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Friday, October 31, 2008
According to the indispensable Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, Small-mouthed Salamanders can live in a wide variety of natural habitats from swamps to woodlands to prairies, often utilizing animal burrows such as mole or crayfish. Salamanders are predators, consuming earthworms, insects, and slugs. Their presence in our growing areas is not just ecologically fun, but of direct benefit for us; one of the principles of organic management is encouragement of natural predators to help keep pest populations in check. Slugs especially can be a real problem, and I'm thrilled to have a natural control present. And, they're just fascinating to watch (don't handle them, though, as the oils from human skin can harm them).
Thursday, October 30, 2008
1-2 lb turnips
1-2 lb potatoes (purple add a nice color)
2-4 Tbl butter
2+ cups water
1/4 cup apple cider
2-4 Tbl vinegar (tomato or cider)
Herbs if desired (I used parsley & oregano)
Salt & pepper
Crumbled/grated strong cheese, like sharp white cheddar or Goatsbeard Walloon
Chop the turnips & potatoes into roughly equal 1/2" cubes. Toss with olive oil to coat thoroughly, spread on baking sheet, and roast at 450 for at least 40 minutes, stirring every 20. Depending on how large/small your chopped squares are, it may take more or less time. You want the potatoes and turnips soft and just starting to brown, but not burned or dessicated on the outside.
When you think you have 20 minutes to go, finely chop the leeks and start sauteing them in the melted butter. Stir them regularly and let them cook until very soft, 20 minutes or more. In the meantime, finely chop the apples (peeling is optional; I like the texture of peels).
When the roasted veggies are soft and the leeks are nicely cooked, combine those into a blender and coarsely puree. You will likely need to add water to create enough liquid for the blending to work; I suspect veggie or meat broth would work, too, but there are a lot of flavors in this already. Keep it as thick as possible.
Pour into a soup pot and add apples, cider, vinegar, and herbs to taste. Simmer until the apples are soft. I like the texture the cooked apple chunks left in the soup, but if you want a smoother result, add the apples when you blend the veggies. Add salt & pepper to taste.
Serve with a hearty topping of crumbled or grated strong cheese, which mixes in and melts to add a final flavor.
This could easily be adapted in any number of ways to fit the needs of a kitchen, but the basic result is a thick, hearty winter soup based in the flavors of the season. Let me know if you try it.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
There are really two options here for certification: government or private sector. Which is preferable depends partly on your political philosophy. A government program is typically far cheaper for the producer, but this of course is subsidized by taxpayer dollars and is in effect a preferential treatment of an industry. Private sector certification allows for competition and choice, but I have a serious concern about this method: the latent potential for ethical violations.
Consider: a private certifier relies on income from succesful certifications. It will not make money by NOT certifying farms. In a marketplace with lots of options, even a strict certifier has the real potential to be subtly outcompeted by a more compliant certifier. I am not accusing any specific entity of anything, just noting that the system is set up for abuse. Organic farmers are businesspeople, not saints, and there's plenty of talk over who is easier to work with and who is a hard case. I've been told at least once, "Oh, you don't want to use ____, they're way too strict.". Hmm. There's a real gray area there between good service, and too good service. There's enough room for abuse as it is (one inspection a year is not going to catch the bottle of Roundup hidden in the basement for emergencies).
Although I tend to prefer keeping government out of private business, to me a government organic certification program is closer to a Health Department or Fire inspection than a subsidy or mandate. It's simply using a government office to efficiently and equitably conduct a certain level of certification for a customer-recognized standard (like LEED or Energy Star on the green front). In Missouri, it's a moot point for now, as the state cut its nascent organic certification program in 2005. So we have no choice but to look on the open market.
Cost is another issue here. Private certification seems to cost around $700 the first year for a small produce farm, and will likely be more like $500/yr after that. Under Missouri's old program, certification cost $100. Now, through appropriations in the Farm Bill, Missouri does offer a cost-share program that will in theory reimburse organic farmers for up to 75% of their certification fees, up to $750. That probably does take less government to manage, at least at the state level, but trends a lot closer to a straight-out subsidy when compared to a basic state certification program, at least to my eyes. I'm not all that comfortable taking a straight payout subsidy for my farm.
In any case, given our limited philosophical options, we chose to certify with the Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), based in southwestern Wisconsin. I first ran across their operation at the fantastic MOSES organic conference last winter. I had a long talk with one of their certifiers and came away very impressed; I've made several subsequent phone calls to their office to ask questions about the certification process, and each time have been instantly placed in contact with a knowledgeable staffer who was happy to spend half an hour answering detailed questions for a complete stranger. Every interaction I've had so far supports my impression of a solid, small, focused organization. So we're giving them a try. We just feel more comfortable with the certification equivalent of a local small business whose focus is directly on what we do in the region we do it in. I'm sure I'll have more to say about MOSA as the process continues...
"Producers who market less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually are not required to become certified, though they have the option of doing so. These operations must still adhere to the federal standards for organic production, product labeling, and handling."
Frankly, I find this absurd. I suspect it is a well-meaning attempt to soften the cost burden of certification for smaller operations, but I think it dilutes the meaning of the word. Certification is too much work, bother, and expense (especially for independant small farms) to allow its value to be undercut by exemptions. If the goal is to buffer costs for small operations, set up some form of cost-share program (Missouri dabbles in this) .
That second sentence is just silly; if there's no certification, there's no control on what methods the grower might be using while taking full advantage of the expected price and image benefits that the "o" word conveys. In addition, given that a core customer base for organics are people with chemical allergies, this exemption seems downright dangerous to me. Granted, followers of this exemption are not allowed to use the official USDA seal, but I suspect that fine distinction is lost on most consumers, who in any case have no way of knowing how much money a farm stand makes each year.
There are many other euphemisms that non-certified growers can use to convey their methods (organic methods, sustainable/no-spray, etc.) that are not so easily confused with an actual certified operation. We've been using "transitional organic" to make clear that we are not certified but are working toward it. I've been pleased at how many people stop and ask what that means; educated consumers are the foundation of a functional market economy. Why trade education for confusion? In my first year selling, I was asked by several people (growers included) why I didn't just take the exemption and write "organic" on my sign. My answer was simply that I didn't feel it was right, and would disrespect and undercut the actual certified organic growers at market. I still feel that way.
Organic is far more than "no-spray" or "naturally grown". As I'll discuss later, real certification involves demonstrating long-term commitment to fully sustainable methods integrated throughout the farm, not just withholding chemicals. Despite all its faults, that seal and that word means something to those small farmers who earn it, and I want it respected across the board, no exceptions.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
The arrival of a killing frost always means a sudden pile-up of rescued produce in the kitchen, asking to be used before it spoils. We harvested well over 80lb of green tomatoes this year, and have been experimenting with ways to use them.
Many of these are an Italian heirloom winter tomato that stores very well (more about these in the future), and so are laid out carefully on shelves in a cool, dark place to slowly ripen and keep us supplied with raw tomatoes through the winter. Other heirlooms are good at this, too: our Cherokee Purples have been ripening nicely indoors. If you check them regularly and cull out any failures, you'll have fresh tomatoes for a long time.
Sunday was a gloriously sunny day, marked by strong winds sweeping along the ridgetops and occasionally funnelling down into our valley to rearrange the leaves and the row covers. As we worked outdoors, we could hear the occasional limb crack and fall, and watch the half-dead leaves give up and swirl away. Such dramatic winds generally imply a major weather shift, and we knew that these were driven by a large mass of cold air sweeping down from the north to bring us our first killing frosts Sunday and Monday nights.
The arrival of a killing frost marks the effective transition into winter. After that, most of the produce is finished, except the few cold-tolerant items such as kale and leeks. We can now put the growing areas to sleep; pulling out the plants, broadforking the beds, adding a layer of manure, and mulching them with straw. Over the winter, the mulch will keep the soil warm, allowing worms and microbiota to feed on the manure and mix it thoroughly throughout the soil, generating a fertile setting for next spring. I've been working on this over the last few weeks, but now it's time to finish the job.
Specific tasks yesterday included pulling all irrigation hoses and storing them in the barn, cleaning and storing all other hoses, collecting any unused row covers, plastic, tools, and other items that are no longer needed, and so on. Over the last few days we've harvested all remaining sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, and so on, leaving us with large piles of produce to process or otherwise use. For example, I have 80+ lb of green tomatoes now (more about those in a future post). In any case, agricultural winter is here.
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Filipino cuisine is also very versatile, and many ingredients can be swapped in and out as needed while preserving the core of the meal, making it excellent for diverse but seasonal menus such as ours. Thus, pancit (see Friday) was traditionally made with pork, chicken, and shrimp in my family, can be made vegetarian by leaving out the meat & broth while substituting more vegetables and flavors, and in our version relies on homemade chicken broth for a meaty base while remaining dominately vegetable. In this week's version, turnips replace carrots as the sweet/crunchy vegetable with no ill effects.
A core Filipino flavor is adobo, a sauce composed of vinegar, soy sauce, brown sugar, black pepper, and garlic. While it is often used to marinate and cook meat (chicken in my family), it's quite versatile and can be used along as a flavoring for rice or vegetables. On Sunday I used it to add flavor to a basic side of steam green beans and lightly cooked tomatoes. We also use it as a glaze for baked nuts, which are an excellent snack or dinner side.
On to the meals, which are still based firmly in late summer/early fall (that's about to change with a killing frost moving in as I write this).
Saturday: Potluck dinner at friends' farm. We brought a fresh chunk salad.
Sunday: Lentil dal (our leeks, onions, garlic, tomatoes, mustard greens, tat soi, purchased lentils & spices). Side of green beans & tomatoes with homemade adobo sauce.
Monday: White beans & greens with vinegar and garlic. Side of fried green tomatoes. Our greens, garlic, and tomatoes.
Tuesday: Baked casserole of thinly sliced potatoes, tomatoes, leeks, and basil, with topping of cheese. All produce ours (potatoes from Joanna's parents).
Wednesday: Kale-potato-sausage soup. Onions & garlic sauteed with our ground goat sausage, with kale, potatoes, and water. One of our favorite winter recipes.
Thursday: Pasta with fresh herbed tomato sauce (sauce all our produce).
Friday: Pancit, a broadly defined Filipino noodle dish. In this case, onions, garlic, Chinese cabbage, turnips, and celeriac sauteed then cooked in chicken broth with soy sauce, fish sauce, black peppers, and pancit noodles. All produce ours, chicken broth ours (frozen).
We have an abundance of Chinese cabbage this year; it matured a little too late for market, so I'm finding ways to preserve it. These are huge heads, weighing over 3 pounds each, and I'm loath to waste them. So I'm trying them in sauerkraut. I've made kraut before, but only with European cabbages. I don't know if there will be a difference, but this is the only way to find out.
My kraut recipe is based on an old European technique called lacto-fermentation (read more toward the end of this post). The ideal method is to pack the cabbage tightly into a large crock with salt and optional spices, let it ferment openly, and eventually pack it into jars. Last year, I tried a simpler version that packed directly into jars, and it came out pretty well, if a bit too salty.
So this year I'm using the same method, though varying the levels of salt and spice per jar to better calibrate the method for future use. The cabbage is chopped finely and packed into the sterilized jars, with 1-3 tsp of salt mixed in along with varying numbers of bay leaves and juniper berries. When the jars are full, a bit of hot water is added before lidding the jars. I'll leave them in a warm place for a while, rotating the jars between upside-down and rightside-up, to get the fermentation started. After that, they can be stored in the basement for months.
That's the idea, anyway, as laid out in our official guide to lacto-fermentation, Keeping Food Fresh. I don't consider this post a recipe, exactly, as it's something we're still experimenting with and I couldn't promise that this will work right. But I love kraut, was pretty pleased with last year's version, and have high hopes for this batch. The nice thing about items like kraut is that if they do spoil, you'll know as soon as you open the jar. Otherwise, if it just smells like kraut, you're likely fine. Of course, some people like Joanna would argue that there's no difference between spoiled and good sauerkraut in the first place. Can't win 'em all...
Friday, October 24, 2008
Freezing: This is the most time-efficient way to preserve most foods, and generally the safest. Many items, such as green beans and corn, are actually of higher nutritional and culinary quality when frozen rather than canned. There is no concern over spoilage (unless you have a long power outage). For most produce, you simply chop it up, quickly blanch it in boiling water, then freeze it in an appropriate container or bag. Most fruits take very well to freezing as well, whether packed into containers or frozen separately on trays and then stored in bags. One growing concern here is the potential hazard from using plastics for food storage, especially when packed for hot items, but freezing things in glass is problematic and so far we're just being careful. Meat is certainly freezer-friendly; I don't want to mess around with canning meat, though in the future I'd like to try drying it. Frozen meat is of high quality and easy to use.
The final benefit to a chest freezer is the ability to easily preserve meals. Extra soups and other leftovers can easily be frozen in containers or bags, then thawed out over the winter. I tend to put up a fair amount of prepared meals, including pasta sauce, during the summer and fall, making life that much easier over the winter and spring. It's a good way to keep flavors that you'll otherwise lose because the ingredients don't store well.
With regards to energy use, we have a modern Energy-Star rated freezer that, when well-packed with ice blocks filling any empty spaces, uses negligible amounts of power. We track our energy use very carefully, and haven't noticed any meaningful impact from having the freezer. Our highest electric bill ever was $80, back in March '07 when we were running lots of grow lights for seedlings. We average around $50, slowly rising as we add more electric fence. Energy use and efficiency is another topic for another time, but the point here is that the chest freezer is a negligible energy drain for the benefit provided.
Canning: The primary benefit to canning, in my opinion, is the subsequent unreliance on other energy. Once the food is sealed in the jar, it's on the shelf and no power outage or other event short of earthquake can take your food away (ok, spoilage. We'll get to that). Canning is also the primary way to handle things like pickles or sauerkraut, which need time to develop their quality and flavor. There are safety issues associated with canning, as bacteria can be introduced into the process, not only spoiling the food but presenting a health hazard when consumed (their presence cannot always be detected). For this reason, canning is a labor-intensive and delicate process. Also for this reason, high-acidity items are the best for canning, such as tomatoes or pickles. Fruit products, like applesauce and jam, are also good. You put more work in up-front, but the ease of simply cracking a jar of applesauce or tomatoes later on is worth it. If you can, make sure to use a modern, updated guide to canning. Earlier publications like the original Joy of Cooking do not reflect more current research on the safest and most effective canning methods.
Dried tomatoes, mustard greens, and apples
Drying: This is something we're just starting to do this year, having invested in an electric food dryer. I think it's paid itself off already considering the market value of the dried tomatoes, apples, and herbs we've run through it. Food dryers are our new best friend. They use electricity, though I haven't noticed an impact on the bill, and once the food is dry it keeps forever. And there's no safety or spoilage issues as for canning. Drying seems to concentrate the flavors in many items; even half-ripe, over-rained tomatoes that taste like crap raw end up with a sharp, strong tomato flavor when dried. Perfect for pizzas, soups, and more. Apples, too, taste darn good this way. Our favorite surprise so far is mustard greens, which when dried become a flaky, spicy, flavorful item that will be a really nice addition to soups and stews all winter. The dryer has also been key to saving our not-fully-dried corn and beans, which were threatening to mold in the overly wet summer.
Last but not least is an old European method called lacto-fermentation. Most familiar to Americans as sauerkraut, the method can be used on all sorts of vegetables. It's easier than canning, less energy-reliant than freezing, and just plain interesting. We learned of it from a fascinating book titled Keeping Food Fresh, which collects ideas, recipes, and experiences from rural Europeans about their traditional family methods for preserving food that worked long before electricity, modern canning jars, and other conveniences. The book is an interesting read, and we've had pretty good success with the recipes we've tried. One warning: it's more a collection of folklore and transcribed recipes than a real, tested cookbook. Beware misleading information, forgotten ingredients and steps, and other quirks related to the method of compilation. That said, we quite enjoy it as a complement to our other methods. Look for a blog post soon on making and storing sauerkraut this way.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The ongoing effort to raise money for a permanent pavilion that would house the Columbia Farmers Market through all weather and seasons has launched a new fundraiser that will be of interest to locals and faraway readers alike.
This project was initiated by Dan & Melinda Hemmelgarn, an illustrious local couple whose talents include photography and writing (Melinda is a syndicated food columnist). They have developed a beautiful calendar entitled "Farm Hands", featuring evocative black & white photography of local farmers' hands as they go about their work and lives. It's a memorable and touching project; for some reason the November image from Goatsbeard Farm still chokes me up whenever I look at it (see "Love", third image down on the left at the above link).
While the calendar features images and text from the Columbia Farmers Market, it is otherwise a straightforward calendar and would be useful and enjoyable in any location. Unlike, say, the equally wonderful Missouri Outdoor Heritage Calendar (which features Missouri-specific dates & information virtually every day), Farm Hands allows the images and brief monthly captions to speak for themselves. So far we've sold calendars to folks in 14 states (CA, GA, IA, IL, IN, MD, MN, MO, NJ, NM, NY, OH, OR, WI), which I think demonstrates the broad appeal of the work Dan & Melinda have done.
The calendar is currently being sold at CFM, select local businesses such as Main Squeeze, and online. As you think about the upcoming holiday season, this calendar would make a wonderful gift for almost anyone, as the appeal of the photography goes well beyond agriculture. All proceeds go directly toward the Farmers Market Pavilion campaign, making it an especially meaningful gift. Please take a moment to visit the calendar's website, look through the images, and consider purchasing a few and helping ensure the future of local farming in mid-Missouri.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Two of our top fall projects involve continuing to establish our permanent no-till beds in the main field, and completing our application for organic certification. While there is more to write about both these topics than I can possibly fit into one blog post, I want to discuss an interesting, challenging, and newsworthy way in which the two interact.
I first wrote about our intention to farm using organic no-till methods back in May. We are following the example set by Patrice Gros of Foundation Farm in northern Arkansas, as described on his website. Mulching is key here; thick layers of hay/straw keep the soil moist, encourage earthworm and microbial activity, prevent weed growth, and improve soil nutrition and structure. This is especially true when used in conjunction with manure or other natural fertilzers. Using this method correctly involves a lot of manure, hay, and straw.
The trick here, especially for us as we move toward organic certification, is to make sure all hay, straw, and manure are safe and approved for organic production. If you assumed that these are all safe because they are natural materials, you're wrong. Some hay fields are sprayed with herbicides in an attempt to improve the hay; these herbicides have very long residence times and can damage or kill vegetable plantings if treated hay is used as mulch, even months later. Growing For Market magazine documented an especially devastating incident (article not available online) in which a Virginia vegetable farm (the one we got our start at, incidentally) lost somewhere around $80,000 in produce from using sprayed hay as mulch. They had used the same supplier for years with no problems, until one year the grower randomly decided to spray the fields and didn't tell them. Among other hard-learned lessons, the farmers noted that had they been a certified organic farm, they would have been required to check whether their mulch had had anything applied to it.
So far we've done that, sourcing our straw and spoiled hay intended for mulch from growers that will sign paperwork indicating that nothing has been applied to the material. As for manure sources, long-term we hope to have enough goats, chickens, and other livestock to supply much of our own needs on-farm, but until then we need to use off-farm sources. We get a lot from a trusted goat operation north of us, who have nice piles of old, partially composted manure/bedding mix that is dynamite fertilizer. We also had a neighbor offer us some nice horse manure from their barn, which offer we happily accepted.
Then we read this in the latest print edition of Mother Earth News. You really ought to read the full article, but the gist is that several Dow herbicides marketed to hay growers have been found to have such long residence times that they retain their potency even through the gut of the animal and into the manure. In other words, the sprayed hay is fed to horses, they digest it, and defecate. Months or even years later, that manure still contains enough active herbicide to kill vegetables and other plants if the manure is applied to a garden or farm bed. Yikes doesn't cut it.
So now, in order to achieve our certification (much less piece of mind), we have to track down all the hay sources that our manure providers might have used and ask them if they can sign paperwork certifying that their hay has not been sprayed. We also have to dispose of twenty bales of grass hay that I imprudently bought off of Craigslist about a week before we read the long-life herbicide article (they had been intended for the goats, not mulch). Starting to understand why organic is more expensive?
This really brings credence to a comment I once read (but can't cite a source for) that organic ought to be the default standard, and everyone else ought to have to certify and state all the chemical and other inputs they put into growing the food. It's basically the difference between the European and US models of consumer safety. As I understand it, in the EU you have to prove that an ingredient or chemical is safe before you can use it. In the US you have to prove that it isn't safe before you can ban it. I would love to see food packages in grocery stores with labels that declared every pesticide, herbicide, hormone, and other unnececsary input used; talk about consumer education in a free-market system...
Practically, of course, that wouldn't work very well in agriculture as opportunities to cheat would be far too common. As it is, organic certification is hardly a comprehensive guarantee of the intended principles (that's another long upcoming post). But right now it's all we've got, and we're doing our best to jump through all the hoops that it takes to simply grow natural vegetables in a chemical world.
Monday, October 20, 2008
The concept of a “food snob” implies that anyone who restricts themselves to certain foods over others is not only stuck up, but criticizing others. The problem is that it is only used in one direction. Isn’t someone who restricts themselves to Bud Lite and McDonalds and refuses to try or value other foods just as much of a cultural snob in their own right by implicitly insisting that these are the only proper foods? And isn’t that depiction of the “burger-munching real American” just as much of a caricature as the "arugula-munching elitist”?
We all make choices every day that end up as judgements on ourselves and others, and we all have mental niches about which we feel strongly. Gearheads and Do-It-Yourselfers are quite likely to look down on anyone who can't change oil or repair plumbing; are they elitist or snobs for considering their abilities and choices superior to silly people who patronize lube joints or plumbers? Moreover, the intricate discussions on food ethics that are criticized as snobbery are easily matched by the arguments on online car forums over, say, which brand of spark plug is best. I remember a powerful observation I read years ago, which noted that many folks could argue for hours over exactly how best to take care of their car, involving intricate details of gas grades, part brands, and so on. Yet many of the people who were so devoted to the details of auto maintenance and its effect on the vehicle's life, might never give a second thought to what they were maintaining their own body with, what they put into it, and what THAT effect might have on THEIR life. It's all a matter of personal priority, not class warfare.
We all make our food choices for various reasons, and we all think our personal style of eating is better (or we wouldn’t keep doing it). There is plenty of pretension to go around, from pressed tablecloths to greasy bowling alleys, in which everyone is convinced that their food culture is better and more real. It’s the nature of having an opinion or making a choice. The choice may be driven by research, experience, or inference, but it's not elitist to feel comfortable with the choices you make. At most, I think the elitism sneaks in when the choice is made for reason of status rather than on any rational, factual basis, and again that can be true for any topic (just look at the endless Ford-vs-Chevy debate. Damn those Chevy elitists).
So to the troll who showed such touching concern for our food choices: take a look at your own life, and I bet you'll find something about which you hold very specific opinions that influence decisions. Maybe it's auto parts, maybe it's video game systems, maybe it's choice of TV news shows; whatever it is, I bet you've uttered or thought a phrase like "I can't believe those fools use/watch/eat that crap". Congratulations. You're an elitist just like the rest of us.
In the meantime, I'll keep using this blog to chronicle the direct personal experiences, research, and values that lead us to make the food choices we do, and let others make their own judgements as to the accuracy or value of those experiences.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
This is something we've developed a lot of experience in. There are times in spring when Joanna is sent up to work on the Missouri river for a week or more at a time, based in rural Nebraska. I spend the day before she leaves cooking, and send her up with a cooler and box of food for three meals a day that are far tastier, healthier, and cheaper than anything she could buy up there or purchase as processed meals. We did the same thing on our honeymoon, packing bags of our own food for the multi-day train trips in order to avoid frighteningly bad Amtrak dining service. It works like a charm, and is always worth it.
So for this week, I'm not going to list all the meals, but a rough list of the foods we brought with us, which took about half a day to put together and fed us for five. I think this stands as an excellent example of the value and ease of eating fresh and local, as this method could just as easily work for a very busy family prepping meals to eat during an upcoming busy week with little time to cook on weekdays.
Saturday: Fresh pasta (tomatoes, herbs, cheese) and bread
Sunday: Roasted tomato soup
Breakfasts: our granola, our yogurt, oats, raisins, boiled eggs.
Lunches: breads and cheeses, crackers, apples, applesauce, fennel-apple-greens salad, some dinner items (see below)
Dinner: several quarts of vegetable soup, several quarts of zucchini soup, cooked rice, one quart pasta sauce, pasta.
Snacks/other: home-dried apples, chocolate, nuts, etc.
Three coolers in the back of the truck, some basic pots and camp stove and other kitchen stuff, and we're all set for a week of real food that was mostly farm-sourced, and far cheaper and healthier than either eating out at bad restaurants or eating packaged/processed "camp food". Much more enjoyable, too.
Saturday: Leftover tomato-curry sofrito and fresh green salad.
Sunday (see above): Potato pancakes (our onions, potatoes, eggs) with fresh applesauce (local apples), and green salad (tat soi, apples, raisins, feta cheese, walnuts).
Monday: Green beans sauted in tomatoes & onions, mustard greens with garlic, cornbread, fried okra. All produce ours.
Tuesday: Tabbouleh (bulghur, cucumbers, herbs, cheese)
Wednesday: Grilled cheese sandwiches (Uprise bread, our own cheddar & mizuna), homemade pickles.
Thursday: Sauteed mustard greens with garlic & vinegar, fried okra, green salad, applesauce, and PBJ sandwiches (Uprise bread, jelly ours, PB from Eastwind in northern Missouri).
Friday: Vegetable soup (our potatoes, beans, tomatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, herbs, celeriac), turnip-apple salad, rosemary corn chips (this last item a recipe from a cookbook we were sent to review; look for that within a week or so).
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Apologies for the sudden silence on this blog. We took a few days off to celebrate our anniversary with short camping trip down into the Ozarks, which we did not feel the need to advertise ahead of time. Our deep thanks to the several friends who stayed at the farm and took care of the animals and produce.
While the focus of the trip was hiking, canoeing, and nature, we of course gave a good deal of attention to the farms, and came back with lots of photos and observations on Ozark agricultural architecture. This will be put to good use this winter as we design and erect several needed buildings including a permanent goat barn. The photo above shows one of our favorite farms.
We received several comments and emails during the past week, including from friends and former colleagues with whom we'd not kept up good correspondence. Thanks for catching up with us! These and other comments have also given several leads for new topics to write about in the coming weeks:
- more on food preservation
- more on balancing traditional and modern methods/technologies
- more on restaurant/food choices
- certainly something on travel food choices, related to last week and the Ozark food desert
- and, of course, what's happening here.
To briefly address this last point, the past week has clearly marked our transition into fall. We flirted with frost over the last two nights, and most of our summer produce (tomatoes, peppers, beans, squash, etc.) are finished and ready to be pulled out. The goat's fur is getting noticeably thicker, and it's almost time to butcher the kids (hunting season is also near). Very soon we will need to fire up the wood stove.
Perhaps most importantly, we are finished with Market for the year. While we could probably straggle along for a few more weeks with some fall greens, at some point the decision is made that the income produced is not worth the time invested. That point is now, especially while we're still not yet relying on farm sales for our primary income. We have a long list of winter projects that need to be attended to before spring, and I would rather get started on those than attempt to string our produce along. At some point soon I'll write up a season recap, and also lay out the winter plans, but for now we'll rest on the notion of transition, both in the season and in our daily lives.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
In any case, what does all this mean for small farms and local food supplies? On one hand, I think the rise of local foods has been driven in part by a change in our culture that assesses economic choices through factors beyond sheer cost. Concepts like Fair Trade have helped establish the idea that our economic choices have larger ramifications than the immediate pocketbook effects, and as people look for more sustainable, ethical, community-based purchases, local foods and independent small farmers are naturally going to be a part of that shift. Also, in the current climate where people are very angry with large corporations and the failures of the impersonal corporate economy, some are going to turn back to smaller businesses that are more trustworthy and stable, whether small banks or small farms. You can see this in the reaction to every new big food scare, when a few more people declare "enough" and start going to farmers markets or CSAs rather than grocery stores.
In addition, we've already seen that many factors are leading to overall rising food prices in grocery stores, but those effects are not as strong for independent direct-market farmers. I've heard so many people comment this year that the prices at the farmers market are now equivalent or better to those in a grocery store. We haven't lowered our prices, but the unsustainable model of the corporate food system is catching up to it. Competitive prices help keep small farms a realistic alternative for customers with eroding budgets. Overall higher food prices are more difficult for people to manage in poor economic times, but I hope that some customers will consider purchases of local foods a long-term investment in supporting their local economy through hard times, and resist the urge to find personal bargains that undercut the larger picture.
On the other hand, few people are truly immune from a falling economy. Senator Kit Bond, speaking on NPR yesterday, pointed out that commodity farmers face an uncertain future if the credit markets stay frozen through spring, when they need loans to purchase seed and equipment for the coming year. I'm sure a certain percentage of direct-market farmers would have considered a loan for infrastructure growth (greenhouses, equipment, irrigation, etc) that may not happen now, limiting their ability to grow their business. I don't think very many direct-market farms are quite as dependant on credit as their commodity siblings, however, as demonstrated in the Columbia Tribune's nice profile of CFM vendor The Veggie Patch. Among other things, the piece noted that "Jim taught his daughters to always pay cash up front...It helped that he and Paula also kept their full-time jobs all these years. They never borrowed money to buy picking equipment or greenhouses". Those are the values that keep our economy stable and out of trouble. Maybe their farm didn't grow as fast as it could have with lots of borrowing, but neither was it likely to crash.
Another aspect of the economic ramifications for small farms comes in this month's Growing For Market (an excellent market farming journal), which notes that prices for seed and supplies are "skyrocketing" and gives an advance warning to all of us just starting to plan for next year. One economic truth that fits most farmers is the unbalanced cash flow; most expenses are incurred in winter and spring, while most profit comes late in the year. Hence the need for credit in commodity farming, and the booming popularity of CSAs in direct market farming. Especially for those whose methods are based around mulch, plastic, fuel, and other off-farm needs (which is most folks), those rising costs are going to matter deeply.
Narrowing the focus, what are these conditions going to mean for our future? The answer to that lies partly in the path we took to get here. Years ago, we had already decided that our lifestyle needed to be as independent, sustainable, and self-sufficient as possible. We planned on being a low-expenses, one-income household that freed the second person to raise our own food and do as much for ourselves as possible. We saw the country's path as inherently unstable, and did not want to be overly dependent on factors we could not control. Our experience working at Waterpenny Farm in Virgina helped broaden our perspective from self-contained homestead to active business; we saw that self-sufficiency and food production could be a profitable business and not just a self-indulgence. That realization launched us on our current path.
The answer also lies in the farming methods we've chosen to attempt. By working to establish a diverse, integrated farm with produce, fruits, meat, eggs, dairy, and more, we are hedging our bets and diversifying our options for income production. By focusing our philosophy on organic no-till methods, centered on permanent raised beds, we are attempting to cut out most of the expensive inputs that will be causing farms budget issues in coming years (fertilizer, plastic mulch, equipment maintenance, etc.). We don't know if it will work, though we are basing this approach on the successful model put forward by Foundation Farm in Joanna's home ground of northern Arkansas. Our approach takes a lot of time and effort up-front; establishing a whole field of permanent raised beds is far more time-consuming than simply tilling the whole thing in every year. But we're thinking long-term, investing our time and effort in establishing a permanent infrastructure that can sustain us and our business at a much lower cost in time and money over the long run.
Fundamentally, we've chosen to go into a business producing something that will never be fully outsourced, that will always be needed, and whose core value rises as times get worse. I feel a lot better about the viability of raising quality food to sell to my community than almost any other career I could have right now. At worst, we're in a position to supply ourselves with the fundamentals (food, shelter, heat) through the worst of times. At best, we can help keep those fundamentals available to our neighbors and our region. The economics are still uncertain; we don't yet know what it will take for this farm to truly support itself. But we're going to do our damndest to find out, and there's no other career I'd feel better about right now.
Friday, October 10, 2008
The biggest barrier to applesauce making is the drudgery of preparing the apples. My stepfather gave us this corer-peeler a while back, which he found at a garage sale. It's spectacular. I can core, peel, and slice 5 apples every 3 minutes with this sucker, from start to chunks in the pot. One of the best kitchen investments you'll ever make, and it requires no fancy power or hard-to-clean parts. This thing is the key to applesauce making.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Sorghum is a fascinating crop that we've grown for the past two years. Biologically, it is a grass native to Africa. It acts like a cross between corn and sugar cane, with a very tall, strong corn-like stalk that is filled with a sugary juice. As a drought-tolerant crop, it grows very well for us, producing stalks up to 12' high with very little inputs or maintenance. We grow two varieties, sweet sorghum (top right) and broomcorn (top left). The latter is grown primarily for its large, fanned-out seedhead, which was traditionally used to make sturdy brooms but is also quite attractive as a decorative item. The former produces the sweet juice described above, though its seedhead is also attractive and both make good chicken food.
We harvested the sorghum this weekend, cutting the stalks and piling them in the truck and trailer. Much of the broomcorn in particular was damaged in a strong storm over the summer, in which 60-70mph winds blew down parts of the stand. It survived, but with a serious curve in the stalks where it regrew vertically from the flattened stems. We intended the broomcorm primarily for decorative and craft purposes, so the curved stems were a bit of a problem. The worst ones we cut off above the curve (above left) while the others we harvested lower down and hung in the barn to straighten and dry (above right).
Agriculturally, sorghum was traditionally grown in Missouri for its sugar content, and was crushed and pressed to extract the juice, which was then boiled down to make a syrup that functions as a cross between molasses and maple syrup, with a unique rich, sweet flavor. This product as all but died out as imports and cultural assimiliation replaced sorghum with molasses and maple syrup. A few farms and operations still use and make sorghum the traditional way, including Sandhill Farm in northern Missouri (a place we really need to visit someday).
Modern sorghum in the US is grown mostly for use in livestock feed, although it is increasingly attracting interest for ethanol (due to the sugar content) and food products (as a replacement for wheat grain). See this page from the National Sorghum Producers for a useful overview of modern sorghum uses around the world.
Our sweet sorghum certainly fits its reputation, with sweet, juicy stalks. You can simply chew on the end and suck the juice out, like sugar cane (see above, top), or cut small chunks at a time (see above, bottom) and chew them whole, spitting out the flesh when it's dry. It's disturbingly like what I imagine chewing tobacco to be, but the sweet, tasty juice is worth it.We've been using sorghum syrup increasingly at home. Like honey, it's an all-purpose sweetener that can almost completely replace sugar in cooking and baking. It's more sustainable to grow than sugar beets, more local than sugar cane, and is yet another aspect of our cultural and agricultural history that has faded in the glare of homogenized world agriculture and food systems. Though we don't have the equipment and resources to press and boil our own sorghum syrup, we can at least enjoy the juicy stalks, the beautiful seedheads, and the tasty chicken grain.
We're considering bringing some snack-sized sorghum stalks to market next weekend to see if people are interested. We're also planning on offering some of the nicer seed heads and stalks for sale as fall decorations; they complement cornstalks beautifully.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Sunday: Jamabalaya over rice (okra, tomatoes, green beans, bell pepper, onion), with side of green salad (tat soi, mustard greens, tomatoes, peppers). Everything ours except rice (from Martin Rice).
Saturday: Fresh tomato pasta (raw tomatoes, garlic, onions, herbs, diced over pasta) with feta cheese. Side of fennel salad. Everything our own except pasta (organic bulk) and cheese (from Goatsbeard Farm)
Monday: Spiced blackeyed peas with tomatoes and green beans, sides of fried okra, green salad (see photo, above). Everything ours but the peas (organic bulk) and the okra's cornmeal (we hadn't finished drying our corn yet). We had lots of dried beans and peas planted this year, but they were a casualty of the wet conditions.
Tuesday: Chicken-vegetable soup (potatoes, tomatoes, greens) Uprise Bakery rolls, green salad. All meat and veggies ours.
Wednesday: Fresh gazpacho (tomatoes, onions, garlic, cucumber, herbs) with Joanna's cucumber salad (another recipe I need to post). Everything ours.
Thursday: Fennell-cheese quiche, a new recipe for us. Butter-based crust lined with sauteed vegetables (fennel, onion, tomatoes) and topped with crumbled cheddar cheese (ours) and a custard of eggs, tomatoes, and feta cheese. All veggies ours, feta cheese from Goatsbeard. Crust from off-farm ingredients. This was a very, very tasty quiche, though I think the recipe overdid the cheese with relation to the fennell. Maybe the writer used store cheese rather than the more intense farmstead and local dairy cheese.
Friday: Curry-tomato sofrito over Chinese noodles (tomatoes, curry paste, onions, garlic, soy sauce). Side of stir-fried vegetables (pac choi, radishes, green beans) over rice with a basic Lumpiang sauce (soy sauce, vinegar, black pepper, brown sugar, flour, garlic). Filipino menus like this one work really well on Fridays, as we can use up lots of greens and vegetables that were harvested for market but don't make the cut for sale.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
As with everything else, the very wet year caused complications with this corn. Normally, dent corn is left to mature on the stalk during the heat of summer, and is harvested when the kernels are fully dry ("dent" refers to the dimple on the end of the kernel caused by the drying process). This year, however, it just kept raining, and our concern grew that not only was the corn not drying, but that it might actually be molding as the husks held moisture close to the kernels. This concern was justified, as we discovered when we harvested some as a test and discovered some kernels actually sprouting within the husk! That's when you know it's been a wet year. Below you can see this in a sideways shot of a Black Aztec ear, which was especially susceptible to this problem due to its earlier maturation date. Of course, ears like this are a loss, but we caught it before too many went bad. We're stripping the kernels and finishing them in a food drier to make sure they'll store.
Cornbread made from this heirloom corn has a fantastic taste. We make ours from a healthy, simple Moosewood recipe that uses only whole ingredients: cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, egg, honey, yogurt, and butter. We use our own eggs, homemade yogurt, and fresh-ground cornmeal.