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Mozilla information scientist finds her passion at UC Sheep Shearing School

Stephany Wilkes shears a 150-lb Targhee-Columbia ewe at Hopland Research and Extension Center.
It's May in Hopland, and the sparse winter rains are nothing more than a memory. Sharpened shears at the ready, Stephany Wilkes, an information science Ph.D. who works for Mozilla, walks a 150-pound sheep into the shearing area. Under the watchful eye of expert instructors, she flips the sheep on its side and starts methodically removing the fleece, smoothing the skin with her left hand, clippers in her right, moving the sheep with her legs.

“It's like a dance,” she says. “Once you have it right (and I mean, really have it), suddenly the whole method makes sense. You expend much less energy. You're controlling the sheep with your legs, which leaves your hands free, one to hold the shearing hand piece and the other to smooth out the skin so you don't nick the sheep.”

Since there are 400 ewes whose fleeces must be shorn before the hot summer months, that's important for her and her classmates.

The University of California Cooperative Extension Sheep Shearing School is the only program of its kind in California. It has been run in Mendocino County since at least 1990, but in 2009, it moved to the Hopland Research and Extension Center south of Ukiah.

Students are taught the New Zealand method of shearing, where the entire fleece is cut from the sheep as a single unit so it can be sorted and graded according to micron count. The method is designed to be comfortable for both shearer and sheep.

John Harper, UCCE natural resources advisor for Mendocino County, has been running this program for more than 20 years. Although these sheep weigh enough to make handling them a workout, he says that hip flexibility is more important than upper body strength. Since this is something women tend to have more of than men, they are often successful students.

More than 250 students from across the western U.S. as well as Canada and Mexico and have graduated from the program. Many come back year after year to practice under supervision, but also to connect with each other.

This year, a wool grading section was added to the course, taught by Ron Cole and Rodney Kott. Sheep have recently been bred much more for meat than wool in the region but there is a growing demand for high quality fleeces. The finest merino sheep do not do well in damp North Coast conditions but thrive in the dryer Central Valley and foothills, and there is a need for trained graders. Only 3 percent of California's 5 million pounds of wool is currently being processed within the state, and yet California remains a net importer of wool goods, while falling second only to Texas in sheep production. California fleeces are either composted or sent to China for processing, something another graduate of Shearing Class, Matt Gilbert, is keen to avoid.

“There used to be lots of mills in the U.S. to process our wool,” he said. “Now there are hardly any. That's why I wanted to start my own mill to process fine wool. We will be selling to handspinners and knitters and to commercial textile manufacturers. It's about trying to keep the product of this place in the region.”

Gilbert was inspired by the Fibershed movement started by Rebecca Burgess in 2010. Drawing on the locavore movement, Burgess committed to clothing herself for an entire year with textiles grown and produced within 200 miles of her house in Fairfax. The movement is gaining adherents across the country and beyond.

Wilkes says the Fibershed movement is what got her interested in learning to shear, too.

“Eight years ago, I walked into a yarn store in San Francisco and asked where the local yarn was. I knew California was a major producer of wool. I was told there wasn't any. I was curious about why, and became involved with Fibershed and attended their first symposium in October 2012. During a panel involving shearers [one of whom was Matt Gilbert], I found out that small flock owners had a hard time finding people to shear their sheep. That got me thinking that I could learn to do the work," Wilkes said.

The UC certificate really means something to ranchers and farmers. As a woman who provided a Shearing School scholarship put it recently, “When I see UC Certification, I know I'm not going to have butchered animals.”

Harper explains that the North Coast sheep herding trends have changed over time – from large producers to smaller flocks – but now there is a move back to some larger flocks, driven in part by the Vines and Ovines project established in Mendocino County by UCCE advisor Morgan Doran with help from UCCE advisor Roger Ingram of Placer and Nevada counties, UCCE advisor Stephanie Larson of Sonoma County and UCCE specialist emeritus Mel George. The sheep were subjected to aversion training so they would not eat grape leaves. Now they browse through vineyards, conducting weed control and fertilization without harming the vines. One vintner, Clay Shannon, has 1,500 ewes. He pairs premium lamb with his wines in sales to niche markets. The idea is catching on.

Meanwhile, Wilkes is shearing sheep across Northern California on weekends or before work.

“I can't express how much Shearing School means to me and to California,” she says. “There's almost no way to break into agriculture if you didn't inherit land here. I found my calling late ... I love developing open source software and working on information privacy, but shearing is my passion. Shearing School is one of the few feasible avenues into agriculture in the state.”

The 2014 Shearing School class.

Wool classing.
Wool classing.

Stephany Wilkes at the Sonoma County Fair.
Stephany Wilkes at the Sonoma County Fair.

Posted on Thursday, July 31, 2014 at 8:07 AM

4-H Cooking Throwdown

The 2nd annual 4-H Cooking Throwdown at the California State Fair took place June 22 and 24. Youth ages 9 to 18  had one hour to create a three-course meal with each course containing the designated "secret ingredient." The theme was "Fair Food Done Healthy."

All of the dishes were judged on originality, taste and the USDA's MyPlate standards. Healthy living is a major component of the 4-H Youth Development Program and this contest was introduced to help teach youth to cook and learn portion sizes.

On June 22, three junior teams composed of 9- to 13-year-olds competed. In Round 1, the secret ingredient was a hot dog. The Fat and Furious Team made a mini corn dog, a "speedy" Italian sandwich and a funnel cake with homemade whip cream and candied hot dog. The Blond, Brunette and Ginger Team made hot dog nachos, seafood stir fry and cinnamon chips with fresh creme and strawberries. The fresh cream was infused with hot dog. The food was very original and very tasty. The Fat and Furious won the round.

The Blond, Brunette and Ginger Team.
The Fat and Furious Team.

Action shots: 

Round 2 secret ingredient: zucchini 

The Cuisine Queens Team made a berry zucchini crepe, chicken salad, and a berry zucchini smoothie. 

The Cuisine Queens.

 

In the final junior round the secret ingredient was watermelon. Fat and Furious Team made a watermelon mint goat cheese appetizer, a wasabi bread crumb pork chop with a watermelon reduction sauce and fried watermelon for dessert. The Cuisine Queens made a fruit salad, fruit and beef kabobs, and a baked funnel cake for dessert. 

The Fat and Furious team were the junior champions.

July 24 was the senior competition of the State Fair 4-H Cooking Throwdown. Six teams competed for the champion title. The youth were between 14 and 18 years old. 

Round 1
The Cookin' Coyotes vs. The Culinary Ninjas
Secret ingredient:  berries. 

The Culinary Ninjas focused on the health aspect of the competition. They cooked a chorizo caramel apple appetizer, egg roll in a bowl as the main course and a mini churro for dessert. The Cookin' Coyotes made guacamole and chips for the appetizer, fish tacos with a fruit salad for the main course and a baked funnel cake with berry infused fresh cream. The Culinary Ninjas won the round. 

Round 2
Lamorinda Iron Chefs vs. Organic Fanatics vs. Clever Clover
Secret ingredient: broccoli 

The Organic Fanatics made a sweet and tangy yogurt sauce for a kabob appetizer, a veggie stuffed burger on a lettuce bun, and a baked funnel cake. They focused on creating a healthy, well-balanced meal. 

The Clever Clovers made baked potato chips, chicken and broccoli kabobs, and a dessert smoothie.

The Lamorinda Iron Chefs made zucchini and broccoli backed chips, a gyro with a broccoli sauce, and a chocolate, broccoli and avocado mousse. They focused on a tasty balanced meal.

The Lamorinda Iron Chefs won the round with the Organic Fanatics in 2nd and the Clever Clover earning 3rd place. 

Action Shots:

Final Round
Lamorinda Iron Chefs vs. Culinary Ninjas
Secret ingredient: dried seaweed 

The Lamorinda Iron Chefs made a seven-layer bean, salsa, seaweed, guacamole chip, chicken on a stick with a apple and onion slaw, and for a dessert a baked funnel cake with seaweed flakes in the batter and topped off with seaweed and strawberries. 

The Culinary Ninjas made a zucchini chip with seaweed hummus, a baked vegetable and seaweed pizza and a berry mouse pretzel cookie. 

Action shots:

Lamorinda Iron Chefs were the senior champions of the day.  They are eligible to represent California at the Texas State Fair in the National 4-H Cooking Challenge. The contest will be held during the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, October 7 and 8, 2014. The National Food Challenge will not only include a contest, but an educational day as well. More information can be found here: http://texas4-h.tamu.edu/nfchallenge 

Posted on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 10:52 AM

UC leads a long tradition of environmental stewardship in California

Stewardship: \ˈstü-ərd-ˌship: the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.

In 1862 the Morrill Act was passed to support and maintain colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts, including a later provision that included the donation of public land. As one of the first land grant Universities, the University of California was well positioned to manage agricultural extension across the state as part of the Smith Lever Act of 1915. Today, many people think of California agriculture as strawberries, broccoli and rice; but it is livestock and forestry that dominated California working landscapes in those early days.  

Farmer seeks assistance from UCCE farm advisor on the running board of a historic UC Cooperative Extension vehicle.
Research and extension efforts to improve forestry practices and range production throughout California have evolved over time. Research questions gradually changed over the last 100 years from a “how can we economically produce more” perspective to how can rangeland management practices improve ecosystem composition and function? How can extension programs be employed to educate stakeholders and help land managers implement change? How can we conserve working landscapes for biodiversity conservation in a period of rapid development? How can we assess and monitor management effectiveness?

This year, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources celebrates 100 years of UC Cooperative Extension serving as a research and outreach partner in communities throughout California. For an interesting read on this rich history and the evolution of UC rangeland management perspectives, see M. George, and W. J. Clawson's The History of UC Rangeland Extension, Research, and Teaching: A Perspective (2014). Additionally, UC ANR California Rangelands Website includes a free Annual Rangeland E-book; current project descriptions, publications, and online learning modules: http://californiarangeland.ucdavis.edu/.

Maintaining and improving environmental quality on public and private land requires an informed strategy that encourages stewardship by land owners and community members. In present times, we face the challenges of managing land in the face of growing population, drought, invasive species, and climate change, just to name a few forces of global change. Out of necessity, our broader perspective on land management has shifted to one of “ecosystem stewardship” which is defined as a strategy to respond to and shape social-ecological systems under conditions of uncertainty and change to sustain the supply and opportunities for use of ecosystem services to support human well-being (Chapin et al. 2010). The stewardship framework focuses on the dynamics of ecological change and assesses management options that may influence the path or rate of that change. 

Tejon Ranch Conservancy California Naturalists help with a pipe capping project to keep small animals and birds from getting trapped (Photo: Scot Pipkin)
Using an ecosystem stewardship framework, the UC ANR's California Naturalist Program is building a statewide network of environmental stewards. The program is designed to introduce the public, teachers, interpreters, docents, green collar workers, natural resource managers, and budding scientists to the wonders of our unique ecology and engage these individuals in the stewardship of California's natural communities.

The California Naturalist Program uses a science curriculum which includes chapters in forest, woodland, and range resources and management, geology, climate, water, wildlife, and plants. Experiential learning and service projects instill a deep appreciation for the natural communities of the state and serve to engage people in natural resource conservation.

UC Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station California Naturalists examine watershed maps (Photo: Jeannette Warnert)
Land management is the focus of many of the partnering organizations that offer the California Naturalist Program. For example, land conservancies and preserves are involved including, Tejon Ranch Conservancy, at 270,000 acres the largest contiguous private ranch in California; Pepperwood Preserve, a private rangeland preserve dedicated to conservation science in the Northern SF Bay Area; UC Berkeley's Sagehen Creek Field Station, a forested research station in the Sierra; UC Hopland Research & Extension Center, a rangeland research and education facility in California's north coast region; and the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, a non-profit land trust in the Western Sierra Nevada including Fresno, Madera, eastern Merced, and Mariposa counties. Land trusts are increasingly responsible for conserving working landscapes and open space across the state and often rely on a trained volunteer corps to steward these valuable landscapes. UC ANR is pleased to advance training opportunities for those actively managing these lands.

California Naturalists trained at these locations and more are involved in ecosystem stewardship, rangeland management, watershed restoration, and helping outdoor education programs that benefit the environment and people of all ages. Naturalists have donated over 13,000 hours of in-state service in the last three years. These types of stewardship opportunities are essential for the active adaptive management that both public and private lands need to ensure resilience and continue to provide ecosystem services that we all rely on. These trained environmental stewards are an important part of this growing community of practice who not only steward land but pass on critical knowledge about California's natural and managed ecosystems. 

Posted on Friday, July 25, 2014 at 11:59 AM

Get an 'A' in back-to-school nutrition

During summer break, healthy food and fitness often take a long vacation. For many, the vacation is ending and it's time to do some homework. Study these back-to-school tips for the start to a healthy school year. If you follow a balanced diet and stay physically active, there's no way you can't get an 'A' in back-to-school nutrition!

  • Don't skip breakfast! Studies show children who eat breakfast perform better in school.
  • If you pack a homemade lunch for your children, include a good balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat free dairy products, and lean meats and proteins.
  • Provide new options! Pack exotic fruits like kiwi or allow your child to pick a fun new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store. They are more likely to eat their lunch if they helped prepare it.
  • Reinforce cleanliness and remind your children to wash their hands before they eat or pack a moist towelette or hand sanitizer in their lunchbox.
  • Physical activity and exercise are important and help improve a child's health. Children should be active for at least 60 minutes a day, and adults need to be active for at least 30 minutes a day. Make exercise a family affair and get the physical activity everyone needs! Go for a weekend hike, walk the dog together, or ride your bikes after dinner.

Try this quick and easy recipe for your child's lunch or mix it up and substitute a variety of their favorite vegetables instead.

Chicken pita pocket with spinach leaves and red bell pepper.
Chicken pita sandwich

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup baby spinach
  • 4 ounces cooked skinless, boneless chicken
  • 1/2 cup sliced red bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons low-fat Italian vinaigrette
  • 1 (6-inch) whole-grain pita, cut in half

Directions:

  1. Combine spinach, chicken, bell pepper, and vinaigrette in a bowl; lightly toss and mix ingredients.
  2. Cut the pita pieces in half.
  3. Using a spoon, fill each pita half with the tossed ingredients.
  4. Once assembled, lay them flat and pack them up for your child to enjoy during lunch.

Recipe source: http://www.health.com/health/recipe/0,,10000001983452,00.html

 

Posted on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 at 9:16 AM
Tags: nutrition (89), school lunch (1)

Cottage food law not the answer to small-farm woes

'The new law doesn't help us at all,' said Annie Main, who with her husband Jeff farms in the Capay Valley.
When the California Homemade Food Act went into effect early last year, it was hailed as an exciting new opportunity for small scale farmers to boost profits. The law allows for certain foods prepared in home kitchens to be sold directly to the public at farmers markets and roadside stands.

The UC small farm program held a series of two-day workshops around California to outline the provisions of the new law. Shermain Hardesty, UC Cooperative Extension specialist, was the coordinator and an instructor for the series. The class was popular, but many of the farming participants found that the letter of the law tended to hinder their creativity rather than open new business avenues.

Hardesty said the Homemade Food Act (AB 1616) was designed to, among other things, help farming families take their surplus produce and make dried products, jams, jellies and butters. However, the California Department of Public Health is requiring cottage food operators to do all of their processing in their home kitchen, to comply with the Statutory Provisions Related to Sanitary and Preparation Requirements for Cottage Food Operations (Excerpts from the California Health and Safety (H&S Code, including H&S 113980 Requirements for Food), specifically, the CDPH requires that cottage food operators comply with the following operational requirements:

"All food contact surfaces, equipment, and utensils used for the preparation, packaging, or handling of any cottage food products shall be washed, rinsed, and sanitized before each use. All food preparation and food and equipment storage areas shall be maintained free of rodents and insects."

Cutting fruit and laying it in the sun to dry, for example, is not permitted. For jams and jellies, the law stipulates sugar-to-fruit ratios that require more sugar than fruit. For some cooks, the rules defeat the unique character of their homemade, gourmet products.

“I really try not to put a lot of sugar in my jellies. I want it to taste like fruit,” said farmer Annie Main, who took the UC class.

Main and her husband Jeff run an organic fruit, vegetable, flower and herb operation on 20 acres in the Capay Valley of Yolo County.

“I've been doing value-added for 20 years,” Main said. “In the '90s, I started making jams and jellies in a rented certified kitchen. But it's a trek to get labor, jars, supplies and fruit to the restaurant kitchen after hours and then work till midnight. We thought with the new law, I could do it in my own kitchen, which would be fabulous.”

However, she found that the rules of the law are so restrictive as to be prohibitive.

“Farmers in the class were asked whether the law extended their ability for economic return on their products. Every single one shook their heads,” Main said. “The new law doesn't help us at all.”

Hardesty said there may be other options for these producers to process and sell their foods. She is planning to offer another class this fall, “Cottage Food Plus,” to help growers find workable mechanisms for selling their food.

“They may be able to use a co-packer to do the processing or a commercial kitchen or become registered as a processing food facility,” Hardesty said.

Posted on Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 10:35 AM

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