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

UC Food Blog

Lessons from California’s urban farms

Urban farmer Pilar Rebar gives a UC ANR team a tour of her organic seedling operation in Richmond, Calif.
Urban farms are popping up around the state, and a UC ANR team recently took a close-up look at urban agriculture in California. In particular, we wanted to learn about farms in cities and on the edges of cities that are selling or distributing their products. We visited urban farms and interviewed farmers to find out about their operations, their challenges, and especially, what UC ANR could offer that would be most helpful. We used what we learned to create the UC ANR Urban Agriculture website, a portal where California's urban farmers can find information they need on a wide array of topics. Here are a few of the insights we gained on our visits.

California's urban farms are usually small, but not always.

Among the 27 farms we visited, the median size was one acre (in other words, half of the farms were larger than an acre, and half were smaller). And the range in size was wide. The smallest was 3,000 square feet, while the largest was 1,000 acres! Excluding the 1,000-acre farm, the average size was 2.8 acres. Compared to the average size of a farm in California, which is 328 acres, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, urban farms are very small.   

Some experienced farmers, many beginners

Two farms were multi-generation family farms started in the 1950s by the current farmers' parents or grandparents and these farmers are highly experienced. Although their farms now operate in urban environments, they didn't start out as urban farms. “The city came to us,” as one farmer put it. The other farmers we interviewed have been learning farming from the ground up.

Not-for-profit models are prevalent

Among the urban farms we visited, most are part of a non-profit organization or government agency with a larger mission. Urban farming is used as a vehicle for reaching the organization's goals, for example, teaching business skills to youth, or improving healthy food access in under-served communities. 

Many challenges starting up

When asked about challenges in starting up their urban farms, the most common issues farmers mentioned were business and financial planning, marketing, and accessing land. From a business perspective, most urban farmers were still learning how to make their enterprises profitable. They also struggled with production issues such as crop planning, pests, and irrigation. And many had encountered confusing zoning issues and regulations.

Urban farmers dive into policy

Of the 27 urban farmers we interviewed, 19 were also involved in advocating for local policy change to facilitate urban agriculture. As one interviewee said: “In order to start the urban farm, we have had to jump into policy work to get it off the ground.”

How can UC ANR help?

One theme that emerged through our visits and discussions with urban farmers is the need for a ready and reliable source of information on everything from starting a farm to production to local regulations. With experts around the state, UC ANR has access to research and information on a wide variety of farming and related topics. The UC ANR Urban Agriculture website has been created as a resource for urban farmers in California, where we'll continue to add helpful material, urban farm stories from around the state, and updates on policies in our metropolitan areas. We encourage urban farmers and urban agriculture advocates in California to connect. Suggest ideas for our blog, share information and photos about your urban farm, and ask questions, via our Facebook page and Twitter. We look forward to hearing from you!

Posted on Tuesday, October 14, 2014 at 5:28 AM

It's October - Take the kids to a farm!

Before Halloween comes the harvest festival and the pumpkin patch.

Although most of us don't live on farms or have relatives who farm, the shortening days and the crispness in the air still remind us somehow that it's harvest time. All over California, farmers are opening their gates and sharing their harvest celebrations with the rest of us. What better time to make sure the kids know where pumpkins, corn, and everything else they eat comes from?

Here are some family-friendly harvest celebrations coming up soon:

  • Sierra Oro Farm Trail Passport Weekend, Butte County - Saturday & Sunday, Oct. 11, 12
    Passport holders can set their own pace, take self-guided tours of the scenic agricultural trails, meet local farmers and winemakers and sample the amazing bounty of locally-owned wineries and specialty farms located throughout Butte County.

  • Shone Farm Fall Festival, Santa Rosa - Saturday, Oct. 11
    The festival, which marks the Farm's 42nd year, will include activities such as apple pressing, a rotten tomato slingshot game, pumpkin and vegetable picking, hayrides and tours of the 365-acre farm and forest. Santa Rosa Junior College Agriculture & Natural Resources Department students will demonstrate wood milling, compost making, lead tours and introduce visitors to the farm's horses, sheep and chickens, and talk about their upkeep. In addition, children can have their faces painted and make stick horses and other crafts. This free festival runs from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11. The farm is located at 7450 Steve Olson Lane, Forestville. For more information, visit shonefarm.com.

  • Stehly Farms Organic Pumpkin Patch, San Diego - Sunday, Oct. 12
    Kids are back in school, the nights are (hopefully) getting cooler, and fall is here! What better way to celebrate than some pumpkin picking? Pumpkin Picking. Tractor Rides. Farm Stand. Devil Dogs BBQ. Market Juices. All Ages Welcome! $6, Kids 4 and Under Free

  • Farm & Barn Tour, Placer County - Sunday, Oct. 12
    The whole family will enjoy the PlacerGROWN Farm & Barn Tour, a FREE self-guided expedition of farms, ranches, and vineyards in the beautiful countryside of Placer County. Each farm venue will feature different activities, tours, and demonstrations. Locally grown produce, meats, wine, and more will be available for purchase. Learn more
  • PlacerGROWN Harvest Festival, Rocklin - Saturday & Sunday, Oct. 18, 19
    Don't miss the PlacerGROWN Harvest Festival, a FREE event of family fun including a pumpkin patch, pumpkin lighting display at dusk, movie in the park, scarecrow building contest, farmers' market and more.
  • Work Day & Barn Dance, Pescadero - Saturday, Oct. 18
    Celebrate the spirit of community with Pie Ranch at this monthly ritual of touring or working together on the ranch, sharing locally grown food, and then spinning, laughing and dosey-doing together into the night. 

  • Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) Day at the Pumpkin Patch, Nicasio - Sunday, Oct. 19
    Pick an organic pumpkin, make your own cheese, taste local Marin wine and beer, pick up locally sourced sandwiches, salads and burgers from The Farmer's Wife and Stemple Creek Ranch, and let the kids go crazy with crafts at MALT Day. This event is free and open to the public.

  • Live Earth Farm Harvest Festival, Watsonville - Saturday, Oct. 25
    Celebrate the Bounty of the Pajaro Valley and the Monterey Bay Area! Join us for fun on the farm for the whole family. Honor the changing of the seasons and celebrate the Harvest with us on the farm.

These and many more farm and ranch events can be found on the UC Agritourism Directory, www.calagtour.org, managed as a public service by the UC Small Farm Program.

Have fun!

Posted on Tuesday, October 7, 2014 at 9:25 AM

The best of the best: salted caramel butter bars

A view from the top. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
What does it take to win the best-of-show award for baked goods at a county fair?

Well, if you're Angelina Gonzalez, an alumnus of the Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo, and now the Solano County's 4-H SET (Science, Engineering and Technology) Program representative, sometimes practice makes perfect, and sometimes perfect doesn't need practice.

Gonzalez's salted caramel butter bars swept all five awards in the adult baked goods section of the 2014 Solano County Fair. Judges first awarded the bars a blue ribbon, and then best-of-division, followed by the sweepstakes award and the coveted best-of-show.

"I've been entering cookies in the adult baked foods department for the past few years and have done well in the past," Gonzalez said. "I love baking and cookies are my specialty. This year, I attempted a recipe that I had never made before. It was a bit of a risk, but I wanted to try something new rather than another cookie recipe. I'm glad I did."

Its origin? Gonzalez selected the recipe on the Internet. (Shelly, the person who posted it several years ago, describes herself as "an addict of the buttercream sort.")

Judges pronounced these delicious! (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gonzalez acknowledged it is not "the healthiest recipe out there (with a pound of butter and 50 caramel candies)," but the judges pronounced it absolutely delicious, the kind of bar cookie that folks would go back for seconds or thirds. 

"Although I never took a 4-H food project, I am thankful to 4-H for everything that I have learned through it," Gonzalez said. "I started 4-H when I was nine years old and quickly learned that I loved it. The following years, I became an active member our Sherwood Forest 4-H Club as historian, treasurer, vice president, and president."

She enrolled in many different projects, including arts and crafts, ceramics, rabbits, dogs, dairy goats, horses, and leadership, receiving multiple awards at fairs. Among them: first place in novice and senior showmanship and various best-of-show awards and outstanding 4-H exhibitor awards.

"I would definitely say that 4-H gave me confidence and life skills for the future," said Gonzalez, who holds a master's degree in sociology from Sacramento State University. "After aging out of the program and a year off, I came back to 4-H (Sherwood Forest 4-H Club) as an arts and crafts project leader."

She just completed her seventh year as a project leader. Her work is much appreciated; she recently received the Solano County 4-H Alumni Award.  "I love 4-H and look forward to where it takes me next," she said.

4-H'ers celebrate National 4-H Week every October.  Youths and adult volunteers who want to sign up for the youth development program should contact their county 4-H program or the statewide office for more information.

Here's the prize-winning recipe, not only perfect for the holidays but for any occasion.

Salted Caramel Butter Bars

Ingredients

For the Crust:

  • 1 lb. salted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla (or use Princess Cake Emulsion)
  • 4 cups all purpose flour
For the Filling:
  • 1 bag (14 oz.) caramel candies (about 50 individual caramels), unwrapped
  • 1/3 cup milk or cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1  tablespoon coarse sea salt (optional) (*see No. 7 below)

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°
  2. In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugars. Using mixer on medium speed, beat together until creamy. Add the vanilla and beat until combined. Sift the flour into the butter mixture and beat on low speed until a smooth soft dough forms.
  3. Spray a 9x13 inch baking pan lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. Wrap remaining dough in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator.
  4. Bake crust until firm and the edges are a pale golden brown approximately 20 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool about 15 minutes.
  5. While the bottom crust is baking and the remaining dough is chilling, make the caramel filling. Place the unwrapped caramels in a microwave-safe bowl. Add the cream. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove from the microwave and stir until smooth. If caramels are not completely melted, microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until smooth.
  6. Once the caramel is melted, add in your 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and stir until combined.
  7. Pour the caramel filling over the crust. If you are going to salt the caramel, sprinkle it on caramel layer now.
  8. Remove the remaining chilled dough from the refrigerator and crumble it evenly over the caramel.
  9. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is bubbly and the crumbled shortbread topping is firm and lightly golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.
  10. Let cool before cutting into squares.

 Next step? Enjoy! P.S.: There will be no leftovers.

4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 4:37 PM

A disheartening new pest invades California vegetable gardens

Bagrada bugs feeding on a tomato. (Photo: Jennifer Evangelista, San Luis Obispo)
California gardeners harvesting their summer produce may encounter a new pest – the bagrada bug. The native of Africa made its first California appearance in Los Angeles County six years ago and has been moving eastward and northward ever since.

“Citizen scientists have been instrumental in reporting the occurrence of bagrada in various counties and are helping map its current distribution,” said Surendra Dara, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. “This is a very serious pest. It is wiping out gardens, and is of great concern for small-scale and organic growers.”

Bagrada bugs are major pests of cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, but they don't appear to be picky eaters. They have been known to feed on a wide variety of garden vegetables in California, including green beans, cantaloupe, corn, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and sunflower. Even landscape plants are not immune. Bagrada bugs have been found feeding on ornamental plants in the mustard family, like sweet alyssum, stock and candytuft.

Bagrada bugs congregating on sunflowers. (Photo: Larry Adcock, Arroyo Grande)
The adult bagrada bugs are about the size of watermelon seeds and have shield-shaped black backs with white and orange markings. Young bagrada bugs – with their red, black and white markings – are sometimes mistaken for ladybugs. But bagrada bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts which cause dead spots on plant leaves and stems when they feed, and result in stunted growth, plant deformities and plant death.

Dara said scientists had hoped cold winter temperatures in northern counties of California would limit the bagrada's northward march, but that hasn't been the case so far.

“Bagrada bugs can survive the winter or cold nights by entering the top layer of the soil around crops,” he said. "They start appearing again in early spring and move from weeds to young vegetables."

For more information on bagrada bugs, see the Pest Note produced by the UC Integrated Pest Management Program. In addition, Dara regularly posts bagrada bug updates on his blog, Strawberries and Vegetables.

Distribution of bagrada bug in California, September 2014.
Distribution of bagrada bug in California, September 2014.

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 8:53 AM
Tags: Bagrada bug (1), Surendra Dara (1)

Farmers market prices compare well with the supermarket produce aisle

Farmers market prices are competitive with supermarkets.
Many shoppers believe they can buy cheaper produce at supermarkets than at local farmers markets. A new UC Cooperative Extension study dispels that common misperception.

In Placer and Nevada counties, UCCE received a CDFA Specialty Block Grant to encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables and support the local agricultural industry by buying the produce from them. The project led to the creation of the “Eat Local Placer Nevada” campaign.

“Buying locally grown products supports local farmers and ranchers and it keeps land in agriculture,” said Cindy Fake, UCCE farm advisor in Placer and Nevada counties. “Simply put, it's the right thing to do.”

To give consumers extra incentive to eat local, the group launched a seven-month study to compare prices at farmers markets and grocery stores. Volunteers and staff collected price data at four farmers markets and six grocery stores from January to July 2014. Specials and sale items were not part of the study. The data suggests that organic produce at farmers markets is priced about the same as organic produce at grocery stores.

In terms of conventional produce, grocery stores had cheaper prices on 6 out of 11 items; however, consumers would still save money picking up red apples, beets and chard at the farmers markets. The cost of conventional butternut squash and sweet potatoes was virtually equal at the two venues.

“Contrary to many consumers' perception, farmers market prices are competitive with regular supermarket prices,” Fake said. “Some prices are slightly higher, some slightly lower, but they are in the same range. “

However, there are other factors shoppers should keep in mind when deciding to buy supermarket produce or fruit and vegetables grown by their neighboring farmers.

“Produce at the farmers market is sold the same day or the day after it is harvested,” Fake said. “Because of that, its shelf life is two to three times longer than what is found in the supermarket. And because it is so fresh, you have a higher nutrient content and it will taste better.”

Fake said experts believe buying local also supports the local economy. She is collaborating on a project led by Shermain Hardesty, UCCE specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, to document the economic impact of local food systems in Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties. The researchers will gather data about farmers' purchases of inputs and local sales of produce.

“This project will provide science-based evidence to guide public policy and program design aimed at supporting local farmers and local food systems into the future,” Fake said.

The study – titled Measuring the Impact of Local Food Marketing on the Local Economy – is supported with a $226,048 grant from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at 8:21 AM

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