UC Food Blog
UC Global Food Initiative student fellows from University of California campuses throughout the state gathered for a springtime field trip in the Central Valley to learn more about the relationships between food, farming and the environment.
The day-long tour, hosted by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, began at a farm that is maintained to support wildlife in the breezy Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta region. The GFI fellows also viewed a habitat restoration project at LangeTwins Winery then watched freshly harvested cherries being processed at Morada Produce's packing plant. They wrapped up the day with a tour of a demonstration garden and a discussion of nutrition education at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Stockton.
UC President Janet Napolitano, who, along with UC's 10 chancellors, launched the Global Food Initiative in 2014, met with the 17 fellows for lunch at LangeTwins Winery.
“We started the Global Food Initiative several years ago with the goal of creating a pathway to a sustainable, nutritious food future for the planet. A small, modest goal,” Napolitano said, adding that she is excited to learn about the fellows' projects.
The GFI fellows are working on projects that range from raising awareness about food production to analyzing the effects of climate change on pollination, and from efforts to make soils safe for growing food in urban areas to using food waste to fuel batteries.
UC Merced senior Ever Serna's GFI project is to educate his fellow college students about where food comes from, before it gets to the grocery store.
“The tour gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation about how food is developed and grown,” he said. “I think when I eat vegetables and fruits, I'm going to be more conscious of what I eat now.”
Reid Johnsen, a third-year Ph.D. student in agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley, Global Food Initiative fellow for UC ANR, and participant in the Graduate Students in Extension program, is working with UC Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County to study ranchers' preferences for different payment structures for conservation easement to compensate them for the ecosystem services provided by their land.
“To be able to see agriculture in action makes such a difference to me, to see the way the crops are produced and the variety that's out here,” said Johnsen. “The diversity of crops was not something I was aware of before coming on this trip.”
“I thought it was interesting to see a lot of different agricultural production systems,” said UC Santa Barbara senior and campus GFI ambassador Bryn Daniel, who works with student activists on student food access and housing security issues.
In addition to learning more about food production, the outing gave the fellows an opportunity to network with peers from other campuses.
“That's what I liked about today's meeting, just meeting everybody and getting these fantastic connections,” said Ryan Dowdy, a third-year Ph.D. student at UC Davis who is converting food waste into energy-producing microbial fuel cells.
“I think this program, and especially the fellowship, is really important for young scientists who dive into this really huge subject of global food,” said Claudia Avila, a graduate student at UC Riverside who studies trace metals in urban agricultural soils.
Best kept secret
In welcoming the UC GFI fellows, Glenda Humiston, UC vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said, “I have a feeling a lot of you aren't familiar with our division. As I travel around the state to different campuses, I keep being told that we're the best kept secret, which I personally do not think is a good thing."
She explained that agricultural research has been part of the University of California since the land-grant institution's beginning in 1868 in Oakland. UC ANR has researchers on the Berkeley, Davis and Riverside campuses and UC Cooperative Extension advisors in the county offices, she said, adding, “Here in California, our advisors have very robust research programs.”
Farms are wildlife habitat
Michelle Leinfelder-Miles, UC Cooperative Extension delta crops advisor, introduced Dawit Zeleke, associate director of conservation farms and ranches for The Nature Conservancy, who explained why he farms 9,200 acres of corn, triticale, potatoes, alfalfa and irrigated pasture to enhance foraging habitat for sandhill cranes and other wildlife on Staten Island. The Nature Conservancy partners with UC Cooperative Extension along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Water Resources, Oregon State University, UC Merced and UC Davis to study the relationships between agriculture and natural resources.
The Pacific Flyway for migrating birds passes over the delta. “Eighty percent of waterfowl depend on agriculture for food,” Zeleke said. After wheat harvest, they flood the fields. “You should see it in September, October, November and December. Thousands of birds, ten thousand cranes use this place for habitat.”
Lodi region is zin-ful
En route to lunch, Paul Verdegaal, UC Cooperative Extension viticulture advisor for San Joaquin County, described the Lodi region's wine industry. There are about 750 growers, many of which are small family operations. While 10 to 15 acres used to be typical vineyard size, most have 100 acres to be sustainable and one family member works at an outside job.
“Agriculture is a tough job and there is no guaranteed income,” Verdegaal said.
About 40 percent of the zinfandel in California is grown in the Lodi region, but there are several wine grape varieties planted.
Pointing out the bus window to a vineyard interplanted with a crimson clover cover crop, Verdegaal said, “We do see interest in using as few chemicals as possible and using techniques of the integrated pest management program.”
After eating lunch at LangeTwins Winery in Acampo, the GFI fellows took a tour of the winery with the fourth- and fifth-generation owners, Randy Lange and Aaron Lange. The Langes are founding members of the Lodi Rules Program, which helps growers produce grapes and wines in a manner that is environmentally respectful, socially sensitive and economically sound. They pointed out an array of solar panels covering the grape press room that provide electricity. The Langes are planting native plants around the winery to reduce sedimentation, improve water quality and restore wildlife habitat along the Mokelumne River.
Bing is king of cherries
When the GFI fellows visited at the end of April, sweet cherry harvest had just begun in Bakersfield area orchards, and cherries were being packed and shipped in San Joaquin County.
“Hemmed in by rain to the north and heat to the south, cherry season is only eight to 10 weeks long,” said Joe Grant, emeritus UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for San Joaquin County.
“While the Bing variety is still the mainstay of the California cherry industry because of its excellent eating and shipping quality,” said Grant, “acreage of other high quality and earlier-maturing varieties has increased in recent years to lengthen the harvest season. But Bing is still king.” Asked about the effects of climate change on cherries, Grant explained that warmer temperatures are reducing the number of winter chilling hours, which cherries need.
The fellows saw the hand-picked fruit being processed for packing at Morada Produce, a family farm in Linden that also grows walnuts, peppers and onions.
“Keeping produce cold is key to maintaining quality,” said Scott Brown, Morada's production manager, as the fellows watched fresh, cold water rain down onto the freshly picked sweet cherries. The leaves and stems floating to the top were removed as the red clusters glided in the water to the cluster cutter, which gently separated the clusters into individual cherries. Gently conveyed through the plant in flowing water, the cherries were sorted by size and quality at the highly mechanized facility. Air ejectors spit out rejected fruit, so only 70 percent makes it into a packed box.
“Fruit picked on Monday is packed Tuesday, then shipped to Korea, Japan, Australia and other export markets to be eaten by Friday,” Brown said.
The fellows were fascinated to see the steps taken to ensure high-quality cherries are cooled, sorted and packaged for shipping to stores and consumers.
“It was just so much more complicated than I knew,” said Jess Gambel, a third-year Ph.D. student at UC San Diego who is studying the effects of climate change on bee pollination in squash plants.
The tour wrapped up at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Stockton, with a discussion about how UC CalFresh and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program help low-income Californians attain adequate nutrition and food security, followed by a tour of the demonstration garden maintained by the UC Master Gardener Program volunteers.
“There are more pollutants in urban runoff than in ag runoff,” said Karrie Reid, UC Cooperative Extension landscape horticulture advisor in San Joaquin County. Reid described how she and the UC Master Gardeners work with home and community gardeners to reduce pesticide and water use, and noted that a Water Use Classification of Landscape Species plant list, based on UC research, is available to help gardeners choose landscape plants.
“As a soil scientist, I really appreciated the recurring emphasis on soils as the foundation for agriculture,” said a fourth-year Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and GFI fellow with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “From talking with The Nature Conservancy farm operator about how they were conserving carbon in those soils and doing wetlands management to hearing about special properties of the sandy loam soil in this part of the county, and talking with the Master Gardener folks about soil contamination issues.”
This is the third class of GFI student fellows. The undergraduate and graduate student fellows, representing all 10 UC campuses plus UC Agriculture and Natural Resources and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, have helped further UC's Global Food Initiative efforts to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world's growing population by working on food-related projects and raising awareness of this critical issue.
Did you know that a banana tree is not really a tree? It's a giant perennial bulb that grows to maturity in less than a year, producing one flower that becomes one huge bunch of bananas. I learned this fact last month from banana growers while visiting the home of organic bananas, the Dominican Republic.
I was invited by a US AID Farmer-to-Farmer project to spend a couple of weeks as a volunteer in the Dominican Republic, primarily to work with the Banelino Banana Cooperative. Banelino is a banana production and exporting company comprised of approximately 320 mostly small-scale banana producers in the northwest section of the country, near the border with Haiti. All producers are certified, or seeking, organic, fair trade, or Global Gap certifications.
Eighty percent of the bananas grown by Banelino are certified organic, and most of them are fair trade certified. The primary export destination for Dominican Republic organic bananas is Europe.
The growers have been impacted by climate change problems, including strong winds, more frequent and intense droughts and record high temperatures. My assignment, based on my work as UC Cooperative Extension Agritourism Coordinator, was to help Banelino assess the potential for successful agritourism development to diversify their income and carry them through hard times.
Like farmers all over the world, the Banelino banana growers have a story to share with visitors. Part of the story is the fascinating revelation of the annual growth cycle of the banana plant; the other part of the story is about the community. I learned the true meaning for the words "fair trade." With the premium, or the added income, that Banelino receives by selling in the fair trade program, the company is able to provide schools, clinics and other social programs for the banana grower and banana worker families. We visited schools and talked with teachers, seeing primary grades classes smaller than most California classes, with children engaged in learning. We visited a school for special needs students, paid for through the Banelino fair trade income, that was so modern and well-equipped it would be the envy of most California special education teachers. It had a colorful art room and a fully equipped, small-scale bakery with mixers and ovens for a training program for the older youth.
Also, like other farmers around the world, Banelino growers have a challenge developing a program to attract paying visitors to tour the farms and learn their stories. They will need to create signs and brochures in multiple languages for their visitors. They will need to work with a local marketing professional to develop a website and social media marketing campaign. They will have to analyze their costs and price their tour so that they don't lose money in the efforts. They will need to connect with the local tourism community and get included in visitor guides and tourism maps. They will need to offer familiarization tours to travel agents, tour leaders and hotel staff to entice them to refer tourists from the all-inclusive beach resorts three hours' drive away. They will have to work with their local hotel association to create an attractive itinerary for visitors to the region - enough attractions to keep guests overnight in hotels - to justify the three-hour drive.
Like farmers everywhere who are considering agritourism, the Banelino banana growers will soon be part of the hospitality industry. They have a wonderful story to share of a hard-working and warm-hearted community. Please look them up if you visit the Dominican Republic.
Almost all pomegranates grown in the United States are one variety: Wonderful. John Chater, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside, wants to change that.
He would like to broaden the varieties of pomegranates available so that someone going to a supermarket can, like apples, buy varieties of pomegranates that vary in sweetness, seed hardness, flavor profile and color.
With that in mind, he has spent the last four years researching the commercial potential of 13 pomegranate varieties, and also started breeding new types of pomegranates.
He has field trials set up in Riverside and Somis, just east of Ventura, so he can evaluate the difference between coastal and inland climates. He has also chemically analyzed the juice of the varieties for quality.
Preliminarily, Chater, who is a 2016 University of California Global Food Initiative student fellow, has identified seven pomegranate varieties that have commercial juice potential. Three of them – Blaze, Phoenicia, and Purple Heart – were developed by his grandfather, who was a mechanic at a hospital but developed a cult following among fruit growers in California for developing new varieties of pomegranates.
Here are some of the pluses and minuses of each variety compared to Wonderful:
Al Sirin Nar: Large fruit, with hard seeds, soft peel, and large arils. With its sweet-tart juice, it could be useful for juice applications. Seeds may be too hard to be sold as a whole fruit.
Blaze: Medium sized fruit, juice more sweet than tart. Fruit similar to Wonderful. Could serve coastal and inland growers. Has potential to be sold as a whole fruit.
Desertnyi: Soft-seeded, medium sized fruit with ornamental quality. Delicious balanced flavor that has been described as citrus-like. Trees seem to may need trellis or rootstocks for commercial production. Has potential to be sold as a whole fruit.
Parfianka: Soft seeded variety with sweet-tart to sweet flavor. Very precocious in the field and on both inland and on the coast. This variety is an international favorite for its refreshing flavor and soft seeds. Has potential to be sold as a whole fruit.
Phoenicia: Large fruit with medium to hard seeds. Fruit multicolored with yellow, pink, and reds. Sweet-tart flavor with a tartness that consumers enjoy. Fruit seems to keep well in storage.
Purple Heart: Medium-sized red fruit that has dark red juice and arils. Fruit and juice similar to ‘Wonderful'. Sold as ‘Sharp Velvet' at Dave Wilson Nursery.
Sakerdze: Large fruit, with hard seeds, soft peel, and large arils. Juice is sweet to sweet tart. Fruit can be pinkish to red.
Dedicated growers and research support from the University of California have made avocados a California success story. As part of the UC Global Food Initiative, which is channeling UC resources toward sustainably feeding the world's growing population, the California avocado experience can help alleviate food insecurity and poverty overseas.
Two UC Cooperative Extension specialists found a way to do that in Tanzania, Africa, where 69 percent of the population live below the poverty line and 16 percent of children under 5 are malnourished. In March 2017, UCCE biocontrol specialist Mark Hoddle and UCCE subtropical crops specialist Mary Lu Arpaia traveled to the east African nation to help growers there with their fledgling avocado industry.
In the late 19th Century, German missionaries introduced avocados to Tanzania when it was colonized by this European nation. Germany lost influence over the African country following World War I, but huge non-commercial avocado trees still thrive in the landscape.
Recently, attempts at commercial production growing the popular Hass variety are gaining momentum.
With proximity to a European market hungry for fresh avocados, Rungwe Avocado Company planted 250 acres of the Hass variety in the southern highlands around Mbeya near Lake Malawi, which establishes the border of south western Tanzania with Zambia and Malawi. In order to grow production to a level that would make the export to Europe practical and to support rural residents with a viable business option, approximately 3,700 small landholder farmers, known as outgrowers, were recruited to grow avocados. They manage small plots with as few as 20 trees to larger acreage with more than 200 trees, with participating farms ranging in elevation from 1,200 to nearly 6,000 feet.
However, this fledgling industry is experiencing production challenges, prompting the company to contact UC Cooperative Extension. UC faculty, specialists and advisors have conducted research on Hass avocados for decades in California and worked closely with growers to extend information that has supported the development of an industry with high-yielding trees producing premium fruit valued at more than $400 million per year.
“One of the aims of the Global Food Initiative is to deploy UC's best research and extension practices to address the key challenge of improving food production,” Arpaia said. “That's why we went to Tanzania.”
Hoddle and Arpaia visited growers, extension technicians, packing house managers and logistics experts. They identified production, pest management and fruit handling challenges faced by the avocado industry.
“The situation in Tanzania is quite different than California, and also different compared to Central and South America, where we have also worked on avocado production issues,” Hoddle said. “But we identified familiar issues that affect management for which there are solutions.”
Hoddle examined the Tanzanian avocado trees and fruit, and collected insect specimens. He said the insect damage was minimal at the time of the week long visit.
“That surprised me because of the insect biodiversity in Africa,” he said. “There was little evidence of heavy leaf feeding. There was some evidence of fruit damage caused by insect feeding on the skin, but they don't seem to have fruit boring weevils or caterpillars that we commonly see in parts of Mexico, Central and South America.”
A critical issue is extending entomological information to the outlying farmers to improve their ability to identify and manage beneficial insects and crop pests.
“They don't have the magnifying loops, collecting vials and insect boxes that we regularly use for insect identification,” Hoddle said. “I showed them my Leatherman tool, which can be used to open up fruit and look for damage. They need these basic tools.”
A post-harvest expert, Arpaia was able to identify ways to improve picking, handling, storage and shipping practices that would result in top quality fruit arrival in Europe.
The two scientists produced a report, which emphasized the need to provide outlying growers with basic equipment and agronomic information.
“We want to help them be better avocado farmers so the crop can be a greater contributor to the country's economy,” Arpaia said. “Boosting this industry will also give people all over Tanzania the opportunity to add nutritious avocados to their diets.”
When United States Congressman Jim Costa learned about the federally funded nutrition education programs being offered in his district, he made plans to visit.
He wanted a first-hand experience with UC CalFresh, in which UC Cooperative Extension educators visit classrooms to share new foods, teach healthy eating strategies and demonstrate physical activity to children and low-income families.
In April, Congressman Costa not only met a group second graders at La Vina School in Madera County, their teacher Veronica Nava, and principal Jesus Navarro, he tucked in his tie and blended healthful ingredients like black beans, bell peppers and fresh mangos into the salad for the children to taste.
"I grew up in a rural area like you, and went to a wonderful school, like the one you're going to," Costa told the children. "You're lucky to have classes like this. It's so important to have good eating habits."
Costa said it was an honor to represent the second-graders and their parents in Washington, D.C.
"Can you do me a favor?" he asked. "I want you to be the best you can be. If you do well in what you do, America will be a better country."
Before leaving, Costa led the children in the 4-H Pledge:
My head to clearer thinking,
My heart to greater loyalty,
My hands to larger service,
My health to better living
for my club, my community,
my country and my world.
As a youth, Costa was a member of 4-H, a youth development program offered to children aged 9 to 19 by UC Cooperative Extension.
Congressman Costa mixed up the following recipe for the students:
- 1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups peeled, pitted and diced fresh mango (about 2 small mangos)
- 1/4 cup sliced green onions
- 1/4 cup chopped bell pepper
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 2 tablespoons 100% orange juice
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
Mix together all ingredients in a large bowl. Salad may be served right away, but is best if covered and chilled for a least 1 hour for flavors to blend.