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