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Farm subsidies don't make Americans fat

There is no evidence to support the claim that farm subsidies -- by making fattening foods relatively cheap and abundant -- contribute to obesity in the United States, according to an analysis led by UC Davis researchers.

"U.S. farm subsidies have many critics. A variety of arguments and evidence can be presented to show that the programs are ineffective, wasteful or unfair," said Julian Alston, a professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis. "Eliminating farm subsidies could solve some of these problems -- but would not even make a dent in America's obesity problem."

According to Alston and his colleagues, farm subsidies have had only very modest, mixed effects on the total availability and prices of farm commodities, and cannot have contributed significantly to the obesity epidemic. In fact, the researchers have shown that the subsidies actually increase consumer prices and discourage consumption of one of the biggest suspects: sugar.

Alston and a team of other UC Davis agricultural economists studied the question with researchers in the UC Davis Department of Nutrition and the Iowa State University Department of Economics.

Their conclusions appeared in the December 2007 issue of "Agricultural and Resource Economics Update," published by the University of California's Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.

(Photo by John Stumbos)
(Photo by John Stumbos)

Posted on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 10:34 AM

Hospitals are putting more fresh, local food on patient trays

UC researchers studied farm-to-hospital initiatives in the Bay Area, and they found a growing movement to put locally produced food on patient trays and cafeteria menus. They say that buying from local farmers and ranchers is part of a trend toward better quality and flavor in hospital meals, both to satisfy consumer demand and to address concerns about dietary contributions to chronic disease.

"Just replacing food-service cans with locally grown vegetables won't curb high rates of obesity and heart disease, but it may encourage patients and cafe customers to increase their daily intake of vegetables," said study co-author Gail Feenstra. "And if there's one piece of firm advice from nutritionists, it's to eat more fruits and vegetables."

One example of a "farm-to-hospital" initiative is the John Muir Health System facilities in the East Bay, where executive chef Alison Negrin (formerly chef at some of the Bay Area's best known restaurants, including Chez Panisse) has replaced all frozen vegetables with fresh produce, most of which is grown within 150 miles of the hospital.

Now John Muir patient lunch trays feature a local, seasonal fruit of the day. John Muir cafes offer bowls of citrus fruits from Capay Valley orchards and steam trays of fresh broccoli and cauliflower grown in Monterey County, local mixed lettuces in the salad bars and grass-fed beef from area ranches in the hamburgers.

Hospitals have the buying power to make a big difference in local food networks, Feenstra said. "They buy more than $12 billion of food every year."

The report, "Emerging Local Food Purchasing Initiatives in Northern California Hospitals," is available online at http://sarep.ucdavis.edu/cdpp/fti/.

Hospital food
Hospital food

Posted on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 10:26 AM

Alfalfa-"Green Gold" in LA County's High Desert

The highlight of my week was visiting Farm Advisor Andre Biscaro at our Antelope Valley office in Lancaster.  I went with Andre to visit one of his field trials.  He is testing numerous varieties of alfalfa to see what works best in the hot, windy high desert. 

Alfalfa has historically been an important crop in Los Angeles County.  A 1940 Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce publication referred to alfalfa as "Green Gold", because it was considered very profitable, and listed the Antelope Valley, along with the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys as important production areas.  

Alfalfa was traditionally grown to feed cows at the hundreds of dairies that existed in Los Angeles County.  Those dairies have closed or left over the years.  In fact, Andre's variety trial is on the property of what I believe is LA County's last commercial dairy.  Farmer Nick Van Dam provided Andre with the space for his alfalfa variety trial, on land that had previously been used to grow onions, another important crop in the Antelope Valley. 

The dairies are gone for the most part, but alfalfa is still an important crop in LA County, although it's no longer grown commercially anywhere in the county other than the Antelope Valley.  According to the most recent LA County Crop Report (2007), there were 5,804 acres of alfalfa hay grown, valued at over nine million dollars.  This is an interesting contrast to the 1940 LA Chamber Report which stated that 46,000 acres were grown that year, valued at $287,500.

Posted on Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 1:30 PM

Agriculture Part of Compton's Past, Present and Future

I often see and find inspiration in the links between current events around Los Angeles and our county's agricultural heritage.  This week my "ahah" moment came at the Compton Creek Symposium, an event put on jointly by my organization, UC Cooperative Extension, and the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council.  This was a two-day event that brought together community, staff of government agencies, city officials and local non-profits to discuss the Compton Creek watershed and its renovation. 

One symposium presenter, Reginald Fagan, talked about what Compton was like when he was a boy.  He grew up playing alongside the creek, collecting shellfish and crayfish, and riding his bike and ponies along its bank.  He was a member of the 4-H Bison Club active in Compton at that time.  "When I was growing up here we all had gardens.  Food wasn't an issue", said Fagan. 

Another participant at the symposium told me about growing up in Compton in the late 1950's.  "This was the country.  There were dairies everywhere". 

A piece of Compton's farm history is alive today in the community of Richland Farms, a neighborhood of approximately 400 homes, many on an acre or more of land, where residents own horses and livestock.  In fact, I discovered that there is a very active youth equestrian group based in Richland Farms called the Compton Jr. Posse.  I had a great time talking with their founder and Executive Director, Mayisha Akbar.  Learn about this impressive organization at http://www.comptonjrposse.org/ .

During the two-day symposium, as participants shared their visions for the future of Compton and its Creek, urban agriculture and gardening were mentioned numerous times as viable components of that future.  For example, Reginald Fagan is currently working to develop an agricultural resource center for Compton, The Timbuktu Resource Center and Learning Academy, which will engage local youth in sustainable agriculture.  Others talked about creating a community garden near the creek.  In fact, the approved regional plan for the area is entitled the "Compton Creek Regional Garden Park Master Plan".  The plan includes native plants and trees, pocket parks, a community garden, and even a hitching post and watering trough for horses, along with many other features to enhance the area. 

To learn more about Compton Creek, go to The Watershed Council website at http://lasgrwc2.org/programsandprojects/llarc.aspx?search=comptoncreek.  A copy of the Compton Creek Regional Garden Park Master Plan, which includes history, photos, community input, maps and much more, can be downloaded at the Council's on-line document library at http://lasgrwc2.org/dataandreference/Document.aspx.

Aerial view of Compton, circa 1936.  Compton Creek is in the foreground.
Aerial view of Compton, circa 1936. Compton Creek is in the foreground.

Posted on Friday, September 18, 2009 at 3:50 PM

Cherry Picking in the Antelope Valley--A Great Family Activity

For a brief period each spring, cherries are available at several pick-your-own farms in Los Angeles County's Antelope Valley, mostly in the community of Leona Valley.   Leona Valley is approximately nine miles west of Palmdale, and about 70 miles from downtown Los Angeles.  Quite a few varieties of cherries are available, including Bings, Rainiers, Brooks and Black Tartarians. 

Cherry picking is currently underway, and it's a great family outing.  This coming weekend, June 20th and 21st, is the peak of the Antelope Valley cherry season, so now is the time to plan your trip.  Many of the farms have tables where families can picnic, so you can make a day of it.  Some of the Leona Valley cherry farms also produce and sell other items such as honey. 

For directions and a list of farms, go to the Leona Valley Cherry Grower's Association website at www.cherriesupic.com/welcome.html .  Be sure to visit Leona Valley before this brief, but sweet, season is over for another year. 

Ripe Cherries
Ripe Cherries

Posted on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 3:14 PM

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