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Posts Tagged: Beth Mitcham

Hot days, cool rooms, tasty vegetables

I’ll admit that one of my favorite things to do on a hot day is to walk into an air-conditioned room. That burst of cool air in those first moments can be so refreshing.

It turns out I’m not alone — fruits and vegetables like to be cool on hot days too.

Shade provides some simple cooling at a fruit and vegetable market in Tanzania. (Horticulture CRSP photo by Kent Bradford)
“Temperature management, or cold chain, is the single most important factor in maintaining postharvest quality in fruits and vegetables,” said Elizabeth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

Controlling temperature helps regulate the aging process of a fruit, along with its water loss and microorganism growth. Storing fruits and vegetables at their lowest safe temperatures means they taste better and last longer.

To help us know the best ways to store fresh produce at home, the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center offers a free PDF poster Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste, which includes tips for different fruits and vegetables, from avocado to watermelon.

Knowing the right temperature is only part of the battle for farmers, who are responsible for the first links in the cold chain. Getting produce out of the sun and cool for storage can be a big challenge — and an expensive one.

But a farmer in New York, Ron Khosla, answered this challenge with a tool that can help make cooling produce less expensive for small-scale farmers. He created the CoolBot, a micro-controller that turns a well-insulated room with a regular air conditioner into a commercial cool room for storing fruits and vegetables.

Just as small-scale American farmers struggle with affordable cooling, so do smallholder farmers elsewhere in the world. Researchers with the Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Horticulture CRSP) decided to test the CoolBot device, first at the UC Davis Student Farm and then with farmers in India, Honduras and Uganda.

Neeru Dubey, of Amity University, shows a CoolBot installed in India during a Horticulture CRSP project.
“The CoolBot creates, in my mind, the perfect compromise between effective cooling and reasonable cost,” said Mitcham, postharvest specialist and director of Horticulture CRSP.

Indeed, the CoolBot-equipped rooms worked, and the program is building more in Bangladesh right now. But there is a catch: Farmers must have access to reliable grid electricity for a cool room like this to work. To address this problem, the CoolBot in Uganda was powered with solar photovoltaic cells, but that led to another set of challenges — expensive equipment and fear of theft.

So how do you effectively cool vegetables, hot from a field, without grid electricity? A solution that is low-cost, effective and off-grid has not been found yet. In an effort to uncover such a solution, Horticulture CRSP will soon be launching a technology design competition that asks that very question. Can you answer this challenge?

Grad students head abroad to work with farmers

You’ve probably heard it millions of times in your lifetime, but it bears repeating: Not everyone has enough, good food to eat.

To that end, the Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program at UC Davis builds global partnerships for fruit and vegetable research to improve livelihoods in developing countries.

An Eco Finder volunteer discusses weeds with Michael Wolff, UC Davis graduate student, in Kenya during the first round of Horticulture CRSP Trellis Fund projects.
Starting in September, those partnerships will include 14 graduate students from UC Davis, Cornell University, North Carolina State University and University of Hawaii at Manoa who will travel to work with smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Through Horticulture CRSP’s Trellis Fund, these students have been matched with organizations in Nepal, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Honduras and Nicaragua to provide their agricultural expertise in assisting the organizations' projects with smallholder farmers.

Besides supporting local farmers in developing countries, the projects will also potentially infect students with an interest in international agricultural issues.

“With the Trellis Fund, our goal is to engage young people in an international experience — a chance to partner with a small organization working with real people with real needs and apply what they know about science,” said Beth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Plant Sciences Department at UC Davis and director of Horticulture CRSP. “For a small investment, we’re creating lasting relationships and perhaps changing the career path of a young person.”

Read our full press release for more details, or find out who is going where on our Trellis Fund page.

Posted on Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 8:36 AM

More African vegetables on more plates

What will be the new food frontier? An article in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “Next Stop for Food Fanatics: Africa” predicts adventurous American palates may soon be craving sub-Saharan cuisines.

Nakati greens were served with lunch at a farmer field day in Uganda. (HortCRSP photo by Elana Peach-Fine)
Besides making me hungry, reading this article made me think of some of the African vegetables that I’ve recently started to learn about. Yes, just as there are "Asian vegetables," there is also a wide category of "African leafy vegetables."

Have you heard of these?

  • Nakati (Solanum macrocarpon, S. aethiopicum) Also called African eggplant, some types of nakati are eaten for their leafy greens, while others are eaten for their fruit (which can look like a tomato or eggplant).
  • Cowpea leaves (Vigna unguiculata) This plant produces black-eyed peas, but the greens of the plant can also be eaten as a vegetable.
  • Bbuga (Amaranthus Gracecizans) You might know this plant by its common American name: pigweed.
  • Doodo (Amaranthus Dubius) Like bbuga, this type of amaranth is eaten for its leaves in many parts of Africa. In North and South America, varieties of amaranth are usually used as a grain.
  • Jjobyo (Gynandropsis Gynandra, Cleome gynandra) Also called spider plant.

Many of these indigenous vegetables are rich in micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A and vitamin B. When it comes to alleviating malnutrition in developing countries of eastern Africa, indigenous vegetables offer workable solutions because they are not only nutritious, but also familiar to the region’s eaters and farmers.

Many varieties of amaranth are grown in Kenya. (HortCRSP photo by Stephen Weller)
But research into these vegetables has often not been a priority, even among international development professionals. Markets for these vegetables are also largely undeveloped because they are widely considered subsistence crops, often grown in small garden plots by women for their own families. But growing these crops commercially can mean increased income for smallholder farmers and improved nutrition for consumers who crave traditional foods.

Recently U.S. researchers have been working with indigenous crops like these in east African countries — with funding and support from the Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Horticulture CRSP), led by Beth Mitcham at UC Davis with funding from USAID. In Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, Stephen Weller of Purdue University is leading a Horticulture CRSP research project on production practices, seed resources, postharvest handling, marketing and nutrition of varieties of amaranth, spider plant and African nightshade.

In Uganda, Kate Scow of UC Davis is partnering with local groups to try out a new model of extension while increasing production of indigenous greens, such as nakati, bbuga and jjobyo.

Take a look at this short video for a little more background:

Just as bok choy, an Asian vegetable, has become familiar to many American households, perhaps one day you’ll find nakati or another African leafy vegetable on your plate.

In the meantime, researchers with Horticulture CRSP are working to get more African leafy vegetables into the research agendas, fields, markets and plates of our counterparts in eastern Africa.


Read more abut Horticulture CRSP and its projects around the world at http://hortcrsp.ucdavis.edu.

Posted on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 8:41 AM

Addressing nutrition and poverty through horticulture

Nutrition, food security and sufficient family incomes are challenges in many parts of the world. Half the world’s people live in rural areas in developing countries. Because hunger and malnutrition are often linked to poverty, providing economic opportunities through horticultural production not only helps family incomes, but also addresses food security and nutrition. Training women to produce and market horticultural crops in the developing world also helps provide a much-needed income stream for families with children.

UC Davis is addressing food security and economic development in Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and elsewhere, by coordinating an international horticulture program. The Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Hort CRSP; pronounced "hort crisp") is one of 10 CRSP programs that focus on global food production and solving food and nutrition problems in developing countries. UC Davis leads the Hort CRSP, with funding support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Examples of projects conducted by researchers and educators throughout the world include:

  • Inexpensive cold storage systems in rural, developing areas to prolong food longevity; see page 2
  • Concentrated solar drying of fruits and vegetables in East Africa; see page 3
  • Improving safety and quality of tomatoes in Nigeria; see page 3
  • Smallholder flower production in Honduras for export markets; see page 3

The overarching goals of the Hort CRSP are to reduce poverty and improve nutrition and health of the rural poor, while improving the profitability and sustainability of horticulture in the developing world. Priorities in the Hort CRSP include gender equity, sustainable crop production, postharvest technology, food safety, market access, and financing. The program awards research funding in the U.S. and abroad to:

  • Realize opportunities for horticultural development
  • Improve food security
  • Improve nutrition and human health
  • Provide opportunities for income diversification
  • Advance economic and social conditions of the rural poor, particularly women

Dr. Elizabeth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis and director of the Hort CRSP, notes, “By harnessing the research, training, and outreach expertise of the land-grant universities in the U.S. to work with partners in developing countries, we can improve horticultural capabilities in much the same way that the land-grant system helped revolutionize American agriculture.”

In the three years since the program’s inception, several projects have been completed, and many are ongoing. The program’s website offers a plethora of information, along with newsletters that highlight individual projects.

The program also has a YouTube channel, with videos on Hort CRSP projects. Some of the videos are about projects that are especially important in developing countries, including:

  • The TRELLIS project — bringing together graduate students and in-country development organizations; YouTube link
  • Using cell phones to give real-time information to growers in rural areas of India; YouTube link
  • Inexpensive cultivation practices for smallholder farmers; YouTube link
  • Indigenous products increase incomes in Ghana; YouTube link
  • Saving indigenous crop seeds in Southeast Asia for resource-poor farmers; YouTube link

UC Davis, ranked first in the U.S. on research related to agriculture, food science and nutrition, and plant and animal science, is positioned to serve global needs related to food and nutrition. Of the 10 CRSP programs administered by USAID, two of the programs are based at UC Davis — the Hort CRSP program, and the BASIS CRSP, which was highlighted in a recent Food Blog post and addresses financial issues related to agricultural productivity.

Reader expresses skepticism about flavor research

A recent Food Blog post about a new research effort aimed at improving the flavor of fruits and vegetables found in American grocery stores prompted a scornful e-mail from a reader.

To whom it may concern, the letter-writer began, I find it appalling that $6 million is being spent to study something that any 3rd grader should be able to figure out.

The writer continued: "It is virtually impossible to enhance the flavor of an industrial farmed tomato because the flavor has been bred OUT of the varieties grown by big agriculture in favor of disease resistance and shelf stability. I can pick a green tomato from my yard and let it ripen on the counter and it will be delicious. That will just never be the case with most of the hybrids that have been developed over the past 20 years because flavor was NOT a priority. You can't add it in after the fact."

UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Beth Mitcham, director of the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, wrote the following response:

"I agree with part of your comment but not entirely. It is true that breeders have focused for many years on yield, disease resistance and long shelf life. However, in recent years, breeders are paying more attention to flavor quality. As you mentioned, you can take a green tomato and ripen it into a great tasting tomato. I have also done this with tomatoes obtained from a commercial field.

"The problem with tomatoes harvested green and ripened after harvest is that the fruit are exposed to low temperatures. Studies have shown that exposure of tomatoes for just 24 hours to temperatures of 50 degrees reduces their flavor compounds by 50 percent.  Most tomatoes are shipped to market at 45 to 50 degrees to reduce softening and decay.  Another problem with green tomatoes and many other fruit is the maturity of the fruit at harvest. The earlier it is picked, the less flavor compounds the fruit will produce when it is fully ripe.

"This $6 million grant is focused on providing growers and shippers with the tools to successfully pick more mature or riper produce and deliver it to consumers with good flavor. We are refining technologies to sort the fruit by maturity and ripeness to remove the under-ripe and overripe fruit before shipment, better packaging to prevent bruising of softer, riper fruit during transport, methods to slow further ripening of riper fruit after harvest that may allow us to ship fruit at higher temperatures so that flavor is not lost.

"While you can always get the best flavor quality when you take a ripe product off the plant and eat it within a day, many US consumers do not have easy access to these products and most cannot get access year-round.  While consumers recognize that fruits and vegetables are good for them, they only eat 2 to 3 servings per day (including French fries) instead of the 5 to 9 servings that are recommended.  We believe that poor flavor contributes to low consumption. Our goal is to improve the flavor quality of fruits and vegetables available through your local grocery market so that consumers eat more – hopefully reaching the 5-a-day recommended for good health."

Posted on Wednesday, August 25, 2010 at 6:43 AM
Tags: Beth Mitcham (8), flavor (3)

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