UC Food Blog
Every gardener can enjoy and/or hate a productive berry plant. The fruit production is confined to a very short season but the plant can take on enormous proportions if left unchecked. One must be ever diligent to keep the berry plants confined to the planting row and kept trellised to avoid the “overgrown” berry heap in the backyard. Nonetheless, if a person has a place in the sun for a four-foot-wide row of berries, the rewards are terrific.
One can even plant them on south facing wall as long as you can put up a sturdy supporting trellis. If you live in a very hot summer climate, it may pay to cover your berry plants with a shade cloth, especially during ripening.
From one plant you can harvest enough berries for a batch of delicious jam, or a luscious pie, some fruit for breakfast and, my favorite, blackberry popsicles (recipe to follow). After harvest, cut the berry canes that have already produced fruit back to the ground and trellis up those new canes growing up from the bottom. If you do that on an annual basis, you will keep the plants under control.
There are many varieties of berries and planting several with varying ripening periods spreads the harvest out over a longer time. Many varieties have a unique flavor, different from the “wild blackberry” that you may remember from the plant growing in the ditch. Some are thornless and easier to manage and others are quite thorny but the flavor is to die for.
Berries are divided into two groups: the trailing blackberries and erect blackberries. Trailing blackberries such as Boysen and Ollalie are popular varieties that are just now becoming ripe in Northern California. I have also been growing three of the erect cultivars that require a quite tall trellis - upwards of six to seven feet. But the fruit on these types are very large, and beautiful and the plants are vigorous and disease resistant. The varieties are “Black Satin," “Triple Crown” and “Cherokee.” These varieties will become ripe in another couple of weeks.
For more information on growing blackberries in your garden, visit the California Gardening website.
While you can use the berries in many ways, one that is truly a delight is to make blackberry popsicles. Here is the recipe:
Start by making a simple syrup by heating 2/3 cup of water to boiling, pour in 2/3 cup of white cane sugar and stir until dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Put three cups of washed fresh berries into a bowl and mash. You may want to strain out the seeds by pushing the fruit through a strainer, but you don’t need to. Blend with the cooled simple syrup. (You can also just put the berries into a blender with 2/3 cup of simple syrup.)
Pour the mixture into your popsicle mold and freeze for 3 to 4 hours. Insert the popsicle sticks and freeze 3 to 4 hours more. When frozen solid, take a popsicle in hand, mosey your way out to the garden, sit in a lounge chair in the shade and lick your troubles away.
Californians can take advantage of our abundant sunshine and temperate climate in order to grow fruit and vegetables they can truly call their own. Gardening has some very obvious rewards, giving gardeners the freshest fruits, vegetables and herbs possible. If you are a cook, adding a garden to your backyard will pay dividends all year long.
In order to get the greatest benefit of this fantastic produce, make sure you tailor your garden to your own needs. No reason to raise a beautiful crop of broccoli or swiss chard if your family won't eat it! Tomatillos may be seen as specialty crop for some, but an important part of the garden for others. Plant what you will eat, so you will eat what you plant.
As well as growing crops you will eat, think of the potential for storage for your produce. Handled correctly, both onions and garlic are receptive to long term storage. Tomatoes can be canned, herbs can be dried. Other crops like cantaloupe, honeydew, zucchini and corn are best eaten fresh. Plan your garden accordingly.
Getting your hands dirty in the garden is great- but at the end of the day, you need to eat. Cooking a fantastic dish starts with great ingredients. When those ingredients come from your own garden, things just seem to taste a bit better.
Roasted Chicken and Onions (A good way to use a lot of onions!)
6-8 chicken thighs. Bone-in, skin removed.
4 large onions yellow or red - sliced 1/4-1/2" wide
3 garlic cloves - minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
The following herbs to taste - recommend approximately 1/3 cup of combined chopped herbs, pick what is fresh and available in your garden.
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
- Dust chicken with paprika
- In a roasting pan, casserole dish or dutch oven toss all ingredients in order to coat chicken and onions with oil and herbs
- Bake dish uncovered for 25 minutes, toss all ingredients again, and bake until done- approximately 25 minutes more. Ensure juices run clear when chicken is pierced with knife or fork.
How about looking at Saturn through a telescope, picking your own cherries and blueberries, learning from UC Merced scientists how they estimate snow pack and water flow, taking a dip in the river, tasting local olive oil, wine and cheese, painting a picture, petting a lamb, and camping out in the walnut orchard? About 600 people enjoyed all this and more at the Pick and Gather Festival at Riverdance Farm in Merced County June 5 and 6.
Organic farmers Cindy Lashbrook and Bill Thomson, owners of the 70-acre diversified Riverdance Farm, host this annual event the weekend after Memorial Day. Lashbrook and Thomson are among the growing number of small and mid-scale California farmers and ranchers who open their farm gates to the public for enjoyment and education, helping to build community and connection between the 98 percent of Californians who do not work in agriculture and the 2 percent who do.
The Pick and Gather this year was a mellow family-friendly event with bands, folk-singers and belly-dancers entertaining the crowd. Informational booths, staffed by the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners, the WIC program, Valley Land Alliance, the Merced Farm Bureau and other local groups, were very popular. Local farms offered honey, jams, lemonade, olive oil and other goodies in a shady general store, and there was plenty of room to sit and enjoy lunch prepared by vendors or to eat picnics brought from home. Delicious ripe U-pick organic cherries and blueberries were at wholesale prices. With unemployment in Merced County at about 20 percent this year, Lashbrook and Thomson keep the admission price low and make sure to offer lots of free children’s activities, including art and a petting zoo, and of course, the river to play in.
Riverdance Farm itself, like many farms its size, is having a difficult time staying in business by simply selling crops.The owners would like to see their festival be part of helping sustain the farm financially without losing its friendly community feeling. Most of the visitors were not aware of the costs involved in putting on a festival, from the insurance to the health permit fees to the renting of the water-truck and the porta-potties, not to mention the cost of the farmers’ time away from the work of farming. Lashbrook estimates that it would take another few hundred visitors and maybe some more sponsors and paying vendors to turn the Pick and Gather into an income-generating venture.
The UC Small Farm Program’s agritourism project works to help agritourism operators plan successful and profitable agritourism enterprises on their working farms and ranches, and also to help visitors find festivals and other agritourism activities on working farms and ranches. The Small Farm Program website has a wealth of resources for growers evaluating their own potential for agritourism operations and navigating the risk management, business planning, permitting and promotional aspects of the new businesses.
Agritourism is blossoming in California, with farm tours, classes, farm stays, U-pick operations, farm stands and festivals in almost every county. Potential visitors can find a farm or ranch to visit and check the calendar for events at www.calagtour.org, the University of California’s agritourism directory. Farmers and ranchers are invited to list their agritourism operations and events on the site for no charge.
Riverdance general store
Valley Land Alliance booth
A dip in the Merced River
How do you use California table olives in your family meals? On pizza? In salads? In Mediterranean dishes? As part of your holiday relish trays?
Today, California is the only U.S. state to commercially produce olives. Over 95 percent of production is canned as California-style black-ripe or green-ripe olives.
California table olive (Olea europaea L.) growers rely on the primary ‘Manzanillo’ cultivar. To assure absolute quality, harvesting is done by hand. Using ladders, crews hand-harvest the olives off each branch, tree by tree. There can be 1,000 olives on a tree, so each crewmember can pick only two or three trees a day. Hand harvesting expenses account for roughly 45 to 60 percent of gross return for growers; and increasing labor costs adversely affect California’s global competitiveness in the table olive market. This is an unsustainable economic situation. California olive growers cannot survive spending more than half their gross incomes on harvest labor.
To help California olive growers deal with this economic dilemma, UC Cooperative Extension specialist Louise Ferguson and her team of research collaborators are focusing on the mechanical harvest of table olives, thus relieving the growers’ total dependency on the costly and shrinking numbers of available hand laborers.
Mechanizing the harvest of table olives presents some unique challenges. The tree canopy and trunk must be adapted to interface with the harvester, avoiding damage to the tree, and the fruit must be collected with minimum bruising. Mechanical harvesting is particularly difficult with table olives. Tree trunk damage, bruised fruit and poor removal efficiency have limited its acceptance.
New technologies have been developed to address these problems: trunk shakers and canopy contact harvesting heads. The most limiting factor, fruit damage, has been eliminated. The trunk shakers can be used in new high-density orchards developed by Ferguson and her team. The canopy harvester can be used in existing orchards if trees are pruned into hedgerows and in the new high-density orchards.
“I think we’ve turned the corner on mechanical harvesting of table olives,” Ferguson says. “And that makes me happy. Table olives are a traditional California crop – they came here with the early Franciscian missionaries. I would hate to see California growers lose their locally-grown advantage in the table olive market. We could actually see a resurgence in the industry.”
Olive trunk shaker
Olive canopy contact harvesting head
Healthy eating has gotten complicated. Fresh fruits and vegetables pack the produce aisle as never before. And new food products with added health benefits are being introduced all the time. Yet the food supply, and the agricultural system that supports it, has become increasingly criticized for its impact on the waistlines of millions of people in the United States.
“Agriculture and conventional food systems have provided the basis for long and healthy lives, and much of that improvement can be traced to healthier diets,” says UC Davis plant sciences professor Alan Bennett. “At the same time, we are faced with a growing critique that conventional food systems are a significant contributor to the health crisis that developed countries are facing, particularly related to obesity and diabetes.”
This dichotomy — that agriculture is both the problem and the solution to an increasing health crisis — is the backdrop for the 22nd annual conference of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC) at UC Davis June 16-18. The conference, “Promoting Health by Linking Agriculture, Food and Nutrition,” will examine ongoing research strategies to promote health through food and diet, as well as how governmental regulatory systems provide oversight of the relationship between food and health.
Leading food, nutrition and agricultural scientists from around the country will be participating in sessions with topics such as designing and producing healthy food, social and cultural dimensions of eating habits, bringing nutrition science to regulations, and how business can find food and nutrition innovations.
NABC has been hosting annual public meetings about the safe, ethical and efficacious development of agricultural biotechnology products since its formation in 1988 by the Boyce Thompson Institute in collaboration with UC Davis, Cornell University and Iowa State University. Today the organization consists of 36 leading agricultural research and teaching universities, governmental agencies and institutions in the U.S. and Canada.
“With health care consuming so much of the developed world’s resources, there is a critical need to understand how diet, nutrition and the underlying agricultural production systems impact human health,” Bennett said.
More detail about the conference agenda, program speakers and online registration is at http://nabc.ucdavis.edu/.