Posts Tagged: Horticulture Innovation Lab
This time of year, it can be hard to resist the pull of sweet potatoes — roasted, mashed with butter, and topped with a combination of delectable treats from maple syrup to pecans to marshmallows. But did you know that the green leaves of the sweet potato plant also have the potential to be a tasty, nutritious food?
In Ethiopia, where sweet potatoes can be a staple crop, UC Davis graduate student Lauren Howe recently helped farmers taste test the leaves and consider this familiar crop in a new culinary light.
Watch a video to learn how to prepare sweet potato leaves:
The leaves of this drought-tolerant plant offer farming households there an alternative — and nutritious — food in the lean season, while they are waiting for its starchy, tuberous roots to be ready to eat. Introducing sweet potato leaves as a food option is intended to help farmers better diversify their families' diets, to include a wider variety of vegetables in addition to staple foods, especially during the dry season.
Boots on the ground with sweet potato farmers in Ethiopia
Lauren traveled to Ethiopia this summer to work with an organization called Send A Cow Ethiopia (SACE), on a Trellis Fund project. As part of the Horticulture Innovation Lab, each Trellis Fund project connects an organization in a developing country with a grad student from a U.S. university, to work together to benefit local farmers, while building the capacity of both the local organization and the student.
In Ethiopia, SACE helped Lauren better understand local contexts by connecting her with farming households to interview about their current farming practices and the role of sweet potatoes in their diets.
Later they traveled to meet with a group of about 25 farmers in the Ukara community to harvest leaves, cook together and discuss their perceptions of the leaves as a vegetable option.
Reflecting on taste tests, new foods, and rural communities
Lauren's own passion for food and witnessing how food can help build community is an important part of her reflection on this experience:
"This project is about creating tasty dishes to persuade people about the nutritional benefits of a new ingredient. It is gathering families, friends and neighbors to sit down to a communal meal (already a strong Ethiopian practice), breaking bread together, sharing stories, experiences and hopes for the future."
Background and related international agricultural research
Lauren's experience with a Trellis Fund project in Ethiopia was supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, a research program led by Elizabeth Mitcham of the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. With a focus on fruit and vegetable innovation, the Horticulture Innovation Lab seeks to empower smallholder farmers in developing countries to earn more income and better nourish their communities — as part of the U.S. government's global Feed the Future initiative.
Past research from the Horticulture Innovation Lab has focused on other leafy greens, specifically African indigenous vegetables, and also on sweet potatoes themselves (orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, that is). Though the program has not done in-depth research on sweet potato leaves for human consumption beyond this small Trellis Fund project, you can find more information about eating sweet potato leaves and tips in this bulletin from the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension, and a wealth of information about sweet potato farming and gardening from the University of California Vegetable Research and Information Center.
Related Food Blog posts:
- New reason to give thanks for sweet potatoes
How orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are making a difference in some African countries
- More African indigenous vegetables on more plates
A brief look at some leafy greens popular in Eastern Africa
- Connecting with farmers over pineapple postharvest practices
Another Trellis student experience with a video
- ‘Local' farm inspiration from half a world away
A UC Cooperative Extension specialist reflects on his time as a Trellis student
Sweet potato leaves in Ethiopia - Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Lauren Howe/UC Davis
At the end of a long year, sometimes it helps to reconnect with what motivates your work.
For Karin Albornoz — a Ph.D. student who works in the Diane Beckles Lab at UC Davis on molecular biology related to tomato postharvest chilling injury — that means getting out into the world to work directly with small-scale farmers.
"I spend so much time in the lab," she said. "Sometimes I spend a whole day in the lab extracting RNA or writing a paper. This reminds me why I am doing this work: to make a real-world impact."
Just over a week ago, she returned from a trip to Uganda where she did exactly that. In partnership with a local organization called Ndibwami Integrated Rescue Project (NIRP), Albornoz shared her expertise with farmers through several hands-on workshops about improving harvest practices and postharvest handling of pineapple, passion fruit and tomatoes. Her work was supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, an international agricultural research program led by UC Davis with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative.
Though Albornoz has worked with rural farmers before, this was her first time working in Africa.
"Everywhere I looked, things were growing. There were people working in the field, women cooking, and everyone was working with food," she said. "I know there's a lot of stigma – when you talk about Africa, you see people's faces change and they're thinking about things like drought and famine and starving children. But what I saw doesn't fit that stereotype. The challenges they are facing seem to be about not having access to opportunities."
The workshops she led are part of the NIRP organization's efforts to connect farmers with more lucrative markets that pay higher prices for quality produce.
In this 2-minute video, Karin Albornoz visits a pineapple farm, leads a pineapple training and discusses next steps for this project led by NIRP in Uganda. The video clips and photos were taken by Karin while she was working and edited by Hallie Casey for the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
For months, Albornoz has been in contact with NIRP and making plans for the farmer workshops. She prepared postharvest handling manuals for each crop — pineapple, passion fruit and tomato — and asked questions to better understand local resources and the farmers' existing knowledge.
During her 2 weeks in Uganda, she visited farmers' fields and led three full-day workshops. The first workshop for about 50 farmers focused on pineapple — starting with understanding local quality parameters for this fruit, then best practices for harvesting, sanitation, storage and transportation. The second workshop was focused on tomato, with a similar structure, and the third workshop on passion fruit.
Her favorite moment? The farmers' first chance to use a refractometer, to measure soluble solids and learn about sugar levels in the fruit. The refractometers were part of a small toolkit the organization will continue to use.
"They were excited to handle this device and see, in numbers, how the sugar levels of the fruit changed depending on the stage of maturity," she said. "Everyone in the room had a chance to try it."
The experience reinforced her commitment to working with farmers and solving agricultural problems.
"A major mistake is to think that you are going just to train or teach other people because those people are always going to end up teaching you too," Albornoz said. "I made a promise to myself years ago, a personal commitment to working with people in vulnerable situations. I have to do this. Working in agriculture can be a very powerful tool to have an impact in the world."
As Karin's mentor and an Associate Professor in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences and Agricultural Experiment Station, Diane Beckles supported Karin's work outside of the lab and views such an experience as important to scholarly development.
"Something magical happens when we teach and engage in outreach," Beckles said. "We often deepen our understanding of what we are teaching, and interacting and engaging with others changes us in that process. It alters how we view and think about science in a way that is positive and rewarding, even though it is not easily quantified."
- More about Trellis Fund projects with the Horticulture Innovation Lab
- Pineapple recommendations from the UC Postharvest Center
thumbnail: Karin Albornoz leads a workshop in postharvest handling of pineapple in Uganda.
Planted in a corner of the UC Davis campus is a display of technologies and vegetable crops that researchers with the Horticulture Innovation Lab have been using with farmers in Africa, Asia and Central America. Led by UC ANR's Elizabeth Mitcham in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, this program harnesses the agricultural expertise of a network of U.S. university researchers to improve how farmers in developing countries grow fruits and vegetables.
More often than not, the learning goes both ways: Adapting solutions for farmers on another continent can spark ideas that might be useful back home too.
So while the Horticulture Innovation Lab's Demonstration Center was built to showcase international work to campus visitors, you wouldn't be the first to wonder, “Would this technology work on a California farm too?”
Recently a team from UC Cooperative Extension in Fresno County — led by Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for small farms in Fresno and Tulare counties — worked with the Horticulture Innovation Lab to learn how to build one of these technologies, to try out with local farmers.
The low-cost technology they built, called a “chimney solar dryer,” combines continuous air flow with solar heat to dry fresh produce more efficiently than a traditional solar dryer. It was designed by the innovative duo Michael Reid and Jim Thompson, both emeritus specialists with UC Cooperative Extension who have worked on multiple inventions with the Horticulture Innovation Lab. The chimney solar dryer is usually built with basic materials, such as plywood, dark plastic, clear plastic, and food-grade mesh. Read more about how the chimney solar dryer can help farmers add value to crop surplus (PDF).
Here is a quick look at a couple of other technologies that visitors can see at the demonstration center:
This solar-powered cold room uses a tool designed by an American farmer, called a CoolBot. In a well-insulated room, a CoolBot can trick a household air conditioner into bringing temperatures down low enough for cool storage of fresh produce. Cooling fruits and vegetables soon after harvest from the field can reduce postharvest losses and extend shelf life. So far teams with the Horticulture Innovation Lab have used the CoolBot with farmers in Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India and Honduras.
The zero-energy cool chamber (known as ZECC) is a simple structure built from brick and sand that can help cool fresh produce, in conditions where evaporative cooling is effective. By regularly wetting the sand and brick, farmers or even marketers can keep the temperatures low and the humidity high for fresh produce such as leafy greens. Researchers with the Horticulture Innovation Lab have been testing what specific conditions — such as hot, arid climates with easy access to water — make this tool effective for farmers to use to cool their fresh fruits and vegetables.
More information about the ZECC is available from the UC Postharvest Technology Center.
Recent visits to the Horticulture Innovation Lab's demonstration center have come in many shapes and sizes — from people walking by who stopped to read some of the signs, to group activities planned in advance. Recent tours of the center have included a delegation of deans from agricultural colleges in Ethiopia, a television news crew from Tajikistan and high school students from California learning about innovation and human-centered design.
Maybe it will spark an innovative idea that you can use in your fields?
- More recent blog posts about the Horticulture Innovation Lab Demonstration Center
- Explore the African vegetables on display
- Learn more about the technologies on display
- Get updates from the Horticulture Innovation Lab's email newsletter
Led by UC Davis, the Horticulture Innovation Lab is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative./h2>
What is the role of trust in our food system? Here in the United States, our trust in food is often implicit. We can generally trust that the fruits and vegetables we buy at a grocery store or farmers market are safe to eat — and we are often free to shop without even thinking about that trust.
Between farmers and agricultural scientists too, trust often plays an important role. If you're a farmer, you need to be able to trust that investing your time or money in a new technique or in attending a workshop will indeed improve your business.
But it can be easy to forget that trust is a critical first step in many of these agricultural relationships.
Establishing trust between actors in a food system has been critical for a Horticulture Innovation Lab project in Cambodia, focused on increasing the amount of safe vegetables available to Cambodian consumers. Project leaders from UC Davis and UC ANR — Glenn Young, Jim Hill, Cary Trexler, David Miller and Karen LeGrand — are actually traveling right now in Cambodia to launch a new phase of this project. They are partnering with scientists from Cambodia's Royal University of Agriculture and the University of Battambang. The researchers plan to expand upon their past successes, working together with farmers, marketers, and input suppliers to build trust while building safe vegetable value chains.
One key to their past success was that before introducing farmers to new agricultural technologies, the researchers first connected with farmers socially, by starting community savings groups. In these savings groups, farmers could build relationships and trust, while increasing their own savings and accessing small loans.
This social aspect of the project was the focus of a video made by UC Davis graduate students Thort Chuong, Elyssa Lewis, and Katie Hoeberling. This 3-minute video was a finalist in the World Food Day Video Challenge:
Building trust and resilience in a safe vegetable value chain in Cambodia Interviews for the video were conducted as part of a student thesis and supported by the U.S. Borlaug Graduate Research Fellowship program.
Though he is now studying at UC Davis as a Fulbright Fellow, Chuong was originally hired to work with farmers on the first phase of this project in Kandal province as an agronomist and field facilitator.
“At first I just wanted to focus on the agronomy part,” he said. “But then I saw the advantages of being a [savings group] member and thought, wow, this is a great thing to do.”
In fact the advantages were so great that on the weekends he returned to his hometown, gathering his neighbors and relatives together to start their own savings groups. Members have a safe way to save money, an easier way to secure small loans, and earn a little interest too.
Farmers in these savings groups were able to save considerable amounts of money and provide loans to each other for things like seeds, field preparation, labor costs, school fees, wedding costs, even in one case a new house — with each member contributing $5-25 per week for a year.
With trust and community established, some of the farmers in the savings groups also decided to try out a new agricultural technology in partnership with the scientists, using nethouses for pest management to avoid spraying pesticides. (In many countries where pesticide information is inaccessible to the average farmer, it is not uncommon for farmers to keep a separate garden to feed their family — in order to avoid eating even their own crops that they are selling to the market.)
The new, safe vegetable value chain they were part of grew and strengthened, as the international team connected these farmers to a marketer who needed to source vegetables grown without pesticides. That marketer then sells those vegetables to consumers in the capital city of Phnom Penh, who were able to trust the vegetables they bought from her are indeed safe to eat.
The Horticulture Innovation Lab is led by a team at UC Davis, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, as part of the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative called Feed the Future. Learn more about Horticulture Innovation Lab researchers and their projects in Asia, Africa and Central America.
As the savings group secretary, Nov Keo tallies up the year's total savings, loans, and interest during the end-of-year ceremony. He was also one of the first farmers to try using a nethouse to grow "safe vegetables" for the Phnom Penh market.
UC Davis researcher Karen LeGrand with Thort Chuong, in front of another farmer's nethouse in Cambodia built after they helped connect scientists, farmers, and marketers with technologies from the Horticulture Innovation Lab.
Cheng Sokhim is one of the farmers who started using a nethouse for safer pest control and to earn higher prices for her leafy greens such as kale, Chinese mustard, bok choy and curly leaf lettuce.
Connecting 9,000 rural households in Guatemala with improved water management and climate-smart agriculture strategies is the goal of a new project led by a team at UC Davis, to ultimately increase food security and reduce poverty in Guatemala's Western Highlands.
“The opportunity to impact so many farmers' lives on this scale is exciting,” said Beth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “We're taking lessons learned from our previous research — in Guatemala, Honduras and Cambodia — and building a team to help more small-scale farmers apply our findings and successfully use these innovative practices.”
The new project is part of the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future. The project represents an additional $3.4 million investment in the UC Davis-led Horticulture Innovation Lab by the U.S. Agency for International Development's mission in Guatemala.
The project's international team also includes representatives from Kansas State University; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; the Centro de Paz Bárbara Ford in Guatemala; Universidad Rafael Landívar in Guatemala; and the Panamerican Agricultural School, Zamorano, in Honduras.
“The learning shared between these three U.S. universities and the universities in Honduras and Guatemala will be enriching for all of the institutions involved,” said Manuel Reyes, research professor at Kansas State University who is part of the team. “I find it satisfying that these academic institutions will be investing intellectually in marginalized groups in Guatemala's Western Highlands — and in turn, learning from them too.”
Helping youth envision a future in agriculture
By partnering with local youth groups and agricultural schools, the team will better prepare students for jobs in commercial agriculture and agricultural extension with knowledge of climate-resilient conservation and water management practices.
“Our local team is training youth as entrepreneurs, to see agriculture as an economic opportunity instead of just back-breaking work,” said Meagan Terry, UC Davis junior specialist who is managing the project in Guatemala for the Horticulture Innovation Lab. “They can envision a future in agriculture, with innovative ways to create value-added products or grow high-value crops for niche markets.”
As rainfall patterns vary with climate change, farmers in this region are expected to face increased competition for water. Practices such as rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation and conservation agriculture will become more necessary for small-scale farmers.
Climate-smart lessons from conservation agriculture, drip irrigation
In previous research, the Horticulture Innovation Lab has found that combining drip irrigation with conservation agriculture practices can successfully grow vegetables on small plots of land, without significant yield reductions. These practices improve soil structure, moisture retention and soil health.
Additionally, women farmers who participated in the Horticulture Innovation Lab studies in Cambodia, Honduras and Guatemala favored using these practices for another important reason: reduced labor in relation to controlling weeds, vegetable bed preparation and manual watering.
“I dream for many women, youth and their families, that their lives will be better off because of 'MasRiego' and the science behind this work,” Reyes said. “As for the research, we are learning how to improve this suite of practices so they can be tailor fitted globally. I am convinced that if this picks up, steep sloping lands can be farmed with the soil quality not being degraded — but even being enriched.”
These lessons, as well as findings from the program's “Advancing Horticulture” report about horticultural sector growth in Central America, lay the foundation for this new project.
Curious about partnering with the Horticulture Innovation Lab? The Horticulture Innovation Lab builds partnerships between agricultural researchers in the United States and researchers in developing countries, to conduct fruit and vegetable research that improves livelihoods in developing countries. The program currently has three research grant opportunities for U.S. researchers: one focused on tomatoes, another on apricots, and a third on integrated crop-livestock systems.