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Saturday, January 31, 2009
So anyway, I came home and made up a batch of red beans my way. I'm sure there's a million ways to do these, and this was a bit more complicated than a basic red bean dish, but this approach generated a reasonably tasty dish with all whole ingredients that can easily be found locally and seasonally. I'm tagging it as fall for when things are fresh, but we had everything on hand in late January, preserved. Because I used some scraps of goat meat that needed tenderizing, I simmered them with the cooking beans to produce a nice, tender melt-in-your-mouth texture that I'm sure would work with any other meat too. Vegetarians can easily opt out, but the long-simmered meat adds a very nice and authentic flavor (bacon is an obvious choice here if you have it).
2 cups dry red beans (Missouri-grown, from Root Cellar)
12 oz cubed meat (our goat meat)
1-2 cups chopped onions (ours)
4-5 cloves minced garlic (ours)
2 hot minced peppers (ours)
healthy dashes of paprika and allspice (bulk organic)
1/4 cup dried parsley (ours; fresh would be better)
1 basil cube (we make thick basil pesto and freeze it in ice trays to drop into winter soups; this would be the equivalent of almost 1/2 cup loose-chopped basil)
1 quart broth/stock (our goat broth)
2 bay leaves (bulk organic)
2 cups green beans (ours, frozen)
2 cups okra (ours, frozen)
2-3 cups mixed greens, such as mustard, kale, collards, spinach, beet greens (I used our frozen spinach and beet greens, but mustard would have been best)
2 cups chopped juicy tomatoes (our canned tomatoes from summer)
Cooked rice if desired (Missouri-grown Martin rice)
Simmer the red beans and meat in lots of water for the beans' full cooking time, usually 2-3 hours. Add salt about halfway through, when beans are just starting to soften. When soft, you have the option of draining the liquid to reduce flatulence, or saving some of it to keep the meat flavor. If you're going to drain, you might consider simmering the meat separately in the broth/stock to achieve the same tenderizing effect while preserving flavor.
In any case, when the beans are almost done, saute the onions, garlic, and hot peppers in oil in a large soup pot until soft and fragrant. Add the spices and cook just a bit longer. Then dump in broth, beans, meat, tomatoes, and bay leaves. Simmer a while to allow flavors to blend. There are two ways to handle the vegetables. You can add them one at a time to get just the right cooking time (okra, then green beans, then greens) or you can just toss them all in and cook a long time to get a nice soft stew. I took the latter approach with no complaints; a bonus is that okra when cooked for a long time releases its "goo" and becomes a nice thickener for the liquid. You don't get that effect when you toss it in at the end. Of course, you'll want to add salt and pepper to taste.
This is one of those recipes that can be altered all over the place to fit your tastes and ingredients. The point, really, is that there's no need for processed ingredients, manufactured flavors or spice mixes, or other such foolishness. Cooked dry beans are of far higher quality than canned, and the rest is just fresh whole ingredients and whatever whole spices and herbs you like in your beans. Sorry, MFS, these tasted a lot better than yours, though I may come back for more fried fish.
Friday, January 30, 2009
For example, we made a conscious decision to buy some of our machinery newer, especially a tractor. I'd never owned a new vehicle of any sort prior to moving to Missouri, having gone through a whole line of used vehicles that cost constant headaches, time, and repair costs. I probably saved money on them overall, but I'm not sure what the headaches and time were really worth. Neither of us are skilled mechanics, and the prospects of being reliant on an older tractor that we couldn't repair was not very pleasant. I've known too many people who lost a harvest or missed a planting window because something went wrong mechanically that they couldn't fix in time. So we felt a newer tractor was a worthwhile investment, and found a small, simple model that would be easy to work on even for us.
On the other hand, we're pretty hard-core about buying most non-mechanical items used. Almost all our clothes come from consignment shops, and we frequent garage sales, auctions, and especially Craiglist. The core philosophy here is to do without until we can find it used. This is a skill we learned while living in rural Virginia and refusing to go to Walmart. Everyone around us, even the liberal Walmart-haters, still went there because they felt they had no other choice. We simply amassed lists of what we needed and did without until the occasional trip to a larger city where we had better choices of where to shop. Ever since then, we've rarely found items that we just had to have without waiting for the right opportunity to come along. It helps to be good at planning and thinking ahead. I don't see "doing without" as self-denial, I see it as a rational acceptance that the world doesn't exist to serve us personally, and as a counterbalance to the prevailing instant-gratification culture in the modern world.
There are also environmental and ethical concerns to balance. On one hand, buying something new has to account for all the energy and materials used in its manufacture, whereas something used caused no new mining, logging, or exploitation. On the other hand, new items are frequently more energy-efficient or otherwise beneficial. My newer small truck has a much cleaner-running and efficient engine than a 20-year-old oil-burning rustbucket, and our new wood stove is fully EPA certified and burns much cleaner than the old one. On the other hand, my used clothes are just as serviceable as new ones, and caused no new demands for sweatshop labor, poorly-grown fiber, and long-distance shipping. Our used fencing and self-milled lumber fits into this category too (which raises the point that probably our single biggest new-consumption is hardware, which can be pretty hard to find used and often has a ticking clock on the project it's needed for).
Fundamentally, the concept of sustainability to us isn't so much a benchmark, but a thought process. Everyone has their own arbitrary standard that they stick to; we have friends north of us who are off the grid, cook on a wood stove year-round, and otherwise make our pretty green operation look consumptive as hell, whereas we're a drop in the bucket compared to the sprawlvilles around Columbia. But I think sustainability really means thinking through your actions; actively evaluating how and why you make the economic decisions that you do, and having a decent justification for your decisions. We can't all live the same, but we can all live smarter.
I feel that I could offer a reasonable justification of our purchases and lifestyle to just about anyone, and that our actions, ethics, and philosophy are all pretty internally consistent. That consistency is important to me; it drives me nuts to see market farmers advocating the benefits of healthy local foods with a big McDonalds bag sitting next to their stand. Then again, we take such things more seriously than most and I'm sure there's folks out there who could rip us a good one (like the fellow on the Columbia Tribune's food forum a few weeks ago who felt that I needed to bicycle my goods to market to earn his "green" respect). And I have a lot to learn about mechanical things so I can do a better job of sourcing those used. Sustainability is a journey, not a finish line.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The latest on the Georgia peanut butter issue, from this morning's Washington Post (easily my favorite newspaper).
The Georgia peanut plant linked to a salmonella outbreak that has killed eight people and sickened 500 more across the country knowingly shipped out contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years, federal officials said yesterday.
Officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have been investigating the outbreak of salmonella illness, said yesterday that Peanut Corporation of America found salmonella in internal tests a dozen times in 2007 and 2008 but sold the products anyway, sometimes after getting a negative finding from a different laboratory.
Companies are not required to disclose their internal tests to either the FDA or state regulators, so health officials did not know of the problem.
(That last bit is pathetic, given the amount of restrictions on things like meat processing which at least produce a product meant to be cooked to a high temperature. But I digress...)
The point is not that corporations are inherently untrustworthy or unsafe, or that small farmers or processors are inherently ethical or safe. I'm sure there are a percentage of bad apples among any group as well as a larger population of good folks. The argument, to me, is twofold:
1) Problems are inevitable, but small/local food systems will by definition limit the scope of a problem. When a factory that ships nationwide screws up even once, 43+ states are affected and it costs massive amounts of time and money to trace and fix the problem. Not to mention the terrible waste in food that is discarded or not sold (same thing) due to concerns. Even if Eastwind (a small nut butter make in northern Missouri) were to screw up twice as badly as the current situation, the effects would be easily traced, easily contained, and easily dealt with. Far less waste on all fronts, and far less disruption to the national economy/food supply if they were to go under because of their actions.
2)This is more a philosophical point, but it just seems to me that small businesses dealing locally have a stronger incentive to maintain ethical standards, because they have no other outlet. I think this can be debated, and there are good arguments on both sides, but I feel that it's especially true for food. There's enough danger in food that an independant small/family business just can't afford to play fast and loose with the rules when they're not in a position to lose their community's trust. The risks are illness and death, not just bad reviews online.
Now, how a move back toward trustworth local food processors and sources happens, I don't know. I would like to see consumer demand driving it, as it so far is, but the problem is that once you dismantly so much of a local food network, it's really hard for the private market to build it back up again. Small farms and food businesses take a lot of capital to start up, and aren't as sexy as tech startups or other such that can attract investment. They also (particularly farms) take a far longer time to reach viability. This is a subject for a future post, but I just want to note that folks wishing for a safer and more local food system should consider what it actually takes to get there in terms of the risk/reward ratio for the necessary entrepreneurs. It's tough.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Major changes to this system are in the air, however. Via the Chicago Tribune/AP, I see that severe drought and environmental ramifications of this extensive irrigation are starting to force changes in federal irrigation policy:
...this winter thousands of acres are turning to dust as the state hurtles into the worst drought in nearly two decades...Last year, federal water deliveries were just 40 percent of the normal allocations, fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres and causing nearly $309 million in crop losses statewide...Federal reservoirs are now at their lowest level since 1992.
The immediate result is that produce growers are significantly curtailing their plantings of everything from lettuce to melons, which will of course mean higher prices for these items in grocery stores due to limited supply. It's easy to see this as yet another hit on households struggling to keep budgets together, and it will hurt badly in the traditional California agricultural communities.
However, as a Midwestern market grower, I'm thrilled. I've long felt, and argued, that food in the US is artifically cheap, and that our culture has become addicted to achieving rock-bottom prices regardless of the ulterior cost. The huge amounts of money poured into irrigating California's (and Arizona's) deserts come out of everyone else's pockets; in effect, I'm subsidizing my own competition to undercut me.
As industrial food prices rise due to issues like oil prices and irrigation limitations, local/regional prices become more competitive. Already last year, many more visitors to the Columbia Farmers Market were noting that prices were actually quite comparable to the grocery stores. Joanna and I scoped out organic produce prices at Hy-Vee the other day, and were quite surprised at how high they were. In some cases, I would have to raise my prices just to match the store's.
While this may not be such a feel-good story for anyone watching a household budget in hard times, consider that Americans spend a far lower percentage of their income on food than most developed countries. Consumers can afford to pay more for food, they've just gotten used to not doing so. It will be very interesting to see how situations like the California drought impact the ongoing boom in local/regional food supplies. What will lettuce prices be this summer in Missouri grocery stores, and how will that affect the competitiveness and cost of farmers market lettuce?
Monday, January 26, 2009
Saturday, January 24, 2009
Saturday: Homemade naan (Indian flatbread) with homemade tomato/apricot chutney (made and preserved in October). Stew of goat, chickpeas, tomatoes, peas, onions, broth, and spices (All ingredients ours save chickpeas and spices).
Sunday: Leftovers from Saturday
Monday: Squash/apple soup (our squash, greens & onions; local apples), sauteed potatoes & saurkraut (our potatoes & sauerkraut), our applesauce.
Tuesday: Columbia Farmers Market membership meeting, met Joanna for dinner at Uprise Bakery.
Wednesday: Fried rice (our onions, sprouts, peas, & eggs; bulk rice) with sugar-braised goat cubes(Filipino recipe using brown sugar, vinegar, soy sauce; our garlic; similar to Adobo).
Thursday: Chevon Bourguignon (goat stew; our meat marinated & braised in Missouri red wine and our herbs, with caramelized pearl onions and more. See recipe link).
Friday: Basic pasta (bulk noodles, our tomato/basil sauce preserved from summer, shredded Goatsbeard cheese) with baguette from Uprise Bakery.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Though our menus are diverse, it's always good to branch out. Given our emphasis on eating our own food while buying minimal off-farm ingredients, combining these two goals leads to some creative innovation in adapting world recipes to our farm-based pantry. Here's a great example.
Last week Scott over at Show Me Eats posted a thorough recipe for Beef Bourguignon, something I've always heard of but never tried. I figured it would be a good candidate for trying something new, and for adapting to our supplies. For example, I'm not about to go buy beef just to make a recipe when I have tens of pounds of farm-raised and -butchered goat meat in the freezer. Moreover, goat is particularly well-suited to braising, as it is somewhat tough when cooked quickly but becomes wonderfully tender when marinated and slow-cooked. So here's my adaption for Chevon Bourguignon, with notes on our substitutions (we made a half-recipe compared to Scott's).
1.5 cups dry red wine (Stone Hill Norton)
1 cup broth (frozen goose broth from Thanksgiving)
2 T bourbon (recipe calls for brandy, which I don't have)
1 large onion, chopped (ours)
1 cup thin-chopped potatoes (ours, replacing the recipe's carrots)
3 cloves garlic, minced (ours)
1 T dried parsley (ours)
1 t fresh oregano (ours, replacing thyme)
1 T fresh chopped rosemary (ours)
2 whole cloves
2 juniper berries (used in place of allspice berries)
1 t allspice powder (see above)
1 bay leaf
2 lb goat meat, chopped into 1/2" chunks (ours, butchered fall 2008)
1/4 lb bacon (organic from local JJR Farms)
2 T unsalted butter (organic)
1 T olive oil
(used no tomato paste; see note at bottom of recipe and we don't buy it anyway)
1/2 lb pearl onions, skinned (very small onions saved from 2008 harvest for such purposes)
(used no mushrooms as we don't have and Joanna doesn't like)
1 T flour
Combine wine, broth, liquor, chopped onion, potatoes, garlic, herbs, spices, and meat and stir well to combine. Marinate at least overnight (this ended up sitting for three days in our case).
Preheat oven to 275F. Chop bacon, boil in water for 3 minutes, then saute in butter and olive oil until crispy, using a large (oven-safe) pot or Dutch oven. Set aside.
Separate meat from marinade and brown in the bacon fat/oil/butter. Pour off extra fat if desired (I didn't; goat is very lean).
Strain marinade and add non-liquid ingredients to meat, cooking over highish heat for at least 5 minutes. Add marinade liquid and place pot in oven for at least 3 hours.
When two hours have passed, place pearl onions in shallow skillet and just cover with water, adding a thick pat of butter, the sugar, and some salt & pepper. Bring to a rapid boil and simmer until liquid is about cooked away. This will reduce into a thick, buttery, oniony sauce. When the liquid is gone, continue to pan-cook the onions, stirring as they caramelize to golden (these taste fantastic at this point). This process should take quite a while, and will coincide fairy well with the timing of the oven-cooking stew.
Pull the stew from the oven and add the onions. Simmer on the stovetop, adding a bit of flour to thicken whatever sauce is left. The consistency should be fairly thick.
We served over a bed of white rice. The meat comes out flavorful and meltingly tender, while the caramelized buttery onions are divine. I'm sure this violates many aspects of the true French approach, but it was very good for what it was and I'm grateful to Scott for inspiring me to try it. And, I think it goes to show that almost any recipe can be adapted to ingredients at hand. Replacing beef, carrots, and brandy with goat, potatoes, and bourbon still turned out a very nice meal (leaving out mushrooms hurt it, but you can't win them all. Joanna doesn't like mushrooms, I don't like asparagus. C'est la vie). So don't be intimidated, just go for it with whatever you've got at hand. The spirit of a good recipe is more important than the letter.
NOTE: if you want to learn more about the dish, this article from Fine Cooking magazine is a must-read. Lots of detail and history with many useful tips, such as avoiding tomatoes because the acidity can break down meat gelatin and ruin the thick sauce.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
- Redesigned Growing Information page with new planting maps of all our fields (these are already out of date but will be redone when our seed orders are finished). Intend to post all seed varieties we're growing this year, along with their source, when the order is finished.
- Reworded Front Page to better capture the philosophical focus of the farm
- Removed Natural History page and rebuilt it into a new Explore the Farm page, which tours many aspects of our current and future diversified operation.
- Redesigned and simplified the Food & Cooking page, which was a bit unruly before. Consolodated the previous brain dumps on cooking philosophy into a shorter and more coherent statement, and started to include links to recipes from the blog rather than posting them separately here.
Perhaps most exciting for us, I finally began to put up the first parts of our Landscape Change photography series, in which we've established photo points around the farm and taken regular 360 panoramas to document seasons and farm work. We have close to 30 of these points, but will only post a few online for reasons of server space. The first two are up as part of the Explore the Farm section; click the Changes tab at the top of the page or follow this direct link.
I want to write a more complete post on this project soon, but at least go enjoy the preliminary results at the links above. And as always, feedback is welcome. If you don't see something you want to know, have questions about what's there, or criticism of the content, I'm happy to listen and answer.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is growing in popularity, with more farmers establishing such arrangements and more customers demanding them. Briefly, CSA means that customer contract with a farm to supply a weekly share of fresh produce through the growing season, however long the farm defines it. Customers typically pay some to all of the annual cost up front, giving the farmer income when it's needed most (in the late winter and spring) and a sense of economic stability, while the customer gets a steady supply of produce from a known source without the potential hassle of visiting farmers markets. CSAs are often cheaper overall than even grocery stores.
It's a good system, and one that works well for many folks. I know of at least two startup farms planning to offer CSAs within the next several years, as well as at least five established in the area. But we don't currently offer a CSA, and after numerous inquiries, I'd like to explain why.
1) I like going to market. I like the interaction with consumers, the energy of a bustling market, and the chance to reach new customers. I like the challenge of throwing my hat in the busy ring of a friendly but competitive marketplace. I like the dynamic by which different growers can feed off of and support each other while still competing; we make a point of referring questions to other growers if we don't have the item, and we're happy to suggest someone else's product if it will complement our own. There's just something innately appealing to me about the openness and energy of selling at a farmers market.
2) I think market sales fit well with our business plan right now. We are still actively expanding our farm, moving into new growing areas, trying many new varieties, and learning the subtleties of the soil, pests, microclimate, and other variables that affect agriculture in our valley. I feel that market sales are more flexible for newer growers; if you make a mistake or have a crop failure, you're not under contract to anyone. While the income isn't as stable, it's more flexible.
3) A good CSA requires a serious commitment to a set of customers who are going to trust you with a significant amount of money for a long-term benefit. That is a trust I would hold very dear, and do not want to take it on until we are sure we can deliver. Right now we don't feel that we could promise a set quantity of enough products for enough time to meet our internal standards for "good CSA". If/when we launch a CSA, it will be with years of consistent production records from which we can properly estimate our ability to meet our standards.
4) We like to grow diverse, unusual, and hard-to-find items like edamame, sorghum, and rare heirloom varieties. These are best offered at a farmers market where those people who might be interested in them can find them and buy them at a desired quantity. We could certainly introduce our CSA customers to more eclectic things, but within that small population would have no idea how many would want them, while not making them available to the wider market. I like giving customers as much choice as possible, and selling at market lets us cast the widest net and offer the widest variety of items to those who want them.
5) All that being said, we will likely begin to offer a small CSA a few years from now. But we don't ever plan to stop selling at market; it fits too well with our practical and philosophical approach to farming. See you at market!
Monday, January 19, 2009
After I posted the same proposal to the Columbia Tribune's online food forum, it generated a good discussion and was generally well-recieved by respondents. A reader with political connections forwarded it on to a local state representative, Chris Kelly, who expressed interest in pursuing the idea and contacted me to discuss it further. I had sent the idea to my own state rep, Paul Quinn, who didn't take an interest and dismissed it by offering this gem: "the bottom line is that you will have to deal with the rules and regulations." Mr. Kelly, on the other hand, took an active interest in the practical and philosophical value of the idea, and has promised to have his staff research the legal and practical possibilities of moving forward.
So while that's happening, I just want to post a few more bits of information that offer a framework for how this could happen. Missouri seems to follow the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in dealing with meat processing laws, as the Missouri Meat and Poultry Inspection Program (MMPIP) cites CFR for all its regulatory framework (as opposed to a more stringent Missouri law). Thus:
9 CFR 303.1 exempts the custom preparation of carcasses, meat or meat food products derived from the slaughter of cattle, sheep swine, goats or game animals from official inspection. However, custom operations are subject to sanitary inspection by the Missouri Meat and Poultry Inspection Program.
This proves that custom facilities are inspected by the state and found to adhere to sanitary standards, so there are basic consumer protections in place.
Moreover, Missouri apparently follows CFR 381.10 in exempting poultry processing and sales from inspection as long as the product is "sanitary" and is labelled with "the processor's name and address and the statement `Exempted--P.L. 90-492'". This includes:
The slaughtering of sound and healthy poultry and processing of poultry products...by any poultry producer on his own premises with respect to poultry raised on his premises, and the distribution by any person solely within such jurisdiction of the poultry products derived from such operations; CFR 381.10(a)(5)
The slaughtering of sound and healthy poultry or the processing of poultry products...by any poultry producer or other person for distribution by him solely within such jurisdiction directly to household consumers, restaurants, hotels, and boardinghouses, for use in their own dining rooms, or in the preparation of meals for sales direct to consumers; CFR 381.10(a)(6)
The operations and products of small enterprises (including poultry producers) not exempted under paragraphs (a) (1) through (6) of this section that are engaged in any State or territory or the District of Columbia in slaughtering and/or cutting up poultry for distribution as carcasses or parts thereof solely for distribution within such jurisdiction; CFR 381.10(a)(7)
I had known that uninspected processing and sales of poultry on-farm were allowed, but until doing some further research last night had not known that official Federal policy is to allow all of the above (and quite a bit more if you read through all of CFR 381.10) without inspection and with a basic labelling requirement.
How much more of a precedent do we need? There is a clear regulatory framework available for custom processing of poultry without state or federal inspection, relying on labelling to distinguish the products from those which have been inspected. In fact, Federal law for poultry is quite a bit looser than what I had proposed for livestock (I had not included the possibility of sales to retail or restaurants).
Seems to me that all the precedents and frameworks are in place for this. For some reason of which I'm not aware, poultry are treated very differently from livestock in Federal and state regulations, but I don't see any reason that this should be the case. It's an arbitrary and illogical difference that holds down the development of small farms and restricts consumer choice in their meat supply. Let's hope Chris Kelly can get somewhere with this.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Friday, January 16, 2009
He rolls into the parking lot of Leon’s Thriftway in an old, maroon Impala with a trunk full of frozen meat. Raccoon — the other dark meat. In five minutes, Montrose, Mo., trapper Larry Brownsberger is sold out in the lot at 39th Street and Kensington Avenue. Word has gotten around about how clean his frozen raccoon carcasses are.
To be clear, I think this is fantastic. Wild game was traditionally a major part of the American diet (just read Mark Twain on the subject) and it's a shame we're losing it to declining hunter numbers and food safety regulations. The article claims that:
The meat isn’t USDA-inspected, and few state regulations apply, same as with deer and other game. No laws prevent trappers from selling raccoon carcasses.
That's not entirely true, as sales of deer meat butchered in customer facilities IS banned (see link above). But I never thought to ask if a whole deer carcass could be sold. So just what does this mean? I can sell a raccoon carcass to my neighbors but not my own farm-raised goat meat? That's just absurd. Maybe I should start offering whole goat carcasses at market and see what happens. I'll name all the goats Raccoon and label them "Raccoon meat". That'll work.
And no, I've never eaten raccoon, though I'd like to. We have plenty around, and have live-trapped them out of our fields many times. One of these days, in-season, I'll end up deciding to hang out by the corn for an evening with a rifle instead. Why let the neighbor dogs have all the fun?
(Thanks to Ethicurean for finding this)
Thursday, January 15, 2009
So you've heard of CSAs and want to try one? Or maybe you've tried one and weren't all that thrilled with it. Here's some thoughts on choosing a CSA, based on my experiences both as a member and a worker for a CSA.
1) Does your cooking/kitchen style fit with a CSA? Are you a planning chef or a flexible chef? The former tends to look through cookbooks, make out a weekly menu plan, then go shop for whatever they need for the week. This is not terribly compatible with a CSA, in which you receive a box 0f whatever produce the farm is currently producing and need to use it (unless you do your weekly planning right after receiving the box). The latter tends to visit the fridge or the farmers market, look at what's there, and research what to make based on whatever ingredients are available or looked good. This is the way to enjoy a CSA.
To really get the benefit of a CSA, you need to be flexible enough to enjoy figuring out how to cook whatever you've got in new and interesting ways. This requires a good stock of diverse (especially vegetarian) cookbooks and/or a good internet connection. It's very rewarding, but don't expect to have full pre-control of your weekly menu. I have known disgruntled CSA members who couldn't figure out how to use all that produce because it didn't fit into their typical menus and cooking style.
2) Are you a flexible person? CSAs can be frustrating, especially if poor growing conditions lead to some crop failures and you end up with many weeks of the same produce. If you're not willing or able to roll with the punches, like the farmer does, you may not enjoy the CSA. On the other hand, if you want to really experience how farms work and how variable growing food really can be, it's a great experience to live with the seasons and appreciate how and when that food is available.
3) Do you have a creative palate? Most farmers who run CSAs like growing lots of different types of produce; they're not going to stick with just the standards like tomatoes, sweet corn, potatoes, and green beans. Not to mention a CSA tends to run spring through fall, and to really round out the shares and keep them consistent, the farmer HAS to grow a wide variety of items with the seasons. You're going to get some interesting stuff throughout the season that you may not have heard of or know how to prepare. This is part of the value of the CSA; learning about the sheer diversity of food in the world beyond what the grocery store stocks.
4) Be honest with yourself about how many vegetables you eat. I've known many CSA customers who swore they couldn't use all the produce they received, despite receiving for a week an amount of produce that I considered one meal's worth. I have known families of 3-4 people who split a half-share between two such families; I never did understand what they ate the rest of the week. Don't waste the farmer's time and energy signing up for more than you'll use; alternatively, commit yourself to learning how to use all the produce and eating it all.
Keep in mind that a good farm's produce should mostly have a very long shelf life in your fridge because it's fresh and well-handled, meaning you don't have to feel like all that produce has to be used within two days. If you're used to grocery store lettuce that goes brown quickly, think again.
5) Consider how the CSA is set up; does their delivery method and produce distribution work for you? Some just make up a box and give everyone the same thing. Some arrange for members to swap items they don't like for items they do (you don't like beets, I don't like chard, we swap every week). This works especially well if the pickup is on farm rather than in town or at market. Does their delivery day and time work for your life?
6) Do you want to work on the farm? Some require a certain amount of volunteer labor on the farm as an element of membership, others you'll never see the farm unless you ask for a special tour. There are pluses and minuses both ways, but consider what you want to do. Maybe a farm that doesn't have a labor requirement would still let you come and work in exchange for more produce or a price cut.
7) Most importantly, honestly consider your attitude toward why you're doing this. The more frustrating customers for a farmer are the ones who don't quite get how farming works or insist on thinking that a CSA is like a grocery delivery service that can provide just what they want instead of what the farm has.
In fairness, there are poor CSAs in the world who aren't good farmers or good planners and can justifiably annoy customers by not providing diverse enough shares or not meeting customer desires. The balance between good farmer/bad customer and vice versa can be a pretty grey area. Just go into the experience with an open, honest mind about what to expect, and for pete's sake, give the farmer feedback! There's nothing like a disgruntled customer who won't say anything, but goes around telling their friends what a terrible CSA you run when you've never had a chance to defend yourself or explain whatever concerns they have.
If you've had trouble with CSAs in the past, carefully consider whether you were part of the problem. If you're sure you weren't, it's time to find a new CSA.
In part II I'll look at why we currently don't offer a CSA (though we're likely to down the road).
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
The Ethicurean has an informative, provocative recent column on the uptake of veterinary antibiotics into vegetables via manure (fertilizer). Basically, researchers at the University of Minnesota have determined that much of the antibiotics routinely given in feedlots are excreted into manure, which is then used as fertilizer on vegetable farms, whose produce then take it up such that the antibiotic residues can be present in the edible produce. This does not in any way exclude "organic" produce, as a great deal of allowed manure and compost initially comes from feedlots.
This makes me very glad of two things: that the vast majority of the produce we eat was grown on-farm, and that the manure we fertilize with (other than our own farm supply) comes from a known local source that is absolutely clean (a friend's private goat herd).
This is yet another example of the unintended consequences of a food system that is built around convenience and price rather than quality and value.
Monday, January 12, 2009
The National Organic Program bans the presence or use of GMOs on a certified organic farm, and thus we must follow that. The practical problem is that as GMOs become ever more used, and new varieties appear on the market and in the fields (often without much public notice), it becomes harder to avoid. This is particularly true for crops whose pollen drift widely, like corn.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of our favorite seed sources from southern Missouri, included a notice in their latest catalogue that they had been having trouble finding corn seed without GMO genes (they test all their varieties to make sure). The problem was not the growers, who were planting open-pollinated heirloom varieties. It was the cross-pollination caused by windblown pollen from other farms growing GMO varities. Unlike Baker Creek, many certified organic seed sources don't test their seed (BC is not certified), and so we often don't know. If you, as a consumer or farmer, are trying to avoid consuming or using GMOs for our own reasons, you may not be even if you buy and grow certified organic.
Other than questions of ethics, why is this a problem? Well, we save some of our seed, and anyone growing open-pollinated varieties of anything saves seed eventually (read this explanation on our website if you're unsure what O.P and hybrid varieties are). Once a variety has cross-pollinated with a GMO, it contains those genes and is no longer what we were trying to save and grow. More practically, Monsanto and other biotech companies claim patents on their GMO vareties, meaning that they claim a legal right to sue anyone who infringes their patent (by, say, growing their varieties without permission or payment). No surprise, there are many cases of Monsanto suing or otherwise harassing farmers who unknowingly save seed or grow seed containing Monsanto genes from cross-pollination (Google will give you plenty of examples). Despite being separated from the nearest conventional agriculture field by 1,000 of pasture and forest, we do not expect that we could safely ever save our corn seed from year to year, and based on others' experiences, could even be sued for saving a patented seed if the genes were contained in our saved seed.
Just to give one other example, the Willamette Valley of Oregon is a major sugar beet growing area; supposedly it produces almost all the sugar beet seed for the US supply. Sugar beets are a major source of the sugar consumed in the U.S. Growers in the region recently switched en masse to a GMO variety of sugar beet, so that now any sugar consumed in the US is virtually guaranteed to be GMO, whether or not consumers know that or want it. More importantly for vegetable farmers, it means that anything that cross-pollinates with sugar beets will start to be contaminated (just like corn above). That includes regular beets and Swiss Chard, which is in the same family. So the next time you buy fresh chard from a trustworthy local farmer, you may still be buying a variety carrying the GMO sugar beet genes if the seed came from a source exposed to Willamette Valley beets (which is reasonably likely).
Getting into the debate over whether and why GMOs are good or bad is for a separate post or novella. The observations above are intended to reflect on how difficult it is for those who choose (for whatever their reasons) not partake in GMOS. I consider it a matter of freedom as much as anything, but that freedom is rapidly vanishing. We are discussing moving more and more toward saving our own seed as much as practical, but as noted above, even that is under threat. When farmers cannot save their own seed (as they did for millenia prior to the advent of commercial seed companies), we really have changed the meaning of agriculture and taken away a fundamental human liberty.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Saturday: Coconut curry soup (coconut milk, mixed spices, our broth, spinach, green beans, garlic); side of black-eyed peas
Sunday: Souffle (our eggs and produce) and pasta with dried tomato sauce (our dried tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic)
Monday: cornmeal-breaded baked fish (trout from local Troutdale Farm) with side of tomato/green bean sauce
Tuesday: Eric in town for meeting, ate at Main Squeeze; Joanna made quesadillas from homemade tortillas, our tomatoes & onions, cheese
Wednesday: Quesadillas from homemade tortillas with thawed homemade gazpacho.
Thursday: Winter bean stew (onion, garlic, paprika, black pepper, hot peppers, green beans, kidney & pinto beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, goose broth). Everything ours except spices and dried beans (latter from Bellows Creek Farm, MO).
Friday: Homemade tortillas with spiced black beans, fresh salsa, sauteed chicken strips, and cheese. Tortillas from Missouri flour, beans from Bellows Creek, salsa from our tomatoes, garlic, onions, and corn, chicken ours, cheese from Vermont.
Friday, January 9, 2009
This recipe is something I whipped up last night for an easy meal. If using dried beans you have to start ahead enough to cook them, but if you have a bunch pre-cooked (as we sometimes do) this takes no time at all. Many wonderful soups can be made with entirely locally grown ingredients; the variety of soups alone lays waste to the claim that local foods in winter have to be boring. Just to make the point, I'll note the source of all the ingredients, most of which are ours but could easily have been purchased and preserved from local farmers (like us) in season.
A bit of olive oil (purchased)
Several cups chopped onion (ours, stored)
4-5 cloves garlic (ours, stored)
hot peppers, minced, to taste (ours)
2 tsp paprika (bulk purchase)
1/4 cup chopped basil (ours, frozen)
1 quart broth (our goose broth, frozen)
1-2 cups sweet potatoes, chopped (ours, stored)
1-2 cups tomatoes, chopped (our winter tomatoes, stored)
1-2 cups green beans, chopped (ours, frozen)
1 cup corn (ours, frozen)
3-4 cups cooked mixed beans (kidneys and pintos from Bellows Creek Farm, MO)
Salt and pepper to taste (bulk purchase)
Saute onions, garlic, hot peppers, and paprika in the olive oil for a few minutes until aromatic. We used several of our Thai Hot peppers to achieve a nice burn; it really adds to the stew on a cold night. Dump in everything else, and allow to simmer until proper thickness has been achieved (I made this very thick by cooking off much of the liquid). Add salt and pepper to taste. The longer you allow to simmer or even sit, the more blended the flavors will be. This is the type of stew that gets better the next day. Good served as is or over rice.
The last point to make about soups like this is that they're infinitely variable. Don't run out to buy green beans to follow this recipe if you don't have them. Substitute something else you do have; okra, potatoes, spinach, peas, whatever. Soups and stews are something every cook should be able to throw together with whatever is on hand, with a bit of experimentation and experience guiding the way. This recipe is a guideline, not a blueprint. Enjoy!
Thursday, January 8, 2009
This kind of recipe relies almost entirely on the natural flavors of the tomatoes and beans, and so requires the use of really good local produce. It's not going to taste like much if made from commercially canned or store-bought California produce. Use the best-tasting varieties you can find. In winter, we use our shelf-stored Mercuri tomatoes for that fresh tomato taste, and our frozen green beans.
1 small onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chopped tomatoes (fresh, frozen, or canned)
2 cups green beans, cut to desired size (fresh, frozen, or canned)
salt & pepper to taste
OPTIONAL: cooked rice
Saute the onion and garlic for a few minutes in oil. Add the chopped tomatoes, and simmer 10-20 minutes until much of the liquid has boiled away, leaving a thicker sauce. Add the green beans and cook just long enough to achieve your desired tenderness (we like them still a bit crunchy). Add salt & pepper as needed.
Serve as a side, or as a topping for fish or meat. For a solid main dish, mix with cooked rice to make a casserole kind of thing. Makes a great lunch.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
In December, I travelled to North Carolina to spend 10 days or so caring for my ailing grandparents as part of a family rotation among myself and my aunts & uncles (I'm the oldest of my generation). Among other things, this involved preparing all meals, which I was naturally happy to do. It did of course involve the use of a grocery store, which I haven't done at any meaningful scale for years. Those who read our What We Eat series know that our year-round food is largely farm-grown and preserved, with most of the rest purchased in bulk or sourced from small local stores (such as our winter milk supply). We make quick trips to "normal" groceries for some toiletries or occasional items like orange juice or lemons, but that's about it.
The NC store in question was a relatively upscale one, about equivalent to Hy-Vee in Columbia. The produce section had wide selections of organic fruit and produce, locally bottled milk was available, as was free-range chicken and so on. I decided that this was an opportunity to experiment with comparing quality and prices of conventional vs. organic items, something I would otherwise have no reason to do.
What I found was rather disturbing, though not terribly surprising. None of the organic produce I bought was at all distinguishable from the non-organic, and much of it was worse. The organic grapes went moldy within several days, the shrink-wrapped lettuce started growing brown almost as soon as it was opened, and the garlic was dull and rubbery. Not that the non-organic stuff was stellar either, but it generally seemed fresher and longer-lasting. Everything was, of course, sourced from California or equally distant lands and I had no information regarding its date of harvest, shipment, packaging, or arrival on shelf to guide me as to its potential quality and freshness.
I bought all sorts of out-of-season stuff; tomatoes, melons, etc. Regardless of organic status, it was all pretty bland. The main difference in the organic produce was its non-existant shelf life. I was able to make plenty of scratch cooked, healthy, varied meals, but none of them tasted remotely like they do with fresh farm produce or even our (fresh-) frozen or canned goods in the winter.
The "free-range organic" whole chicken I bought was flabby, watery, and fairly tasteless. So much water ran out of it during roasting that I had to bail out the shallow pan. I had no interest in buying a medication-laced conventional chicken for comparison, but it couldn't have been much worse. Compared to the solid, properly moist, richly flavored meat we get from our own chickens (or from Pierpont Farms in the past), it was crap. And thus way overpriced.
So here are some observations/conclusions from this experience:
1) I'm not surprised more people don't cook from scratch. When the ingredients at the store aren't very good or very fresh, the food either doesn't taste very good or needs the additive of lots of salt or flavorings. At that point, maybe you're better off just purchasing the processed/pre-made stuff and saving the effort of recreating it at greater expense. Because neither of the grandparents eat much, I was effectively cooking the same amount of food as for two, and I spent an astounding amount of money just producing basic, healthy meals with no snacks or unnecessary luxury items, and relying on lots of items they already had. If that's what it costs to cook healthily from a grocery store (I was making things like pasta, salads, fish, soups, etc.) no wonder Americans are obese and reliant on cheap processed food.
2) I'm not surprised organics can be a tough sell. I suspect that the low quality of the organic produce in this case was not due to its organic-ness per se, but to the fact that it probably doesn't sell as well or as quickly as the regular stuff, and so sits on the shelf longer. This is especially true in the current economic climate; folks who are cutting back are certainly going to trim the more expensive organic stuff when its actual quality and taste are no different. Vague food ethics rightly take a back seat to imminent pocketbooks in such times. So in a store like this, which is trying to push organics, you get grapes sitting on the shelf for far longer than conventional grapes, and of course turn out to be worse. This is especially true when you have no idea how old the produce it because there are no labels of such. Thus customers who do try them conclude, naturally, that organics are a crock and a scam. It's a vicious cycle.
3) This explains part of the continued perception of farmers markets as "expensive" or "elitist" in some circles. If you haven't actually bought produce from a producer-only market, you probably haven't had the experience of opening up your fridge two weeks later to find that lettuce from the market still looking perfectly fresh and still tasting better. I got multiple comments from customers last year that my greens lasted three weeks or more after purchase, and I'm hardly alone in that. But if your experience of "alternative" produce is high-mileage, long-shelf-sitting organic that isn't worth the price, no wonder you see farmers markets as potentially the same.
Keep in mind that this is based on one store. Maybe Hy-Vee or other stores do a better job of turning over the product (though consider the potential food waste in such a system). But, to me, this was pretty eye-opening experience as to the challenges facing cooks, eaters, and shoppers in our standard food system. It made me happier than ever with our own choices, and truly grateful to return to the farm and go back to eating traditional, farm-raised food about which I knew everything.
Monday, January 5, 2009
New Year's Feast: blackeyed peas, fried tomatoes
& okra, corn griddle cakes
Sunday: Forgot to keep records, cannot remember now. May have been a thawed zucchini soup from the freezer.
Monday: Goat Adobo (our meat marinated and cooked in basic Filipino vinegar/garlic/pepper sauce, in this case with dried fruit, our green beans, and rice; our garlic as well) .
Tuesday: Adobo vegetable soup (leftover sauce from Monday, with onions, green beans, spinach, potatoes, all ours), homemade pitas, and Goatsbeard cheese.
Wednesday (New Year's Eve): Spiced blackeyed peas (onions, garlic, spices, broth), fried green tomatoes & okra, cornbread griddle cakes with honey & sorghum. All produce but peas (bulk organic) ours, cornmeal ours. See photo above.
Thursday: Pasta with homemade sauce (our tomatoes, spinach, basil, garlic), side of homemade couscous.
Friday: Goatburgers. Our ground meat with our tomatoes, spinach, pickles, homemade mustard, topped with good cheddar cheese on an Uprise roll. Side of sweet potato fries (our potatoes).
Friday, January 2, 2009
Currently, meat can only be sold if slaughtered in a larger state-inspected facility. There are fewer and fewer of these, and many folks report that it is harder and harder for small farms with just a few animals at a time to get attention. Factory farming is slowly undermining the small, local meat industry.
On the other hand, the state is littered with small custom meat processors, the types that handle lots of venison in the fall and a few animals at other times of the year. These processors are not allowed to process meat for sale, only for use by the owner of the animal. The way the law stands, I can take a deer, goat, lamb, cow, or other animal to a small custom processor, and receive butchered, packaged meat in return. I can share that meat with my family and children; I can give it away to friends; I can trade it with others; I can serve it to a potluck or community event; but the second I take a dime for it, it becomes a dangerous, illegal substance that under no circumstances is legal.
Where is the logic in this? What is it about earning money that suddenly makes that meat unsafe? If the meat is safe to serve to children and potlucks, if it's safe to give to my neighbor, surely it's safe to sell to my neighbor? I think the reason behind this, as in many well-meaning food-safety laws, is the rise of the large-scale food system. If the meat under discussion was sold into the grocery-store stream, moving through middlemen, sitting on shelves, etc., then I think there would be concern. After all, this meat isn't packaged for that sort of life, it's just wrapped in butcher paper and frozen. It's fair to be concerned about its life if it entered the distribution system. Still, these facilities do have to meet basic state standards, they are operating under supervision, and they would be shut down if they did not produce safe meat.
But selling that meat to a grocery store and selling it to neighbors are two very different things, and far too often our laws are so broad and so blind that they fail to make rational distinctions between circumstances (frankly, the same is true for dairy. If I regularly give my neighbors milk, cheese, and yogurt, how do those products magically become illegal food safety hazards if they wish to reimburse me for my efforts?).
So here's my proposal: Pass a law stating that meat butchered at a small custom facility may be sold direct to final consumers by the owner of the animal, if the packages are clearly stamped for final sale only by _______. This precludes the meat entering the larger food system, but allows small farmers or even household landowners to raise small amounts of animals and make local sales to neighbors and family. This would be an economic boon to rural areas, allowing another income stream for many folks, while improving access to fresh, known meat and diversifying our food sources.
If the regulation extended to hunted game, it could become a shot in the arm for falling hunter numbers; MDC is worried about falling hunter participation rates, and deer populations are still plenty high; what if rural hunters, especially low-income ones, could make some extra money selling venison to non-hunters who would love to have it?
There is a precedent out there for this already; Missouri's Share the Harvest program. For years, hunters have been able to donate meat slaughtered by custom facilities to feed the poor. The facilities (the custom ones I'm talking about here) package the meat separately and mark it specially, then send it to food banks and so on where it is distributed to needy families. Wonderful program. But what rational reason is there for this to be legal and safe, but basic sales of the same meat is not? If we can allow poor people to be given this apparently safe and healthy meat, processed in exactly the manner I suggest above, how does that same meat magically become dangerous when a neighbor or a customer who is NOT poor wishes to pay for it?
It's a senseless bureacratic boot on the neck of small farmers and landowners. Adapting the rules I propose here would cost Missouri nothing; the legal and practical framework (Share The Harvest) is already in place. Far too often, well-meaning proposals for helping small farms and rural areas involve expensive grant programs, complicated tax breaks, and think tanks; for once why not adopt policies that remove regulation and bureacracy rather than create it? Many of the worst barriers to small farms are regulatory, not just economic. Let's try this approach and see what happens.