Friday, August 18, 2017

Rain again?

"You've got to be kidding..." It's was the only kid-appropriate phrase that I could utter as I watched one more downpour in earshot of my children. After waiting for close to 6 weeks for the window to simply use the flail mower in the garden, I was more than frustrated - as of today, I still am.

I have never experienced an August this wet ever. Typically the ground is hard as rock and dry around this time of year. This period allows those tomatoes and melons to mature and ripen. It's also an opportunity when we get to put some areas to bed, mow down the old crops and weeds and maybe chisel plow the ground to knock back the quackgrass and thistle. This year, however, if I pulled a chisel plow through a field, I'd simply be constructing huge mudballs and construct deep ruts in the group to haunt us for the next couple of seasons. 

As you may remember my blog post a couple weeks back was about the mid-summer reset. Well, we're still waiting for weather to cooperate to do that. Fall brassicas are sitting in trays looking ugly and I'd love to plant some spinach for fall boxes, but putting a tiller in the ground is impossible. 

So, I continue to channel low-grade disgust as I read a forecast or simply look out the window at yet another storm coming our way. Maybe you've got rain fatigue yourself - I feel your pain. 

In the box: 

Potato Leek Soup
adapted from Food Network

  • A pound of leeks, cleaned and dark sections removed. 
  • 3 T butter
  • A pound of potatoes, peeled and diced small
  • 1 quart vegetable broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup buttermilk 
  • Chives
Chop the leeks into small pieces.
In a 6-quart saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the leeks and a heavy pinch of salt and sweat for 5 minutes. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cook until the leeks are tender, approximately 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the potatoes and the vegetable broth, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and gently simmer until the potatoes are soft, approximately 45 minutes.
Turn off the heat and puree the mixture with an immersion blender until smooth. Stir in the heavy cream, buttermilk, and white pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired. Sprinkle with chives and serve immediately, or chill and serve cold.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Path to Farming

All the jars stood in a long row on the kitchen counter, the red of the tomatoes all bright and the glass all shiny wet after a hot bath. My thought went to pioneers desperate to push through a looming winter or the grand storehouses of lost empires. It felt right and natural for this 8-year old me to have fantasies of a little cabin in the Beltrami forest where our family hunted, a refuge where I'd chop wood and garden and live an an idyllic life by myself, one with nature.

As I was trying to recall what brought me to today and this is one of my earliest memories of being attracted to farming. I've met few people who decided their life's direction at age 10 and I'm certainly not one of them. I never grew up farming and agriculture wasn't on my high school strength inventory (where you take a test which ID's jobs which would fit your interests).

My only farm-related experience as a kid was gardening in an abondoned lot which sat between some potato warehouses in East Grand Forks. My Uncle Doc was warehouse manager for Ryan Potato, who lived in a trailer on-site and our family shared a gardenspace with his family and my Grandpa Adolph. A lanky man who worked three jobs his whole life, my grandpa meticulously set coffee cans around tomatoes and watered religiously. This plot would never be found in Better Homes and Gardens, yet it brought together family, supplied us food, and gave us kids a reason to explore huge tracts of weeds near the rail line. Reflecting back on it, this minor chapter in my childhood made some mark on my life.

Fast forward to college, the 20-something me re-found his food connection when I stumbled into my local food co-op in St. Peter, MN. A storefront the size of my kitchen, this was the coolest place ever with a countercultural vibe, intermingling a bunch of local La Leche moms and left-wing college kids like myself. I never grew dreadlocks or picketed offices in my radical youth, but I fell in love with the co-op movement as it fit my Midwestern upbringing. It was both radical in spirit and practical in execution. This love affair led me to my two-year farm apprenticeship and four years working for Mississippi Market Co-op in St. Paul upon graduating, rich experiences which truly did make me the organic farm operator I am today.

In the box:

  • Green Peppers
  • Tomato Mix: Man, are these tomatoes slow this year! I had to hunt and peck like crazy to get this little mix of types. 
  • Sweet Corn 
  • Celery
  • Red Onion 
  • Sweet Onion
  • Cuke 
  • Summer Squash 
  • Yellow Potatoes 

Friday, August 04, 2017

Mid-Summer Reset

Well, we made it to the beginning of August. This is the time of year when the major high season crops come in like tomatoes and sweet corn and when we have to turn our attention to fall crops. In the next week I'll need to clear space for salad mix, fall greens such as spinach, and fall brassicas like cauliflower and kohlrabi.

Argo, the farm dog
Seems easy enough, yet I find it hard to do this time of year as we spend a lot of time harvesting, washing, and delivering produce. When you spend your time a lot of time picking Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, it's a juggle which doesn't leave an opportunity for much else. But it's something we just need to take on sooner rather than later since the longer we wait, the further into the fall the crops get postponed. Even though spinach typically takes 45 days, with days getting shorter and shorter, we'll need to plant this week to have ready by the third week of September.

In the box:

  • Beans 
  • Sweet Corn 
  • Parsley 
  • Yellow Potatoes
  • Sweet Onions
  • Bunch of Beets: See pickle recipe
  • Purple Peppers: A little deceiving, they taste just like green
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery 
Granny's Quick Pickled Beets

1 bunch beets, tops removed 
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
3/4 cup white vinegar
1 tsp salt
2 bay leaves
8 whole cloves
2 allspice berries

Place beets in large saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Low heat and simmer til done, about 20-30 minutes. 

While beets are cooking, combine remaining ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil; simmer 5 minutes. Drain, peel, and cut beets in slices or chunks. Put into a jar and pour hot liquid over beets. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Makes about 1 quart. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Lida Farm Tour

A few CSA members took me up on my invite to join a little farm tour last week - thanks for coming. The tour was hosted with an organization called FARRMS, a sustainable agriculture organization in North Dakota. Part of their work is to support beginning and existing sustainable agriculture operators build their business and get going.
I've hosted a number of tours at my place in the past and certainly participated in farm tours on other farms. There's no better way to learn the details of a farm operation than seeing it first hand and asking questions and getting answers directly from the farmer. \

I'd say farm tours are more common among the organic community than the conventional farm communtiy, in part because there's greater experimentation in growing crops and tricks to deal with things like weeds and pests than on a conventional operation.  I also appreciate that the organic farming community is willing to share and support one another instead being competitive and throwing rocks at each other.
The Half-Finished High Tunnel

I don't know what tour participants had as a big takeawy from this week...maybe 'Ryan never finishes a project' or 'How do so many weeds grow in one location?' Whatever the takeaway, getting together and looking at crops should be a Midwestern tradition that never dies.

In the box:

  • Sweet corn: Sorry Tuesday people, it just wasn't ready earlier in the week...a few days makes a difference. This is an early corn variety, so ears are always small.  You should see the stalks...they stand about 3 feet tall. 
  • Norland Red Potatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Bunch of Beets
  • Green 'Stonehead' Cabbage
  • Green Onions 
  • Red Torpedo Onion: Use as you would any red onion, either fresh or in cooking.
  • 'Provider' Green Beans
  • Fresh Thyme: Small bunch in box.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Your Size is Not You

First, let me say, I love the U.S., but I feel we have a problem in this country. Our culture loves big things: big cars, big yards, big businesses. I suppose it's not the bigness itself that's the issue, but this palpable sense that what's big is successful. Ladies over coffee fawning over another woman's kid whose billable hour is huge and clients are a household name drop phrases like "Wow, hasn't he made a name for himself." Neighboring farmers gawking at the 1,000,000 bushel bin put up by the ambitous guy down the road give their best Midwestern compliment, "Boy, he must be doing all right..." We judge places and organizations the same way. We're attracted to new development, more businesses of a growing community. We're dazzled with a store's bigger inventory, more products, and more and more and more.

West Otter Tail County Fair with New Barn Quilt
This thinking is quite natural. It's part of our biology to seek out abundance, just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors sought out huge berry patches. The problem, however, is how we internalize this thinking and apply judgement to our lives. I've felt this a lot in my adult life. Our 4H club is small - we're failures. Our school's enrollment fell - we're failures. Our sunday school attendance is down - we're failures. Our business is small - we're failures. I'm not alone - negatively judging ourselves in comparison to others is a pervasive and ugly epidemic in the 21st century that brings friends to antidepressents and rural communities to despair. Dollars flow to big box stores and local stores close. Everybody wants to be part of that big exciting congregation and rural churches suffer. That big school in the regional center offers more opportunity, so let's take our kids there and our district's school falls behind.

If you know me and read this blog, I don't let these feelings affect me or second-guess the direction of my life. I put my energy into the small but beautiful things that feed my soul and our community regardless of the wider world: a tiny farm, small 4H club, and small sunday school. I also log hours on the board of MANNA Co-op in Detroit Lakes, a tiny store starting up in the next couple of weeks in the age of big box grocery. If we step back, I think most of us realize that these images of bigness and success are often mirages - they're fake. If I'm feeling cynical, these images of success are part of a big con game that multinational corporations are playing on us to consume more of their stuff or show their dominance to scare off competition; I certainly won't let some corporate exec in NY define me. So, what to do? Let's let go of all of this envy and baggage and dig into the work and love of our daily lives. It's exciting to see where it takes us.

In the box:
Fresh Fennel: See recipe
A Couple Onions: The red one is a Tropea Torpedo Onion and the white is a sweet onion
Norland Potatoes 
Swiss Chard
Greenleaf Lettuce
A Cucumber
A Couple Summer Squash

Ryan's Organic Pizza Hotdish

A pint of canned tomatoes
Fresh Fennel 
Mozzarella cheese 
Olive oil 
1 lb of penne pasta 
1 cup of stock (chicken, beef, vegetable)

Finished hotdish
This is my organic take on my mom's pizza hotdish, which I love. I took a bunch of pictures like those food blogs with about 30 pictures before you hit the recipe :) 

Sylvia with combined sauce and penne
Heat oven to 350 degrees and put on salted water for pasta. Make a sauce by sauteeing equal amounts of chopped fennel stalk and onion in olive oil. When fairly soft, add minced garlic for about a minute before adding tomatoes, chopped parsley, 1/4 cup of wine and about 2T on anchovy paste (if you like the flavor). Let this simmer. Take penne out of water when almost al dente (leave will finish off in the oven).

Applegate uncured pepperoni with Organic Valley Mozzarella for topping pasta

Combine pasta and sauce and put into a 13 x 9 baking pan, cover with 1-2 cups of shredded Mozzarella, top with pepperoni, and put into oven until top browns a bit.

As a bonus, you can take some of fennel fronds and combine with basil and lettuce for an herbed salad. I topped mine with caesar and Hakuri salad turnips.

Friday, July 14, 2017

New Equipment for a Small Farm

There was a point last year when pushing a two-wheeled Vermont handcart up the hill near our house for the 1,000th time when I decided that I'd had enough. Since I started farming on my own in 2001 down in Lake Elmo, I transported my harvest bins around by hand. At that time I started I was 25; today I'm 40. I knew farming had already aged my body and continuing with this low-tech form of transportation was only going to age me quicker. 

So, this spring I fell in love in with an Italian tiller from Grillo. Sometimes called walking tractors, these glorified tillers are used extensively in Europe where farms the size of mine are much more common.  Yes, they have rototillers like any old Troy-Built, but they are designed to fit a huge range of implements from mowers to cultivators to potato diggers. Considering my need for a nimble form of transport and a tiller to fit into the little spaces on the farm where the tractor doesn't work, I coughed up the $5k to bring this beauty on farm together with a cart. 

It seems a bit funny sometimes driving around the farm on a seat behind a tiller, but with the special 'drive gear' it makes for a pretty nice ride and I'm confident will save me from early knee and back surgery. 

In the box: 
  • Fresh Basil 
  • Fresh Fennel: Big bulb with celery-like stalks 
  • Broccoli
  • Arugula: Oakleaf-shaped green banded with a red band
  • Dino Kale
  • Green or Fresh Garlic: Cloves inside just like cured could let dry down until papery in a sunny, dry location 
  • Hakurai Salad Turnips: I just love these things...they are a very mild turnip that is made to  eat raw.
  • Summer Squash: Both a zucchini and a yellow straighneck or yellow zucchini, which you use the same as green zucchini. 
Fennel Parmesan Recipe (adapted from Food Network)

1 fennel bulb, cut horizontally into 1/3-inch slices
Olive Oil
2 T Parmesan Cheese

Lightly oil the bottom of a 8 by 8-inch glass baking dish. Arrange the fennel in the dish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then with the Parmesan. Drizzle with the oil. Bake until the fennel is fork-tender and the top is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Chop enough fennel fronds to equal 2 teaspoons, then sprinkle over the roasted fennel and serve.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Extreme Weather and Vegetables

A giant wind blew across our bed at 5 am and a wind tunnel enveloped the upper story of our house for the next half hour. I initially thought it was just a front which would quickly pass over and I could go back to bed, but as the intensity increased, I knew I'd have to move and move quickly. Any passerby at the time could have caught the sight of me streaking across our yard at a breakneck speed to drop the roll-up sides of the greenhouse. You see, a hard and sustained wind like that would turn that open greenhouse into a 100-foot airplane wing, which, if I were lazy and stayed in my room, I could have watched take off into the neighbor's field like Mary Poppins leaving a party.

In my line of work, I always hear about weather, and one of the common stories I've heard this week and I've told myself is how the weather has changed.  I'm 40 years old and I distinctly remember hail being a very rare occasion - maybe once every 2-3 years. Neighbors with more life under their belt than me always talk about a time when rain came slowly. A gentle rain would give the earth its 1 to 2 inches of precip over 8 - 24 hours. Instead, each time we receive and inch of rain as of late, it drops out of the sky in 40 mintues or comes with a 40-mph wind. This was the case the evening of the 4th of July. Violent winds coupled with hail and a downpour of rain - the level of downpour I imagine one would find in the rainforest. 

This change in the weather has a signficant impact on agriculture. Although this effects all forms of ag, I think it has an acute impact on commercial vegetable production.  Certaily my friends growing corn and soybeans have issues with extreme weather and it can certainly affect their yield, but, at the end of the season, these tough crops almost always produce something to fill the contract. I've seen field corn laid flat on the ground in July which produced a decent crop by October. Hailed-on lettuce or ripped greens, on the other hand, don't pass muster with a customers and just don't get sold. Vegetable crops are delicate and fickle. In the big picture, they were bred to grow under very specific conditions and as our climate changes, I have to wonder what the future will look like in the long run. 

In the box: 
  • 'Farao' Green Cabbage: See recipe below  
  • 'Imperial' Broccoli
  • Flat-leaf Parsley
  • Spinach: You'll see evidence of the hail 
  • Romaine Lettuce: Not the prettiest lettuce I've grown...looking good until the big storm this week. 
  • Bunch of Beets
  • Green or Fresh Garlic: Garlic with the stalk still on. You can use right now (it's a bit more pungent when fresh), or simply leave out in a dry, sunny location to cure it over the next 10 days for longer storage. 
  • Zucchini
Dave's Mom's Best Slaw

6.5 cups of coursely chopped cabbage, loosely packed
1 carrot, peeled and cut into chunks (about 1 cup)
1/2 cup prepared mayo
1/4 cup sugar 
2.5 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup evaporated milk 
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or scallions (optional)

Working in batches, fill a blender to the top with chopped cabbage and add cool water until 3/4 full. Whirl on low speed for about 4 seconds, just until the cabbage is evenly chopped - but not too fine - and transfer to a colander. Repeat with the rest of the cabbage. 

Place the carrot chunks in the blender and cover them with cool water. Whirl for about 8 seconds. Drain the carrots very well. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayo, sugar, vinegar, salt, and evaporated milk and set aside. 

In a serving bowl, mix together the well-drained cabbage, carrots, and parsley. Toss with the dressing and add more sugar, vinegar, and/or salt to taste. If you like, serve with chives or scallions. Tightly covered and refrigerated, this slaw will keep for a week.