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Posts Tagged: organic

UC Davis tomatoes provide year-round healthful eating for college students

Chef Bob Walden, right, and Arnulfo Herrera, a cook, show off roasted tomatoes at UC Davis. (photo: Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis)
Today's dorm food is far superior to the tasteless, over-processed foods of decades past. No more mystery meat or mushy vegetables. Campus dining services across the country are providing a diversity of fresher and healthier foods, much to the delight of food-savvy students who want variety, flavor, and nutritious choices. Well... being students, they don't always make the healthiest choices, but educational programs at campus dorms are turning the tide toward more-healthful eating.

At the same time, chefs and food buyers at universities, particularly the University of California, are selecting for high-quality fruits and vegetables, produced locally and sustainably. Universities with strong food sustainability programs are rightfully proud of what they're doing to educate students about food production, health, and nutrition. UC Davis Dining Services prioritizes the purchase of locally grown food (ideally within a 50-mile radius of campus). Most University of California campuses have similar programs.

At UC Davis, fresh roma tomatoes are picked each August from the 300-acre Russell Ranch, part of the campus's Agricultural Sustainability Institute, then processed within hours by campus Dining Services to provide year-round tomato sauce for pizza, pasta, and ratatouille. All told, 10,000 pounds of tomatoes are processed during a two-week period in August. About 29 percent of the total food served in the campus's residential dining halls is from local, organic or sustainable sources.

(courtesy photo: UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute)
The tomatoes grown at Russell Ranch are part of a long-term academic research project that examines factors such as farming methods, irrigation needs, crop rotations, yield, and nutritional content. At the end of the growing season, some of the many tons of tomatoes are purchased by Dining Services at market value.

Emma Torbert, an academic coordinator at the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, noted, “Connecting the food system to the research is really interesting. A lot of times there is confusion about where our food is coming from. The more people are educated, the more educated decisions they can make.”

Many UC Davis faculty and staff are so impressed with the food choices at the dorms that they purchase individual meal tickets and enjoy lunches made with the campus-grown tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables, all of which are part of the daily food array. Public dinners are also offered periodically at the dorms so that community members can sit amongst students to taste and learn about the sustainability programs in the dorms.

Additional Information:

  • Video: Farm to Table, UC Davis Tomatoes; 2010
  • Slide show of this year's UC Davis tomato harvesting and processing system; 2014
  • Sustainable Foodservice Progress Report 2014, UC Davis Dining Services
  • Two videos of UC Davis students who work at the Student Farm to produce food, including one on tomato sauce production
  • “Tomatoes: Safe methods to store, preserve, and enjoy.” UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, free publication
Posted on Wednesday, August 27, 2014 at 11:11 AM

Feed big; start small

Adapted from an article by Eileen Ecklund in Breakthroughs magazine.

Mixing crop helps promote biodiversity, like this mixed-crop field of amaranth, sunflowers and broom corn at Fully Belly Far, in Guinda, Calif. Photo: Paul Kirchner Studios
Scaling up — that’s always the sticking point with organic farming when it faces the question of whether it can feed the world’s hungry millions.

But a group of UC Berkeley scientists say that continuing on our current path of industrial agriculture is simply not sustainable, given its enormous water, energy and chemical inputs, together with the new challenges posed by climate change, such as temperature and precipitation extremes.

With the launch of the interdisciplinary Berkeley Center Diversified Farming Systems late last year, UC Berkeley scientists are coalescing around a set of biodiversity-promoting farming practices they say are a promising solution.

Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist and associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, says that most or even all of the inputs that modern commercial farms require — chemical pesticides and fertilizers, wasteful amounts of water and energy, imported pollinators — were needed only because the monoculture-dominated landscapes created by industrial agriculture lacked biodiversity.

"From studying the pollinators, I realized that the way we conduct agriculture has basically required us to replace all of the ecosystem services that used to be in the agricultural ecosystem with substitutes," said Kremen, a 2007 MacArthur Fellow.

Generally speaking, a diversified farming system is one that promotes biodiversity across spatial scales, from plot to field to landscape. Crops are planted and livestock raised in combination, resulting in interactions that sponsor the functioning of the farming systems in ways that replenish natural ecosystems. Methods employed within a diversified farm may include minimal soil tillage, growing multiple crops together, planting cover crops, and interspersing trees and shrubs with crops and livestock.

Animals help to clear cover crops, which add nutrients to the soil and feed the animals, which in turn bear wool. Photo: Paul Kirchner Studios

These practices also provide pollination, pest and disease control, water purification, and erosion control. They help to build healthy, productive soil and reduce water use, as demonstrated by research conducted by Kremen and her Berkeley colleague Miguel Altieri in their respective labs and on farms in Napa, Sonoma, and Yolo counties.

But diversified farming systems aren't just about providing food and protecting the environment; to be truly sustainable, they must also provide a livelihood to farmers and farm laborers, and help support the communities that depend on them. UC Berkeley-based Cooperative Extension specialist Christy Getz has studied farm labor conditions and food security among agricultural workers. In one project, her team developed a program to help Southeast Asian refugee farmers in California scale up their operations, connect to alternative distribution systems, and access new markets for their produce, such as local schools.

Professor Alistair Isles focuses on the public policy, science policy, and sociological dimensions of making a switch back to diversified systems from industrial agriculture in developed countries. For example, he has studied the importance of innovative consumer tools that promote sustainable agriculture such issues as "food miles"—the distance that food travels from farm to table—and sustainable seafood evaluation methods.

A native species hedgerow borders an artichoke field at Fully Belly Farm in Guinda, Calif. Photo: Paul Kirchner Studios
Other Berkeley professors associated with the new center are experts in economics, agroecology and rangelands, bastions of biodiversity that support a host of ecosystem services beneficual to agriculture, including the pollination provided to farmers by wild bees.

If farmers could bring back many of the traditional practices that supported biodiversity, enhanced by the application of modern ecological science, Kremen believes that the world could produce more food while reducing agriculture's harmful effects, making it more sustainable over the long term.

And unlike organic agriculture, diversified farming systems are not an all-or-nothing approach; Kremen says farmers can implements all the systems the Berkeley center recommends based on its research, or simply implement selected techniques, such as planting native-plant hedgerows or using soil-enriching cover crops, and still make their farms more sustainable.

Posted on Thursday, January 19, 2012 at 8:07 AM
  • Author: Ann Brody Guy
Tags: biodiversity (1), farming (3), food security (19), organic (7)

Are weeds taking over your garden?

My calendar says November but the weeds in my garden think it’s spring. That nice rain last month followed by warm, sunny days has prompted them to grow like, well, weeds and that’s not good news for my winter crops.

What’s a gardener to do?

Like so many other gardeners, I turned to the folks at the UC Davis Weed Science Program. Housed in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, the “weeders” are experts at helping growers and gardeners improve plant production by controlling weeds.

Tom Lanini shares weed advice at UC Davis Picnic Day 2011.
What are the most effective organic tools for controlling weeds? That’s what I, and thousands of others, want to know. You don’t have to be an organic grower to seek organic tools for fighting weeds. Synthetic herbicides come with a cost to growers and the environment, so more and more farmers are seeing the value in employing organic tools with or without other means.

Which tools work the best in which situations? Here’s a quick overview, courtesy of Cooperative Extension Specialist Tom Lanini, who specializes in weed control in vegetable crops.

Mulches – Researchers test them all – plastic, bark, wood chips, other porous material, even what they call live mulches like clovers and fava beans. Mulches block light, which weeds need to grow. “I think mulches can be the best organic option for fighting weeds, especially for vines and trees,” Lanini says. Mulches are also a key weed-fighting component in organic strawberry and many other crops.

Organic sprays – Coverage is the key. “No matter what type you use – oils, soaps, acids, etc. – if you don’t spray-to-wet, 100 percent coverage, the weeds will grow back,” Lanini says. Temperature and the age of the weed matters too. Apply in temperatures above 75 degrees when weeds are very young – about a week old – for best results.  Broadleaf weeds are easier than grasses to control with sprays.

The most effective organic spray Lanini has found so far is good old-fashioned vinegar, the kind you use to make pickles. The trouble with that is, the FDA has yet to approve it for controlling weeds. “You can eat it, but can’t spray it on your weeds,” as Lanini says. There are herbicides with vinegar as their active ingredient, but they are much more costly than household vinegar.

Flamers – These propane-fueled devices quickly raise the temperature of the weed to more than 130 degrees, rupturing its cell membranes. Grasses are hard to kill by flaming because the growing point is protected underground. Flamers require quite a bit of fuel, which can be costly.

Solarization has become an important method of weed and disease control in organic desert vegetable crops. In this system, four to six weeks of solar heat under clear plastic film will kill weed seeds and pathogen propagules.

Cultural practices are extremely important in all vegetable crops especially in organic crops. Crop rotations result in shifting environments that do not favor any one weed. Use of preplant irrigation followed by shallow tillage, or flaming is a very effective method of reducing the potential weed infestation during the crop cycle.

Weeding and thinning by tool or machine is a time-honored solution. Never underestimate the value of a hoe.

You can read more about the UC Weed Science Program here and access the Weed Research and Information Center web site here.

For more detail on weed management for organic vegetable crops, Click here.

Posted on Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 8:42 AM

Alternatives to fumigation and improving fumigant efficacy

Synthetic soil fumigants such as chloropicrin and 1,3-D are used by some commercial growers to control soilborne pathogens, weeds and nematodes prior to planting strawberries, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and spinach.

These fumigants and all other biocidal products with the potential to harm the environment and human health are highly regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, and county agricultural commissioner's offices.

UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Oleg Daugovish and his collaborators work hard to find effective, environmentally safe and economically viable ways to improve efficacy of fumigants and to investigate alternatives to soil fumigation. The Ventura County Cooperative Extension website has archived audio and visual presentations, which include the following topics:

  • Assessment of permeability of commercial tarps under a variety of cultural practices and in various soil and environmental conditions is expected to lead to better understanding of maximizing fumigant effectiveness while reducing emissions.
  • Growing in substrate (soil-less culture) allows growers to produce crops with minimal plant disease and weeds without using fumigants.
  • Heating soil using steam is a successful way to disinfest it. However, the process to generate steam in a field can be slow and very expensive. Researchers are working to find ways to improve speed while reducing cost.
  • Most organisms, including plant pathogens, cannot survive without oxygen. Researchers are investigating an organic method to create anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions to treat soil before planting.
  • Planting mustard as a cover crop can provide many positive benefits, one of which is allelochemical compounds. These compounds found in mustard are similar to those found in fumigants. Current research shows it is possible to use this green biomass to prepare fields for production.

To read more about Daugovish's research, visit http://ceventura.ucdavis.edu/Com_Ag/comveg.

Posted on Thursday, September 22, 2011 at 5:18 PM
  • Author: Chris M. Webb

U-pick organic strawberry season opens on coast

Swanton Berry Farm near Davenport

The U-pick strawberry fields at Swanton Berry Farm near Davenport on the coast are formally opening on May 28, but if you drive out there now, you’ll get a chance to pick without a crowd. Talking to Barrett Boaen, the U-pick manager, I got to the bottom of just why their berries, also sold at local Whole Foods stores, look and taste so good.

Partly it’s the ‘Chandler’ variety, chosen for its old-fashioned sweetness and flavor although it yields only about two-thirds as well as some varieties. It’s also about not pumping up production with too much nitrogen or irrigation (more details here). Mostly, though, it’s about the picking process. A strawberry grower visiting from the East Coast recently bought two flats from the farmstand, saying he couldn’t help himself, he had never laid eyes on such beautiful organic berries, and he knew who to congratulate—the pickers.

The workers at Swanton Berry Farm


You and I are unlikely to come close to picking as well as Swanton’s unionized employees, some of whom have more than 20 years of experience at the farm. They recognize when a strawberry is as ripe as it can be, when it’s red and sweet all the way through (strawberries don’t continue ripening once they are picked). Although a less ripe berry is firmer, with a longer shelf-life and easier to transport, it has less flavor, so the pickers wait a day or two for any berry with a green tip or white shoulders to ripen perfectly. They discard berries that are soft on one side (from raindrops settling on the fruit) or have a cat-face look, which is lygus bug damage.

Moving along the rows, which are banked up to 18 inches high to reduce back strain, they harvest each perfectly ripe berry, with its green calyx attached, in a “twist and flick” motion: “you put tension on the stem above the calyx, and rotate it, so you can see 360 degrees and whether there’s any damage to the berry; then with just the right tension, the berry will pop off naturally,” explains Boaen.

In the U-pick fields, which have ocean views, visitors pick for pleasure, hopping from row to row, enjoying the fresh air, and the fragrance of the berries and the earth. Compared to the serious work in the other 20 acres of strawberries, “the 3 acres of U-pick are a playground,” says Boaen, “We provide people everything they need to be happy.”


U-pick tent at Swanton Berry Farm
Last week the fields were dusted with a zillion white flowers, which means a burst of fruit coming soon, but the cool wet weather this spring sealed the fate of the season. Growers need lots of fruit early, to sell before cherries and other fruits arrive on the market. Instead the late winter rains knocked off or damaged the flowers, and hail beat up the berries.

“It can be demoralizing,” Boaen admits. “All that energy put into the fruit after the excellent warm January was wrecked.”

Fortunately, the farm has several other crops, and the strawberry fields are filling with new berries. You can pick them this summer for $2.50 per pound (10 percent discount for bicyclists). Bring your own containers if you remember, a windproof jacket and boots in case of fog or mud, and most of all, Boaen recommends allowing plenty of time to enjoy yourself.

By mid-June, Swanton ollalieberries will be ripe, and by mid- or late July, the blackberries will be ready. Farm tours are available by reservation. Organic strawberry and ollalieberry jams, and five other kinds, are available at the farmstand or online.

Swanton's farmstand
Swanton's farmstand

Posted on Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 11:56 AM

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