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Posts Tagged: strawberries

California drought and the fate of the state’s beloved berries

UC research aims to understand berries' water needs.
Will berries taste like colored Styrofoam if water supplies for farmers are cut? Or will a reduction in irrigation only intensify their flavor?

To find out, farm advisors around the state are comparing strawberries, blueberries and blackberries grown under four irrigation regimes – one that reflects the normal practice, one half the normal amount of water, one 75 percent of normal, and one that is 25 percent more than normal. The studies are being conducted in Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo, San Diego and Fresno counties.

“We’re doing this because of the water issue in California,” said Richard Molinar, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Fresno County. “We’re in drought mode. We want to look at ways farmers can cut back the amount of water they are using and still have good tasting berries.”

Molinar recently brought samples of strawberries grown at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier to the Vineyard Farmers Market in Fresno and invited patrons to share their preferences. Strawberry tasters were asked to evaluate the fruits’ appearance, flavor and texture. The advisors will aggregate information from taste testing done on berries from all the research sites.

The research will go beyond consumers’ preferences. Beth Mitcham, UCCE specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, will evaluate the fruit grown under different irrigation regimes in the laboratory. Mitcham’s research will determine the amount of sugar, the sugar-acid ratio and the amount of antioxidants in the fruit and how these are affected by increasing or decreasing the usual amount of irrigation water.

The study is funded with a specialty crops grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture awarded to the small farm program under the direction of Shermain Hardesty, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis.

See video of the strawberry tasting here:

Posted on Monday, June 17, 2013 at 8:38 AM

Twenty minutes of hail

Hail-damaged strawberry plant.
Twenty minutes of hail on Easter Sunday means no melons for July 4th at Pacific Star Garden's farmers' market stall.

Hail comes sometimes, suddenly and randomly, in February or March or April. It can hit one farm but not the one down the road. This time the sudden hail hit Woodland farmers Robert and Debbie Ramming, owners of 40-acre Pacific Star Gardens, on March 31, almost as if Mother Nature couldn't wait for April Fool's day.

Mid-April, in most years, is a good time to visit strawberry farms in the Sacramento Valley for the earliest fresh juicy berries, but 20 minutes of hail put off the start of U-pick strawberry season at Pacific Star Gardens until May. The plants will survive, but damage to the berries and other crops will mean a loss of $5,000 to $10,000 for the Rammings - a big hit for a small-scale farm.

The hail was huge, pea size to marble size, and it came in at a 45 degree angle, hurting Robert's head through his cap. It destroyed the field of strawberries just starting to turn pink and the newly planted cantaloupes and other melons that would have ripened in early July.

Hail-damaged collard.
Hail also knocked down plants and broke off heads full of flowers in the field of collards planted for seed harvest. Growing seeds for an organic seed company is new this year for the Rammings, so they started with a relatively small patch and will probably only lose a few thousand dollars worth of seed. Twenty minutes was all it took.

Pacific Star Gardens will recover. The next bloom of strawberries will be ripe and ready for U-pick in early May, with apricots and blackberries soon after. The farm is between Davis and Woodland, just off Highway 113. Check the Facebook page for what's ripe and when the farm is open for picking or purchase at the farm stand.

This is a farm story. This is a story of your food. It might make you think a little differently about strawberries, or about hail, or about the farmers at your farmers' market. Most farmers have stories to tell, and most would like the rest of us to understand a little bit about what it takes to grow crops and raise animals. We are lucky to have many opportunities to learn about and experience California farms and ranches.

Robert Ramming
Many of California's farmers and ranchers welcome the public with farm stands, U-picks, pumpkin patches, tours, festivals, cooking and canning classes, shearing and spinning demonstrations, tasting rooms, farm stays, guest ranches, fishing, hunting clubs, barn dances, outdoor dinners, open houses and a lot more. The University of California hosts an online agritourism directory and calendar, www.calagtour.org, where you can find a farm or ranch to visit. (Listing agritourism operations and events is free for California farmers and ranchers.)

UC is also partnering with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to help Californians explore California farms through a new page on the CDFA website, Discover California Farms. This one-stop portal to agricultural adventure helps visitors find a farm or ranch to visit, locate their closest farmers' market, find a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm that delivers weekly boxes of produce, learn about farm trails, fairs and festivals, or watch videos telling farmers' stories. California farmers and ranchers invite you to visit,taste, learn and enjoy! 

U-Pick strawberry sign
U-Pick strawberry sign

U-Pick strawberry sign

Posted on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 at 8:39 AM
Tags: agritourism (1), strawberries (14), U-Pick (2)

Can less water grow better berries?

It might be pouring rain today, but soon enough California will be dry again. As demand for water for a growing urban population and for environmental restoration increases, farmers throughout the state are working to grow crops using as little water as possible, and UC is working with them.

"Water supplies are being constrained. Farmers are facing reduced access to water," said Shermain Hardesty, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis.

UC Cooperative Extension scientists (left to right) Larry Schwankl, Aziz Baameur and Mark Gaskell with irrigation metering equipment.
A team of researchers, led by Hardesty, is in the middle of a three-year investigation into the effects of different irrigation levels on the quality, shelf-life, nutritional content, sensory quality and yield of some delicious annual and perennial crops. They're trying to learn if some of our favorite treats - strawberries, blueberries and blackberries - can be even more tasty if they're grown with less water than usual.

The research involves using some elaborate formulas for determining how much water is needed. UCCE advisor Richard Molinar, working with small farms in Fresno County, is irrigating small plots of strawberries with different amounts of water, some at 125 percent of the normal rate, some at 100 percent, and others at 75 percent and 50 percent of normal. In San Diego County, UCCE advisor Ramiro Lobo is doing similar research on strawberries and blueberries; UCCE advisor Manuel Jimenez is working with blackberries and blueberries in Tulare County; UCCE advisor Aziz Baameur is planting strawberries and blackberries in Santa Clara County, and UCCE advisor Mark Gaskell is studying blackberries in Santa Barbara County.

Once the berries are grown, they need to be tested - and testing means tasting in this project. The research team is holding tasting sessions to let the public judge which berries they prefer. If you've ever tasted a dry-farmed tomato, you might guess the answer. The first tasting session was held at the Davis Farmers' Market in June, with seven more coming soon at farmers' markets and grocery stores around the state.

Taste is a great quality to measure, but only one aspect of the study. Berries are already known for having a high nutrient content, but growing them with less water might give them even higher nutritional value. The team expects to find nutrition density to be highest at the lowest irrigation levels. To test this concept, UCCE specialists Elizabeth Mitcham and Marita Cantwell, experts in postharvest science affiliated with the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, are doing nutritional quality analysis of the berries as they are picked.

A berry bush that is receiving 50 percent of reference evapotransporation.
Because they have to deal with so many variables, from weather to pests to unexpected competition and volatile prices, farmers are often called gamblers. Because of all these uncertainties, farmers are likely to try to control what they can. Research team member Lawrence Schwankl, a UCCE specialist in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis, says that many farmers are currently over-watering many crops.

"Over-irrigation is cheap insurance, especially for such high value crops," he said.

He explained that more water tends to grow bigger berries. Since the harvest is not mechanized for berry crops, it takes as much effort to pick a small berry as a large berry, making more efficient use of the pickers' time and filling the basket more quickly if the berries are bigger.

Such a trade-off for the farmers! The public may decide that they prefer smaller berries with more taste, and the scientists may decide that smaller berries are more nutritious, but will it be profitable to grow better berries? It may depend on how much smaller, and on how much less water for how much better nutrition and taste. It may depend on the water rates, says Hardesty. She will be taking all of these variables into account to determine the potential impact on profitability of lower irrigation rates on berries.

The team, which also includes UCCE advisors Michael Cahn in Monterey County and David Shaw in San Diego, will report the results of their study to California farmers in the final year of the project. This project is funded by a California Department of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant.

A berry bush that is receiving 125 percent of reference evapotransporation.
Posted on Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 11:01 AM

Cultivating California

Only in California could arid land be converted into the nation’s salad bowl.

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
uc anr minibrochure cover s2

Posted on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 8:14 AM
Tags: broccoli (2), citrus (1), dairy (1), food (1), fruit (3), nutrition (5), nuts (1), small farms (1), strawberries (14), vegetables (2), winegrapes (1)

Survey identifies 19 produce candidates for a farm-to-WIC program

A new federal voucher that gives low-income women access to a range of fruits and vegetables could provide unique new marketing opportunities for California growers.

In 2009, the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) began distributing monthly cash vouchers to low-income women with children to buy fruits and vegetables. The program reaches almost half of the infants and one-quarter of children under 5 years old in the United States.

A team of UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) researchers and nutrition advisors has been exploring the possibility of developing a farm-to-WIC program that would link these low-income consumers with local growers. The purpose of such a program would be to increase the consumption of a wide variety of fresh produce, with a focus on locally grown produce when available.

UCCE conducted a survey of produce preferences and buying habits among WIC participants in Tulare, Alameda and Riverside counties in 2010. The full study is published in the January-March 2012 issue of California Agriculture journal.

Based on the results, the UCCE team developed a list of 19 produce items to promote in a possible new farm-to-WIC program. They are:

  • bell pepper
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • cantaloupe
  • carrot
  • collards
 
  • corn
  • grapes
  • green beans
  • lettuce
  • mustard greens
  • nopales (cactus pads)
  • spinach
  • strawberries
  • sweet potato
  • tomatillo
  • tomato
  • watermelon

Although mustard greens and collards were not popular across all sites, the advisors gauged a potential market in Alameda County, so these were retained. Based on write-in responses, oranges were also added.

In California, which has the nation's largest WIC program, 82 local agencies serve about 1.43 million participants at 623 local centers, and WIC participants can redeem their monthly vouchers at 4,000 grocery stores statewide. About 40 percent shop at WIC-only stores, which stock and sell only WIC-authorized foods.

Stocking produce is relatively new to WIC-only stores; before rollout of new WIC food packages in October 2009, these stores were only required to stock limited amounts of fresh carrots. In the survey, most WIC participants (58 percent to 72.3 percent) responded that their preferred stores offered many choices, but fewer participants (18.5 percent to 41 percent) rated the produce quality as “excellent.” Key factors determining purchase decisions were produce quality and freshness, and nutrient value (vitamins and minerals). Cost was relatively less important, possibly because WIC participants procure the produce with the vouchers.

The list has served as a starting point for discussions with growers and WIC vendors.

“The survey showed that WIC participants were interested in purchasing fresh produce with better quality and more variety,” wrote lead author Lucia L. Kaiser, Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Nutrition, and co-authors, in California Agriculture. “Some WIC participants that we surveyed said they avoided shopping at WIC-only stores in part because these interests were not met.”

A dish made with nopales (cactus pads).
A dish made with nopales (cactus pads).

Posted on Thursday, February 9, 2012 at 9:02 AM
  • Author: Janet Byron
Tags: bell peppers (1), broccoli (2), cabbage (1), cactus (1), cantaloupe (1), carrot (1), collards (1), corn (1), grapes (1), green beans (1), lettuce (1), mustard greens (1), nopales (1), spinach (1), strawberries (14), sweet potato (1), tomatillo (1), tomato (1), watermelon (1), WIC (1)

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