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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Greener Grass?

Rabbit houses and Dottie
When you pull up the drive of Green Akeys farm outside of Westminster, it's hard to imagine only a few years ago the owners were a suburban family. The more than 62 acres undulates like a prototypical Carroll County scene. Big open pastures, divided by fencing, are lined by dense woods. A handful of outbuildings, a barn, and a modest farm house. Behind the farm house lies a small grove of trees that is totally out of place. The remnants of a former nursery on the land, a large blue spruce and other ornamental specimens create an appealing, if slightly overgrown, stand. On one side of the drive lie large garden beds, and across the field on the other you can make out a herd of sheep. From the entrance here you can't see the chickens. But they are there, up on a distant hill. Occasionally the two great Pyrenees that guard the flock come into view as they patrol their perimeter. This is what you see as your eye pans the landscape. As the car rolls up the hill, you're first greeted by the dogs.

Dottie and Frank, especially Dottie, make you feel welcome. They'll gladly chase the ball for hours if you're willing. Otherwise they'll lie down nearby and hang out for awhile. They're farm dogs and it all fits the image of the family farm.

Passing into the barn, looking past the large freezers and various farm accoutrements, you will finally notice the goats. Well, first you'll notice the goat's ears. The big floppy ears of the Newbian goat look like those on a bunny rabbit you cooned over as a kid. The Akeys have four of these goats, two they are milking, two are youngsters. Besides being cute and friendly, they provide the family with a gallon of milk a day. Milk they use for cheese, yogurt, and cereal. Michael Akeys does the milking twice a day, and he points out that he spends 15 minutes twice a day, while most people spend a lot longer, twice a day, commuting between home and work.

One of the milking goats

This one's still a kid...
In addition to the goats, sheep, and chickens, there are steer and rabbits on the property. Most of the animals are being raised for meat production. The sheep are a heritage breed called Khatadin, which are hair sheep, rather than wool sheep. Their skin does no contain lanolin, and so their meat has a less distinct "lamb" flavor. Michael thinks the sheep are the most cost effective meat to raise on the farm, particularly when you compare beef to the lamb.

There are both layer chickens, for egg production, and meat chickens. The chickens are pastured on a large plot of land some distance from the farm house. Unlike some farms, most famously Polyface Farm, the chickens are not being rotated through the entire farm as part of an intensive management program. Nor do they have free rein of the 62 acres. But they are on a large open pasture: This hasn't been without its challenges. Foxes ravaged the flock on multiple occasions this spring. That's why there are two big white dogs in the pasture today. Their arrival has put an end to the fox problem.

Picture this setting and then imagine accomplishing this much in only a few short years. For most folks, building a fourteen member CSA would alone take two years. Do that with organic practices and toss in a variety of pastured livestock and poultry (of course there are turkeys too), and you simply have to shake your head in amazement. The first explanation might be that they're from a farm family, but they're from Chicago. Another explanation might be that they have lots of hired help, but they're doing it themselves, except for a small CSA time commitment. No matter how you look at it, there's no denying this family has jumped in with both feet.
CSA Members Collect from the list on the board

Green Akeys Farm has been in business for two summer seasons now. Last year, the family began raising pastured poultry and I originally met them selling at the Westminster farmers market. This year they added a fourteen member CSA, and dropped the markets altogether. Michael Akeys, once stay-at-home dad with their three kids, principally runs the farm. His wife has an outside job and tends a lot to the produce. In their previous suburban home, they grew what they could without land, including lots of container tomatoes. Now they have the freedom to grow what they want.

I asked Michael about the growth of their farm and learned something entirely new. Farm infrastructure is a costly investment and farm income from small ventures is, well, small. to get into the pastured livestock business, for example, would require some $100K in fencing for their farm. Then there's high tunnels for produce and irrigation equipment. The Akeys have taken advantage of government programs that support the growth of sustainable farming through cost sharing with the farmer. I had no idea there were such programs and I have never heard of the managing organization, the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). But sure enough, a web search reveals an organic transition program, for example, and touts success stories. So far, the Akeys have taken advantage of the option to install fencing, and they plan to build a high tunnel in the next year. Of course, restrictions do apply. They are committed to keep livestock, for example, for some number of years. They also can't heat the high tunnel and create a greenhouse.  But in the face of huge start up costs, these restrictions seem small.

Looking toward the future, the high tunnel and a more sophisticated irrigation system are priorities. This summer was a lesson to all the local farmers how unforgiving nature can be. Many were left rigging awkward irrigation systems to battle weeks of dry weather. The Akeys had cheap drip hose from the hardware store that proved inefficient and under effective.

They are experimenting a lot with the business of farming. What's the best niche for their land and resources? While maintaining a goal of farming ethically, they are trying different models. This year, that included only direct sales and a small CSA. Next year, they may divide the CSA into an early and late part, focusing on the produce of the border seasons and avoiding the high competition center of the season. They expect to continue making cheese from goat's milk at home, with the possibility of focusing on cheese sales a few years in the future. The sheep have proven an excellent investment, and they're here to stay. Hopefully the new dogs have eliminated their poultry problems, and while they experiment with pricing models, Michael thinks he's found the breeds he wants to continue to grow. The steer may not make the long term game plan. Pasturing cattle takes a lot of land - my primary source has about 120 acres - and is a large investment. One might look at this as dabbling, and I guess it is. But sustainable farming isn't about incredible sacrifice. To be successful, we consumers can't allow it to be. We need to support fair wages and be willing to close our mind's eye to the great deal we could get at the local Walmart. We have to swallow hard and spend our money on high quality food, provided ethically and in accordance with its true cost. We have to support farmer's paths as they discover how to feed the community and their family. So that's how I look at Green Akeys "plan" - a path to decision making that ultimately reflects the perspectives of both the Akeys and their customers.

The pumpkin patch at Green Akeys Farm

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Squirrel Family

I was reminded yesterday of one of the many reasons we try to eat locally as much as possible: children. Not children's health, though that's key, but children's connection with their food. And I got a new moniker along the way. I do have a few other blog entries written which I'll post soon from farm visits, but this story  illustrates why this is so important to us.

Last weekend, we went apple picking at Larriland's with a few friends. Picking itself is just a great community activity. The kids got to run around, seeking the perfect apple by look and taste, and my friends and I got to catch up as well. We ended up with more than 50 lbs of various apples. Now comes the storage time. Luckily, apples are so much more forgiving than peaches that I can take time to figure out how to use them, rather than spend mad evenings in a canning frenzy.

Applesauce is a staple, of course. We made a batch last weekend. My son loves to use the gadgets, and I've found that is just about the best way to get him heavily involved in his food. This summer, I bought a plunger-style cherry pitter, and he spent hours pitting 40lbs of cherries. A huge help to me, fun for him, and  the cherry jams and dishes mean more because he made them possible. With apples, we have the peeler, corer, slicer deal, which he also loves. So we used that last week for the sauce. I decided then though to invest in a food mill, another simple device that would give us more versatility in the kitchen.

Kenai had a friend over yesterday and I had cooked down a bunch of apples in a crock pot. The kids got a huge kick out of running the cooked apples through the food mill, separating the seeds and peel from the pulp into an even-textured sauce. His friend was absolutely delighted.

"You could use this for all kinds of things, like pears or peaches!", she exclaimed,
"Yep. You could. Or tomatoes.", I replied
"Then you could make ketchup! Can we make ketchup next?"

She took the fact that we weren't making ketchup that day in stride and asked, "do you make a lot of home made things?"
"Yes, we do. A lot."
"For storage?"
"Yep, so we can store the food for the winter."
"So, you're like a squirrel family!"
"Well, yes, I guess we are...."
"except, squirrels don't have food mills.", she finished.
No, they don't. Food mills are cool.

I then got out all the various spices... ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice... and the kids took samples of the sauce and spiced them in their bowls. They needed to find the right spice mixture. In the end, pumpkin pie spice with extra cinnamon and a dash of ginger was the winning combo. They tried the final result before we canned it. "Awesome!" and "You can't get applesauce like this in the store!"

Statements like that make you feel great. Or at least, make me feel great. When her mom picked her up, my son's friend told her how she had made applesauce and how the thing that made it perfect was the dash of ginger. Her idea. Like Josie and Shawn had done with me, giving me a pint of their precious, gorgeous dried beans, I gave her a jar of the canned applesauce. She earned it.

So, we are indeed a squirrel family. What a great label.

I'm not a true foodie, so I'll leave all the fancy recipes to others with food blogs, but if you are looking for simple things to do with apples this fall, there is a great recipe for fresh apple salsa on That's one of my new favourites. Another thing to do is chop up apples, walnuts, add raisins and a bit of brown sugar, and cook down for a bit. Bake up Pepperidge Farms pastry puff shells and pour over the mixture. You have a great, simple dessert in under 30 minutes and about 5 minutes of effort.