Small Farm Blogs
Central Valley residents from Visalia to Sacramento look forward every year to the beginning of strawberry season in early April, when roadside strawberry stands operated by Hmong and Mien farmers open to the public.
These farms grow strawberry varieties such as Chandler and Camarosa that haven't traded flavor for shelf life – they don't ship or store well, but they are far sweeter than varieties usually sold in stores, and they reach their peak ripeness and flavor in the fields next to the strawberry stands.
As strawberry season opens this year, farmers are hoping that customers will still stop by the stands to pick up their fresh, seasonal strawberries, and also that they will observe 6-foot social distancing and other guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19. UC Cooperative Extension agricultural assistant Michael Yang and I were interviewed on a local news station to encourage Fresno residents to practice these guidelines while supporting local farmers.
To assist Fresno strawberry farmers, the UCCE small farms team in Fresno County developed, printed, and distributed signs for roadside strawberry stands reminding customers to observe social distancing and other safety practices, as well as guidelines for farm stands to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Versions of the signs were also developed for strawberry stands in Merced and Sacramento, as well as a general sign for local produce at any farm stand.
Signs and safety guidelines were printed with funding from the Western Extension Risk Management Education Center, and Michael Yang distributed large printed versions of the signs to all strawberry stands on the Fresno County Fruit Trail map in Fresno County. These materials have also been shared with UCCE small farms and food systems advisors as well as nonprofit and agency partners and county Agricultural Commissioner's offices, and they are available for printing on the UCCE Fresno strawberry website.
Even as Californians shelter in place to contain the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, nutritious food remains vital to the health and well-being of our communities.
“Eating fruits and vegetables is known to benefit our overall health and help our immune system,” said Lorrene Ritchie, director of the UC Nutrition Policy Institute. “At a time when we need to be especially vigilant about staying healthy, eating healthy is essential.”
Farms, farm stands and farmers markets are listed as “essential businesses” in the state shelter-in-place order because they are important parts of the food supply. Urban farms are included in this category. As large produce distributors struggle to switch from selling large quantities to restaurants, schools and institutions to supplying supermarkets, these small businesses may offer a better selection of fresh foods, and may be closer to homes and less crowded.
To help minimize exposure and risk of spreading of the virus, urban farms need to follow some key guidelines from the CDC , said Jennifer Sowerwine, UC Cooperative Extension metropolitan agriculture and food systems specialist in the Department of Environment, Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.
UC Cooperative Extension has compiled a list of resources for farmers, community gardeners and other people working in the food system to ensure that they can continue supplying fresh, healthy and affordable food to Californians.
“Social distancing, heightened health and hygiene practices and cleaning and disinfecting reduce the risk,” said Sowerwine.
Although eating a nutritious diet can boost our immunity, the Los Angeles Times reported produce sales plummeted by 90% or more at Southern California produce markets after the statewide shelter-in-place rules went into effect.
“It's worrisome to see that sales of fruits and vegetables are dropping so sharply, but not surprising,” said Rachel Surls, UC Cooperative Extension sustainable food systems advisor for Los Angeles County. “As people shop during the crisis, they may be prioritizing groceries that can be stored for a longer time in the fridge or pantry. And they may be on a very limited food budget, even more so than usual, so they are likely prioritizing essentials like bread and rice and baby formula.”
To support farmers in California, the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program created a directory at http://www.calagtour.org for consumers to find local farms to purchase produce directly.
For families who have lost jobs and income, the risk of food insecurity increases. Some families could supplement their food from gardens and urban agriculture during this crisis.
Consumers must practice safety, too, when visiting farmers markets and farm stands. UC Cooperative Extension small farm advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard explained, "Things like keeping the minimum six-foot distance from customers, not touching any produce that you're not planning to buy, leaving as soon as you've made a purchase and washing the produce when you get home would be some good guidelines."
The virus is thought to be spread mainly from person to person, however there is evidence that COVID-19 can last for days on hard surfaces, thus the need to ramp up good health and hygiene practices, social distancing and cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces.
University of California research and extension faculty have compiled a list of helpful fact sheets and resources for farmers, community gardeners and other food system workers to ensure fresh, healthy and affordable food for communities across the state:
- Food-related resources for consumers and members of the food industry for COVID-19
- on the UC Davis Food Safety website.
- Sowerwine's PowerPoint presentation Safe Handling Practices for Fresh Produce in a Time of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) for urban farmers.
- A set of policies and procedures for safe food handling at the farm during COVID-19 provides step-by-step instructions for applying new food and health precautions on the farm including checklists, standard operating procedures and signage posting guidelines for preventing the spread of infection.
- COVID-19 safety guidelines for farm stands.
- Handouts for safe food-handling at home that can be distributed to customers receiving food from the farm.
All of these resources are posted on the UC Urban Agriculture website at https://ucanr.edu/sites/UrbanAg.
“During this challenging time, I am heartened by the quick and thoughtful responses by many extension, grassroots and institutional efforts, including Community Alliance with Family Farm's COVID-19 Responses and Resources for California Family Farms, Mutual Aid organizations where groups of young, healthy and lower-risk people are bringing food and services to vulnerable people who shouldn't be in public at all, and Bayareafood.info that seeks to support local restaurants, farmers, and food systems workers as they weather this latest storm,” said Sowerwine. “Crisis can spawn innovation, and I am hopeful that through this, we will come out the other end with a more compassionate and resilient food system.”
Road side stands selling fresh strawberries and vegetables are opening up around the San Joaquin Valley, and are a excellent option for safe shopping, reported Dale Yurong on ABC 30 News in Fresno.
In keeping with social distancing guidelines, Yurong conducted remote interviews with UC Cooperative Extension advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard and agricultural assistant Michael Yang, who work closely with small-scale farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties.
Dahlquist-Willard suggested customers maintain a six-foot space from other shoppers at farm stands and follow other common sense precautions when purchasing the healthful fresh food by, "not touching any produce that you're not planning to buy, leaving as soon as you've made a purchase and washing the produce when you get home . . . . Similar to what we're seeing at farmers markets right now."
Some valley farmers have been selling their produce at farmers markets out of town and have noticed fewer people are out shopping, Yurong said. They hope more people will stop by the local farm stands, away from the crowded grocery stores, and pick up something straight out of the field.
"My farmers that go to farmers markets, even though the farmers market is still open, they only allow a few people at a time. You don't have a lot of customers walk by just like before," Yang said.
San Joaquin Valley strawberry stands were all expected to be open by April 10, Yurong said.
This is the third in a series featuring a few scientists whose work exemplifies UC ANR's public value for California.
Keeping current on government regulations, agricultural marketing news and crop research advances can be challenging for California farmers, especially for those who speak English as a second language.
Hmong farmers in the San Joaquin Valley can tune in at 2 p.m. on Tuesday afternoons to listen to farm-related news delivered to their radios in their native language from Michael Yang, UC Cooperative Extension small farms and specialty crops agricultural assistant for Fresno County.
For the past 22 years, Yang has hosted the one-hour Hmong Agriculture Radio Show on KBIF 900 AM in Fresno to promote prosperity in the largely immigrant, small-scale Southeast Asian farming community. Yang provides advice on crop production and marketing.
“Fresno County has a large number of small and diversified farms; we have over 1,300 Southeast Asian farms and over 900 are Hmong farmers, according to a survey we did in 2007,” Yang said. “I used to help 250 to 300 farmers every year, in the past couple of years it's grown to about 400 farmers.”
Yang not only speaks their language, he shares their culture and history. After his father was killed for assisting the U.S. during the Vietnam War, Yang, his mother and three younger brothers spent 4 years of his childhood fleeing on foot through the jungles of Laos, subsisting on vegetation and wildlife, to reach safety in Thailand. The refugee family eventually made it to Fresno, where they took up farming.
The Hmong farmers grow Asian specialty crops including eggplant, lemongrass, long bean, squashes, bittermelon and moringa that they sell at farmers markets or to restaurants. Connecting Southeast Asian farmers to sell their produce at farmers markets has been a vital role for Yang, who serves as a translator and cultural interpreter between the immigrant farmers and farmers market managers. He explains the requirements for participating in the farmers markets and helps the farmers with paperwork and communication. Some growers drive as far as San Diego to get a higher price for their produce; the price can be three times as high at farmers markets in larger cities compared to Fresno.
Sales of Asian specialty crops grown by Hmong and other Southeast Asian farmers in Fresno County are valued at about $17.5 million annually, according to the Agricultural Commissioner of Fresno County.
Although Yang and colleague Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, UC Cooperative Extension small farms advisor, offer workshops and field days to share information, the radio show is an important information source because farmers can listen to the show while they work in the field. Because Hmong Agriculture Radio Show is such a critical tool for bilingual outreach, Dahlquist-Willard continually seeks grants to pay the $75 per show to the radio station. Of the 69 Hmong farmers who responded to a 2015 UC Cooperative Extension survey, 80% said they regularly listened to Yang's radio show.
“With the help of our Hmong Agricultural radio outreach, I have Hmong farmers calling our office for assistance from Tulare County up to Stanislaus County,” Yang said.
In 2015, during the drought, Yang and Dahlquist-Willard began helping desperate farmers who were running out of irrigation water.
“Wells were starting to dry up. Some Hmong farmers were reportedly calling suicide hotlines,” Dahlquist-Willard recalled. “For the ones with dry wells, it could cost $20,000 to $50,000 to drill a new well.” That is money that most of the farmers, who typically cultivate less than 50 acres, didn't have.
Eighty-seven percent of the Hmong farmers said their utility bills had risen during the drought. Yang, Dahlquist-Willard and Xai Chang, a young Hmong farmer working with UCCE, helped the farmers get a free PG&E rate analysis, which could help the farmers choose the best electric rate for their irrigation practices to lower the expense. The UCCE team also searched for financing to deepen wells for farmers who had difficulty qualifying for USDA loans and helped them apply for grants from the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program. With additional help from small farms assistant Jacob Roberson, the UCCE small farms team in Fresno has assisted 36 small-scale Hmong, Latino, and African-American farmers to implement SWEEP projects on a total of 846 acres. The small-scale growers have used SWEEP dollars to invest in technologies like energy efficient pumps, drip irrigation systems and flow meters to save water and reduce their energy costs.
“Michael helped me get a grant to buy a new pump for drip irrigation,” said Xiong Pao Her, who grows about 100 crops throughout the year – including ginger, broccoli rabe, fennel, garlic, green onions, napa cabbage and kale – in Sanger. “It saves me water.”
Obtaining land to farm can be difficult for small-scale farmers so the UCCE agricultural assistant connects farmers looking to rent land with landowners, and serves as a bridge for the language and cultural gaps between the two, according to Dahlquist-Willard.
“There was an elderly couple and their daughter wanting to rent land to a Hmong family, and Michael sat down at the table with all the parties and helped them work out a lease agreement, such as requirements for liability insurance,” she said. “Land isn't as available to rent as it used to be, but when it was, Michael would get frequent calls from landowners asking if he knew any farmers who would be interested in renting their land. The number of Southeast Asian farmers who have had a successful lease agreement or a successful farmers market stand because of Michael's help is probably very large.”
Recently Yang and Dahlquist-Willard partnered with California State University Fresno to produce a pesticide-safety video series for the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. “We hope the videos help more farmers understand pesticide regulations and avoid fines, as well as improve their safe handling, selection and effectiveness,” said Yang.
It's not the first time Yang, who has been working for UC Cooperative Extension since 1993, has helped farmers navigate government regulations. Between 2005 and 2008, individual Hmong and Hispanic farmers were being fined between $14,000 and $26,000 for noncompliance with state labor regulations. To provide farmers with a clear understanding of the labor laws, Yang and Richard Molinar, then UCCE small farm advisor, partnered with a variety of community organizations to present information to farmers in English, Spanish, Lao and Hmong at community meetings, on the radio and television, and in trade magazines and newspapers.
“Without the support provided by the UCCE, hundreds, if not thousands, of Hmong farmers would have been added to the victim list for not knowing or understanding the laws. The UCCE has gone many extra miles to fill gaps between enforcement agencies and the Hmong farming community,” Toulu Thao, a Hmong activist, said at the time.
To help farmers decide which crops are most profitable to plant, Yang collaborated in the past with UC colleagues to estimate production costs for some Asian vegetables including sinqua, moqua, opo, longbean, bittermelon, oriental eggplant and lemongrass.
Yang currently advises Hmong growers on about 200 crops and continues to learn about new ones as farmers market customers ask the growers to produce fruits and vegetables from other cultures.
Two UC Agriculture and Natural Resources emeritus specialists, two UC ANR advisors and a UC ANR vice provost spent a week in March working in Guatemala to help implement a USDA-funded (UC Davis-managed) project that is rebuilding the extension system in Guatemala.
With a population of almost 17.5 million and a per capita income ranked 118th in the world, Guatemala is working to improve the livelihoods and incomes of it's rural population, which represents nearly half of the total population. The project is being implemented in Guatemala with the Universidad de San Carlos. Universidad de San Carlos is the biggest and oldest university in Guatemala and which - when established in 1676 - was the fourth university established in the Americas. The 150,000-student university includes a prominent and well-known agricultural school.
The UC contingent delivered modules on extension and marketing, two of five required for the participants to receive a certificate. Jim Hill, emeritus rice specialist based at UC Davis, is leading the second phase of the project.
The rest of the team for the week were Steve Temple, emeritus agronomy specialist, UC Davis; Jairo Diaz, director, UC Desert Research and Extension Center; Ramiro Lobo, advisor, UC Cooperative Extension, San Diego County; Mark Bell, vice provost, strategic initiatives and statewide programs; and Kate Lincoln, CAES Global Engagement, UC Davis. Bell led the project when he was part of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
The interactive week-long course worked with 31 participants, mostly from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture extension offices, but also included agriculture teachers. The team shared the essential steps and associated skills required for successful extension. The course used the Spanish acronym ASISTE as a framework (previously developed by Mark Bell, Maria Paz Santibanez and Elana Peach-Fine) as an easy way to remember the key steps. ASISTE stands for audience (audience), soluciónes (solutions), información simple (simple information), transferencia (transfer), and evaluación (evaluation).
As part of the course, participants developed and delivered their own mini-workshops using local issues and context to reinforce workshop discussions. As Guatemala has a large indigenous population with more than 20 languages, one of the participants delivered his talk in Tzutuhil, the main language used for his constituents in Santiago Atitlan, Sonora department.