Tasty Substitutions

As we head into summer, it’s the perfect time to make deli-style salads—potato salad, macaroni salad, egg salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, ham salad and seafood salad. Sure, they all have their own variations, but the ubiquitous ingredient in all them remains elusive and out of season at the market right now: celery.

I don’t know about you, but it’s the fibrous crunch that makes for a good salad. After living near massive celery fields in southern California, I swore it off for years having seen how it is grown and harvested. Because of this, my deli salads fell out of favor.

But one day while I was trimming up a bunch of fresh chard I looked down at the stems and the light went on. Would it work?

Cubing and boiling up a handful of spuds, I chopped chard stems, onions and fresh parsley, mixed mayonnaise with mustard and diced up a few hard-boiled eggs. Before I knew it my favorite potato salad was ready to accompany a burger. There was little difference in both flavor and texture with the substitution. Onward I went through my standard recipes from when I slung scoopfuls in hinged take-out containers along with a sandwich and pickle for the harbor crowds. The best part was the practical year-round availability of chard.

But under cooking, this substitution failed to hold up. With an affinity toward anything made with the Louisiana holy trinity of bell peppers, onions and celery or as the French would say, mirepoix, I’d find myself hunting down Certified Organic celery, often shamefully trimmed down to the stalks when I wanted to cook up a batch of red beans and rice or a vat of demi-glace.

However, I soon discovered another worthy substitution: fennel bulb. A member of the carrot family, fennel imparted a soft anise flavor to the dishes requiring celery. Several vendors at market grow fennel which meant no more mad dashes into the dreaded grocery store produce isle.

Once I made the switch, it seemed like fennel showed up in every recipe online and in print that caught my eye. It was time to give it a go in my salads.

For the uninitiated, a fennel bulb is much more fibrous than celery and must be shaved or minced. If not, let’s just say that could be unintended digestive consequences. Kind of like making dolmas with fresh grape leaves without blanching them in hot water first. The stalks and fronds are less fibrous and are equally edible as the bulb when it comes to flavor.

Each time I pick up fennel and walk through the market I’m given a new idea of how to use it from other vendors and customers.

“I stuff my fish with the fronds.”

“Roasted fennel on the grill is the best.”

“Shaved in a salad with grapefruit supremes and fresh mint.”

“The tops make the best pesto.”

While the culinary ideas are endless, fennel also has an incredible use I’ve seen over the years with teething children. A cold fennel bulb offers multiple stalks—just the perfect size to fit into a tiny mouth—that can quickly sooth a baby’s gums with its subtle numbing ability. Simply take the bulb apart at the stems and offer it to the child to chew. It’s easy for them to hold and won’t leave a crumbly sludge on everything like a hard cracker or require constant sanitizing like a silicon ring. And you can still use the fronds and stalks for cooking!

If you’re not going to eat the stalks and fronds, at least add them to flower arrangements as an aromatic filler. They are as beautiful as they are tasty.

An Appetite for Nostalgia

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve been eating my way through the pandemic with comfort foods, especially those from my childhood. With Independence Day on the horizon, I’m tempted to whip up a pan of the summer dessert that was a family favorite—we called it Purple Stuff.

For one of those fund-raising church cookbooks from the early 1980’s Mom included this recipe, however, she simply called it Blueberry Dessert, but we knew it as otherwise.

I pulled out the old cookbook for the ingredient quantities, doubtful that my favorite organic co-op would carry Dream Whip, but I’d figure out something. Browsing through the pages I was entertained with the recipes published by the women of the children I’d grown up with. Did we really eat that stuff?

Everything was made with cream cheese—from the molded shrimp dip, solid mess of canned shrimp (don’t rinse!), tomato soup and gelatin to Pecan Tassies, basically nuts, sugar and, of course, cream cheese. Other popular ingredients included Crisco, Cool Whip, hamburg (aka: ground beef), and oleo, another word for margarine. Margarine was developed in 1869 in response to a challenge by Emperor Napoleon II to find a cheaper alternative to beef tallow for use by the military and peasants. I’m half tempted to pull out a quart of beef tallow and see if it works equally well in these long-forgotten recipes.

Some of the names of dishes were downright disgusting like Sawdust Salad made with lemon and orange Jello, marshmallows, pineapple, Dream Whip and cream cheese. Salad Mold is another winner with lemon Jello, lemon sherbet, crushed pineapple, and cottage cheese. When my salad molds it kind of resembles what this recipe sounds like.

There were four different recipes for Hamburger Casserole and one for Shepherd Pie, but instead of ground lamb it called for—you guessed it—hamburg, which would technically make it cottage pie.

There are a few regional recipes from the older ladies that reflected the Pennsylvania Dutch roots of the region. Schnitz and Knepp—a stew of boiled ham, dried apples, milk and sugar with dumplings and Shoo-Fly Cake that called for a full cup of black strap molasses.

There was a chapter titled Low-Calorie Dishes that only included two recipes; Lo-Cal Casserole Tuna Supreme and Diabetic Cookies made with 4-6 teaspoons of artificial sweetener. Who takes lo-cal dishes to a church potluck in the first place?

Many of the recipe names would also be considered socially questionable today, bordering on cultural appropriation, but from the looks of the recipes the people they were named after wouldn’t dare touch such a concoction. There were Arabian Pork Chops (I kid you not), and Oriental Spam; zero spices in any of the foods, maybe a few herbs. The Eskimo pops were made with frozen bananas, nuts, and chocolate.

Grandma was on the cookbook committee and included Nancy Reagan’s Pumpkin Pie. She sent the First Lady a copy of the cookbook and in return received a genuinely nice handwritten thank you note. Pappy was a Democrat and their bi-partisan marriage lasted over fifty years. Oh, if they were both alive today I would love to listen in on their political commentaries.

This Independence Day there won’t be many big picnic celebrations at cabins and beach houses where multiple families come together to vacation, feast, drink, play games and set off fireworks. Instead, we will pull from our memories the flavors, textures, colors, and aromas of what offer us a pale consolation.

This year for me it will be a pan of Mom’s Purple Stuff. I’ll probably halve the recipe, sharing the other half with neighbors. Maybe I’ll try substituting crème fraiche and whipped cream for the cream cheese and Dream Whip. It’s not worth a trip inside a conventional grocery store. Fresh strawberries, cherries, and blueberries from Agriberry for certain rounding out a red, white, and blue festive dessert to enjoy while I sit on my front porch overlooking the path soldiers traveled in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, listening to the concussive rapport of fireworks as they flash in the distance.

Wild Things

Foraging: it’s one of my favorite things to do on the farm while walking around the pastures, hayfields, riparian area and the woodlot. Depending on what time of the year it is I find everything from giant puff ball fungi to catching a native trout in the run. Some things I pass on like the huge snapping turtles that venture to the pond to lay their eggs each spring. Others, like the prolific squab who roost in the horse barn, I actively catch and cook. Occasionally one of the livestock guardian dogs will snag a Canadian Goose. If it’s a fresh one, I’ll divest the carcass of the breast and let the dogs keep the rest, but I don’t actively hunt waterfowl, or for that matter, the wild turkeys who have become my daily alarm clock.

There’s purslane, the tangy wild green that also shows up in Young Harvests’ salad mix, burdock, dandelion, lambs quarters, and garlic mustard—all growing in abundance, edible and nutritious.

But in mid-June the star attraction of foraging begins to ripen—wild raspberries. A flavor of childhood, I looked forward to each year when my pappy would don his chest waders and venture to the rear of my grandparents’ property where thorny brambles grew between their neatly mowed lawn and the neighboring corn field. Grandma would make sponge cake, adding a copious helping of berries to the batter. Over the years I tried making her recipe with cultivated raspberries and even blackberries, but the taste was never the same.

As a farmer, I’ve come to understand the importance of hedgerows of brambles and bushes that produce edible berries. They’re not just for people. While the production of crops is foremost on a farm, a well-operated and healthy farm will also include the wild places that provide cover and food for wildlife. Talk to any of your farmers at the market and you’ll find that many are just as concerned about conservation as they are agriculture.

Anyone can beat Mother Nature into submission with chemicals and equipment, but it take a daring and patient farmer to work in concert with the natural environment to achieve a balance, or at the very least, a truce. I let the skunks and opossums live in peace under my porch steps and in exchange they keep the rodent, beetles, and bug population around the house at bay. I don’t kills snakes, poisonous or not, as each serves its role in the ecosystem.

A few years ago the power company showed up and announced they’d be cutting all the Ash trees near the power lines that had been affected by the Emerald Ash Borer that has compromised many of the Ashes in the United States.

“We’ll need to spray all those briars to get to the trees,” I was told.

“Give me the name and telephone number of your supervisor,” I replied.

The crew came back in the fall when all the briars has died back and the job was accomplished without chemicals or the destruction of hedgerow loaded with wild berry brambles, wild grapes, and butterfly milkweed.

As I began my first forage of the season this year I noticed that in some spots the brambles were covered in sawdust. Looking around for the source I spied where woodpeckers had made homes in the trunks of the Ash trees the arborist crews had left standing.

The extent of the brambles is no small patch as it runs nearly the entire perimeter of the hay fields, over a half mile according to my GPS tracker. In some spots the patch is more than ten feet deep. Here and there are small paths cutting through the thicket deeper into the woods, a trail frequented by the larger fauna such as deer, bear, porcupine, coyote, and raccoon. I know they live here as I’ve encountered them all on my walks over the years at one time or another.

Like all things wild, the black raspberries are unpredictable. Some years there are so many I can stand in one spot and fill the pail. Other years, I’ve walked the entire patch to gather barely a handful. If I’m struggling I’m certain the critters are, too.

In addition to the sweet little nuggets that stain my fingers pink, the briar patch offers me the intangible gift of peace. It can be as simple as a few minutes gathering down over the hill not a hundred feet from my house to over an hour in the waning daylight walking the full perimeter stopping to check on the hazelnut and chestnut trees that were planted a few years ago. Hopefully in my lifetime I will get to gather their gifts, too.

I thought about how the people who settled this property before the United States had even been formed might have enjoyed this early summer bounty. None of the patch can be seen from the original stone home. Did young folks steal away under the auspices of berry picking to court each other? Where they gathered for a batch of wine or jam or pie?

To honor the blessing of first berries I always prepare a special meal. In the age of COVID19 which cut out fine dining in restaurants, I’m left to my own devices and goodies from the farmers market to fill that void. Wild raspberry coulis with fennel and one of the last fresh ramp bulbs got drizzled over a crispy skin roasted duck breast—thank you Westmoreland Produce, Young Harvests and Springfield Farm. A cocktail with muddled fresh berries, Butterfly vodka and a splash of seltzer. Who needs to visit a hip bar in the District?

Leave it to the predictable wildness of the farm to offer comfort in the age of uncertainty. And yes, I made Grandma Miller’s Sponge Cake for dessert.

Making a Stand

Whether or not we realize it, our food system has been weaponized. It is used as a means to isolate, dominate, and control various segments of our population, including the farmers themselves. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, many organizations and businesses has gone to great lengths to identify themselves as an ally, exclaiming on social media #BLM.

However, one local market vendor had the audacity to stand up and call B.S., having worked diligently to procure a spot in a coveted downtown market only to be repeatedly denied. Following the story in the news and on social media, my anger began to rise. I wonder what Toyin Alli, owner of Puddin’ would think if I told her last year that without even applying, I was invited to join the same market by means of a casual meeting. And of course, I am white.

For some vendors, that invitation might seem like hitting the lottery, but to abandon the customers who have come to rely on me for ten years in Bethesda, some even longer following me through the assorted markets I’ve attended over the years—no way. My fellow vendors, the market management and even the customers have become like family to me.

Now more than ever, doing the right thing has become paramount. Standing up to a bully is never easy. Even Alli expressed trepidation in speaking out, potentially putting her livelihood at risk by doing what she felt in her heart as well as by her experiences needed to be done. Trust me, I know how difficult it is to be socially disadvantaged in the food industry and farming.

Despite ten years’ experience, a full-time job, good credit, a detailed business plan and a large down payment, I was still denied a low interest USDA agricultural loan as a single woman to purchase my first farm in 2000. We don’t make loans for hobby farms I was told.

Since this brouhaha, I’ve been asked why aren’t there more black farmers at the market? For the same reason that people are taking to the streets throughout the world to protest the inequity of black people and other marginalized groups. The disparity in access to credit, capital, opportunities, education, healthcare, and community resources is staggering. If it was that hard for me to get a mortgage, I can only imagine the obstacles minorities who want to farm face in procuring any sort of financing. Similarly, the USDA doesn’t exactly have a good track record with black farmers. How can we have black and other minority farmers at our markets when they continue to be victimized by their own government over agricultural matters? As of the last national agricultural census, only 1.4 percent of America’s 3.2 million farmers identified as black. And one only has to look at the national breakdown by state to see how few black-owned and operated farms are in our foodshed.

This week alone the Supreme Court upheld protection for LGBTQ people in this country. It’s 2020 and we’re still arguing over treating all people with decency, equality, respect, and kindness. I look around at my fellow vendors, many of them bearing the labels of various races, ethnicities, sexual identities, religions, and I think to myself what would happen if a vendor openly refused to sell to a customer based upon one of these aspects? Imagine the outcry.

Last year I had an encounter with a customer who lamented their unwillingness to continue patronizing another vendor at the market after learning of their ethnicity. I was shocked by this revelation and refused to allow it to pass unnoticed.

“If you won’t buy from them, you’re not going to buy from me,” I said. At first they thought I was joking, but when I refused to accept their money or hand over their weekly dozen of eggs it began to sink in that I was serious. Silently they walked away and in a few minutes returned holding out their purchase from the other vendor before meekly asking if I would sell them their eggs. It’s amazing how standing your ground for your principles can make a difference.

That is why the details are being made public as to why sudden changes had to be made to the Mosaic Market last year and the ramifications that have followed. Not wanting to detract from the vibrant farmers market community in the mid-Atlantic region, Central Farm Markets has not publicized legal actions taken against the property owners, management company and well-known nonprofit market group.

Creating, building, and managing a market is a significant investment of both time and money. Central Farm Markets spent years cultivating a vibrant market at the repeated behest of the Mosaic district’s developers. The market won awards and expanded to operating year-round.

Operating as a Limited Liability Corporation—a private business—Central Farm Markets was shocked when the property owners and management company announced two weeks prior to the opening of the spring market season that the Mosaic market’s management was to be taken over by a competing market group’s non-profit.

Like Toyin Alli, for some vendors the carrot was dangled to becoming part of their market system and eventually move into bigger and better regional markets. For other vendors with a significant current presence in the competing market system at other locations, they feared retaliation for choosing not to remain at the Mosaic location under new management. “This is so screwed, I could lose my entire business over the territorial drama,” lamented one of my fellow vendor with multiple markets throughout the region in both market groups.

Getting product to market is difficult enough for farmers, but the uncertainty and retooling on the fly that vendors faced last year was about as unprofessional as it gets. Imagine two weeks before a market season being told to make a choice and then having to change all your signage, web data, printed materials, insurance documentation, and licensure. That is why Central Farm Markets made the choice to make the involved parties be held legally accountable for their actions.

Central Farm Markets’ focus has always been on providing a quality market space for regional vendors of premium artisan and farmstead products while being environmentally and socially responsible. Our vendors are a diverse group of people from all walks of life. With the advent of COVID19, the management has taken the safety of both vendors and patrons very seriously by instituting and enforcing safety protocols. Additionally, the market has invested in the creation of Farm-to-Fridge, a delivery service dedicated to bringing products from participating vendors straight to your doorstep with a new and improved online ordering system set to go live in the coming week.

And Ms. Alli, please know that Puddin’ would be welcome at Central Farm Markets.

Storm Chaser

No, not the kind where I try to track down super cells bruising the sky. I’m talking chickens running everywhere after a microburst sent one of the hoop coops a good ten yards down over a hill.

I’ve been raising pastured poultry in the same design for twenty years. Until two years ago I’d never had the wind turn one into a sail the kind of way an unweighted tent cartwheels through the market on a blustery day. Blame it on global warming.

The first time it happened a few years ago I had just got into my van to leave for a girls’ night out at a local winery. It was early August, one of those steamy evenings ripe for a downpour. With visibility near zero I decided to wait out the storm before leaving. All my weather apps confirmed this would blow through in a few minutes. And blow through it did.

Only a few feet in front of my bumper was the hoop coop full of chickens about the size of softballs. Like something out of the Wizard of Oz the coop lifted into the air before blowing down over the hill, feeders and waterers flung about. A hundred birds scampered under the dense pasture grasses bent over heavy with the downpour. Chase chickens in the pouring rain or live music and wine? I turned the key to the engine.

Much to my surprise, when I got home later that night my headlights illuminated little white rustling objects in the pasture. Despite being soaking wet, the birds were alive and well. I’ve learned that chickens can get wet, they can even get wet and cold and look like they are all dead, but if you bring them in the house or put a heat lamp on them to get them dry they perk up and go on about their business none the worse.

After hauling the coop back up the hill with the 4WD runabout I scooped up all the birds wearing a headlamp. Birds don’t move much when it’s dark so picking them up was quite easy. I didn’t lose a single bird as I counted while putting them back into the coop and reloading their feed and water. Just to be safe, I lashed a heavy portable pen panel to each side of the coop.

Last year there was only one storm that sent me running for the panels to be on the safe side.

Why not make them heavier? It’s a delicate balance between portability and storm-proofing. Hoop coops are something that I prefer to move myself. Using the runabout makes it difficult to see or hear when a bird gets caught under the frame. There is always a stupid one and there is no mistaking when this happens. Moved slowly, it’s a simple release of pressure from the pull-rope. Moved too fast and it’s an injured or dead chicken. There’s no winner for that dinner.

So today when I was picking up the next batch of chicks a few towns over, the drive back through the valley became ominously dark the closer I got to the farm. A few big drops on the windshield here and there, but otherwise dry as I drove back the lane. A fresh batch of fuzzy little peepers safe in the brooder, it was time to hustle and get the rest of the chicken chores done before it rained. I threw a sack of feed in the van and drove it out through the freshly harvested hay field where I had started moving the batch of the largest birds. I had noticed swarms of tiny grasshoppers in the cropped grass. The chickens would feast.

Thunder and lightning lit up North Mountain so I began to hustle as there was yet another coop of younger birds, including a batch of fancy layers that laid the coveted green eggs, that needed to be fed and watered. Their hoop coop was next to the house for the safety of the porch lights and electricity for added heat the first few days after being moved from the brooder outside onto grass. It also helps to congregate the small birds away from the edges of the coop where a raccoon might be able to reach through the wire enough to snag a leg or head. This is not a pretty sight to find in the morning.

The rain and wind hit suddenly and with enough force the coop was spun 90-degrees with me inside. I grasped the frame and the entire structure jerked again with another gust. This was not a safe place to be. In the few feet from the coop to the van I was soaked through. I backed the van up placing the tires on top of the tug rope so at least the coop wouldn’t blow away. I checked the coop by the house. Still there. I checked the radar on my phone. A bright red spot in a yellow blotch surrounded the GPS pin of my location. I looked up and the second hoop coop was gone. Lightning flashed in the field which meant all I could do was sit there, wait and brood about possible modifications to my coop design to prevent this from happening again. This was going to be the last time I chased chickens in the steamy aftermath of a storm. Didn’t the National Weather Service predict a more active than normal hurricane season for this year?

The hoop coop survived a ten-meter toss down the hill with little damage. Nothing a few long screws wouldn’t fix. Unfortunately, three birds—of course, the green egg layers—were casualties. It looked like a raccoon attack only without the raccoons. The rest of the flock was alive and spread out around my house, some huddled under the peonies, irises, and poppies in my garden, some under the front porch and others hunkered down in the open. Most were easy to catch as I walked around filling a five-gallon bucket and depositing them back in their coop, but without the cover of lush hayfield the chase was on for the remainder. Now in my second set of clothes, the first soaked set removed as they were off farm clothes and I knew to deal with moving a coop or chasing chickens would quickly turn them into farmwear with some sort of rip or stain, I was gathering wet, scared poultry in the waning storm now down to a shower. It was muggy and playing ring-around-the-rosy with the last two too free ranging birds around my heat pump unit was not how I’d imagined spending the end of my day.

This is not my Instagram moment.

It’s Strawberry Season

While there are plenty of slick graphics on websites that tell us what’s in season at our local farmers market I continue to associate ripe fresh foods with events as opposed to dates. Every year I would look forward to my dad’s birthday in mid-June because it meant the height of strawberry season. At some point our family would go berry-picking, crawling around on our hands and knees with sturdy cardboard boxes. Some places were old school with short-legged wooden carrying baskets which held six or eight quart boxes—not the press paper green boxes we use today, but ones constructed of split-wood often juiced-stained with years of use.

Some relatives put in their own berry patches paying the kids to pick for paying customers who didn’t want to (or couldn’t) pick for themselves. Others would simply share their bounty among family and friends with someone making homemade ice cream, others shortcake and my personal favorite—grandma’s sponge cake with a texture that would soak up cold milk when poured into the dish with the cake before topping with freshly sliced berries.

There was a little church next to the creek where Dad liked to go fishing that had a Strawberry Festival where we would go every year. Talk about standing in a line! Families would sit at long tables that were heaped with just about every combination of how one could eat strawberries. There was ice cream and shortcake, whipped cream and cold milk.

Strawberry season was a treat.

When I moved to southern California I was in the heart of year-round strawberry production living between Santa Maria and Oxnard, where many of the country’s strawberries are grown. They were an everyday thing; nothing special anymore.

I rode horses with a woman whose family owned large agricultural tracts in Ventura County. The first time I went to her massive strawberry farm I was overwhelmed at the magnitude of the operation. This wasn’t a roadside stand in Gardners. The California strawberries were different, too. The huge #1 Chandlers where the size of my palm, firm and sweet, but lacked the juiciness of the smaller varieties I recalled from my childhood. As we loaded our horses into the trailers after a day of schooling young animals up and down the equipment lanes and irrigation ditches dividing different crops in 20-acre increments there would be flat of strawberries for each of us in the back of our trucks. To have this many all to myself seemed decadent at first, but over the years the novelty wore off.

It wasn’t until I returned home that the seasonality of strawberries once again sank in. Grocery store strawberries shipped across the country just didn’t cut it anymore. Accepting this reality, I went back to procuring a flat each year from family who had a public patch and later from fellow vendors at market, some to freeze, some to can and the rest to eat freshly sliced, again discovering that flavor I had so dearly missed. The first berries arrive around Memorial Day and by the Fourth of July they’ve given way to sweet cherries and blueberries.

As I moved into the metropolitan markets over an hour south I would always nab a few of the first boxes of the season. At first my dad was perplexed as strawberry season was not set to begin for another month. The realization set in as to the differences in seasons a four-hour drive can make for fresh produce. The early strawberries were still in season, but it was the season in Virginia, not Pennsylvania.

While it is not the year-round fresh strawberries of the west, I am grateful for the extended strawberry season that occurs at the markets with multiple growers throughout the region reaching peak season at different times.

BEEhind the Scenes

Mixing Sheep & Bees

A few weeks ago I got a call from my friend Jonas, a fellow farmer, kindred spirit and mentor, asking about a few bags of raw wool. How fortuitous that the shearer was scheduled that week to relieve the sheep of their winter coats. I told him by the following week I’d have plenty to spare as only the main body of a fleece is kept for spinning into yarn, the rest from the rear, belly, legs, neck and head being “skirted” and tossed aside. It seems there is as much in the discard pile as there is for processing. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked Jonas his plans for the wool I swept from the barn floor and stuffed into empty feed sacks.

It turned out he was over at Spiral Path Farm doing some experimental bee keeping. For the next hour Jonas went in depth about a new type of hive. Despite being in his 70’s, Jonas is always willing to give something new a try. I knew I’d be seeing the folks of Spiral Path at market before I’d get by Jonas’s place so I offered to toss a few sacks of wool on their market truck.

Curious as to how the wool would be used, I gave Will Brownback, Lucas’s brother, a call. Frustrated by traditional hives and beekeeping, he began experimenting with horizontal hives after reading an article in Acres USA by Dr. Leo Sharashkin who teaches natural beekeeping.

Although Dishing the Dirt has touched upon bees in the past, I still haven’t taken the plunge myself into beekeeping after listening to so many other lament the loss of their hives due to Colony Collapse—a very real issue facing commercial and hobby beekeepers today.

Likewise, Will had his share of misfortune with traditional hives. “We would pay professionals to bring in hives and it just wasn’t working out,” he said before telling me that their Certified Organic farm now relies primarily on natural pollinators—mainly bumblebees—to pollinate their vegetable crops.

Last year Will built both horizontal hives and a swarm trap to keep his family in honey from the farm. Also called Layens hives, instead of vertically stacked frames (Langstroth hives), the frames hang within a deep box. “The depth of the box is meant to mimic how wild bees inhabit logs and trees,” Will explained. But where does the wool come in?

Turns out the box in which the frames are hung are built with a inner and out box with a void in between. The wool is stuffed into this void as insulation helping to keep the bees warm during the winter much like the thick trunk of a void in a tree.

But the shape of the beehive isn’t the only difference in natural beekeeping. Will relies on the local genetics and wild swarms captured using a swarm trap to populate his hives. Unlike commercial operations where swarming is not considered a good thing and queens are purchased, Will was pleased when both his hives swarmed this year and he captured the new swarms for additional hives he built. “I went from zero to four hives in less than a year.”

Natural beekeeping at Spiral Path Farm involves tough love, although Will admitted to “babying along” the first swarm he caught late last summer by feeding it lots of honey. “It shouldn’t have survived, but they did.” In keeping with organic practices, Will does not feed sugar water (sugar beets are a GMO crop), nor does he use any chemicals or drugs to control parasites and diseases that plague most beehives, both in commercial and hobby beekeeping.

“If they can’t make it on their own, too bad. I’m back to square one,” is Will’s attitude toward his bees.

Even Jonas was impressed with the no-fuss philosophy of horizontal hives. After listening to both speak excitedly about the horizontal hives, I am now more inspired to get in my workshop to build a hive and maybe even use my beekeeper’s suit for more than just a Halloween costume.

 

Small, Independent and Strong

Nothing beats a Monday morning with panicked customers reacting to the latest viral story from a well-known celebrity chef. This week’s cause for cowering, an article in The Counter co-written by Chef Dan Barber of famed restaurants Blue Hill in New York City and at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture talking about the resourcED National Farmer Survey Report. In the headlines, Barber predicted that nearly a third of small independent farmers will go bankrupt or out of business by the end of 2020 due to the Corona virus pandemic. Imagining the loss of that many beloved market vendors, fear immediately began to spread among my Sunday regulars, many who have had the good fortune to enjoy a meal at Blue Hill.

Earlier this year when Stone Barns posted the position of Livestock Manager I thought to myself what a dream job it would be. Had I not been completely enamored with my current endeavors, I would have jumped on that like a barn cat on a field mouse. How fun it would be to experiment with innovative regenerative farming practices working in unison with nature without having to worry about the financial ramifications of failure. Operating as a non-profit with the backing of the Rockefeller Estate and many other patrons offering five and six figure support, it’s a far cry from most of the farmers you’ll come across at your local markets. When well-funded operations such as Stone Barns face shortfalls in their budgets for whatever reason, be it poor practices or events beyond human control, there is the ability to approach the board of directors and big donors to cover the red ink. For farmers like me such shortfalls have meant making a hard choice between buying winter hay for livestock or heating fuel for the house.

I recognize the importance of education and experimental programs in sustainable agriculture, but I found it utterly irresponsible to publish and promote a report making such broad predictions for a large and diverse demographic.

With a title like National Farmer Survey Report I would have thought the data was collected from more than 240 respondents. According to the 2018 census of the National Agricultural Statistic Service at the USDA, there are 1,848,000 small, independent farms in the United States. That’s 0.013% sampling for Chef Dan Barber to predict the demise of 1/3 of us.

Are some farmers going to go bankrupt or out of business due to COVID19? Absolutely. However, I began to dig deeper into the report and it’s just not adding up for me.

First, over half of the respondents were vegetable farms with five acres or less operated by 25- to 34-year-old white women. While many listed their geographical location as rural, the pins on the map showed the majority in proximity to metropolitan locations. I, along with many other vendors, consider myself to be rural, but can be in the heart of four major cities in two hours.

If you really want to meet farmers who can survive insurmountable conditions in a hostile environment, get to know some racially diverse farmers or read Leah Penniman’s book, Farming While Black, Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

Another glaring omission from the survey was seafood and fisheries. Some of the biggest laments of the fallout from the pandemic’s closures has been from oyster farmers and commercial fishermen. They’re the ones with highly perishable products often selling to restaurants. They now fear for their financial survival just as much as the hog farmers in Nebraska. The only plus being they can leave their income in the water instead of burying it in ditches for a complete loss.

The truth about small independent farmers is that we are the ones feeding our communities. Selling to celebrity chefs with Michelin stars and James Beard awards is not the norm, although it is nice. By posing the hypothetical scenario of sales to restaurants down 50% and farmers market sales also down by 50%, it’s no wonder that farmers polled predicted their own demise. Instead, consider the question of how many people go out to eat at fancy farm-to-table restaurants versus how many regularly cook at home with local ingredients for themselves and their families.

From my perspective as a small independent farmer I am not seeing Barber’s premonition and I think I’ve got a darn good view. Yes, we’ve had to re-tool multiple times with some failures, some successes but everyone is in mitigation mode at this time. Good grief, the disruption began in mid-March and already there’s a slick survey dividing us into groups while at the same time prognosticating our collective failure.

As I read down through the survey’s findings my hackles rose with indignation at the lack of understanding of complex food systems. For instance, does it really matter if the farm’s location is rural or urban? Why not ask who the target customers are? I know who mine are. They are city-dwellers and local restaurants. My neighbors down the road have an on-farm stand and a CSA. Another sells 100% of their milk to a co-op. We all live in the same demographic area, but we serve completely different customers. Those distinctions matter.

In the last eight weeks it’s been a wild ride as an independent farmer. The survey reported revenues decreasing by 51.3%. I can believe those numbers as during that same time my restaurant sales, too, completely disappeared. However, I’ve learned the hard way not to put all my eggs in one basket. My retail sales went through the roof and not just from panic purchases. Kids home from college, parents moving in with grown children. The food service industry came to a grinding halt until restaurateurs figured out how to safely serve their customers’ needs through takeout and delivery.

But after the first month, orders began coming back in from restaurants doing a brisk takeout business. I’ve even witnessed small independent restaurants’ business increasing because they are no longer limited to their in-house seating capacity. Servers have been re-employed as kitchen staff to meet the overwhelming demand. Ingredients are being ordered from farmers, same as before.

People still need to eat and that food has to come from somewhere. We’re seeing how large monoculture industrial food systems are suffering under COVID19. Dan Barber is worried about big food taking back the customers they’ve lost, but like those massive processing plants that have been shuttered, how is this going to happen if all the employees are sick and dying? If the pipeline for raw commodity ingredients has dried up? For The Counter interview Chef Barber mentioned speaking to food executives in their ivory towers. Maybe he should have been talking to small independent farmers on the front lines instead of just sending out a survey to those who had the time and technology to fill it out. This is what he would have learned.

Farmers like Erik and Meghan at Dicot Farm in Maryland who are quite similar to the survey’s dominant demographics had this to say. “In general we and most small veg farmers we know have been able to adapt by finding other outlets (more CSA members, home delivery options, etc.) to replace any lost revenue from restaurant and market sales. At the moment we are not concerned about bankruptcy.”

Similarly, in the livestock sector I reached out to Patty Neiner, the Program Manager of the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (PA WAgN) and co-owner of a small independent farm in State College, Pennsylvania who direct-markets 100% of their livestock. “Our experience has been that we can’t grow animals fast enough for the demand. Small is resilient in these days.”

Ms. Neiner also shared her frustration over mainstream media’s one size fits all approach. “I was just interviewed by Penn State Alumni News and the reporter was shocked that our business was doing so well. I think I ruined her doom and gloom story. The truth in food shortages is that the country just eats less junk like fast foods and more homemade meals. I have definitely seen that happening more.”

From the Chesapeake region, Dena Leibman reported, “I’ve been talking seemingly nonstop with farmers. Many are experiencing a boom season, sales-wise, and are hustling to plant more and find new sales avenues, all while being fearful that when the global supply chain comes back online, even somewhat, they will lose some fly-by-night customers. The future is uncertain; the present full of as many opportunities as challenges. Going bankrupt is not what I’m hearing.” Leibman is the Executive Director of and Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (FHCASA) who further reached out to her staff with the same questions.

Lisa Garfield, manager of the Million Acre Challenge, a 7- to 10-year project which aims to have no fewer than one million Maryland agricultural acres in regenerative production by 2029, offered these insights.

“While some small farms have hit their stride and feel secure financially, I think that any number of challenges—weather related, etc., could make many feel less secure.  Also, farmers in the NE have a shorter growing season, so disruptions to the market may be felt more acutely.

I do think there is a huge concern that as soon as people feel comfortable going back to grocery stores that some of the big increases we’ve seen at farmers markets and in CSA subscriptions may recede.  If restaurants start opening again, some of those losses could be absorbed back into that system, but I think that will be much, much, much slower.  CSA shares (typically) are prepaid, so that food and those dollars should already be accounted for, regardless of short-term shifts this summer—though some new CSA members will likely stop picking up their shares by mid-summer.”

At the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), Executive Director Hannah Smith Brubaker, who is also a co-owner of a small independent farm, confirmed my assessment of the survey’s results as she, too, is seeing a groundswell of support both in the PASA community and on her multi-generational small farm.

Here in the mid-Atlantic region farmers have been blessed with organizations who foster vibrant opportunities for education, networking, research and support for nearly fifty years. It’s not a stretch to attribute the mature and robust sustainable agricultural community to these resources. We’ve pioneered year-round markets giving both consumers and retailers access to locally grown seasonal foods. We’ve spun up multiple Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models, cooperatives and collectives.

What really sticks in my craw, to question the tenacity of the American small independent farmer, or any farmer for that matter after only eight weeks of adversity. In the final section of the survey findings I was floored to see the statistics that 69% reported they had to work more due to increased direct-to-consumer sales.

Well, no kidding. Selling direct to consumers is not a walk in the park; it’s hard work. Farming is hard work. In the beginning of all these changes, I often found myself breaking out in tears over the overwhelming struggle to create new routines when my business model was changing from day to day. And it’s not just farmers who are working harder. How about teachers, medical and emergency personnel, essential retailers, delivery people?

Throughout my thirty years in agriculture I’ve repeatedly witnessed farmers encountering seemingly insurmountable odds against them, crushing losses and failures doled out by Mother Nature, accidents or circumstance, much like the world is now experiencing with the Corona virus. And yet they bounce back time and time again, continuing to produce food in one way or another.

Farmers are the masters at figuring out how to fix something due to shear necessity. It took a novel virus for humanity to recognize how tenuous our food system has become. But at the same time, I’m participating in revolutionary changes to facilitate customers’ access to food. Consumers finally grasping the inequity of the modern food system that results in artificially low prices for commodities.

Recognizing that these issues are not going away any time soon, farmers are investing time and resources into keeping their operations functional and transparent. There will most certainly be hiccups and breakdowns during the coming months. Hard decisions and sacrifices will be made.

Here’s the best part about adversity, though—you come out on the other side often wiser and better for your experience. Let’s focus on moving forward solving each challenge that presents itself as it arrives instead of falling victim to doomsday predictions. As farmers, we got this.

Conspiracy Theories

Although conversations are limited to transactional times, customers often ask the same question within their window of opportunity—What can we do to help you?

Of course my first response is always to keep shopping at the market through one of the three ways available since the outbreak of COVID19—in person, via pre-orders with curbside pick-up or through the Farm to Fridge delivery service. But if they’re asking me, they’re already shopping at the market which leads me to my second request—stock up on what is in season.

With warm weather within reach, the bounty of spring is upon us and the abundance of summer just around the corner. Right now think berries and asparagus. Now, wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy those flavors later in the year without having to enter a grocery store?

The parting shot is always the excuse: I don’t have time. I don’t have space. I don’t know how. Just like pandemic conspiracy theories, today’s Dishing the Dirt is dedicated to debunking these fallacies.

I don’t know how.

Seriously? Have you not heard of YouTube? There is a video for teaching anything and everything, especially food related. In their boredom with restaurants closed or operating with limited services, chefs are on Instagram and Facebook Live walking us through everything from fileting a flounder to cooking pizza in the woodfired oven they taught you to build in last week’s video. I’ve even seen chefs tweet culinary instructions in a single massive thread.

If you’re a luddite, there’s still television. How many food channels are there now? When I gave up cable TV Iron Chef was still in Japanese with English subtitles.

Let’s not forget books. Cookbooks are still hot properties when it comes to something like putting up seasonal goodies as they will get pulled out regularly for reference instead of recipes. My 1977 Special Deluxe Edition of Stocking Up by the Editors of Organic Gardening and Farming is by far one of the most used books I own. I paid $6.95 for it in a used bookstore in Santa Barbara while I was in college and it’s nearly five hundred pages has guided me through freezing, canning, drying, pickling, juicing, curing and culturing. Several newer food preservation books on my shelves offer added insights into making my own catchup and charcuterie.

A little common sense will also go a long way. Want strawberries for your yogurt in December? Wash them, cut the green tops off. Let them dry on a paper towel and then freeze them in a bag. Yes, it’s that simple. I freeze whole peppers—both hot and sweet. Even when frozen, they chop up well straight out of freezer. Nothing beats a little jalapeño in your scrambled eggs when there’s snow on the ground.

I don’t have time.

Time is exactly what many of us now have. We’re passing around sourdough starters and baking so much bread that a 1,000 year old mill had to be brought back online to help meet the demand for flour.

Canning jars can be in the water bath while you’re Zooming away with your co-workers. Fifteen minutes of blanching and bagging green beans for the freezer means a better Thanksgiving casserole.

Here’s a little trick I’ve discovered over the years. Don’t do it all at once. Each week I procure extra of something I want to stock up and do a batch. It may be something as simple as freezing blueberries one week and another week I’ll devote to several days to a big batch of pickled vegetables. When the San Marzano tomatoes are in season, one week will be puree and another week a batch of sauce complete with onions, herbs, peppers and mushrooms.

dehydrator

Dehydrator

Another great way to preserve food is dehydration. My workhorse is an Excalibur of which I have owned several versions over the last 30 years. Once you begin dehydrating your own fruit you’ll never go back to store-bought. It’s so easy and there is no comparison in taste. An added bonus—I can make my own yogurt in the same machine.

I don’t have space.

This is the big one, especially when it comes to freezer space. Even if you live in a basement studio, a 3.6 cubic feet freezer only has a 22”x 22” x 33” footprint and you can get a heck of a lot of food in that little of space. Throw a tablecloth over it and use it as a small table, a plant stand, a pedestal for artwork. When I was growing up my family kept a large chest freezer in Mom’s sewing room. It was her big workspace for laying out material.

I keep many of my jarred goods in the original box that the canning jars came in for easier storage under beds and chairs or in closets. A dozen pint jars take up 10” x 13” x 6” or about the size of two shoeboxes side by side. At that rate, I could get about two years’ worth of food under my bed alone!

These last few months have been a wake-up call to everyone concerned about our local food system. It’s one thing to support it, but it’s another to fully participate by actively stocking up on foods that are in season.

There has been a renaissance of food preservation over the last several years with everything from artisan pickles to home-cured bacon. It’s time to quit telling yourself it’s too {insert excuse} and start stocking up. Take a detailed look at what you like to eat, what you regularly cook and then go from there. With a little effort you’ll end up with a full pantry that can go a long way without ever having to wear a tinfoil hat.

Always Flowers for Mother’s Day

Flowers—everyone gets their mom flowers for Mother’s Day, don’t they? 

This lesson started early for me with orchid corsages for Mother’s Day. Grandma, Mom and my aunt all got them. Pappy bought them and put them in the refrigerator. When it was Dad’s turn to buy them, he bought silk orchids and still put them in the refrigerator. 

Growing up across the street from Orners’ Greenhouse one of my first paying jobs was wrapping dull plastic pots in brightly colored florist foil. Each container held a variety of flowering bedding plants like pansies, petunias, pocketbook flowers, marigolds, geraniums and begonias. It was also my job to keep these specialty items well stocked just inside the door for quick purchase. Every year Charlie Orner would cross the street with a flat full of brilliantly colored bedding plants for my mom. In addition to the neighborly generosity, it turned out he was also ensuring that when he looked across the street he’d get to see the types and colors of flowers he liked. 

There have been lots of flowers throughout the years for Mom, some memorable like the vintage fishing creel artfully arranged by our small-town florist or the big yellow Oaxacan-style flowerpot that was woefully out of place in our central Pennsylvania back yard. 

For me, it’s usually a big planter of tulips that she’s able to plant around her yard. They come back each year until the squirrels dig them up and eat them. One year it wasn’t flowers, but an entire garden. Mom wanted a Lasagna Garden so we gathered all the materials and spent the afternoon putting it in off to the side of her patio instead at the rear of the property where it had always been. She’s lived in the same house over fifty years and the privacy hedge of pines between properties now towered high enough to cast shade over what had once received full sun. Then there was the frustrating matter of dragging a hose the whole way across the yard if the garden needed watering. Nope. Mom’s common sense stepped in and put the new vegetable garden next to water spigot at the house.

Having gone to market on Sunday for nearly twenty years, I don’t get to actually spend Mother’s Day with Mom. It has become a drawn-out holiday of sorts for us. This year her flowers were delivered last week along with a bag of dirt. No tulips this year, but a flat of begonias, red ones. She had lamented waiting too long last year and by the time she got to the greenhouse (Orners is sadly long gone) they only had white ones left. 

As soon as I got home that day I called her local greenhouse and asked about red or pink begonias. “We won’t have them in until right before Mother’s Day,” I was informed. I gave the woman my name and telephone number asking to be notified when I could order them. Sure enough, last week I got a call about their availability. Enter the age of COVID19 when everything can be delivered. “We can have them there tomorrow,” she offered. When online retailers, big box stores and grocery chains’ online ordering for pickup or delivery is backed up for weeks, leave it to a local greenhouse to rise to the occasion of Mother’s Day. 

But Mother’s Day won’t be over for Mom on Sunday. Next week she’s going to get what most mothers don’t want from their kids—a load of crap. That is unless their kid is a farmer and it’s for her garden.