Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
University of California
Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Posts Tagged: Ruth Dahlquist-Willard

Continuing the mission of UC Cooperative Extension

Jennifer Sowerwine helps restore culturally relevant food systems to immigrant and Native American populations

The Karuk Tribe once lived on more than a million acres in remote Northern California. Legally, their ancestral land along the middle section of the Klamath River in Siskiyou County was in the public domain, as the Karuk did not have a reservation. But on May 6, 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt created the Klamath Forest Reserve, the tribe lost any claim to its aboriginal territory.

Less swiftly but just as conclusively, the tribe also lost access to much of what the rivers and mountains provided: deer and elk, salmon, tan oak acorns, mushrooms, berries, medicinal herbs. And it lost its ability to manage the landscape through prescribed fire in order to ensure the survival of the plants and animals it needed. The Karuk's food system had been broken almost overnight, and has yet to recover. But Jennifer Sowerwine — UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources — believes it still can.

In direct collaboration with Karuk tribal leaders and community members, as well as with the nearby Yurok and Klamath Tribes, Sowerwine has helped put millions of dollars from USDA to work restoring food security — defined as access to sufficient, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods — among those from whom it was once taken.

While this is a challenge to which one could easily dedicate a career, Sowerwine's broader mission to support equitable food systems across the state has also led her to other projects and other communities. In the Central Valley, she has spent years working with Southeast Asian farmers. Closer to home, she recently began studying how community farms and gardens improve food security among at-risk populations in the urban East Bay.

Lisa Hillman, Pikyav Field Institute program manager for the Karuk Tribe, at the Karuk Herbarium. (Photo: Bari Talley)

Restoring ancient relationships to food

Sowerwine's body of work is a manifestation of the University of California Cooperative Extension's long-standing mandate to aid the “welfare, development, and protection of California agriculture, natural resources, and people.” CNR is the home of Cooperative Extension at UC Berkeley, which — now celebrating 150 years since its founding as a land-grant university — is intended to benefit all residents of our increasingly populous and diverse state.

That includes California's first residents: Native tribes like the Karuk, the Yurok (located along the lower stretch of the Klamath River), and the Klamath (upriver, across the border in Oregon). All three were traditionally non-agrarian, hunter-gatherer communities. Loss of ancestral lands that had sustained them for millennia affected not only their diet — leading to a reliance on institutional and heavily processed foods that have contributed to persistent health problems —but also their culture.

In working with the tribes, Sowerwine first had to listen.

“One of the main philosophical approaches in my work is to collaborate with the community to identify what the problems are, co-create research questions, and then support, on the extension side, the kinds of programs they need to attain their goals,” she said.

Among the Karuk, the tribe with which Sowerwine works most closely, “the community is actively engaged in exploring ways to revitalize their eco-cultural system,” she said. “That includes managing the landscape with traditional methods to improve the productivity and availability of cultural foods and fibers, and restoring some of the relationships around Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).”

Beginning in 2012, through a five-year, USDA-funded grant, Sowerwine partnered with all three tribes to help them reclaim control over their food systems using a holistic, community-centered approach. This took a variety of forms, including designing K–12 curricula for local schools around traditional food systems; opening two new herbaria to preserve and share specimens of native food plants; hosting workshops on subsistence skills like butchering, bread making, and canning; and finding appropriate ways of reintroducing sustainable local agriculture into communities for whom traditional farming is linked with colonialization.


This work now serves as a model for tribes across the country.

“There's a lot of interest in all of our programs,” says Karuk tribal member and Pikyav Field Institute program manager Lisa Hillman. In particular, the tribe created a digital library to offer easy access to information about traditional foods and ecological knowledge, which has attracted significant acclaim and earned Hillman invitations to discuss it at national conferences. “Working with [Jennifer] opened a whole lot of doors for our tribe,” Hillman says. The project's success also led to a second, three-year USDA grant that should continue to point the way forward and help mitigate some past harms for the Karuk Tribe.

Interventions for Southeast Asian refugee farmers

Sowerwine began her career studying food security among marginalized residents of a very different part of the world, who nonetheless have much in common with her current collaborators. As a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) at Berkeley, she spent two years in the highlands of Vietnam learning how land-use laws and economic policies affected indigenous local farmers from the Mien minority ethnic group and their ability to sustain agrarian practices that were vital to their culture and food security.

After earning her PhD, Sowerwine continued at Berkeley as a postdoctoral researcher. A vibrant community of Mien immigrants exists not far away, in Sacramento, where refugees of the Vietnam War first arrived from Laos in the late 1970s. They were joined by fellow refugees from the Hmong ethnic group, many of whom settled in Fresno. Both groups had traditionally worked the land in Southeast Asia, and they soon developed robust farming networks here in California.

Using a proficiency with the Vietnamese language honed overseas, Sowerwine initially set out to assess the productivity and economic viability of these small farms operated by Southeast Asian refugees.

“I wanted to understand the barriers they were facing in terms of farming in the Central Valley of California, which is arguably the most industrialized agricultural landscape in the world,” she said.

Approximately 100 Mien farmers — part of a Sacramento-area Mien population of about 15,000 — work small plots of land, averaging about eight acres each, outside the state capital. They primarily grow strawberries to sell at roadside stands, but also produce a wide variety of traditional foods, like “sticky” corn, yu choy, gai lan, purple long beans, and bitter melon — mostly for home consumption.

Hmong farmers, who are concentrated in Fresno and Sacramento counties, grow conventional vegetables like cherry tomatoes, green beans, onions, and lettuce — in addition to their own cultural and traditional foods — to sell at farmers markets, Asian grocery stores, and wholesale markets.

A Hmong farmer selling yam leaf and bitter melon at a farmers market. )Photo: Jennifer Sowerwine)


The two groups' successes have not come easy, owing to such challenges as language barriers, differences between traditional and modern farming techniques, and informal labor practices that often clash with state regulations.

In response, Sowerwine designed and led an array of interventions to support the farms' continued viability. These included offering hands-on, native-language training to help Hmong and Mien farmers comply with complex labor and food-safety regulations; teaching farmers how to achieve organic certification or to make and sell “value-added” foods like jams; and providing assistance in accessing new markets for fresh produce, including schools, farmers markets, and wholesalers.

Throughout her career, Sowerwine has worked closely with UC Cooperative Extension advisors around the state, including Richard Molinar — a now-retired small farms and specialty crops advisor in Fresno County — and his successor, Ruth Dahlquist-Willard.

“We accomplished a lot, and we helped hundreds, if not thousands,” Molinar said.

Protecting farmers' livelihoods is only the start, Sowerwine notes. Positive outcomes ripple out to the broader immigrant community, which sees strengthened food security through a steady supply of affordable, culturally appropriate produce, and to the entire regional economy and food system, which benefit from a robust and diverse network of local food producers.

“The land-grant universities were founded for the ordinary people, and not just the elite,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “The original idea was to provide support and training for people in professions like agriculture. It's part of the health of rural communities.”

The power of small-scale urban agriculture

Yet as Sowerwine's work in the East Bay has shown, small-scale agriculture can also be critical to the health and well-being of urban residents — especially recent immigrants. In 2016, she and a team of 12 undergraduate research assistants surveyed more than 100 community, school, and for-profit farms and gardens between Hayward and Richmond. A dozen of the community gardens were included in a subsequent pilot study to learn more about how urban farms can provide immigrants with reliable access to affordable traditional foods.


Jennifer Sowerwine discusses plantings with Jon Hoffman, farm manager of the UC Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany. (Photo: Saul Bromberger)

Despite a combined area of just 10.5 acres, these plots were producing more than 300 distinct crops. Many of these plants have direct ties to specific culinary and medicinal traditions, including nine varieties of edible cactus used for nopales (cactus pads) and tuna (cactus fruit) in Mexican cuisine, and even as a diabetes remedy; gandana, also known as Afghan leek, a critical ingredient in the traditional dishes bolani and ashak; and chinsaga (Cleome gynandra), a plant used by Kenyan women for postpartum healing and infant health.

Late last year, in collaboration with the Berkeley Food Institute, Sowerwine received a grant from the national nonprofit Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to further promote and study Bay Area urban farming. Along with ESPM faculty members Timothy Bowles and Céline Pallud, as well as Charisma Acey from the College of Environmental Design, she'll delve even deeper into urban agriculture across the Bay Area.

The team plans to address a diverse and thought-provoking array of questions, most of which have never been studied so thoroughly in the Bay Area. For example, what is the role of urban farms in supporting beneficial insects and improving soil health? How does food from urban farms find its way to consumers and how can waste along the way be minimized? What cultural or structural barriers may prevent locals from accessing urban-farming products?

As with all of Sowerwine's work, from the Oregon border to the East Bay, the goal is not simply to learn more, but to make a difference.

“There's a need to elevate an understanding of the value and importance of these spaces to local, state, and national government, to figure out ways of securing them for the long-term benefit of our diverse California public,” Sowerwine said. “The goal is to inform policy and create opportunities for tribal communities and small-scale family and urban farmers, to maintain the continuity of their cultural food heritages.”

Posted on Thursday, May 10, 2018 at 8:58 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture Food

Farmers can increase income by expanding small operations with creative new businesses

Farms that sell only fresh produce are dependent on buyers for markets and pricing. The UC Cooperative Extension small farms team in Fresno and Tulare counties believes farmers can earn more money by taking production a step further, by adding extra value to their products with processing, preserving and packaging the produce.

UC Cooperative Extension small farms advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and Fresno State's Office of Community and Economic Development brought a group of small farmers together for a workshop in January to learn about resources available to help them develop value-added businesses.

“Value-added products can improve the bottom line of a small family farm by bringing in additional income and diversifying production,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “We wanted to connect beginning farmers and Southeast Asian farmers to programs that could help them develop and market value-added products from their farms.”

The value-added workshop included presentations from a farmer with a successful value-added business, government agencies and non-profit organizations. Alternative lenders such as Fresno Madera Farm Credit, who provided funding for the workshop, also presented on loans available for small-scale farms. UCCE agricultural assistant Michael Yang translated the presentations into Hmong.

Small-scale farmers gather at the UCCE Fresno County office to learn about value-added business opportunities.

Kingsburg organic farmer Paul Buxman opened the workshop with his personal journey into value-added production. Buxman's story begins in 1994 when a spring hail storm swept through his farm.

“The hail marked all my fruit. I had 100,000 pounds of plums, peaches and nectarines I could not sell. What could I do?” Buxman said. “An idea came to my head like a lightbulb. Take the fruit, cut off the scar, cook it and make jam.”

The new venture wasn't an instant success. Buxman found himself delivering unsold jam that first year to a Bay Area homeless mission, pulling up right behind a bread truck.

“Man does not live by bread alone,” he said with a laugh.

But each year he and his wife improved their product, and the market grew.

“This jam is so addictive, it's barely legal,” Buxman said. His “Sweet Home Ranch Homemade Preserves” costs $2 per jar to make, and sells for $5 each.

Farmer Paul Buxman says his Sweet Home Ranch jam (right) is so addictive, it's 'barely legal.'

Buxman suggested the farmers at the UCCE workshop to try making a value-added product. The new products could be spices, food, cleaning products, handicrafts, and even experiences, such a teaching a skill.

“You have so much more to offer people than you realize,” Buxman said.

Patti Chang (right) of Feed the Hunger Foundation speaks to the group. UCCE ag assistant Michael Yang translates into Hmong.

During the subsequent panel discussion, Kiel Schmidt outlined the support that Food Commons Fresno can provide. An important element is the opportunity to rent the organization's commercial kitchen to create value-added merchandise to health department specifications. Patti Chang of Feed the Hunger Foundation said her organization provides technical assistance and loans to new ventures that can carry out their mission of reducing hunger and helping people out of poverty.

“We worked with two Oaxacan women in Madera who didn't want to be field workers anymore,” Chang said. “They wanted to make a product from their culture: mole. They became a certified business, opened a bank account at Wells Fargo and opened a small restaurant in a grocery story. We helped them negotiate the lease.”

Eduardo Gonzalez of Fresno State's San Joaquin Valley Rural Development Center said his facility can help small businesses with marketing, website design and getting value-added products to market.

Dawn Goliik of the U.S. Small Business Administration said the organization can help small farmers start, grow and run businesses with training, mentoring and counseling.

“It's all free to you,” Golik said.

The UCCE small farms team also has a marketing associate, Lorena Ramos, who is available for farmers to contact regarding value-added product development.

Two Oaxacan women in Madera are marketing their traditional mole in addition to running a small restaurant inside a grocery store.

Presentations and one-on-one consultations were offered by a variety of organizations that can loan funds, including Fresno Madera Farm Credit, Access + Capital, Northern California Community Loan Fund, California FarmLink, USDA Farm Service Agency and Valley Small Business Development Corporation.

The workshop ended with a presentation on California's Cottage Food Law, which allows residents to process and prepare foods in their own home kitchens to sell to the public. Some of the home-prepared products the law permits are jams, jellies, cookies, cakes and fudge, dried fruit, vegetables and spices. A complete list of approved foods is on the state website.

The Cottage Food Law is for businesses with a gross annual income below $50,000, which have no more than one employee (not including household members).

“There is no charge, just paperwork to fill out,” said Matthew Gore with Fresno County Environmental Health. “This isn't difficult, and we're here to help you with the forms.”

Dahlquist-Willard said an important part of her UC Cooperative Extension program is the connections she and Yang can help farmers make with the myriad services available to them.

“We encourage small farmers to contact us in our Fresno office,” she said.

Contact information:

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, (559) 241-7515, rdahlquistwillard@ucanr.edu
Michael Yang, (559) 241-7523, myang@ucanr.edu
Lorena Ramos, (559) 241-7524, mlramose@ucanr.edu

 

Posted on Friday, February 9, 2018 at 8:38 AM

UCCE helps farmers increase revenue by creating value-added enterprises

San Joaquin Valley production of moringa, a purported superfood that is typically imported to the United States from the tropics, might open the door for small scale farmers to break into a value-added business, reported Katrina Schwartz of KQED News.

Moringa is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas in northwestern India. It's young seed pods, roots and leaves are used as vegetables, says an article on Wikipedia

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, the UC Cooperative Extension advisor to small-scale farmers in Fresno and Tulare County, believes the product lends itself to value-added because it can be dried, ground and stored for later use as a nutritional supplement.

"I think there's a lot of opportunity there," Dahlquist-Willard said. 

Typically, small scale farmers only sell fresh produce. But adding value - processing, preserving, cooking, etc. - can boost the bottom line. Dahlquist -Willard said expanding a farm's activities in this way may also make the family business more attractive to the younger generation. 

"Kids who have gone off to college for business, marketing or graphic design might see a new kind of future for themselves on the family farm with a product like moringa," the KQED story said.

With this in mind, Dahlquist-Willard organized a free value-added workshop in Fresno for small-scale farmers, to be held Jan. 31 at the UC Cooperative Extension office, 550 E. Shaw Ave., Fresno. The workshop brings together local agencies that offer financing, small business resources and services for local small-scale farmers that will allow them to create a value-added enterprise on their farms. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with real-time adaptation in Hmong and Spanish. Partners include Central Valley AgPlus Food and Beverage Manufacturing Consortium, Fresno State, San Joaquin County Rural Development Center, the Agricultural Sustainability Institute, Small Farm Program, and the Farm Credit Agency.

 

The seed pods and branches of a moringa tree. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 40)

 

Posted on Friday, January 26, 2018 at 2:21 PM
Focus Area Tags: Economic Development

UC Cooperative Extension support eases the plight of drought

UC Cooperative Extension is helping Hmong farmers in the Central Valley deal with water shortages.
A recent survey by UC Cooperative Extension advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard provides a picture of the Hmong farmer experience during the recent drought, reported Andrea Castillo in the Fresno Bee.

Sixty-eight farmers were interviewed by phone or in-person. Twenty-two percent said their wells had dried up, and 51 percent reported a decreased water flow.

“For the ones with dry wells, it could be $20,000 to $50,000 to drill a new well,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “A lot of them cannot get access to loans.”

To deal with irrigation water limitations, some farmers told interviewers they reduced acreage or changed the time of day they irrigate. Some stopped farming all together.

“One farmer told us he was irrigating his crops with his domestic well,” Dahlquist-Willard said.

The survey was conducted in conjunction with outreach efforts with Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board and Jennifer Sowerwine, UCCE Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. The survey was funded funded with a grant from the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach and with support from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources via Sowerwine.

Posted on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 at 3:13 PM

Hmong farmers getting help from UC Cooperative Extension to weather the drought

UCCE advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard (right) demonstrates how to evaluate soil moisture with a soil sampler. In the center is UCCE Hmong ag assistant Michael Yang. Ka Xiong
After the Central Valley Hmong Agriculture radio show last week, the phones at the UC Cooperative Extension office in Fresno County were buzzing non-stop with farmers anxious to apply for state grants to improve irrigation systems and energy efficiency. Michael Yang, UCCE Hmong agricultural assistant, has hosted the one-hour show each Tuesday afternoon on KBIF 900 AM for 19 years.

“Sometimes we don't see the farmers that often. They are busy on the farm,” Yang said. “But when they hear something (important) like this on the radio, they show up.”

UC Cooperative Extension office staff - including UCCE advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, Yang, part time staffer Xia Chang, Fresno State student volunteer Sunny Yang, and research assistant Janet Robles from Fresno State's Center for Irrigation Technology – are working with small-scale and socially disadvantaged farmers one-on-one to line up the necessary paperwork and information to submit successful grant applications. (Read more about UC staffer Xia Chang, millennial Hmong farmer.)

“We helped eight farmers submit applications in the last two rounds, and seven received grants,” Yang said. “The money is significant.”

The grants allowed the farmers to make improvements in energy efficiency and water savings, Dahlquist-Willard said.

“This can make a huge difference for the profitability of a small farm,” she said.

The application requires energy bills from the previous growing season, a pump test and a plan for redesigning the irrigation system to result in reduced water use and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“There are a lot of calculations to do,” Yang said. “It's very complicated, and no one is available to help underserved farmers.”

While assisting farmers with applications for other programs is not usually part of UCCE's extension efforts, the small farms program in Fresno County has identified this form of assistance as crucial to the success of small-scale and minority-operated farms.

Help with the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP) grants is one in a series of outreach efforts for Hmong farmers spearheaded by Dahlquist-Willard since she was hired in 2014 to work with small-scale farmers in Fresno and Tulare counties. After just two weeks on the job, she was invited to an emergency meeting with the National Hmong American Farmers and USDA's Farm Service Agency to address the challenges faced by Hmong farmers as groundwater levels continued to drop during the drought.

“Wells were starting to dry up. Some Hmong farmers were reportedly calling suicide hotlines,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “We knew we had to take action.”

Dahlquist-Willard and her staff began researching programs that could offer the farmers financial assistance. They identified a free PG&E rate analysis, which could help the farmers choose the best electric rate for their irrigation practices to minimize charges. They searched for financing to deepen wells for farmers who had difficulty qualifying for existing USDA loans. And in 2015, they began helping farmers with applications for the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program.

The dire circumstances also prompted Dahlquist-Willard to commission a survey of Hmong farmers to see how they were impacted by the drought. Documenting their plight would be useful in seeking support. The survey was conducted in conjunction with outreach efforts with Fresno Regional Workforce Investment Board and Jennifer Sowerwine, UCCE Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley. The survey was funded with a grant from the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach and with support from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources via Sowerwine.

Sixty-eight farmers were interviewed by phone or in-person. Twenty-two percent said their wells had dried up, and 51 percent reported a decreased water flow.

“For the ones with dry wells, it could be $20,000 to $50,000 to drill a new well,” Dahlquist-Willard said. “A lot of them cannot get access to loans.”

To deal with irrigation water limitations, some farmers told interviewers they reduced acreage or changed the time of day they irrigate. Some stopped farming all together.

“One farmer told us he was irrigating his crops with his domestic well,” Dahlquist-Willard said.

Energy efficiency programs turned out to be very important for this population of farmers. Eighty-seven percent said their utility bills increased during the drought. As a result, UCCE has been promoting PG&E programs for energy efficiency as well as the SWEEP program.

The survey also showed the power of radio in reaching the Hmong farming community. Eighty percent of the survey respondents said they were regular listeners to Michael Yang's Central Valley Hmong Agriculture radio show.


 Xia Chang: Millennial Hmong farmer

Xia Chang works with a Hmong farmer on making changes to energy billing.
Xia (pronounced “sigh”) Chang, 26, was hired in 2015 to use his Hmong language skills in collecting survey responses for UCCE. Chang was born in Thailand, and immigrated with his family to the U.S. four years later. His father cultivates Southeast Asian vegetables along with a second job at Red Lobster. Many of the nine children in the family help out on the farm.

Chang attended college, but his financial aid was depleted before he earned a degree. In addition to part time work with UCCE, Chang is now farming.

“Last year we expanded our farm from 4 acres to 14 acres, with a new three-year lease,” Chang said.

The family's many technical agricultural questions led to Chang's frequent visits to the Cooperative Extension office, and ultimately to his being hired to help conduct the Hmong farmer survey.

“I spend a lot of time speaking Hmong on this job,” Chang said. “I've had to learn a lot of new vocabulary.”

He said he's also learning a lot about new farming techniques that he wants to apply on the family farm. However, there are obstacles.

“My dad is not open to new ways because he is afraid it would not be as successful,” Chang said. “But, in everything you do, you learn.”

Chang is now looking into a career in plant sciences. He is working with Dahlquist-Willard and Kent Daane, UC Cooperative Extension biological control specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier, testing integrated pest management techniques in Southeast Asian vegetable crop production. In time, Chang plans to return to Fresno State to complete a degree in agriculture.

Posted on Monday, July 25, 2016 at 10:44 AM
 
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