Homily to the Homely

September 8, 2017 in Food

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 12.09.17 PMWherever there’s spray-free produce there’s also an abundance of ugly produce…it’s a fact. Things often go sideways when you grow without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. A little nutrient imbalance in the soil, a few hungry bugs, and you’ve got a recipe for homely produce.

I’ve always tried to keep the ugly veggies for myself. Consumers are used to the picture-perfect produce found on grocery store shelves, not oddly shaped or bug-bitten goods. The problem with spray free growing is that the perfect looking produce makes up a very small part of what actually comes out of the ground. In order to bring perfect veggies to market, an awful lot more end up on the “we’ll eat what we can and give the pigs the rest” pile.

One of the main reasons I choose to grow spray free is my concern for the environment. Most other spray-free growers will say the same thing. That causes a bit of a conundrum, though. In order to grow without sprays and produce something consumers will buy, a LOT more land has to be planted so that the small amount of perfect produce resulting can meet demand. This means it takes more land to feed people, and that more land has to be cleared for agricultural use. That might still be better for the environment than dousing the earth in pesticides, but it’s definitely not a perfect solution.

In a report released by the US-based National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) it’s estimated that in the USA 52% of produce grown is discarded because stresses such as insects and drought, or damage during transport renders it “unsuitable” for sale. The same report cites examples of  a tomato packing plant that discards 22,000 pounds of tomatoes every 40 minutes during the high production season, and a cucumber farmer who claims that 75% of what he culls is perfectly edible but deemed unsaleable for cosmetic reasons.

The answer? We as consumers need to adjust our expectations. Scientific studies have shown that various mechanisms of stress actually cause plants to produce enhanced levels of some of the disease-fighting nutrients and chemical components that make them good for us. In short, ugly vegetables may actually be much better for us than the pretty ones. As a devout foodie, I’ll be the first to admit that how things look on my plate is important. That said, once an ugly veggie is peeled, chopped, or otherwise prepped, it’s often no different to look at than the beauty queen sitting next to it. Beauty is skin deep, and that goes triple for vegetables!

It’s hard to change attitudes, but as farmers I think we have some responsibility to ease consumers away from the expectation of perfection. I’m not advocating the sale of rotten, diseased, or otherwise potentially dangerous goods. I AM suggesting that maybe it’s not so bad to put a holey cabbage or a 3-legged carrot on the market table or in a produce box. By educating consumers about the benefits of ugly produce we can cut down on waste and environmental degradation, increase our profit margin and the nutritional benefits of the food we sell, and hopefully steer more and more growers away from pumping pesticides and synthetic fertilizers into the earth. It’s time that ugly gets a little respect.

Today’s lunch? A homely salad, and regardless of how it looks I’m sure it will taste just great.

The Price is Wrong

July 14, 2017 in Home, Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 6.33.06 AMIt’s veggie season again and that means those of us who sell produce at market have to step away from the fields and weeds for a few minutes every week to research prices. Consumers look for the best deals and selling any commodity requires competitive pricing on the part of the seller. There’s a fine line, however, between asking too much and not enough, and that line changes from week to week as things come in and out of season.

For those of us who sell at farmers markets pricing is always a struggle. We want to offer consumers a fair deal and encourage them to buy from us instead of the big chain stores. But we also need to make a living, to pay for seeds, market fees, fuel, and all the other costs that come with growing and selling. It’s all too easy to undervalue a product just to sell, and that seems innocent enough on the surface. After all, customers love a great deal! In the grand scheme of things, however, under-pricing creates a vicious cycle that undermines everyone, especially when multiple vendors have the same product.

If vendors don’t charge enough for their items:

  • The market becomes unprofitable for the vendors and they don’t return. The market fails.
  • Consumers develop an expectation that the product has less value, and therefore become unwilling to pay a realistic price. Farms fail.
  • Consumers end up with less choice when it comes to buying local. The local food system fails.

Determining a realistic and fair price for an item doesn’t have to be an an onerous task. There are multiple ways to choose fair pricing:

  • Organicpricetracker.ca  averages regional prices for a multitude of produce types. It’s a quick and easy-to-use resource for up-to-date data on market, wholesale, and bulk pricing.
  • Looking around at supermarkets and other farmers markets can provide a guideline for the average price of items. Of course it’s important to compare organic to organic, weight to weight…  lettuce shipped from Mexico cannot be considered the same as no-spray lettuce picked from a farmer’s field an hour before market.
  • Talk to other vendors and agree on a fair price.
  • Consider the value that product has to you, the vendor! There comes a price point where I’d rather take an item home and feed it to the pigs than sell for less. After all, pig food costs money too. Don’t have pigs? If your tomatoes went ballistic and you have way too many, instead of selling them for nothing why not donate them to a food bank or soup kitchen?

Dumping of product at unrealistic prices isn’t good for the vendorship, it isn’t good for the market, and in the long run it isn’t good for the consumer, either. Farmers markets aren’t flea markets… they are venues for local producers to sell quality product at fair prices, and make a living in the process. We need to cooperate to ensure that we CAN make a living. We also need to engage consumers and make sure they understand how and why prices are determined, and why sometimes our products are worth a little more than the chain store “equivalents”. If we undersell ourselves we’re underselling a whole local economy, it’s that simple. Make sure the price is right!

 

Holy Hot Peppers!

October 4, 2016 in Food, Home

In all my years of growing things, peppers, and particularly hot peppers, have probably been my biggest challenge. For some reason, when everything else was doing well the peppers just never seemed to happen. This year the bell peppers continued that tradition… the plants were big and strong and healthy looking, the blossoms were plentiful, but apart from a few sad looking specimens, my bell peppers really didn’t produce much in the way of fruit. This year I’m blaming the lack of water they received. The 4 varieties of hot peppers I planted, however, went absolutely ballistic.

A plethora of hot peppers might be a challenge for some people, but I had no trouble keeping up with them. I didn’t plant anything super intense as I didn’t think there would be much demand for extra hot peppers at the markets I do. I’ve been selling fresh salsa at market this year, and making that mowed through a ton of peppers. My own affection for spicy foods took care of another pile. Still, when I hauled in a harvest a few days ago. I ended up with a bucketful that demanded more creative preservation, so I started searching for ideas. I’m still looking for a hot sauce recipe that appeals to me and I may just have to develop my own. In the meantime, here’s how I took care of that pesky peck of peppers, and a few other things in the process.

 

Concord Grape and Apple Chutney (Loosely adapted from The Cozy Herbivore)

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs. Concord grapes, washed and stems removed
  • 6 cups peeled & diced Cortland apples
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 5  cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 3 thumbs of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
  • 1 tsp. cardamom powder
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp. coriander powder
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 2 fresh Bulgarian Carrot hot peppers,  minced ( use more or less depending on desired heat level, you can substitute jalapenos but they don’t have as much flavour)
  • 2 fresh Cayenne peppers, minced
  • 6 Criolla de Sella peppers, minced
  • 3 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups cane sugar
  • 1 teaspoon blackstrap molasses
DIRECTIONS:
  1. Place grapes in a large, heavy-bottomed non-reactive stockpot and bring to a simmer. Cook covered until the grapes become mushy. Remove from heat and squash grapes through a mesh strainer into a bowl, pressing to extract as much of the pulp from the seeds as possible.
  2. Transfer seed-free pulp to stockpot and stir in the remaining ingredients. Bring mixture to a boil and immediately reduce heat to a simmer.
  3. Simmer uncovered, stirring frequently, for about an hour or until mixture thickens and apples break down. Chutney should very thick.
  4. Pour into sterilized canning jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace. Wipe down the rims of the jars and screw on sterilized lids and rings. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Turn off heat and allow jars to sit in the water for 5 minutes more.
  5. Carefully remove jars from hot water and allow to rest undisturbed on a cooling rack  for at least 12 hours. Test the lids to ensure they sealed properly. Store in a cool dry place for up to one year.

Hot Pepper Jelly

I used this recipe from The Tiffin Box. Some recipes I found called for up to SIX cups of sugar for the same quantity of jelly. Not cool! Anyway, I did make one change to this recipe: I omitted the sweet peppers and used about 1.5 cups of hot peppers (measured before chopping) instead. It IS supposed to be HOT pepper jelly, right? I may regret that decision, but it’s highly unlikely.

Pickled Peppers

I wanted to make pickled peppers so I’d have the hot peppers readily accessible all winter for chilis, curries, spaghetti sauces, etc. I considered drying them, but I don’t have a dehydrator and leaving the oven on for days on end seemed like a waste of electricity. Freezing was also an option, but it makes the peppers mushy, which isn’t appealing to me. (Not to mention that freezer space is at a premium with 3 porkers and 60-odd chickens headed to freezer camp this week.) Almost every recipe I came across for pickled peppers involved using pickling spices, but I wanted to maintain the pure “pepperness” as much as possible. After all, if I’m going to cook with these suckers, adding spice after the fact makes much more sense to me. Here then, is my pared down pickled pepper recipe, designed to preserve, but other than the vinegar and salt ( which are imperative to the safety of the product) not affect the flavour.

8 cups hot peppers
6 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
4 tablespoons kosher salt
1. Wash peppers thoroughly and snap off the stems. I left the peppers whole but you can chop them if you prefer.
2. Pack peppers into sterilized pint jars and set aside.
3. Combine vinegar, water, and salt in a large saucepan and bring to a boil.
4. Pour boiling brine over peppers in the pint jars, leaving ¼” of head space at the top.
5. Seal jars with lids and rings and process in a water bath of boiling water for 10 minutes.
6. Store at least one week before using. Store up to one year.

Hot Sauce

It hasn’t happened yet. I ran out of peppers after the pickling. They’re calling for frost tonight, so one of today’s chores is to scrounge any remaining peppers from the garden. If the hot sauce actually happens I’ll edit accordingly. If not, next year!

Mustard Greens

July 22, 2016 in Food

1893957_140629062915_00651I love to grow mustard greens. They are easy, tolerating excessive heat, drought, and even the flea beetles that seem to covet them. They are frilly and bright, and one planting yields a harvest that lasts several weeks. At market, however, mustard greens are a tough sell. Most people pick them up, raise an eyebrow, and then put them back in favour of something more familiar.

Mustard greens are members of the Brassica family, which also contains broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. They are ranked high on the podium of healthy veggies; they contain vitamins, chemicals and antioxidants that can lower cholesterol, help prevent cancer, and reduce inflammation. One cup of cooked mustard greens contains over 900% of your daily Vitamin K requirements, 96% of your Vitamin A needs, and almost half of the recommended Vitamin C.

But what to do with mustard greens? They’re actually quite easy to use. Mustard greens are lumped into the group of plants sold as “Asian greens”. As their name suggests, the flavour is a bit spicy – a nice change from the blander greens like spinach and Swiss chard. The smaller leaves work well in a salad ( the bigger ones, too, if you massage them), especially as part of a lettuce mix. The larger leaves are best cooked and work well in soups, stews and stir fries. Mustard greens hold their own as a side dish, too. Serve them up with a little crumbled bacon and a whole lot of garlic. Here’s how.

Sauteed Mustard Greens with Bacon

Ingredients

  • 3 strips of bacon (substitute ground almonds or nutritional yeast for a vegetarian version)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1/2 shallot, minced
  • 2 bunches of mustard greens
  • salt to taste
  • 1  lemon + zest of 1/2 lemon

-Slice the washed greens into 1/2 inch pieces. Squeeze a little lemon juice on them and toss to distribute it evenly. Let sit for 5 minutes. This process helps to activate some of the healthy enzymes.

-In a heavy frying pan cook the bacon until crispy. Remove from the pan and drain the grease. (If you’re using almonds instead, toast them lightly in a dry frying pan before grinding. Don’t cook the nutritional yeast.)

-Add olive oil and shallot to the pan. Cook over medium heat until the shallot becomes soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook briefly.

-Add the mustard greens and zest to the pan and sprinkle with salt. Sauté stirring frequently, until leaves just begin to wilt.

-Plate the mustard greens and squeeze a little lemon juice onto them. Crumble the bacon, or sprinke almonds or yeast over the greens and serve immediately.

Peas…and Thank You!

July 24, 2015 in Food, Uncategorized

peasA few weeks ago I started bringing veggies to market along with my soap products. I’m not bringing a ton- we already have great veggie sellers at market, and there are only so many tubs and coolers you can fit in a Matrix. Still, the produce has definitely spiked my market income. After all, people go to markets for veggies first. Everything else is an afterthought, it seems.

Two years ago when I finally took the plunge and went from well-paid employee to floundering farmer, the decision may have been somewhat provoked by midlife crisis. I loved aspects of what I was doing, but my day-to-day existence, immersed in bureaucratic  turmoil and  low morale, was not exactly fulfilling. I knew that food was my passion… not just any food, but clean, local food that has the ability to affect health and economy. My therapist always told me I am an idealist, and armed with those ideals and a stubborn belief that I am capable of doing just about anything I put my mind to, I did what seemed to be “the right thing”. I started growing food.

Ideals are easy to forget when money is tight, the work is hard, the days are long, and the aches and pains are never-ending. I never question that decision, it always feels like it was “the right thing” for me, but I often lose sight of the “why”. It becomes easier to worry about what needs to be done in the moment than to take time to remember why I’m doing it.

At market yesterday I sold a bag of snap peas to a dad and his two young sons. I didn’t think too much about it until I spotted one of the boys a few minutes later from across the square. He was ravenously stuffing those peas into his mouth with a big goofy grin on his face like most kids would gobble a chocolate bar. The choked up feeling that hit me like a Mack truck completely caught me off guard. Watching that kid eat something I’d grown, and watching him really enjoy it… that was worth every blister and frustration I’ve experienced so far. It made me stop and remember what I’m doing, and why.

I hope every person gets to have that feeling I had yesterday at least once in their life. We spend so many waking hours trying to make a buck, but it becomes so worth it when you know you’ve made something more. Weeding feels much less onerous today.

Thanks, kid!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go Garden, Grow!

October 31, 2013 in Food, Uncategorized, Us

Having decided to do a small CSA next year, the garden pushed its way far up The Giant To-Do List. With winter fast approaching, the barn floor was competing for attention, but a sudden cold snap this week forced us to think on our feet and convert the goat barn so it would be more comfy for the horse and llama, at least temporarily. Once I knew those guys would be ok, the big barn became less pressing and we were able to turn our attention back to the soil.

Yesterday our neighbour John brought us a wonderful gift… 4 tractor buckets of beautiful black cow poop. He dumped it into the garden and then Troy set about redistributing the piles while I wrassled with our tiller and churned the chunky fertilizer into the soil.

Today I planted the garlic I’ve been saving for the garden. I planted 60 cloves, but I need to find more… I could easily grow double that and I’m sure it won’t be enough. I have to go on a hunt, apparently many places have sold out already. Something to keep in mind for next year, I guess.

I also received an exciting package in the mail today – my winter seeds from Incredible Seeds in Lawrencetown. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of a winter garden for some time now. Building a greenhouse was on The Giant To-Do List, but that’s just not going to happen this year. When my September issue of Mother Earth News rolled in I was pleased to find an article on winter gardening in hoop houses. Reading that story, it dawned on me that my portable chicken tractors are very much like hoop houses. Furthermore, once the meat birds are in the freezer, those coops will be vacant till spring. The plan, then, is to drag the coops to the garden, remove the tarps I was using to cover them, as well as the doors, and drape them with thick, clear plastic. I’m starting by planting them with kale, spinach, chard, and lettuce, and I’ll start some leeks inside in a window and transplant them as soon as they’re ready. I’m not expecting much from the lettuce, but even if I only manage to coerce the kale, chard, and spinach to grow, it’s going to be pretty exciting to pick fresh greens in December.

Once this winter garden is planted we can refocus on the big barn -I’d still really like to get Willy and Galina in there before Christmas. The temporary solution came at a good time, though – it turns out the floor in the big barn needs more work (in other words, more money) than expected, and of course at the same time we had to replace the water tank, pay some vet bills, and put a new exhaust on the truck. Major facepalm.

Yup, this is farming in full swing. Somehow things are getting done, and at Christmas when we’re munching fresh kale chips and the horse and llama are enjoying their new stalls, I’m sure I’ll be frantically planning for the next things to stick in the ground. For now, though, I’ve got this going on time and as planned. Might not seem like much, but it’s pretty exciting to me.