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California's crop diversity is unmatched

On a recent trip to the East Coast, our first in almost 13 years, I reflected on our differing coastal experiences with agricultural diversity. Our travels took us through most of the mid-Atlantic farming region – Delaware, District of Columbia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania – where we lived for almost 35 years.

We saw the familiar vast fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa throughout most of the region. There were occasional pockets of other crops: apples, pears and grapes in the more northern parts; sorghum, sweet potatoes, peanuts and tobacco in the more southern states. We also saw occasional plots of sweet corn, green beans, oats and barley. But mostly we saw corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

We stayed at our cousins’ farm in Warriors Mark, Penn. Guess what they were growing – corn, soybeans and alfalfa. However, this year they were also growing Timothy hay for the local “hobby” horse population, as cousin Hank likes to call his high-paying customers. Our cousins have a huge vegetable garden, but do not farm vegetables because, they say: ”We can’t make any money from vegetables, they are not as profitable as the common three field crops." This seems to be the reasoning behind the tri-crop standard.

When we moved from central Pennsylvania to central California 15 years ago, we were intrigued, but mostly mystified, by the crops growing in fields near our home. With the help of new friends and colleagues, we eventually learned to identify fields of sunflowers, tomatoes, walnuts and almonds. We were astonished by the diversity of crops in our new home state, and intrigued by our lack of knowledge about crops we saw by daily. As we traveled throughout the state, our ability to identify roadside field crops grew. We saw acres of artichokes, lettuce, pistachios, figs, olives, kiwi fruit, avocados, all new as field crops to us. Using guides and manuals we found in the ANR Catalog for vegetables, fruit and nut crops, and agricultural production as well as the Fruit & Nut Research and Information Center website photo albums, we were able to identify most of what we saw. We also identified quite a few acres planted in the familiar corn and alfalfa, but hardly any soybeans.

We discovered what was growing in a nearby field when our eyes began to water and our throats close as a field of garlic was harvested. We had the same reaction to rice straw as it burned and canola harvested in a cloud of dust. The first time we saw acres and acres of sunflowers and an almond orchard in full bloom, we couldn’t help but smile. Our sense of smell also assisted in our discovery of newly harvested fields of squash, olives and tomatoes.

You can find more than the acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa growing along the East Coast, but exceptions are usually planted in a very few acres and in limited locales. However, California’s crop diversity is readily apparent along every highway and byway in every county. Thank goodness!

Equivalent areas covered: mid-Atlantic states = 107,942,470 acres, California = 99,689,515 acres

Alfalfa stretches to the horizon in the Eastern U.S. (USDA photo)
Alfalfa stretches to the horizon in the Eastern U.S. (USDA photo)

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 10:13 AM
  • Author: Judy Sams

Californians should be careful with eggs

When Bill Clinton was president in the 1990s, his Council on Food Safety identified eggs as a food that poses a risk to children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. The Clinton administration launched a safety plan that aimed to eliminate Salmonella contamination in eggs entirely by 2010.

Unfortunately, the goal was not met. This month, a vast outbreak of Salmonella food poisoning prompted the recall of half a billion eggs produced in Iowa. In California, UC Cooperative Extension worked with other agencies and the egg industry to create the California Egg Quality Assurance Program, which is implemented voluntarily by 95 percent of the state’s egg producers. California-produced eggs have been free of Salmonella for the past 10 years.

However, not all eggs sold in California are produced in the state. In fact, the FDA announced this week that Trafficanda Egg Ranch of Van Nuys distributed eggs affected by the recall to grocery stores and foodservice companies in California.

That fact underscores the importance of using basic egg safety measures now and whenever Californians consume eggs, according to UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor Cathi Lamp.

“Americans consume an average of 234 eggs per person per year,” Lamp said. “Since infected eggs still make it from the farm to the table, we have more work to do.”

People with health problems, the very young, the elderly and pregnant women (and the unborn child) are particularly vulnerable to Salmonella infections and should be extra careful with eggs, but everyone is advised to take precautions to minimize the risk of being exposed to Salmonella bacteria.

Lamp suggests the following precautions:

  • Modify recipes for foods that were traditionally eaten with raw eggs, including smoothies, Caesar salad dressing, Hollandaise sauce, cookie dough, mayonnaise, ice cream and egg nog. If consumers wish to eat foods with "raw" eggs, prepare them with a pasteurized egg product like Egg Beaters.

  • At the store, choose grade A or AA eggs with clean, uncracked shells.

  • Make sure the home refrigerator is running at 40°F. Store eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not in the door. Don’t wash eggs, as they have a protective coating applied at the packing plant.

  • Use raw eggs within three to five weeks. Hard-cooked eggs will keep for one week. Refrigerate leftover cooked egg dishes and use within three to four days.
  • Cook eggs until both the yolk and the white are firm. Scrambled eggs should not be runny.

  • Casseroles and other dishes containing eggs should be cooked to 160°F (72°C). Use a food thermometer to be sure.

  • Wash hands, utensils, equipment and work areas with hot, soapy water before and after contact with eggs and egg-rich foods.

  • Avoid keeping eggs or foods containing eggs out of the refrigerator more than 2 hours.

Egg safety can prevent a foodborne illness.
Egg safety can prevent a foodborne illness.

Posted on Friday, August 27, 2010 at 8:23 AM

Reader expresses skepticism about flavor research

A recent Food Blog post about a new research effort aimed at improving the flavor of fruits and vegetables found in American grocery stores prompted a scornful e-mail from a reader.

To whom it may concern, the letter-writer began, I find it appalling that $6 million is being spent to study something that any 3rd grader should be able to figure out.

The writer continued: "It is virtually impossible to enhance the flavor of an industrial farmed tomato because the flavor has been bred OUT of the varieties grown by big agriculture in favor of disease resistance and shelf stability. I can pick a green tomato from my yard and let it ripen on the counter and it will be delicious. That will just never be the case with most of the hybrids that have been developed over the past 20 years because flavor was NOT a priority. You can't add it in after the fact."

UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Beth Mitcham, director of the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, wrote the following response:

"I agree with part of your comment but not entirely. It is true that breeders have focused for many years on yield, disease resistance and long shelf life. However, in recent years, breeders are paying more attention to flavor quality. As you mentioned, you can take a green tomato and ripen it into a great tasting tomato. I have also done this with tomatoes obtained from a commercial field.

"The problem with tomatoes harvested green and ripened after harvest is that the fruit are exposed to low temperatures. Studies have shown that exposure of tomatoes for just 24 hours to temperatures of 50 degrees reduces their flavor compounds by 50 percent.  Most tomatoes are shipped to market at 45 to 50 degrees to reduce softening and decay.  Another problem with green tomatoes and many other fruit is the maturity of the fruit at harvest. The earlier it is picked, the less flavor compounds the fruit will produce when it is fully ripe.

"This $6 million grant is focused on providing growers and shippers with the tools to successfully pick more mature or riper produce and deliver it to consumers with good flavor. We are refining technologies to sort the fruit by maturity and ripeness to remove the under-ripe and overripe fruit before shipment, better packaging to prevent bruising of softer, riper fruit during transport, methods to slow further ripening of riper fruit after harvest that may allow us to ship fruit at higher temperatures so that flavor is not lost.

"While you can always get the best flavor quality when you take a ripe product off the plant and eat it within a day, many US consumers do not have easy access to these products and most cannot get access year-round.  While consumers recognize that fruits and vegetables are good for them, they only eat 2 to 3 servings per day (including French fries) instead of the 5 to 9 servings that are recommended.  We believe that poor flavor contributes to low consumption. Our goal is to improve the flavor quality of fruits and vegetables available through your local grocery market so that consumers eat more – hopefully reaching the 5-a-day recommended for good health."

Posted on Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 6:43 AM

Wonderful umami

Mmmmm. Pepperoni and mushroom pizza. Potato chips. Umami (pronounced "oo-MA-mee") is, as a result of a series of scientific studies in the 1980s, officially recognized as a legitimate fifth primary taste, adding to the well-known sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes.

Umami is difficult to describe in just one word; it is a pleasant, hearty, savory, tongue-coating sensation.  And because it is so complex - a taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products - the taste blends well with other tastes to round out the flavors. This is why it’s hard to describe the delicious flavor of chicken soup.

Umami is a relatively new concept to most Americans, but this taste has been known for more than 100 years in some parts of Europe and Japan, where chemist Kikunae Ikeda is credited with identifying the taste. Ikeda analyzed the active ingredients in kelp stock, a staple of Japanese cuisine, and discovered that the delectable taste was associated with glutamate.  Glutamate is also present in other savory foods, including those used in Western cuisine, like tomatoes, mushrooms, asparagus, cheese and meat.

Ikeda later developed and patented a method of making monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a processed additive that adds umami taste to food, much like sugar makes things taste sweet. In this country, MSG is not looked upon favorably. There are as many discussions against the use of MSG as there are for the use of MSG to flavor foods.

Hanne Siversten, a UC Davis specialist with the Department of Food Science and Technology explains, “MSG does not taste like much alone, but added to foods, it shows synergistic effects. This means that new flavors appear, as a reaction between MSG and the food itself.”

The taste of umami works much the same way. And since it is an experience naturally occurring from compounds found in many foods, you don’t have to add MSG to understand the taste. You probably eat umami-rich foods every day. Who doesn’t like their spaghetti sauce with a little parmesan cheese? Or cheese and bacon on their hamburger?  These combinations ramp up the flavor of the whole meal. Check out the Umami Information Center (http://www.umamiinfo.com/), a great online resource for Umami information, facts and recipes.

Posted on Monday, August 23, 2010 at 6:37 AM

That liquid gold called honey

If those pollen-packing honey bees were to board an aircraft, they’d be charged for their carry-on luggage.

Fortunately they don’t and they’re not.

And if we were a bee, we’d have to visit two million flowers to make a pound of honey.

Fortunately we’re not, and we don’t.

The honey bee, brought to America by the European colonists in the 1600s, will be celebrated on National Honey Bee Awareness Day, Saturday, Aug. 21, but this insect should be celebrated every day of the year.

Revered for her indispensable pollination services, she also provides us with that liquid gold we call honey. Wonderful, delectable, soothing honey.

“Honey is nature’s miraculous food,” write Ron Fessenden and Mike McInnes, co-authors of the 215-page book, Honey Revolution: Restoring the Health of Future Generations.

“The nutritional composition of honey, calorie for calorie, is closer to fruit than it is to table sugar, high fructose corn syrup or any other sweetener."

They call it “sunshine energy” and “nature’s soul food.”

Over at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, University of California, Davis, pop.  6 million (honey bees, that is), the faculty and staff call this insect simply “amazing.”

This week the UC Davis beekeepers are extracting honey — uncapping the combs with an electric knife, spinning the frames through the centrifugal-force honey extractor, and then gathering the flow of honey.

“It’s a sticky situation,” agreed staff research associate Elizabeth Frost, as Bryce Sullivan, a UC Davis senior majoring in biochemical engineering, and Brandon Seminatore, a UC Davis junior majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology, extracted honey — amid a few bee escapees.

The finished product is perfect for pouring on pancakes and waffles. The National Honor Board provided these recipes that kids of all ages love:

Honey Raspberry Citrus Slush
1-1/2 cups fresh orange juice
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons lime juice
1-1/2 cups raspberries, fresh or frozen
1 cup crushed ice
Lemon or lime for garnish

In a blender, combine orange juice, honey, lemon and lime juices; mix until honey is dissolved. Add raspberries and ice; puree. Serve in beverage glasses garnished with a lemon or lime wheel. Makes six six-ounce servings.

Fruity Honey Yogurt Pops
1 cup fresh nectarines, pineapple or strawberries, chopped
1-1/2 cups plain yogurt
1/3 cup of honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
Eight 3-ounce paper cups and popsicle sticks or plastic spoons

In a blender, combine all ingredients; mix well. Pour evenly into eight paper cups; insert popsicle stick or plastic spoon in center of each. Freeze 4 hours or until frozen solid. Makes 8 pops.

Frame of Uncapped Honey
Frame of Uncapped Honey

HONEY EXTRACTOR and UC Davis student Bryce Sullivan (foreground), holds a frame of uncapped honey. In back is UC Davis student Brandon Seminatore. Both work at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis.

Sampling
Sampling

SAMPLING the honey are Bryce Sullivan (left) and Brandon Seminatore, UC Davis students who work at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. (Photos by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Friday, August 20, 2010 at 6:48 AM

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