UC Davis’ homegrown campaign collaborates with campus agricultural research to follow the real story of farm-to-fork
The best kept secret on campus isn’t a fraternity or a goose that lays golden eggs. It is an “Aggie” idea hiding in plain sight at breakfast, lunch and dinner: UC Davis Hospitality and Dining Services calls it “Aggie Grown.”
The campaign is centered on finding ingredients that fit the needs of the students by collaborating with the agricultural research departments on campus.
“Students in this class really care about where their food is coming from and the story of the food,” said Richard Ronquillo, associate director for student outreach at UC Davis Hospitality and Dining Services.
Ronquillo is part of the team that helps tell that story by tracking the tomato from the farm to the kitchen to the plate.
“This whole concept of ’farm-to-fork’ has really lost its identity,” said Kraig Brady, director of Hospitality and Dining Services. “No one knows what it means anymore.”
But at UC Davis, farm-to-fork means grown in UC Davis soil. Although the demands of providing about 20,000 meals on campus each day cannot always be met by homegrown foods, an increasingly large percentage of ingredients served on campus is cultivated right under the students’ noses.
Dining Services used to be managed by Sodexo, a multinational corporation. Now it is run by UC Davis with hyper-local ingredients and international flair.
Brady admits that not many students know about Aggie Grown. And while the partnership between research departments and on-campus farms is not totally new, Brady said it has exploded over the last couple of years.
The campaign collaborates with the campus research ranch, Russell Ranch, as well as the Student Farm, Aquaponics, Pastured Poultry Program, Meat Lab, Goat Dairy, Olive Oil Center and the Honey and Pollination Center. Buying from these departments helps fund research and ensures an economically sound relationship.
“It’s more than just feeding students,” Brady explained. “We’re collaborating with the campus to infuse living lab situations and providing benefits of the research to benefit those programs as well.”
Russell Ranch is a 1,600-acre farm that researches soil for organic farming, fruit splicing and pruning trees, and conducts many other projects and experiments. In August, Aggie Grown bought 27,000 pounds of Roma tomatoes from the ranch and made tomato pastes and sauces that can be stored and used throughout the school year. The remaining nearly 6 million pounds of tomatoes were sold to The Morning Star Company in Woodland. Aggie Grown also buys stone fruit from the ranch from trees that are used by students learning about pruning. The most recent harvest was used to make purees and a Mexican sweet sauce called chamoy.
“Even poorly pruned trees still grow fruit,” Ronquillo said. “So they have to find something to do with all this stone fruit.”
The student farm—where any UC Davis student can learn about gardening—is 23 acres of fruit trees, rows of leafy vegetables and flowers. “The students that volunteer there are rarely actual ag students,” said Chamayo Yniguez, associate director for operations at Hospitality and Dining Services. “They just want to learn how their food gets to the table. They get very passionate about it, too.”
Yniguez and Kue Her, senior executive chef for Hospitality and Dining Services, partner with the student farm to use some of their produce. In addition to Aggie Grown, some of the produce is reserved for on-campus and community food banks.
Aquaponics, the blending of hydroponics and fishery, is a crossover program between engineering, agriculture, plant-and-soil science and others. In research on sturgeon and caviar, the byproduct is water that is “swimming” with beneficial bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen—ideal for plant growth. The fishy water is then processed into a hydroponics greenhouse that grows basil, lettuce, wheatgrass and bok choy.
Pastured poultry is a collaboration between veterinary science and engineering. The chicken coops are built with solar panels on the roof and a mechanism that allows freshly laid eggs to roll gently outside, which reduces the risk of salmonella. Currently the program is researching how different ingredients in chicken feed affects the taste of the eggs. A blind taste test of hard-boiled eggs was held in a UC Davis cafe.
Students have a wide variety of dining options at residential dining halls, restaurants, markets with grab-n-go options, coffee shops, food trucks and concessions at sports games. And with a new restaurant, Latitude, opening in January with cuisine from regions around the world, there will be even more.
But for students who really want to know what they’re eating, Aggie Grown allows them to follow the story of food from farm to farmer to food to fork.
“It’s not just know your farmer,” Brady said. “It’s know your broccoli.”