- Author: Mike Hsu
When Laura Snell first came to the far northeastern corner of California, she was amazed to find that the Board of Supervisors in Modoc County – where cows outnumber people by a ratio of 13 to 1 – was composed almost entirely of women.
Snell, who arrived in the high desert town of Alturas in 2015 as the University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor, said she now has a theory as to why.
“It's a great example of the rural and agricultural lifestyle we have here where women get involved in everything from civic organizations to local government,” she said. “In a lot of ways, there isn't a glass ceiling in an area where everyone is needed and most people are wearing multiple hats to keep the community going.”
Snell has worn the “county director” hat for UCCE in Modoc County since 2017, bringing a range of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources programs to local communities. In the subsequent years, she has established herself as one of the region's most prominent and respected voices.
“Laura is a strong leader, an excellent communicator, and extremely knowledgeable in the fields of wild horses, groundwater, livestock and grazing – among many other topics,” said Geri Byrne, vice chair of Modoc County's Board of Supervisors (which is presently 75% female).
Snell's broad base of knowledge – as well as her bachelor's in water science and master's in agronomy, both from the University of Nebraska – have served her well in her dream job in a “one-advisor” county.
“This is what I always wanted to do – know a little bit about a lot of things and be the person who connected people with what they needed, connecting them with information, connecting them with different experts,” Snell explained.
One of her most recent accomplishments is launching UC Master Food Preserver classes in Modoc County this year. About 130 people – in a county of 9,000 – have been served by this UC ANR program, and four are on the cusp of graduating as Modoc's inaugural class of certified Master Food Preservers. The vast majority of program participants, Snell notes, have been women.
“They're not only preserving for their own families; they're also using these tools and harvesting things from their gardens and then having a value-added product to sell at the farmers market and our local food hub,” said Snell, citing one participant who learned how to make and sell celery salt.
The contributions of women to the local economy, county leadership and organizations such as the Modoc County Cattlewomen's group continue to inspire Snell in her work – and in nurturing the next generation of leaders.
An avid participant in 4-H growing up in Story County, Iowa, Snell said one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job is mentoring the interns who come through her office, and presenting them with opportunities to learn and grow in their careers.
It was a personal connection that brought Snell to Modoc. A former Bureau of Land Management director in the county, who happened to be the father of her college friend, encouraged Snell to apply for the advisor position. So she flew from Nebraska to Reno and then made the three-hour drive north for the interview.
“I loved it; I immediately loved it,” Snell recalled. “I called my parents that night and said, ‘If they offer me this job, I'm staying.' This is it – this is what I've always really wanted to do, but not only that: this is the kind of community I've always wanted to live in.”
Snell – along with her canine companion, an Airedale-German Shepherd-Rottweiler mix named Zuri – have become an essential part of the fabric of Modoc County. She has provided guidance on everything from managing wild horses on the Devil's Garden Plateau to optimizing agritourism operations for greater profitability to improving the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers by alleviating regulatory burdens.
“Working in this county and for this county, for the people here, that's what fills my cup,” she said. “That's what is most satisfying about this work.”
And the county, in turn, has been appreciative of Snell's wide-ranging expertise and unflappable demeanor. According to Supervisor Byrne, Snell has been instrumental in taking on complex issues such as wild horses and the Big Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan – four years in the making and greatly enhanced by Snell's background in water and her passion for bringing science to the people.
“Laura has a ready smile and manages to stay calm in the face of adversity,” Byrne said. “Modoc is very blessed to have such an articulate, knowledgeable, hard-working and personable director.”
- Author: Mike Hsu
The buzz or chirp of an incoming text message started some San Diego County residents on the path to a healthier diet during this past year. In September 2020, most CalFresh participants in the county – more than 172,000 households – began receiving monthly text messages about the benefits of California-grown fruits and vegetables as part of a pilot program.
This novel approach to delivering nutrition messages to California food assistance program participants was developed by a partnership of the Nutrition Policy Institute of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the UC San Diego Center for Community Health and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, which administers CalFresh in the county.
The HHSA, which had been using its text messaging platform to send administrative reminders and alerts, was receptive to using the tool for sending nutrition-focused information. NPI and CCH partnered with ideas42, a firm that applies behavioral science to solutions for social change, to develop a series of five text messages promoting California-grown fruits and vegetables.
The text messages – originally delivered in English and Spanish, with the addition of Arabic beginning in July 2021 – were friendly and conversational in tone.
“In a text, you have very few characters you're communicating with people, so we wanted to make sure we were using cutting-edge behavioral science to construct those messages to have the most impact,” said Wendi Gosliner, NPI senior researcher and policy advisor.
Each text included a link directing recipients to a website developed as part of the project, with information on selecting, storing and preparing California-grown fruits and vegetables; health benefits; tips to reduce food waste; and recipes – including TikTok videos.
Initially running from September 2020 to March 2021, the pilot program was well-received. Nearly 90% of CalFresh participants responding to a survey said they appreciated receiving the texts. “It is very important for us to eat healthy, to teach our children to eat healthy,” wrote one participant. “I love the recipes…they're so delicious and easy to make…I'm very, very grateful for the help because without you guys, I would be struggling more and I just want a better life for my children.”
Gosliner said it was encouraging to see that two-thirds of the approximately 5,000 survey respondents reported eating more California-grown fruits and vegetables after receiving the messages, and 85% expressed a desire to see more texts.
“What we see is that there's definitely a decent-sized population of people participating in CalFresh –now this is just in San Diego County but imagine the entire state – who would benefit from having this kind of information available to them,” Gosliner said. “And there is at least a subset of people who really liked it.”
UC San Diego's Center for Community Health was instrumental in facilitating the partnership between UC ANR and the HHSA. Further, CCH, in partnership with the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, formed a community council composed of residents representing diverse communities throughout San Diego County. Together, the council facilitated CalFresh participants to take part in focus groups, which provided feedback and guidance on the messaging and design for online resources. Gosliner said the success of the text program has been a direct result of community input and involvement.
“The Center for Community Health-led focus groups were integral to ensuring CalFresh resources were accessible and informative to a wide range of CalFresh participants, and local individuals and families more broadly,” said Blanca Meléndrez, executive director at the UC San Diego Center for Community and Population Health, Altman Clinical Translational Research Institute. “In the process, the text-based campaign also placed a greater focus on the local production of nutritious fruits and vegetables, ensuring access to healthy and nutritious food in all communities, and building new streams of income for the region's farmers and producers.”
This effort also suggests a simple way to reach CalFresh participants and bridge gaps between the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and programming that offers nutrition education and healthy eating resources.
“By combining UCSD and UC ANR knowledge about healthy eating with our outreach capability, we are able to reach thousands of families via text message each month,” said Michael Schmidt, human services operations manager for the HHSA. “With the click of a button, these families are provided with resources to assist them in making healthier lifestyle choices, supporting a region that is building better health, living safely and thriving.”
The effort has been so effective that HHSA has asked for additional messages, beyond the original five months' worth of texts and resources.
“The partnership between UC ANR's Nutrition Policy Institute, UC San Diego's Center for Community Health, the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency and San Diego County community residents brought together a great team to develop an innovative, technology-based intervention,” said Shana Wright, San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative co-director at CCH. “Each partner provided knowledge, resources and assets that enhanced the project beyond the initial pilot phase, exceeding preliminary expectations.”
Gosliner said the pilot program has been a “great example and wonderful experience” of partnership in action.
“You can sit with your research or program ideas for a long time but if you don't have people who can help you implement them, then they really aren't helpful in any way,” she said. “In this case, it was just a nice combination of an idea…with partners who wanted to work to make something happen.”
- Author: Rachael Callahan
- Author: Cooper Limon
The COVID-19 pandemic hit farmers hard. Supply chains were disrupted and even non-traditional agritourism revenue streams such as hay mazes and on-farm events had to be canceled due to shelter-in-place mandates.
On the other hand, demand for local farm products skyrocketed, and thus many farmers and ranchers needed a quick pivot strategy and a set of new skills.
UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) was well-positioned to support this shift toward direct sales, pulling in trusted community partners and experienced farmers and ranchers to put together a comprehensive webinar series, “Agritourism and Direct Sales: Best Practices in COVID Times and Beyond”.
Funded by a USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) grant, the webinar series is part of a three-year project, Strengthening California Local Food Networks with Agritourism and Direct Sales, which provides trainings and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers on how to diversify their revenue streams.
The strength of the series, which includes eight webinars that were recorded earlier this year and are available online, lies in the collaborations among the UC SAREP Agritourism Program, UCCE, community groups, and farmers and ranchers.
The series features a range of speakers, including representatives from community organizations, technical experts, academic researchers, and farmers – all coming together to build resilience and adaptability for small-farming operations and the agritourism industry across California during the pandemic and after.
“It's great to collaborate with other organizations and regions, to learn from each other and to broaden our networks, as we are all working to create more resilient and sustainable food systems,” said Carmen Snyder, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, one of the nonprofit partners on this project.
And because of those strong partnerships, the webinar topics reflected the on-the-ground needs facing agricultural producers.
“COVID initially dramatically affected farmers' restaurant contracts, with many losing more than 80% of their accounts overnight,” Snyder said. “CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture], on the other hand, couldn't keep up with the demand, and all of our CSA members were full and had wait lists for the first time ever. Producers pivoted by creating more online stores, including pick-up and delivery options. It was a challenge for them to navigate the new technology and platforms.”
The “Online Sales Options and Methods” webinar, a partnership with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), provided an overview of several e-commerce marketing and online sales strategies that farmers can implement to diversify their revenue pathways and reach new customers. CAFF stressed the importance of farmers enhancing their resiliency through e-commerce.
The webinar also featured Ciara Shapiro, the owner of AM Ranch in Penn Valley, who shared her experience with online marketing and how it helped her and her husband survive the pandemic when the restaurants and farmers markets they sold to shut down. This personal and informative webinar demonstrated the effectiveness of online sales and marketing, while highlighting available resources from groups like CAFF.
The “Safe, Healthy and Successful Farm Stands” webinar was aimed at farms of all sizes and organizations that operate or advise agricultural operations using farm stands as a form of revenue. The webinar provided an outline of the rules and regulations that farm stand operators needed to follow during COVID – as well as during business-as-usual times.
Both farmers saw an increase in farm stand business during the pandemic, which Yagi attributed to the “traffic storm of people” who attended their annual plant sale fundraiser and came to participate in new farm outdoor activities and volunteer opportunities. Yagi also noted the growing number of low-income individuals who were unable to access fresh produce during the pandemic.
The speakers' shared experiences running successful farm stands gave audience members tangible examples and real-time information on how to incorporate farm stands into their businesses.
Carmen Snyder of Sonoma County Farm Trails, which helped circulate the recorded webinars to their network of farmers and ranchers, remarked: “These webinars were extremely helpful for local producers, to get clarity on best pandemic practices during these challenging times and to learn how other producers are adapting and navigating the circumstances.”
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
Curious goats milled around the masked elementary school students who were raking out the livestock stalls. After a year of social distancing due to COVID-19 precautions, the goats were enthralled by the youngsters who visited UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Elkus Ranch Environmental Education Center in San Mateo County.
“The animals were missing kids, they're used to getting more loving,” said Beth Loof, 4-H youth community educator at Elkus Ranch. “Goats are really social. They get distressed when they are alone.”
Tucked behind the rolling green hills of Half Moon Bay off state Route 1, Elkus Ranch is a working landscape that, in a normal year, hosts people from all over the San Francisco Bay Area for field trips, conferences, community service projects, internships and summer camps.
During the pandemic, UC ANR has limited visitors to “social bubbles” of children and adults for outdoor education at the 125-acre ranch, which has implemented a variety of COVID protocols for the safety of visitors. During Adventure Days, young people spend four hours caring for animals, tending gardens, making a nature-themed craft project and hiking around the property.
“We would love to bring children from urban areas of the Bay Area to Elkus Ranch,” said Frank McPherson, director of UC Cooperative Extension for Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. “So they can learn where food comes from, before it gets to the grocery store.”
On a sunny spring day, 11 students from Share Path Academy in San Mateo visited for Adventure Day, as their first field trip of the year.
“Coming here and having the hands-on learning, being able to hold objects, touch objects, interact with things, it's all part of learning,” said Erin McCoy, a Share Path Academy teacher. “In science, you can talk about certain things in classes, but when you come out here and you actually apply it to what they're doing and it's tactile for them, at this age, it's really important.”
The group – composed of McCoy, nine fifth-graders, a fourth-grader, a sixth-grader and a couple of parents – spent the day outdoors petting the donkeys, goats, chickens, rabbits and sheep and learning about the animals that live at Elkus Ranch.
“I think it's been a great opportunity for our children to be outdoors and to enjoy nature, to reconnect with the environment – animals, plants, just the outdoors,” said parent Christina Cabrera. “It's great for the children and the adults accompanying them.”
Inside the barn, Loof invited the students to sit on straw bales – not the hay bales, which are food for the livestock. She showed the students how wool that is sheared from sheep's coats is spun into yarn. First, they carded the wool. “You're going to card it like this. It's like brushing your hair, but it has a little resistance so it can be a workout,” Loof said, cautioning the students wearing shorts to be careful not to brush their skin with the sharp, wire teeth of the tool. “Get all the fibers nice and flat, lined up, going one way. Fibers are what we call all the strands of wool.”
After twisting the wool by hand into yarn, the students fashioned the natural-colored fuzzy strands into bracelets.
“We love Elkus,” said McCoy, whose son has attended summer camp at the ranch. “This place is awesome.”
Taking a break for lunch, the group walked down the dirt path from the barn past the livestock pens to wash their hands, then sat at primary-colored picnic tables to eat next to a garden.
After lunch, the students exercised their creativity with buckets of clay to mold into animals or roll out and cut with cookie cutters.
In the chicken coop, Loof, who is one of four community educators who work at Elkus Ranch, shared animal science facts such as, “Eggs are viable for two weeks after the hen sits on them in the nest.” She also told funny stories such as how Dora, the white bantam, escaped the coop and ate all the chard in the garden.
“I wish this was my school,” said one student as he held an egg-laying hen.
The visit ended with a garden tour and a game of hide and seek among the raised beds of onions, squash and other vegetables.
“Being outdoors is an important counterbalance to being on a computer,” said Cabrera, who is also a San Mateo High School wellness counselor. “It's a great addition to what we're doing. Just to be with animals.”
Elkus Ranch is still offering Adventure Days for children; the cost is $425 for 10 people. Small groups are also invited for 90-minute visits.
“If all goes well, we plan to offer a three-day mini-camp Monday through Wednesday of Thanksgiving week,” said Leslie Jensen, Elkus Ranch coordinator.
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
Due to the Dixie Fire, the traditional Plumas County Fair was canceled; however, volunteers are working hard to make the Plumas-Sierra Junior Livestock Show happen. 4-H and FFA youth will show their prize-winning livestock this weekend at the Sierraville Roping Grounds. The showing of animals is scheduled to take place on Aug. 13 and 14 with the Junior Livestock Auction on Sunday, Aug. 15.
“We really hope junior livestock supporters in the region and beyond will raise their hands often this year to support the youth livestock producers of Plumas and Sierra counties,” said Megan Neer, Plumas-Sierra Junior Livestock Auction chairman.
“The kids have overcome the challenges of COVID and now face another year of canceled county fair due to the Dixie Fire,” Neer said. “Many of our youth have been directly impacted by the fire evacuations and some even have lost homes to the catastrophic fire. We are really looking to the community and beyond to support our youth during this difficult time.”
Profiles of participating youth can be viewed on the Plumas-Sierra Junior Livestock Auction Facebook page by clicking on “Photos." Interested buyers can participate in the livestock sale on Sunday, Aug. 15, and help reward the young people for their hard work in raising steers, lambs, swine, goats, rabbits, turkeys and other animals.
On the Plumas-Sierra Junior Livestock Auction website there is an option to donate to the Dixie Fire Relief Fund. There will be opportunities on sale day to support the 4-H members who were affected by the fire. In addition, there is an option for add-ons to support a child separate from buying an animal – for both 4-H and FFA members – that are in the sale.
“We would like to thank volunteers and sponsors for coming together on such short notice to host the livestock show event for my fellow 4-H and FFA exhibitors as well as myself,” said Kristin Roberti, Sierra Valley 4-H president, who has a steer entered in the event. “I will be joining over 100 other youth exhibiting livestock at the event this year, including a number of friends who have been impacted by the ongoing Dixie Fire and the Beckwourth Fire last month.”
UPDATE Aug. 24, 2021: The auction raised over $500,000.
"It was an amazing day, and life changing for many youth that were impacted the hardest by the Dixie Fire," said Tracy Schohr, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor in Plumas and Sierra counties.
"Also, the day before the auction I worked with the Plumas-Sierra Cattlemen to host an impromptu dinner and auction to support ranchers impacted by the Dixie Fire - over $30,000 was raised that will go to ranchers who lost feed, hay, fences and many who have incurred tremendous costs the past month while the fire has burned around them," Schohr said.
"The weekend activities were a true reminder of the support for agriculture, support for youth in agriculture, value of community and the true power of social media."
For more information about the auction, visit plumas-sierrajla.com or contact Jane Roberti, advertising coordinator, at (530) 249-4036 or (530) 993-4097.