Posts Tagged: Small Farms
In the late 1800s, University of California researchers discovered how to remove salts from the soils of the Central Valley, turning it into one of the most productive agricultural regions.
UC researchers continue to play a key role in agriculture today, keeping California the nation’s leading agricultural state, from dairies in Tulare to nut farms in Newberry Springs.
A new brochure highlights the breadth of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ impact. UC guidelines have helped farmers boost broccoli production. UC scientists have developed sweet-tasting citrus and strawberries to meet consumer demands. UC certifies more than 95 percent of wine grapevines grown in the state, providing a reliable supply of high-quality vines for California’s multibillion-dollar wine industry. Whether it’s managing invasive pests, promoting nutrition or sustaining small farmers, ANR serves California’s communities with a focus on advising, educating and searching for solutions.
For more information, read the Cultivating California brochure.
uc anr minibrochure cover s2
Question: What exotic fruit has been named as a flavor in Starburst candy, Ice Breakers gum, SoBe beverages, Vitamin Water drinks, Bacardi rum and even Axe body spray?
Answer: Dragon fruit. (Hylocereus spp.)
If you want to try one, you may be in luck because now is the peak harvest season in Southern California for this subtropical cactus fruit with the fire-breathing name — also known as pitahaya. And it just so happens that growing and eating fresh dragon fruit is what Ramiro Lobo, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for San Diego County and the Small Farm Program, is most interested in.
Lobo says he’s known about pitahaya since he was a kid, but his professional interest was rekindled when the enthusiasm of the Rare Fruit Growers group intersected with an ongoing quest to find crops that are more water-efficient for the region.
“Wherever you can grow Hass avocados, you can grow dragon fruit,” he said. “And it uses less water than avocados or any other orchard crop that we grow in San Diego.”
“We’ve seen the market expanding. We’re seeing it in high-end restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas,” he said. “Supply is very sketchy right now, but growers who are selling direct at farmers markets are getting $7-8 per pound. Hardly any other fruit today is bringing that kind of money.”
One other clue that the U.S. market for this “artichoke from Mars” (as one LA Times writer described it) is expanding? Imports of the fruit have been growing from Vietnam, with perhaps 600 tons imported in 2010. And the USDA is currently working through the processes that could allow imports from Mexico, Thailand and Central America too.
While Lobo doesn’t sound too worried about competing with imported dragon fruit, he does hope your first taste of fresh dragon fruit is indeed very fresh.
“We cannot compete with Vietnam fruit for price, but we can definitely compete for quality,” he said. “The challenge is that a lot of people are exposed to dragon fruit, but the fruit quality is lousy. It’s a very sensitive fruit, so if you put it in a container and send it across the ocean for 10 days, it’s not going to be as good. But people who get exposed to a good variety keep buying it.”
In California, it is estimated that about 200 acres are planted in pitahaya, with anywhere from 400 to 1,000 acres planted nationwide.
Lobo oversees approximately 500 dragon fruit plants at the UC South Coast Research and Extension Center in Irvine. He is currently working to set up an irrigation trial for pitahaya, to better evaluate its water requirements. He is also working to test out different trellis systems, comparing hedge versus orchard systems for this fruiting cactus.
The UC South Coast Research and Extension Center is also where the pitahaya field day was held recently. Lobo said questions from the day’s 100 or so participants sounded like more growers are getting serious about growing pitahaya commercially, with more technical questions and an interest in disease, rodent and pest management.
“The bar has been raised, and [some of those questions] even put us in a bind because without the research, it is kind of hard to answer them,” he said.
In the meantime, Californians and marketing companies will probably continue to find new secondary uses for this fruit’s juice, pulp and name: Lobo says he’s seen wines made with dragon fruit and organic yarn dyed naturally with that fiery pink flesh.
Pitahayas, as packed at a small farm in San Diego. (Photo by Shermain Hardesty)
At UC South Coast Research and Extension Center, the dragon fruit plants are currently in an orchard system, though new trellis trials will soon be under way. (Photo by Shermain Hardesty)
Pitahaya blooms at UC South Coast Research and Extension Center. (Photo by Shermain Hardesty)
Colors of ripe pitahaya flesh can vary between red, fuschia, pink and white.
Irvine Field Station white flesh pitahaya
Welcome to August. Are you tired of summer squash yet?
If your dinners have been overflowing with zucchini recently (like mine have), now might be a great time to try new varieties of otherwise familiar vegetables.
One of the farm advisors I work with has long touted some varieties of "Asian vegetables" as more flavorful than their traditionally "American" cousins. Here in the U.S., vegetable varieties like these are more likely to be grown by farmers — and sold to customers — who have close ties to Asian immigrant communities. Richard Molinar, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for Fresno County, works frequently with Hmong farmers and says that he now prefers Hmong cucumber and Japanese eggplant to the varieties you might find in most California supermarkets.
After years of hearing Molinar's claims, I finally had a chance to try some of these new-to-me Asian vegetables during lunch at the Hmong Specialty Crops and Medicinal Herbs conference.
Presenters in the morning talked about crops such as sinqua, luffa (photo above has fresh luffa, in angled and smooth varieties), moqua, snake gourd, bittermelon and donqua — all of which are cucurbits, in the gourd family with other squashes and melons. Other Asian vegetables common in some specialty markets include leafy greens and tender shoots from chayote, amaranth, bittermelon, pumpkin, okra leaf, yam leaf, yucca and sour leaf plants. Discussions at the conference focused on these and other specialty crops, including ways to eat them.
"Maybe we need a recipe to teach customers how to buy these new crops," said Chukuo Thao, CEO of National Hmong American Farmers, who alternated between English and Hmong while speaking at the conference.
Some of the vegetables and herbs discussed at the conference were highlights of that day's lunch. The menu included a slushy Hmong cucumber drink, purple sticky rice, salsa made with cherry tomatoes, stir-fried mustard greens with pork skin, Hmong herbal chicken soup and steamed bittermelon stuffed with turkey.
But how did it taste? The stuffed bittermelon was what I was most looking forward to trying. The dish was delicious and wow, was it bitter! That is one appropriately named vegetable. Speakers at the conference suggested bitterness is frequently associated with medicinal qualities in Hmong cuisine.
Not all of the lunch dishes were bitter, of course. The cucumber dish was refreshing and very sweet, a dish with eggplant was spicy, and the mustard greens were salty and pungent. Many of the dishes were also made with lemongrass; Fresno County is where most of the nation's lemongrass comes from, according to Molinar in a recent article from the California Ag Network.
Curious about other Asian vegetables? Check out the Small Farm Program's guides to Asian vegetables, along with tips for farmers about how to grow and sell these niche varieties.
Question: The Small Farm Program has a lot of information about different vegetable varieties, but I'm still finding new vegetables to try. What are some of your favorite Asian vegetables?
P.S. While the conference was my first chance to taste bittermelon, Richard Molinar and Gus Schumacher (former USDA undersecretary) were being honored by Hmong community members for their long-time support of Southeast Asian refugee farmers. The two men were each given Hmong names in a special ceremony.
Although U-pick produce operations have been around for many years, farmers who let you hand-pick your blueberries was unheard of in this part of the state until recently.
We may have to thank UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Manuel Jiménez, who's work on cultivars that he planted in 1997 at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier has resulted in about 30 million pounds harvested in about 6,000 acres this year in California, mostly in the San Joaquín Valley.
A few days ago, my wife, Sylvia, and I decided to try our hand at picking our own berries at Soffel Farms in Redlands. It's one of the few local urban farms, or rather farms that became urban in the Inland Empire Area, which is San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
For the second year in a row, Soffel Farms is letting customers harvest as much as they want of its blueberries. This year, Ron Soffel is seeing people who drive more than a hundred miles to do just that.
"They don't see these around here, the closest are when you go up north to the San Joaquín Valley," he said of the blueberries as a new local crop.
By word of mouth, and of quite a few bloggers, locals and not so locals are showing up to pick the micro-nutrient rich blueberries, which many foodies see as magic pills in the fight against some types of cancer and obesity-related diseases like diabetes.
Of course, an incredible flavor helps too. For sure, pickers leave with a better understanding of what it's like to grow and harvest the foods that keep us healthy.
"Once they come up, and experience it, they come back," said Soffel.
Soffel Farms operates very much like other U-pick small-scale farms that are benefiting from agritourism, which UC small farm program has helped to develop to assist local growers. You check in, they give you a little basket and a couple of pointers:
- Walk carefully along the rows of bushes so do not damage the plants.
- Get only the ones that are purple; place the basket under the berries and gently roll your thumb over a berry to make it fall in the basket. (They do, just as if they were waiting for you!)
After you've picked enough, you go back and your berries are packed in 12 oz. plastic containers for which you pay $5 each.
I confess, my wife and I didn't wait until we got home to make sure we had gotten the most delicious blueberries we'd ever tasted! Once you taste a handpicked blueberry, it's hard not to eat some of the ones that should go into the basket.
I felt less guilty after seeing Soffel do the same as we spoke. Other visitors did it too, including a five-year-old who was accompanied by his grandparents, from San Diego. None of his blueberries went to a basket, but straight to his tummy.
"Purple!" he told me every time he put one in his mouth as we went along picking berries. He was the proverbial kid in a candy store. Thank goodness there was lots of that Mother Nature's candy.
As a consumer, I'm thankful that we have our own Manuel Jiménez, who tirelessly proved that blueberries could and should be added to the California cornucopia. And also for the determination of small growers like Soffel in keeping the agriculture tradition alive.
Although many farmers in California are now finding that blueberries are relatively easy to grow, Soffel says it's labor intensive. But it's helping him to keep his family tradition. Like many small-scale farmers, Soffel depends on direct sales. Adding blueberries to his pick-your-own operation, which includes a few acres of orange trees and avocados, is so far proving to be a good source of income, he said.
Soffel is typical of the decreasing number of local growers. They are constantly threatened by urbanization and its accompanying regulations. Soffel is a fifth generation farmer whose ancestors came from Oregon by wagon. The Stoffel Farms sign reads, "Established in 1914." Soffel says his family was among the pioneers that made the Redlands area famous for its oranges.
Most orange groves are gone and have been replaced by housing and commercial buildings; but Soffel and his family refuse to cut their roots to farming.
"I'll be a farmer forever," he told me.
I hope so. I'm waiting for word about his avocados being ready for picking.
(Photos: Alberto Hauffen)
A ranch dog "friended" me on Facebook the other day. Yep, a dog on Facebook. To be specific, this is a working dog on a ranch that produces meat and sells it directly to consumers like me.
And exactly how is a ranch dog on Facebook related to food?
More and more people are interested in connecting with farmers and ranchers who produce the food we eat.
If you buy fresh produce at a farmers market, you can also ask farmers (or their employees) questions about which variety is ripest right now, how the produce was grown, how the meat was processed, and what the farm is like. Proactive eaters can sign up for CSA harvest boxes to receive seasonal produce, know exactly who is growing their food, and pledge support to a particular farm or group of farms. We can visit farms to participate in agritourism by buying from farm stands, taking ranch tours and even getting into the fields to harvest "U-pick" berries and other fruit.
"Local is hot" was on one of the opening slides of Kathleen Merrigan's presentation at UC Davis last week. The USDA's deputy secretary was visiting campuses to discuss the agency's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign, which focuses on local and regional food system support.
And now we have another way to know a farmer, without even leaving the office: Anyone can like their favorite farmers on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, subscribe to their blogs, sign up for their email newsletters, and more.
Hearing about Suki the ranch dog's antics, with photos of her bathing in a water trough or videos of her chasing a field's pivot sprinklers, is another way for consumers to get a glimpse of ranch life from behind the scenes. Likewise, hearing from a farmer on Facebook about how today's rain might affect the cherry harvest is another way for me to feel connected with the farmer who is raising food I will soon be eating.
Chris Kerston of Chaffin Orchards put it this way: "If I'm walking along the field and I see a weird-looking bug, I'm going to stop, take a picture of it with my phone, put it on Facebook and ask 'Anyone know what this weird bug is?' ... It's just another way for people to see what it's like out on the farm."
Don't take it just from me: National companies are taking notice too. This month the editorial board of The Packer, a newspaper that specializes in the fresh produce industry, suggested that local is also about something else:
"While some national suppliers may look skeptically at the buy local trend, a component of local is consumers’ need to connect with where their food comes from.
"Social media is often the solution."
You can connect with the farmers and ranchers who produce your food — whether you buy it at a farmers market or in a supermarket — and receive updates from the farm or ranch through social media.
You can start by asking your favorite farmers or ranchers if they're on Facebook, and here are a few other networks for finding farmers online:
- Know A California Farmer is a website that shares updates, blog posts and videos from participating farmers and ranchers.
- Find farms near you with the Local Harvest directory and see if they are online too.
- I also maintain a list of California farmers and ranchers on Twitter.
Join the discussion: So, what would you like to know from the people who grow and raise the food you eat?
Bonus video: Connecting with social media goes both ways; farmers want to connect with consumers who buy and eat their products. Staff and academics with UC Cooperative Extension and UC Davis have offered social media workshops to help farmers connect with consumers online (next one for me will be in Marin County, June 1). Here's a video after one UC workshop a few months ago: