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Heirloom tomatoes are a delicious treat and provide a market niche for small growers

Heirloom tomatoes are a farm-to-fork favorite.
In recent years, heirloom tomatoes have become a farm-to-table favorite.

Some consumers are willing to pay a hefty price at trendy restaurants, farmers markets, roadside stands, and even local grocery stores for tomatoes with irregular shapes, vivid colors and rich tomato flavor.

The consumer demand presents an opportunity for small-scale farmers, and a challenge.

“It's not easy to grow heirloom varieties,” said Margaret Lloyd, the UC Cooperative Extension small-scale farm advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties. “They often have less disease resistance, are lower yielding and cannot tolerate as much stress as improved modern varieties.”

When Lloyd joined UCCE last summer, she began visiting small-scale producers in the counties she serves.

“I realized very quickly how important fresh market tomatoes are to these growers,” Lloyd said.

Because she holds a doctorate degree in plant pathology from UC Davis, Lloyd is well-positioned to begin her research program with a small tomato grafting project on UC Davis farmland. Her idea is grafting the particularly delicious heirloom varieties onto tomato roots that are resistant to soil-borne diseases.

“Grafting is an old technology,” Lloyd said.  “It works in the same way we graft fruit trees and grapevines onto favorable rootstocks. Vegetable grafting has also been done for years.”

Lloyd said the process is simple and an individual can easily learn to graft tomatoes. But to do so cost effectively with the quality and success rate necessary for economically viable production, it may make most sense to work with a commercial nursery.

Lloyd is conducting a quarter-acre field trial with the three most common heirloom varieties – Brandywine, Cherokee purple and Marvel stripe – plus the yellow-hued Sun Gold cherry tomato and a non-heirloom salad tomato, Charger.  Several growers in the area have also planted them in their commercial operations.

In addition to collecting data from the trial that will help small farmers decide whether grafted tomatoes make sense for their operations, Lloyd and her research associates will harvest many bushels of fresh tomatoes from the plots. Some will be sold at the UC Davis farm store to help support the research, and as for the rest, “We're definitely going to eat them,” Lloyd said.

“I enjoy them raw with olive oil, salt, vinegar and a little basil,” she said.

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2016 at 10:33 AM

New book traces Los Angeles’ transformation from cows to concrete

From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles
After thousands of years as a sparsely populated coastal plain, the Los Angeles Basin underwent two dramatic transformations in the last century and a half, first into an agricultural powerhouse and then into mile upon mile of wall-to-wall American dream homes, shopping centers, freeways, businesses and schools.

“We now have food deserts over what was once abundant farmland,” said Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor. “Although Los Angeles is not unique in this regard, there's something disconcerting about the speed and scale at which Los Angeles lost its ability to produce food.”

The dramatic conversions of Los Angeles are traced and explained in a new book by Surls and Los Angeles farm and garden authority and UC Master Gardener volunteer Judith Gerber. From Cows to Concrete: The Rise and Fall of Farming in Los Angeles, published by Angel City Press, is available on the publisher's website and from other booksellers.

Though hard to imagine when trapped in a traffic jam on the Santa Ana Freeway, under the pavement, parking lots and buildings are acres of once-productive farmland. Los Angeles County, with more than 10 million residents, now houses a quarter of California's population. But in the first half of the 20th century, Los Angeles was the top farm county in the United States.

In her role with UCCE, Surls works to encourage the newly active school, home, community and urban agricultural community in Los Angeles. She was intrigued to discover that the county now best known for Hollywood, high-rises, and luxurious homes, as well as grinding poverty and homelessness, was once a bucolic farming community. The knowledge sparked research that resulted in her seven-year collaboration with Gerber on the book.

Rachel Surls
LA's transition began when Spanish invaders came to the shore of Southern California to claim the fertile land for Spain. The Native Americans who were hunting, gathering and managing the countryside were folded, often against their will, into missions bent on civilizing the local tribes. Native Americans served as the mission's workforce. Farming at the early missions was successful.

Spanish land grants spawned vast ranchos in colonial Los Angeles that ran thousands of cattle and grew rice, corn, beans, melons and other fruit and vegetables. When Mexico won its independence from Spain, the missions' power declined and the rancheros gained influence. Many communities in Southern California bear the early ranchos' names, such as San Pedro, La Puente and Los Cerritos.

A series of developments led to Los Angeles County's designation as the No. 1 ag country in the nation by 1909. Among them were:

Judith Gerber

  • Successful grape production that was started by the missions to make sacramental wine.
  • A casual experiment by a grape farmer to plant orange trees, which exploded into a citrus growing empire.
  • The arrival of the Southern Pacific railroad expanded the market for LA's perishable produce.
  • The LA Chamber of Commerce led a transition of farming into an organized, sophisticated industry.
  • The discovery of local oil provided affordable fuel to expand production of canned fruits and vegetables, and made irrigation with groundwater possible for more farmers.

Growth of marketing cooperatives, ag research by UC Cooperative Extension, and irrigation and market infrastructure would allow Los Angeles to hold its position as the nation's top farm country for four decades. Los Angeles led the nation in production of walnuts, lemons, strawberries, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, corn and hay. 

An aerial view of orange groves near Covina during World War II.
There was a tremendous focus on food production during World War II, but when the war ended, a flood of Americans, including many GIs with low-interest home loans, moved into the region for jobs in burgeoning industries. Between 1940 and 1960, Los Angeles completed its transition from cow-county to sprawling metropolis.

But agriculture has not disappeared, say the authors of From Cows to Concrete. There are small pockets of agricultural land in the urban landscape, such as Richland Farms in Compton, where many people have large lots and keep horses and livestock. The new farm-to-fork movement is prompting families to cultivate vegetables in their backyards and community groups to find vacant space to produce food. LA allows residents to keep honey bees and some residents are raising backyard chickens.

“In a place where poverty is entrenched, with fruits and vegetables neither affordable nor accessible, why not use backyards, vacant lots, and other open spaces to grow healthy food, right in the neighborhoods that need them,” the authors ask. “The story of agriculture in California and Los Angeles is still unfolding.”

Posted on Friday, May 13, 2016 at 11:04 AM
Tags: Rachel Surls (2)

Alfalfa Weevil Resistance to Pyrethroid Insecticides found in Intermountain Alfalfa Fields

"May you live in interesting times..." -Reported to be a Chinese curse Farming sure can be challenging. I guess that is what keeps it so interesting…but a little less interesting might be good sometimes. Last year Klamath Basin alfalfa growers...

Posted on Thursday, May 12, 2016 at 1:45 PM

Three step salsa

Tomatoes, garlic, and peppers are three key ingredients in most salsa recipes. (Photo: UnSplash)
May is typically a month filled with family gatherings and festive celebrations. With Cinco de Mayo at your heels, maybe your appetite for salsa has been whetted and you're craving more. Or perhaps you're planning ahead for Memorial Day and want the perfect snack for that social gathering. No matter what holiday is on your mind, isn't it nice to crack open a jar of home-preserved salsa for any snacking occasion?

Here are three simple steps to having homemade salsa any time of the year.

Step 1 (optional): Grow the ingredients

Take the process from tomato trellises to taste buds by planting a salsa garden this time of year. Get started with a salsa staple like tomatoes. There are great published references for growing tomatoes, but if you have further questions, ask a UC Master Gardener volunteer in your county.

Step 2: Can the salsa 

There are many research tested recipes, allowing you to choose one that suits your taste best. Tomatoes: Safe Methods to Store, Preserver, and Enjoy contains two to start, including the recipe provided. Dig around on the UC Master Food Preserver Resources page to find more. 

Tomato/Tomato Paste Salsa
Makes 7 pint jars

Ingredients

3 quarts tomatoes (about 12 medium tomatoes), washed, peeled, cored, and chopped
3 cups onions (about 3 medium onions), chopped
1 ½ cups long green sweet peppers (about 4 Anaheim peppers), washed, seeded and chopped. Note: Sweet bell peppers may be substituted for long green peppers
6 tablespoons small hot red peppers (about 6 Jalapeno peppers), washed, seeded, and finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 12-oz cans tomato paste
2 cups commercially bottled lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon ground cumin (optional)
2 tablespoons oregano leaves (optional)
1 teaspoon black pepper

Preparation

  1. Wash hands and work surfaces, and then prepare ingredients.
  2. Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan.
  3. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  5. Ladle hot salsa into pint jars, leaving a 1/2–inch headspace.
  6. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened clean paper towel and apply two-piece metal canning lids.
  7. Process 15 minutes in a water bath canner at altitudes up to 1000 feet. Above 1000 feet, increase processing time by 1 minute for every additional 1000-foot increase in altitude.
  8. Let jars cool undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours, then check seals.

If you haven't canned before (or even if you have), turn to a local UC Master Food Preserver Program near you as a friendly resource.

Step 3: Eat the contents

Well, you are probably already very familiar with carrying out this step! Do it with confidence knowing that you followed a safe, home preservation process.

Whether you grow or buy, it is always fun to make and share your own jar. Are you craving salsa yet?

Posted on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 at 8:24 AM

Teens put their food smarts to the test

Grocery shopping can be the most anticipated or the most dreaded necessity of daily life. A trip to the market can end with a smile over the thrill of victory from finding great bargains or end with a frown from the agony of defeat over budget anxieties. For most of us, budget is the primary factor in our food experiences. Low budget or no budget is often the culprit that leads to unhealthy food choices.

A healthy snack.
Armed with nutrition knowledge acquired through the University of California 4-H Food Smart Families program with the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, teens from Parlier High School in Fresno County are teaching Parlier youth ages 8-12 how to get around budget roadblocks on the path to healthy eating. The program uses a “Teens as Teachers” approach, with teens educating younger youth through a series of hands-on, interactive nutrition lessons after school.

Food connections to local agriculture are highlighted through the partnership with the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. The center will host agriculture tours and family nutrition education activities at a Wellness Fair later this month to wrap up the program.

According to recent United States Department of Agriculture studies, nearly 16 million children live in households where they do not have consistent access to food throughout the year.

UC 4-H Food Smart Families empowers families through food knowledge and education to build sustainable solutions that confront food insecurity and improve health. Youth are engaged at a critical age for growing skills and establishing behaviors today that become sustainable, healthy habits for their families and communities tomorrow. Youth learn they can prepare food themselves and parents learn about working together as a family to plan healthy meals.

Grocery store shopping is part of training.
Teen teachers put their new skills to the test on a recent field trip to the local grocery store. After a store tour and 4-H training on perimeter shopping, unit pricing and the downfalls of impulse buying, they were given a shopping challenge. The goal was to purchase, within the assigned budget, three items from each of the vegetable, fruit, grain, dairy and protein food groups to create healthy meals at home. As the teens had been learning while teaching their younger counterparts, eating healthy on a budget is achievable with a little nutrition education and careful planning.

Thoughtful discussions, and sometimes passionate debates, ranging from whole grain pasta versus whole wheat pasta to the tasty virtues of hummus, mixed with youthful laughter. The teens were pleasantly surprised to discover they had additional budget to spare. Return trips were made to the produce department for more fruit, vegetables and even hummus.

Comments from the teens told the story of their success. “Now I know what my mom has to go through when she's shopping for food,” and “Look at my cart. Food Smart Families is really influencing me!” Who knew grocery shopping could be so much fun?

The USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion offers these 10 tips for affordable vegetables and fruits:

• Use fresh vegetables and fruits that are in season.
• Check your local newspaper, online and at the store for sales, coupons and specials.
• Plan out your meals ahead of time and make a grocery list.
• Compare the price and number of servings from fresh, canned and frozen forms of the same vegetable or fruit.
• Buy small amounts more often to ensure you can eat the foods without throwing any away.
• For fresh vegetables or fruits you use often, a large size bag is the better buy.
• Opt for store brands when possible.
• Buy vegetables and fruits in their simplest form.
• Start a garden for fresh, inexpensive, flavorful additions to meals.
• Prepare and freeze vegetable soups, stews or other dishes in advance.

Posted on Monday, May 9, 2016 at 8:58 AM
Tags: food (33), fruits (1), healthy (1), Kearney (3), nutrition (111), sustainanble (1), vegetables (35), youth (1)

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