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For foodies, being choosier is getting easier and fun

Handpicking blueberries
This season, for Southern California pick-your-own foodies, blueberries are among the latest and fastest growing offerings, thanks to the tenacity of small-scale farmers and the know-how provided by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources experts.

Although U-pick produce operations have been around for many years, farmers who let you hand-pick your blueberries was unheard of in this part of the state until recently.

We may have to thank UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Manuel Jiménez, who's work on cultivars that he planted in 1997 at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier has resulted in about 30 million pounds harvested in about 6,000 acres this year in California, mostly in the San Joaquín Valley.

A few days ago, my wife, Sylvia, and I decided to try our hand at picking our own berries at Soffel Farms in Redlands. It's one of the few local urban farms, or rather farms that became urban in the Inland Empire Area, which is San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Ron Soffel of Soffel Farms, Redlands, Calif.

For the second year in a row, Soffel Farms is letting customers harvest as much as they want of its blueberries. This year, Ron Soffel is seeing people who drive more than a hundred miles to do just that.

"They don't see these around here, the closest are when you go up north to the San Joaquín Valley," he said of the blueberries as a new local crop.

By word of mouth, and of quite a few bloggers, locals and not so locals are showing up to pick the micro-nutrient rich blueberries, which many foodies see as magic pills in the fight against some types of cancer and obesity-related diseases like diabetes.

Of course, an incredible flavor helps too. For sure, pickers leave with a better understanding of what it's like to grow and harvest the foods that keep us healthy.

"Once they come up, and experience it, they come back," said Soffel.

Soffel Farms operates very much like other U-pick small-scale farms that are benefiting from agritourism, which UC small farm program has helped to develop to assist local growers. You check in, they give you a little basket and a couple of pointers:

  • Walk carefully along the rows of bushes so do not damage the plants.
  • Get only the ones that are purple; place the basket under the berries and gently roll your thumb over a berry to make it fall in the basket. (They do, just as if they were waiting for you!)

After you've picked enough, you go back and your berries are packed in 12 oz. plastic containers for which you pay $5 each.

Child picking blueberries.

I confess, my wife and I didn't wait until we got home to make sure we had gotten the most delicious blueberries we'd ever tasted! Once you taste a handpicked blueberry, it's hard not to eat some of the ones that should go into the basket.

I felt less guilty after seeing Soffel do the same as we spoke. Other visitors did it too, including a five-year-old who was accompanied by his grandparents, from San Diego. None of his blueberries went to a basket, but straight to his tummy.

"Purple!" he told me every time he put one in his mouth as we went along picking berries. He was the proverbial kid in a candy store. Thank goodness there was lots of that Mother Nature's candy.

As a consumer, I'm thankful that we have our own Manuel Jiménez, who tirelessly proved that blueberries could and should be added to the California cornucopia. And also for the determination of small growers like Soffel in keeping the agriculture tradition alive.

Although many farmers in California are now finding that blueberries are relatively easy to grow, Soffel says it's labor intensive. But it's helping him to keep his family tradition. Like many small-scale farmers, Soffel depends on direct sales. Adding blueberries to his pick-your-own operation, which includes a few acres of orange trees and avocados, is so far proving to be a good source of income, he said.

Soffel is typical of the decreasing number of local growers. They are constantly threatened by urbanization and its accompanying regulations. Soffel is a fifth generation farmer whose ancestors came from Oregon by wagon. The Stoffel Farms sign reads, "Established in 1914." Soffel says his family was among the pioneers that made the Redlands area famous for its oranges.

Most orange groves are gone and have been replaced by housing and commercial buildings; but Soffel and his family refuse to cut their roots to farming.

"I'll be a farmer forever," he told me.

I hope so. I'm waiting for word about his avocados being ready for picking.

Soffel Farms storefront.

(Photos: Alberto Hauffen)

Posted on Monday, June 20, 2011 at 8:14 AM

Don't forget dairy

Drinking a glass of non-fat or 1% milk will help soothe the day’s tensions and make you sleep better at night, but the benefits go far beyond its calming properties, says UC Cooperative Extension nutrition educator Ellen Sandor.

“The calcium in milk reduces muscle spasms and calms stress,” Sandor said. “Plus milk and other dairy products, like cheese and yogurt, are excellent sources of calcium, potassium and vitamin D, which help maintain bone health.”

The USDA 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends three servings of non-fat or low fat dairy products per day. In fact, milk’s importance is creatively highlighted is USDA’s new “MyPlate” nutrition icon. MyPlate clearly illustrates that a healthful diet can be achieved by filling half a plate with fruits and vegetables, and splitting the other half between grains and slightly less protein. Dairy products are shown in a separate circle, invoking a glass of milk or cup of yogurt to accompany the meal.

Sandor said USDA recommends all children and adults drink non-fat, 1% or 2% milk except children under 2 years old. The amount of calcium in non-fat and low-fat milk is exactly the same as in whole milk, however, whole milk has 9 grams of fat and 157 calories. A cup of non-fat milk has 86 calories.

Additionally, fat in whole milk is the unhealthful saturated type, which boosts the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood, raising the risk of developing coronary heart disease. Whole milk and milk products can also contribute to overweight.

Even though it’s widely understood that milk is important for good health, children and adults in the United States are, by and large, not consuming the amount recommended by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines. Sandor said it is important to teach children to eat dairy products daily so it will be easier for them to consume them as adults.

She suggests the following ideas to promote the consumption of dairy products:

  • Offer children low-fat yogurt with fruits and vegetables as a snack or desert.
  • Suggest that drink machines at your children’s school include milk products.
  • Offer lactose-free milk or foods fortified with calcium to children who do not tolerate milk.
  • Consider arranging for your child to eat the school lunch. Children that eat school lunch drink more milk than those that bring their lunch.

Dairy products are a fundamental part of a healthful diet.
Dairy products are a fundamental part of a healthful diet.

Posted on Thursday, June 16, 2011 at 10:02 AM
  • Posted By: Jeannette E. Warnert
  • Written by: Norma de la Vega. Adapted from Spanish by Jeannette Warnert.

It's a fruit...It's a mandarin...It's ‘KinnowLS’!

On the Jeopardy show, the clues could easily be: “It’s new and attractive.  It’s juicy and sweet.  And it’s low-seeded and peels easily.”

To which the answer would be, “What is ‘KinnowLS’?”

‘KinnowLS’ – the LS is short for low seeded – is the latest citrus variety released by researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

Large-sized for a mandarin, the fruit has an orange rind color. The rind is thin and extremely smooth. The 10-11 segments in each fruit are fleshy and deep orange in color.

‘KinnowLS’ matures during February through April, and does well in hot climates. It was developed by mutation breeding of the mandarin cultivar ‘Kinnow,’ a mid-to-late season maturing variety developed by UC Riverside nearly 100 years ago. While ‘Kinnow’ has 15-30 seeds per fruit, ‘KinnowLS’ has only 2-3 seeds per fruit.

“People who like very sweet fruit are going to find ‘KinnowLS’ to be very appealing,” says Mikeal Roose, a professor of genetics, who developed ‘KinnowLS’ along with staff scientist Timothy Williams. “When other citrus varieties mature to reach the level of sweetness of ‘KinnowLS,’ their other qualities – such as rind texture – are in decline. Neither ‘Kinnow’ nor ‘KinnowLS’ suffer in this way.”

Yet another attractive quality of ‘KinnowLS’ is that it can be grown in California’s desert regions because the fruit, which matures during February through April, does well in hot climates.

Indeed, ‘Kinnow’ is the most important mandarin in the Punjab regions of India and Pakistan, where ‘Kinnow’ fruit trees constitute about 80 percent of all citrus trees.

“But the fruit, which is popular there, is seedy,” Roose says. “Therefore, ‘KinnowLS’ has very good potential in this area of the world.”

Growers in India and Pakistan will have to wait a few years, however, before ‘KinnowLS’ trees can strike roots there. Currently, plans are to distribute ‘KinnowLS’ budwood, starting this month, to only licensed nurseries in California.  (For three years, only California nurseries will be permitted to propagate ‘KinnowLS.’ Licenses for ‘KinnowLS’ propagation outside the United States will be issued thereafter.)

So when will we find ‘KinnowLS’ in U.S. produce aisles?

Alas, not for at least five years.  It generally takes about that long to propagate citrus trees.

2602 1hi
2602 1hi

Posted on Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 9:14 AM

Elementary students spring into health!

Imagine a large grassy field on a sunny May morning transformed into the largest classroom in town for nutrition education. Open quiet space quickly became an experiential classroom as over 200 fourth- and fifth-grade students descended to learn about making healthy choices.

The University of California Cooperative Extension’s Youth Nutrition Education Program and the Network for a Healthy California’s Children’s PowerPlay! program partnered at an elementary school in Fresno to introduce students to edible plant parts, healthy food choices, the five food groups and the importance of regular physical activity. Thanks to H&E Nursery, students also had the opportunity to transplant their very own tomato plants.

I could describe the laughter and learning vividly, the wide-eyed students gazing inquisitively at an artichoke or parsnip for the first time, but why not take a look at some of students’ experiences in their own words?



To share what they had learned with the entire school, students created posters for each food group to hang on the stage in the school cafeteria.

Students creating posters to share with their school.

Posters for each food group and physical activity on display in the school cafeteria.


And when the morning was through and the activity stations completed, the students returned to their classrooms with big smiles (and their very own tomato plants). But perhaps the most important, the very reason we do what we do, students returned having gained the knowledge and tools they need to make healthy food choices.


At the University of California, we’re increasing science literacy and working through schools to teach kids good food habits and decision-making skills. The Youth Nutrition Education program serves thousands of low-income students in the Fresno County area. For more information visit us on the web, or call (559) 600-7285.

Posted on Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 1:03 PM
  • Author: Shelby MacNab

School gardens: Important in the past...and the future

“The school garden has come to stay.”

In 1909, Ventura schoolteacher Zilda M. Rogers wrote to the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of California, Berkeley, then the flagship agricultural campus for California’s land grant institution, and a primary proponent and provider of garden education resources for schoolteachers. Rogers wrote in some detail about how her school garden work had progressed, what the successes and failures were, how the children were responding to the opportunity to garden, how her relationship with the children had changed as a result of the garden work, and what she saw as potential for the future.

“With the love of the school garden has grown the desire for a home garden and some of their plots at home are very good. . . . Since commencing the garden work the children have become better companions and friend . . . and to feel that there is a right way of doing everything. . . . It is our garden. . . . We try to carry that spirit into our schoolroom.”

More than 100 years after Rogers wrote those words, school gardens have continued to be cherished in the public school system in which she worked. The Ventura Unified School District has developed a nationally recognized model that links school gardening, nutrition education and a farm-to-school lunch program featuring many locally sourced fruits and vegetables for its 17,000 public school students.

The University of California took note of the success that educators like Rogers were experiencing with school gardens. Being certain to include the words written by her, the University of California published Circular No. 46, which offered information about how to build school garden programs. School gardens were to be an integral part of primary schooling.  As the circular declared, “The school garden has come to stay.”

School gardens had been used in parts of Europe as early as 1811, and mention of their value preceded that by nearly two centuries. Philosophers and educational reformers such as John Amos Comenius and Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed the importance of nature in the education of children; Comenius mentioned gardens specifically.

The use and purpose of school gardens was multifold; gardens provided a place where youth could learn natural sciences (including agriculture) and also acquire vocational skills. Indeed, the very multiplicity of uses and purposes for gardens made it difficult for gardening proponents to firmly anchor gardening in the educational framework and a school’s curriculum.  It still does.

The founder of the kindergarten movement, Friedrich Froebel, used gardens as an educational tool. Froebel was influenced by Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, who saw a need for balance in education, a balance that incorporated “hands, heart, and head,” words and ideas that would be incorporated nearly two centuries later into the mission of the United States Department of Agriculture’s 4-H youth development program. (These words still guide the work of the University of California’s 4-H program). Educational leaders such as Liberty Hyde Bailey and John Dewey fused ideas of nature study and experiential education with gardening.

Perhaps one of the earliest school garden programs in the United States was developed in 1891, at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Mass.  (Today, the nationally recognized food project also teaches youth about gardening and urban agriculture in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston). Like others interested in gardening, Henry Lincoln Clapp, who was affiliated with the George Putnam School, traveled to Europe for inspiration. After traveling to Europe and visiting school gardens there, he partnered with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society to create the garden at Putnam; the model was replicated around the state. It was followed in relatively short order by other efforts, including a well-known garden program in New York City: the DeWitt Clinton Farm School.

Gardening became nearly a national craze during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and “school” gardens enjoyed immense popularity. The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that there were more than 75,000 school gardens by 1906. As their popularity soared, advocates busily supplied a body of literature about school gardening and agricultural education.

One book argued that school gardens were not a “new phase of education,” but rather, an “old one” that was gaining merit for its ability to accomplish a wide variety of needs. School gardens were a way to reconnect urbanized American youth with their agrarian, producer heritage, the Jeffersonian idea of the sturdy yeoman farmer. One author argued for the importance of gardening education and nature study for both urban and rural youth, for “sociological and economic” reasons.

One important reason to garden with urban youth was to teach “children to become producers as well as consumers,” and for the possibility “of turning the tide of population toward the country, thus relieving the crowded conditions of the city.” Other reformers echoed this idea, including Jacob Riis, who said, “The children as well as the grown people were ‘inspired to greater industry and self-dependence.’  They faced about and looked away from the slum toward the country.”  It’s now more than a century later, the average American farmer is in his/her late 50s, and the need to reconnect a new generation of youth to the land seems even more compelling. Could the school gardens of today provide the farmers of tomorrow?

The school garden movement received a huge boost during World War I, when the Federal Bureau of Education introduced the United States School Garden Army. During the interwar years and the Great Depression, youth participated in relief gardening. During World War II, a second Victory Garden program swept the nation, but after that, school garden efforts became the exception, not the norm.

The 1970s environmental movement brought renewed interest to the idea of school and youth gardening, and another period of intense growth began in the early 1990s. Interest in farm-to-school has continued to breathe life into the school garden movement, and some states, notably California, have developed legislation to encourage school gardens. (Under the tenure of State Education superintendent Delaine Eastin, a Garden in Every School program was begun. Under Jack O’Connell’s tenure, Assembly Bill 1535, which funded school gardens, was approved).

We should all take note of the tagline for the U.S. government’s youth gardening program in World War I: “A Garden for Every Child. Every Child in a Garden.” Wouldn’t this be a great idea today? With the cuts in school funding, increased classroom size and other challenges, some school garden programs are facing real challenges. They deserve our support, not only in practice (volunteer!) but also by our advocacy for public policies that support youth gardening work in school and community settings. Why not advocate for a nationally mandated curriculum that promotes food systems education in American public schools, something like “Race to the Crop”?

Some of the best models for school gardens lie in our past.  But the real potential of school gardens to reduce obesity, encourage a healthy lifestyle, reconnect youth with the food system and to build healthier, vibrant communities is something we can realize today . . . and is something that should be an important concern of our national public policy.

A note to readers: Google Books contains copies of two important books in the school gardening literature of the Progressive Era, (Miller and Greene’s), as well as numerous other Progressive era books pertaining to gardening and agricultural education. To learn more about the United States School Garden Army’s efforts during WWI (a GREAT model for a national curriculum today!), visit the UC Victory Grower website.

Students record plant growth in a school garden.
Students record plant growth in a school garden.

Posted on Tuesday, June 7, 2011 at 8:31 AM

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