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Posts Tagged: Beth Mitcham

Making the case for fruits and vegetables

Why do you love fruits and vegetables? Is it their bright colors? Their many shapes and varieties, the way they can makeover your plate with the seasons? The opportunity to taste local terroir in a very fresh bite of fruit or forkful of salad?

Is it more about the juiciness, crunchiness or succulence?

Or do you think more about nutrition? About vitamins, micronutrients and fiber, after decades of being encouraged to eat “5 A Day” to be healthy? Is it about that feeling of righteous virtue when you fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables — and know you're earning a gold star for eating right?

Basket of fresh fruits and vegetables, ready to wash and slice in Guinea, including mangoes, avocados and okra. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Archie Jarman/UC Davis)

The importance of eating fruits and vegetables has been making headlines again recently, with studies refocusing on the concept of “nutrition security” in a changing climate and pushing for an emphasis on nutrient consumption. The EAT-Lancet commission — while mostly garnering headlines in the United States related to reduced meat consumption — also recommended a diet that would require almost every global region to increase its consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet healthy diet goals.

But there's another reason to love fruits and vegetables that might not be as obvious. Here's a 30-second video clip of what a young farmer in Uganda had to tell me about vegetables, when I had the chance to meet him last year:

“There's no quicker source of getting money in town,” Boaz Otieno explained, when discussing why he chose to farm instead of going to town to find a job. He also talked about the concept that he could grow vegetables like tomatoes on a smaller plot of land and earn as much for those tomatoes as a larger plot of corn or cassava.

"You might even grow (tomatoes) twice while the cassava is not yet harvested, so there's a lot of money in horticulture," he said.

Otieno is a farmer who was also working as a site coordinator for a research project led by Kate Scow in Uganda, which was supported by the Horticulture Innovation Lab, the USAID-funded research program that I work for at UC Davis. Elizabeth Mitcham, director of the Horticulture Innovation Lab and a UC Cooperative Extension specialist, often talks about the “double-duty impacts” of fruits and vegetables, as these crops can be a tool to achieve two major global goals: improving nutrition and reducing poverty.

And it's not just one farmer's opinion that horticultural crops can yield higher incomes. In a white paper about aligning the food system to meet fruit and vegetable dietary needs, the authors pointed out that data from Africa and Asia have shown farmer profits per hectare 3-14 times higher when growing vegetables versus growing rice. The paper also points out that USDA estimates fruits and vegetables account for 23 percent of production value in American agriculture, grown on less than 3 percent of the country's agricultural land. And here in California, fruits and vegetables are a $20 billion industry.

A "colorful harvest" at a market in Cambodia, including eggplant, ginger, bittermelon, leafy greens, herbs, mushrooms, peppers and more. (Horticulture Innovation Lab photo by Brenda Dawson/UC Davis)

Later this month, the Horticulture Innovation Lab will be hosting a conference in Washington, D.C., focused on making the case for fruits and vegetables with the theme, “Colorful Harvest: From Feeding to Nourishing a Growing World.” The conference will bring together decision makers, international development practitioners, and researchers from universities across the United States, Africa, Asia and Central America to discuss how horticultural innovations can advance global issues of food security, food waste, gender empowerment, youth employment, malnutrition, and poverty reduction.

While the conference speakers and participants will be diverse, we're also working to bring farmers' voices — like Otieno's — into the conference with video clips from our partners in Nepal, Honduras, Rwanda and elsewhere, to explain what exactly it is that makes them love fruits and vegetables.

More information:

Watch a short video clip on what Boaz Otieno likes best about vegetables: https://youtu.be/aEu9BgL9aH4
Watch a short video clip on what Boaz Otieno likes best about vegetables: https://youtu.be/aEu9BgL9aH4

Still from video with Boaz Otieno speaking outside at a farm. He is a farmer and site coordinator in Kabos, Uganda

Posted on Thursday, March 7, 2019 at 8:18 AM
Focus Area Tags: Food

More irrigation for climate-smart farming and food security in Guatemala

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.

Meagan Terry, left, a UC Davis researcher with the Horticulture Innovation Lab in Guatemala, discusses conservation agriculture with a Guatemalan consultant and a local youth group member. (Photo by Beth Mitcham)
Called MásRiego (“more irrigation”), the project aims to increase farmers' incomes and their use of climate-smart strategies, including drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting, reduced tillage, mulch use and diverse crop rotation. To enable farmers to adopt these new practices, the team will not only provide trainings but also build partnerships to increase farmers' access to needed micro-credit financing and irrigation equipment.

“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

Miguel Isaias Sanchez has started farming with drip irrigation and a water tower, using information from one of the first MásRiego trainings. (Photo by Beth Mitcham)
The new MásRiego project will focus on helping farmers, particularly women and youth, grow high-value crops on very small plots of land (200 square meters minimum), in the Quiché, Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán departments of Guatemala's Western Highlands.

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.

A previous version of this article was published by UC Davis News Service and on the Horticulture Innovation Lab blog


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. 

Posted on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 at 8:02 AM

Hot days, cool rooms, tasty vegetables

I'll admit that one of my favorite things to do on a hot day is to walk into an air-conditioned room. That burst of cool air in those first moments can be so refreshing.

It turns out I'm not alone — fruits and vegetables like to be cool on hot days too.

Shade provides some simple cooling at a fruit and vegetable market in Tanzania. (Horticulture CRSP photo by Keshavulu Kunusoth)
“Temperature management, or cold chain, is the single most important factor in maintaining postharvest quality in fruits and vegetables,” said Elizabeth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis.

Controlling temperature helps regulate the aging process of a fruit, along with its water loss and microorganism growth. Storing fruits and vegetables at their lowest safe temperatures means they taste better and last longer.

To help us know the best ways to store fresh produce at home, the UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center offers a free PDF poster Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste, which includes tips for different fruits and vegetables, from avocado to watermelon.

Knowing the right temperature is only part of the battle for farmers, who are responsible for the first links in the cold chain. Getting produce out of the sun and cool for storage can be a big challenge — and an expensive one.

But a farmer in New York, Ron Khosla, answered this challenge with a tool that can help make cooling produce less expensive for small-scale farmers. He created the CoolBot, a micro-controller that turns a well-insulated room with a regular air conditioner into a commercial cool room for storing fruits and vegetables.

Just as small-scale American farmers struggle with affordable cooling, so do smallholder farmers elsewhere in the world. Researchers with the Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Horticulture CRSP) decided to test the CoolBot device, first at the UC Davis Student Farm and then with farmers in India, Honduras and Uganda.

Neeru Dubey, of Amity University, shows a CoolBot installed in India during a Horticulture CRSP project.
“The CoolBot creates, in my mind, the perfect compromise between effective cooling and reasonable cost,” said Mitcham, postharvest specialist and director of Horticulture CRSP.

Indeed, the CoolBot-equipped rooms worked, and the program is building more in Bangladesh right now. But there is a catch: Farmers must have access to reliable grid electricity for a cool room like this to work. To address this problem, the CoolBot in Uganda was powered with solar photovoltaic cells, but that led to another set of challenges — expensive equipment and fear of theft.

So how do you effectively cool vegetables, hot from a field, without grid electricity? A solution that is low-cost, effective and off-grid has not been found yet. In an effort to uncover such a solution, Horticulture CRSP will soon be launching a technology design competition that asks that very question. Can you answer this challenge?

Posted on Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 7:43 AM

Grad students head abroad to work with farmers

You’ve probably heard it millions of times in your lifetime, but it bears repeating: Not everyone has enough, good food to eat.

To that end, the Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program at UC Davis builds global partnerships for fruit and vegetable research to improve livelihoods in developing countries.

An Eco Finder volunteer discusses weeds with Michael Wolff, UC Davis graduate student, in Kenya during the first round of Horticulture CRSP Trellis Fund projects.
Starting in September, those partnerships will include 14 graduate students from UC Davis, Cornell University, North Carolina State University and University of Hawaii at Manoa who will travel to work with smallholder farmers in developing countries.

Through Horticulture CRSP’s Trellis Fund, these students have been matched with organizations in Nepal, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Honduras and Nicaragua to provide their agricultural expertise in assisting the organizations' projects with smallholder farmers.

Besides supporting local farmers in developing countries, the projects will also potentially infect students with an interest in international agricultural issues.

“With the Trellis Fund, our goal is to engage young people in an international experience — a chance to partner with a small organization working with real people with real needs and apply what they know about science,” said Beth Mitcham, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Plant Sciences Department at UC Davis and director of Horticulture CRSP. “For a small investment, we’re creating lasting relationships and perhaps changing the career path of a young person.”

Read our full press release for more details, or find out who is going where on our Trellis Fund page.

Posted on Tuesday, September 11, 2012 at 8:36 AM

More African vegetables on more plates

What will be the new food frontier? An article in the Wall Street Journal with the headline “Next Stop for Food Fanatics: Africa” predicts adventurous American palates may soon be craving sub-Saharan cuisines.

Nakati greens were served with lunch at a farmer field day in Uganda. (HortCRSP photo by Elana Peach-Fine)
Besides making me hungry, reading this article made me think of some of the African vegetables that I’ve recently started to learn about. Yes, just as there are "Asian vegetables," there is also a wide category of "African leafy vegetables."

Have you heard of these?

  • Nakati (Solanum macrocarpon, S. aethiopicum) Also called African eggplant, some types of nakati are eaten for their leafy greens, while others are eaten for their fruit (which can look like a tomato or eggplant).
  • Cowpea leaves (Vigna unguiculata) This plant produces black-eyed peas, but the greens of the plant can also be eaten as a vegetable.
  • Bbuga (Amaranthus Gracecizans) You might know this plant by its common American name: pigweed.
  • Doodo (Amaranthus Dubius) Like bbuga, this type of amaranth is eaten for its leaves in many parts of Africa. In North and South America, varieties of amaranth are usually used as a grain.
  • Jjobyo (Gynandropsis Gynandra, Cleome gynandra) Also called spider plant.

Many of these indigenous vegetables are rich in micronutrients such as iron, vitamin A and vitamin B. When it comes to alleviating malnutrition in developing countries of eastern Africa, indigenous vegetables offer workable solutions because they are not only nutritious, but also familiar to the region’s eaters and farmers.

Many varieties of amaranth are grown in Kenya. (HortCRSP photo by Stephen Weller)
But research into these vegetables has often not been a priority, even among international development professionals. Markets for these vegetables are also largely undeveloped because they are widely considered subsistence crops, often grown in small garden plots by women for their own families. But growing these crops commercially can mean increased income for smallholder farmers and improved nutrition for consumers who crave traditional foods.

Recently U.S. researchers have been working with indigenous crops like these in east African countries — with funding and support from the Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (Horticulture CRSP), led by Beth Mitcham at UC Davis with funding from USAID. In Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, Stephen Weller of Purdue University is leading a Horticulture CRSP research project on production practices, seed resources, postharvest handling, marketing and nutrition of varieties of amaranth, spider plant and African nightshade.

In Uganda, Kate Scow of UC Davis is partnering with local groups to try out a new model of extension while increasing production of indigenous greens, such as nakati, bbuga and jjobyo.

Take a look at this short video for a little more background:

Just as bok choy, an Asian vegetable, has become familiar to many American households, perhaps one day you’ll find nakati or another African leafy vegetable on your plate.

In the meantime, researchers with Horticulture CRSP are working to get more African leafy vegetables into the research agendas, fields, markets and plates of our counterparts in eastern Africa.


Read more abut Horticulture CRSP and its projects around the world at http://hortcrsp.ucdavis.edu.

Posted on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 8:41 AM

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