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A homegrown 'miracle'

May/June 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Could California be the best place to grow the next big superfood?




Fresno farmer Bai Chang grows a few acres of moringa, a tropical "superfood" that's gaining in popularity in America. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Moringa is a fascinating plant. The tropical tree can withstand severe drought. It grows at a breakneck pace, from seed to 10-foot tree in a single growing season. Its leaves, flowers and green seed pod are all edible, and have been used both culinarily and medicinally in Asia and Africa for centuries. 

But it's really the plant's nutritional qualities that have earned it the moniker "miracle tree" and led to increasing buzz about moringa as the next "superfood."

Moringa leaves are high in vitamins C, A and E, calcium, iron, potassium and other minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. They're also surprisingly high in protein for a leafy green—as much as 30 percent protein by dry weight. Moringa is used to treat malnutrition and increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers in parts of Asia and Africa, and has been investigated for its potential in treating several diseases, and for its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.

These qualities have made dried, powdered moringa leaves an increasingly popular dietary supplement in Western countries. Currently, most of the moringa powder on the market in the U.S. is imported from places such as India, West Africa or Mexico.

But soon, Californians might have another option. A project of University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, in collaboration with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, aims to carve out a market for California-grown moringa powder.

"The goal is to develop a higher quality, local product that would be available for sale directly within California," said Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, small farms and specialty crops advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Fresno and Tulare counties, who helped obtain funding for the project.

"I think it's a really promising crop," she said.


Small Farms Advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, farmer Bai Chang and Project Lead Lorena Ramos inspect Chang's fresh moringa crop. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Hidden in plain sight

Dahlquist-Willard first encountered moringa in 2001 when she was interning at the research farm of a Florida-based nonprofit that grows tropical plants for use in developing countries.

"I had no idea farmers here were actually growing it, because I thought of it as a tropical crop," she said.

But when she began working for UC in 2014, she learned that Hmong and other Southeast Asian farmers in the Central Valley have been growing moringa for at least the past 10 or 12 years, she said.

Mostly, they grow the crop for its leaves and fresh pods, which are sold fresh at specialty farmers markets and ethnic stores in the Bay Area and Los Angeles to a primarily Chinese or Filipino clientele: people who are already familiar with it as an ingredient in their traditional cuisines.

The pungent, somewhat bitter leaves (think: arugula) can be stir-fried, added to soups and stews, tossed in a salad—anything you might do with any other type of green. Indian and Burmese cuisines also use moringa pods in soups and stews. The leaves and flowers can be used to make tea.

But as moringa has gained notice as a so-called superfood, a more mainstream audience has begun to seek out local sources. One farmer Dahlquist-Willard talked to said he's been selling out of fresh moringa at his stand. Another was approached by a buyer through Facebook.

Dahlquist-Willard is now working with a handful of small-scale farmers in Fresno County who grow between 2 and 5 acres of moringa. The project aims to bridge the gap between these small farms and a new, wider market of consumers by turning fresh, California-grown moringa leaves into a dried nutritional supplement to capture a new market segment.

"Our goal is to try to figure out a good process that would be relatively easy for a small farm to implement and that would preserve the 'superfood' qualities," Dahlquist-Willard said.

Project collaborators have conducted trials, tested moringa samples for nutrient levels, offered processing instruction to farmers, and created fact sheets on how to comply with food safety regulations.


Dried moringa leaves are pulverized to produce a nutritious powder. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

A new challenge

The project has worked with farmers such as Bai Chang and her husband, Vong, who farm 10 acres on the outskirts of Fresno. Bai does most of the farming, while Vong works a full-time office job and helps after hours and on weekends. Besides Vong and the occasional help of friends and three of their children who still live at home, Bai performs all the labor herself.

Like many Southeast Asian farmers, the family grows a highly diversified selection of crops, including lemongrass, sunchokes, peanuts and jicama, which they sell wholesale. Vong said they choose their crops according to what's least labor-intensive, most profitable and can be harvested whenever they have time. Moringa meets those criteria, as leaves can be harvested on a rolling basis as needed. The Changs have farmed 2 acres of moringa since 2016.

"We were looking for a new challenge, a new kind of plant where there might be interest from the public," Vong Chang said. "We tried on Google, and it looked like very interesting. So that's why we said, 'Wow, let's try.'"

They've received help from UC Cooperative Extension staff on how to wash moringa leaves in accordance with food safety protocols, how to dry them and how to grind them into a powder. For now, though, they're sticking with fresh moringa, citing a lack of time to dedicate to the process of drying it. But Vong Chang said he sees potential for growers who have the time and resources to invest in drying equipment.


Eduardo Gonsalez samples moringa-flavored ice cream at a mixer in Fresno for local growers and food buyers. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Connecting to local customers

Dahlquist-Willard and her team have also helped connect moringa farmers to potential buyers through education and events. Amelia Bennett, co-owner of the artisanal ice cream shop Ampersand in Fresno, is one such local food producer. When the UC team introduced her to moringa powder at the Fresno Food Expo trade show, she had never heard of it.

The team invited Bennett to create an ice cream flavor to test at a mixer for local growers and food buyers, and she accepted the challenge. She blended moringa powder with an ice cream base flavored with orange blossom honey from Bradshaw Honey Farms in Visalia. Responses from tasters were positive, she said.

"I think the floral notes of the orange blossom and the citrus ended up working really well with the moringa, because it's kind of grassy, kind of earthy," she said.

Bennett placed the flavor on her spring menu at Ampersand, where it's at home among other unconventional mashups such as beet and fennel. Customers compared the flavor to matcha.

"It's grown right here in the valley and nobody knows that it's a crop—that's something that we would love to just share," she said.

Dahlquist-Willard said the project remains in early stages—so far only one farmer they've collaborated with has begun selling moringa powder produced on-farm. But she's hopeful California-produced moringa powder will soon become more widely available, offering benefits to farmers, customers and even the environment.

"One of the things that I find very exciting is that it's fairly drought tolerant, so in terms of a family farm that can diversify the crops that it has and potentially have some water savings, as well as hopefully accessing the market within California of people that want to buy highly nutritious, locally grown, high-quality foods that also maybe have an environmental co-benefit—I'd be very excited to see it reach that market," she said.

Shannon Springmeyer


Fresh and dried moringa leaves, pods, seeds and powder. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

Taste for yourself

Want to try moringa?

UC Small Farms and Specialty Crops Advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard estimates there are hundreds of small farms in the Central Valley growing a quarter acre or so of moringa. Most of these farmers sell fresh moringa alongside their other produce at farmers markets in the Bay Area and in and around Los Angeles. Ask around and look for the cut leaves being sold in little bundles, resembling parsley.

Fresh moringa can be used any way other fresh greens can be eaten: in salads, soups, smoothies and more. It's said to contribute a peppery, nutty, grassy flavor.

Though most powdered moringa on the market is imported, you can order powder that's a blend of California-grown and imported moringa from Moringa for Life, a farm near Oceanside.

You can find recipes for moringa-infused berry smoothies, morning energy bites, guacamole, overnight oatmeal and more at http://smallfarmsfresno.ucanr.edu/Crops/Moringa.

However, be measured with your use of moringa powder. Less is more, warns Dahlquist-Willard.

"If you take over a certain amount, there tends to be kind of a laxative effect," she said.

One to 2 teaspoons daily is generally considered a safe dose and a sufficient quantity to impart nutritional benefits.


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