How science influences what you eat
Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine
Stories by Steve Adler
Photos by Matt Salvo and Scott Monaco
California researchers and farmers work together to develop better-tasting fruits, nuts and vegetables.
The next time you munch on a bunch of grapes, add some walnuts to your favorite recipe or pick up a bowl of strawberries, take a moment to thank the hard-working researchers and farmers in California for the delicious food on your table.
Every day these men and women team up to produce “new and improved” foods through scientific trial and error—fruits, nuts and vegetables that look better, taste better and keep better than earlier varieties of the same items.
It’s no secret that California leads the nation in food production, and consumers are the big winners. Almost half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables produced in the country come from California—some 400 different commodities in all. Many of the most popular of these can trace their roots back to work done by University of California researchers and the farmers they partner with.
But it isn’t just American consumers who are the beneficiaries of these cooperative efforts. Foreign consumers, too, have discovered the exceptional attributes of California-grown foods. About 25 percent of the state’s agricultural production goes to export markets. It is the quality, freshness and unparalleled flavor of California’s commodities that drive this demand—in the United States and beyond.
California researchers and farmers have been working together for more than a century, continuously developing better-tasting fruits, nuts and vegetables that garner worldwide acclaim. Take grapes, for instance. The Golden State stands out from the rest of the world by being the No. 1 producer of table grapes, raisin grapes and winegrapes. And then there’s walnuts. California produces 99 percent of the walnuts in the United States, and virtually all of these nuts are UC Davis varieties. As for strawberries, a full 60 percent of the world’s supply comes directly from UC varieties.
Much of California’s agricultural success comes down to good plant breeding, which is a result of close cooperation between researchers and growers. Neal Van Alfen, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, notes that plant breeding at the university has been a priority since the beginning days of the campus.
“Our researchers are now using breeding techniques that were not even imaginable 100 years ago,” he said. “Our plant breeding programs reflect our rich heritage and our commitment to food and agriculture in California.”
Strawberries: The best is yet to come
Watsonville strawberry grower Rod Koda, left, and UC researcher Doug Shaw proudly display the Albion strawberries that many describe as the best-tasting variety ever developed.
There is no objective way to measure a strawberry’s flavor, but anyone who bites into one of these beautiful red gems knows immediately whether it tastes as good as it looks or has missed the mark.
University of California, Davis, plant breeder Doug Shaw is the first to acknowledge that judging a strawberry’s flavor is very subjective. At the same time, though, Shaw says there is pretty much universal agreement that the strawberries consumers find in the stores these days taste much better than those produced five, 10 or 15 years ago.
And Shaw should know. He’s been developing new strawberry varieties for UC Davis for nearly a quarter century. Varieties that he and other UC researchers have developed dominate strawberry production worldwide. In fact, UC cultivars account for 85 percent of the strawberries produced in the United States and 60 percent of those grown anywhere on the globe.
And through the efforts of Shaw and other researchers like Kurt Larson, his counterpart at the University of California, Riverside, consumers are able to enjoy fresh California-grown strawberries year-round.
Right now, the king of the hill among strawberry varieties in California is the Albion. It has been only four years since Shaw and the rest of the UC research team introduced this variety, which boasts a beautiful conical shape, rich red color, good firmness and arguably the best flavor of any strawberry ever produced.
Standing in a lush strawberry field overlooking Monterey Bay, Shaw points out that as great as the Albion variety is, the best is yet to come. There are several new UC releases—like San Andreas, Monterey and Portola—that will likely give the Albion some serious competition for attracting consumers.
Rod Koda of Shinta Kawahara Co. farms near the UC Davis Watsonville Strawberry Research Center where Shaw does his fieldwork. He’s a third-generation farmer whose family has been working closely with UC researchers for a half century.
“This is a world-class breeding program, very unique. If you compare it to other countries, this program has put out great varieties that other states and countries use and copy,” Koda said. “It has always been fun to work with Doug and the other researchers. I learn a lot from them and take advantage of it in my farming, because that is the future.”
Walnuts: Cracking open new options
UC researcher Gale McGranahan, left, has led the way in the development of delicious walnut varieties being produced by growers like David Scheuring of the Capay Valley.
“Working with growers and farm advisors has been a favorite part of my career,” said recently retired University of California walnut breeder Gale McGranahan, who has had a hand in the development of nearly all the walnuts currently grown in the state.
“You can do things in a lab, and you can do things in your own nursery, but seeing your trees out under a grower’s care and getting that firsthand feedback is really important to me,” she said. “It takes a special grower who is really curious about walnuts and how they grow and curious about the breeding program.”
One of those growers is David Scheuring of the Capay Valley in Yolo County. He’s been growing walnuts for three decades and says he finds farming to be an extremely satisfying occupation.
“Farming is not as rewarding financially as you would like it to be, but nonetheless it is very rewarding in a larger sense of being able to produce good quality and healthy food that people enjoy eating,” he said. “It is really a privilege and honor and I’m glad to have been associated with agriculture all my life.”
Scheuring has been providing orchard sites to McGranahan and farm advisors like Carolyn DeBuse for years to assist in the development of new walnut varieties.
“I find that the university is a vital part of that process and I, as an individual walnut grower, don’t know how we could look forward to the future without a university research program supporting our industry,” he said.
Very few varieties of walnuts have been released, so when a promising new variety does come along, Scheuring says it is pretty exciting.
One of those new varieties is Ivanhoe. McGranahan is currently writing a patent on this walnut that she predicts will be a hit with consumers. “Ivanhoe has a large, beautiful kernel—it’s light and bright,” she said.
Creating a new walnut variety is no easy task. It can take 10 to 20 years of careful evaluation to come up with the right one.
“We have more than 10,000 seedlings going through evaluation right now,” McGranahan said. “I made crosses this last spring and I hope I will still be around to see what they look like as mature trees.”
Table grapes: Working on a winner
Thanks to the efforts of UC researchers like Jennifer Hashim-Buckey, left, and growers like George Zaninovich of Earlimart, the Scarlet Royal variety of table grape is on its way to becoming a consumer favorite.
For several weeks every summer, George Zaninovich rolls out of bed before dawn and toils alongside his employees until long into the afternoon. The Earlimart farmer, along with brothers Al and Nick, produces table grapes for customers in the United States and around the world.
Farming is nothing new to Zaninovich. His father, Vincent, came to the United States from Croatia in 1937 at the age of 16, and after serving in World War II, started the table grape vineyard in 1947. Now more than six decades later, the farm produces a wide variety of delicious table grapes—both red and green varieties.
Zaninovich is excited about the possibilities for Scarlet Royal, a new variety that is just coming into full production this year and one that he thinks will be a hit with consumers. Like most new table grape varieties grown in California, Scarlet Royal was developed by David Ramming and Ronald Tarailo of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service facility in Parlier.
Once USDA releases a new table grape, Jennifer Hashim-Buckey, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor, goes to work. Hashim-Buckey, who is based in Bakersfield, works closely with farmers in Kern and Tulare counties to find the best ways to bring out the table grape qualities most sought after by consumers—great taste, large fruit, good color.
“With Jennifer’s help, I am producing a better grape, one that the consumer is going to love,” Zaninovich said. “I can see right now that Scarlet Royal will be a winner. I like the uniformity, I like the color and I like the size. This is an attractive piece of fruit and the potential is there for the future.”
Hashim-Buckey said she appreciates farmers like Zaninovich for providing space in their commercial vineyards for her research. She has always been able to find innovative, forward-thinking farmers who are willing to give her a hand.
“I am not located on a research station. I am county based. So for me to have any kind of successful research program, I need to have vines to work on. I place my research plots in growers’ commercial vineyards,” Hashim-Buckey said. “It is really important to develop a relationship with growers to put together a good cooperating team. The growers that I work with are just fantastic. They are extremely interested in the results.
“But it is the consumers who are the big winners in all of this because they are buying a superior piece of fruit.”
Steve Adler is a reporter for California Country. He can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.