I’m a fourth-generation California farmer: My research is one reason to support the University of California

I might be just the kind of person the state’s founders envisioned when on March 23, 1868 – 150 years ago Friday – they chartered the University of California.

A fourth-generation California rice grower, I was able to go to a world-class university and pursue an advanced degree, thanks to California’s system of public higher education.

Now a graduate student at UC Davis, I’m developing sustainable farm practices that will help rice growers like my family do our job better, produce more food for Californians with less environmental impact and save farmers money.

Harvest at the rice farm in Willows that was built by the author’s great-grandfather, Kalu Khan. The family continues to operate it today. (photo: Telha Rehman / UC Davis)

It is work that is driven by my first-hand experiences with the challenges farmers face in the field – and made possible by having the world’s leading public research university just a short drive from my front door.

This week, I went to the state Capitol with other UC graduate students to urge state leaders to invest in graduate and undergraduate education and remind them why that support matters.

My family story dates back to 1906, when my great-grandfather, Kalu Khan, came to California from a small town in India with nothing to his name but a dream: to provide a better life for his descendants.

Through his relentless hard work and perseverance, he eventually became the proud owner of a 1,000-acre rice farm near Willows, which my family still farms. He also valued higher education so much that he included a decree in his will to ensure his descendants would be able to go to college.

His desire to help others is part of what motivated me to pursue a Ph.D.

Rice farmer Kalu Khan, seated, with his son Saddiq and business partner Atta Mohammed in 1949. Khan’s great-grandson, part of a farming family that now grows rice on 5,000 acres, is a Ph.D. student at UC Davis researching sustainable farming techniques. (courtesy photo: Telha H. Rehman)

Assessing the right time to apply fertilizer is a major challenge for farmers in California and across the country, which often results in the application of more fertilizer than is needed. At UC Davis, I am testing a system mounted on drones that could provide farmers with real-time data on just how much nitrogen their crops need at any given time.

The result could help them make smarter decisions, lowering cost, decreasing pollution and increasing crop yields.

But without the guidance, resources, and financial support I’ve received at UC Davis, none of this innovation would be possible.

Investing in students like me is a direct investment in the expertise, knowledge and new discoveries that will keep California’s economy thrumming.

UC’s graduate students spin out a start-up every two weeks and patent 600 new inventions a year. We lead research into areas critical to Californians’ lives and livelihoods, and bring it out into the community and, yes, out into the field. We also serve as the mentors and teaching assistants that allow the University of California to educate 212,000 undergraduate students.

But just as a farm requires constant investment and attention, so does the world’s leading public university.

A century and a half ago, the state’s founders saw the wisdom in investing in both the people and the ideas that would power California.

Today, that ongoing support is urgently needed to carry our history of innovation far into the future.

(Article by Telha Rehman, special to The Sacramento Bee, California Forum, March 22, 2018)

Telha Rehman, Plant Sciences Ph.D. student, UC Davis. (photo: Ann Filmer / UC Davis)

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