UC Food Blog
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/.
Move over, Mrs. Fields. Make way for Mrs. Miller. “Mrs. Miller’s Chocolate Chip Cookies,” that is.
“Mrs. Miller’s Chocolate Chip Cookies” scored a big hit at the annual Solano County 4-H Presentation Day, held in Fairfield.
Caitlin Miller, 10, of Vacaville, a member of the Elmira 4-H Club, chose to give a presentation on a cookie she loves the most: her grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies.
Her grandmother, Alice Miller, of Washington state, formerly of Benicia, “makes them all the time,” Caitlin said. “She showed me how to make them and they’re really good.”
The secret ingredient, cream cheese, keeps them soft.
The two judges, Sally Moore of the Roving Clovers 4-H Club, Dixon and Sarah San Nicolas of the Golden Hills 4-H Club, Vacaville, proclaimed the cookies “delicious.” They gave a blue (very good) award for her presentation.
Caitlin, a fourth grader at Cooper School in Vacaville, posted the recipe on her display board, complete with photos of the entire process.
She said she enjoyed making them.
Probably not as much as the crowd at the Solano County 4-H Presentation Day enjoyed eating them. Within a matter of minutes, not a crumb remained on the platter.
Here’s the recipe:
Mrs. Miller’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup butter
4 ounces cream cheese
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2-1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
12 ounces chocolate chips, semi-sweet
1 cup of nuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Soften cream cheese and butter. Blend with brown sugar and granulated sugar until smooth. Add egg and vanilla and blend. Add flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and mix. Then add chocolate chips, and if desired, nuts.
Using an ice cream scoop, place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten dough slightly. Bake at 375 degrees for 12 to 14 minutes (until lightly golden).
A wise man once said that God made weather so farmers would have something to complain about. Or maybe he was just a wise-acre.
One very wet spring a few years ago I was talking with another wise man, the late UC plant pathologist Joe Ogawa. I told him that the fruit trees must be enjoying the rainy weather. Joe's response: "Oh, the trees are probably enjoying it—but the fungi are so excited they're jumping up and down!"
I was working that spring with Joe and his colleague Harley English on their book, Diseases of Temperate Zone Tree Fruit and Nut Crops. Sure enough, our meetings were often interrupted by phone calls from farm advisors, port inspectors, or scientists from USDA or the California Department of Food and Agriculture wanting advice about some piece of fruit they'd found covered with soggy bruises or a fuzz that was not its own. Joe knew his stuff and was eager to help. His idea of a really interesting pear or plum was the sort of thing that would send most of us out of the produce section and over to the canned or frozen fruit aisle in a hurry.
But his point about the rain that day was that it does a lot more than fill our reservoirs and nourish our plants. A late rain can also split cherries on the tree, spoil other fruit unless it gets immediate cultural or chemical treatment, and keep fields muddy enough to keep tractors out and delay planting for tomatoes and other crops. Growers rely on UC people like Joe Ogawa to help them find ways to address those problems without driving their costs (and yours) through the roof.
As a food shopper there's not a whole lot you can do about it—just enjoy the weather while you can, enjoy the food you do get, and hope for better growing conditions and prices next year. Sounds like farmers aren't the only ones complaining after all!
Follow these links to read more about Dr. Ogawa and the awards established in his honor by the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the American Phytopathological Society.
Joseph M. Ogawa