UC Food Blog
Central Valley strawberry stands are expected to open soon, and if the next few weeks remain dry, as expected, it looks to be an excellent production year, report UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors in Fresno, Merced and Sacramento counties. One stand in Fresno opened on April 9, and others will begin selling this weekend.
Valley strawberry production is small compared to Southern California and Coastal production areas. Nearly all the farms are just a few acres in size and the bulk of their produce is sold at roadside stands. UC farm advisors work closely with these producers to help them grow safe and wholesome fruit.
The farmers are mainly Mien and Hmong refugees from Laos, a Southeast Asian country that neighbors Vietnam. When the U.S. left Southeast Asia in 1975, thousands of Hmong and Mien fled their homeland to avoid persecution. Over 120,000 were eventually resettled in the U.S. The population today has expanded to an estimated 300,000.
Many of the first-generation immigrants were farmers in Laos and turned to farming in the U.S. These growers lease small plots and grow several varieties of strawberries, such as Chandler, Camarosa, Albion and Seascape. Few have formal agricultural education.
In addition to offering production assistance, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors Richard Molinar in Fresno, Maxwell Norton in Merced and Chuck Ingels in Sacramento offer food safety training to reduce the risk of a foodborne illness outbreak associated with strawberries. Working with the California Strawberry Commission, Molinar and Norton have for the last five years held intensive food safety workshops that included hands-on training about proper handling of the fruit and personal hygiene. The farmers were given training materials in Hmong and English that they could use to teach the workers they hired about reducing any chances of the fruit becoming contaminated. Twenty-six growers in the Fresno region and 27 in the Merced region participated in workshops. Many are currently learning about third-party food safety audits with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
In Sacramento County, Ingels and a team of researchers provided on-farm training in pest management and food safety. Ingels’ team worked directly with 11 strawberry growers in 2009 and 2010.
“On the first visit to their farms, we found out their current practices and then provided training,” Ingels said. “We came back a second time to do further training and evaluate their progress. We visited the farms a third time to determine whether changes to their practices were being sustained. There was definitely a shift (for the better).”
With an increasing focus on food safety, many produce buyers, suppliers, and consumers want to know that good agricultural practices are being used on the farm. The programs in the various counties help to document and verify that farms are producing fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible and that the farmer is aware of potential problems and steps to correct them.
Richard Molinar, left, and his assistant Michael Yang, center, work with a Southeast Asian strawberry grower.
If life were a Disney movie, we would have no trouble identifying beneficial bugs in our garden. They would all have big puppy-dog eyes and sing sweet songs. They would not have names like assassin bugs, which, in fact, some of them do.
So when we see creepy critters crawling and flying around our freshly planted vegetable garden, we have to work a little harder to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. The good guys, by the way, are the ones who feed on what we consider the bad guys – insects like aphids that damage plants by clustering on young shoots, buds and leaves, sucking out the plant juices.
Ironically, in our bug-eat-bug world, your garden won’t attract the good guys without the so-called bad guys, so don’t get too worked up when you see some aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs and such. If you reach too quickly for pesticides, you will kill the allies along with the enemies.
So how can you tell the good from the bad? For starters, you have to get a good look at them, and for that I sometimes use a 10-power hand lens. Even up close, you won't see the good guys wearing white hats, but with practice they become easy to spot. Here’s quick look at the most common vegetable garden allies:
Lady Beetles, aka Lady Bug –
OK, this bug does look a little like a Disney creation, doesn’t it? Lady beetles feed on aphids and other soft-bodies insects. Lady beetles are flighty, so don’t be surprised when they leave your garden for greener pastures next door. But those that stick around will be a big help, gobbling up as many as 50 aphids a day.
These guys are big, about ¾ inch, and they hunt at night, rooting around your leaf litter for insect eggs and larvae.
These bugs are good, well, soldiers, consuming aphids, caterpillars and grasshopper eggs.
With their fairylike green wings, lacewings look like gentle creatures, but they are fierce predators in their larval stage, devouring aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs, leafhoppers, insect eggs, whiteflies and even other lacewings.
Snakeflies are related to lacewings and they consume a wide variety of orchard pests.
Parasitic wasps are a great defense against corn earworm, tomato fruitworm, cabbageworm and tent caterpillars. What’s more, female parasitic wasps lay eggs in aphids, which kills the host.
Assassin bugs prey on aphids, leafhoppers and caterpillars.
Besides being just plain cool-looking, a single dragonfly can consume some 300 mosquitoes a day.
Syrphid flies will defend your garden against aphids.
Spiders can look creepy, but these predators are excellent biological control agents. If you need a reminder of their ally status, just remember Charlotte’s Web.
What are good plants to plant among your vegetables to attract beneficials to your garden? Different crops have different needs, so it’s wise to check with your nursery or local master gardener, but a few of my favorites include statice, sweet alyssum, fennel, zinnia, cosmos, sunflower, marigold, yarrow and lavender. Beneficial bugs and insects also like dill, parsley and cilantro flowers, so when you’re done harvesting those herbs, feel free to let them flower. You’re buggy friends will thank you.
When we first moved to California our rental house came with a prolific lemon tree. New to a climate where citrus could be grown, we thought this was the greatest thing ever -- lemons right outside our door during the rainy gloom of winter. When dinner and party invitations started coming in, we started arriving with lemons as gifts. But when our hosts invariably greeted our lemony bounty with clenched smiles and "Great! Lemons!" we were perplexed. Only later did we realize that practically everyone has lemons.
I recently told this story to someone at a party and they replied - "Of course, lemons are the zucchini of winter! Everyone has more than they know what to do with."
So what do you do with an abundance of lemons?
Marmalade is an easy choice, and one that uses lots of lemons. So is freezing the juice for use in lemonade when the heat of summer arrives. But my new favorite way to use lemons is making salted preserved lemons. They're easier to make than marmalade and a tasty addition to many recipes.
The basic ingredients are lemons and Kosher salt. But I use Paula Wolfert's recipe that also includes spices. Besides adding extra flavor, the whole cloves, cinnamon stick and bay leaf look nice in the jar.
Make sure your lemons are very clean. Backyard lemons often have a rougher outer texture that may take a little extra scrubbing.
Starting with a layer of salt on the bottom, pack the lemons into a sterilized jar and layer them with salt and spices.
Press the lemons to release their juice as you pack them. Finish by adding enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover.
Now all that's left is time. Let the lemons ripen in a warm place for 30 days, shaking the jar every day or so to distribute the salt, spices and juice. The lemons will start to break down, so don't be alarmed if the lemons are no longer submerged in juice.
Beautiful gardens are brimming with color and life at the Veterans’ Home in Ventura. These gardens have been planned, planted and cared for by a group of Ventura County UCCE Master Gardeners and many people in the community.
Flowers and ornamental trees provide color and shade. Raised garden beds are filled with a wide assortment of vegetables to enhance nutrition and dinner salads of residents. An orchard of donated fruit trees has taken root on the west side of the building. Garden lectures provide enrichment for the mind.
An additional vegetable garden and succulent garden are planned.
Started shortly after the home opened, the gardens and the activity they generate provide much joy and nutrition to the Veterans’ who reside at the home. To learn more, or if interested in becoming involved, contact Master Gardener Barbara Hill.
Raised garden beds allow elderly residents to garden without bending over.
A resident enjoys a 'dry stream bed' in the Veteran's Home Garden.
The low cost of food in the United States is one of the factors contributing to food gluttony and weight problems. On average, Americans spend less than 10 percent of their disposable income on food — 5.5 percent on food “at home” (grocery stores, retail outlets), and 3.9 percent on food “away from home” (USDA data, 2009).
Compare what Americans spend with other countries (household final consumption expenditures; USDA data, 2007)
While food sustains life, it also provides emotional comfort. But many people (for many reasons) overindulge. As a society, we tend to be mindless eaters, not mindful eaters. We eat on the run, in the car, at the desk, and from shrink-wrapped frozen containers that have been microwaved. Many people no longer cook, or they consider putting the “shrink-wrapped frozen container" in the microwave as cooking.
A little more connection with our food, whether we prepare it ourselves, or not, can help us to slow down, eat proper portions, and make better food choices. For those who don’t know much about cooking, it’s not difficult to make simple and healthful meals. Grab a cookbook from the library, or take a cooking class in your community. Healthful recipes can also be found online:
- Davis Farmers Market recipes (note: the author is on the market board as a consumer representative)
- National Institutes of Health recipes
- Mayo Clinic recipes
Eating healthfully is a skill we all can master, regardless of our budgets, hectic schedules, or cooking prowess. And eating healthfully doesn’t mean depriving ourselves of delicious food or occasional splurges.
National Nutrition Month is just ending, and I spent some time writing and collecting adages that remind us to eat healthfully and mindfully. Here are ten (of many) maxims that I like. Perhaps you have some to add to the list.
- If it isn’t really good or healthful, don’t bother eating it.
- If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, you are not hungry. (thank you Michael Pollan and the NY Times)
- Choose appropriate portions. (guide 1 and guide 2)
- Put the fork down and take some breaths between each bite.
- Do not put food in your mouth when there is food in your mouth.
- Avoid eating in the car or in front of the television.
- Learn to prepare three dishes well. (simple is fine)
- Visit your farmers market or produce stand regularly. Ask questions. Try something new.
- It’s better to pay the grocer than the doctor. (M. Pollan again)
- Thank the person who grew the food. Thank the person who prepared the food. Be thankful you have food.
It’s never too late for any of us to make one or two small changes that will get us started on a more healthful diet. Blissful eating!