Blessed are the Turkey Farmers

You should have ordered your holiday birds back in September when the signs advertising turkeys appeared. Unfortunately, there are those who insist on waiting until the last minute, indignant when informed they will have to procure a bird with a less-than stellar provenance or take what is available. I know the slackers are out there. They’ve showed up at my stand asking about ordering turkeys and my answer is NO! I hate those darn things. They are proof that the dinosaurs did not go extinct. Tyrannosaurus Rex turned into a turkey. After my little tirade, I politely point in the direction of vendors offering turkeys and to prove my point add, “You can’t pay me enough to ever raise turkeys again.”

It’s been 25 years since I first ventured into pastured poultry production. The flagship gobblers were gorgeous Bourbon Reds grown in an orchard feasting on citrus and avocados. I took orders for a dozen birds from friends and co-workers, plus two for me and two to my friend, Nancy, who helped with butchering.

We processed the birds in my back yard on a sunny southern California afternoon while sipping wine, listening to music and plucking poultry by hand. It was idyllic, the first seeds luring me away from technology and into agriculture. Oh what fun I was going to have.

The bug that had bitten me led me back home to Pennsylvania where farms were affordable. Shortly after moving east I purchased a dozen turkey poults (baby chicks) from a local hatchery. Unfortunately, I failed to understand the distinction between heritage and production birds. Unlike my previous turkeys, these were the Broad Breasted Whites used in the region’s commercial turkey houses and came with their beaks, snoods (that dangly thing that hangs over their beaks) and toes clipped off to prevent fighting and cannibalism in overcrowded conditions.

By late summer the turkeys had already reached their harvest weight. At Thanksgiving the smallest bird barely fit into my oven, fed my family including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother, and provided leftovers. The heritage birds from the previous year has lived the same amount of time and were a fraction of the size.

With several birds still in the barnyard, I decided to overwinter them hoping for eggs to hatch in an incubator. There were six hens and two toms. Everyone lived in harmony until Valentine’s Day. Nothing ruins a romantic evening like the fighting of two barnyard titans clashing, the loser requiring an emergency butchering in sub-freezing weather. Trying to break up a fight between a pair of angry male turkeys is every bit as dangerous as getting between fighting dogs. Not all the blood shed that day belonged to the birds. Still, I ventured on with the survivor and his harem.

When spring arrived, the hens began laying eggs. Excitedly I gathered them, loading them into the incubator and then after several days, candling each egg to check for a growing embryo—zilch, nada, zero, zip. None of the eggs were fertile.

I didn’t get it. The hens lined up with their tail feathers in the air, cloacas exposed, ready and willing. The tom strutted around in awkward attempts at copulation but appeared only to be giving good wing. Dismayed at an entire season without a single fertilized egg, I called the hatchery from where I had procured the poults and got a lesson in industrial turkey production. Every single Broad Breasted White turkey is artificially inseminated because they’ve been bred (not genetically engineered) for generations to have unnaturally large breasts that prevent natural breeding–all because Americans demanded more white meat.

Not one for failure, I did my homework and settled on a Standard Bronze variety—the halfway bird between true heritage and commercial. I had come to terms with not hatching my own turkeys by now and focused instead on growing and selling.

The following spring, 50 day-old poults arrived in late June. As with all young birds, turkeys must be brooded, meaning kept warm until their downy fluff turns into feathers. It takes about a month. They were kept on the enclosed front porch in a commercial brooder until the entire house stank of turkey poop. That was the signal to put them in the barn. The plan was to keep them in one of the stalls for a few days to acclimate them to being without added heat before turning them into the barnyard. After the first day, there were two poults with their heads chewed off. By the end of the week, 16 had been decapitated.

Poults aren’t cheap, with the fancier heritage birds commanding between $5-10 each. Add in a month of feed and mortality can quickly start eating into the profits. Before I realized it was my beloved pet cat causing the devastation, she had eaten nearly a thousand dollars of potential profit. Not to be deterred, a cat-proof coop was constructed to accommodate the growing poults until they were too big for a feline takedown. Keeping the kitty locked in the house helped, too, but was not pleasant for all involved parties except the turkeys.

Harvest time arrived in November only it was not a balmy afternoon, but a slap-in-the-face winter day so cold that water froze in the hose during processing. The only consolation was the warm wet feathers during the plucking that kept my fingers from frostbite.

But customers showed up purchasing all except two turkeys I kept for myself. They were elated to be buying a locally raised bird direct from the farmer.

By the following year I had dipped my toes into a local farmers market. I increased the numbers to 75 birds and went about figuring out how to get them processed more efficiently. At a potluck for local farmers striking out into sustainable agriculture and direct marketing, I met a family who had built an outdoor pastured poultry processing facility. The agreed to help me with processing.

Each year I would load all the turkeys into my stock trailer the Monday prior to Thanksgiving and head down the road returning to the farm with all my birds neatly cleaned, bagged, weighed, tagged and iced down in 100 gallon stock tanks ready to be picked up at the farm on Tuesday and then taken to farmers market on Wednesday.

When I began attending markets in the DC area, however, this schedule no longer worked. Now I had to add another processing day so the birds would be ready for Sunday market. Thanksgiving soon became Hell Week.

But I stuck with it because my customers were happy.

Having overcome the hurdle of predation by cats, logistics of processing and getting the birds to market, the next issue to arise was the fact that Standard Bronze turkeys can fly. Broad Breasted birds do not. This meant that at least once, maybe twice during the birds’ lifespan they needed to be caught and have their wing feathers clipped. For the second clipping, a willing partner with the strength and stamina to hold several dozen angry large birds upside down is required and is best performed at night when the birds are easier to catch while roosting. Eventually, this issue would be the proverbial straw that broke my camel’s back.

Coming home from a market in early fall one year I was horrified to see every single one of my turkeys roosting on the top rail of the fence—they were flying again. The only problem: I had just begun my weekly rundown of markets, one each day for the next consecutive four days. It would be nearly a week until I could get their wings clipped.

During this time they became stronger, roosting higher in the trees at night making it impossible to catch them for a wing clipping. At the same time, during the day while I was at market the flock became a marauding band of large birds cruising the neighborhood and bearing down on everyone who dared open their front door. To the birds, humans meant getting fed. In the stampede for a hopeful feeding, the turkeys left unwanted deposits on my neighbors’ driveways, immaculate lawns, front porches and patios. I was having my own personal WKRP turkey nightmare that ultimately cost me several turkeys to appease my irate neighbors.

That was also the same year several other vendors showed up at market with Broad Breasted Whites for half the price of my Standard Bronze leaving me with too many unsold birds to fit in my freezer. I was no longer the only pastured turkey game in town.

At that point, I had raised holiday turkeys for fifteen years and I was done. I don’t even raise one or two for myself. I will buy from a fellow farmer, or cook ham, goose or duck.

But for everyone who buys their bird from a vendor at the farmers market, I want you to know just how hard these folks work to bring you your holiday meal. Raising turkeys for market is no picnic; it’s a labor of love. It’s a big investment in time and resources. And if they’re anything like me, their hearts aren’t broken when they load up their birds on that final day. In truth, the farmers have been chanting “three more weeks” since Halloween. Turkeys are bulky and heavy, much more difficult to handle than most of the other year-round products. And if you wait until the Pike Central Special Thanksgiving Farm Market on November 26th to get your turkey, be prepared to buy a big one because they are always the last ones that are left.

Sip ’em & Slurp ’em

I am a shameless hedonist when it comes to great food. Want proof? It’s that time of year when customers can catch me (along with many other Central Farm Market vendors and patrons) slurping down freshly shucked raw Chincoteague oysters on the half shell for breakfast from Toby Island Bay Oyster Farm in Virginia.

As the temperature has obviously shifted from late summer to early fall with killing frosts wiping out the remaining summer field crops, this seasonal product is making a comeback at market.

In the mid-Atlantic region, oyster season runs from October 1st to March 31st, as the old adage goes, months with R in them. Oysters can be procured two ways—harvested in the wild or farmed. Oysters, by nature, are a prolific, renewable food source, but between overfishing and pollution, humans have managed to decimate the fishery. NOAA estimates in 1880 there were approximately 75 million pounds of oysters harvested from the Maryland area of the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately today that number hovers around 400,000 in annual landings by watermen. That’s why 95% of all oysters consumed today are farmed.

Oyster farming is nothing new. Romans started practicing aquaculture in the first century BC in Italy, and later in Britain for export. France has successfully farmed oysters since the 1700’s. Using species native to the watershed, farmed oysters are reared to maturity in their natural habitat corralled using beds, bags, cages and racks. Kind of like raising chickens only with shells in water instead of feathers in fences on pasture.

Because farmed oysters eat the same algae-rich tides and waters, they require no feeding. Just like when I have a lush pasture, I’m not feeding hay. Similar to farming on land, aquaculture is subject to the unexpected swings in nature that can impact production. Remember when Dishing the Dirt covered the difficulties of farming during a wet season? The same holds true for oyster farming. Native to brackish water, the lifecycle of oysters is directly tied to the salinity of the water for critical functions including spawning, fertilization and rates of growth. Due to decreasing salinity from increased rainfall, the Horn Point Hatchery at the University of Maryland only produced 6.5 million spat-on-shell (think oyster seeds) which is two hundred times less than 2018 and three hundred times less than 2017. Given that it takes nearly two years for a farmed oyster to reach market size, customers have this season on next before they’ll start feeling the pinch in availability.

Tis also the season for oysters as the fall and winter holidays are upon us. Oyster dressing for poultry and other meats is a tradition brought to America by British colonists over three hundred years ago. Rarely have I attended a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner throughout the years that has not included oysters, with everything from oysters baked with saltine crackers, Parmesan cheese and butter to shucking fresh ones using an oven mitt and a screwdriver. For a delicious cocktail party trick certain to entertain even the pickiest localvore, try shucking a fresh oyster int a shot glass with splash of Epiphany Organic Vodka from McClintock Distilling Company and a dash of Toigo Orchards Birth of Pain Bloody Mary Mix.

Speaking of dressing and oysters, there are plenty of condiments to pair with oysters on the half shell, but the very first one to slide past your tongue should be au naturel—no lemon, no hot sauce, not cocktail sauce—to enjoy what many aficionados refer to as terroir. Like wine, olive oils, teas, coffee, chocolate and such, oysters take on the characteristics of their environment based upon a myriad of factors. One of the benefits of farmed oysters is their flavor profile is more consistent than those from the wild. For instance, Chef’s Resources describes Chincoteague Bay oysters as having “a distinctive briny flavor followed by a sweet finish.” On this I would whole-heartedly agree.

A versatile ingredient, oysters can also be fried, grilled, roasted, baked, and used in soups, casseroles, dips, even in pancakes! In researching this blog post I did come across a nugget of information that shocked me—oysters are considered vegan by some. Lacking a central nervous system and having no reaction to stimuli puts them in a gray area. But regardless of your dietary identification, if your oysters are, indeed, gray, don’t eat them.

All About Olive Oil

As of October 18th, your favorite imported culinary goodies are going up by 25% thanks to tariffs levied against the EU in retaliation for illegal subsidies given to the airplane manufacturer, Airbus. As usual, it’s the farmers, small businesses, and customers getting stiffed which ultimately leads to less sales and higher food costs.

While there are plenty of locally produced products that can go head-to-head with their European counterparts—think artisan cheeses, charcuterie and wine—there is one item that folks seem to forget is growing in domestic production right here in the US (although not locally due to obvious reasons)—and that is olive oil.

Despite being an ardent supporter of eating locally, I cannot do without olive oil. No one dresses their salad with butter, lard or tallow.

When the Spanish padres began establishing the 21 religious missions along the coast of California beginning in 1769, they brought with them olive trees. The oldest olive trees in America are found on the grounds of these missions. Native to the Mediterranean, olives flourish on the west coast and have been cultivated as a crop for both fruits and oil. Similarly, olive groves thrive in states with similar climates like Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Hawaii.

While Old World olive oil production holds a lure of romanticism (market chef Jonathan Bardzik is currently vacationing in Spain for the olive harvest), since 1997 there have been numerous scandals involving fraudulent imports. In 2007, an expose’ in the New Yorker found that only 40% of Italian olive oil was unadulterated. UC Davis found that 69% of EVOO sold in grocery stores fails to qualify as EVOO.

As with other goods not native to the Central Farmers Markets foodshed, such as coffee, chocolate and tea, patrons have access to guaranteed quality with estate and single-source products when it comes to olive oil thanks to Lynn and Keith Voight at All Things Olive. The Voights put me in touch with two award-winning olive producers to learn how olives are grown, harvested and processed.

Total Control

Jeff Martin, owner, grower, and miller at Frantoio Grove in Gilroy, California walked me through the basics of his single-source extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) production and why it matters. Similar to wine, this type of EVOO is often referred to as “estate”, but Martin though that sounded too pretentious. “Most of the estate grown olive oil from Europe never makes it to the United States,” he pointed out. Additionally, other factors including ripeness, temperature, light, and oxygen exposure can significantly impact the quality of the end product.

“The only way I can make the best possible product is to have 100% control from start to finish,” explained Martin. Currently, he is preparing for this year’s harvest which he hopes will kick off November 1st. I asked him how to tell when the fruits are ripe enough to harvest.

“Intuition.” Actually, it’s a good part of traveling to olive groves and mills, talking to other growers, tasting and learning, much like any other agrarian endeavor.

The fruits—olives—vary in color from green which offer the vegetative, grassy flavors to the riper purple colors delivering the tropical notes. The art is learning how to blend green and purple olives to achieve the desired qualities.

Martin harvests 3,500 trees by hand, raking the fruit on to ground nets which are gathered up and emptied into bins to be taken to the mill. Communal mills are common throughout Europe where families take their olives, but the fruits can sit for up to a week and everyone’s olives are milled together with each receiving final product in relation to the amount of raw fruits brought to the mill.

For his beginning harvests, Martin similarly outsourced his milling, but chose to install his own mill onsite to process his olives the same day they are picked. In addition to freshness, he takes extra measures to ensure his fruits are clear of dust and leaves before entering a stainless-steel hammer mill for grinding. Once ground, the next step is malaxation where the ground material is mixed into a paste-like batter coaxing smaller droplets of oil into larger droplets—a sort of reverse homogenization. The paste is next is pumped through a centrifuge which separates the oil from the remaining materials of juice, pits and pulp. The oil passes through a vertical centrifuge to remove more solids and water. Finally, Martin’s oil passes through a paper filter.

“I could rack off the particles which could take months, but by getting the oil clean enough on the first day means a longer shelf life—as much as two years—for the oil.” He explained that olive oil begins to degrade from the moment the fruit is picked so timely processing and less contact with the solids after milling impacts the quality of the end product.

From his trees, Martin can produce one hundred tons of olives. That translates into 3,000 gallons of EVOO. While you may be thinking WOW and calculating a rough estimate of gross income, consider this: there was no harvest in 2018 due to an unseasonal warm spell in February that caused the trees to flower only to be followed by a freeze in March destroying the blossoms. Sound familiar? As I like to say, agriculture is the world’s oldest form of legalized gambling. Sometimes we lose.

Buyer Beware

“There’s a lot of fake olive oil out there,” warns Karen Bond, owner, grower and miller of Bondolio in Winters, California and the Past President of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC). Currently, the COOC sets the most rigorous standards for EVOO in the world. In order to carry the COOC EVOO seal, a producer must mill their fruit under 82 degrees Fahrenheit (formerly known as cold-pressed), undergo a chemical analysis by an accredited laboratory and finally, pass the COOC’s rigorous sensory analysis taste panel certified by the American Oil Chemists Society.

Although only 7% of all the EVOO sold in the United States is produced domestically, mostly in California, that number is growing as almond, walnut and citrus growers move away from water-intensive crops. “Olive trees are drought-resistant,” said Bond giving me a brief history lesson of the origin of olive trees and the different cultivars that grow throughout the Middle East and Europe.

“I love to look at people’s faces when they try fresh olive oil for the first time,” exclaimed Bond. I know exactly how she feels having witnessed that scenario repeatedly throughout the years at the farmers market watching customers trying fresh, local foods grown by farmers who, like Martin and Bond, go the extra mile to produce a true quality product that ignites the eater’s senses.

Olio Nouveau

Seasonality is king when it comes to the farmers market. Excitement always builds in anticipation of the first, ripe fruits. As the olive harvest commences, one of the most anticipated items from one of Central Farm Markets’ original vendors, All Things Olive, is the new oil. Lynn Voight likened it’s following to Beaujolais Nouveau in wine. “It’s unfiltered, there’s particulate matter floating around, it has a vibrant, bold flavor, and people look forward to its arrival at the market every year. It’s a special treat.”

Coming in December, there will be four varieties from four different producers, including Frantoio Grove, Bondolio and Seka Hills, which are sustainably managed groves operated by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in northern California’s Capay Valley. Keep an eye out for it, because like all seasonal and delicious things at market, it will be here and gone before you know it!

Rethinking Pumpkins

There was a time when I thought those orange orbs that appeared around Halloween and disappeared by Thanksgiving were inedible; mere decorations to have a hole cut in the top, seeds scooped out and toothy grins with triangle eyes to be carved before adding a lit candle and sitting on the front porch for trick-or-treat night. The inner lids would scorch scenting the air with cooked squash as we opened the front door to hand out candy after having made our own rounds in the neighborhood. In the coming days if the weather was warm, the face would sink inward with black fuzzy mold growing out of the eyeballs before the whole thing collapsed into a pile of mush. During a cool fall, the jack-o-lanterns might make it until Thanksgiving.

Like learning that that the tooth fairy isn’t real, coming to grips with where pumpkin pie came from left me asking myself which do I like more: fall décor or pie?

That’s a no-brainer.

Despite oodles of shapes, sizes and colors of winter squash, none are more ubiquitous than Cucurbita pepo, the round, slightly ribbed fruit with smooth orange skin and orange flesh. Yes, technically pumpkins are fruits. Having originated in Mexico, pumpkins are now grown on all continents except Antarctica. At the New England Giant Pumpkin weigh-off last year, a new American record was set with the winner from New Hampshire tipping the scales at 2,528 pounds. However, the world record continues to be held by a 2,624-pound squash grown in Belgium in 2016. That’s a lot of pie.

Pumpkins deliver more than brilliant fall colors as summer cedes most of her rainbow. They are mother nature’s last push of fuel before winter shuts down the growing season. Considered a superfood, pumpkins are high in fiber, low in calories, rich in vitamins, particularly vitamin A, and loaded with antioxidants.

In addition to the flesh, pumpkin seeds, known as pepitas, are edible. Pepitas can be eaten raw or roasted. However, don’t try this at home unless you are using the pumpkin variety that produces shell-less seeds which is what you get when purchasing pepitas.

As I have learned over the years of raising livestock, it’s not only we humans who love to eat pumpkins. A flock of chickens or turkeys will peck a broken-open squash completely clean leaving only the tough outer rind. Cattle tend to lick the soft flesh down as far as they can as their mouths are not as adept at chewing as horses. Sheep and goats will nibble them to nothing in no time. But pigs, they are the real hogs when it comes to pumpkins. Once when a local business dropped off a giant pumpkin used as a decoration, the pigs literally crawled through a large crack caused by rolling it off the truck and took a few days to eat their way out from the inside!

Over the years I’ve cooked pumpkins in assorted ways—soups, custards, breads, roasted, mashed and yes, in pies. Recently I cooked up a small pumpkin for dinner from the Spiral Path Farm CSA share in a New York Times Food recipe that caught my eye because I had all the ingredients on hand, and it looked easy and delicious. (It was!)

These days my fall decorations no longer include carved pumpkins as I prefer to keep them intact for future eating.

Economics & Sustainability

Having gotten my start in the food industry in California’s central coast, I was dismayed to read this week that the Bear and Star Restaurant was closing. What does that have to do with farmers markets and restaurants here in the mid-Atlantic, you may be asking yourself. The answer is plenty.

A few weeks ago, Dishing the Dirt covered the impacts climate change is having on our planet. There are plenty of those who choose to bury their collective heads in the sand with excuses despite being continually proven the opposite by science. Extreme changes in temperatures, hydrologic cycles, shifting climatic zones, spreading hypoxic areas along the coast resulting in massive wildlife die-offs—all of this and more has a direct and significant impact on the food system, especially what the consumer will have to pay for their products.

The closing of an experimental ranch-to-table restaurant backed by one of the most affluent families of the food and wine industry was simply unsustainable after only three years.  Chef John Cox, an experienced restauranteur in his own right before taking on this project, estimated for the venture to be truly sustainable, a burger should have carried a $30 price tag instead going for $17. Assuming it’s an 8-ounce burger, that’s still $34 per pound. But I delved a little deeper into the prices on their menu—meatloaf for $25, the New York (10 oz.) $68, filet (7 oz.) $55 and ribeye (20 oz.) $110.

Considering that the fabled Wagyu beeves being raised are harvested at approximately 1,500 pounds, that’s going to offer about 900-pound carcass. Doing the math on carcass yield based on numbers from the University of Tennessee as well as my own experience, this is how the numbers broke down according to the prices on the menu.

Burgers 600 lb. @$34 lb. = $20,400

Ribeyes 50 lb. @$88 lb. = $4,400

Filets 15 lb. @125 lb. = $1,875

New Yorks 42 lbs. @$108.80 lb. = $4569.60

Gross sales from 1 beef carcass = $31,244.60 which translates into per pound $20.83 live or $34.72 hot carcass on the rail.

For comparison, premium grass-finished, Certified Organic, Certified Grass-fed and Animal Welfare Approved beef carcasses top out at $3.25 lb. on the rail for the farmers in our mid-Atlantic food shed. Does that mean a hundred-dollar locally raised steak at a celebrity restaurant isn’t worth it? Not at all, if all the factors including wages, rents, marketing and taxes are considered. Furthermore, out of all the restaurants serving meat, very few purchase whole animals to break down in their own establishments. These are the smartest of all restaurateurs. {Hint: eat there}

The key word I want to zero in on is sustainable.

Too many times I’ve come across farmers buying into the latest agricultural scheme that will give them an edge in an already tight market—alpacas, emus, yaks, and yes—wagyu beef, all in hopes of selling a high-dollar product that will not only cover the expenses of production but bring home a profit, too. {Full Disclosure: I have owned a yak} Even when farmers and ranchers manage to raise the coveted Japanese beef in America, access to slaughterhouses and butchers with the ability to knowledgeably process the meat are few and far between.

Here is the reality about raising livestock—everything cannot be the best. In a group of animals there are a small percentage of premium animals, (hopefully) a small percentage of scrappy stragglers and everyone in between which comprises the majority. Industrially raised meat has been bred and fed for uniformity so much that many packers, especially with pigs, demand specific weights and dimensions for automated processing. The same holds true for many fruits and vegetables—same size, same color, no blemishes. To have a truly sustainable operation, producers must be able to effectively market all the products from their farms. That could mean making sausage or sauces, but to depend on only selling premium products isn’t going to have a good return in the long run.

This subject has been brewing for a blog since an aggressive customer badgered me about my leg of lamb after complaining he couldn’t get Icelandic Leg of Lamb from Whole Foods.

“I only feed my friends the very best,” he said while dropping names like Jamón ibérico and Wagyu. I’m totally cool with people inquiring about my farming practices, but don’t compare me or any of my fellow vendors at the farmers market to professionally branded products, especially ones produced overseas. He further went on to question my prices as he thought they should be less than the grocers’. I should have sent him to Bear and Star for a steak.

Here’s my point: when does it become unsustainable to raise and sell food in a geographical area? Was the demise of Bear and Star due to ranching expensive, boutique cattle in a drought-stricken, fire-prone environment or were there not enough customers willing to plunk down a hundred bucks for a steak in the little 1,300-person town dependent upon tourism?

Recently, I participated on a farmer panel at the screening of The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary about Apricot Lane Farm, a regenerative endeavor begun in the same county were I farmed out west for many years just south of Bear and Star’s location. Water is a limiting factor, fire is a very real threat; add in predators, pests and labor. It took a lot of investment and hard work to get the farm operating in accordance with nature, but sustainable? I wonder how my customers would feel about $15 for a dozen chicken eggs.

Just like Apricot Lane Farm, I too, had to pick up plenty of livestock sacrificed to the predator gods before putting livestock guardian dogs into the equation. So have my fellow Central Farm Market vendors. We rotate our pastures, use nonGMO feeds, we try to keep up with customer demands in regard to our agricultural practices. (I’m drawing the line at slow-growing chickens, though) We may not be household names, but we’re taking on mother nature day in and day out, showing up to market each week to provide our communities access to locally produced food that’s affordable. That is economic sustainability.

You’ve Got the Power

I am a child of the 60’s. A time of political unrest, leaders being openly assassinated, an unpopular war waged halfway around the world, overt animosity between culturally, politically, racially, sexually and economically diverse demographics. {kind of sounds eerily familiar} It was the generation of children growing up in the wake of World War II, whose parents had experienced rationing of numerous items, especially food.

My generation and those subsequent have never experienced food rationing.

I’ve never thought much about it until my long-time friend and food blogger came for dinner a few weeks ago and we discussed one of the recipes he’d come across in a treasure trove he’d inherited from his mother-in-law, a woman who had lived through the Depression and WWII. The recipe was for War Cake, a gooey cooked concoction made without refined sugar, butter, milk or eggs—all rationed items from 1942 to 1954.

“The recipe called for two tablespoons of fat”, he said as we wondered what type of cake would result from the different types of fat that was not rationed—lard, tallow, goose, duck and even fat from hunted wildlife such as bear which provides copious amounts of harvestable, usable fat which was coveted by our frontier predecessors not only for calories, but waterproofing and equipment grease.

We contemplated what it would take for food rationing to happen again.  “If that happens, we’re coming to live with you!” the couple joked.

Although the conversation has long passed, the question lingered in my mind in the wake of events unfolding, most notably the Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s comments at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin last week where he said, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out. I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

That’s pretty demoralizing for all small farmers, not just dairy farmers. Being a small farmer is hard work fraught with an assortment of risks, but when examined from the point of risk, small farms mean more resiliency when misfortune strikes. I like to use the comparison of small ruminants (goats & sheep) versus cows. Five small ruminants use approximately the same amount of resources that a single cow consumes. If I invest in raising one cow and it dies, I have nothing. If I invest in five smaller animals, up to 80% can die and I will still have something to eat or sell.

Now, let’s apply that to farms. Should we be putting all our eggs in mega-farms? What happens when outbreaks of diseases, natural disasters or trade sanctions strike? That last one can turn a successfully functioning farm belly-up just as fast, if not worse, than the former two as many mid-western crop farms are finding out.

But each time you shop at a farmers market, roadside stand or purchase direct from a local small farm, you buy yourself a bit of insurance against someday going without. Don’t believe me? Consider the fact that the Dollar Store sells more food that Whole Foods in America. If you’ve never been in one of the discount chains prolific across the country, especially in economically depressed areas, here is the sad truth—there are no fresh fruits and vegetables, only frozen, canned and processed shelf-stable foods. Most carry a limited supply of dairy items such as milk and butter, but I’ve been in a few stores that only carry ultra-pasteurized (UHT) milk that requires no refrigeration until the carton is opened. The closest customers will get to butter is butter flavored vegetable shortening. Try spreading that on toast.

There are many types of thinly veiled rationing of food in America, from onerous regulations for small-scale processors to municipal zoning changes that discourage small farms and personal production. There are plenty of places where homeowners have been slapped with fines from their planned communities governing bodies for planting basil and other flowering herbs among their professionally groomed flowers. And heaven forbid anyone tear up one of the largest monocultures in our communities—lawns—and replace them with gardens that produce food. During the rationing years, they called that Victory Gardening when people were encouraged to grow food for themselves and their neighbors. I do not need to sell what I produce to people in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia, nor do I want to.

If you really want to talk farmers market history, speak to those who helped build the robust market systems in the mid-Atlantic, like Mark Toigo of Toigo Orchards. When the government opened up the domestic market for overseas fruits, American farmers saw the prices for their own products plummet. Gone were the days of selling to large packing and processing companies that dotted the region and making a worthwhile living. In order to stay in business, Toigo Orchards focused on selling directly to customers within a few hours of where the products were grown.

Despite a vote of no confidence in small farms at the federal level, I know that on a local scale my customers have faith in the local food system. How do I know? It’s getting to be that time of year when those new to the market ask the annual question: How long does this market go?

At which point, I get to smile and tell them that as long as the customers show up to the market, the farmers will be there…except at Bethesda on Sunday, October 13th (Pike and NoVa are still open this weekend) due to the Bethesda Row Arts Festival and the Sunday after Thanksgiving when all the markets are closed to offer the vendors holiday time with their families.

Let’s show Sonny Perdue and the rest of this administration hell-bent on making America hungry again how very wrong they are about the importance of small farms, food security, healthy soils and strong communities. You have the power.

Tea Life

Tea, it’s one of those everyday things that people consume without much thought as to where it was grown or how it is processed prior to ending up your cuppa. Until I met Elise Scott, owner of Pearl Fine Teas, I never gave the shriveled leaves in the bottom of my mug much notice. Tea was something that came in a paper bag with a tag, more often served cold after being made by the gallon with several Lipton bags in a glass jar left in the window—Sun Tea. During winter, cold and flu season, hot herb tea in the afternoons with honey and lemon became a favorite.

Even after several years of keeping myself in teas and tonics from Pearl Fine Teas at Central Farm Markets, the idea that tea was farmed didn’t register until hearing about Elise’s travels to Korea to source products and increase her knowledge of tea. Coffee and cocoa tend to take center stage in the arenas of Fair Trade and the other assorted certifications ensuring products the farmers have produced the raw materials using ethical and environmental practices as well as having received fair compensation. “People tend to only see the end product, but there is so much that goes on,” said Elise when I first broached the subject with her.

For this week’s Dishing the Dirt, I interviewed Elise about her travel adventures in the quest for the finest teas available, including ones hand-carried from small, independent tea farmers that might not otherwise make it out of the geographic region in which it is grown.

The first thing I wanted to learn was about the tea plant and the farms—called gardens–where it is grown. Elise has visited tea gardens not only in Korea, but also Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Japan with China slated for next year. She described tea gardens as “Breathtaking. Peaceful. Neat. Organized,” some being hundreds of years in production.

What is tea and where is it grown?
Tea is a plant called Camellia Sinensis. In fact, Elise points out if the product isn’t from the Camellia Sinensis plant, it’s technically not tea. The plants are perennial evergreen bushes or trees grown in hilly areas. Tea typically grows to a height of 4 feet. Countries with commercial tea gardens include Sri Lanka, India, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and China. In the U.S. there are several very small tea farms beginning which have already formed the U.S. League of Tea Growers, but the industry is still in the experimental stages.

Growing & Harvest
Depending on the country, there are typically four growing seasons. For example, Darjeeling black teas from India have four growing seasons: First Flush in late winter/early spring; second flush in late spring; Summer and Autumnal. Harvesting is referred to as “plucking” since most tea leaves are picked by hand. Elise offered an insight into the labor required to pluck tea, “The pluckers are mostly women and must navigate steep hillsides.” Japanese teas are often plucked and processed in spring.  The varietal in Japan is called Yabukita. It grows upright allowing for machine harvesting. After plucking, the leaves and then withered. This can take place indoors or outdoors with each method resulting in distinctly different flavor profiles.

Processing—where the magic happens
As with many other agricultural endeavors, for example; dairy and grapes, a multitude of end products can result out of a base product depending upon how it is processed. Elise explained the variety of ways in which tea is processed and finished imparts different qualities. Typically the leaf is processed with the first couple of days (sometimes hours) after plucking from the bush, with each phase affecting the final flavor. The methods used vary greatly depending on the desired tea outcome. In addition different countries, locations and farms may also employ different proprietary methods of production depending on the tea and desired outcome– White, Green, Yellow, Oolong, Black, Puerh/Aged Tea.

Not so different
My curiosity turned from farming practices to the farmers themselves as Elise exclaimed, “Wonderful! Knowledgeable! Willing to help and teach! Basically rock stars to a tea nerd like me,” and I thought much like many of the farmers I know, too. While in Korea, eight different tea growers gathered to show their teas. When a Square reader (seems like a ubiquitous app among farmers no matter where we are in the world) failed to function, Elise returned with the tea farmers—a husband and wife team–to their property where they grew and processed their own tea to complete the transaction. Small-scale producers direct marketing a quality niche product. Hhhmmmm, sounds mighty familiar. Thanks to a technical glitch, Elise was able to cultivate a personal relationship with tea farmers from whom she can source single-origin teas directly with confidence. “Like all things, it’s important to know who you are buying from. There’s not a lot of transparency in the tea industry, so the more information a tea seller can give you the better,” said Elise, “There’s always a story attached to any tea we sell.”

Dealing with It

It’s the topic of the century happening this week. How could I not weigh in on the Climate Change…ahem, Crisis debate. One would have to live under a rock not to have seen Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to the United Nations or at least some commentary. To be honest, I’ve been following her since her initial climate strike, her Ted Talk, and subsequent travels.

Each time I hear her speak I am reminded of the sage advice from the old codger who laid the foundation for my ensuing agrarian endeavors. In 1990 he told me to get out of California if I wanted to grow food.

Ranching while overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands off the coast of southern California was nothing short of spectacular. I would have done it the rest of my life had I not listened to him and returned to central Pennsylvania.

“In ten years you won’t be able to afford the water. In twenty, there won’t be any,” he warned. I’m certain if he were alive today, he’d have beaten his hat against his leg while bellowing about his knowing this climate stuff thirty years ago.

People closest to the land are always the bellwethers to changes, even ones so imperceptible it takes a lifetime to notice. But people do notice.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with the 16-year-old climate activist or not, she is indeed correct when she says, “People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing.”

We are more aware of global events with technological communication advances and 24/7 data access at our fingertips. Wildfires, hurricanes, heatwaves, flooding, increasing extremes—it’s happening, just ask all those farmers in the Midwest getting hammered by one disaster after another. If it’s not a freak spring blizzard killing off tens of thousands of livestock over several states, it’s a freak series of storms dumping more water than the region has seen in generations, exacerbating the disaster by further decimating the feed supplies that would have been fed to the livestock.

Well folks, the freak show is at the dinner table eating the food.

Most of the naysayers I encounter are also homebodies, never traveling more than the confines of the mid-Atlantic region. Tending to base my opinions on first-hand experiences, two recent events stand out leading me lend faith to the pig-tailed girl in pink.

The first was the abject heartbreak a long-time friend, avid global diver and retired university professor shared with me upon recent return from their fourth trip to Australia. For the last twenty years, they’d dove the Great Barrier Reef that was once over a hundred thousand square miles of the most diverse, vibrant living ecosystem on the planet. “It’s dead,” they said, tears spilling down the septuagenarian’s face. “I get to say that my generation witnessed this loss.”

Ok, so someone loses their vacation spot. Big deal, right? But what if it’s your home, your livelihood, your subsistence, your country? Again, all we have to do is watch the news or listen to those who cross our paths as I was humbled by my good fortune to live in a region not so detrimentally impacted by rapidly changing climate conditions.

“You are a farmer?” asked the couple at my local library when they overhead me chatting about the farm with the librarian. Their English was broken, barely understandable. Their small stature and faces said South America to me without having to ask.

“We were farmers, too,” they said obviously wanting to join the conversation about growing food. I never learned exactly where they were from, however, my limited Spanish was enough for me to understand they had no rain, no food and no choice.

Once again, Greta’s forceful words rang out, “Irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.”

She’s right. We cannot control Mother Nature no matter how hard we try. Our levees break, our sea walls crumble, our dams breach. The buzzword I see in all the brochures for this winter’s agricultural conferences is resiliency.

This is the one trait that farmers in coming generations must have in order to succeed. I’m wildly unpopular at times when farmers lament how difficult things have become, how hard it is to make it in agriculture and how many are failing at it only for me to reply is that some farmers need to go out of business. The ones who have tried to beat nature into submission with everything but common sense, the ones who believe anyone trying to sell them a silver bullet solution instead of doing the hard work while listening to the dirt, the plants and the animals.

Smart farmers today are shifting from having contingency resources for occasional disasters to those who actively build climate change into their business plans and daily operations. They are asking themselves how to logistically deal with external and uncontrollable impacts to their operations. Like Greta, they are no longer expecting for if, but when.

She closed her speech with “Change is coming whether you like it or not.”

Concise, yet also telling of her tender age. The truth is change is inevitable; it is how we foster new paradigms that determine outcome. When I was sixteen, my biggest worry was whether or not my parents would allow me to stay out past my curfew so I could watch the second feature at the drive-in theater.

Greta’s generation recognizes that it may be them one day who has to walk 1,500 miles to have food security or that familiar foods will no longer be affordable or available.

Overwhelming? Absolutely. But don’t dismay. If you are reading this, you’re probably shopping at the farmers market and supporting people who believe in the future enough to make incremental changes toward a healthier planet by growing food in ways that respect the environment, our communities and ourselves.

Last Call for Summer

It’s here, the last weekend of summer. On Monday the sun will pack her bags and cross the celestial equator heading south for the winter, much like the Canadian Geese who have been traveling en masse the same direction, a sure sign of changing seasons.

Farmers tend to have a heightened awareness to the impending shift as we witness up close and personal daily changes in the natural world. Livestock farmers notice their animals’ winter coats begin to thicken as the lighter summer coats shed out. Feathers fly as laying hens molt and slow down on their job as the days become shorter. Produce growers are now focusing on fall and winter crops as their summer vegetable plants lose their lushness to a picked-over spindliness. Melons have been replaced with collards in the CSA shares.

As a Central Farm Markets customer, you’ll be seeing seasonal changes, too.

Although some liken it to their displeasure of finding Christmas displays prior to Halloween, vendors who will have turkeys for Thanksgiving have begun advertising for reservations. Farmers want to know that they have as many as possible sold prior to delivery days for holiday birds so if you’re planning on a local turkey gracing your family table, be a dear and let your farmer know as soon as possible instead of waiting until the last minute.

While turkey for Thanksgiving is a given, similarly, if you want a special cut for any of the fall or winter holidays, it’s best to start discussing your plans now with vendors. Large cuts and premium roasts aren’t something that are routinely kept in stock throughout the year. We must have our cut lists ready for our processors when animals are scheduled in the fall. Telling your farmer the week prior that you need a standing prime rib roast that will feed a dozen people is not going to happen.

As the hot days wind down into cool mornings, you know what else is winding down? Seasonal markets. This means those customers are going to start seeking out longer running seasonal markets (Pike and Westfield go until November 23rd) and year-round markets like Bethesda and NoVa. The dead give-away for this is when every last leaf of Young Harvests’ salad greens has been snapped up before noon, they’ve broken down their stand and gone out to breakfast to wait for the official close of market to leave.

Consider this a friendly nudge if you want to jar up some sauce before tomato and pepper season is over. There’s still time left to make spirit-soaked stone fruit for holiday hostess gifts. The influx of regional market aficionados has yet to begin. For me, it’s time to dig out pants and long-sleeve shirts, jackets, scarves and of course, to begin getting my Halloween costume together.

Long-Term Relationships

Yes, last Sunday I was M.I.A. at the market. No, I wasn’t sick. No, I didn’t have mechanical difficulties. Instead, I was in the heart of the District roasting a pig for one of the oldest neighborhood block parties with a customer-turned-dear friend on Saturday. It was the same neighborhood in which I had gone to another farmers market for eight years. I knew with the long day, libations and dancing I’d be in no shape for Sunday, so I took the day off sleeping in and visiting my old market friends.

When circumstance required me to choose a single Sunday market, it was a difficult decision having built close relationships with fellow vendors and customers spanning nearly a decade. But practicality took precedent—not as far to drive, lower market fees, better management, a growing area, and most importantly, year-round. Another plus, the front end of my car didn’t need realigned annually after traveling the streets of DC.

Despite the switch, each year I still procure the pig and help with the festivities, maintaining relationships that once began over a carton of eggs at a farmers market.

Over the years I’ve attended several markets in the MD/DC/VA/PA region. The dynamics of regional markets is ever evolving. While some vendors become mainstays, others migrate. The number of markets has swelled in the last ten years. Customers have more choices than ever for locally produced goods and vendor have more options for selling. I’ve witnessed many dedicated customers who will follow their favorite vendors from market to market throughout the region not only for the products, but for the friendships they’ve built.

At the block party last week one couple recognized me in delight wondering where I had gone. I’m certain they’ll show up this Sunday for the fix they’ve been missing and continue to be regulars once again.

As I reflect on many of my friendships, I realize that one way or another they began at a farmers market. Fellow vendors, customers, neighborhood business owners now make up the bulk of my “community”. Digging deeper I realized it wasn’t the transaction of goods or even weekly visits, but a sharing of lives that has precipitated great friendships.

Many of the Central Farm Markets vendors have open farm days, special events, internships, farm stays and parties to offer customers a glimpse into how their food is produced. What has fueled many of my friendships is the opposite—when farmers are invited to share their customers’ lives. Customers often challenge long held (and erroneous) beliefs of rural vendors in regard to music, art, cultures, sexual orientation, religions and of course, food. Great things happen when these barriers are broken down.

Everyone loves to visit farms, but when was the last time you invited your farmers to participate in your life? Yes, we are a busy lot, but we also hold many interests outside of our agrarian endeavors. Got something cool going on that you’d like to share with your farmer? Invite them. They just may show up and become a friend for life.