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Future looks bright at UC Ag Field Day

More than 3,500 FFA and 4-H high school students from California and surrounding states will gather on March 6 and 7 at UC Davis for the annual Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Field Day. The smart, passionate youth will compete in two dozen agriculture contests, from livestock judging, to agricultural mechanics, to floriculture, to computer applications, and more.

FFA (formerly known as Future Farmers of America) and 4-H are youth development programs that help prepare young people for careers in the rapidly changing world of agriculture. 4-H, which is offered in California by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension, allows members to choose from projects in science, engineering, technology, animal science education, nutrition, healthy living and many other experiential learning activities.

Each year the young competitors spend countless hours preparing for the field day, the largest of its kind in the state.

Meat judging is among the competitions at Ag Field Day.

“Competing in Ag Field Day instilled in me the importance of a strong work ethic, the value of research, and the benefits of scientific methods for solving real-world problems in agriculture,” said Yousef Buzayan, a 2011 Ag Field Day participant now double-majoring in Managerial Economics and International Agricultural Development at UC Davis.

Ag Field Day is run and managed completely by UC Davis students who gain valuable experience in leadership, communication, and teamwork.

“Of all my experiences at UC Davis, managing Ag Field Day was definitely the biggest challenge, and with it came the biggest rewards,” said Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, California, who helped organize Ag Field Day as a student in 1992. “I learned how to manage many moving parts, and I learned that the best way to get things done well is to do it as a team.”

So if you're in Davis and see thousands of high school students on campus, you'll know who they are: tomorrow's leaders striving and thriving in Ag Field Day competitions. The future of agriculture is in good hands.​

Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 8:51 AM

New Valentine’s Day trends are good for kids

Last Valentine's Day, Nick Spezzano (Terri's son, in white shirt and bow tie) enjoys fresh vegetables and fruit with his classmates.
At some point in the last few decades, Valentine's Day in elementary schools ceased to be about sharing heart-felt sentiments on simple paper cards. It turned into a candy fest.

Now, with growing attention to the obesity crisis and increasing rate of type 2 diabetes in children, the tide is turning. Many school districts have begun to put limits on classroom parties and teachers are asking parents to provide healthy snacks.

Terri Spezzano, UC Cooperative Extension nutrition, family and consumer sciences advisor and the mother of two school-age boys, is delighted by the turnabout. She has found that, with a little creativity, healthful Valentine's Day parties can be just as fun for kids.

“Last year, I brought strawberries to my son's classroom. We can get local strawberries in California almost year round,” Spezzano said. “Strawberries are always a huge hit with kids. They're fun and shaped a little like a heart.”

Spezzano, who is also director of UCCE in Stanislaus County, manages a staff of 10 nutrition educators in Stanislaus and Merced counties who regularly visit classrooms to teach children about making healthy food choices. USDA provides funding to UC Agriculture and Natural Resources so UCCE offices around the state can offer these educational programs in schools serving low income families.

“Around Valentine's Day, they'll make strawberry smoothies, because they're pink and delicious,” Spezzano said.

Before bringing goodies to school for Valentine's Day, Spezzano suggests parents talk to the teacher. Even if conversation hearts, cupcakes, fruit punch and chocolate are permitted in the school district, the teacher may not like the idea.

“I wouldn't want to teach a class full of first graders strung out on sugar,” Spezzano said.

Spezzano advocates for healthy school parties, but she isn't opposed to allowing children to enjoy some sugary treats.

“I don't want to tell kids, ‘You cannot have sugar,'” she said. “That can lead to sneaking and hoarding and that's where we see more obesity problems.”

Spezzano offered the following suggestions for making Valentine's Day healthy and fun:

Sharing kind sentiments are a great way to celebrate Valentine's Day. (Photo: Jessica Christman, Factory Direct Craft Blog.

  • Give out Valentine-themed pencils or erasers. “These are available at dollar stores at a really good price,” she said.
  • Provide small boxes of raisins.
  • For a special treat, try the new “sour” raisins.
  • Serve heart-shaped pizza, offered by many pizzerias in mid-February. Be sure to pick healthful toppings like bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and mushrooms rather than high-fat “meat lovers” or double-cheese pizza.
  • Cut fruit, cheese or sandwiches into heart shapes using a metal cookie cutter.
  • Don't be afraid to go “back to basics” and allow children to exchange simple paper cards with a kind note, no candy needed.

UC Cooperative Extension offers two nutrition education programs. UC CalFresh provides nutrition education to low-income adults and youth. The UC Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program targets limited-resource families and children.

An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Thursday, February 12, 2015 at 6:26 AM

Tomatillos add Mexican flavor to California gardens

Tomatillos look like Chinese lanterns growing on a vine.
With spring quickly approaching, it is the ideal time to plan a summer garden in California. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash are common and relatively easy to grow. But gardening veterans and rookies alike may want to add some ethnic flavor by cultivating tomatillos.

UC Cooperative Extension advisor Maria de la Fuente said she has planted tomatillos in her backyard garden every year since she moved to California from Monterrey, Mexico, in 1995. De la Fuente serves UC Agriculture and Natural Resources in various roles. She is the director of UCCE in Monterey County, an advisor to commercial specialty vegetable producers in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties, and the Master Gardener coordinator in Santa Clara County. She said she personally uses tomatillos regularly to make fresh green salsa, green pico de gallo and flavorful traditional sauces for dishes like chili verde.

“You could use green tomatoes, but it doesn't taste the same,” de la Fuente said. “There's really no substitute.”

Tomatillos are native of Mexico and a staple of Mexican cuisine. De la Fuente, who lives in Santa Clara County, said she starts seeds indoors in March and transplants into her garden in mid-May with great success.

“They grow like weeds, but I also buy a lot in the store,” de la Fuente said. “I make a lot of green salsa.”

Tomatillos, small green or green-purple to red fruits that mature inside paper-like husks, can be a healthful addition to family meals, according to the UC CalFresh nutrition education program, which developed a fact sheet in English and Spanish for cooking and eating tomatillos. Tomatillos contain Vitamin C, Vitamin K and potassium and are naturally low in calories.

Crab molotes with avocado tomatillo salsa. (Photo: California Avocados, CC BY 2.0)
Purple and red-ripening cultivars often have a slight sweetness; green- and yellow-ripening cultivars are more tart. Both types can be used for salsas and sauces. The fruits are white inside and meatier than tomatoes, which are in the same family, but a different genus.

To grow tomatillos, spread seeds on moist soil in an egg carton or shallow tray, place in a sunny location inside and keep the soil moist. When the plants are about six inches tall, transplant about three feet apart into garden soil that has been mixed with compost or humus. Select an area where they will get plenty of sun and be sure to plant more than one as two or more are required for proper pollination. The plants will grow to about 3 or 4 feet high and will need support to keep the fruit off the ground.

Tomatillos look like delicate Chinese lanterns on the vine. They are ready to harvest when the fruit fills and splits the husk, but leave the inedible husk on until use. Tomatillos may be kept in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator for about two weeks. For preservation, they may be frozen fresh or cooked. Prepared tomatillo salsa, chutney, relish, jam and sauce may be preserved using boiling water or pressure canning methods.

To prepare tomatillo sauce, gently squeeze the vegetable from the husk. Wash in cool, running water to remove stickiness from the skin. Sauté 2 cups chopped tomatillos, 1 diced onion and 1 diced garlic clove in 2 tbsp. oil. Add ¼ cup of water and heat until the vegetables are soft. Purée in a blender. De la Fuente suggests adding fresh cilantro to enhance the flavor of the sauce.

The CalFresh fact sheet says parents may feed children 6 months of age and older cooked tomatillo and sweet potato puree. Toddlers may be offered small pieces of cooked tomatillos and carrots. Older children may enjoy the vegetable served with cooked potatoes and onion as a burrito filling, or the pureed sauce as a dip with quesadillas, bread or raw vegetables.

An initiative to maintain and enhance healthy families and communities is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 at 10:36 AM

More reason to eat your legumes

The farmers who first introduced Missoula, Montana-native Liz Carlisle to the revolution taking place deep in her home state's grain belt were a diverse group that included lefty liberals, fundamentalist Christians, and freewheeling libertarians. But they shared a common plight: Years of drought and costly chemicals had damaged their bottom line and their soil, and threatened their family farms.

Carlisle, a recent geography Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, where she is now a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems, first encountered the group when she worked for U.S. Senator Jon Tester. They were disparagingly called “weed farmers” by Tester's more conservative constituents because of the messy, low-lying appearance of the plants they farmed: organic lentils.

Lentils were a natural for Montana's water-stressed landscape. When there's no water, the plants neither wither nor bolt—they simply pause their growth cycle. So they don't require irrigation. On top of that, they also preserve nitrogen in the soil, fertilizing themselves and leaving behind healthier soil for the next crop.

By cooperating instead of competing, the group of former conventional farmers built a successful company, Timeless Seeds, and showed doubters, including their own state university, that sustainable farming was both possible and profitable.

Carlisle, who studied with Michael Pollan and received book-jacket support from food luminaries including Marion Nestle, Frances Moore Lappé, and Raj Patel, is herself part of the colorful cast of characters she paints in the book: She was a professional country singer and learned that the “amber waves of grain” she sung about didn't live up to their hype as she gigged her way across the country and chatted with farmers after shows.

Carlisle implanted herself in the community of Timeless Seeds farmers across four years of dissertation research, and through their story she lays out a workable vision for sustainable agriculture in the age of climate change.

Read her San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed article and a book review of Lentil Underground, which calls the book "an important contribution to the sustainable agricultural genre."

Posted on Monday, February 9, 2015 at 7:44 PM

Edible Education course draws a crowd

From left, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan and Garrison Sposito talk Jan. 26 at the opening session of the Edible Education course at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Robert Durell)
The Edible Education 101 course at UC Berkeley kicked off Jan. 26 with big-name excitement: an auditorium packed with students, the buzz of a public live-streamed audience and luminaries tackling the timely topic of food.

Not just what we eat, but also how food is produced and its impacts on the economy, health and the environment. How the food system has been transformed, why it matters and what we can do about it.

“People care about food,” said opening lecturer Michael Pollan, author and UC Berkeley journalism professor. “I think food is a very powerful teaching tool.”

Pollan and Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, a UC Berkeley alumna who founded the Edible Schoolyard Project, started Edible Education in 2011 as a way to bring food education to undergraduate students. This semester's course — which is co-hosted by New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman and poet Robert Hass — has an added dimension: Lectures are being live streamed to the public. The opening lecture has received more than 7,000 views so far. Upcoming guest speakers will include Marion Nestle, Eric Schlosser and Raj Patel.

“We're a public university,” said course instructor Garrison Sposito, a renowned UC Berkeley soil scientist. “Let's reach the public. How can we do that in today's world? Let's do that by technology.”

As part of the UC Global Food Initiative, UC Berkeley also hopes to offer Edible Education as an online course available for credit to students throughout the UC system, said David Chai, special adviser to UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.

Edible Education is presented by the Edible Schoolyard Project, Berkeley Food Institute, UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources and UC Global Food Initiative with support from the UC Berkeley Chancellor's Office and the Epstein/Roth Foundation.

Advancing food studies

“If you look at the lineup of speakers, it's pretty impressive,” said Bittman, who is a distinguished visiting fellow this spring at the Berkeley Food Institute. “I think the results will be fantastic.”

Having the support of UC President Janet Napolitano and the Global Food Initiative adds credibility to the study of food, said Nestle, a food studies, nutrition and public health expert who will deliver the next Edible Education lecture at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 2.

Nestle, a New York University professor with a visiting appointment at UC Berkeley's journalism school, recalled having to convince NYU's administration in 1996 that food studies was a suitable academic pursuit. “We were it at the time,” Nestle said. “Now everybody's doing it. It's very exciting.”

Hass, a UC Berkeley professor of English and former U.S. poet laureate who has taught an environmental studies course with Sposito, said that when they invited Pollan to speak nearly two decades ago, “you could see the way students were engaged. Immediately, they could connect.” Today's students are even more sophisticated, Hass said.

Increasing awareness

“It's important that we all become more aware of what the food industry is doing — I can't walk by without someone eating a hamburger,” UC Berkeley sophomore Audrey Nguyen said. “We can't sacrifice our health for convenience.”

Pollan said there is a place for meat but he encouraged people to eat less of it and said he would like to see changes in how animals are raised. During his lecture, “A Brief History of the Modern Food System,” he noted a rapid transformation into an oil-dependent food chain. He demonstrated his point by placing a McDonald's hamburger on a table with four glasses, into which he poured a dark liquid (chocolate syrup) meant to represent oil.

“(It takes) 26 ounces of oil to produce one double quarter pounder with cheese,” Pollan said. “We're eating a lot of oil.”

Upcoming Edible Education lectures will further explore the rise and future of the food movement.

Related links:

Posted on Monday, February 2, 2015 at 10:51 AM

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