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UC Food Safety

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Small farm homes: An L.A. tradition

Today, it's the most populous urban county in the U.S., with more than 10 million residents. But not that long ago, Los Angeles was the largest farm county in the country. A part of L.A.'s preeminence in agriculture during the first half of the 20th century was its focus on small-scale, home-based farms. In fact, Los Angeles was home to a movement which was a precursor to present-day interest in urban sustainability.

The trend was called “Small Farm Homes”, or “Little Farms,” and gained momentum in the 1920s, then continued full-force for several decades. As the population of Los Angeles County mushroomed, and real estate boomed, subdivisions were developed with micro farming in mind. Many homes were constructed on lots of one-half to three acres, and marketed as “small farm homes” to newcomers flocking to Los Angeles. Many were Midwestern farmers who no longer wanted large farms and cold weather, but didn’t quite want to give up their agricultural heritage. Others drawn to these new homes were city people, attracted by publicity campaigns touting Southern California’s abundant harvests and golden sunshine and hoping to try their hand at small-scale farming.

The automobile helped to promote the popularity of small farms on the periphery of the city, as newly mobile Angelenos could now easily transport their harvest to local markets.

The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce did much to promote this “little farm development” around Los Angeles County. According to the Chamber, it was possible to make a living on a small farm on the outskirts of the city. People might make a go of it farming, according to the Chamber, with vegetables, fruit trees, and at least 200 laying hens on two to five acres.  These small family-run, home-based farms helped to feed the demand of the growing city.  The number of farms of less than 3 acres in Los Angeles County increased substantially during the 1920s, with 1,334 recorded in the 1920 census, and 5,000 in the 1930 census (White, 1933).

The Chamber, in cooperation with the LA Times, ran an annual Small Farm Home contest, publishing photos and stories about the winners, with the following entry a typical example:

“The one-acre farm of C.E. Drummond, 15219 Stagg Street, in West Van Nuys, is another where beauty and utility have been successfully combined in the making of a rural home. Here, again, are flowers for joy and recreation, vegetables and fruits for the table, and chickens to help swell the family purse (Scarborough, 1930, p. K12).”

Small farm homes contributed significantly to Los Angeles County’s agricultural production. They also helped to make Los Angeles food-secure. According to a 1940 Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce brochure, “nearly half of the Los Angeles food supply originates on farms within 50 miles of the city”.

The small farm home trend continued through the Depression and well into the 1950s. In 1949, the University of California reported there were approximately 10,000 families living on small farms of one acre in size or smaller in Los Angeles County.

Today, many urban dwellers in Los Angeles and throughout the US are trying their hand at small-scale, home-based farming.  There are certainly differences between yesterday’s small farm homes, and today’s urban farmers. The harvest from an urban yard today is more likely to supplement a family’s diet and income, rather than constitute a main component. Still, the motivators for self-sufficiency today and 80 years ago are similar; good food, a little relief for the family budget, and a sense of pride in “growing your own.” It’s a Los Angeles tradition that is once again gaining momentum.


Scarborough, O. (1930, Jan. 5, 1930). What acre offers. Los Angeles Times.

What the newcomer should know about agriculture in Los Angeles County and Southern California (1940). In L. A. C. C. o. Commerce (Ed.) (pp. 51). Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

White, R. P. (1933, Jan. 3). The new city of country homes. Los Angeles Times.

Small Farm Homes in El Monte, Los Angeles County
Small Farm Homes in El Monte, Los Angeles County

Photo by Dorothea Lange, 1936, Library of Congress

Posted on Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 7:02 AM

Treat your mandarins right

Mandarins may look like little oranges, but scientists believe that their distinct attributes demand special treatment to maintain a fresh, juicy and tangy character.

“We think the flavor of mandarins declines much more rapidly than oranges,” said Sue Collin (right), a UC Riverside staff research associate who is based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier.

The way oranges are set out at the grocery store or on home counter tops could be trouble for the more delicate mandarin. And when mandarins make a six-week sea voyage to the Pacific Rim, will Asian consumers find the fruit acceptable?

In order to provide farmers, shippers and retailers accurate information about the impact of different storage temperatures on the quality of the fruit, Collin is working with UC Riverside sub-tropical horticulturalist Mary Lu Arpaia and USDA plant physiologist Dave Obenland to understand the changes in mandarins stored at a variety of temperatures, at different humidity levels, for various periods of time.

“A grocery store may be holding fruit at room temperature, 68 degrees or even warmer,” Collin said. “We’re comparing fruit that has been stored in very controlled atmospheres – at temperatures in the 40s, 50s and 60s.”

When it comes to understanding the acceptability of fresh fruit, nothing can match the human palette.

Collin recruits staff based at Kearney to take a break from their jobs to come to a laboratory built at the agricultural research station specifically for sensory testing. The 1,100-square-foot laboratory features neutral white paint and broad-spectrum lighting. The ventilation system was designed to minimize distracting odors. Inside, six tasting booths each have small windows that open to the kitchen area, where samples are prepared.

“We do quite a bit of testing to see if our volunteers can tell the difference in fruit stored at different temperatures,” Collin said.

In conjunction with the human testing, Obenland studies the fruit’s chemical composition to find out if objective numerical values correlate with the more subjective findings of the human tasters.

Although the optimal storage temperature for mandarins is still under investigation, Collin suggested consumers should keep their mandarins in the refrigerator at home for best results.

“I think the flavor holds better and the fruit lasts longer in the refrigerator,” Collin said.

This research is being funded in part by the Citrus Research Board.

Posted on Tuesday, February 22, 2011 at 10:07 AM

Vegetables, farmers, kids & adventures

Unusual vegetables and fruits get me every time. Rainbow carrots? Watermelon radishes? Party cauliflower? Romanesco?

Bright colors, quirky shapes and even creative names can stop me in my tracks at any farmers market. If I can't identify it, I feel compelled to buy some to take home and share.

The small-scale farmers who are likely to be selling these tempting curiosities are counting on customers like me (and maybe you too?). They often cannot compete on low prices alone, but small-scale farmers can succeed by differentiating their products from more widely available commodities through taste, appearance, harvest time or other qualities. Planting a new specialty crop can help a small-scale framers carve out a profitable niche in the marketplace.

For that reason, identifying and field-testing specialty crops is a focus of the UC Small Farm Program — and of a new project officially launched this week.

The UC Small Farm Program is a partner in the "Great Veggie Adventure," an effort launched by the makers of Hidden Valley Salad Dressings to identify a vegetable that few people have heard of, but that children might just love. The Small Farm Program is helping identify vegetable candidates that meet criteria highlighted by a survey of elementary school students' vegetable preferences.

Our farm advisors will be growing varieties of rainbow carrots, watermelon radish, party cauliflower and Romanesco in demonstration plots around the state. Though small farm advisors frequently test and demonstrate interesting new crops, this time they will be bringing kids behind the scenes, with blog posts and video updates from their fields.

Will these "new" vegetables snag the curious tastebuds of kids? We'll have to wait and see.

But I know some vegetables that I'll be keeping an eye out for at my farmers market...

Did you know?

  • Aziz Baameur, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor (also with the Small Farm Program) and Maria Giovanni, nutrition advisor, conducted field tests and tasting panels with a rainbow's array of carrots. Read more about it in UC Delivers.
  • The Great Veggie Adventure is part of the "Love Your Veggies" program, now in its fifth consecutive year. Hidden Valley created the Love Your Veggies program in 2007 after a study by UC Cooperative Extension Butte County and the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program. Read about their study in this ANR News Blog post.

Video: Manuel Jimenez, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Tulare County, introduces his work with the UC Small Farm Program — and the program's involvement in the "Great Veggies Adventure"

Posted on Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 3:54 AM

Sharing the 'California dream'

We live in an orchard. It’s pretty much like the California dream that Sunkist and the railroads promised to people back East and to dust bowl refugees many years ago – an orange tree in your own backyard! For many of us in the Sacramento region, the dream came true.

Right now the citrus is ripe. Once you start looking, you see it everywhere – bright navel oranges, juicy grapefruit hanging in clusters, glistening lemons and sweet tangerines – some behind fences and some right out front by the street.

Often the trees are big and old, planted long ago. Much of this urban and suburban fruit doesn’t get harvested; people are too busy, the trees get too tall, or there’s just too much fruit to handle at one time. Meanwhile thousands of people in our own community don’t have fruit, fruit trees, backyards or even homes.

Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture Project is helping Sacramento people share the California dream with their neighbors through the Harvest Sacramento project. Last Saturday I joined a crew of volunteers to pick citrus in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood for donation to the Sacramento Food Bank. I had a great time doing it and met some wonderful folks. The food bank distributes the fruit at mobile food pantries over the next week.

My friend and I arrived at McClatchy Park at 9 a.m. along with a couple of dozen other volunteers. We divided into four or five teams, loaded our vans and pickups with ladders, buckets, picking poles and boxes provided by Soil Born and headed off to the first of three houses whose residents had agreed to let us pick their fruit. Our team included a mom with two enthusiastic children, three young members of Sacramento’s new Green Corps in matching tee shirts, the two of us, and Shannon, our team leader.

Shannon made contact with the resident at the first house, gave us safety instructions, and we got started. We set up ladders and picked by hand and with extendable picking poles with little baskets on the end to grab the fruit. This house had a small orange tree and a large lemon tree in the side yard. We quickly picked a box of oranges, stripping the tree and delivering a few to the front door for the owner to enjoy, then spent about a half hour picking three boxes of lemons from the upper half of the lemon tree, leaving the lower fruit for the homeowners to pick. Then we were off to the next house on our list.

The second house had an awesome huge orange tree and a smaller lemon tree in the backyard, which kept us all busy and yielded another four boxes of fruit. Just a few houses down the street, at our last stop, was the biggest grapefruit tree I had ever seen. We extended the picking poles all the way, set up all our ladders, picked four boxes of grapefruit and left what we couldn’t reach. We took all the fruit back to the park, filling big bins that the food bank picked up, and said goodbye to our new friends. Of course we got to take a few tasty samples of the fruit home with us to enjoy.

Soil Born Farms’ Harvest Sacramento Project will be harvesting fruit in the South Land Park neighborhood on Feb. 19 and in the Curtis Park neighborhood on Feb. 26. Volunteers and donations of fruit that needs harvesting are both welcome. For more information:

Harvesting team.
Harvesting team.

Young picker.
Young picker.

Posted on Tuesday, February 15, 2011 at 8:01 AM

EFNEP helps us eat well on the cheap

Last week (Jan. 31, 2011) the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its revised 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They are “the federal government's evidence-based nutritional guidance to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity,” according to the press release.

I scanned the press release for news that cookies have been designated an essential food group. No luck. I confess, I didn’t read the entire 95-page pdf, but surely any such rocking revelations would have been reported in the press release.

Because more than one-third of children and more than two-thirds of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, the guidelines emphasize eating less and moving more.

I wasn’t surprised to see among its 23 key recommendations the advice to drink more water instead of sugary drinks, eat a variety of healthy foods and reduce salt. I expected the recommendation to eat more fruits and vegetables, but now it’s more explicit.

They say half of my plate should be covered in fruits and veggies. And mix it up – eat a variety of vegetables and protein sources. (I used to eat broccoli beef almost every day for lunch, until the day I found an insect in it.)

Many people think they have to spend more for nutritious meals, that fresh produce and meat are expensive. However, UC’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, or EFNEP, gives tips on how to make healthful food choices when you’re on a limited income. (Unless your name is Mark Zuckerberg, whose income isn’t limited?)

Chapter 6 of the Dietary Guidelines acknowledges that our environment – composed of school, workplace, social groups, culture and so on – influences our food and exercise choices. However, our communities don’t excuse our behavior because ultimately we make our own choices, it essentially says. We may have more access to healthy foods and opportunities to engage in physical activity than we realize. Connie Schneider, EFNEP Council chair, sees EFNEP as a vehicle to help families navigate their complicated food environments.

“Our educators facilitate group discussions to resolve food issues from shopping on a budget to getting their children to eat healthier foods,” said Schneider, who is also a UC Cooperative Extension nutrition advisor.

The EFNEP staff meets with families and children in a variety of community settings, including schools, shelters and transitional housing. Nutrition educators teach them how they can stretch their food dollars and still enjoy a healthy diet. They share recipes for nutritious meals that are simple to prepare as well as inexpensive. I love to eat, but have little patience for cooking. Watching a nutrition educator demonstrate how to make chili, I found myself thinking, “That’s so quick and easy, even I would do that.”

Sometimes a new way of preparing a familiar vegetable encourages me to eat more veggies.

The EFNEP website spotlights a Fresh Pick of the Month, such as cauliflower. The site gives the nutritional benefits of cauliflower, serving tips and recommendations for handling and storing the vegetable. It also provides a recipe for cauliflower soup.

The nutrition educators also publish monthly newsletters, in English and Spanish, featuring a recipe and healthful suggestions, such as walking to the restaurant and sharing entrees when you go out to eat. Although the nutrition program is designed to assist families and children whose resources are limited, we can all use the suggestions to improve our health and save some money.

EFNEP enchilada casserole preparation
EFNEP enchilada casserole preparation

Posted on Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 8:09 AM

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