By Carolyn O’Neil, MS, RD
I had the opportunity to join food bloggers on a trip to northern California recently as a participant in the inaugural Best Food Facts TASTE: Unearthing the Art and Science of Food Blogger Tour.
As a registered dietitian and nutrition advisor for BestFoodFacts.org, I was impressed with the bloggers’ enthusiastic interest in learning more about agricultural practices and biotech research so that they could share the tasty truths with their many foodie followers.
For food writers, whether it’s researching the history of basil pesto (famously from Genoa, Italy), finding the best tips for barbecue food safety (avoid flare ups that cause potentially carcinogenic dark char on meats) or understanding the benefits of biotechnology used in modern day farming (such as improved nutrition, drought tolerance and pest resistance), it’s important to seek out experts with the most accurate information and best consumer advice.
Focusing on the latter was our mission on the TASTE Tour as we connected with expert researchers from the University of California, Davis and farmers who grow a range of crops in the region including fresh fruit, tomatoes and grapes bound for bottles of wine. Our trip took us literally from farm to table, as we enjoyed wonderful meals featuring locally-grown fare at restaurants in Sacramento, Davis and Yountville in Napa Valley.
Fantastic Fresh Fruit!
Our first stop was a wonderful walk through the fruit-filled K & J Orchards in Winters, California, with Aomboon Deasy, who led us through part of the 20-acre farm founded by her parents. She handed out fresh figs still warm from the sun, nectarines juicy and cool from boxes in the chilled storage room and spoke about growing up going to farmers’ markets to sell her family’s pristine and delicious fresh fruit. The premium quality fruit from K & J Orchards is sought after by more than 100 area chefs, including much-lauded chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry. It was clear that effort and enthusiasm are two of the reasons this family’s fruit business is so successful. Also, a foundation in smart agricultural science.
“My 87-year-old father is a retired professor of pomology from UC Davis,” she told us. “He taught and did research for 30 years. Who knows what pomology is?”
Answer: Pomology is a branch of botany dedicated to fruit cultivation, specifically stone fruit such as nectarines, peaches, apricots and cherries.
Her mother still runs the business. “Mom is 72 and feisty and still does all of the fruit tree grafting.”
A discussion about organic and conventionally-raised fruit continued in the orchard as Deasy explained that their farming philosophy includes both conventional and organic methods depending on the crop and Mother Nature.
Right now the record drought in California’s farmland is causing major challenges for irrigation but she says it helps keep damaging plant pests and diseases at bay. “Blight is not a problem in a drought. So we don’t have to rely on spraying,” she said. But, if threatened by pests they will use the chemicals approved to protect the crop and of course follow agricultural regulations so that the harvested fruit is either residue-free or contains as little residue as possible – far below acceptable limits. “Organic is often misunderstood and used as more of a marketing term,” says Deasy. “There are many pesticides approved for use in organic farming. A lot of folks don’t know that.”
Denneal Jamison-McClung, PhD, associate director of biotechnology at UC Davis, added more: “There are best practices to follow in both organic and conventional farming. And organically-grown produce is not higher in nutrients as some might believe. We just want folks to eat more fruits and vegetables for their health whether they’re labeled organic or not.” Jamison-McClung also emphasized the most important issue in fresh produce and health: “Food safety is a key concern. You should always wash all fruits and vegetables (organic and conventional) to make sure they’re free of bacteria and other pathogens.” After all, they are grown in the dirt and harvested by hands that may not be as clean as we’d like.
To celebrate the day focused on farming, an evening at the historic Firehouse Restaurant in downtown Sacramento started with locally-grown heirloom tomatoes and ended with apricot cheesecake.