As a child, Irwin R. Donis-Gonzalez grew up on an avocado and dairy farm in Guatemala. It was there that he says he learned to appreciate what farming meant, where his food came from and the hard work that went into growing and harvesting everyday commodities. Now, Donis-Gonzalez is the assistant post-harvest engineering specialist at UC Davis, focusing on biological and agricultural technologies.
He and his team are looking into developing new dehydrating techniques that can aid farmers who grow almonds and walnuts. He’s also focused on finding more efficient ways to keep produce refrigerated so it can keep its nutrients intact before it arrives at the grocery store. The behind-the-scenes work Donis-Gonzalez does is mostly out in the orchards and in the fields that grow the foods we enjoy. But, his favorite place to be: working out in nature to improve the methods of modern day farming.
We took some time to learn more about Donis-Gonzalez via the interview below:
What drew you toward agricultural science?
I love nature. I figured I wanted to have a nice combination of being outside and enjoying nature and also protecting Mother Nature. So being in ag was an ideal scenario. We are impactful on the environment if we do things right and if we could be sustainable. I figured between being in nature and applying what I loved in engineering was a good happy-medium. I’ve always liked to do things with my hands, and with that, I felt like ag engineering was a good match.
What was it like growing up around avocados and on a dairy farm, seeing something go from seed to table?
When you’re in the field, you need to think outside of the box. It helped me to be proactive, to know how to solve problems in the field and also to not feel discouraged if things didn’t work out as we originally planned. My love for research and engineering came out of that uncertainty and learning to work with that uncertainty. Agriculture caters to that because plants, fruits and animals never behave the same and we need to be proactive and think outside of the box to be able to work in this field.
What is your current focus at UC Davis, is it new drying technology in regards to almonds?
As an ag engineer extension specialist, there are three main topics that I focus my program on and the first one is due to the local needs of California. As an example, almonds and drying in general, or dehydration of fresh commodities has been the focus of my field.
The most recent project that I’ve been involved in is a project related to drying almonds in the field. Almonds are not currently dehydrated using mechanical methods. They’re typically dehydrated on the orchard floor and this brings some uncertainty to the industry, especially with some changes in regulation regarding dust production while harvesting, potential food safety concerns (I say potentially because we haven’t demonstrated that it’s a full concern, but it could happen) and the other is change in climate with the weather changes.
Because of that, we’re getting rain when we weren’t getting rain before and the almond industry cannot afford to take the risk of losing their product. Therefore, we’re developing inexpensive techniques to dehydrate almonds in the field. With that said, I’ve done similar projects with walnuts. Walnuts, differ from almonds, and are very well established with their drying methods so what we’re trying to do is to improve what they’re currently doing: trying to improve the quality of their product, enhance the safety of their product, reduce energy consumption, and of course, increase their revenue.
How has labor within the industry changed throughout the years and will technology have an impact in the future?
So, on the topic of drying, it’s the number one reason behind California labor costs. Labor availability has significantly increased over the past 20 years, and therefore, the farmers have evolved from labor-intensive crops, to less labor-intensive crops such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios and so on. But that expansion, and that production, requires our expertise to develop the right techniques to continue producing higher volume of products that are being produced right now.
What additional techniques are you researching in your field?
The other two topics that I’ve been working on quite heavily are refrigeration and cooling of produce and transportation of cold products. The other would be sensing and non-invasive assessment of quality. So sensing of quality of the products as they’re being dehydrated, refrigerated, stored and so on. Those are the three main topics.
With California being a major producer of all of these commodities: fruit, nuts, rice and vegetables what would you say is the biggest threat to them?
I would say the two major threats for any production region in the world is 1) labor availability and labor cost and 2) climate change. This is devastating now for agricultural production and not only to California, but elsewhere. As you’re aware, from 2010-2015 we had one of the largest droughts in recorded history right here in California and that really affected how we produce commodities in this state. So labor and climate.
In your experience, how has climate change affected the yield of crops that you monitor?
I can’t provide you with exact numbers. But, I can give you examples in my field and what’s happened. For example, we harvest almonds in Northern California in Chico and over the next weekend [in early September] there is a big scare that we’re going to get a big storm, two inches of water in one day in a couple of hours. So any almond that’s in the field right now has the potential of being destroyed. I work with a facility in Chico called North State Hauling, this time of year they haul around 15,000 pounds of almonds every hour. They have two, 12-hour shifts and we have almonds waiting to be processed and we have the potential of losing all of that product before it’s even hauled. It could be quite significant due to climate if we experience excessive amounts of rains right now.
What are scientists doing to curb these effects? Does it go back to the work you’re doing?
We need to be prepared for the uncertain, and to be prepared for the uncertain we need to build the infrastructure that is sustainable, and at the same time, cost-effective to the industry. We need to offer solutions that they’re able to utilize in case this happens. That’ why having the right techniques to mechanically dehydrate almonds can provide them with the tool that reduces the risk.
Automation: Machines that are harvesting our produce, our crops. Would automation help harvest more efficiently and is it the solution to look toward in the future?
Definitely, automation and sensing are pivotal in our field and we’re way behind in comparison with other fields. In the department, we have the concept of SmartFarm or the future of farming, which is directly related to automation and sensing and we’re all in the same boat trying to make this happen.
How can we apply automation that caters to the needs of each commodity and each commodity group that’s sustainable and cost-effective? It’s a question that we need to address every day. Automation is one component that can definitely mitigate the negative effects of labor. It would require less labor to bring a product from point A to point B for the consumer. But, automation also brings different challenges. Now we need to train the future experts, our students, our farmers and our labor force needs to be trained to be able to deal and work with these automation methods. So whatever we can do to make that happen as an extension of faculty at the university, that’s our goal. Not only developing the techniques, but also training the people that will be using them in the future.
Are there any new developments coming down the pipeline that you’re currently working on?
Hopefully, we’ll develop new techniques for the almond industry that are not currently available to sustainably dehydrate almonds. Second, we’re also developing other techniques and sensing methods to better monitor the conditions of the production regions and the storage conditions of the fruits and tree nuts and so on.
The sensing techniques that we’re developing are nonexistent as well. I think that the more we go into our fields, the more we’re going to build upon those techniques, those drying techniques and alternative means of drying.
One project that we’re heavily involved in uses different concepts of drying. Desiccants drying, for example, instead of using heat, which is typically what we use, we can use desiccants to dehydrate the air. In other words, what we should expect is: We’ve been doing things in ag the same way for the past 70 to 100 years and that needs to change if we want to be competitive. To be competitive, you will see much more sensing techniques, automation techniques and better storage methods to keep our products longer and healthier.
What are desiccants?
Desiccants, it’s like those little packs of silica gel. We’re not using silica gel, but we’re using other desiccants such as ceramics-like beads that can absorb the moisture in the air. As we force that moist air through the beads it reduces its relative humidity. It could potentially increase the temperature of that air and then we use that dry air to dehydrate our products. This hasn’t been formally applied in the field, but we’re developing the techniques to make that happen. That’s one example of something that we’re evaluating that could potentially be out in the field some time soon.
What should consumers know most about the food that they eat and what it takes to get it to their dinner table?
One of the toughest jobs in the world is being a farmer. In farming, I mean, anything related to food production. That includes dairy, that includes meat production, that includes fruits, whatever. All this is done by people who are really passionate about what they do and if we can transfer this to the consumer and if they can understand that this requires a lot of effort to bring that food to your table then we can be a little more conscious and the consumer can better understand what is the positive effect of agriculture and how tough it is to produce what we’re consuming.
Almond production has more than doubled since the early 2000s, according to Irwin R. Donis-Gonzalez who has seen the industry grow from 400,000 acres of orchards in California to 1.1 million acres in 2019 alone. The dehydrating and drying techniques of this household tasty snack developed at UC Davis will be imperative to keep up with the growing demand.
New Innovator Spotlights will appear soon, featuring the innovators and change makers in the sustainable food and ag innovation space. If you know of someone we should be covering, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author: Steph Rodriguez is an award-winning journalist and dining editor at the Sacramento News & Review who enjoys crafting stories that mirror the vast and diverse culture of the region. She’s also a two-time scholarship recipient with the Sacramento Press Club and keeps a close eye on the latest in food and agriculture news throughout the Farm-to-Fork Capital. Follow her on Twitter: @Wordstospill.