Agronomy at UC Davis is always ranked in the top 1 or 2 universities at world level (together with the University of Wageningen, Netherlands). Helene Dillard, who visited Santiago at the end of October, is in charge of its successful College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.
“The relationship between California and Chile is a natural one. We have similarities including: the crops we grow, wine we enjoy, and climates that are conducive for production of many plant and animal products. We have opportunities to learn from our ecological systems and conservation practices because our landscapes are similar,” comments Dillard who has been in the post for nearly five years.
The dean adds concrete examples of possible collaborations between both territories: “I think together we can learn how to adapt to climate change and develop more water use efficiencies. Adaptation to climate change and efficient use of water are two of the most important problems we can collaborate on”
During the two days of activities in the Chilean capital, the Ph.D. in plant pathology at UC Davis, held an interesting dialogue with her Chilean peers. At the invitation of the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Alfonso Vargas, she talked to the directors of the agencies of the Ministry of Agriculture. She also had a meeting with representatives of the institutions and associate companies of UC Davis Chile – INIA and the universities Andres Bello, del Desarrollo, de Talca, Tarapaca and Santa Maria – and VSPT Wine Group. In her agenda she also had time to meet and discuss with directors of the foundations “Mar Adentro” (Offshore) and “Chile Lagos Limpios” (Chile for Clean Lakes), both institutions which collaborate with UC Davis Chile in projects related to the conservation of the country’s natural and environmental patrimony.
From her position, doctor Dillard oversees fifteen departments, several centers and institutes, more than 7,000 undergraduate students, and 381 faculties which perform research in different areas of agriculture, environment, humanities and social sciences. “We have worked very hard to recruit high performing faculty, staff, and students. Once they arrive, we provide them with support and resources as best we can to insure they will be successful. This includes upgrading our facilities and equipment for faculty, and providing scholarships and academic advising for students,” highlights Dillard, whose undergraduate degree is Biology of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley.
Dillard considers that a “unique success factor” of the faculty she heads “has been the ability for faculty to work in interdisciplinary teams to create solutions to real world problems.” She then gives examples of initiatives focusing on the reality of Californian, but reproducible in other territories. She comments on the problems generated by burning – and consequently contamination- of the rice stubble which remains after the harvest of this cereal in the fields, a crop of great relevance in the United States and in particular, in California, (with 550 thousand cultivated acres or 222 thousand highly productive hectares). “Hydrologists, plant scientists, wildlife biologists, and ecologists worked together to find an environmentally friendly way to decompose rice stubble,” says.
She also highlights the development of a harvester for processing tomatoes, a crop which takes up approximately 250 thousand acres of California (more than 100 thousand hectares). “Accomplishing this task required plant breeders, soil scientists, and engineers to work together to develop processing tomato plants with the characteristics to withstand mechanical harvesting,” explains Dillard, who before entering UC Davis, worked at Cornell University, carrying a 50 percent research and 50 percent extension assignment.
Meanwhile other researchers respond to a more global outlook. “Several of our faculty are working on developing drought and heat tolerant crops. This is a critical area of need as our climate continues to change and we experience more frequent years of drought. Some faculties are researching environmentally sustainable ways to grow livestock while simultaneously providing ecosystem services that benefit the Earth.”
The communication of science also plays a key role in Dillard’s plans. “Other faculties are studying ways to better communicate science to the public and decision makers, so that everyone has a greater understanding of how new technologies can help us achieve greater sustainability,” she notes.
Whilst technology is also essential: “There is also a strong emphasis to promote agriculture technologies, through a new initiative in the college called the ‘Smart Farm.’ Faculty engaged in the Smart Farm initiative will teach students about new technologies and innovations, and conduct research on how these technologies and innovations can provide production and environmental benefits to agriculture.”