UC Food Blog
Farmer Arian Williams is successfully tending 16 acres of avocados in the De Luz area of Temecula, but he and his wife came to the 10th annual UC Pitahaya Festival in August to see whether there is commercial potential in producing pitahaya.
"We're taking cuttings, and trying it now," Williams said.
Vanessa Caballero, Williams wife, was enthusiastic about the prospect. "I love the way pitahayas look, and there are not too many grown commercially now," she said.
The field day at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine included research-based presentations on irrigation strategies, gopher control, integrated pest management, and the impact of root knot nematode on the vining, climbing pitahaya cacti. Native to Central America, the crop has become popular in Asia and the Middle East. Most of the fruit sold in the U.S. is imported.
UC Cooperative Extension advisor Ramiro Lobo has found that the unusually beautiful fruiting cactus thrives in Southern California's mild climate. Pitahaya do well in regions where avocados are produced, but use much less water. They can also make excellent landscape plants, adding interest to the garden while producing healthful fruit.
Pitahaya fruit begin as large, showy, nighttime-blooming flowers, each of which contain male and female parts. In many of the most-desirable varieties, the anthers (the male part with pollen) and the stigma (the female part that needs to be pollinated) are separated by a distance that prevents night-flying pollinators, such as moths, from consistently making the connection.
For a uniform and bountiful crop, Lobo suggests hand pollination. Pollen can be collected by shaking a bloom over a bowl or trimming the anthers into a cup with a pair of scissors. He stores pollen in the freezer until the night or early morning hours when cacti bloom. He dabs up pollen with an inexpensive makeup brush and lightly swishes it onto the flowers' stigma.
“It's easy and takes just a few seconds per flower," Lobo said. "If you don't hand pollinate, you end up with fruits that are very small. And uniformity isn't there."
Hand pollination also allows farmers to accurately project their pitahaya harvest and work in advance with fruit marketing companies to sell the crop. Lobo said he carries a mechanical counter to click as he pollinates flowers. Forty days later, that precise number of fruit will be ready for harvest.
Excitement over the new Sunpreme raisins was evident at UC Kearney Grape Day Aug. 8, 2017. As soon as the tram stopped, dozens of farmers and other industry professionals rushed over to the vineyard to take a close look and sample the fruit. Raisins pulled from the vine were meaty with very little residual seed. The flavor was a deep, sweet floral with a muscat note.
Sunpreme raisins, bred by now-retired USDA breeder David Ramming, promise a nearly labor-free raisin production system. Traditionally, raisins are picked and placed on paper trays on the vineyard floor to dry. The development of dried-on-the-vine varieties opened the door to greater mechanization. Workers would cut the stems above clusters of grapes, which then dry out in the canopy and are harvested mechanically. The new wrinkle with Sunpreme is that grapes ripen and then start to dry on their own - no cane cutting needed.
UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist Matthew Fidelibus and UCCE viticulture advisor George Zhuang are now studying the performance of Sunpreme grapes on different rootstocks and trellis systems at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
"We didn't know a lot about this variety," Fidelibus said. "We've found it to be very vigorous."
Fidelibus said the raisins take about a month to dry, and one challenge is the tendency for dried raisins to drop off the vine.
"We want to keep the self drying and stop self dropping," he said.
Ramming discovered the Sunpreme variety in a Thompson seedless table grape variety trial in the mid-1990s. He was going down the row, saw clusters of raisins and screeched to a stop. He had discovered Sunpreme. The variety is not yet available for commercial production.
Fighting nematodes with new solutions
Also during Grape Day 2017, UC Cooperative Extension nemotology specialist Andreas Westphal outlined research underway to keep nematodes at bay.
"There's no methyl bromide in commercial planting," Westphal said. The very effective fumigant was banned because of it's tendency to deplete ozone in the atmosphere and the risk to human health because of its toxicity. Many farmers have turned to Telone as an alternative, however it is expensive and its use is limited by a township cap.
Westphal is comparing alternative treatments for clearing the soil of the tiny worms that feed on vine roots and inhibit vineyard productivity.
"Some companies are coming up with new chemistry," Westphal said. "Our challenge in the perennial world is that the roots go so deep."
Seven new products and Telon were drenched in different replicated research plots. Some areas were left alone to serve as control. Three times the number of Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in the plots compared to a typical vineyard so researchers could take out plants twice and examine the roots for evidence of pests.
"We are excited to see significant growth differences among the treatments," Westphal said, pointing out a row that was visibly shorter and less vigorous. "It amazed me. Three years after treatment, and it never grew back out of it."
Work is still ongoing, but Westphal said he believes some chemical treatment could be available in the future to help reduce nematode pressure.
To deal with nematode populations, Westphal encouraged growers to sample soil and communicate with the diagnostic laboratory to determine what pest nematodes are in their vineyards, and then use that information for root stock selection.
"Growers should not forget the value of nematode-resistant rootstocks," he said. "Plant material needs to be chosen very carefully when different species of nematodes are present."
In today's food system, large scale food distribution has become the standard way food moves from farm to market. The system works well to feed a lot of people, and has allowed us to eat tomatoes in December and send produce far distances while keeping it fresh. But the system is not without its sacrifices.
Through large scale food distribution, farmers can lose the ability to set their own prices, and small-scale farmers can be cut out from the system for not being able to fill high volume orders. On the consumer side, this system can make local food harder to find and identify. Institutions interested in providing locally grown produce at their cafeterias may need the efficiency buying from large distributors provides, but find they're unable to source food the way they'd like.
Food hubs are businesses popping up around California and the U.S. trying to create a food distribution system that supports regional food systems. By aggregating food from small and mid-sized farms and selling it to large businesses and institutions, food hubs are able to help realize the consumer's desire for local food while helping small and mid-sized farmers succeed by connecting them with buyers who may otherwise be out of reach.
To help ease the challenge of starting these unique businesses, a network of food hubs in California, organized by the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, is learning how to conquer their business start-up and growth challenges together.
Food hubs as business innovators
Thomas Nelson, president and co-founder of Capay Valley Farm Shop, a food hub in California's Capay Valley, has built his business around a vision of a thriving regional food system where small farmers succeed. Thomas purchases food from 50 different farms in and near the Capay Valley, and sells primarily to corporate food service in the Bay Area.
“Our model is farmer-focused," Thomas said. “Farmers set the price for their food, and we add on our margin. We help tell the story of the farms so that their identity is kept throughout the supply chain. We let our buyers know about new products or new farms we're working with, and our buyers ask for produce by farm name.”
Thomas works closely with his 50 farmers, helping them plan their crops to best meet the demands of their clients, and working with the beginning farmers to get them through the hurdle of learning how to sell wholesale.
“It can be a challenge to accurately predict the next harvest,” Thomas said. “And it's our responsibility to mitigate some of those risks for the buyers as much as possible, but our buyers also get it. The reason they choose to work with the food hubs is they want to support local farms. What really makes this work are shared values.”
Thomas is one member of a new statewide food hubs network created in collaboration with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP), a statewide program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources whose work includes improving marketing opportunities for small farmers. The network, funded in part by the UC Global Food Initiative, brings together food hub mangers to learn from one another and collectively pave the way for successful food hubs in California.
The food hub business model is a relatively young one, few food hubs existed in the United States before 2008. Today, hundreds are in business across the country, and they're all trying to figure out similar things: how to best work with farmers and customers to make the business model effective, how to run a food business in a regulation-laden environment, how to increase efficiency without sacrificing price, quality, and the value of local agriculture.
“Food hubs are really working with farmers in their local areas to help them reach markets beyond selling directly at the farmers' market,” said Gwenaël Engelskirchen, who leads the food hub projects at UC SAREP. “We brought a group of northern California food hubs together for their first convening in February of 2015 and they realized that they all had a lot to learn from each other. They realized that there's opportunity in them working together.”
There's a hashtag on Twitter for what they're doing: #collabatition, or, collaborating with your competition. UC SAREP acts as the organizing body for the food hub network — coordinating resources to help the hubs wade through the many rules and regulations of operating a food business, and working through the visions of their own businesses and the network collectively.
“This is a newish space, so there is a ton to learn and share,” Thomas said. “By having a network we are supporting each other on the journey of growing successful businesses that serve local farms and regional buyers. Working with UC SAREP, we can have conversations with larger buyers that would be hard for us independently to access.”
One of those potential larger buyers is an organization close to home — the kitchens of the University of California.
“UC SAREP plans to interview kitchen directors from UC campuses all around the state to see what keeps them from buying local food, and whether the food hub business model is one that can support the desire they have to incorporate local food into their kitchens,” Gwenaël said.
And past successes show that food hubs can play an important role in linking UC dining programs with local farms. According to a recent report from the UC Global Food Initiative, through a relationship with the food hub Harvest Santa Barbara, UC Santa Barbara is currently able to source 23 percent of its produce from within 150 miles of campus.
“By linking UC food buyers with food hubs, we want to see if that success can be replicated around California," Gwenaël said. "In 2014, UC Santa Barbara alone served nearly three million meals, so the entire UC becoming a local produce buyer could be a major boon to regional food systems.”
The UC SAREP website offers a number of resources that can assist food hubs as well as farmers looking to see their produce wholesale. Find those resources here. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on food hubs in the next issue of California Agriculture journal.
It's that time already when the kids start heading back to school and meals go back to a strict schedule. It can be easy to turn to take-out and other convenience foods to make meal times more manageable, especially during the rush of back-to-school. However, there's a long school year ahead and focusing on good habits now can set the tone for the next nine months. The old adage that “food is fuel” rings true - healthy choices help kids maintain a healthy weight, avoid health problems, manage energy levels, and sharpen their minds.
How can we reinforce healthy eating habits during the hustle and bustle of back-to-school?
School gardening offers children opportunities to get outdoors and exercise while teaching them a useful skill. Gardens containing fruits and vegetables can revise attitudes about particular foods; there is even a correlation between growing fruits and vegetables and consumption of these products. Gardens are likely to transform food attitudes and habits and in school gardens this can be especially impactful when combined with nutrition education.
In addition to health and nutrition benefits, gardening also offers hands-on experiences in a variety of core curriculum which includes natural and social sciences, language arts, nutrition and math. This can play a big part in supporting your kids' education outside of the classroom.
Benefits of school gardening:
- Physical health
- Social and emotional health
- Academic achievement
- School and community benefits
- Enhance nutritional preferences, and
- Increased self-esteem
Learn more with the UC Master Gardener Program
The UC Master Gardener Program is a community of volunteers across California, under the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, that extends research-based information on gardening to the public. If your school does not have a school garden program, contact the UC Master Gardener Program in your county to learn about the possibility of new school garden programming and other garden-education you and your children can participate in.
The UC Master Gardener Program can connect you with local community gardens, and or provide the information you need to get started with your own school or home garden. Many programs have relationships with local schools to support garden-based education.
“Dig it, Grow it, Eat it”
The UC Master Gardener Program in Marin County hosts a portable field trip for school-age youth called “Dig it, Grow it, Eat it.” This award-winning program emphasizes engagement and the many learning opportunities that take place in nature. Youth learn all about growing edible plants from seed to harvest and educators get the support of University-trained UC Master Gardener volunteers to deliver the curriculum.
Whether or not you already have a school garden program your family can engage in, reach out to the UC Master Gardener Program to get the help and information you need to inspire healthy eating and an active lifestyle in your children. Now is a great time to plan and plant your winter garden, just in time to get your kids back to school and excited to be learning … wherever that learning takes place!
The UC Master Gardener volunteers are eager to help with all of your gardening needs. The UC Master Gardener Program can work with teachers and community volunteers to provide gardening information and consultation in the support of school gardens. With local programs based in more than 50 counties across California, there is sure to be a workshop or class near you. Visit our website to find your local UC Master Gardener Program, mg.ucanr.edu.
Planted in a corner of the UC Davis campus is a display of technologies and vegetable crops that researchers with the Horticulture Innovation Lab have been using with farmers in Africa, Asia and Central America. Led by UC ANR's Elizabeth Mitcham in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, this program harnesses the agricultural expertise of a network of U.S. university researchers to improve how farmers in developing countries grow fruits and vegetables.
More often than not, the learning goes both ways: Adapting solutions for farmers on another continent can spark ideas that might be useful back home too.
So while the Horticulture Innovation Lab's Demonstration Center was built to showcase international work to campus visitors, you wouldn't be the first to wonder, “Would this technology work on a California farm too?”
Recently a team from UC Cooperative Extension in Fresno County — led by Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for small farms in Fresno and Tulare counties — worked with the Horticulture Innovation Lab to learn how to build one of these technologies, to try out with local farmers.
The low-cost technology they built, called a “chimney solar dryer,” combines continuous air flow with solar heat to dry fresh produce more efficiently than a traditional solar dryer. It was designed by the innovative duo Michael Reid and Jim Thompson, both emeritus specialists with UC Cooperative Extension who have worked on multiple inventions with the Horticulture Innovation Lab. The chimney solar dryer is usually built with basic materials, such as plywood, dark plastic, clear plastic, and food-grade mesh. Read more about how the chimney solar dryer can help farmers add value to crop surplus (PDF).
Here is a quick look at a couple of other technologies that visitors can see at the demonstration center:
This solar-powered cold room uses a tool designed by an American farmer, called a CoolBot. In a well-insulated room, a CoolBot can trick a household air conditioner into bringing temperatures down low enough for cool storage of fresh produce. Cooling fruits and vegetables soon after harvest from the field can reduce postharvest losses and extend shelf life. So far teams with the Horticulture Innovation Lab have used the CoolBot with farmers in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and Honduras.
The zero-energy cool chamber (known as ZECC) is a simple structure built from brick and sand that can help cool fresh produce, in conditions where evaporative cooling is effective. By regularly wetting the sand and brick, farmers or even marketers can keep the temperatures low and the humidity high for fresh produce such as leafy greens. Researchers with the Horticulture Innovation Lab have been testing what specific conditions — such as hot, arid climates with easy access to water — make this tool effective for farmers to use to cool their fresh fruits and vegetables.
More information about the ZECC is available from the UC Postharvest Technology Center.
Recent visits to the Horticulture Innovation Lab's demonstration center have come in many shapes and sizes — from people walking by who stopped to read some of the signs, to group activities planned in advance. Recent tours of the center have included a delegation of deans from agricultural colleges in Ethiopia, a television news crew from Tajikistan and high school students from California learning about innovation and human-centered design.
Maybe it will spark an innovative idea that you can use in your fields?
- More recent blog posts about the Horticulture Innovation Lab Demonstration Center
- Explore the African vegetables on display
- Learn more about the technologies on display
- Get updates from the Horticulture Innovation Lab's email newsletter
Led by UC Davis, the Horticulture Innovation Lab is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative./h2>