmers exerimented with removing crowns from the plastic mulch and replacing them with kale starts. These farmers were able to harvest kale 2-3 times before the end of the year while simultaneously scavenging leftover nitrogen from strawberry fertigations. This technique shows great promise for reducing ground preparation costs; reycycling nutrients; and high yields of fall and winter kale.  Although there are some sustainability concerns, such as affecting our established rotation of planting winter cover crop after strawberries and degradation of plastic mulch in the field, as well as pest issues (snails, slugs, ear wigs). ALBA would like to studythis technique more closely in future years.

Economic Analysis

The technical assistance and training provided by the project aided ALBA farmers in the production and sale of nearly 81,000 boxes of kale with a value estimated at $1,134,000. Farmers sold 32,333 boxes of cilantro with an estimated value of $355,663. That said, competition in production of kale has continued to increase. Customers appear to be expecting bigger bunch size and weight, as well as darker green color in the lacinato and curly type varieties. From 2012 to 2013 kale and cilantro sales increased 75% and 87%, respectively.  2014 and 2015 sales did not see the same increases, partly due to the loss of our longtime sales manager who returned to independent farming. 

Kale production continued to increase in Monterey County.

Table 3. Kale Production in Monterey County (2012-2014)

















Farmer Adoption

ALBA was very successful in assisting farmers in improving their management practices. Much of this work was necessitated by groundwater quality conservation requirements unique to our region. The work was aided by the help of specific partners, such as the NRCS and CCOF.

Table 4. Documented Irrigation/Nutrient Management Changes



Perform N rate field trial


Perform soil test for the first time

16 est.

Create nitrogen budget


Farmers documenting irrigation applied to crops and basis for applying irrigation


Perform well test


Calculate/report total nitrogen applied


Farmers recording fertilizer use for first time

36 est.

Farmers planting kale or cilantro for the first time

36 est.

Farmers using fertigation techniques for the first time

36 et.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.