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Tasters compared grass-fed beef.

The Amador Ledger Dispatch reported yesterday on a recent meeting in Martell in which the sponsor, the Amador Resource Conservation District, provided grass-fed and conventional beef at lunch for a taste comparison.

The article, by Jennifer Gee, quotes Steve Cannon, director of the Amador Resource Conservation District.

"Some people have this view that grass-fed livestock meat is yellow and the meat isn't tender,"  Cannon is quoted. "We want to try and dispel some of this."

The article didn't say whether the participants could tell the difference, however, a press release on the ANR News Web site, reports on previous work by UC Cooperative Extension advisors and cooperators at CSU Chico that affirmed that grass-fed beef is healthier.

For the Amador Ledger Dispatch article, Gee also sought comment from UCCE farm advisor Scott Oneto about the RCD workshop. He said ranchers hope that local stores and restaurants will start to take notice of local producers and see the benefits of knowing the origin of their food.

"I think the big thing is there's not only becoming more and more of a demand but an awareness by the public for locally grown agricultural products," Oneto is quoted. "People like to know where their food is coming from."

Cattle eating grass.
Cattle eating grass.

Posted on Thursday, July 12, 2007 at 9:55 AM

West Nile virus appearing across the state.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that West Nile virus is off to an early start in 2007 with cases of infected mosquitoes, horses or birds having been found in 26 of California's 58 counties. The newspaper said three Kern County residents are the only known human cases. However, a day later, a story in the Sacramento Bee reported a human case of West Nile infection in Stanislaus County.

The state could be on its way to beating the record for the disease set last year. In 2006, California recorded 276 human West Nile virus infections and seven deaths, according to a news release by Kathy Keatley Garvey of the UC Davis Mosquito Research Program. Fifty-four counties had West Nile virus activity. Fifty-eight horses tested positive for West Nile virus last year, and 24 died or were euthanized.

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans and animals by infected mosquitoes. First isolated in 1937 in the West Nile District of Uganda, the virus spread to New York in 1999 and reached California in 2002.

According to an informative Q&A by the Centers for Disease Control, the experience of West Nile virus infection in humans ranges from no symptoms at all to a severe illness that requires hospitalization and can lead to death. Symptoms of West Nile fever mimic the flu, with headache, fatigue, body aches and sometimes a skin rash.

A number of research projects aimed at better understanding and controlling West Nile virus will be presented at the annual UC Davis Mosquito Research Program Grant Proposal Presentation Day July 19 at UC Riverside. For more information see the program's news release, posted July 11 on the UC ANR news site.

A mosquito gets a blood meal.
A mosquito gets a blood meal.

Posted on Wednesday, July 11, 2007 at 9:52 AM

Spiders attract Bay Area attention.

A little piece on spiders in the UC Master Gardener column of the Contra Cost Times last month caused quite a stir. In answering a question about brown recluse spiders, the writer said:  "Brown recluse spiders are not found in California, except in the far southern eastern desert regions, and it is highly unlikely that you have a population in your backyard. As of now, there has not been one confirmed brown recluse spider bite in the state."

The UC Integrated Pest Management Program reports similar information on its Web site:  "There are no populations of the brown recluse Loxosceles reclusa, in the state and fewer than 10 verified specimens have been collected over several decades in California. Yet people frequently relate stories in which they or someone they know was supposedly bitten by a brown recluse in California."

This past weekend, the Contra Costa Times reported that the assertion about brown recluse spiders sparked heated debate. Many residents who responded said they were sure the brown recluse spider is in the Bay Area. To find out for certain, UC Riverside entomologist Richard Vetter offered to identify any spider suspected of being a brown recluse.

Residents are invited to carefully capture spiders they think may be brown recluses and deliver them to the Contra Costa County UC Cooperative Extension office.

At the risk of giving readers the heebie-jeebies, here are some things that distinguish the poisonous brown recluse from harmless garden spiders:

  • Six eyes arranged in pairs, with one pair in front and a pair on either side. (Most spiders have eight eyes.)
  • A dark violin shape on the cephalothorax (the portion of the body to which the legs attach).
  • Uniformly light-colored legs, no stripes, no bands.
  • Uniformly colored abdomen which can vary from cream to dark brown depending on what it has eaten.

Brown recluse spider
Brown recluse spider

Posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2007 at 10:35 AM

Organic tomatoes pack more punch.

In the past week, many news media outlets reported on research by UC Davis food chemist Alyson Mitchell that was published in the June 23 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. For example, on July 5, the BBC News titled its story "Organic tomatoes 'better' for heart." The story was picked up in Australia, India, Africa and many American publications.

Mitchell and her colleagues studied dried tomatoes that had been collected over 10 years for an unrelated research project that compared organic, conventional and intermediate growing methods. They found statistically higher levels of quercetin and kaempferol aglycones in organic tomatoes, according to the journal article. The substances are flavonoids believed partly responsible for lower rates of cardiovascular disease and some cancers in people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Mitchell received a $34,000 ANR Core Issues Grant in 2004 to conduct her research.

According to the Sacramento Bee article, published July 4, the research adds to a conflicting body of knowledge about whether organic foods provide significant nutritional benefits.

"There's a lot of confusion," Mitchell is quoted in the Bee. "For every study that shows there's a difference, there's another that shows there isn't."

Bee writer Carrie Peyton Dahlberg reported that Mitchell said the higher levels of flavoniods in the organically grown tomatoes may be due to an increase in organic matter and overall soil fertility due to organic production methods.

"That meant growers didn't need to use as much compost to keep nitrogen levels high. And without that extra boost of growth-promoting nitrogen, plants seemed to devote more energy to producing flavonoids," Dahlberg wrote.

However, the article notes that Mitchell said that the research findings don't necessarily mean that all organic tomatoes would contain more flavonoids.

Some organic tomatoes contain more flavonoids.
Some organic tomatoes contain more flavonoids.

Posted on Monday, July 9, 2007 at 10:03 AM

Could be a fiery Fourth.

I hate to throw a wet blanket on the holiday, but a heat wave and fireworks are colliding with dry grass and shrubs to create what could become a fiery Fourth of July. The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that firefighters are already battling a barrage of blazes. Fires in Los Padres National Forest, near Pyramid Lake, two in San Diego County and mop up in the Lake Tahoe area are keeping firefighters busy before the holiday even begins.

And the worst may be yet to come. A UC Cooperative Extension specialist at UC Berkeley, Max Moritz, teamed up with researchers at the University of Utah to create a new way to predict when vegetation dries to the point it is most vulnerable to large-scale fires in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles, according to a University of Utah news release.

This year's forecast says the highest-risk fire period will begin July 13 – weeks earlier than usual. The San Francisco Chronicle points out the date is Friday the 13th. The study found the amount of March-April-May precipitation can be used to predict the date at which high fire-risk thresholds are reached.

Several UC Cooperative Extension scientists are excellent sources of information on fires -- primarily on such topics as urban-wildland interface fires, biomass harvesting to reduce forest fuels and fire hazard, and wildland fire science and management. Contact information is available on UCCE's experts list.

UC Berkeley's Moritz has also conducted research that confounds conventional wisdom about managing wilderness for wildfire prevention. In a UC Berkeley news release writer Sarah Yang reported in 2004 that Moritz and his colleagues found that the age of vegetation in California's shrublands does not strongly influence the probability of wildfires.

"If the goal is to save people's homes and avoid loss of life, then treating extensive portions of the landscape to create a mixture of young and old vegetation is not money well spent," Moritz is quoted.

Moritz said fire management strategies should focus on more effective use of resources, like creating defensible space immediately around people's homes and communities, attempting to fire-proof structures, and developing better evacuation procedures.

"We also have to ask ourselves whether it makes sense to build homes in areas at risk for fire or natural hazards in the first place. Doing so is inherently dangerous, and it is at least in part an urban planning problem," he is quoted in the release.

I will be camping in the tinder-dry Sierra Nevada for a few days following the Fourth, so I will update this blog when I return (providing a forest fire doesn't close Highway 168 while we are enjoying the comfortable temperature at the 7,000-foot elevation.) Rest assured, I will suffocate the campfire after we're done roasting marshmallows.

Happy Independence Day!


Posted on Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 12:40 PM

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