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

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

Education and outreach methods and analyses:

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


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.