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How one farmer’s invention is reducing postharvest losses around the world

In many developing countries, more than half of all fruits and vegetables are never eaten, but instead are lost, damaged or spoiled after harvest. These “postharvest” losses can mean that farmers need to sell their fresh produce as soon as it is harvested for whatever price they can get, before they lose the crops that represent investments of labor, water, and agricultural inputs. Improving how fruits and vegetables are handled after harvest can significantly prolong freshness — and cooling is key.

“The three most important aspects of postharvest handling are: temperature, temperature, temperature,” said Michael Reid, UC Cooperative Extension postharvest specialist who works with the Horticulture Innovation Lab at UC Davis. “In the developing world in particular, affordable cooling technology is mostly absent.”

Cooling can be expensive — even for American farmers 

As a farmer in upstate New York, Ron Khosla knew this problem too well. His vegetable crop was spoiling too quickly, but he could not afford to buy a walk-in cooler for his small farm. So he invented a solution: a small electrical device he called a CoolBot that tricks an air conditioner into getting colder without freezing over, turning a well-insulated room into a cold room at lower costs than refrigeration. 

“I was hoping for a cheap, DIY solution that I could maintain. But mostly I just needed to keep my leafy greens and strawberries cold,” Khosla said. 

The CoolBot tricks an air conditioner into getting even colder, seen here keeping vegetables fresh in Cambodia, as part of a project with the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
One of his farming customers suggested he sell this device to other farmers, so he started a small business called Store It Cold, LLC. 

Khosla's CoolBot invention caught the eye of postharvest researchers, including Reid, who saw it in action on farms in California and decided to try using it in developing countries too.

CoolBot goes global with the Horticulture Innovation Lab

In one of his first projects with the Horticulture Innovation Lab (a program led by UC Davis with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development), Reid partnered with agricultural scientists from Uganda, Honduras and India to test the CoolBot in their climates. The four scientists also tested different local materials as insulation for each of the cold rooms.

Since that first project, the Horticulture Innovation Lab has tested CoolBots for farmer cold storage in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and Honduras. 

Jane Ambuko of the University of Nairobi is another Horticulture Innovation Lab partner who has worked with the CoolBot. She received a grant to pilot this technology with mango farmers for a program called the Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine. Her project was featured on an NTV Food Friday news segment about the CoolBot earlier this month.

“I see the CoolBot making a whole lot of difference,” Ambuko said during a TEDxNairobi speech. “But for it to make that desired difference we have to make it cost-effective and affordable for the smallholder farmers.”

Adapting, troubleshooting and scaling up

In many places, the most expensive part of a CoolBot-equipped cold room is the structure for the insulated room, but both Reid and Khosla expect foam building materials to become more widely available and affordable.

From left, farmers Pak Ry and Brap Yart carry a bin of sponge gourd and banana leaves into a CoolBot-equipped cold room in Cambodia, to keep the produce fresh before sale. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo)
Reid has contacted Khosla, the farmer-inventor, to troubleshoot challenges and discuss results from new locations. In places without reliable electricity, Reid has tested options for solar power.

In the meantime, Khosla's small business has been growing — selling to not only farmers, but also florists, micro-brewers, and other artisanal food businesses. Now with six employees, the company has sold more than 27,500 CoolBots in 51 countries.

“I'm thrilled and so grateful to be a part of helping lots of people. Working with USAID has gotten us known in other countries, and I'm looking forward to the day when we have enough in-roads in India and Africa where we can work directly with farmers there,” Khosla said. “People didn't believe the CoolBots worked at first. But now we get the most amazing letters from people whose businesses have doubled or quadrupled. Good postharvest care makes such a difference. Once they try it, then they see.”

A previous version of this article appeared in the newsletter for Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, and also in the Horticulture Innovation Lab blog.


Event - Sustainable solutions and extending California's agricultural expertise to the world: The UC Global Food Initiative and UC Blum Centers will host a Global Food Summit on Sustainable Solutions, May 5-6 at UC Irvine. Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and UC Cooperative Extension postharvest pomologist at UC Davis, will be speaking about technology transfer for horticulture-related technologies such as the CoolBot, seed drying beads, UC Davis-designed chimney solar dryer, pest-exclusion nets, and other tools the program adapts to the needs of farmers in developing countries. She will also be on a panel with two other UC Davis-based directors of Feed the Future Innovation Labs (UC Davis leads five Feed the Future Innovation Labs with funding from USAID — more than any other university). More info about this event.

Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 at 8:55 AM

California food choices won’t save much drought water, researchers find

Can you help fight the California drought by consuming only foods and beverages that require minimal water to produce?

One cup of lettuce uses only one gallon of drought water. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)
Well, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. In a recently published paper, Daniel Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis, and research assistant Nina M. Anderson mine the details of this issue to help us all better understand just what impact our food choices can have on conserving California's precious water.

To begin with, not all water drops are equal because not all water uses impact California's drought, the researchers explain.

Drought-relevant water

So just what water does qualify as California drought-relevant water? You can definitely count surface water and groundwater used for agricultural irrigation as well as water used for urban purposes, including industrial, commercial and household uses.

And here are a few examples of what water is not relevant to California's drought:

Rain that falls on un-irrigated California pastureland is not relevant to California's drought.
-- Water used in another state to grow animal feed that is consumed by California livestock;

-- Water used in another state to produce young livestock that are later shipped to California for food production; and

-- Rain that falls on un-irrigated California pastureland. (Studies show that non-irrigated, grazed pastures actually release more water into streams and rivers than do un-grazed pastures, the researchers say.)

In short, California's drought-relevant water includes all irrigation water, but excludes rainfall on non-irrigated California pastures as well as any water that actually came from out-of-state sources and wound up in livestock feeds or young livestock eventually imported by California farmers and ranchers.

Also, the amount of water that soaks back into the ground following crop irrigation doesn't count – and that amount can be quantified for each crop.

Comparing water use for various foods

I think you're getting the picture; this water-for-food analysis is complicated. For this paper, the researchers examined five plant-based and two animal-based food products: almonds, wine, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, milk and beef steak.

In teasing out the accurate amount of water that can be attributed to each food, the researchers first calculated how much water must be applied to grow a serving of each crop or animal product. Then they backed off the amount of water that is not California drought-relevant water, arriving at a second figure for the amount of drought-relevant water used for each food.

They provide a terrific graph (Fig. 3) that makes this all quite clear, comparing total applied water with California drought-relevant water used for the seven food products.

Milk and steak top the chart in total water use, with 1 cup of milk requiring 68 total gallons of water and a 3-ounce steak requiring 883.5 total gallons of water.

But when only California drought-relevant water is considered, one cup of milk is shown to be using 22 gallons of water and that 3-oz steak is using just 10.5 gallons of water. (Remember, to accurately assess California drought-water usage, we had to back off rainwater on non-irrigated pastures and water applied out of state to raise young livestock or feed that eventually would be imported by California producers.)

“Remarkably, a serving of steak uses much less water than a serving of almonds, or a glass of milk or wine, and about the same as a serving of broccoli or stewed tomatoes,” write Sumner and Anderson.

Still skeptical? Check out their paper in the January-February issue of the “Update” newsletter of the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at http://bit.ly/1XKZxxC.

Bon appetit!

Posted on Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at 4:45 PM

A spotlight on sorghum

A rainbow of sorghum varieties. (Photo: Roy Kaltschmidt)
Sorghum might just be one of the most interesting foods you aren't yet eating. This ancient cereal crop is the fifth most important cereal crop in the world, according to the Whole Grains Council. It's a popular food crop in Africa and parts of Asia, yet in the United States, sorghum has been more commonly used for feeding livestock. But that situation may be poised to change, as more chefs and farmers reconsider this ancient food, which is gluten-free, high-fiber and rich in nutrients.

Drought tolerant crop

To learn more about sorghum, we started with one of the nation's leading experts on the crop – Jeff Dahlberg, director of University of California's Kearney Agricultural Research Center in Parlier, CA. Jeff previously served as the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) curator for sorghum. He was research director for the National Sorghum Producers and the United Sorghum Checkoff Program. In 2011, Jeff was recipient of National Sorghum Producers' Outstanding Achievement Award. In other words, he knows his sorghum.

Jeff Dahlberg
The UC researcher tells us this ancient cereal crop can be grown on roughly 85 percent of the arable land available to agriculture.

“The versatility of sorghum allows it to be used in a wide range of food, feed and bioenergy products,” Dahlberg said. “The plant has inherent drought tolerance and can thrive in growing conditions that would seem too harsh for other crops. With more research and outreach, sorghum could be an extremely valuable crop for helping to feed the world in the future as we deal with limited inputs and water.”

Dahlberg first became interested in sorghum as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, a land-locked African country that consistently is one of the lowest-ranked in the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI).

“Niger's farmers relied on rainfall to produce their major staples and sorghum was a crop that did well under limited rainfall,” Dahlberg said. “The crop was extremely versatile in that the grain was used for human food production, the leaves were harvested for animal feed and the stalks, many of which could be as tall as 12 feet, were used as building material. The versatility and the toughness of the crop got me interested in researching what made this crop work.”

For an interesting look at why farmers are considering sorghum, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Delicious, nutritious food

What has Dahlberg most excited about sorghum is it's potential as a drought-tolerant human food crop.

“Sorghum has real potential as a healthy, low-cost cereal crop for the gluten-free market, but also as an Old World cereal that can be blended with other flours and used in unique breads," he said. “Sorghum doesn't have gluten, so you can't use it for nice leavened breads, but you can use sorghum to make nice biscuits, flat breads, quick breads, cakes, cookies, brownies and pancakes.

Sorghum should be thought of as whole grain flour that has a neutral color, little taste and unique cooking characteristics. Dahlberg admits his favorite way to eat this grain is as a brownie made with sorghum flour, but he says the plant “can be extruded to produce excellent snack and cereal products. It can be popped like popcorn, flaked and otherwise processed like other cereals.”

Sorghum syrup is a well-known sorghum product. (Photo: Tony Monica)
Recipes and nutrition

To find delicious ways to enjoy sorghum, we went in search of some good recipes.

These five ways to eat sorghum from thekitchn got us thinking. Why not use sorghum instead of rice for a change in salads? Also, the Mexican sorghum bowl looks delicious.

More fun serving ideas can be found at American Sorghum's page. Did you know there are now sorghum beers?

We also have our eye on this sorghum salad from Whole Grains Council; it includes oregano, feta cheese and pine nuts.

Sorghum syrup is an old-fashioned Southern favorite. As Sherry Leverich Tucker explains in this interesting Mother Earth News article, this sweet, dark, heavy syrup is made by cooking the juice squeezed from the sorghum cane. Just don't call it molasses, which is derived only from the process of making cane sugar. But do use sorghum as you would molasses in recipes. For ideas, consider these recipes from Southern Living. Beef ribs with sorghum glaze, anyone?

It's healthy: Medical Daily reports, “Sorghum has high nutritional value, with high levels of unsaturated fats, protein, fiber and minerals like phosphorus, potassium, calcium and iron. It also has more antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates.”

In an old episode of the television show Cheers, the protagonist Sam Malone says, “I didn't say I wanted sorghum, I said I wanted some more gum.”

We think if Sam Malone had actually tried sorghum, he would have preferred it over gum.


Today's post is contributed by Teresa O'Connor, assistant editor of the UC Food Observer. The UC Food Observer is edited by ANR's Rose Hayden-Smith. For policy wonks to the public at large, the UC Food Observer is your daily selection of must-read news from the world of food and agriculture, developed by the University of California as part of the UC Global Food Initiative. The UC Food Observer blog and related social media channels aim to highlight important news and add value to the varied discussions occurring about how to sustainably and nutritiously feed the world. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted on Wednesday, March 16, 2016 at 11:34 AM

Twenty questions that can predict obesity

Eating vegetables at meals and snacks helps indicate whether a child is at risk for obesity.
By asking 20 simple questions about family eating habits, health professionals can help predict the likelihood that young children will become overweight or obese in the future, according to research by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) scientists.

This knowledge allows professionals to quickly identify where interventions are needed to change behaviors before the children end up with chronic diseases caused by an unhealthy trajectory of weight gain.

The project was a collaborative effort involving the nutrition science laboratory of Marilyn Townsend, UC Cooperative Extension specialist based at UC Davis, and UC Cooperative Extension's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program educators. Funding was provided by grants from USDA and UC ANR.

The 20 questions came from a much longer Healthy Kids survey. In creating the survey, the scientists focused on young children in low-income families, which are disproportionately affected by the obesity crisis. The USDA is troubled by statistics that show that, over the last three decades, the rate of overweight and obesity has risen consistently.

The Healthy Kids 20 key questions includes a query about playing outside.
Organizations that work with low-income families are eager to determine which families need help to modify their at-home eating practices to ensure a healthier outcome for the children. The wording of the initial versions of survey questions were identified by poring over dozens of peer-reviewed published research reports. Townsend and her staff then conducted numerous interviews with parents to reword questions so that those with literacy issues could understand the meaning as researchers intended.

“Parents have control over the children's environments. They buy the food and serve it. We looked at what parents are doing that might be impacting obesity,” Townsend said.

The researchers identified 23 dietary decisions that parents were making that seemed to contribute to their children's weight gain. The researchers then wrote 48 questions to gauge the 23 behaviors.

Developing an effective questionnaire involved extensive research and testing. Ultimately, the most effective format included pictures that looked like family snapshots, not stock photos, simple language and multiple choice questions. The survey was made available online to agencies that work with low-income families. It works, but it's long.

Streamlining the survey became the Townsend lab's next order of business.

Working with UCCE nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisors, the team recruited 170 children between 2 and 5 years old and their parents. They measured the children's height and weight and took blood samples at three times during the four-year study. The parents also completed the 48-question survey.

“By tracking height and weight, and comparing the changes over time, we got a clear picture which children were on an excessive weight gain trajectory,” Townsend said. “With the blood samples, we were able to look for biomarkers that are indicative of inflammation, which are related to choices in the family environment.”

Using sophisticated statistical analysis, the scientists were able to identify the 20 questions that were most indicative of unhealthful weight gain and higher incidence of biomarkers that indicated low grade inflammation in the children's blood.

 

 

The 20 questions are:

  1. What time does your child go to bed at night?
  2. How often does your child eat vegetables?
  3. How often does your child eat fruit?
  4. How often does he or she drink milk?
  5. What type of milk does she or he drink, whole, reduced fat, low fat, skim milk or soy?
  6. How often does the parent buy vegetables – rarely, sometimes, always, etc.?
  7. How often does the parent buy fruit?
  8. How often is fruit available ready for the child to eat?
  9. How many hours a day does the child watch TV?
  10. How often does the child snack on foods like apples, bananas or carrots?
  11. How often does the child eat vegetables at breakfast, lunch and dinner?
  12. How many kinds of vegetables does the child eat each day?
  13. How many hours a day does the child play video or computer games?
  14. How many times per day does he or she eat candy, cake or cookies?
  15. How often – every day, most days, some days, etc. – does the child drink soda?
  16. How many times per day does she or he drink sports drinks or sugared drinks? One to five or more?
  17. How many times per day does the child eat chips?
  18. How many times per week does the family eat fried foods?
  19. Does the parent regularly trim the fat off meat before eating?
  20. How often does the parent play outside with the child each week?

 

Posted on Monday, March 14, 2016 at 8:33 AM

Farmers learn, connect, tour and taste in Sacramento

Running a small-scale farm or ranch isn't easy; it requires hard-learned skills, innovative marketing and a supportive community. Farmers and ranchers from all over California will join with farmers' market managers, educators, small farm advocates, and some of the most creative of Sacramento's Farm to Fork chefs at the California Small Farm Conference, held this year at the DoubleTree Hotel in Sacramento from March 5 to March 8, 2016.

For three days, about 400 attendees will join workshops, explore with field courses, network with colleagues and enjoy a few social events. The now-annual conference was started by the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) Small Farm Program in 1982 as a unique opportunity for small-scale farmers to learn, network and grow their businesses. UC ANR specialists, advisors and staff continue to contribute to the conference as members of the board of directors and as educators presenting science-based information at workshops and field courses.

Vonita Murray
The conference offers workshops in five different themes. This year, among many other speakers, UC Cooperative Extenison (UCCE) small farms and agricultural economics advisor Ramiro Lobo will lead a workshop on risk management strategies for farm enterprise diversification; Alda Pires, UCCE Cooperative Extension specialist in urban agriculture and food safety, will speak at a workshop on food safety on bio-diversified small-size farms and the FSMA Produce Safety Rule; and UCCE advisor Paul Vossen will teach about both growing cider apples in California and irrigation management for olive growers in a time of drought. In addition to UC and other educators, each of the 25 workshop sessions includes the perspective and practical experience of at least one small-scale farmer or farmers market manager.

Sunday, March 6, features all-day field courses and short courses, giving participants a chance for deeper understanding and multiple perspectives as they explore their choice of four different topics. Two of the courses this year will be led by UC ANR educators or staff.

For the on-site short course, "Starting a SUCCESSFUL Specialty Food Business," Shermain Hardesty, a UCCE specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis (and leader of the UC Small Farm Program) teams up with Linda Harris, a UCCE specialist in Food Safety and Microbiology at UC Davis, Dan Sullivan, a specialty food business expert and specialty food producers, Jason Poole of Preservation & Co. and Courtney Smith of Bloomingcamp Ranch. UCCE Agritourism Coordinator Penny Leff will lead a field course named, "Direct Marketing: Farmers' Markets, Farm Stands, U-Pick and Wine Tasting," that will visit and learn from some of Sacramento region's expert practitioners of these various direct marketing venues.

Sacramento region food and beverage fans are invited to attend the "Taste of Sacramento" Tasting Reception on Monday, March 7, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Tasting Reception is the culinary and social highlight of the California

Small Farm Conference and showcases the beautiful bounty of the region. Attendees will taste the creations of Sacramento's best Farm-to-Fork chefs, brewers, winemakers and artisan food and beverage producers. Local farmers, including Riverdog Farm, Full Belly Farm, Heavy Dirt Farm, Dragon Mushrooms, and others are providing meat and produce for the chef's cook-off contest (you vote for your favorite) featuring chefs from Mulvaney's, Magpie Cafe, Localis, Federalist Public House, the Culinerdy Cruizer, and Sacramento's Food Literacy Project. Proceeds ($50 ticket - purchase here or at the door) support the Small Farm Conference scholarship program.

Online registration for the conference has now closed, but on-site registration is welcome! For more information, see the California Small Farm Conference website, or phone (888) 712-4188. See you there!

Posted on Tuesday, March 1, 2016 at 1:56 PM

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