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Honey: Nothing short of miraculous

A taste of honey: dipping fingers into the honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
“Honey, please pass the honey!”

That simple request, prefaced with a term of endearment for good measure, means there's honey on the table.

And well there should be. As the daughter, granddaughter and great-great granddaughter (and beyond) of beekeepers, I grew up with honey on the table. (And on my fingers, face and clothes.)

My favorite then was clover honey from the lush meadows and fields of our 300-acre farm in southwest Washington. My favorite now is Northern California yellow starthistle honey, derived from the blossoms of that highly invasive weed, Centaurea solstitialis, which farmers hate (and rightfully so) and beekeepers love.

“Almost every honey has its own unique flavor-- even when it is the same varietal,” says Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center. “There are characteristics we learn to look for, but even within that variety, the honey will differ from each area collected. For instance: avocado honey is known for being very dark amber with a flavor reminiscent of molasses, licorice or anise. However, once you start tasting a selection, some will taste like blackstrap molasses and very black licorice. Others will have almost a fruity flavor like dried figs or prunes. Most folks can't tell the difference – and then there are the honey nerds, like me!”

A beekeeper at UC Davis holds a frame of honey. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

“My favorite all-around honey is one I keep returning to. I love sweet clover from the High Plains with its cinnamon hit —the spicy characteristic is just something I love,” Harris said. “My favorite ‘shock honey' is coriander. Collected near Yuba City, this seed crop gives us a honey that is like walking through a spice bazaar with hints of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, coriander and — chocolate.”

The UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center, located in the Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science on Old Davis Road, periodically offers courses on the sensory evaluation of honey, as well as honey tastings. Next up: the center will host free honey tastings at its home base during the 105th Annual Campuswide Picnic Day on April 13, and at the California Honey Festival in downtown Woodland on May 4. Another popular honey tasting: California Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño, based in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, hosts a honey tasting at Briggs Hall during the annual Picnic Day.

There's more to honey than meets the eye — or the palate. The Honey and Pollination Center recently hosted a three-day Sensory Evaluation of Honey Certificate Course last October, using “sensory evaluation tools and methods to educate participants in the nuances of varietal honey,” Harris said. Northern California public radio station KQED spotlighted the course on its “Taste This” program.

And we owe it all to honey bees.

Pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann of the University of Arizona (who received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis, studying with native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp), writes in his book, Honey Bees: Letters from the Hive, that each worker bee “may make four to ten or so flights from the nest each day, visiting hundreds or many thousands of flowers to collect nectar and pollen. During her lifetime, a worker bee may flown 35,000 to 55,000 miles collecting food for her and her nest mates. One pound of honey stored in the comb can represent 200,000 miles of combined bee flights and nectar from as many as five million flowers.”

Take a 16-ounce jar of honey at the supermarket. That represents “the efforts of tens of thousands of bees flying a total of 112,000 miles to forage nectar from about 4.5 million flowers,” writes Buchmann.

Of course, we primarily appreciate honey bees for their pollination services (one-third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees) but honey is more than just an after thought.

It's been described as “liquid gold,” “the nectar of the gods” and “the soul of a field of flowers.” Frankly, it's nothing short of miraculous.

And well it should be.

A honey bee sips honey from honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A honey bee sips honey from honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee sips honey from honeycomb. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee sips nectar from a lavender blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
A honey bee sips nectar from a lavender blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A honey bee sips nectar from a lavender blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Organic farmers and researchers strive to advance soil care

Organic farmer Phil Foster has developed a creative way to nurture the soil on his 200-acre farm near Hollister. He plants cover crops in a single line at the top of the planting bed, saving water and seed while keeping the furrows clear for irrigation.

"We were finding we couldn't use cover crops because of water," Foster said. The narrow strip makes the best use of the limited water supply, while garnering the benefits of cover crops - which buffer soil temperatures, inhibit weeds, increase soil microbial activity, improve water infiltration and add nutrients. Growing cover crops prepares the soil for the production of high-quality vegetables.

Organic farmer Phil Foster stands in front of a field with cover crops planted in strips at the top of the planting bed.

Foster is one of eight organic vegetable growers who are working with researchers at Chico State, Fresno State and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources on a project funded with a USDA grant designed to make significant improvements in soil care in organic production systems. He guided project participants around his farm, equipment yard and compost operation in early November to share the techniques he and his staff have developed over three decades to promote soil health.

Tiny pores and roots can be seen in the soil at the Foster farm.
 
UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor Sarah Light examines a soil sample. The agronomy expert, who serves Yuba, Sutter and Colusa counties, is a cooperator on the project.

Tour participants marveled at the soil characteristics, admiring tiny pores and roots in clods of dirt, evidence of the soil's capacity to move water and nutrients. They studied the plant and soil conditions after farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled a carefully crafted implement for rolling down the cover crop across the field with a tractor. 

Foster credited Contreras, a 30-year employee, for his role in building the soil on the farm. Labor, Foster said, is his biggest cost. He has 50 full time staff, many with 5 to 20 years of experience.

"They are the key to to the success of the ranch," Foster said.

Farm manager Efrain Contreras pulled an implement through a mature cover crop to show how the field can be prepared for planting.

Minimizing and, eventually eliminating, soil disturbance can be combined with organic groundcover, year-round root growth and robust biological activity in the soil to further promote soil health. Following the tour, the farmers talked about ways to attain the goal on their farms of no-till organic vegetable production. 

Foster said he will experiment with reducing soil disturbance to determine whether doing so will maintain or increase yields. Another farmer in the project, Scott Park of Meridian, Calif., 50 miles north of Sacramento, said he will dedicate eight acres of his organic farm to comparing the results when the cover crop is chopped and left on the soil surface to chopped and incorporated with tillage.

Paul Muller and Andrew Braitt of Fully Belly Farm in the Capay Valley suggested the researchers could help the farmers by identifying optimal, effective cover crop rolling techniques. Retired organic farmer Tom Willey of Madera suggested grant funds be used to purchase appropriate scale cover crop seeders for on-farm experimentation.

"We're making great progress," said project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist. "By getting together regularly, we're seeing opportunities for moving further toward reduced-disturbance on the farms, identifying the equipment needs and establishing effective channels of communication."

Over the project's three-year term, the farmers and researchers will continue to experiment with soil-building techniques and share results.

Andrew Brait of Full Belly Farmers, foreground, looks at roots and nodulation of rhizobia on the cover crop. Kelly Mulville and Esther Park of Paicines Ranch are in the background.

 

A safflower and vetch cover crop growing in the autumn light.

 

Workers, in the background, manually weed the safflower and vetch cover crop.

   

Project coordinator Jeff Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension vegetable crops specialist, and Phil Foster.
 
UCCE farm advisor Amber Vinches, center with sun glasses, is a cooperator on the project. Vinchesi serves vegetable crop farmers in Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties.
Posted on Monday, November 26, 2018 at 8:35 AM
Tags: Amber Vinchesi (1), Jeff Mitchell (17), organic (15), Sarah Light (1), vegetables (40)
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture

Gratitude for our California Naturalist Community

Jen Being a Naturalist Means

We asked California Naturalists what it means to be a Naturalist. To Jen, being a Naturalist means “lifelong learning, appreciating and...

Posted on Wednesday, November 21, 2018 at 11:35 AM

How 4-H'ers can help with disaster relief

Chris and Nancy Brown embrace while searching through the remains of their home, leveled by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California Noah Berger/AP

The past few years California and the nation have faced devastating natural disasters. When we see images of devastation and loss on the news and...

Posted on Monday, November 19, 2018 at 4:45 PM
  • Author: Jenna Colburn

Trying leafy greens from a sweet potato plant

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.

Lauren shared her experiences in Ethiopia on the Agrilinks website, where she recently won the Agrilinks Young Scholars blog contest with her writing and a short video from the field.

From right, Lauren Howe of UC Davis and Tesfaye Kassa of SACE interview farmers about how they currently manage sweet potato crops on their farms.

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.

“We are producing a huge amount of sweet potato per year," explained Feleke Lera, a son of farmers in Ukara. "But before, we had no knowledge about the leaves.”
 
Lauren harvests sweet potato leaves with farmers in Ukara.
 
In Ukara, the group prepared the sweet potato leaves three different ways – sauteed, cooked with corn or maize flour in a dish called fosese, and in a salad.
 

Reflecting on taste tests, new foods, and rural communities

After preparing and tasting the sweet potato leaves, the group in Ukara discussed which dish they preferred, whether they would adopt this new practice of eating sweet potato leaves, how this practice might affect their forage supply to feed their livestock, and what their friends and family members might think of this new food. 
 
"I deeply appreciated how food is truly a universal language and the preparation, cooking and act of eating itself are relatable across cultures," Lauren wrote in her blog post.
 

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."

For more, go read the rest of Lauren's blog post and check out her short video too.

Lauren at a taste test in another community called Gurumo Koysha, where farmers overwhelmingly preferred the sautéed sweet potato leaves to the sautéed kale. The activity was intended to be a blind taste test, but Lauren reported that keeping the dishes secret was more difficult to do than originally planned.

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:

 

Sweet potato leaves in Ethiopia - Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Lauren Howe/UC Davis
Sweet potato leaves in Ethiopia - Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Lauren Howe/UC Davis

close-up on sweetpotato leaves, stems and plant

Posted on Monday, November 19, 2018 at 9:02 AM
Focus Area Tags: Agriculture Health Innovation

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