Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Nature's Candy

Want a sweet and tasty snack that your kids might even choose over their dwindling bag of Halloween candy? Dry some apples! You will end up with chewy, unbelievably sweet morsels of happiness. You will put a lot of work into them and they will disappear shockingly quickly. But really, the work is well worth it!

Follow along with me as I dry up a big batch myself!

1). Borrow a food dehydrator. You could always buy one if you have cash laying around, but maybe you have a really nice family member like I do who buys lots of food gadgets, and then lets you use them, sometimes for months on end. ;) If the weather is perfect (i.e. it's still mid-summer) and you want to get really rustic, try drying your apples outside on a warm day. Two ideas that intrigue me (and that I may be crazy enough to try with the kids next summer): 
                        *put the fruit on trays on and put them in your car
                        *lay the fruit out on your trampoline on a hot day, covering it with mesh

Let's say that you have a food dehydrator handy, though, and electricity. Here's the one I borrowed:

2). Get your apples ready. I found the most efficient way to get somewhat-uniform apples was this step by step process:
                          *Cut a big old mess of apples up, using an apple corer-slicer. Put a dark colored towel under your workspace; the sticky juice that oozes every time you use the slicer will stain the towel if it's white. Trust me, I know. Make a mountian of apples, and don't worry that some of the apples will have bad spots or mushy yucky parts--you will sort them out as you peel them in the next step. Just keep going, shoving that slicer through the apples like you are on a slicing marathon. Beware: you will get juice everywhere, your hands will get very sticky, and juice will spray into your eyes on multiple occasions.

                              *Wash your hands of all the stickiness so that you are clean and fresh for the next step. Peel each apple segment with your favorite knife. Depending on the size of the apple it came from, you may need to slice the segment in half. Throw all the segments into a big bowl as you go along. You want all the pieces to be somewhat similar in size, but it's not even close to rocket science--they will all dry eventually.

                                    *Dump the segments onto the trays of the food dehydrator and spread them around so that no edges are not touching. No need to be perfect. Though if I do say so myself...mine look spread out pretty perfectly. It was my third batch of apples--what can I say, I'm becoming a natural.

                                     *Dry the apples for the time recommended on the dehydrator. I didn't have a manual to refer to, so I did an internet search, which gave me the very precise time of anywhere between 7 to 24 hours. Since I don't believe in specific times for anything anyway, I just opened the lid and checked the apples every hour or so. After about 8 hours, my apples had a perfect chew to them. You want to avoid getting them so dry they are brittle, but you definitely want all the moisture out of them so that they will keep on your shelf for months.
                                       *Open the finished product right up on the table around a gaggle of children. For some reason leaving the apples in the dehydrator is more appealing than ever. They will dive in on it, peeling each dried apple off the trays to put right in their mouth, and think you are amazing.

If there are some dried apples left, pack them up in airtight containers.
If not devoured, they will stay good through the winter.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rethinking the Turkey

Ahh, Thanksgiving. Family, friends, pie, buttons on the pants becoming unbearably tight. It's a harvest celebration, when all the summer crops have been picked, stored, and preserved, and we make a humble attempt to be truly thankful to all that earth has provided us.

Some have the day off, some have to work, some choose to volunteer on Thanksgiving. Some will have to rely on the kindness of others to receive any semblance of that beloved bountiful meal that epitomizes the day. No matter what the personal situation, as a culture, our attention is turned to the idea of a table filled with food that we will share with people we care about and love.

Of course, a side dish of guilt goes along with the meal.  While it's a very real representation of family get-togethers and homecomings, Thanksgiving is also a day when moral issues can tug at that precarious inner sense of peace. Beyond all the current heartache unfolding in all corners of our planet--which we can insulate ourselves from for at least a day--are the bigger truths behind the heart of Thanksgiving.

I'm not going to get into depth about our confused sense of history, even if the traditions and false fairy tales beg to be debunked. Much has been written in attempts to analyze our complicated history, and the information has been more readily available to us than ever before. Each of us is responsible for recognizing the wounds of our past if we ever hope to reconcile and improve our present. Though it's crucial, this post is not an analysis of the Thanksgiving Story--this post is about the TURKEY.

The controversy may not be as obvious as our historical struggles; most families, most people, do not give the turkey a second thought. It's just there, purchased from the grocery store and prepared in any number of traditional ways that have been passed down for generations. Who wants to harbor even more guilty feelings about our lovely holiday--isn't it enough to solemnly remember that history isn't as clean and simple as we would love to believe? Who wants to debate what is on the table, and how it got there? Not to mention that in a very real sense, the cooking of the turkey ties us to our past. We can bite into a slice of turkey and realize that our great-great-grandmother probably did the very same thing, and we get a true sense of belonging, continuance. A Thanksgiving meal without a turkey would be unthinkable to a good majority of American homes.

But that centerpiece, the perfectly roasted bird, is a glaring symbol of some of our current ethical dilemmas, all history aside. The industrial production of food has been more closely examined in recent years than ever before, and the negative effects of factory farms in particular are astounding. Our environment suffers, our society suffers as we compound our reliance on a completely unsustainable system, and the birds themselves suffer. When raised and processed conventionally, turkey production is another of those uncomfortable truths that I think everyone needs to take a peek at. One of the most trusted names for Thanksgiving turkeys, Butterball, has had criminal convictions in the past for its treatment of animals, and as this undercover video shows, they continue to callously hurt the birds they raise.

I am not a vegetarian, though I respect the lifestyle. I admit, that even if I think meat has played a part in the human diet for many thousands of years, in today's world meat eating has become insanely excessive and completely unnatural. I would love for those of us who are not vegetarians to seek out a better choice for our Thanksgiving turkeys. Factory farm birds are mistreated, abused, and frankly, just not natural. They have been bred to develop such large bodies in such a short amount of time that they cannot hold themselves up on their own feet. They lead miserable short lives, with no sunlight or fresh air.

Seeking out a humane turkey is a step in the right direction. www.Eatwild.com is a great resource that will help those who want to find humane, natural, sustainable meat year-round, including the Thanksgiving feast bird. CLICK HERE to find a farm that will provide meat from animals who have lived a good, clean life. If meat stays in your diet, seeking out local, sustainable, and ethical farms is a favor you can do for yourself AND your environment.

The controversy gets even deeper if you look at some of the claims made by PETA and die-hard vegans. Many animal-rights activists claim that even on farms on which a turkey is allowed a natural, more pleasant life, the slaughter of the animals is never done in a humane way. The cone method of killing chickens and turkeys is widely used on small sustainable farms, and deemed humane by many--however, there are those who have seen it firsthand and don't agree. I have not watched poultry slaughter, and I think that I really should, to make my own informed choice, as should everyone. Looking death in the eye is one of the most important aspects of eating meat, though very few of us actually do. I have a sneaking suspicion that if meat was considered in its true form--from birth, through life, to death--and not just available in a neat and tidy package in the grocery store, that many would deeply rethink the animals in their diet. If you are vegan or vegetarian and are not going to be eating any meat, period, CLICK HERE for a list of options to replace the turkey with. 

If you do one thing differently this Thanksgiving, rethink the turkey on your table. Butterball and other factory farms see a huge boost in sales every Thanksgiving as millions of families prepare their feasts. We can all help lessen the downward spiral of the industrial food system by seeking sustainable, humane meat, or foregoing the bird entirely.

Peace, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sprouting an Urban Farm

Hey, Fort Wayne folks! Right here in our neck of the woods, Matt and Ann Merritt are attempting to accomplish exactly what I feel like the future needs for our food production. Kudos to their hard work. I plan to visit their booth at our new year-round farmer's market that gathers every first Saturday of the month (see details here), and begin to get to know them. I especially like that as they searched for land, they were dedicated to finding a space that would be accessible to urban and suburban areas, even though they could have found a more rural property. When I picture the future of locally grown food, I see this! I'm so very excited to see real people putting into action all of my ideals!
Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Matt Merritt tours his greenhouse at ATOM Acres. The Merritt family grows vegetables and herbs to sell locally.

Sprouting an urban farm

Couple hopes to expand operation with CSA, classes

Merritt checks his kale for bugs in the greenhouse.
Merritt carves away the comb to harvest his honey.
Matt Merritt, wife, Ann, and sons Trace and Oliver plant kale in the greenhouse at ATOM Acres.
Matt Merritt is standing inside his kitchen on a recent sunny, if chilly, October morning. A beehive, honey dripping from honeycombs, lies in partial disassembly on and under his family’s round oak table.
Merritt pulls out a shelf and starts scraping the caps off one of the combs. Then he’ll place the rack in a hand-cranked centrifuge to extract the honey – a job, he says, that his blonde-haired 3-year-old son, Oliver, likes to “help” with.
“This is our sugar. Well, we sometimes use regular sugar, but we also use this,” the 30-year-old says. “It’s great stuff, because it smells so great.”
His wife, Ann, 26, smiles, while crocheting on a step nearby while the couple’s second son, Trace, 1, naps in another room. “Matt comments all the time about the smell. He says he likes the job because he smells like honey afterward.”
Yes, to Matt and Ann, this is the sweet life – life on what they hope will become a sustainable urban farm.

They call their nearly 6-acre patch of ground at the corner of Bass and Thomas roads ATOM Acres, an acronym made from the initials of family members’ first names.
From their land – across from a housing development and around the corner and down the street from a major local shopping strip – the Merritts plan to provide year-round vegetables, herbs, flowers and other products to area residents – while educating them about food production and preservation.
“This is everything that I thought that I’d need,” says Matt, who came to farming after a stint as a helper to a personal chef in Chicago made him curious about where the high-quality ingredients he was using came from. “Everything,” he says, “just felt right.”
Nonetheless, the two acknowledge theirs is a long row to hoe.
For now, after being able to purchase the land with the help of Matt’s mom and stepfather, Bobbi and Jerry Suetterlin of Fort Wayne, they’ve started with what growers call a hoop house – a plastic sheeted greenhouse – that Matt found at a public sale.
Inside, rows of beds are sprouting spinach, kale, Swiss chard and several kinds of leaf lettuce ready for harvest. The produce will be sold at the year-round farmers market at Parkview Field that is open the first Saturday of each month.
There are also several kinds of herbs and tiny pea vines that will be planted outdoors in the spring – and a germ chamber for sprouting seeds.
On the grounds, about 2 1/2 acres of which are tillable, Matt has eight beds for other vegetables, including broccoli and cabbage now, and tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other produce next year.
His goal, he says, is not just to sell at farmers markets, but to start a community-sponsored agriculture program, or CSA. He’s not quite sure what form it will take – “Winter is a good time for mapping that out,” he says.
But it likely will involve recruiting shareholders who will pay an entry fee and would determine at least in part what foods they’d like to receive.
Still in its earliest stages is converting an existing equipment garage into a facility where produce could be sold – with a kitchen where food could be preserved and classes given.
If all that sounds idealistically lofty, Matt says, well, it is. But he and Ann, who met in a health foods shop when both were living in Hawaii – “I overcharged him for peanut butter one day, so he remembered me,” she says with a smile – also come to the task with a well-suited background.
After working with the chef, Matt went on to study organic farming in a nine-month program at Michigan State University, commuting weekly to East Lansing, Mich., while Ann lived with his parents. There, he learned to manage a hoop house and flower fields, as well the business of structuring and marketing a CSA.

He says with the amount of land he has, and only a slightly larger growing space, the university program supported a 160-member CSA, farmers markets and wholesale sales. “That’s a lot of food,” he says.
Ann grew up on a 400-acre ranch cooperative in Washington, where dairy cows, pigs, goats, chickens, sheep and horses were raised. She says she started gardening, growing “strawberries, potatoes and petunias” at the age of 9.
Later, she lived in Florida and worked for a tree farm and plant nursery while taking botany and related courses at a community college. She says she knew when she met Matt that their goals and experiences meshed.
After leaving Michigan State, Matt tried helping friends raise chickens on a farm for a time. But when his parents said they wanted to help him farm on his own, he started looking for a suitable property.

“We looked everywhere – Waterloo, Syracuse, Bluffton, Avilla. We looked at a place in Leo. We wanted to be within close driving range of markets,” he says. “That’s the problem with famers – they’re not where the people are.”
The land they found was a fluke. It seems as if the land should be within city limits. But it’s actually in Wayne Township and zoned residential/rural agriculture. Other conventional crop lands lie nearby.
By going to farmers’ markets this summer, he’s been building an online newsletter subscription list that he hopes will become a customer base.

“One of our biggest goals,” he adds, “is to have heirloom varieties of vegetables that are beautiful and different,” he says, adding he’d someday like to start another Michigan State idea – “an edible forest” of fruit and nut trees.

“The whole idea is to get back to local food – food that hasn’t sat in a truck for a week and in the store for a week. We need to get out of the industrial revolution mindset when it comes to food that bigger is better. It can be useful in some ways, but maybe it’s not the safest way or the most economical way,” he says.
“Maybe we all need to eat more like farmers eat.”


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bittersweet Bites

Because I am very new to the beginning-to-end process of growing food, I don't have a specific--or heck, even a general--mental timetable yet. I don't have memorized, from experience, what is supposed to come first, what crops come and go different during seasons, and what is an average date for the summer crops to be absolutely finished.

I do know, however, that finding these surprises, just a few days ago in November, is not a common experience. I know this just by reading books. By browsing seed catalogs and looking at a zone chart. By listening to seasoned gardeners and food growers around me. November 3 is not a 'normal' day to find 3 cucumbers (albeit very odd looking ones), enough green beans for a meal, and a dozen bright cherry tomatoes that should be hard and taste terrible, but instead have a sweet, summer ripened flavor.


I would not have found these goodies at all if I'd cut all the plants down 2 weeks ago like I had intended. I had figured their time was up, and they were starting to look terrible, anyway, but I never found the time to go out and clear everything out. I couldn't have imagined that any more seeds or fruits would have burst from them like a last hurrah.

After my initial surprise and enthusiasm, worry settled deep. Alongside the sweet tomato flavor left on my tongue, there was a sour aftertaste. "This is part of it. This is another small hint that things are changing," a voice said in my head.

I realize that global warming is hotly debated, but when my instincts and observations inch toward evidence that something is amiss, even in subtle ways, I'm hard pressed to just ignore it. If we only had longer summers, perhaps that would be a good thing, and everyone, in every growing zone, could easily grow food year-round with the help of simple hoop houses and cold frames. I mean really, if I'm completely honest with myself, the thought of never having to shovel snow from the driveway again makes me sad for only a moment, because I'd pine for drifts to jump in and snowmen to build. Mostly, I don't love winter. The older I get, the more winter makes my bones ache and my heart dread the extra work and energy used to keep warm and from being buried in. However, winter is a part of the midwest cycle I'm used to. Part of the cycle that my surrounding ecosystem has been going through for countless lifetimes.

If it were only mild winters and longer growing seasons, then perhaps there would be reason to celebrate. I have to think harder on this for only a few moments to realize that no, it is not that simple at all. Mild winters themselves can have negative effects--pests that would normally die back during the freeze are suddenly a huge problem in spring when their numbers are much larger than usual. If the planet really is warming up, we won't just conveniently gain mild winters and long summers. We may be facing unpredictable weather, just like we did this past spring, when an unexpected killing freeze in April affected apple orchards across the midwest and the east coast. The trees had blossomed with the early warm spring, then the freeze killed many of the tender new blossoms, irreparably harming the crop for the year. Along with strange up-and-down temperatures, we might experience more damaging storms, droughts, floods, with no rhyme or reason. We may have horribly frigid winters mixed in with mild winters. As human beings we've always had to deal with nature's patterns, and have had lots of surprises thrown in, but at a certain point the changes seem too many to be flukes. It seems possible that some very fundamental pieces of our weather patterns are shifting right before our eyes.The idea that weather may begin to seriously lose its predictability, on top of the fact that it can throw some very damaging tantrums at us regularly, has me bothered and concerned.

Today I went to finally get some cleanup done in the garden, and after hard frosts the past couple of nights, it's clear that there will be no more last minute bittersweet snacks. Everything from the summer is definitely dead. I am excited to get to work on some fall crops and build my hoop house. But as I cleared away the dead and rotting (and smelly) summer garden plants, I kept thinking of the surprise harvest from just a few days ago, and realized that deep down I am very wary of, and a bit alarmed about, the changes I feel around me.  I can only hope that the changes are not so fast and harsh that we'll be helpless to adjust to them.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Moving Away from Chemicals--It's not All or Nothing

Have you heard of the Marsden Farm Study? No? Me neither, until just a couple of days ago. Yet the results of this study are so important, I think they should be published, advertised, spread like wildfire. It represents a successful guideline for changes we so desperately need in our chemically-driven agricultural model. 

Marsden Farm is a model that's in between 'strictly organic' and 'strictly conventional'. Since I've long struggled with the fact that changing agriculture overnight, or even in one or two generations, seems like an impossible task, I read these kinds of studies with a practical eye and new hope in my heart. 

Experimental farms like Marsden are crucial for showing farmers what can be done now. These methods will not require re-hauling the entire system in one day, but will greatly reduce the severe ecological damage we wreak, year after year, with conventional farming.

Here is a link to the basics behind the study. Or read on, and I can paraphrase for you. 

Marsden Farm (located in Iowa) began in 2003 to try reintroducing the concept of 'integrated pest management' on a large scale. Integrated Pest Management involves the use of prevention, monitoring, physical removal of pests, biological controls, and even the limited use of pesticides. It's a range of responses to pests. It's nothing new. But through the years, chemicals have trumped all other techniques. Spread over the fields on a regular schedule, chemicals are used now to repeatedly douse crops, a sort of preventative cure-all. As we know by now, a 'cure-all' is the last thing massive amounts of chemicals represent, and the costs to the environment are long lasting, complex, and often irreversible.

Integrated Pest Management is more time intensive, certainly. However, labor hired to 'watch the crops'--assessing the types and quantities of pests, manually removing pests or applying biological controls, and yes, using chemicals as an absolute last resort and in small quantities--money spent in this way seems to make more sense than pouring money into the chemical companies for year after year of poisons to be saturated into the ground 'on schedule'.

Pest management is not the only factor in Marsden's study, but also ear-round crop rotation and the use of animal inputs (reintroducing animals to the farm--what an idea, right?). The Marsden study is aimed at larger-scale operations, which I think is important. Even though my personal opinion is that we will eventually turn to many small-scale, diverse operations in the future, it's going to be a gradual process. We need as many great models and ideas for drastically reducing the chemicals we use, on larger farms, now.

Mark Bittman (whom I primarily know as the author of some really amazing cook books, like "How to Cook Everything") wrote this article about the study, which I find insightful. Hopefully the ideas presented by farms like Marsden will catch on, and changes will start happening. .

Sustainable Farming: A Simple Fix, Zero Cost

By Mark Bittman (original article here)
t's becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I'm not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use - if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study's sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.

The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn't reduce profits by a single cent.

In short, there was only upside - and no downside at all - associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it's a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the United States.

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they're afraid to tell Monsanto about agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.) 

Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.) In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.

But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, "See? We have to remain with conventional."

The Marsden Farm study points to a third path. And though critics of this path can be predictably counted on to say it's moving backward, the increased yields, markedly decreased input of chemicals, reduced energy costs and stable profits tell another story, one of serious progress.

Nor was this a rinky-dink study: the background and scientific rigor of the authors - who represent the U.S.D.A.'s Agricultural Research Service as well as two of the country's leading agricultural universities - are unimpeachable. When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, "These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don't hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you."

This means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that's a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming - more thoughtful and less reflexive - requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they're needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. "You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs," Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report's abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Why wouldn't a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, "There's no cost assigned to environmental externalities" - the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the "cheap" standard American diet - "and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn't questioned."

This study not only questions those assumptions, it demonstrates that the chemicals contributing to "environmental externalities" can be drastically reduced at no sacrifice, except to that of the bottom line of chemical companies. That direction is in the interest of most of us - or at least those whose well-being doesn't rely on that bottom line.

Sadly, it seems there isn't a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.