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: Richard Molinar

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

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

Demand increases for Asian vegetables

A snake gourd, center, is one of the more unusual Asian vegetables grown in the valley. (Photo: Brenda Dawson)
Rising demand for Asian vegetables in urban areas of California is creating an improved market for produce grown by the San Joaquin Valley's Asian farmers, reported Yu Wei in the San Francisco-based China Daily.

Richard Molinar, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Fresno County, told the reporter that demand is driving increased cultivation of Asian vegetables in Fresno County.

"We have around 50 to 75 Chinese farmers here in Fresno County and over 2,000 acres of Chinese crops selling locally as well as nationwide," Molinar said.

The article noted that UC Cooperative Extension offers advice and services to these growers.

"In addition to providing them with technical support, we also help those farmers to find new marketing opportunities," Molinar said.

Posted on Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 10:17 AM

UCCE makes Southeast Asian vegetables easy to eat

Bitter melon is best when very young.
Most Americans gravitate toward the familiar in supermarket produce aisles. But some creative shopping unveils a tremendous diversity of edible vegetables that can turn an ordinary menu into a much more interesting cuisine.

At certain roadside stands, at farmers markets that cater to diverse clientele and in small Asian supermarkets, adventurous Californians can buy vegetables like bitter melon, Chinese long beans, opo and luffa. Finding them is the first step, knowing how to prepare them is another matter. UC Cooperative Extension has made these less familiar vegetables more accessible by creating a collection of easy-to-cook and nutritious Southeast Asian vegetable recipes.

The recipes were developed by UCCE nutrition educators in Fresno and the statewide UC Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program team with Richard Molinar, a UCCE advisor in Fresno County. Connie Schneider, director of the UC Youth, Families and Communities Program, and Molinar started by researching the traditional usage of Asian vegetables. They modified some ingredients and procedures in the recipes to simplify preparation and improve the nutritional profile.

“We minimized the number of ingredients in each recipe, added clear measurements and tested the dishes,” Schneider said. “They are delicious.”

For the last 18 years, Molinar has worked with small-scale farmers in Fresno County, which boasts the largest concentration of Hmong farmers in the U.S.  Fresno County is also home to farmers of other ethnicities from Laos, China and Vietnam. Molinar and his assistant, Michael Yang, have introduced Southeast Asian immigrant farmers to the latest farming technologies, helped them develop plans to ensure the safety of the food they grow, and worked with them to find new marketing opportunities. Many of these farmers have begun growing vegetables common in California, and most have also kept some space on the farm for the vegetables of their homelands.

The UCCE educators recognized that the rich culinary traditions of local Southeast Asian immigrants could be adapted and used by people of all cultures to increase their consumption of vegetables. Besides, encouraging consumption of Southeast Asian vegetables adds new marketing opportunities for the farmers.

“This has been a unique opportunity to bring UCCE’s farm advisors and nutrition educators together to assist farmers and the public,” Molinar said. “These recipes will encourage more people to buy these nutritious vegetables, expanding the market for the growers.”

The 12 recipes are printed on cards, each with photos of the fresh vegetable and background information. For example, the recipe card for “bitter melon stir fry” notes that the crinkly skinned vegetable is native to India and is eaten when young and green, as bitterness increases with age. The recipe is accompanied by a photo of the prepared dish and complete nutrition facts per serving.

Angled luffa.
Most people are familiar with luffa after it has dried into a natural scrubby. It is often found near beauty products in stores and purchased to exfoliate the skin. However, the UCCE recipe card for “luffa and prawns” notes that fresh green luffa has a similar but sweeter flavor than zucchini summer squash when stir fried. Either the smooth or angled varieties of luffa can be used in the recipe. 

"I grew up with zucchini," Molinar said, "but I prefer the flavor and texture of angled luffa."

The printed cards will be distributed at farmers markets where Southeast Asian vegetables are sold, and they are available on the Fresno County UC Cooperative Extension website. Farmers who sell Asian vegetables at farmers markets may pick up 10 packets of recipes for free at the UC Cooperative Extension in Fresno, 1720 S. Maple Ave., Fresno. Direct links to each of the recipes are below:

Following are two sample recipes:

Bitter Melon Sir Fry

Serves 4


1 ripe bitter melon, seeded and sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
½ lb. ground pork
½ lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 tomato, chopped
1 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce
Pepper to taste


  1. Place sliced bitter melon in boiling water until just tender (2-3 minutes). Drain
  2. Heat olive oil in skillet over medium heat. Sauté onions for about 5 minutes until tender.
  3. Add garlic; sauté an additional 2 minutes; mix in pork and cook until no longer pink.
  4. Add shrimp; cook about 5 minutes until done.
  5. Add tomato, bitter melon, and soy sauce; cook until tender.


Luffa and Prawns

Serves 4


1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 lb large prawns, peeled and deveined
2 luffa (angled luffa or smooth luffa), chopped
¼ cup bamboo shoots
1 teaspoon coriander
1 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce
1 green onion, sliced


  1. Heat oil in a wok/pan; add garlic and stir fry for 1 minute.
  2. Add prawns; cook until done
  3. Add luffa; continue to stir fry with prawns until just tender, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add bamboo shoots, coriander, and soy sauce to pan and stir fry a few minutes
  5. Sprinkle with green onion and serve.
Posted on Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 6:42 AM

UC scientists studying 'baffling' pomegranate ailment

A mysterious sudden crippling or death of pomegranate trees may be due to cold temperatures, said a story in Western Farm Press.

Three farmers and Themis Michiliades, UC Davis plant pathologist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center, agreed that low temperatures have a lot to do with the problem. Michailides cited an Iranian research paper that showed similar cold snap damage. Michailides and Richard Molinar, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Fresno County, said damage from dieback this year was more common in sandier soils, perhaps because heavier soils hold moisture.

A pomegranate with black heart looks normal from the outside.
Writer Dennis Pollock reported on the problem in his article about a recent pomegranate field day at Kearney. At the field day, Michailides also reported on "black heart" of pomegranate, caused by Altenaria fungus, and cankers caused by species that include Neofusicoccum mediterraneum.

Claude Phené, a retired USDA-ARS researcher, discussed a two-year-old pomegranate irrigation and fertigation trial at Kearney.

Posted on Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 1:39 PM

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