Friday, December 24, 2010

Local Holiday Feast

A beautiful bright sunny, but cold, Christmas Eve here in Maryland. It called for a walk at the State Park.

This Christmas our meal will be the most local we've ever had for a holiday, I think. It's pretty easy to get more local "than average" by buying your turkey from a Maryland farm. We've been doing that for a few years, all with great results. But it does get more challenging when you move the sides, it seems. Our CSA has provided us with local Fall vegetables for the first time, so suddenly mashed potatoes and other sides just "are" local. But cranberry sauce, that's a tricky one. I've decided to stew some of the sour cherries that we picked and froze this Summer. So, we'll have our turkey from Copper Penny Farm, mashed potatoes and squash from Everblossom Farm, maybe sweet potatoes stored from the Farmer's market, sour cherry sauce. For dessert, the plan is to make a pumpkin roulade (like a pumpkin jelly roll with creamy ginger filling). The recipe, from the Barefoot Contessa, calls for marscapone, which I could have made, but I found myself somewhat lazy this last week, so the cheese comes from France, I think. We have started to get our dairy products from South Mountain Creamery through their delivery service, so the whipped cream necessary for all good things is from Maryland. (We've only been using them for about a month, but our really happy with their products. Their butter is excellent European style, and they deliver a wide range of items beyond their dairy products, including outstanding goat cheese from Maryland Firefly farms.)

And the egg whites from the last of our farm eggs have made peppermint meringues! Not the most perfect shape, I'm afraid, but the taste is fabulous.

Merry Christmas !

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter CSA Pick Up 3

We received the third installment of our winter CSA on the 18th of December; this week it was a full share for me. Ever since the pie I'd made at Thanksgiving, I'd had visions of Blue Hubbard Squash dancing in my head. I'd been hoping one would find its way into my goodie bag this week. Sadly, no. There was winter squash, but not pumpkin-type squash: butternut. The full share got three butternut squash this time, which over a two week period is normally fine. But, as I had had hoarding issues during the early Fall months at the Farmer's Market, one thing I am plum full of is butternut squash. I've been working it, but as of Saturday, I had six. Luckily, I've been scrounging the recipe books for butternut recipes and it's quite amazing how much variety there is. I guess I mentioned that in a previous post, that I'd located soup recipes where butternut squash acted as a medium for sundried tomatoes or such. It really works quite well. Last night, though, I simply roasted a few of the squash and smashed them with fresh ginger and a little orange juice; a tasty simple side.

So, in the next few weeks, I have to work on potatoes, as we got two quarts of those, and I still have a little from, yes, the market. That shouldn't be too hard. I've already finished the two nice big heads of lettuce we got this week, using up more green peppers and a few of the carrots. We got a ton of carrots this pick up, but they last forever and are fabulous for stock, so no worries.

I also hoarded garlic over the summer and early Fall. I love garlic and cook most days with it. The garlic you get from the grocery store seems to turn rubbery and sprout within a few days of entering the front door. Isn't that funny how that is? It looks fine there, but then takes a nose dive in the comfort of your home. Like those herb plants??! They are all nice and perky, and you think, oh, much better to have the plant for $2.49 than to have just a small package for $2.29, but within a day of getting home, the bright and cheery plant is brown and failing. It's a conspiracy, I'm sure. So the garlic conspiracy led me to hoard enough garlic for the winter months from local farmers. I'm storing them in brown paper bags in the basement so they stay dry and a cooler. But now I'm also getting a few beautiful heads of garlic from the CSA each time, making it close to a steady-state equation. Lots of garlic. Maybe I'll have to find a garlic chicken recipe or something like that.

So, here's the haul list for the 3rd pickup:

Leeks - one very large bunch
Onions - two quarts
Garlic - two heads
Potatoes - two quarts
Carrots - a big ole bag
Winter squash - three butternut
Lettuce - two large heads
Kale - one very large bunch
Fresh herbs - sage and thyme

I have the least experience with kale. Last time, I waited too long and it had wilted quite a bit, so I didn't have much to use. I just threw it into a pasta sausage thing. I'll have to find something more creative this time, and before it dries up. Maybe potato and kale soup, but I was going to make corn chowder with corn from the summer and the potatoes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Eating Animals from Farmer Jane with Radical Homemakers

Three of the books I have read in recent weeks related to local living are Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes, and Farmer Jane by Temra Costa. They are all worth a read.

The latter of the three retells the story of a number of women farmers across the United States who are leading figures, in the authors estimation, in the local food movement. In many ways it is similar then to the largest thread of this blog, which carries the personal stories of people who are opting out of the conventional means to get or grow food. The stories in the book are remarkably similar to those I've encountered locally, including pursuing biodynamic farming in a locale you wouldn't expect it (Kansas, as I recall), humane animal husbandry, and farmers who have come to their profession through a wide range of paths. One of the youngest is a graduate from an elite university, who returned to rural Oregon following graduation to pursue farming with her sister and mother. The biographies include a number of innovative approaches beyond the more widely known Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), like school groups and farm-focused educational events. For those who like to learn about others experiences, it's a good read. Beyond the personal aspects, the book also gives you a sense that the momentum to provide an alternative food supply, one that is environmental, humane, and plentiful, is increasing. You might argue that the concepts do not scale and, in particular, locations like New York City that essentially ship in all of their consumables certainly could never be satisfied. That might be the case but there are also a growing number of publications supporting vertical farming for city environments, including a number of books. It's not something I know much about, including whether those proposals are chemical-full or chemical-free, but they certainly exist. Since I have no interest in living in NYC, I've really only concentrated on what I can influence, both personally and through spreading awareness. Farmer Jane is a light, feel-good read that is inspirational and motivating. I did grow a bit weary toward the latter part of the book, but overall thought it was great, and picked it back up a few weeks later with renewed interest.

Radical Homemakers, on the other hand, is an intense relatively heavy philosophical read. This is a new book by the author of the well-known (in certain circles) cookbook, The Grassfed Gourmet. It argues that in order to have a sustainable local economy, meaning one that is environmental and humane in all common meanings, someone needs to be at home. She too provides a number of biographies, all of people who have embraced the philosophies of radical homemakers by having one, or sometimes two, people at home, outside of the wage economy. Shannon Hayes argues that the Housewife Syndrome accurately described by Betty Friedan in the seminal Feminine Mystique is due not to the fact that homemaking itself is unrewarding, but that the adoption of a consumer economy over the twentieth century created a negative spiral in which the challenging parts of true homemaking are lost and the ability to have a happy and healthy home are forfeited. Agree or disagree, her coverage of the economic changes over the last 150 years in this country and hypotheses of their impacts are thought provoking. It largely countered what I had been raised to believe, it questioned my assumptions, and as such, gave me pause. But I found myself nodding my head in firm agreement with the supposition that traditional homemaking skills are themselves challenging, intellectually and otherwise, and rewarding. I personally take great satisfaction in being able to care for myself and my family, and to be able to grow food, make cheese, or service the water equipment are all enriching to me. And I'm able to do them without political infighting. All the better.  I recommend this book for the introspection opportunity, and her cookbooks in order to cook grassfed meat correctly (very important). The writing is heavy enough here that I fell off during the last third of the book, wishing in this case that there was maybe more detail to the biographies, but the philosophical perspective of the first half was worth it.

Thinking of cooking meat and introspection, Eating Animals is a lightly written look at the heavy material of animal husbandry. By lightly written, I mean that it is engaging and relatively easy to read, without substantial references to other literature, history, or philosophical works. But the material is heavy and the challenges to your conventional thinking great. In the Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan focuses on the health and environmental impacts of conventional meat, particularly beef, production. From an animal welfare perspective, he primarily considers the life of the animal, the way in which they are treated, the space they have to live, and the humanity that is afforded them. He follows the life of one cow and highlights for the reader the manure-filled paddocks where the animals wade in feces, with little room to move and forced to eat corn, a vegetable their body was not intended to consume. He leaves off at the slaughterhouse. Jonathan Safran Foer doesn't. He peers more deeply into the life of livestock and poultry, focusing not on human health as Pollan did, but on animal welfare, and he follows the path from birth to slaughter. The set up for the story is that he wants to answer for himself whether it is ethical to eat animals so that he can convey that decision in confidence to his son. Everyone wants to know, what does he decide?  I won't be coy; for himself, he decides to become a vegetarian, but in looking at farming practices, he also decides that small ethical farms are things he wants to support. He's not against eating animals in principle, but is instead convinced that if people understood truly how the animals were being treated and how they reacted to this treatment, they'd be horrified and would force change. Part of what he writes about is pretty gruesome, but if you do eat meat, this is probably important to know. He asks some good questions. And he provides some great history and biographical stories. At the end of the book, I felt even more resolved in my decision not to purchase conventional meat for our household; we haven't done so in over 18 months now. He's right: knowing how conventional animals are raised, even in the best environments without cruelty, I don't personally want to be a part of it. But, he also caught me cold on the issue of restaurants. He's not tolerant of the person who makes home purchases one way, but gives themselves a pass when they are out to eat. guilty. If you like to challenge your own way of thinking, or you want to know the skinny on the chicken you've got on your plate, this is worth the read and it will only take a few days.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Winter CSA installment 1 - the aftermath

Well, I started this draft shortly after we got the first install of our winter CSA with the intent of telling what I did with our produce for that two week period. Now I lost the thread, and I'm halfway through the second batch of produce from the CSA. We'll pretend as if it was all planned. 

The way I've got this CSA arranged, I get a full share every other pick-up and a half share on the alternate pick-ups. So, the first load was quite a lot of food. It certainly makes you plan in advance to either consume it, "put it up" for later, or make expensive compost. While I'm quite the fan of composting, I'm not a fan of expensive compost. I hate things to go to waste, so I either wanted to eat it or freeze it before the food went bad. For the most part, I met that goal. 

Unfortunately, as I think I mentioned before, I had already been hoarding from the Fall farmer's market. This left me with a lot of butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and potatoes. On the flip side, it's caused me to experiment with butternut squash recipes, in particular, in a way I've never done before. I can now make some mean, and fiercely different tasting, squash soups. My favourites so far are a butternut-sundried tomato soup, in which the squash is a medium for sundried tomatoes, and a butternut-apple-ginger, in which the squash is a medium for ginger. Both are outstanding. 

So, here's the weirder things I used stuff for.. well, at least, weird to me because it was a first. i have little experience with beets. Like almost none. Mark Bittman suggests making a Swiss Roesti from them -- essentially a giant hashbrown of beets and parmesan. This was truly excellent, though burned in parts. Where it calls for a nonstick pan, I think they really mean that. But I don't have one, so it wasn't elegant, but it tasted great. I chalked the charred parts up to learning, and since they were the same colour as the beets, you couldn't pick them out (until you bit in). The other beet recipe was for beet greens and bacon, and it came from the farm. I just got fresh bacon from my 1/2 hog I ordered from Copper Penny Farm, so I had the perfect combo. I had no idea how well those flavours go together. I thought the beet greens would be a bit bitter, like chard or another green, but it wasn't. 

The celeriac was a trip. I mashed them as the farm suggested. It was like mild mashed celery, which is great if you like celery and weird if you don't. Luckily, I liked it and so did my son. My husband probably preferred it over the beets, which he wouldn't fein to try. 

I never really thought brussel sprouts were anything to write home about, and when I saw that there were aphids in the stalks, I almost went the compost route. It looked like a lot of work for not a lot of gain to me. But I decided that I'd cook the sprouts that i could relatively easily debug, and compost the rest. In the end, I think I cooked about 3/4 of the sprouts, but they were really small when I peeled off the buggy parts. I roasted them and used them in a pastas primavera. The flavour was sweet and subtle; I don't recall that being the case with any other sprouts I've eaten, so I'm not sure if it was because they were fresher, smaller, or a different variety. 

Now, the blue hubbard squash.. that's some good stuff... I cooked mine into two things: pie and soup. Both were  fabulous. The pie was rich and sweet, the soup very similar to German kerbis (pumpkin) soup. The only recipe I found for this squash was the pie on, but it was great. 

I'm trying my hand for the first time at lactose-fermenting with the carrots. I'm using a recipe for ginger carrots from Nourishing Traditions that combines shredded carrots, ginger, salt and whey. The mixture ferments at room temperature for several days and you end up with a sour, nutritious gingery carrot side - at least, that is the theory. 

I think the only thing so far to overwhelm me is the green peppers. I've received something like 10 of them, and I'm just not a fan. so, I blanched and froze most of them. I'm sure they'll come in handy somewhere, someday. 

The first install was: (the second was very similar)
potatoes - 2 qts.
sweet potatoes - 3 large, 5 small
onions - 1 qt - these are easy to use up
leeks - 1 bunch - I froze some, put some in soup
celery - 1 bunch - froze for stock making
parsley - one large bunch - still have some of this
sage - 1 bunch - dried some, used some in various recipes
parsnips - 3 large (these store a long time and are awesome) - I ended up freezing several of these, roasting others
carrots - 1 medium bunch (ditto as parsnips) 
squash - 2 acorn, 1 butternut, 1 large blue hubbard - used these all 
garlic - 2 heads
brussel sprouts - 2 stems, about 4 cups - pasta primavera with leeks and fromage blanc
celeriac - several,  about 3 cups - smashed celeriac and potatoes - interesting
chard - 1 large bunch (probably am going to blanch and freeze this soon)  - blanched two bunches now
beets, red - 1 large bunch with greens (will blanch and freeze the greens; roast and freeze the beets)
green peppers - 5 small

Friday, November 26, 2010

Turkey Talk

Our turkey yesterday turned out a great success, in spite of the dilemma of how to cook it. This year we purchased two local farm turkeys, one for Thanksgiving and another for Christmas. Both are heritage breeds. The bird I cooked yesterday was a bronze turkey from Green Akeys Farm, and our other is a Bourbon Red from Copper Penny Farm. If you look online for proper ways to cook heritage birds, you'll find two distinct camps: one that advocates low temperature roasting, and another the advocated high temperature roasting. I hadn't decided which road to take until I realized that it was almost noon and the low temperature version would require about ten hours for my 20+ lb bird. So, high temperature it was. Local Harvest recommends an oven temperature of 425-450 degrees F, but also cautions that you should not cook the turkey to the USDA recommended internal temperature of 165F. Their recommendation is somewhere between 140-150F. Last year, I found that the leg pulled away from the torso at about 155F and the meat was cooked thoroughly. That was my Christmas bird last year, which was about 14lbs. We also dry brined last year and this year, slitting holes in the skin and rubbing coarse salt everywhere we could reach the day before roasting, then washing that off before cooking.

So, I went with the high roast, and I also chose to use our convection oven. Because it's new. So, 400F on convection mode for 45 minutes, then, since the bird was cooking so unbelievably fast, I pulled it down to 350F. The turkey had hit 150F internally at about 1hr, 15 minutes! This is a 22lb bird. When I started carving it, I did find that the dark meat close in to the body wasn't fully cooked and popped it back in to the over for another 20 minutes or so. I overshot that time, with most of the meat hitting 165F, but it still came out fabulously juicy. Since our second bird is only 14+ lbs, I suspect it will only take an hour this way. In the end, better or worse than low temperature, or traditional roasting ? No idea. But it was a hit.

This bird from Green Akeys was frozen when I got it. That's because their turkeys were growing so fast that they would have exceeded forty pounds if they waited until Thanksgiving to process them. We had already had that experience last year. Craziness. Imagine getting a 42lb bird to roast. We named it Turkzilla. I was so stunned by the size of the turkey, that I took numerous photos comparing it to 2 liter bottles of soda and another 14.5lb turkey.
The turkey on top is nearly 15lbs. The bottom, over 42lbs.

Those were broad breasted white, a common conventional breed, which grow so large that they are no longer able to reproduce naturally. They do have large breasts, giving lots of white meat, and so the local farm had grown them as an experiment, alongside a few heritage breeds. After last years fiasco, where they ended up with a number of giant Toms, they've converted to only heritage breeds. Though they do have broad breasted bronze, one of the two types of bronze turkeys on the market. According to wikipedia, these too grow so large that they can't reproduce and thereby are not true heritage birds. The chicks are from artificial insemination. They apparently have larger breasts than the standard bronze, which remains classified by that article as heritage, for what its worth. I'm not sure whether the bird yesterday was standard bronze or broad breasted bronze. It had decent white meat, but a lot more dark meat.

My other experiment was with the Blue Hubbard Squash I received from the Winter CSA. I had no ideas what to do with this large squash. I knew I wanted to try to make a soup. In Germany at this time of year, all the restaurants have amazing kerbis (pumpkin) soup, simply amazing. And I've found that butternut squash soup doesn't compare. Maybe the Blue Hubbard will. But the squash was huge, so I also to the farmer's advice and made a pie. The website has a fantastic recipe for Blue Hubbard squash pie, and was basically the only one I found. It was as good or better than any other pumpkin pie I've had. Now I know to look for winter squash like that again. I'd post a picture, but it looks like pumpkin pie and we already ate half of it!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Winter CSA Experiment

Our first pick up
Sometime earlier this year, I stumbled upon The Winter Harvest by Elliot Coleman. "The Winter Huh?", was my first thought, then, "kindle edition?" Sure enough, there is one. The first chapter left me intrigued and befuddled. In the middle of Maine, Elliot Coleman runs a winter CSA, a big one. And the book strives to share with the average ambitious gardener how they too can have fresh produce all Winter long.  I'm an average, slightly over-ambitious gardener.  But for all it's convenience and wonder, Kindle doesn't do photos justice. No library copy of the book was available. So within a few days of discovery, I found myself cracking the bind of The Winter Harvest in my early-Summer living room. Beautiful big pictures showed huge hoop houses full of green produce with snow all around. Coleman provides the reader with details of the equipment and, more importantly, the timing they need to have that kind of picture in their own yard. Ambition set in and I tried to get seeds in the ground, appropriately timed for the right light and heat necessary. At some point, reality also set in. I live in the woods and my greenhouse is a product of a years-ago over-ambitious idea of creating a Winter wonderland. But, well, I live in the woods.  The seeds I planted this August all sprouted, but struggling for light are weak, skinny stemmed shadows of the real thing.

In mid-September when I saw an ad on Local Harvest ( that send "Find a Winter CSA in your area", I didn't hesitate. But I also had low expectations. I had talked to any number of farmers during the summer about a Winter CSA. All had read and admired Elliot Coleman, but none had plans for a Winter harvest. It seems clear to me that there must be a great market to tap into in Central Maryland, but I can also see the risk looming over their shoulders. It does require more hoop houses and, to get good variety, cold storage of the Fall veggies. But Coleman harvests something like fourteen greens and root vegetables right through the dark of Winter in Maine. I'll say it again: Maine. My zip code search revealed two Winter CSA farms, one in Pennsylvania and one in Virginia. The Pennsylvania farm was outside of Gettysburg, about 75 minute drive from my house. The farm was listed as certified Naturally Grown, meaning organic practices certified by a farmer's organization.

This CSA was 20-weeks, covering the full expanse of the Winter, with pick up every other week. I'd have to drive to PA ten times during five months. Could I do it? I was close, but not quite there. My solution: convince others they wanted to drive to PA for produce during the Winter. In the end, six families are splitting four shares from Everblossom Farm in Carlisle, PA. This way each of us only makes the trek a few times and gets fresh produce through the season.

Andrea and I made the first drive up yesterday. Everblossom Farm is part of Elaine Lemmon's childhood home, where her dad still raises beef and other products conventionally. More about that another day.  She's been running the farm and CSA for 8+ years and it shows. The pick-up was very organized and bountiful, and moreover the handful of others picking up were obviously regular subscribers. One man said he was part of a group of twenty families form Gettysburg. She feeds over forty members using the 5-6 acres she rents from her father.

So using this produce through the Winter will be back to my last CSA challenge of a few years ago. It's local, and it's coming. You just gotta figure out what to do with it. No dilly-dallying. This week's pick up was large, but I had to keep in mind that it is two weeks of produce really. Still, it's a lot of food for a family of three. I figure sharing how we make do with the CSA over the coming months could be interesting to some folks, so we'll do that.  And, I'll make some future posts about what I learn about Elaine and the farm.

My real issue is that I am a "storer"; reference the Squirrel Family post earlier. So I've been busily buying extra produce over the last month to put up for the Winter. Only a few weeks ago, when I arrived home with three butternut squash and a bunch of potatoes, who knows what else, did it dawn on me that I might have too much food. We'll see, I guess.

Here is what was in  the first pick up. I wish I had an extra fridge or cold storage but I don't. I'm trying to use a basement window well, but that's iffy because while it probably wont' freeze, the temperature fluctuates from 42-55 degrees Fahrenheit and I can't control the humidity.  So some of this will have to be dealt with soon so as not to go to waste.

potatoes - 2 qts.
sweet potatoes - 3 large, 5 small
onions - 1 qt
leeks - 1 bunch
celery - 1 bunch
parsley - one large bunch
sage - 1 bunch
parsnips - 3 large (these store a long time and are awesome)
carrots - 1 medium bunch (ditto as parsnips)
squash - 2 acorn, 1 butternut, 1 large blue hubbard
garlic - 2 heads
brussel sprouts - 2 stems, about 4 cups
celeriac - several,  about 3 cups (i've never cooked, never ate; she sent a recipe)
chard - 1 large bunch (probably am going to blanch and freeze this soon)
beets, red - 1 large bunch with greens (will blanch and freeze the greens; roast and freeze the beets)
green peppers - 5 small

So we'll see how I make out over the  next few weeks....

Friday, November 19, 2010

Organic Certification: A Few Consumers Views

In a follow-up to my earlier post on the importance organic certification from the perspective of local Maryland producers, I sat down with a group of friends recently to get their take on the topic. We each come to the table with different histories and motivations, but all share a commitment to buying naturally grown food. I wanted to know how much organic certification influenced their own purchasing decisions, and how that influence might have changed over time.

I started by asking the group whether they were familiar with the requirements for organic certification. Not surprisingly, no one was familiar with the details, but everyone had read about certification at some point and had a general understanding of what it entailed. And while Meg says that she "wouldn't pass the test" on the regulations, she remembers finding it "shocking that there were all these caveats" to certification. This is primarily, as I mentioned in the previous post, a reference to food products, like granola bars or beer, that can be labeled as organic, but contain non-organic ingredients, according to a set of exceptions in the Federal guidelines. In the food product arena, there are also three levels of certification, including "made from certified organic ingredients", "100% organic", and just "organic", meaning 95% organic ingredients. Meg knows that organic certification isn't a perfect solution, but she feels that it's the best alternative, and she and her husband have made a conscious decision to put a lot of their money into buying organic. And she wants to be sure, where she can, that her food is grown organically. "If I buy a local apple, it's been sprayed.", she explains, "If it is certified organic, at least I know it's grown by some set of rules."

Meg and another friend, Sharyn, are driven by concern for their and their family's health, and, secondarily, by environmental concerns. If they can find a local farmer who is applying organic practices, they'll buy from them, regardless of certification. But, when it comes to things like apples, you'll have a hard time finding organic in the mid-Atlantic region. Both Meg and Sharyn would rather ensure that their food is grown without pesticides than worry that it came from California. The only real way to do that it to buy certified organic products in the stores. Meg adds, "we're voting with our dollars" and Sharyn adds that stores like Martin's track the organic purchases, so she makes sure to buy them at the larger supermarkets to ensure they'll stay in stock. It seems likely that others are more apt to buy the organic option if it's there on the shelf in front of them, so your own purchases can actually influence the overall consumption of certified organic goods.

For my part, I'm less concerned about my own personal health than I am of my family and of people in general. I have found, like many others I know, that making the choice to radically reduce my intake of processed foods, particularly containing high fructose corn syrup, has made a huge change in my weight and appearance. I'm 10-15 lbs lighter than before making that change, even though I was regularly running thirty miles a week and commuting over an hour daily by trail bike at the time. For me, that's hard evidence to ignore, but it really isn't about whether the food is organic or local, only about the level of processing. And it's not a scientific peer-reviewed study, just an observation. When it comes to my organic choices, I think I'm more like the typical customer described in the book Organic, Inc., which reviews current research in consumer choices for organic products. I buy some organic, I buy some not organic. I am totally with the idea of organic, totally. But, I'm also a good penny-pinching, savings-seeking American, who has to swallow hard when the organic tomatoes cost twice (or more) what the regular can does. I'll admit that the more I research, the more I learn, the more I'm swallowing and buying organic food and things like natural cleaning products.

My friend Andrea agrees about being more concerned about the health of others. Unlike me, she's not relatively new to concerns over the industrial food system. She tells the group that when her daughters were young, they would sometimes get frustrated having different food from their peers, but now they appreciate what she taught them about food choices. She explains, "one of my motivations for eating locally/organically stems from my concerns for the safety of our food supplies, for example, this summer's salmonella-infected egg recall. E.coli-infected beef and spinach are two other recent examples that come to mind. And those incidents stemmed from our food processing practices.  I also care about preserving heirloom and local varieties of fruits and vegetables. Not only because I don't  want Monsanto to have a food monopoly, but also to ensure diversity in flora and fauna."

Sharyn wondered why people are driven to buy local when it's not organic. I know for me there are a number of reasons. First, I want to support the local economy. I fear that if we outsource too much of our food production, or for that matter, any kind of production, to places where they can abuse the workers and the environment, we're not only doing the wrong thing, but risking a collapse of the local economy. I live in a small historic town, and we can see over the last thirteen years that the town residents choices to buy elsewhere, up the road at the big box stores, has caused a continual decline in our downtown. We live now on a brink, I believe, with becoming a clapboard ghost town similar to so many others I've passed through. Also, I'm not personally satisfied that my certified organic grapes from Argentina were picked by working poor. I'd rather know more about the farm and buy it locally. I find it much more satisfying to be closely connected to my food sources. And I love the challenge of trying to eat seasonally. It makes me rethink things continually. But, it's definitely not black-and-white for me. It's a growth process. 

Cathy has similar attitudes. "I dance back and forth", she says. As far as apples go, she too recently picked a boat load at Larriland Farms. Her sense is that Larriland, which uses the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, is making strides to use the least amount of chemicals possible, while still remaining economically viable. But she wonders a lot about IPM. Does the size of the farm matter, meaning would a smaller farm use more or less pesticides? what about diversity? what does IPM really mean? (I have all these same questions, and look forward to talking to a local IPM farm and consultant in the new year, so stay tuned!) Meg points out that all that uncertainty makes IPM products less attractive to her. But Cathy is trying to be pragmatic in her purchasing. She is concerned that "you have to spray to survive as a business.", and concludes, "I see both sides, so I split what I do."

When I ask about one of my own sticking points: cost, the others at first say they all pay the extra gladly. Then someone asks, what about if you're not cooking for your family? like for a potluck. Well, then it depends. Most of us felt that we'd gladly buy the more expensive, local or organic, food for others if we knew they would appreciate it. But we're less likely to shell out the extra bucks to secretly feed them better than they'd feed themselves. It doesn't sound friendly, I guess, but I think it reflects the reality of consumer decisions.  It does cost a lot more to buy certified organic produce, so you think twice about these things when you're budgeting. 

The rest of the group is particularly concerned about purchasing organic for the "dirty dozen", the highest chemical-residue produce. I should probably pay more attention to that myself, but  have found it hard to remember.  Of course, apples are on the list!  Guess I'll really have to ask about the IPM practices for the apple orchards! I did recently discover that Larry's Beans coffee company sells cloth grocery bags with the "dirty dozen" printed on them, and another with the sustainable fishery list printed on them. That's a good way not to forget. 

I find that I often make a poor assumption that others think the same way that I do. There are a lot of different influences in organic purchases and even "liked-minded" folks really are coming at their decisions differently. We each have our own motivations, and our priorities change over time. By learning what is important to the others, I am more inclined to reflect on my own thought processes. That's a good thing.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Agriculture is Culture

The harvest of the day
Sally Voris sits across the table from me, her hands cradling a cup of tea. Behind her cookbooks line the shelves of a small cabinet. The kitchen looks and feels like one you'd imagine in a farm house. A crock full of pickled veggies sits nearby and there is a clutter that pronounces: people live here. Sally is sharing her perspectives on the 132-acre farm, on farming, and how she came to the theme for the year: conversation. Her eyes are bright, voice confident, and you can tell that her words are crafted over time and with contemplation. She focuses on the farm as a community, where people not only receive food, but are rejuvenated and are an active part of a larger whole. She wants to create something that is not about consumerism, but about relationships between people, and people and the other. In most respects, that same goal of community is shared by several of the farmers I've profiled. Sally's sense of the farm community in this part of Maryland because of its spirituality. Sally practices biodynamic farming here in Northern Carroll County.

I am not expert on biodynamic farming. A year ago, I had never heard the term. Then I met Sally's friend, Janet, selling their goods at the Westminster Farmer's Market. Janet's demeanor boasts an enthusiasm that's hard to ignore. My friend Maureen (of the Bok Bok post) was taken enough that she began visiting the farm itself to buy their produce. She became a strong advocate of White Rose Farm, and even arranged to give them two roosters to ensure they lived a long and happy life. At the market, Janet told me about the farms fire circles and moon celebrations. Although intrigued by this world that was so clearly different from my own, I never made a trip there, the drive being just a bit too far for me.

Now here I sat in Sally's kitchen, sharing a pot of tea and conversing. "Plants grow in the breathe between heaven and earth", she explains. That sentence alone gave me some insight into the biodynamic philosophy. It would follow then that your farming practices would tend to the quality of that breathe. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic farming from the 1920s said, "biodynamic farming works with the microbes in the soil to produce bountiful harvests through supporting, harmonizing with, and enhancing natural processes and life forces." According the Demeter Association, which is responsible for certifying biodynamic producers, their practices include "the cosmic and planetary rhythms of the earth in its ecological approach."

When Sally took over White Rose Farm in 2002, she had long been a gardener, but never a farmer. She eventually met and befriended Hugh Lovel, an author of several books on biodynamic farming dedicated to  continuing the work began by Steiner. From his consultation and texts, she began using alternative practices, ones that respected the balance of heaven and earth. She spent a year at the Pfeiffer Center in New York studying biodynamic farming so that she could bring it to Maryland.

Garden shed
We take a walk around the grounds, tasting produce here and there and observing the integration of animals with the land. A few pigs happily foraged among some pasture Sally had planted earlier. By now, the town of Taneytown will have begun dumping leaf litter collected from their streets onto her property. The pigs will be moved through the leaves over time, shredding and facilitating the leaves decomposition. Next year, that soil will be enriched. Indeed, you can see the difference between her soil and that of the conventional farmer who rents 90-acres of her land. A handful of the White Rose Farm soil looks and feels denser, a product of the heavy integration of organic matter into the ground. It reminds me of the indie film, Dirt!, which documents the complex the ground beneath our feet.

Happy pigs !

As we walked, I asked her about water, like I have all the farmers. I had heard a rumour that they did not irrigate here and looking at the healthy, diverse crops, that seemed impossible. Sally explained that they had used a dew method this year, lightly spraying the plants at dusk. There had been good rain in the weeks before my visit, but there was no evidence that the drought had hurt them prior to that. I am amazed that the plants could retain vitality through only their leaves and perhaps there was more to the ritual than I understood.

Sally tells me that it was last year that was bad for her, really bad. I didn't pry into the details of that statement; it seemed too raw. She continues that in response, she took a sabbatical. She spent five weeks visiting other farms and examining their practices. She spent time considering what she was trying to achieve an returned regenerated. From this journey, she brought her theme of conversation.

It's painfully obvious that Sally doesn't inspire to be a farmer  - organic, sustainable, or otherwise - in the sense of commerce. "A farm is not a food factory!", she exclaims at one point. "Agriculture is culture", she emphasizes at another. Her goal is to use the farm as a center of community that both educates and feeds people. The distraction from this focus keeps her from the farmer's markets. Selling to people tires her; she wants to relate to them. That's much harder to accomplish in a point-of-sale environment. So others sell the White Rose Farm produce and free-range pork at the Catonsville and Tuesday night Westminster Farmer's market. White Rose Farm also offers a CSA like many farms. Unlike many others, though, they offer farm memberships which give access to the grounds and priority in events. That too reflects their emphasis on community. Once a month, they host open houses (open farms?) and a celebration of the full moon, as well as occasional other events. The full moon celebrations are organized by a group of women to celebrate the feminine at each full moon, include discussion, creativity, and often food, but are apparently not overtly religious programs. Sally's approaches are very similar to those described for Live Power Community Farm in the book Farmer Jane, a biodynamic farm in California that has successfully created a community around itself.
The Fire Circle on the ground

One of the most remarkable things about Sally is her success in recruiting help. Before the farm, Sally was a self-described community leader elsewhere in Maryland, educated in running retreat centers. She has brought those skills to the endeavor. When I visited, she had two apprentices with a one year commitment and two interns in a 2-1/2 month stint. A fifth volunteer is in her third year. Unfortunately, I didn't get to interview them, but I hope too! She has also investigated getting help through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), also known, it seems, as Worldwide Opportunitiies on Organic Farms. Since 1971, WWOOF has been placing volunteers on organic farms and describes itself as "an international movement that is helping people share more sustainable ways of living". WWOOF chapters facilitate the connection between volunteers and host farms. Volunteers receive accommodation and board for their help, as well as experience and education.

Sally is full of quotes. You can tell that she either was trained, or comes by it naturally. Maybe both. In my work life, we talk about elevator speeches- essentially the 90 second pitch. Can you get people to see what you see in only a few words? It's hard. As we wrap up the walk, Sally says that they aim to be "Beautiful, bountiful, and balanced".  Sounds great to me.

Flowers on the farm

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Question of Certification

I've been curious for a long time about what drives certain farmers to not only choose organic methods in their farming, but to elect organic certification. I knew that in the case of Fair Trade certification for coffee, for example, many felt the costs of obtaining and maintaining certification were prohibitive. I'd read that USDA organic certification was also costly. And so, if you are buying locally, does it really matter if the farmer is certified organic? To you or to them? I suppose that the obvious answer is that if you know your farmer and how they farm, then no. It is true though that in many farmer's markets - ones that aren't "producer only" in particular - unscrupulous businessmen will label store bought produce as local organic, duping the unwitting shopper. Or even just being part of the market may give a false impression that the produce is local. That happened to me once on the Eastern Shore. A roadside stand on a rural road in early Summer. I remarked at how early the peaches were. Apparently they weren't early in Georgia! It had never occurred to me that they hauled fruit several hundred miles to sell in the middle of farm fields. Now I always ask. Another confusion are signs. You might see signs that say "our fruit is never sprayed". What does that mean? It generally does not mean, "we don't use chemical sprays". Organic certification offers a transparency to the buying process. I set out to see what a variety of farmers thought about the whole thing.

For this article, I asked the farmers all the same questions:

  1. Are, or have you been, certified organic?
  2. what is the primary motivation(s) for that choice (to certify, to stop certification, or not to have sought certification) ?
  3. How would you summarize your practices for fertilization, pesticides, and protecting against disease? Here I'm wondering about the actual differences in practices between certification requirements and what people practice, like the use of organic fungicides, etc. 
  4. What do you think a consumer should know about the label "certified organic" ? or any other label for that matter.
  5. What questions do you think a consumer should ask a farmer when buying local produce?
  6. Do you think that the certified organic label does, or would, influence your bottom line? 
  7. If you aren't growing organically, why is that? Perhaps this is due to specific crops or other choices. 
  8. If you are growing organically, what is the most difficult thing to successfully bring to market? Is there something(s) that you would really like to provide organically but find too hard to grow organically in the area?
  9. If a home gardener wanted to try to grow organically, what would you suggest as the easiest produce to bring to harvest organically? Where should they start?
The farmers I spoke with for this article all farm organically, but most are not organically certified. One is certified Naturally Grown, a farmer-based certification. I also arranged to meet with a Howard County Farmer who employs Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in the New Year, to include a discussion with their IPM consultant. In a separate article, I'd like to address the consumers perspectives. 

The farmers included in this post are, in no order: Sally of White Rose Farm, Michael of Green Akeys Farm, Jackie of De La Tierra, Tom of Nev-R-Dun Farm, Greg and Kris of Thorne Family Farm, Josie and Shawn of Truffula Seed Produce. I also used knowledge of two other farms, Celidh and Copper Penny Farm; organic farms that I patronize regularly. 

Of these, only Nev-R-Dun is certified organic. The reason he chooses to certify reflects his commitment to principle that I described in an earlier post. I'll take the liberty of saying it this way: stand up and be counted. The more farms there are that are certified organic, the bigger the impact. While others might be dissuaded by the record keeping or cost structure, Tom is not, and sees the increased voice for organic practices as critical to success, not necessarily to his business but our future. Organic certification costs vary and there is some cost sharing with the government, however, the farmer must pay up front, as with most of their supplies. Meticulous record keeping ensure the customer that everything from procuring seeds to harvesting produce was done in accordance to the regulations. A farm that sells over $5000/year is required to certify if the use the label organic. As a result, a stranger cant trust, within reason, that Tom is truly providing organic produce. Does he think it affects his bottom line? At first, like the others I spoke to, he said no. He has a relationship with his customers that doesn't require paperwork. But later, he said maybe. Does it matter to his bottom line? "Ultimately it does, though not greatly. This past week I had a half dozen or so customers offer dismay for me not having the organic produce they sought, and only after not finding the produce at my stand did they go to others. In many ways, it is hard to determine just how important it is to customers, since I don't have a chance to question each one.", he said. 

Oe of the kickers about organic certification is that it is government regulation, making it susceptible to big lobbies. As a result in the boom in organic demand, organic is becoming big business and large corporations have fought to make strategic adjustments to the organic standards. One example is the inclusion of 38 synthetic ingredients that can be used in the manufacturing of certified organic food. These ingredients include things like food colorings, and sausage casings, as well as hops, which allows Anhauser-Busch to market certified organic lager grown with chemically fertilizer and protected with chemical sprays. On the other side of the equation, Michael Akeys points out that you can fertilize with animal manure regardless: "Manure is organic.  Manure from conventional poultry farms is considered organic.  Tell me how that makes any sense?  Once the feed has been pooped out, voila, organic.  I think that is crazy." On the other hand, he notes that for organic certification, you have to ensure organic mulch and says, "I dont want to buy certified organic straw for mulch.  Mulch isn't going to be eaten.  It breaks down and is composted."

Of course, local farmers at the market aren't in a position to take advantage of the permissible synthetic ingredients; those are designed for big food processing. At the market, the orgnic certification signals to the customer that they aren't using chemical or genetically modified seeds. But to get at other question, you'll have ask. about half o fthe farmers I spoke to are using only an initial thick layer of leaf litter compost for fertilizer, often six inches thick. Others are using sheep or cow manure, and a few are using other organic fertilizers. 

The pesticide of choice is a pair of nimble fingers, plus dedicated crop rotation and winter clean up. Still hand picking pests from your plants will only go so far.  Jackie of De La Tierra Farm tells me that having summer squash and zucchini all summer is tough. She says, "I am able to have it in the early summer and then again in the fall. Melons, gourds, pumpkins and winter squash are the hardest because they have to stay in the ground all season long, and the squash bugs always get them before they ripen. Squash bugs are a very difficult pest to control because they have an outer shell that is like armor. It would take some nasty chemicals to destroy them and I am not willing to use nasty chemicals (any chemicals, for that matter). Cucumbers are also difficult for me to get a nice crop of. They are finicky and the cucumber beetle is always around my farm." I saw with my own eyes the damage that flea beetles did the the Truffula Seed eggplant this year, and both Nev-R-Dun and Thorne Family Farm had problems with bean beetles.  At Green Akeys Farm, they are "using a certified organic spray to help with a powdery mildew epidemic on our pumpkins." Michael continued, "We really didnt even want to use anything at all, but we compromised with the pumpkins because most of them are either ornamental or carving pumpkins, only a few will be used for eating.  We use crop rotation, distance, and try to plant some beneficial plants that attract good insects, etc.  We really want zero inputs other than green manure (turning over cover crops), grazing animals over the ground, compost, compost tea, lime and perhaps some other organic, renewable fertilizers.  We may spread cow manure or chicken manure if we can get it this fall.  Im also looking into spraying raw milk on the pastures and gardens as a way of stimulating the microbial activity.  Supposedly milk really kickstarts the soil into high gear." Jackie finds that she needs to amend the balance of her soil, and reported, " I also use organic fertilizers such as blood meal, greensand and rock phosphate for a NPK boost. These are natural fertilizers derived from rocks (except for the blood meal), so they stay in the soil much longer and don't wash away as easily as chemical fertilizers. I also use lime to balance pH in my acid soil. I am experimenting with cover crops and mulches as well."

Everyone agreed that organic fruit, particularly orchard fruit like apples and peaches, are extremely difficult to grow organically in this area. If you want perfect loooking apples, you're probably out of luck locally. Sometimes you'll see great looking fruit and a sign that says, "we don't spray our fruit". This probably means that they spray the trees before it fruits, but not once the fruit have started. Berries are a lot easier, and a I know a number of folks who grow blueberries and other types organically in their yard. Blueberries don't have a lot of enemies and so, of the common berries, they seem easiest.

Most farmers encouraged asking lots of questions to learn about their practices. We often assume that if someone is at a farmer's market, they grow organically or if they're certified organic, they must have exemplary practices. I've found that the people I want to buy from are farmers who are glad to describe their setting and reasoning, regardless of whether it's organic. Michael Akeys said, "hen you make a personal relationship with someone, they quickly forget about labels and they build up a level of trust.  We do everything completely transparently.  We have nothing to hide.  We probably could triple our output if we used a lot of fertilizer but we dont want to buy commercial fertilizers."  All of these farmers are open to any questions, even controversial ones. Some consumers are concerned about farms using water and various farms do use different means to irrigate their fields. It is pretty unrealistic, especially in summers like this last one, to expect no water usage on the farm. Jackie says, "It is very difficult for people to farm without watering their crops, so I wouldn't be too worried about questioning farmers about whether they irrigate or not. If you are very worried about the water table, you can ask them if they collect rain water to irrigate, or about their methods. Drip irrigation is the most efficient way to water and this is a popular method among farmers. "

I know that when I buy from Lakeview Farms, the IPM farm in Howard County, they are using some fertilizers and pesticides. Linda openly discusses the 100+ history of their farm and how they've changed from a scheduled spray program to using integrated pest management (IPM) to minimize chemical additives. If you're buying meat, it's definitely recommended to scratch deeper than organic or not organic. As discussed in an earlier post, chicken farming practices very widely and the same is true of other livestock. 

When asked about great starting points for the organic gardening in your backyard, heirloom tomatoes were the  mot common recommendation. Kris Thorne said not to start with eggplant! and Jackie has found, like I have, that cucumbers are finicky. Interestingly, I've had good luck with bush beans, where the farmers, who are dealing with a lot more plants, have had issues with bean beetles. I'm trying garlic this Fall, and that was recommended by others. If you don't have room for crop rotation, you could use gaps in growing years or grow in containers. Things like potatoes can cause problems if related plants are grown in the same space every year. Last year, I tried potatoes in a trash bag, in part to avoid this issue with bugs, and it worked okay. Tom suggested spring lettuce as another option. I mentioned already certain bush berries. If you live near the woods, wild wine berries could be transplanted and they are reasonably managed. They aren't actually native plants, but they don't have much problem producing good fruit. 

When these farmers were asked about their own purchasing, all of them buy organically where they can. A few though, like Michael Akeys, prioritize the local economy over organic produce, saying, "I always look at the quality of the fruit and veggies at the store.  If the organics look awful, Ill buy conventional.  I'm not as worried about my personal health from eating conventional.  I don't think that its that big of a deal, some people may have sensitivities and need to buy it, perhaps I do and dont realize it, but Im looking at things from a sustainability and environmentally conscious sensibility.  I'd rather not support big factory farms.  I'd rather buy local conventional food too.  Keep our money in our local economy."

Ultimately, for this set of farmers, their practices are derived from their beliefs in how farming should be done. But most are electing not to certify organic for pragmatic reasons and are making that choice without a financial impact. It will be interesting to see how the adoption of Certified Naturally Grown, as de La Tierra has chosen, gains adoption as a potential way of being counted, verified, but at less cost. 

What do you think?

P.S. A lot of good information on organic certification can be found online; wikipedia is a good start. Regarding the controversy of big organic, Organic, Inc. is an excellent read. 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Passionate Pursuits

Nev-R-Dun Greenhouse
Perhaps the most telling insight I have into Tom Reinhardt of Nev-R-Dun Farm came from a brief exchange at the end of my visit. In an ill-worded question,

I asked, "so are you glad you're doing this?"
"Doing what?", he replied
"farming,... organically, I mean."
"well, I wouldn't say, glad, but someone's got to do it."
As we continued up the hill, he added, "I know I couldn't work for someone else."

I'm not sure exactly what had let me to ask whether he was glad about his work. I think in my mind it was: given all the obstacles we had discussed on the walk arond the property, it wasn't clear why he was choosing this path. And, so I wondered aloud, or meant to, is it worth it? is it fulfilling?

All the organic farmers - here meaning using organic methods - I've talked to are doing so in part on principle. They are concerned about the impact of chemicals and other synthetic products on people and the environment. But, Tom seems driven by principle. He's reserved, and he doesn't make small talk at his stand. Each week, though, he puts out an article about his farming experience in a series called, Tales of Idyllia. From these, you can get some insight into the passion he puts into his business. Ask him about something in one one of his writings, or about his perspective on organic farming, and you'll tap into a font.  He'll openly share the good and bad of his venture, as well as methods and hopes for the future. It doesn't ring of enthusiasm, though, but principle.

Tom has been organic farming for about 10 years now, having started as part of an effort to open an organic restaurant. The restaurant fell through, but the farming stuck.k Tom began selling his produce at the farmer's market and running a small CSA. He studied the methods of Eliot Coleman and kept detailed records. he began organic certification a few years ago. Now he farms his father's property outside of westminster, the home of the original Nev-R-Dun farm of a previous owner.

I guess Tom is lucky that his dad has a little land that he is willing to share. The alternative is to find land to rent or make a costly investment in property. For the average small farmer, these are options they can't afford. Almost everyone I know either is using land belonging to a family member or has some income to pay the land mortgage. But using someone else's property has it's own challenges. They might sell it, as has already happened to Tom, or want to use it for something else. You also have to deal with things like water.

Tom's farm is on a well, and his father uses that for his own needs. Tom is leery of draining that well, but in summers like this one, the plants need watering. Getting that water seems to be one of the most daunting challenges Tom faces. His own house is around a mile down the road. He owns a truck and big water containers. I think it's an 1100-gallon tank that fits on the truck.  He hauls water from his house to the farm and fills several other large containers to water the multiple fields. He's rigged drains to the two greenhouses to collect rainwater and hopefully feed the plants inside in the future. But most of the property needs water from elsewhere. It takes him fifty-four found trips to his home to fill the giant water tanks. Imagine the time and complexity of that. That's one hundred eight miles of driving for water. Ideally, he wouldn't do that much, but this Summer, it rained twice. He hauled a lot of water in that truck. With the water in the tanks, he then watered the fields by hand! Talk about carrying the water. He is rigging drip line systems, and he had one complete at my visit, to avoid the labor of hand irrigation in the future.
One of the water tanks at a field

The plots themselves seem very organized, with slightly raised 50' beds of four rows each. To be sure, there are weeds, but the layout seems particularly well planned. And it is. The crops are rotated according to family, so that a certain crop sees the same ground every 4-6 years. This cornerstone practice of organic farming helps dissuade insects and diseases. He keeps detailed records about his seeds and how they fair, both for certification requirements and to learn from his specific land. Unlike any number of folks I've spoken to who are daunted by the record keeping required for organic certification, Tom sees it as an important part of farming. I know my own efforts to track the details of my garden always seem to taper off over time, though I recognize the importance even in the home garden.

A major practice is seed saving: this are pollination cages to guarantee true seed

Another key practice is the winter cleanup. This is one area I definitely lag in within my own garden. Good thing I'm not a farmer. I usually find myself raking off the soggy leaf piles just after the crocuses have broken through, reminding me that Spring is coming. Last year though, we had three massive snow storms. The first came in mid-December and the cold and the follow-on storms prevented Tom from finishing his clean up before the perennials broke out in early spring. The consequence? Bean beetles destroyed his crop this year. And along with the rest of the mid-Atlantic, he's been terrorized by stink bugs. After my visit, I was more motivated to clean up this Winter. We'll see.

Now that we've had some rain, Tom's Fall plants seem to be coming along well. I always look forward to the bags of lettuce, and I love how he sells his cooking greens complete with roots. (I have no idea why does that, nor why it appeals!) Besides selling at the Tuesday and Sunday farmer's markets in Westminster, he runs a forty-three member CSA.

The CSA gives him some operating cash each year, but not a lot of wiggle room. A CSA isn't a very reliable business model (imho), however there aren't a lot of options for Tom and other small farmers to cope with their annual upfront costs. He juggles a lot of credit cards, rotating debt to keep cash available. In one conversation, he explained that if people thought it was tough to get a loan in this economy, it was nearly impossible for a small business like his to do so. Instead, they have to creatively manage their finances. When they have unexpected losses, like may had from the drought this year, or like Green Akeys had when a fox killed his chickens overnight - they have to absorb the loss somehow. You can only charge so much for a tomato. This year, instead of being about 75% of his income, his CSA is closer to 90% of his income. If you crunch the numbers, it ain't good. No gold is being made off this small venture.

So, I guess that's why I asked whether he was glad or not. And like he said, maybe glad isn't the word. I think passionate might be.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cheese Conquest

When I finally got around to reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about a year ago, I was taken by the small section on cheese making. I love cheese. And it smacked of self-sufficiency. I love that stuff, too. I had visited cheese farms in the Netherlands, and in Switzerland. They were small farms, but I still left with the feeling that making cheese was some archaic art that took lost of equipment and experience. Here Kingsolver was suggesting that it didn't, at least for some cheese. No special equipment and thirty minutes of their day. Craziness.

Some months later, I did a bit more Internet research, ordered a book from Amazon and convinced myself that soft-cheeses weren't that hard. And, how cool would that be, making cheese. Who makes cheese? It's that kind of thing. The book I had showed a number of easy cheeses - well, it claimed there were 200, but reviewing those, I decided there was a difference in our definition of easy. Still, I sought out the Kingsolver recommended New England Cheesemaking Company for supplies. One of their products is a 30-minute mozzarella and ricotta kit. Roaming the site, I also discovered yogurt and the yogatherm, and I now make righteous whole milk yogurt every week, but that's a different story.

About six months ago, my cheese kit and other supplies arrived. The Cheese Queen, Ricki, said that you could often use store bought milk, just normal store milk. The key is that it can't be ultra-pasteurized, because the high temperatures of UP kill everything, good and bad, and make cheese formulation impossible. Of course, she recommended too that you use the most local milk possible for the best cheese. Lacking a readily available local milk supply and confidence in my cheese making ability, I went with the store label. it was packaged in Landover, MD. It was pasteurized and homogenized. And $2.60 /gallon; cheap enough to fail.

But, I didn't fail. It also didn't take me thirty minutes. The first attempt was a good hour and, over time, I got it closer to 45 minutes, maybe less. But sure enough, our gallon of milk converted into a tasty pound of mozzarella. My son loved helping. It's a weird enough process to be fun for kids. Over the last six months, I've made the mozzarella probably 5 times, and several other cheeses like ricotta and fromage blanc, too. All with success.

So last week, I decided, I needed to overcome my irrational dislike of eggplant (it's purple), and at least supplant that with something rational (it doesn't taste good). I've never cooked eggplant, I don't recall eating  it more than once, but the farmer's market is chock-a-block now with eggplant in different shapes, sizes, and colors. I was going to give it a whirl. I decided the long lavender coloured ones were the coolest, and that I would transform them into eggplant parmesan. What's more perfect than that when you can make your own mozzarella ??!  I figured, I just had to love eggplant then.  So, on Columbus Day afernoon, I set about making cheese. I was also mucking with the eggplant, so I was slightly distracted. To my dismay, the cheese didn't take. Instead of stretchy curds, I had thick papermache goo. Ugh. You are kidding me. I must have done something wrong. Rummaging around the fridge, I was able to scrounge up another gallon, exactly, of milk, and gave it another whirl. It seemed better. Curds formed, and then,... everything fell apart. I had thicker goo. An hour-and-a-half in, no cheese, complete failure. No eggplant parmesan.

I went on the website and started researching. It turns out that a lot of manufacturers are increasing the temperature of their pasteurization to the point of being nearly ultra-pasteurized. They don't have to label it that way because it hasn't hit the magic mark, but you simply can't make cheese with it. Ricki showed pictures of various stages of overheated milk in the mozzarella process, and sure enough, I'd seen them: looks like curds, then bam! it all falls apart. But, I still wasn't 100% convinced and I was ending on a failure note. Not good. Her answer: use local milk.  So, Wednesday, I made my way to the MOMs Organic Market in Jessup for the first time, seeking non-UP local milk. I found Trickling Springs there. A gallon of organic milk is $5.99, but it is from Maryland and promised not to be high temperature pasteurized.

My son and I set about conquering the cheese. I was determined we were going out on a high note. What we discovered was that all of our previous successes were borderline. When you made the cheese from local milk, your process actually looked like the pictures in the manual from the cheese kit! The curds were, as you'll see below, like real curds. In the past, they'd always been a bit suspect. In the end, we had fabulous cheese. Textbook. Still forty-five minutes. We ate a good chunk right then and there, and had ourselves a European supper of cold cuts, cheese, and fruit.
The curds look like curds!

The bowl of finished curds

Kenai stretches the hot cheese - it is HOT!

I also collected the whey from the cheese. Since milk is mostly water, you get nearly 4 quarts of whey from making the cheese. In the past, I was just focused on getting the cheese done and the whey didn't seem clear enough. Why whey? It's high in protein (think energy bars) and other nutrients. It can be used  in a wide range of recipes (Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, for example, is full of them) or beverages. You can make bread with it, as the New England Cheesemaking Company suggests. And when you've done all that work, tossing it feels like you're tossing something valuable. You are. It's not water, it's whey.  I kept about 3-1/2 quarts of our whey this time.

Lemonade?! No, Whey!
(the caption above can be attributed to my 8-year old)

The final product - cheese balls! 
The cheese can be used right away or can be wrapped in saran wrap and stored in the fridge for a few weeks. The other cheese in the "supper" picture is a soft white cheese called Fromagina. It's kind of like Fromage Blanc, and is much easier to make.