Fielding farm, food questions for a century, UC ag extension faces forward

naustin@modbee.comMay 10, 2014 

The University of California Cooperative Extension celebrated a century passed, with eyes firmly fixed on the future.

Area 4-H clubs provided the fun: A chef cooked veggies and partners spread the word about new projects during Saturday’s centennial fair. Fresh produce, smoothies, free tomato plants and children’s activities greeted those who joined in at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center.

Classic tunes were belted out by local bands and classic cars lined up in the parking lot kept the mood nostalgic. But at information booths, talk centered on up-and-coming marketing efforts and online connections.

Ag Link is launching a website where wholesale buyers can connect with farms in Merced and Stanislaus counties, Jana Nairn explained at one booth. At the next table, the Stanislaus Grown marketing campaign worked to spread awareness of local food.

At the ag extension office, its next century will have the same mission as its first. “We take the (university) research and show people how to use it, basically,” said director Theresa Spezzano. But a fresh spirit of collaboration has taken hold to make better use of resources.

Organizationally, cross-county connections forged with San Joaquin and Merced offices will share expertise, ideas and manpower, Spezzano said. The three counties share many of the same problems, the same crops and even the same farming families.

“We were a lot of different agencies doing pretty much the same thing. Now we’re all working together as one unit,” said Dennis Carrasquilla, Stanislaus ag extension nutrition staff member.

The research Spezzano’s office conducted with area fourth-graders is being used statewide. Students lost weight and got healthier with more nutrition education and better access to fresh produce. Farms to Schools programs are gaining steam and 4-H Club members are helping deliver the message, she said.

Youths in 4-H Clubs manned kids activities across the fair. At one, sixth-grader Taylor Lopes of the 4-H Hoof & Horns taped batteries and tiny motors to scrub brushes. “I like making them for little kids,” Taylor said, as several vibrating “eco-bots” skittered paths through birdseed.

Having kids in charge is the point, said Hoof & Horns leader Susan Kerr. Her group includes about 75 youth and 25 adult volunteers. “We talk about what we’re going to do, but they do it,” she said.

Dairy Princess Dominique Germann helped kids “milk” a metal cow at her 4-H booth. Water with milk-colored paint squirted from udder-mounted plastic nozzles when bent.

“It’s a nice way to show the kids,” she said. “They love the hands-on.” A contest at the county fair will give the heavy Holstein a name this summer.

In front of a display of beading and bugs, Kathy Wong showed projects from the 147 members of her 4-H group, one of about 25 such groups countywide. Hers is a city group. Others focus on livestock. One trains guide dogs, she said. All work on leadership skills, such as learning to speak in front of groups, and public service.

Wong’s booth stood within sniffing range of a cooking demonstration by chef Billy Reid. Reid runs the Salida Union School District meals programs and will accept a USDA award May 19 for his district having among the healthiest school meals in the country.

Sauteed veggies simmered in a butter and white wine sauce in his makeshift kitchen. One thing Reid did not have out: salt. Better cooking techniques can add flavor without that overused pantry staple, he said.

One building over, a counter of homemade beauty products gave a nod to Mother’s Day. Billed as Mom’s Spa Day, the display offered bowls to dabble in with cucumber-yogurt mask; honey and olive oil moisturizer; and strawberry hand scrub.

“This is a little different than eating our fruits and vegetables,” said ag extension staffer Jaci Westbrook. The simple recipes were a way to use up overripe produce, she added.

Shelita Guzman, walking through with her children, said she didn’t think she’d get to relax on Mother’s Day with a sugar-oil foot rub or a baking soda polishing scrub. “But I’ll definitely try them at home,” she said.

Bee staff writer Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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