Thursday, June 23, 2011

It's Berry Pickin' Time Again

With our stores from last year nearly depleted, we headed to Larriland Farm in Woodbine this morning to do a little berry picking. Well, ideally, we would have done a lot of berry picking. The blueberry, raspberry, and sour cherries were all picking "good", according to the farm's website. The weather here for nearly two weeks has been a daily dose of grey punctuated by a little rain and a little thunder. This morning was no different, but we decided to head out anyway. Midweek mornings are certainly the best time to pick at a large pick-your-own place like Larriland.... last Summer we met a friend a few times around noon on a Saturday for picking. Wowza. The only thing you get is a little perspective of the life of an immigrant farm worker. My goal this year is to stick to mornings and whenever I can, midweek.

blueberries look great
The blueberry bushes looked absolutely fabulous, spikes of grey-blue berries filled each bush. Unfortunately, it was deceiving. Many, if not most, of the berries were still a bit underripe. I'd guess in two or three days - like Saturday ! - they'll be fabulous and easy picking. There were lots of ripe berries but separating them from underripe ones by eye or feel is something I find difficult. Luckily, we don't mind a little tang. Still, I picked only 7lbs of blueberries, where I would have gone 15-20lbs if the picking were "excellent". Frustrated, we moved on after time to the black raspberries.

They were, on the other hand, picking "excellent". Black berries hung in huge bunches from every vine in row after row of berries. This leads to an almost impulsive picking frenzy, I think.... you say, I've got plenty, but then, making to leave, you see another beautiful bunch and, naturally, have to take that one too. So, we ended up with nearly 3.5lbs of raspberries, which have a much shorter lifespan than blueberries.

Black raspberries were plentiful and easy to pick
We like picking at Larriland. They have a mob of very courteous high school students working at each station and it's clear that it's a family business. They use Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which for the fruit means, there is definitely spraying going on, but hopefully through the expensive consultants they use, the chemical usage is minimized. We'll head back in the next few weeks to get more blueberries and stock up on tart cherries, then we'll go back again at the end of July or early August for peaches. Now that I've kept track of how much we stored and what we consumed (everything), I have a pretty good sense of what we should buy.

Folks picking at Larriland Farms

Larriland Farms

Given the pile of berries I had, I decided to try making some freezer jam this afternoon. Ok, in all honesty, I saw these cool looking freezer jam containers at the store and now I needed to use them. Besides, I was curious how we would like the taste of fresh jam, when we are so used to the cooked fruit jams. Hands down, the freezer jam wins on time. From start to finish, it took me 15 minutes (!!) to make and jar two half-pints of blueberry jam. Another 15 minutes for the black raspberry. And included in that time was running the fruit through the food mill to remove the seeds and skins. So, I actually made black raspberry jelly.  I never make jelly; way too much work. 

In this case, all you do is crush your fruit. I ran through mine a food mill... the blueberry with a large opening to remove the skins and the raspberries with a fine opening to remove seeds. A few minutes later I had the requisite 1-2/3 cups crushed fruit. In a bowl, mix 2/3 cups sugar with 2 Tbsp of instant pectin. Add the fruit and mix by hand for three minutes. Pour into containers. Let set. Ta-da! Jam. It took about 30 minutes for a light set of the jam, and a few hours later, they have a nice thick consistency, better than I tend to get with canning.  You can probably do 4-6 jars at once, but I wanted to check this all out first, so I just did a few. Absolutely fabulous.

blueberries in the food mill

The food mill separates the pulp from the skins
Add the pulp to the sugar and pectin, mix, and you are done !
This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday !

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Trip to the Olney Farmers Market and the Season's First Canning

Music at the Olney Farmers Market
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me to accompany her to the Olney Farmers Market. This Sunday morning market boasts live music and cooking demonstrations, with a location not too far outside of Washington, D.C.  I am hoping to visit a variety of markets in the area this Summer to see what is out there. The Olney market is larger than the Westminster market I'm used to, for sure. In addition to produce, there are vendors for a variety of ethnic foods, olive oil, bread, super-fancy baklava, and a handful of other handmade items. It has a nice vibe to it. The location is larger than Westminster, and on a nice green area. The music was good, and the Indian curry I had was outstanding. My friend's mother watched a bit of the cooking demonstration, and was impressed by the chef. All of those extras really provide a lot of life to the market and entice people to stay a bit longer. I even ran into friends I hadn't seen in a long time, who encouraged me to buy some of the bread. Zeke's Coffee vends there, as well, which was a yummy surprise.

I was less impressed by the produce vendors.There were only two local organic farms at the market that day and two or three large farms from Virginia, which were conventional. I was surprised to find this and disappointed, given the proximity to D.C. Doing more web investigating, it looks like the Olney market does indeed have a larger set of local farms, including Kayam, a Jewish organic farm near Finksburg. I think it was just too early in the season, and so they were not there. I'll have to check the market again at the height of the season and see what it is like.

The cooking demo at the Olney market - you can see the market in background

I did buy spinach from the organic Sligo Creek Farm and I really wanted to buy garlic from another small vendor, AvianMead Produce, but they were sold out. Both farms are in Brookeville, Md. Sligo Creek looks like a great place to try and visit -- 12 acres is farmed on the 140-acre property. I was very impressed with their salad greens. According to their information sheet, they also sell at the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park on Wednesdays (3-7pm) and Silver Spring Market on Saturday mornings.

There was also nice cheese from Palmyra Farm near Hagerstown. Like Bowling Green Farm nearby in Howard County, Palmyra Farm is a dairy farm that had decided to reinvent itself as a cheese company in order to sustain its business. Most cheese from Maryland is made in Pennsylvania, but Palmyra has hooked up with a cheesemaker in Hagerstown to produce their cheeses.  Palmyra is also selling at several local restaurants and markets, including the Common Market in Frederick.

Prepping the strawberry haul for freezing - sugar helps preserve taste and texture

On the way home from that outing, we decided to stop by TLV Tree Farm, in Glenelg, Md. on the chance that they still had some strawberries to be picked. I had picked there on Memorial Day weekend this year and found the picking slim, so our hopes weren't too high. Lucky for us, the picking was great and the strawberries sweet and juicy. TLV uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) on their farm. We ended up picking probably six quarts or so, enough to make a strawberry tiramisu-like dessert - our standy favourite - and freeze some. This week, I converted about six cups of the frozen strawberry slices and some fresh rhubarb into jam. In a total of 45 minutes, I had 8 jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam. Every two weeks, in about 30 minutes, I make two quarts of whole milk plain yogurt for the family. Throughout the year, we mix in various jams and jellies, either made or acquired, to create our fruit flavored yogurts. This is actually the first year making strawberry jam for us, but it turned out most excellent.

This post is part of the Real Food Wednesday and Simple Lives Thursday blogrolls. Please check them out and their host sites for what's going on across the country and internationally in the Real Food world.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Love Dove Farms

Love Dove Farms, Woodbine, Md.
John Dove's family is living the story you read about in books. Not the fairy tale kind of story, but the kind highlighted by Michael Pollan and so many others about the plight of the American farmer. A fourth generation farmer in northwestern Howard County, the family's dairy business fell by the wayside a few decades ago, and John's father turned to conventional grain and soy crops to make money. When he could no longer feed a family with four kids by toiling in the fields, he didn't sell their land to a big developer, he got a job. When he's not working the fields, John's dad is delivering fuel. But John's got big dreams for this beautiful farmland and they don't involve Monsanto. John hopes to figure out how to scale an organic sustainable farm to the point he can earn a decent living and be part of changing consumers' choices to a healthier way of life.

Love Dove Farms lies off Old Frederick Road nestled in an expanse of rolling hills of grain fields. Here, John, his father, and grandmother live on about 200 acres that the family has farmed since the early 20th century. That's a significant difference from the majority of organic farmers I know. While most are farming and living in 5-10 acre plots, Love Dove Farms really does have the capacity to scale, if he can work out a healthy ecosystem. So even though this is John's first year selling organically grown produce, he hasn't started small. We toured his three large plots together, and I was impressed by the quantity and variety of plants he's got in the ground. Several long rows of garlic, their scapes and browning foliage indicating he'll soon be pulling hundreds of bulbs from the ground. There are, of course, all of the usual suspects: heirloom tomatoes, radishes, various greens, potatoes, peas, peppers, and herbs. But there are also blueberry bushes, as well as several rows of asparagus, and he's trying his hand at organically grown chick peas. The magnitude is huge when you consider he's doing it almost entirely alone.
Looky at all that organic asparagus!
This is what 40lbs of garlic plants look like -wow

Besides coming from a family of farmers, John earned a degree in environmental science, and he's interned as part of the Young Farmer's program. While still in college, he interned with Serpent Ridge winery, a fabulous Maryland winery out of Westminster. Last year, he worked for Calvert's Gift Farm, a 5-acre organic farm in Sparks, Md. that has proven they can provide for a lot of families without a lot of land.  Since 2009, they have sponsored a New Farmer's Training Program with the University of Maryland with the goal of increasing the number of young farmers, particularly in Baltimore County. There he learned a lot of tricks of the trade, including hand methods for working the soil and maintaining an organic farm.

One of the huge challenges he and other small organic farmers face is how to manage the heavy physical demands of many organic practices while producing and selling enough to keep afloat. The hourly wage of farmers using all manual practices is extremely low. John talked about an organic farm in Salsbury he visited recently, where they have incorporated some technologies that help reduce the manual labor. At that farm, they have also integrated produce and livestock into a holistic system. John finds that very appealing. We walk down one of the many long rows of tomatoes , and I ask whether he rips the buds of arterial shoots - side shoots that grow at the join with the main vine. Ideally you want to cut all these off so that your tomato plant puts its energy into producing fruit. The trouble with this is as summer begins, tomatoes grow like crazy, and if you don't grab these shoots quickly, they'll be thick stems in a few days. In other words, it's very man intensive. As we walk along pinching plants, we both agree it'll be nearly impossible for him to do this for his plot through the season. That's the difference, or a difference, in garden scale and farm scale.
Love Dove Farms - a look over the main field

In this first year of business, John is selling at a few farmers' markets and restaurants. On Friday, he is at the Howard County Hospital market in Columbia from 2-6 pm. This small market offers a nice variety of produce and baked goods, as well as local cheese and coffee. On Saturday, he is trekking south toward D.C. to sell at the Mt. Rainier market. He's also made deals to sell to Aida Bistro, a yummy Italian wine bar in Columbia, and to Drovers Wine and Grill in Mount Airy. I've always found Aida excellent and love their dedication to locally sourcing their foods. Drovers is not a place I'm familiar with, but they sell only Maryland wine. I look forward to checking it out. Another dream of his is to sell at Centennial Lake in Columbia on the weekend. What a great idea! If you've ever been there, you know the throngs of health conscious folks who descend on the park to circumnavigate the lake on its paved 2 mile trail or to take a spin on a canoe or paddle boat. I imagine this would be a great setting for farm fresh local produce.

One of my particular soap boxes is that in Central Maryland there is this geographic separation between the bulk of organic consumers and producers. In Carroll County, the number of organic farmers is really quite remarkable. There is a strong enough community of farmers and like-minded individuals in the County to put on the Sustainable Living Maryland (or Go Local) Fair for several years now. This year, the fair had over 1500 visitors, indicating that there is a lot of interest from our residents. But, there is no doubt that Howard County has a much larger consumer base. There are several large organic markets in or adjacent to Howard County, where Carroll County has none. On the other hand, while western Howard County is every bit as agricultural as Carroll County, there really aren't many organic farmers in the area. Several farms are using IPM (integrated pest management), but not many are fully incorporating organic practices. That is why I was so glad to meet John at the market. His story is really quite different from all the other farmers I have interviewed, and I think he's in a great position to realize his dreams of keeping the family farm going organically. Give him a visit and wish him well. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Howard County Hospital Farmers Market and Food Sources

Every Friday afternoon this Summer, under a small band of white tents, you'll find a local farmer's market in the parking lot at Howard County Hospital in Columbia. The market runs from 2-6pm and has a few produce vendors, cheese, baked goods, and coffee. I stumbled upon it last week when I was in the area and was delighted to find a few farmers that will be perfect to profile on this blog. I'm visiting the first of them tomorrow and hopefully will have something out next week on that trip. For those who can make a weekday afternoon market, maybe on the way home from work, I'd recommend a stop. Here's a few notes on those I met last week.

Bowling Green Farm was there selling a wide range of cheese from their northern Howard County dairy herd. Almost every day that we drive south on Rt. 32 toward Columbia, we pass a group of cows grazing in hilly pastures by the side of the highway. The land is a bit hilly with a small dirt road that runs to the back of it, an assortment of craggy trees and a small stream. It's a bit hard to describe, but this little snippet of land - a mere few seconds in view as you speed down the highway - is picturesque in the context of cows. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had over the years about these cows with folks, all wondering to whom they belonged. I thought I'd solved the mystery for a minute at the market. Mitzi of Bowling Green Farm told me that their dairy farm is off Underwood Road. Indeed, I am quite familiar with the entrance to their family farm, marked by a small sign that heralds its family tradition. But, I'd also been assuming that this must be the source of our famous (ok, stretch) cows. Alas, I was wrong. Mitzi said those can't be her cows and the mystery continues.

Having said that, we did talk briefly about her farm and cheese. When I can get her time, I'll do an in-depth interview and write a profile for the blog. I'm quite curious about the history of her farm and how she ended up in the cheese business last Fall. Like most Maryland farms, they are taking their milk up to Pennsylvania and having cheese made there. They have a wide range of cheese, including mozzarella and feta, in addition to the standard cheddars and herbed-cheeses. They've been busy marketing, and the cheeses are actually available at a few markets - including Roots and David's (I think) - as well as farms with stores, like Larriland Farms. We tried the feta, and it was great in a spinach strawberry salad.

I also met John Dove of Love Dove Farm in Woodbine. I'm heading to see him tomorrow afternoon for a discussion and tour of the farm, but a quick look through his website shows that he comes from a long line of farmers and had farmed conventionally for some time in other crops. This is his first year selling organic produce and I'm really looking forward to hearing about his change and what his future looks like. We bought some wonderful spinach from him to go with that feta cheese. Last week he also had a salad mix, radishes, garlic scapes (yum yum), and a handful of other produce items that are escaping my mind right now.  More to come on the farm, the farmer, and how to connect to buy food!

A number of new readers have asked me specifically about sourcing organic or local foods, so they are much more interested in farmer profiles than my ramblings about my own journey... can't blaim them! but, over time it becomes a bit hard to track down the specific profiles. Here is a list of farms that I profiled last year -- the easiest way to find them is to click on their farm name in the word cloud to the right and then follow the link to the specific post about them, usually that's the earliest one. This will also take you to their own websites or blogs. Since the CSA season is now over for sign-up, I'm not going to note that here... just what you could actually obtain from the farm this summer. 

Truffula Seed Produce -- produce
Green Akeys Farm -- various meat
Nev-R-Dun Farm -- produce
Thorne Family Farm-- produce (I haven't done the full profile yet, but several mentions)
White Rose Farm -- produce and meat
Serpent Ridge Winery - wine
Furnace Hill Roasters - coffee
Sweet Simplici-tea -- tea house
Sattva Place - chickens (not profiled, but mentioned)

Most of these folks are at the downtown Westminster Farmers Market, which is 8-12 in downtown Westminster. I might have missed a few.