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One more way to 'know your farmer'

A ranch dog "friended" me on Facebook the other day. Yep, a dog on Facebook. To be specific, this is a working dog on a ranch that produces meat and sells it directly to consumers like me.

Facebook helps you connect with friends, but also with farmers, ranchers and now... their dogs.

Apparently when Suki isn't herding cows at Scott River Ranch, she's surfing the web.

And exactly how is a ranch dog on Facebook related to food?

More and more people are interested in connecting with farmers and ranchers who produce the food we eat.

If you buy fresh produce at a farmers market, you can also ask farmers (or their employees) questions about which variety is ripest right now, how the produce was grown, how the meat was processed, and what the farm is like. Proactive eaters can sign up for CSA harvest boxes to receive seasonal produce, know exactly who is growing their food, and pledge support to a particular farm or group of farms. We can visit farms to participate in agritourism by buying from farm stands, taking ranch tours and even getting into the fields to harvest "U-pick" berries and other fruit.

"Local is hot" was on one of the opening slides of Kathleen Merrigan's presentation at UC Davis last week. The USDA's deputy secretary was visiting campuses to discuss the agency's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign, which focuses on local and regional food system support.

Buying fruit at a farmers market is also a chance to chat with farmers and their employees. Cliff Kime of Berryluscious Farm at the Davis Farmers Market.
Buying at farmers markets, subscribing to a CSA and visiting a farm are indeed ways to take part in local or regional food systems. But these activities are also about knowing your farmer — talking with him or her, visiting the land your dollar is supporting, and understanding how your food is grown.

And now we have another way to know a farmer, without even leaving the office: Anyone can like their favorite farmers on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, subscribe to their blogs, sign up for their email newsletters, and more.

Hearing about Suki the ranch dog's antics, with photos of her bathing in a water trough or videos of her chasing a field's pivot sprinklers, is another way for consumers to get a glimpse of ranch life from behind the scenes. Likewise, hearing from a farmer on Facebook about how today's rain might affect the cherry harvest is another way for me to feel connected with the farmer who is raising food I will soon be eating.

Chris Kerston of Chaffin Orchards put it this way: "If I'm walking along the field and I see a weird-looking bug, I'm going to stop, take a picture of it with my phone, put it on Facebook and ask 'Anyone know what this weird bug is?' ... It's just another way for people to see what it's like out on the farm."

Don't take it just from me: National companies are taking notice too. This month the editorial board of The Packer, a newspaper that specializes in the fresh produce industry, suggested that local is also about something else:

"While some national suppliers may look skeptically at the buy local trend, a component of local is consumers’ need to connect with where their food comes from.

"Social media is often the solution."

You can connect with the farmers and ranchers who produce your food — whether you buy it at a farmers market or in a supermarket — and receive updates from the farm or ranch through social media.

You can start by asking your favorite farmers or ranchers if they're on Facebook, and here are a few other networks for finding farmers online:

Join the discussion: So, what would you like to know from the people who grow and raise the food you eat?



Bonus video: Connecting with social media goes both ways; farmers want to connect with consumers who buy and eat their products. Staff and academics with UC Cooperative Extension and UC Davis have offered social media workshops to help farmers connect with consumers online (next one for me will be in Marin County, June 1). Here's a video after one UC workshop a few months ago:

Posted on Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 8:10 AM

Stay the night in a peach orchard?

Seeing the milky way clear and bright in the night sky wasn't anything special to Dinuba peach growers Nori and Mike Naylor, but they noticed that it was a simple treat enjoyed by visitors to their new farm stay in the organic orchard. So Nori is thinking about mentioning the stars on Twitter, or Facebook, or on her blog perhaps.

Mike Naylor has been growing peaches organically since 1984 on 95 acres he took over from his father. He sees a huge disconnect between people who grow food and the majority of people who no longer know anyone who farms or ranches.

Gutierrez & Naylor with peaches.
And he also sees that many of these people want to connect to the farm and want their children to have that connection. Since the Naylors were not using the four bedrooms in their ranch house, they decided to share their home with visitors who want to experience a little bit of life in the orchard. Naylor's Organic Family Farm Stay opened to the public in February this year.

A farm stay is overnight lodging offered by working farmers or ranchers in their own home to a few guests at a time. A state law passed in 1990 allows this in California without requiring the host farmers to have a restaurant-style kitchen in order to serve meals to their guests. Tulare County has a lot of farms, but the Naylors might be the first farm stay in the county. They were happy to be a test case as county staff figured out the rules and regulations, permits needed and fees to charge for this new business.

Visitors have started arriving; an organic pest control guy from Florida, a compost salesman from Washington, missionaries from their church, a doctor from Massachusetts who was working at a clinic in Visalia, a couple from Hanford looking for an overnight getaway, a business acquaintance with his family, and others. Guests enjoy the peace and quiet, the night sky, and a homemade breakfast. They walk the orchard with Naylor and learn a little about the art of growing organic peaches and nectarines, and they get to pick a few of their own if they want.

Nori Naylor is in charge of telling the world about the peach farm, and inviting visitors. Since Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks are only an hour away, she hopes that some people will stop by on their way to the parks. She is working with the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote the farm stay and offer group tours of the farm, and exchanges brochures with local restaurants and shops.

The Naylor's small farm has a worldwide presence on the internet. Listings on and have brought inquiries from international travellers. Nori maintains the website and spends a half hour every day keeping up two Facebook pages; one for the farm and one for the farm stay, as well as sharing on Twitter. Naylors Organic Farm also lists on a new site set up by Top 10 Produce, using a new QR code that people can scan with their smartphones to link to the farm location, website, Facebook page and, coming soon, videos of the farm.

Naylor Organics traceable shelftalker business card templates from Zazzle-2
Mike and Nori Naylor are pioneering new ways to share their good life with others, because they believe that these connections are as important as the fruit they grow and sell. Mike enjoys showing visitors how to tell if a peach is ripe enough to pick and letting them watch the field-packing of the fruit. He explains how the picking crew will pick each tree five times, to make sure that each fruit is not picked until it reaches the peak of flavor. He will explain organic farming methods and also how he now stickers each peach with a bar code for retail and distributor customers. Of course, some visitors just like to relax and sit in the shade. And that's just fine with the the Naylors.

Posted on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 1:26 PM

Landscaping? Think edibles

What do Santa Rosa Weeping flowering plum, persimmon, variegated lemon and Tiger figs all have in common?  They are all fantastic ornamental plants that produce wonderful edible fruit.  There are a variety of fruits and vegetables that can be incorporated into your landscape that produce food for you, your family and your neighborhood.  Every landscape should have edibles in it, particularly in light of our goals to produce food closer to home, to conserve water and make the water we do use count for more than irrigating a lawn that nobody ever plays on. Growing your own food feels good and is good for you and your community!

Some simple ideas for incorporating edibles into your landscape are to include fruit as part of your landscape plantings. You might consider an espalier of apples or pears along your western fence; plant an dwarf orange tree on a south facing wall as a large shrub. If you

are in the right climate zone, a dwarf lime or lemon tree is always a hit. A varigated lemon adds interest because the fruit and the foliage are varigated but the flavor is the same as a traditional Eureka Lemon. Limes are also useful in a lot of recipes and it is nice to have one just outside your door for that gin and tonic. Fuyu persimmons make wonderful shade trees that are easy to grow, have few pests and the fruit is tasty eaten fresh or dried. Just don’t plant them over a driveway or patio since the fruit drop in fall may be a bit annoying.

Shrubs with edible fruit are great too.  Blueberries are lovely garden plants and you will be able to harvest quite a bit of fruit off of one or two plants. You could also plant a compact Stella Cherry (a self-pollenating variety) as a flowering deciduous shrub that will grow to about 10 feet tall but can be kept shorter with summer pruning. You can also grow a variety of citrus as super dwarf plants if they are grown on Flying Dragon Rootstock, which keeps their height to below 6 feet without a lot of pruning.

The area that you can save a lot of money is by putting in an herb garden. The basic plants that every herb garden should have are thyme, chives, rosemary, tarragon, sage, oregano, and an annual planting of basil in the spring and dill in the late summer/fall. While there are a wide variety of herbs that you may want to grow, these few are the most commonly used to season our foods. If you purchase fresh herbs from the grocery story, a small plastic wrapped package with a few sprigs of thyme costs about $2.99.  This stuff will grow in lower elevation gardens without difficulty.  One plant may cost $2.99 but once established, will provide all the thyme you could use for as long as you have it in the garden.

The key to edible landscaping is to change your ideas of what a landscape can be. Edibles don’t have to be grown in rows or in an area designated as the “vegetable garden." They can be incorporated into your flower beds as part of the ornamental garden. Compact, that is "determinant," tomato varieties that don’t require staking are perfect for sunny beds.  If you have room for a ground cover in a sunny area, think of strawberries.  If you want to cover a trellis or arbor, grapes can be good but only plant varieties listed as resistant to powdery mildew. Black Monukka is a nice seedless variety that has a medium-sized berry and is relatively pest and disease resistant. Consider that even if you don’t harvest everything yourself, you will have some food that you can share with your neighbors and friends.

For more information on how do grow edibles in your landscape, contact your local Master Gardeners.  You can find them on the California Master Gardeners' websites.

ripe plums
ripe plums

Posted on Thursday, May 19, 2011 at 4:27 PM

Happiness is . . . California blueberries

Paul Willems, who co-owns Berry Lady Farms in Kingsburg with his wife Gayle, said berry season is a happy time for him and his family. He attributes their sunny disposition to all the blueberries in their diets.

“I feel better when I eat lots of blueberries,” Willems said. “They make you feel happier. I wish I had them all year long.”

Gayle Willems said the fruit may stimulate serotonin in the brain, providing a calming effect. But, she added, the good feelings may not be just the blueberries. "It makes us feel better anytime we eat healthy, right?"

The Willems may also be particularly happy during blueberry season because of the success of their 100-acre farm. The couple grows and sells 12 blueberry varieties over the season at a farm store, farmers markets and through conventional channels. Blueberries are expensive to establish and require a great deal of hand labor for harvest, but they are the second-most valuable crop per harvest acre, after cherries, according to the California Blueberry Association.

The California blueberry industry is growing at a healthy pace, and with 6,000 acres producing about 30 million pounds of the antioxidant-rich fruit, the industry’s volume has now surpassed Florida, said UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Manuel Jimenez.

The milestone is significant, since the southern highbush blueberry cultivars grown in California originated in the Sunshine State. Southern highbush cultivars are well adapted to the California climate because they require fewer “chill hours” to produce fruit.

A leader in the development of the California industry, Jimenez has conducted blueberry observational trials – looking at yield and flavor characteristics – for more than a decade at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier. In addition, the Kearney blueberry plantings have been the scene of ongoing studies on plant spacing, mulches and pruning, research that has helped farmers successfully establish the crop in the semi-arid San Joaquin Valley.

Jimenez will invite blueberry farmers and those considering entering the industry to Kearney this week to taste and compare 35 varieties of berries. Looking over the plots, Jimenez said it wouldn’t be difficult for a farmer to use information from the Kearney trials to select good-tasting berries that ripen sequentially for months, extending one farm's blueberry season from spring until mid-way through the summer.

“You could plant Snow Chaser, a very sweet, early variety, in hoop houses and start harvesting in the second or third week of April,” Jimenez said. “Next, Reveille could come into production. Southmoon is really late and then Centurion, a rabbit eye blueberry that’s small and sweet, would be ready in late July.”

For more information about the blueberry meeting this week at Kearney, see the flyer.

Gayle Willems at the Berry Lady blueberry stand, which sits inside the farm's packing house.
Gayle Willems at the Berry Lady blueberry stand, which sits inside the farm's packing house.

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 6:47 AM

U-pick organic strawberry season opens on coast

Swanton Berry Farm near Davenport

The U-pick strawberry fields at Swanton Berry Farm near Davenport on the coast are formally opening on May 28, but if you drive out there now, you’ll get a chance to pick without a crowd. Talking to Barrett Boaen, the U-pick manager, I got to the bottom of just why their berries, also sold at local Whole Foods stores, look and taste so good.

Partly it’s the ‘Chandler’ variety, chosen for its old-fashioned sweetness and flavor although it yields only about two-thirds as well as some varieties. It’s also about not pumping up production with too much nitrogen or irrigation (more details here). Mostly, though, it’s about the picking process. A strawberry grower visiting from the East Coast recently bought two flats from the farmstand, saying he couldn’t help himself, he had never laid eyes on such beautiful organic berries, and he knew who to congratulate—the pickers.

The workers at Swanton Berry Farm

You and I are unlikely to come close to picking as well as Swanton’s unionized employees, some of whom have more than 20 years of experience at the farm. They recognize when a strawberry is as ripe as it can be, when it’s red and sweet all the way through (strawberries don’t continue ripening once they are picked). Although a less ripe berry is firmer, with a longer shelf-life and easier to transport, it has less flavor, so the pickers wait a day or two for any berry with a green tip or white shoulders to ripen perfectly. They discard berries that are soft on one side (from raindrops settling on the fruit) or have a cat-face look, which is lygus bug damage.

Moving along the rows, which are banked up to 18 inches high to reduce back strain, they harvest each perfectly ripe berry, with its green calyx attached, in a “twist and flick” motion: “you put tension on the stem above the calyx, and rotate it, so you can see 360 degrees and whether there’s any damage to the berry; then with just the right tension, the berry will pop off naturally,” explains Boaen.

In the U-pick fields, which have ocean views, visitors pick for pleasure, hopping from row to row, enjoying the fresh air, and the fragrance of the berries and the earth. Compared to the serious work in the other 20 acres of strawberries, “the 3 acres of U-pick are a playground,” says Boaen, “We provide people everything they need to be happy.”

U-pick tent at Swanton Berry Farm
Last week the fields were dusted with a zillion white flowers, which means a burst of fruit coming soon, but the cool wet weather this spring sealed the fate of the season. Growers need lots of fruit early, to sell before cherries and other fruits arrive on the market. Instead the late winter rains knocked off or damaged the flowers, and hail beat up the berries.

“It can be demoralizing,” Boaen admits. “All that energy put into the fruit after the excellent warm January was wrecked.”

Fortunately, the farm has several other crops, and the strawberry fields are filling with new berries. You can pick them this summer for $2.50 per pound (10 percent discount for bicyclists). Bring your own containers if you remember, a windproof jacket and boots in case of fog or mud, and most of all, Boaen recommends allowing plenty of time to enjoy yourself.

By mid-June, Swanton ollalieberries will be ripe, and by mid- or late July, the blackberries will be ready. Farm tours are available by reservation. Organic strawberry and ollalieberry jams, and five other kinds, are available at the farmstand or online.

Swanton's farmstand
Swanton's farmstand

Posted on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 11:56 AM

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