If you build it, rice will come... maybe
May 16, 2013
This month’s newsletter is brought to you from the Plant and Environmental Science building on the campus of University of California, Davis, where we’ve arrived this morning to collect a storage tub full of pre-soaked rice. It wouldn’t be the most unusual thing we’ve done since Roni became involved with the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (also known as AFRI) project to study the effects of rice cultivation on subsidence of the Delta’s islands.
Who knew that growing rice took so much effort? Certainly not Roni, who has gotten an education on the subject and then some with her current project for the Delta Science Center. It’s been nearly a month and a half since the DSC launched a partnership with UC Davis, UC Berkeley and some other organizations under an AFRI grant to grow an experimental rice farm on Jersey Island, near Oakley. If all of this seems confusing to you, multiply that times 10 for what Roni has dealt with since the rice farm took shape starting in early April.
Last month we shared about how the DSC and volunteers from Freedom High School in Oakley helped construct six greenhouses on the island on land owned by the Ironhouse Sanitary District. Roni and her crew braved stiff winds to construct the tiny greenhouses made from half-inch PVC pipe and plastic sheeting, then seeded each plot with the special blend of rice being used in the study. Because rice is a water-intensive crop, a nearby hose was used to flood the site and keep each of the six plots submerged. All that was left was to sit back and wait for the rice seeds to germinate and do their thing, right? Um, not quite.
You can flood a field with water, but keeping it flooded requires constant vigilance. So just about each morning for the past five weeks, Roni has made the 8-mile journey from home to the island to check water levels and, more often than not, make adjustments to the fragile greenhouses as they have been battered by the forces of nature. Maintaining the water has proved more of a challenge than making sure the oil in one’s car is kept topped off. Some days the water is close to spilling over the banks of the field and Roni reduces the flow of water from the hose to a trickle. The next day she might head out to check it and find nothing but mud. The situation is complicated by our wild spring weather, which went from cold and windy near the start of April to blistering hot by mid-May. The heat is great for the rice, but not so good for keeping water levels up.
But it was the April winds that have been the most challenging. The fragile PVC greenhouse frames weren’t tough enough to stand up to 30 mph gusts, and often Roni would arrive the next morning to discover their plastic ribs separated from the base, the sheet plastic caved in. Repairing the damage meant getting down and dirty literally by walking into the mud to adjust the pipes. Fortunately that’s why husbands were invented, so it was early one Saturday morning that we both ventured out to the island for an hour of damage control.
We had made our first stop at Home Depot to collect a few supplies, including more sheet plastic, clamps and a pair of rubber boots for Glenn, who refused to wade into the mud barefooted. Roni had found a cheap pair of slip-on shoes at Kmart a few days earlier and was quite content to wash them off along with her feet after every visit to the rice farm.
The rice project is built on a little slice of heaven that the sanitary district uses to store its heavy farm equipment. There is a caretaker on the gated property, and at his ranch house he keeps chickens and sheep and geese, among other critters, that call out to one another constantly while we work in the rice field. Roni unlocked the gate and we rolled up the gravel road to the rice fields, surveying the latest damage. Time to get to work.
Roni cranked up the hose to add water to the field, and we both donned our mud gear to wade into the muck and adjust the greenhouses. On this day we’d brought rolls of sheet plastic and a couple bags of assorted butterfly clamps. Working together, we wrestled the stubborn dislocated pipes back to their correct positions a process made more difficult by the fact that we had to work through the sheet plastic without ripping it, and inserting the ends of the pipes back into their connectors at the base of the greenhouse meant fumbling around in mud. Trudging around in muddy peat soil isn’t easy, either. The rubber boots proved great to keep feet clean and dry, but the mud grabbed at them and refused to let go. Now we know what the gangsters meant by threatening their victims with “cement overshoes.”
With the pipes realigned, we went to work adding more sheet plastic to cover up the ends of each greenhouse. When the DSC started the rice farm they followed an exhaustive instruction book prepared by the research crew to design the rice fields and build the greenhouses. Everything had been measured out and parts specified to make setup easier. When it comes to greenhouse farming, we just assumed that the structures would be completely enclosed to trap in heat and keep out animals. Isn’t that what a greenhouse does? Well, apparently not these greenhouses. They were designed more like aircraft hangars, with each end open for whatever unknown purpose. They sure weren’t keeping heat in or animals out. Birds ducks, mostly had made off with some of the first rice seeds, which led to the installation of bird netting on the open ends. That still didn’t solve the heat issue, and so finally Roni decided to close off the ends with sheet plastic.
We unrolled several 3-foot-wide plastic sheets and together clamped them to the PVC frames. The end result wasn’t pretty, but at least now the seedlings were better sheltered from the wind.
Still, things weren’t going well with the seedlings. Perhaps it was because of the cold weather or the fact that the rice seed Roni’s crew was using was an experimental blend, but there wasn’t much sprouting from the water aside from weeds. If the rice didn’t sprout soon, the project would fall behind schedule, and timing was apparently everything. The research team met about what to do, and it was decided that they would try again with more seed. Another bag was delivered and the greenhouses re-seeded. Fingers were crossed, and day after day Roni went to check on the site. Finally there were signs or rather shoots of hope. Rising from the muck, amid the crab grass, were tiny green stalks that could easily have been mistaken for weeds. But as they grew, it was clear that they were different.
But still the researchers were concerned. While the rice was finally starting to grow, there weren’t enough seedlings to transplant to the two larger adjacent fields. To keep the project on schedule, this meant either that mature plants would have to be imported from another research site or the DSC project would have to be modified in some way, such as using the fields to grow tules instead of rice. Roni was disappointed because she had worked so long and hard to see the rice project through; tules grow in abundance around the Delta, and once they take hold on a piece of land it is nearly impossible to get rid of them. This meant that the rice project wouldn’t be possible at the site next year and that the Freedom High kids involved in the research wouldn’t get to see the project they were promised.
It was finally decided that the goal of the DSC fields shouldn’t be to grow rice on a particular timetable, but rather to educate kids about the process involved with doing the research. This freed the DSC from the constraints of the researchers’ schedule and allowed yet another attempt at growing the rice from scratch, which is what brought us back to the UC Davis campus this morning so Roni could collect what she hopes is the last bag of raw rice she’ll need. She’s treating it like gold dust, because we are told that it is pretty much the end of the available seed supply for this year. We’ll see how things are progressing next month.
Things have been progressing in quite a different way at Glenn’s workplace this past month after it was announced that the newspaper would be closing down its office in Walnut Creek. The shutdown had been planned since August 2011, when the building was put up for sale amid a sour commercial real estate market. While conditions have improved since then, there haven’t been many interested buyers, and the company was eager to move on. It was suggested last June that an empty building would be easier to sell than an occupied one, so since then the company has been dismembering the facility limb by limb.
The regional reporting staff moved to Hayward last spring, and the printing operations were moved to Concord and San Jose in the fall of 2011. Circulation and classified advertising staffers were relocated to the front of the Walnut Creek campus, and the entire back half of the building was shut down. The printing presses sold, and the mailroom was emptied of equipment. All that remained of the staff was queezed into the newsroom and a few small offices on the upper floor.
On Saturday, May 4, the news, sports, features, business, graphics and photo production desks were relocated to Pleasanton, some 20 miles away. On Friday night the newsroom was humming with activity as frazzled copy desk personnel scrambled to put out the dozen different editions the company produces. As soon as they wrapped up, movers came and collected their boxed-up computers and personal belongings and carted them south in an 18-wheeler early Saturday morning. Glenn returned to work Monday to a much different environment.
Where before there had been nearly 50 people in the Walnut Creek newsroom, now there were barely a dozen and a lot of empty desks. A few features and weeklies production personnel had remained behind, but those people will be relocated to the Hayward office in June. Only the metro and online departments will remain at the Walnut Creek office until they too are relocated, but it is unclear when that move will occur. In the meantime, Glenn is adjusting to this alien world he has inherited.
As the paper’s night news editor, Glenn has long been the last man out the door for the metro department. However, the copy desk put in even later hours and there was always someone around to keep him company late in the evening. But not anymore. Once the online breaking news reporter leaves for the night, Glenn is literally the only person left in the entire building from about 11 p.m. onward. This has resulted in some lonely nights.
Glenn is a loner by nature, so the lack of people around the office late at night doesn’t bother him much, although it has made him the butt of jokes with his colleagues, such as the opinion page staffer who walked by one night and feigned an echoing “Glennnn-ennn-ennn-ennn,” or the photographer who quipped as the night reporter departed, “Now that we’re all alone I can kill Glenn and no one will notice.” When walking out to his car in the otherwise empty parking lot, such an idle concept doesn’t seem totally implausible.
On the plus side, Glenn has the entire building to himself to explore, so he has been on a few photo expeditions through the newsroom and abandoned press facilities. There are all sorts of odd artifacts left behind from more than 30 years of newspapering at the Walnut Creek office. Perhaps in a future newsletter we’ll share those.
We celebrated a birthday during the month of May. As difficult as it is to believe, Ben is 19 years old now, just two years shy of full adulthood and all that entails. For now, he is still confronting the challenges of being a young adult and making the transition from high school to the “real world” of work and college. It’s been nearly a year since he walked across the stage at Freedom High School’s Class of 2012 graduation ceremony. Since then, he has completed two semesters of college and contemplated the weak job market while filling out employment applications. He still hasn’t settled on exactly what he wants to do for a career, but there are some things he has realized he doesn’t want to do, and that is one of the benefits of attending junior college.
He still has his eyes on drawing story boards for anime-style film or television production work, which has meant a heavy concentration of art and 3D computer design classes. He isn’t so keen on the 3D modeling, and studying the fine points of drawing in perspective has given him the perspective that such drawing isn’t for him. We tell him that if he wants a career in an art-related field bad enough that he will have to overcome his reluctance to learning those skills and not give up. But staying focused on a task when you’re young is sometimes difficult, and so Ben is hoping to spend his summer break from classes deciding what he wants to do next.
On the assumption that he won’t totally abandon his coursework come fall, we picked out a new laptop for his birthday so he will have something more portable to take to school than the giant HP he’s been lugging there. His new Acer Aspire One is no powerhouse when it comes to processing speed, but it should be sufficient for taking notes, writing reports and running the various software programs that are required for this stage in his college education.
As far as Ben is concerned, the Acer also makes a pretty useful platform for playing Maginobi, an online multiplayer game that his been his passion for the past couple of years. The fact that he now has two laptops and a desktop system to play it on means that he can run three accounts simultaneously, so when our Internet bandwidth suddenly slows to a crawl we’ll know where to look. (It’s not quite that bad.)
We celebrated Ben’s birthday by going out to dinner at Applebee’s in Antioch, then came home so he could open gifts and blow out the candles on his cake, even though most of us weren’t hungry enough to actually eat any of it. He was happy to receive the computer, because he wasn’t crazy about the clothes we bought him; we figured that practicality had its place this year, and if you’re looking for work you should dress in something a little more mainstream. Hopefully the jeans and nice shirt will get some use eventually.
Because Ben’s birthday fell on a Thursday, we agreed to take him to see “Iron Man 3” at the movies on Saturday, May 4. Ben invited his uncle Sean to come along, so we all trekked over to the Maya Cinema in Pittsburg to enjoy the opening weekend show. Things were going well until the power went out in the shopping center about 15 minutes before the end of the movie. When it didn’t come back on, the theater staff comped everyone for a free pass on a future movie. As happy as we were to have the free tickets, we were all a bit disappointed that we hadn’t gotten to see the exciting conclusion of “Iron Man 3.” This is where having a high-speed Internet connection and a working knowledge of Usenet newsgroups comes in handy, and in short order we had a passable copy of the movie that enabled us to see the few scenes we’d missed.
Roni and Glenn used their free passes May 19 to enjoy the new “Star Trek Into Darkness” as part of a dinner date, one of the first we had been on together just the two of us in many years. Ben is holding out until November to use his free pass on “Thor: The Dark World,” another comic book action hero movie.
In late March we spent an afternoon cleaning out the garage and in the process liberated the 21-speed Schwinn bicycle Roni won in a drawing at the Oakley Almond Festival more that two decades ago. The bike had been ridden once or twice after we brought it home, but for most of its existence it had been an inconvenient nuisance adding to the clutter of the garage. Glenn recently had been thinking about hauling it out to use for exercise, and the occasion of cleaning the garage allowed us to rescue it from behind some toppled piles of boxes, old bedding material, and the ping pong table.
Although the bike was dusty from years of disuse, all the key components were present and in good repair. Glenn cleaned the frame and we went to Target to purchase a pump to reinflate the tires; they were totally flat but the rubber wheels looked good. The instructions said to inflate the tires from between 40 to 60 pounds of pressure. Glenn settled on 50 pounds, figuring that was right in the middle of the safe zone. With the first tire done, he proceeded to pump up the back tire until the needle on the pressure gauge hit 50, then BLAM! The brittle inner tube exploded like an overinflated birthday balloon. “Looks like we’re going back to the store for a new tube,” Glenn announced as he walked in from the garage. As if on cue, the second tire exploded. “Make that two new tubes.”
It was a minor setback, and with two fresh inner tubes installed, the bike was back in commission. Glenn has used it more than a dozen times since his first ride Easter Sunday, traveling along the Big Break and Marsh Creek regional trails through Oakley and Brentwood. He usually does about 7 miles when he heads out, but his longest ride was about 18 miles round trip along the Marsh Creek trail that took him past Balfour Road in Brentwood. The results haven’t been reflected on the scale yet, but he has been building his leg muscles from all the pedaling.
We’ve been turning our attention to the back yard once again as the weather improves. Next month we’ll tell you a little about some of our latest outdoor endeavors. Until next time, enjoy your Memorial Day weekend and the start of summer.