Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Winter Share: What do I do with all of this stuff?

Welcome to winter eating in New England. While we have put together a fairly diverse group of storage crops for you, we know from personal experience that it can be a fun challenge to keep putting together interesting meals. There are, in fact, several different ways to prepare most of the storage crops, and together with the varying flavors and textures of these crops, it is possible to achieve a higher level of diversity than is immediately apparent. We have a section on the website where you can post your favorite recipes; we’d love to have more recipes posted up there. Go to to check it out! Below, we provide a description of our favorite general techniques, along with our favorite candidates for each technique, followed by a description of each of the crops along with a forecast for this year’s supply.

Boiled in soups or stews: A nice warm soup or stew is just the thing for a cold winter night. All of our storage crops can go into these, and mixing them adds flavor to the whole pot as well as diverse nutrition and a sequence of flavors in the chunks. Blending the soup can change the whole thing to a thicker, smoother experience. Our favorites: Potato, Carrot, Celeriac, Beet, Turnip, Parsnip, Squash

Mashed: If you boil a mixture of roots, and mash them like mashed potatoes, you get a special twist on a favorite comfort food. Don’t skimp on the butter or olive oil. We recommend at least 50% potatoes or sweet potatoes. Our Favorites: Potato, Sweet Potato, Celeriac, Beet, Turnip, Parsnip, Squash.

Roasted or “oven-fried”: Roasted roots are a favorite of our kids. Baking them at 375-400 in long, skinny shapes in a single layer with a generous coat of olive oil and salt makes them more like an oven fry. We also like to bake them for about 3 hours at 450, with a combination of water, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and spices (see the recipe “Greek Potatoes” on the website. Keep adding water so that the roots are covered for the first 2 hours, and then uncover and let the water boil off for the last hour. This takes some time, but is really fantastic. Our favorites: Potato, Sweet potato, Beet, Celeriac.
Grated or thin-sliced salad: something raw and crunchy can really chase away those winter blues. Roots can be grated over your greenhouse greens, or made into a “slaw”-type salad of their own. We like lemon juice or vinegar and olive oil instead of mayonnaise for slaws. Slicing crunchy roots into matchsticks and serving them with dip is another winner, especially with the kids. Our favorites: Carrot, Beet, Kohlrabi, Celeriac, Daikon.

Your winter share:
Following is a list of what you’ll be getting from us over the course of the winter. Store everything in your fridge, unless otherwise indicated below.
Salad greens (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic):
We offer salad greens as a special treat during the winter. The greenhouses are all planted; we have a heated greenhouse that will provide salad for the depths of the winter, and five unheated greenhouses that will provide fresh greens for the slightly milder months (December, February and March). We have also added two “caterpillar tunnels,” and a whole field section in “low tunnels;” lower cost alternatives to building a whole greenhouse. Many people are surprised that it is possible to grow greens without heat in the winter here; the trick is to plant things that can really take some cold, and plant them early enough that they can grow while we still have some daylength. We also have some plantings that went in later and are just teeny seedlings waiting for the longer days of February. These little seedlings will provide greens, scallions, radishes, and other treats for the upcoming Spring share. You are guaranteed at least 10 one-half pound bags over the course of the winter share. We try to mix it up so that sometimes you will get salad greens and other times spinach or arugula. We have more salad greens planted this year, so there will likely often be extra greens for sale.

Winter Squash (Czajkowski Farm, Certified organic):
We have butternut squash this year. We'll be giving you your whole share at once, since the squash takes very different storage conditions then the other storage crops--you can store a box of them much more cheaply than we can store crates of them. These are best stored at room temperature (a little cooler is better if you have a cool basement or attic that won't freeze) after you get them home.

Potatoes (Simple Gifts Farm, and Red Fire Farm, Certified Organic): This year our potatoes are almost all the "Keuka

Gold" variety. Keukas are similar to the famous Yukon Gold, butr were bred at Cornell for production in the Northeast  and in organic cropping systems.  Not everyone realizes it, but potatoes are high in Vitamins A and C and Potassium; they are true vegetables and not just starch! We also have a little bit of All-Blues, which are rich in those anti-oxidants we are all supposed to be eating more of. If you cook them just until they are done, the purple color will hold better.

Carrots (Simple Gifts Farm and Red Fire Farm, Certified Organic):
We have nice sweet carrots this year, though our yields suffered from the hot dry conditions in late summer when we were trying to get them to germinate. We have some of ours, and got some additional carrots in from Atlas Farm as well.

Beets (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic, and Crimson and Clover Farm, Chemical free): Try baking them—the skin should peel right off. They are also nice grated into a salad or as the featured ingredient in borscht. There’s something about eating colorful food that takes the edge of a grey winter day, and beets are perhaps the most colorful vegetable there is!

Onions (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic): There should be plenty of these for the winter. Onions like cold and dry conditions; don’t put them in the vegetable drawer in your fridge.

Sweet potatoes (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic):
Use these up quick because they will not store for the whole winter. They make a nice change to any of your potato routines—try making some oven fries the next time you want a side dish for hot dogs or burgers (or not dogs or veggie burgers). Store these at room temperature, in a dry, dark place.

Turnip (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic):
We have several different kinds of turnips this year. Along with the typical purple-tops, which are nice mashed with potatoes or in a stew, we have Scarlet Queens, and Gold Balls, which are both particularly sweet and therefore nice grated onto a salad.

Celeriac (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic):
Not everyone is familiar with these: cook them like a potato, and then appreciate their aromatic flavor which is like celery but so much more. We hope you come to love them like we do. We tend to put 20% celeriac into anything we are doing with potatoes; mashed, roasted, stews, or home fries are particularly great.

Parsnip (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic):
These are like a sweet, aromatic carrot, with a slightly starchier texture. They aren’t usually eaten raw, and are nice with a sweet mustard glaze.

Rutabaga (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic):
These are like a turnip, but much sweeter and creamier.  They are great mashed with potatoes or winter squash.  Parsnips and rutabaga are both crops we have struggled with in the past, but that came in great this year!

Kohlrabi (Red Fire Farm, Certified Organic):
These are a recent discovery for us; they are sweet and delicious thin-sliced or grated in a salad. They can also be lightly sautéed or stir-fried. They are the same species as broccoli, and taste a little bit like a sweeter broccoli stem.

Cabbage (Riverland Farm, Certified Organic): We got a nice load of cabbage from our neighbors at Riverland Farm.  They keep surprisingly well, though you may want to peel a layer off of them late in the winter.

Watermelon or Daikon Radish (Simple Gifts Farm, Certified Organic): These are both great for a grated raw salad. The watermelon radish is an unassuming pale green on the outside, with a stunning psychedelic red interior. The flavor is sweet, and the skins are a little spicy, so peel them if you want the mild flavor. Daikons define mild flavor—the white roots are nice grated in a slaw with some carrots and other roots. They also make a great lacto-fermented pickle—if you make these, please post a recipe on the website

Monday, November 11, 2013

Simple Gifts and the Complexity of Gratitude

Rutabaga painting by Jaimie Wolf.
It is November, and about to rain. I decide to make beef stew for dinner as I hold a giant rutabaga. For many years, calamities have befallen the rutabaga crop at Simple Gifts Farm. An apprentice accidentally plowed them into the ground one season. Another year they were infested with root maggots. The following season we covered them with row cover to keep out the flies which lay root maggot eggs, and the plants rotted in the humidity under there.  But this year, there are bins of enormous, bulbous, purple-yellow rutabagas at the farm. For these, my favorite of all root vegetables. I am grateful. They are a simple gift, but the simplicity is deepened with a counterpoint of complexity.

A farm plunges us into the complexity of gratitude. To plant our hopes and livelihoods in this particular place gives us – gives us – so much to lose. To have so much to lose is a gift. As we plant and tend and harvest with love, loss and abundance intertwine. Gratitude is not turning one’s back on what is terrifying or what we have lost. It is pausing in the perfect stillness in the world, to be sure, and it is also the tenderness toward what we care about enough to be afraid.

Our little family went to a performance by the Royal Frog Ballet recently, titled “All Things Fall.” That the pageant on this theme played out on a neighboring farm was fitting. The performance, like farming, was expansive and physical, sometimes raw and inconclusive. The program included an essay, which asserted this truth: “We realize that all things fall. The more life we have, the more we have to lose, and we do, and we will.”

And sometimes it is the abundance that is overwhelming. While immersed in life’s waterfall of obligations – even when it is what we love – it is sometimes hard to breathe. Farmer Jeremy, my husband, is coming home today from California, from a board meeting of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, from another loving task he does to engage with the world. I am making beef stew for dinner, and proofreading a beautiful book, and wrestling with the compost bins, and parenting my large and hilarious children. It is all so much.

The refrigerator is overwhelmed, too. The vegetable drawer is completely inadequate for the bags of greens and burly vegetables that march in from the farm. They spill into the cheese drawer, crowd out the pot of leftover rice, push the quart of maraschino cherries to the back (yes, even organic farmers have their little red-dye-number-five secrets, which are quite tasty in manhattans). Yet I take a deep breath and plunge in to find the potatoes, the carrots, the onions, the celeriac, and the parsnips. Parsnips always make me think of Farmer Dave. They are a favorite of his, and I think of how his eyes gleam with joy and a dash of mischief as he describes how good they are grilled, or roasted.

It is a complex joy to share this farm with all of you. Running a CSA is a far more personal, more complicated way to run a farm than wholesaling the goods we produce. But it is because of that complex web of connections that we are so overwhelmingly grateful to you. We hope you feel that nourishment of gratitude, as you nourish us with your presence and your stake in the farm.

The main season at the farm is coming to its pause. Most fields wear a green blanket of cover crops. Yet – we keep at our work all year. The hoophouses are full of greens, some just planted. The fallen leaves of this summer’s abundance steam their way to compost that will build this farm’s soil. The walk-in cooler is stacked with carrots, potatoes, and parsnips, and rutabaga. We look forward to sharing our gratitude through the winter season ahead.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ode to the Potato

Jean-Francois Millet, Potato Planters (19th century, France)
Behold the potato. This staple crop, from the high Andes to Europe and then to New England, grounds many a meal. What would Thanksgiving dinner be without a bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes? What would be a burger without the fries, or a summer picnic with no potato salad? Potatoes do double duty as starch and veggie; they provide complex carbohydrates, fiber, Vitamins A & C and potassium. They are filling, wholesome comfort food.

We love to grow potatoes at Simple Gifts Farm. Potatoes are one of the earlier crops that we plant, in April when the fields dry out enough to work. We start even earlier, ordering the seed potatoes in February.  If we keep them warm in the greenhouse, they will start little sprouts, and then we expose them to light by taking them out of the bags, which makes the sprouts green and harder to break off.  This process, called greensprouting, allows us to harvest the first new potatoes at least a week earlier, and also lets the potatoes get that much bigger before the aboveground plants die back in late July and early August.

The potato harvest begins in early July, with new potatoes. We aim to harvest some precious pint-fuls of red, white & blue potatoes for July 4. My favorite way to serve the first tiny potatoes is with tender, sweet peas. Later in July, we harvest new potatoes in larger quantities for great summer potato salads. The thin, tender skins and a crisp, waxy texture define new potatoes.

Now is the time to harvest the fall potato crop. These spuds have thicker skins and a starchy texture. They keep well under cool, dry conditions, and are a food to sustain us through the cold winter months.

These are the aboveground virtues of the potato. They are dirt-nestled tubers, though, and the potato harvest is an invitation for us to commune with the underground, the soil, and to behold the unseen. Harvesting potatoes is deeply satisfying, at a visceral and maybe even poetic level. Farmkid Jesse’s superhero name is Spudicto. When his sixth grade class received the assignment to write (with inspiration from Neruda) an ode to an everyday thing, his subject was The Potato.

So, come join our Second Annual CSA Potato Harvest! Farmer Jeremy will pull the potato digger behind the tractor to loosen the soil and get the potatoes to the surface. The community effort is to gather these potatoes into bags and safely to the barn. Of course, it would be a tease to harvest the potatoes, and not get to eat any. So, we will follow the harvest with a simple lunch of fire-roasted potatoes and chili.

When:  Saturday, October 26th from 9 A.M. to 1P.M.
Where:  Near the barn that can be seen from Pine Street.  Park by the distribution barn and walk back through the farm.  The potato roast will happen on the Festival Hill
Bring: Toppings you would like to eat on baked potatoes (if you want—we will have plenty of chili to top them off with). Kids and dogs welcome, but please know you’ll need to keep them back from the machinery.
Wear: comfortable, warm clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty

See you there!
Audrey, newsletter editor (and whose ancestry traces to great potato-eating countries of Ireland and Germany)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pollinators on the Farm

Yesterday morning, I was picking raspberries from the small planting in the front yard of our house. At first, I didn’t notice the multitude of bumblebees on the flowers, because they were so quiet. I don’t know if they were actively collecting pollen and nectar from the many-pistiled flowers, or if they were coming to the end of their season. Only the queen survives the winter. But I felt an unexpected tenderness for these fuzzy invertebrates. And gratitude. Without bees and other pollinators, much of the food we grow at the farm would not come to fruition.
Just a few of the native bees in North America. Source:
Honeybees are in the spotlight because of their plight with Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated many hives and directly affected honey producers and farmers who rely on honeybees to pollinate crops. As with many serious illnesses, there is likely a web of direct and indirect causes. Pesticide exposure is clearly one (you can read this nice article from the Boston Globe magazine if you’d like to learn more. )

The perils may be greater but less understood for native bees. Like many of our beloved agricultural species, honeybees were brought to America and are not native to this place. However, there are approximately 4,000 species of native bees in North America. Over 80 species of bees pollinate berry crops in Maine and Massachusetts! This nearly overwhelming diversity of wild creatures directly supports our designed farm ecosystem. In turn, we must make a place for these wild citizens in our farm.

Native bees often do a better job of pollinating crop plants than do honeybees. For example, native bees increase the yield of cherry tomatoes. Although self-fertile, tomatoes cross-pollinated by bees produce more fruit. To release pollen, the flower must be vibrated at a specific frequency. Honeybees cannot do this, but a suite of native bees has the right vibration, an ability called ‘buzz pollination.’ How cool is that?

Bees need flowering plants throughout the growing season, nesting habitat, and are sensitive to pesticides. Many native bees are in decline because of habitat loss and pesticide exposure. We could do more to enhance flower resources and habitat for bees at our farm, but our hedgerows, flower plantings, and organic practices go a long way to creating conditions for these insects to thrive. Our you-pick flower and herb plantings are for your enjoyment and use, and also provide a variety of flowers throughout the season for pollinators. The hedgerows across the farm provide food and nesting habitat. Although our farm is in a residential area, the Mill River Conservation Area and well-loved flower gardens of many of our neighbors help too.

It isn’t only for our needs that we care about native bees. This is their world too, and they belong here. It is near the end of the season for many of these creatures, and I hope you will join me in wishing them every success as they prepare for winter.

If you want to learn more, the Xerces Society has lots of great information not only on native pollinators, but the wild wild world of invertebrates and their conservation needs. I also enjoyed visiting Tom Sullivan’s booth (Pollinators Welcome) at the Garlic & Arts Festival this past weekend.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Picnic at the Farm

Here are some pictures from our member potluck!  We had a great time--hope to see you all next time!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Road Trip!

Farmer Jeremy talks up organic farming at Farm Aid 

Over the weekend, Farmer Jeremy and I took at field trip to Saratoga Springs, NY. While we didn’t have the chance to visit any farms, we spent time with thousands of farmers, farm advocates. . . and rock stars. Farm Aid 2013 was a sensory overload, with 25,000 concertgoers, a ridiculous number of beer vendors, giant pixilated screens, a rainstorm, and some excellent tunes.

Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp started Farm Aid in 1985 in response to the farm crisis. At the time, farm foreclosures were epidemic. Now, after 28 years, these musicians (now joined by Dave Matthews) put on a benefit show each year, and Farm Aid helps to fund and coordinate a variety of farming organizations.

In 1985, as a suburban teenager, I heard about Farm Aid and imagined that farmers were all Midwestern white men, with faded wives, like Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. I saw those folks at the concert (as of 2007, only 14% of farm primary operators were women). Much of New York state is more Midwest than Midtown – I know this first-hand, having grown up in Rochester. The big-screen images on the main stage reinforced the American archetype of farm: round hay bales dotting flat country, sunflowers, a silo next to a red barn, Holstein cows crossing a lonely road, a John Deere tractor.

Farms and farmers encompass much more than this stock image. At the concert, I also met young farmers, a Cornell Ag Extension agent dressed as a carrot, a sparkle-eyed woman with a plan to strengthen urban-rural connections in New York called “Milk Not Jails.” I saw these groups from differing fields talking about their shared passion for family farms. I paid $2 for a concert-priced NY state apple at a stand next to the corporate beer stalls. I read Neil Young’s press statement connecting how we farm with exacerbating or mitigating climate change.

Farm Aid supports many organizations who work to strengthen family farms, and who advocate and build support for local and organic food. For those who wanted to know more, a tent full of organizations advocating for farmers had the chance to share their passion with the crowd. Jeremy was there to talk up the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), as a farmer and board member. He spoke with people from traditional family farms who were considering a transition to organic farming, as well people who already farm or garden organically.  OFRF supports research on organic farming methods, as well as pro-organic policies in Washington, and other efforts to advance organic farming in the nation.   

At 6pm, the booths packed up and it was time to join the throngs for the big party. It was fun, though we didn’t last to the concert’s end. Willie Nelson, age 80, came on well past Jeremy’s farmer bedtime.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sunshine Power on the Farm

As our swiftly tilting planet zooms from summer solstice toward autumnal equinox, I increasingly appreciate the light and warmth of our sun. I’ve been reflecting on this most basic of forces and how we make the most of it at Simple Gifts Farm.

The greenhouse effect, in the original sense
Happy plants in one of our hoophouses
The greenhouse effect has a negative connotation, when used in the context of gases in the earth’s atmosphere absorbing and scattering thermal energy, thus allowing the earth’s CO2-enriched atmosphere to hold extra heat. However, using the greenhouse effect in its original sense is critical to powering a local food system. Short wavelength light energy passes easily through the hoophouse plastic, but once converted to longer-wavelength heat energy, reduced airflow inside the structure holds in the warmth. Our array of hoophouses, caterpillar tunnels and greenhouses allow us to extend the growing season. At 42 degrees North, we receive enough sunlight for plants to grow for about 10 months of the year, but heat is more limited. Given protection from the cold, we can harvest some crops year-round. We carefully plan fall hoophouse plantings to take into account slowing growth into late autumn, and very little growth in the dark days of December and January (which Eliot Coleman poetically calls “The Persephone Months”).

As a side note, the ability to keep plant foliage dry and control the amount of water the plants receive is also really important. In a wet summer with high disease pressure, like this one, this is possibly an even bigger advantage than extending the warm season.

Photovoltaic and solar thermal
Our farm is not a closed energy system, and some of the largest energy inputs are used to power our electricity needs. In 2010, we installed a 9.8 kilowatt array on the share barn roof. This supplies approximately 60% of our power needs.

We also have a solar hot-water system that supplements the heat in the greenhouse.  During this time of year, we are trying to store some heat in hot-water barrels that we can draw on during the colder months.  In January, the level of heat from the solar system is small, but we circulate that warmer water through a radiant heat system so that the heat goes right to the plant roots. By March, the days will be longer and we will be starting our first seedlings of 2014, so we need more heat to get those seeds to germinate and grow.  At that point, the solar hot-water system will provide a significant supplement to our wood-pellet boiler,

This intricate biochemical dance of photons, water, electrons, chlorophyll, and Rubisco is Nature’s true alchemy. The crop plants of the farm make their own food, given sunshine and water. Pasture-raised cows are one step removed from these producers. Need a photosynthesis review? Check out this rap!

 Techno-geek bonus!
In reviewing my facts on photosynthesis and photovoltaics, I came across some provocative lines of research into artificial photosynthesis. I’m a forest ecologist, and know that the wood and food, carbon removal from the atmosphere, beauty, and habitat provided by plants is something that we won’t trump in a lab. However, with the global energy and environmental pressures, an all of the above strategy may have a place for this approach.

Here are a couple of links if you’d like to find out more:
This article from Science magazine in 2011 received a fair bit of attention – here’s a popular write-up from Scientific American, and this article from February 2013 in Optics and Photonics News gives a nice overview of the overall effort.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Meet the Crew, Part III. Chris Link

My boys think Chris Link is a cowboy. He does wear a big hat sometimes, but is more likely to be found talking vegetables at the distribution barn or tinkering with a tractor than riding the open range.  I think Chris is a natural entrepreneur. Rather than a corporate business model, I mean this in the sense of a strong desire to create his own work that uses his mechanical skill, interest in improving work processes, and enjoyment of people.

Chris grew up in Salisbury, Maryland, home of mega-chicken grower Purdue. Monotonic corn and chickens dominated the farming landscape in this rural area. His family had a large garden, though, and he especially loved helping harvest produce, peaches and pecans on visits to his grandfather in South Carolina. He attended Clemson University there, and earned a BLA in architecture.

After some time working behind a computer for an architecture firm in Asheville, NC, he realized that this was not a sustainable life for him. Chris loves tinkering and fixing things and knew he felt better mentally and physically when he worked outdoors. He began to develop a passion for community health and food security, and was influenced by the writings of sustainable agriculture thinkers such as Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin. When Salatin noted that farming involves a large measure of mechanical skill and effort, Chris began to wonder if agriculture might be a good career. He began volunteering at community gardens and CSA farms.

A couple of summers ago, he came to the annual NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) conference in Amherst, and was inspired by the farming models presented at the conference. He also (like so many of us!) found the area really appealing. So, when he decided to pursue a season-long apprenticeship, he looked to the Pioneer Valley.

At Simple Gifts Farm, he appreciates the diversity of the work in a day – from transplanting vegetables to tractor work to staffing the CSA distribution. He particularly enjoys interacting with the CSA members and others who come to the farm. He loves introducing the CSA model to a potential member, or introducing a new vegetable to a member. When I asked what his favorite vegetable is, he couldn’t chose just one. The sungold cherry tomatoes! The peas and beans! The Easter egg radishes were so beautiful! Onions and potatoes!

Chris also enjoys CSA distribution because finds satisfaction in seeing people pick up the great vegetables that took so much work and care to produce. For example, he remembers his least favorite job of the season – staking and stringing the tomatoes. The weather was hot, the rows seemingly endless. But – it did get done and tomato season is sweet.

He was surprised by how much he appreciates the animals of the farm. To him, they make the farm feel alive, and his days are more enjoyable because he sees the animals out there, enjoying life. The cows in particular are very calming.

After this season, Chris would like to begin his own farming project. The shape of this is yet to be determined, but he’d like to include elements of market gardening and education. His enthusiasm for growing, tinkering and people will serve him well as he creates a sustainable livelihood and community.

For all of us sustaining Simple Gifts Farm,

Monday, September 2, 2013

Farmer Dave ‘s Pasture Vision (first printed June 8, 2010)

Imagine the sun shining on a wide expanse of grass, clover, wildflowers and a few scattered shade trees, dotted with cows and calves quietly grazing. Later, the animals lay in the shade and ruminate. A pasture – classically pastoral. If you are lucky, you’ll see a calf newly born and hiding in the tall grass. The cow, finishing her grazing, moos her own particular “moo,” and the calf responds to his mom’s call, jumps up and gambols over to her. He hungrily head butts her udder, then nurses away with his tail wildly twitching, maybe with a few drops of milk dripping from his chin, while the cow contentedly swishes her tail and chews her cud.

The cow births her calf on the pasture, and the cow and her calf graze daily as the calf grows to maturity on nothing but what is eaten from that pasture. Ultimately they provide nutritious, delicious food for humans in a food production system that relies on natural processes and requires no petroleum or chemical inputs.

From the consumption end, the health benefits of grass fed beef are well documented. I also believe the beef tastes better and is better for you from an animal that is personally known and cared for by the farmer who raised it. Although not everyone eats beef, for those who do, pasture-raised beef can be part of a healthy diet. On land suitable for tillage, other farming systems can produce a lot more food from an area of land, but require more labor and external inputs and embody less potential resilience to changes in weather or climate.

The grazed pasture can be a sustainable ecosystem, becoming more productive over time, building – creating – soil by the nearly magical process of photosynthesis: the sun shining on the plants, the plants growing, using the minerals in the soil and the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen in the air above them. The diversity of perennial plants harbors a multitude of animal species – microorganisms, invertebrates, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals – vibrant and resilient. This is an idealized vision to be sure – perhaps the ultimate in sustainable food production. It is exciting to participate in and beautiful to watch unfold.

In most places, lots of careful management and a few compromises are needed to come close to this ideal. We need fences to carefully manage where the cows are, and more importantly where they are not – recovery between grazings is one key to the whole picture. We need the inputs of some salt and minerals from somewhere “out there.” We may also need some grass and clover seeds.

Around here, we need hay for the winter. Producing it uses some petroleum and big machines that take a lot of energy to manufacture and operate. With careful grazing management, we can graze tall standing grass through much of most winters, but we will always need hay for backup. One advantage of hay feeding is that the hay can be fed in a spot where the winter manure, with all its nutrients, can be captured, composted, and used to produce lots of vegetables.

The biggest input to pasture grazing farming may be the farmers’ time. Good grazing management takes time and attention. I am not sure whether this is a cost of a benefit. It is deeply fulfilling work for some of us.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Meet the Crew. Part II. Ana Paul.

Ana seeding onions, one of her favorite vegetables.

I caught Ana Paul’s eye at 6:30 at the CSA on Thursday. Maybe you were there, too. Knowing that she had arrived at the farm more than twelve hours earlier, and had personally harvested and washed up much of the produce now out at the share barn, I could see the exhaustion. However, she beamed a warm smile as I went by, and I remembered what she had told me the day before. I’d asked her what surprised her by working on this farm. She considered, and then observed that despite her tiredness at the end of each day, her motivation and desire to rise each morning to do this physical work hasn’t waned. In fact, she has found herself with more energy on days off than when she’s had less-physical jobs. That stamina is key to farming.

Ana didn’t grow up on a farm or even much of a garden; her family was too often on the move. Her parents were teachers for military children, and Ana was raised in Europe – Germany mostly, along with Spain and Italy. This upbringing did instill in her an openness to adventure, which is certainly another key to farming. She attended college in Virginia, but then returned to Germany. That is when she met her husband, Scott. Ana and Scott were both helping out with coaching the tennis team at Ana’s former high school. This was an apt place for them to meet, as both aspire to be teachers.

Ana and Scott moved to Amherst last August, and worked at Red Fire Farm nearby for the autumn. Then, while Scott earned his teaching degree, Ana decided to pursue a full-season farm apprenticeship. Her interest in farming developed as a key part of her passion to act on climate change. To her, the issues surrounding climate change keep coming back to agriculture.

Ana notes that Simple Gifts Farm, “is special, because the animals and vegetables work together.” She is also intrigued by soil fertility practices, and has worked with managing fertility to the crops here with the drip irrigation system. Her favorite job on the farm is chores, which rotates among the apprentices. During chores week is when one has the chance to interact with the livestock, and Ana enjoys the feedback, remarking, “Veggies don’t talk back so much.” In particular, she loves the personality and character in the pigs. She is finding the tractor work more challenging, especially lining up to put on implements with the 3-point hitch. She is ascending that learning curve, and anticipates getting to a certain comfort level, though she still doesn’t see herself as a “tractor girl.”

When I asked her what her favorite vegetable is, her answer – garlic and onions – was in line with her (well-deserved) reputation as an excellent cook. Many a great dish begins with sautéing this savory duo.

Ana plans to become a teacher, and to do advocacy work around climate change. She hopes to integrate her experience in the practice of growing food into the classroom, and also at a homestead scale with Scott. I predict that her calm personality, openness to adventure, and stamina will lead to a lifetime of inspired teaching, opening doors to adventures in food, stewardship and life to many students and citizens.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Late Summer Crop Outlook

We've been making a point to not complain about the weather this season--it just seems like too easy a target.  This year, we have had so many torrential rainstorms that it is hard to keep track.  It adds up to 22 inches of rain in the past three months, and much of that was in late May and early June (for comparison, we had 36 inches of precipitation in all of 2012).  We are doing relatively well for such a wet season.  Our soils are listed as "excessively well-drained" in the soil maps, and so we are doing much better than many of our friends who have wetter soils.  Still, there are spots on the farm where the lower leaves of our tomato, pepper, and squash plants are coated in mud from the flooding.  Our late fall carrot planting had to be replanted when we had a 4-inch deluge the day after it was planted, creating a huge washout through the lower section of the field.  Here is the outlook for some of the crops our crops, and a summary of how they have been affected by the weather.

Salad Greens
We had a difficult period in late June and early July when we had wet weather, making it hard to fields ready for planting, and then really hot weather, which inhibits lettuce germination.  We are seeing the effects of that now, with a really short supply of lettuce for the salad greens.  There should be some more coming in a couple of weeks, but for now there should be plenty of arugula, mizuna, baby bok choy, and other "mustard family" greens, which germinate better in the heat and which also grow faster than lettuce.  We should start seeing some more baby spinach in a few weeks as well--this is another crop that doesn't like to germinate in the heat.  Cilantro gets seeded the same way as the salad greens, and this popular pick-your-own crop suffered the same fate as our salad greens, but by the time we had better conditions, there wasn't enough time left in the season for another seeding.  We had one good crop of cilantro, at least, but have sure been missing it in our salsa this year.

Summer Squash and Cucumbers
We've had a great run of squash and cukes this year, but they are starting to wind down.  Our squash fields now are a compendium of squash diseases--we were joking today that the plant pathology class from UMass should take a trip out here because we have it all.  The wet weather certainly helps encourage disease pressure.  We do have a late cucumber planting in one of our greenhouses--it may have gone in too late to produce.  We'll keep you posted on that.

We're pretty sure that this won't be a fantastic tomato season.  Tomatoes don't like wet weather--they crack and split and have many diseases that affect them.  We have the dreaded late blight in our fields, no surprise given the conditions.  The good news is that while it won't be fantastic, it looks good that we will have a tomato crop this year.  All of our investments in hoophouses and other structures have paid off with a great early crop--almost all of the tomatoes we've given out so far come from the hoophouses.  The field plantings have been slow to ramp up in the cool weather we've had lately, but we picked almost 500 pounds from the field today, so look for the tomatoes to continue to increase.

We usually wait for our peppers to turn color, and only pick them green towards the end of the season when it is clear that they won't be ripening before frost.  This year, however, we've started picking off some green peppers because we are getting antsy about our chances with the ripe ones.  The plants are loaded with peppers--the best crop we've seen in years--but everything is slow with the cool weather, and one of the diseases we have in the summer squash field is also something that infects peppers, turning the fruits to mush.  We decided to hedge our bets and pull off a few green ones just to be sure that we get something.  

Fall Roots
We are happy to report that we will be having a parsnip crop this year. Parsnips are notoriously fussy to germinate, and we haven't had any luck.  After talking to some farmer friends, we finally figured out what hole to use on our planter to put a ton of seeds down and ensure a thicker stand.  They are doing well, and have been kept quite clean of weeds by our intrepid weeding crew.  Rutabagas are another fall root that has bedeviled us--this year we transplanted them and they are looking good.  We've had lots of trouble with beets, but we have a decent stand for our last planting for fall harvest.  And our earliest carrot plantings have done amazingly well.  We have actually been living off of our first planting for almost two months (usually they last about 3 weeks).  The last fall planting was the one that got washed out twice in July--it will be meager, but hopefully there will be enough carrots from our earliest plantings to cover the supply we need for the winter.  The sweet potato crop has an extremely vigourous set of vines, which should correlate into a nice bunch of roots.  All of our other fall roots--daikon, turnips, watermelon radish--are in the ground and looking good.

If there are other crops you are wondering about, please don't hesitate to ask the farm crew at pickup--we can always update you on how things are growing.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Salade Nicoise & Pan Bagnat, Photographed

Here is a brief, pictorial follow-up to last week's post on Salade Nicoise and its sandwich kin, the Pan Bagnat:
Adults and children alike found something farm-fresh and delicious in this meal.

And indeed, Pan Bagnat may be the ultimate sandwich. See below for recipes!
Sharing good food with love. This is at the heart of the human experience. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Summer Veggies, in Sun and Snow

The chilly nights of late have me recalling the frozen months of the year. I’m also remembering how happy I am in the winter when I have frozen vegetables and fruits on hand to provide a taste of summer through those cold winter months. We are lucky to have a chest freezer, and enjoy keeping it stocked up with good farm food. To have good-quality frozen food, there are three main things you need to do:
1)    Pack the food so it won’t be oxidized: use the freezer-quality (thicker) plastic bags, or freezer containers. Pack containers with just enough headspace for expansion during freezing, or squeeze out the air from bags.
2)    Don’t try to freeze too much at once, and make sure the food is chilled prior to placing it in the freezer. The idea is to freeze the food quickly.
3)    Some produce can go right into freezer bags, but some keeps better if cooked or blanched. You can freeze cored, sliced, peppers without blanching. If I’m freezing tomatoes, I like to oven-roast or grill them first, or cook them down into sauce. Some foods hold up better if you blanch them prior to freezing. These include vegetables such as green beans, peas, asparagus, and corn. These vegetables have enzymes that convert sugars to starch (among other things), and blanching prior to freezing stops this process.

Here are some details on blanching vegetables:

Have you found the Romano (flat) green beans? They're delicious.
To take green beans as an example, I personally like to blanch them right after picking. I bring a big pot of water to a rolling boil; I put the beans into a colander that fits nicely into the pot and blanch small quantities of beans at a time. The idea is to work in batches small enough that the water will come back to a boil in less than a minute. After 3 minutes of boiling, I remove the colander, rinse the beans under cool water, and then spread them out on a kitchen towel to cool quickly. They are then ready-to-go for cold or warm bean salads, or to freeze for the winter. To reduce the wasteful feeling of boiling a large pot of water for one use only, I try to be organized enough to blanch the beans, and then use the boiling water to cook up some pasta.

But back to Summer eating. In summer, what’s our favorite way to eat green beans? Well, at least once each summer, we enjoy a beautifully composed Salade Nicoise. It feels fancy. It showcases green beans, and so many other fabulous farm foods: new potatoes, crisp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and sunshiny eggs. Serve with warm French bread and some nice cheese for a beautiful dinner on a warm night.

Leftovers make excellent picnic food in the form of Pan Bagnat. You can slice a loaf of French bread lengthwise and crisp it up in the oven for a few minutes. In the morning, scoop out or press down some of the bread innards to make bread ‘boats,’ and then fill the bread with Salade Nicoise. Close up the sandwich, wrap in aluminum foil, and enjoy a great lunch. Sundays at Moosewood reports that: “Everywhere along the coast of France, a ‘pique-nique sur mer” is a popular family outing. Pan Bagnat, which means, literally, ‘bathed bread,’ is almost always taken along with the bathing suits.” One evening, our family fell out of our chairs laughing, because I was convinced that I’d read that the French traditionally sit on their ‘Pan Bagnat’ in order to meld the flavors in the sandwich. Incredulous, Jeremy looked up the recipe in Sundays at Moosewood and found nothing of the sort. My excellent brain had manufactured the entire anecdote, but thus was born the phrase . . . “butt panini.” Maybe this illuminates why we are well-suited to parent boys.

But wait! I just found this in the venerable NY Times. I am vindicated!

Whether or not you sit on the leftovers, here’s our method for Salade Nicoise. This version of the classic French summer dish comes from my hybridization of recipes from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant (The Moosewood Collective, Simon & Schuster, 1990) and The Way to Cook (Julia Child, Knopf, 2011):

First, prepare a lovely vinaigrette. Combine in a jar and shake vigorously to combine:
1/4 cup vinegar (cider, wine or herbed; or use fresh-squeezed lemon juice)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, pressed
salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill, parsley or basil

You’ll also need:
1 pint new potatoes, cut into large bite-size pieces
1 1/2 pounds green beans (or a mix of yellow and green), trimmed
3-4 tomatoes, cut into small wedges
1 head lettuce
6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved lengthwise
2 cans good canned tuna
1/2 cup Nicoise-type olives
3 tablespoons capers
Sprigs of dill, parsley or basil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Cook the potatoes until tender (sometimes I successfully hard-boil the eggs at the same time – but use your favorite hard-boiling technique). When tender, remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon. Once the potatoes have drained, toss them gently with some of the vinaigrette.

When the water returns to a boil, blanch the green beans for 4 minutes, and then refresh them under cold water.

Take a few moments to compose the salad: line a roomy platter or large salad bowl with lettuce leaves. Toss the beans with some of the vinaigrette. Place the dressed potatoes in the center of the platter or bowl; mound beans at strategic intervals, interspersing them with tomatoes and mounds of tuna. Ring the salad with the eggs. Spoon the vinaigrette over all; scatter on the olives, capers and herbs. Serve as soon as possible, at room temperature.

Wishing you a magical summer picnic at the beach, or a sunset dinner at home. For all of us at Simple Gifts Farm - Audrey

Saturday, August 3, 2013

A Personal Review of "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle"

[Note from Audrey: I wrote this essay in 2008. I look back with gratitude that our boys are now so big and read their own books past bedtime, but also with some wistfulness. . . Barbara Kingsolver remains one of my writer-heroes. Find out more about the book here]

Interest in locally grown food has been growing steadily among people interested in good health, good taste, good soil, reducing their ecological footprint and enhancing their local economy – so much so, that best-selling authors are dedicating entire works to their exploration of the consequences of their sustenance’s provenance. Somehow the work we do has become trendy. We look at our ragged T-shirts, callused hands, and variously dented automobiles, and shrug. But isn’t that part of the beauty? Here is a trend with content: real health, good soil, carrots and lettuce, the essence of earthiness. 

Over the winter, in snatches of time between seed catalogs, packing lunch boxes, playing “Go Fish” again, and grouting tile, we read some of the fantastic and inspiring books that document this trend. Okay, it took more than this winter. Reading time is a premium luxury at this moment (thankfully I got in more than my share of reading time as a kid!). But that just adds to the endorsement, as I vastly prefer the escapist fling of fiction to any non-fiction writing, however brilliant, and I by default do not finish any book that isn’t good enough to keep me up past bedtime. 

To me, the best of the bunch is “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver (with Steven Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 2007). I stayed up past bedtime reading this one, for sure. I recognize that some of my enthusiasm was fueled by my long-time adoration of this author (tousling with Jeremy over whose turn it was to read “Pigs in Heaven”, giving a somewhat dog-eared copy of “The Poisonwood Bible” to Jeremy’s parents while they were volunteer teaching for a year in Ethiopia) . . . with her gracious, funny and insightful writing. This book is very personal – as eating necessarily is – and coming from a writer I admire so well, I found this really interesting. Also, I have a lot in common with Kingsolver (though sadly, not the skill at writing!): we’re both moms, biologists, try to transform anxiety about the future of the world into joyful action, and have the same attitude toward cooking and eating. So in a way for me, it was like reading an alternative reality of my life, written really really well. 

Those rather large personal biases stated, this is a book that I believe should appeal to and be a good read for many. Barbara Kingsolver has a big heart, and I believe will embrace and inspire many. The book documents a year in which her family embarks on a project to eat only what they can grow or purchase locally. This type of project is catching on, but it is a joy to read her version. Discussion of the big issues (energy imbalance of current food systems, the American obesity epidemic, the ethics of eating) flows naturally from and among the joyous and engaging recounting of the family’s local year. She gets on the soapbox just enough to prickle your conscience a healthy bit. Kingsolver’s husband, Steven Hopp (an environmental studies professor) provides succinct sidebars on many big problems in agriculture and food systems. I initially read these with trepidation, expecting dreary finger-wagging, but instead found these little essays honest, well-stated arguments, and always with hope of a better way. Camille (their teenage daughter) contributes delightful, youthful notes and recipes. This gives me courage to keep cheerfully offering fresh vegetables to our young sons, who are usually skeptical but are enthusiastic when they give the veggies a chance. For example, when Jeremy pulled up some overmature salad turnips for Timmy to feed the calves – the calves turned up their little bovine noses, but Timmy took a look and started munching both root and leaf. He prefers raw vegetables, whole, and procured himself from crisper drawer or field. No lathe-shaped baby carrots for this boy. 

One great aspect of this book is that it shows how everyday, economical meals can be prepared with local foods in season. I have no problem with elegant restaurants and fancy food magazines extolling the virtues of eating local, but those meals are treats and cover about 1% of our dinners. Camille lists weekly dinner menus throughout their season, many of which are simple and pretty quick to prepare. 

Barbara Kingsolver bemoans the lack of an American food culture, as exists in many older and less heterogeneous countries. It seems that, given the decimation of Native American cultures, the melting pot America hasn’t had time yet to meld into something new and cohesive. Beyond McDonalds, I suppose. On the other hand, I’d argue that some distinctive regional food cultures have existed for a long time and others are taking hold, based on eating in season. 

Kingsolver is a great writer, but it is fascinating that food can have such an exciting story. Of course, this is a human story too, the journey of a family and what they learn in a year of eating food from their own backyard and region. However, the climatic final scenes are all about turkeys, and their struggles and triumphs were so moving I found myself tearing up at the end. I am not a natural turkey-lover (I was once locked in a turkey pen on a dark and stormy night, and did not like it), but this was a real drama played out in the domestic sphere, but with humans in the supporting roles rather than the stars. 

For everyone pulling miracles from the Simple Gifts soil,