Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

Situated near the intersection of Irvine Boulevard and Modjeska Road, UC South Coast is neither part of UC Irvine nor Costa Mesa’s South Coast neighborhood. It’s associated with the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) division. The site’s primary purpose is to serve as a research facility for UC scientists in the region. 

In recent years, leadership has made a concerted effort to open its doors to community outreach, hosting tours for local schools, organizing “u-pick” events, plus working with small businesses on seasonal offerings. I resided within 10 miles of the farm for over 15 years, yet only learned about and visited the property for the first time over the summer. I spent the past four months acquainting myself with UC South Coast and participating in some of its activities, growing more appreciative of what it had to offer with each visit.

Past and Present UC ANR Research

Established in 1956 (eight years before UCI was founded), this research and extension center is one of nine in the state. As a result of Irvine’s temperate climate and coastally-influenced growth, the land is ideal for studying the growth of fruit, trees and ornamental plants. It is also home to related programs such as UCCE Master Gardeners of Orange County and the Orange County Farm Bureau.

Academic experts from UC Riverside and as far as UC Davis conduct research at UC South Coast. There are also another 40 different active research projects by external scholars doing graduate and post-graduate work from non-UC universities. According to community educator specialist Jason Suppes, “Once a project is put into the ground, our farm staff takes care of the land, labor and water.” Specific data collection is done by the individual researchers.

Suppes invited me to pick green beans and pull up carrots one morning while discussing the farm’s accomplishments. Of its past projects, the development of commercial strawberries in conjunction with a sister site in Ventura contributing to 85% of the strawberries consumed in North America is one fact that stands out to Suppes. Many projects are preserved by UC South Coast after research is completed. For instance, the farm holds one of the largest groves of cherimoya (the most peaceful place on the farm) in the northern hemisphere as a result of a past project..

Current research includes avocado breeding led by UC Riverside’s Dr. Mary Lu Arpaia, a leading avocado researcher and director of UCR’s breeding program. Four new avocado patents are scheduled to be released in the near future for consumption in global markets. 

UC South Coast director and water resources/water quality advisor Darren Haver spent time with me describing the Hub for Urban Living, a physical and virtual project in its early stages of development. Overseeing the only research and extension center in an urban setting provides unique opportunities for Haver to interact with experts in different disciplines while addressing issues related to food security, agriculture, pest management and other topics. 

Planning a Visit to UC South Coast

UC South Coast is at 7601 Irvine Blvd. in Irvine. Due to ongoing research projects, the farm generally isn’t open to the public. If you are interested in learning more about the site, these are ways to be granted access:

The hub’s objectives include developing a network of professionals focused on critical issues related to sustainable urban living and facilitating partnership between and across government agencies, the private sector and educational institutions. 

For example, the Harvest Solutions Farm is a proof-of-concept project between UC South Coast, Second Harvest Food Bank and Solutions for Urban Ag, led by chairman A.G. Kawamura. Starting on Aug. 31, 2021, volunteers began planting the first acre plot of cabbage. Harvest Solutions Farm’s goal is to have weekly planting until 45 acres of celery, broccoli and cabbage are in the ground, feeding those in need and building food security in the area.

Local Collaborations

In addition to research done on UC South Coast’s farm, Suppes works with local entrepreneurs to assist in sourcing fresh ingredients for their products. Individuals include Jadetiger Tea founder Lan Zentil and Focaccia Boi owner Derek Bracho. 

Zentil’s initial visit to the site was by invitation from a chef friend to tour back in 2019. “Every time I jump in the golf cart with Tammy (Majcherek, a community educator specialist) and Jason, I feel like a kid in the candy store,” she said. Zentil vividly recalls spotting a particularly tall, spiky bush growing finger limes. “I plucked one finger off the tree, cracked it open, and sure enough, crispy, green balls of pulp oozed out.” she said.

She also remembers visiting the bergamot tree. Bergamot is a citrus used in Earl Grey tea possessing a robust aroma; it’s also one of the most consumed hot teas in America (second to breakfast tea) according to Zentil. She referred to the fruit as a unicorn citrus, “because in my training as a tea sommelier, I was told bergamot grows predominantly in China and Italy, not Irvine!” she exclaimed. Zentil marveled at being able to cut open bergamot and scratch its skin, taking in the pure essence.  

As founder of Jadetiger Tea, Lan’s mission is to source organic, craft tea leaves. She finds satisfaction in taking fresh fruits and transforming them into nuanced tea beverages and mocktails. “Tea is a sustainable resource that is grown near the Tropic of Cancer, so while I have to travel to Asia, Africa or India to visit a true tea estate, the UC farm is my farm-to-cup connection,” Zentil said.

Pre-pandemic, Zentil assisted with making teas to pair with a chef-curated luncheon for a special meeting between chancellors and UC faculty, plus staff. “With hand-picked finger limes I made a jasmine cocolime iced tea, and with floral strawberry guava (also sourced from UC South Coast) a dark Assam guava honey iced tea,” she said.

Coincidentally, it was the same collaborative luncheon Zentil refers to where Focaccia Boi’s Derek Bracho first met Suppes and Zentil. “Since then, Jason and I hit it off and he bounces ideas to me when they have extra produce. From garlic to potatoes, whatever I can use, I put to good use,” Bracho said.

Suppes and Bracho recently spent time coming up with a unique pizza special. Since both had a craving for garlic cheese bread from North Woods Inn, they crafted a pizza homage utilizing a crop of spicy, purple-streaked garlic grown at UC South Coast. Called West Street Inn, Focaccia Boi’s square pizza began with a garlic rosemary dough, then smoked cheddar garlic butter (made with the purple garlic), a mozzarella cheese blend, tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan.

Bracho believes Suppes is creating something special at UC South Coast. “The relationships he builds with makers is unique and gives people access to produce you can’t find anywhere else,” Bracho said. 

The Grow Program

A joint effort between the OC Farm Bureau and UC South Coast, the Orange County Grow Agricultural Education Program hosts youth from local schools on a tour of the farm’s horticulture and agriculture landscapes. Originally focused on high school students participating in agriculture and Future Farmers of America (FFA) programs, this year’s crop of attendees includes those enrolled in Culinary Technical Education (CTE) courses.

Students may spend part of the morning doing an interactive module as well as learning how the farm facilitates research projects while touring the space by vehicle and on foot.They also learn the cultural significance of certain crops not common to Southern California thriving on the farm, like dragon fruit and cherimoya. Afterward, they meet with entrepreneurs like Zentil and Bracho who discuss their respective culinary journeys, explaining the professional and personal impact UC South Coast has made. The visit concludes with a tasting of select items including pomegranates (white pomegranate arils are now a favorite, thanks to the tasting), apples and a comparison of honey styles. 

Derek Bracho (far right) of Focaccia Boi speaksto Grow Program students at UC South Coast. Credit: ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN/Voice of OC

Sharing a rich iced tea infused with farmed pomegranates and honey, Zentil spoke with culinary students from Huntington Beach Union School District about the importance of incorporating organic and local ingredients. “The kids were fully engaged and had such great feedback about never having tried pomegranate juice, or not knowing that tea was only one type of leaf (camellia sinensis),” she said. 

Initially hesitant to present, Bracho warmed up to the idea once he realized that his younger self would have benefited from hearing about his experiences. “Seeing all these different types of chefs and makers will open their minds to the ingenuity life pushes some of us into,” he said.

Community Outreach

In addition to the Grow Program, UC South Coast organizes events and opportunities for the public to visit and learn more about the farm. These activities take the form of seasonal produce sales plus interactive activities. 

In October, participants were able to roam through the farm’s orchards and groves during its first annual Run Around the Farm. The day included succulent plant sales and an expo of UC ANR professionals providing guidance on a range of topics including nutrition and gardening.

Cherimoya and avocado pop-ups had volunteers picking and packaging pre-paid bags of fruit. Monies earned from the sales go toward funding for UC South Coast groups including the Adult Transition Workforce Program.

The most popular activities are known as “u-pick” events, when registrants are granted access to crops and pick enough potatoes, summer squash or hyperseasonal persimmons to fill a reusable bag. Prior to the persimmon picking, I looked on as participants were treated to a Hoshigaki demonstration – a Japanese method of air drying persimmons to preserve and consume the sweet fruit year-round; while a relatively easy process, it is also a time-consuming commitment.

“UC South Coast is earnest in their outreach effort to spread the gospel about the benefits of urban farming and research in our everyday lives,” Zentil said. “Jason and Tammy are so approachable, knowledgeable and constantly sharing the bounty of the farm.”

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at ampanoringan@voiceofoc.org.


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