Filling or Stuffing?

Let the official countdown to turkey day commence. Thanksgiving, an American holiday where we gather around the table with family and friends, filling our collective faces with more calories in a single meal that is more in line with a week’s allotment, before beaching in front of the TV to watch parades and football. Although contentions may arise over politics and sports teams, food is what really presses people’s buttons.

Is it filling, stuffing or dressing?

Traditions run deep when it comes to the accompanying side dishes to the centerpiece. Territorialism and cultural geography go together like mashed potatoes and gravy when it comes to filling/stuffing/dressing. Does it get cooked inside the bird, soaking up all the meaty juices into a moist amalgamation of stale bread, onions and celery or bake independent of the bird in a casserole for a crunchy crust? That would be dressing, especially if you hail from the south.

One of the earliest known cookbooks written over four thousand years ago by a Roman gourmand was filled with recipes for stuffing assorted animals with herbs, vegetables, nuts, grains and offal. Today, recipes are a result of regional influences. Oysters are a staple ingredient in the Northeast. Near the Great Lakes rice replaces bread cubes. In the southwest the bird serves as a giant tamale wrapper for a spicy masa filling. The south dishes up cornbread dressing laced with peppers to sop up the gravy which also has a kick of heat.

There are two camps when it comes to side dishes and condiments. First, there are those who will launch a full-scale family meltdown if anyone dare stray from grandma’s recipe for gravy no matter how vile the ingredients. And then there are the adventuresome souls who conjure innovative flavor combinations as if from an Ottolenghi cookbook.

Any way you bake it, there will be some combination of starch, vegetable, fruit, nut and seasoning which will be identified as filling, stuffing or dressing.

What color is your potato?

This dilemma can easily be solved by providing both white and sweet potatoes at your table. There are a zillion ways to cook potatoes, but at Thanksgiving potatoes must be made just so. The checklists come out – smooth or lumpy, done by hand or with a mixer, how much butter, how much seasoning, to add cream or not?

Sweet potatoes are another minefield – canned or fresh, sweetened with brown sugar and toasted marshmallows or savory. No where does sweet potato snobbery become apparent than with vegetable growers. I’ve met many fresh produce vendors over the years who grow one or two kind (there are over 6,500 varieties worldwide) specifically for their family and take any excess to their weekly markets only the week prior to Thanksgiving.

Sweet potato arguments also bubble over into dessert where they fill flaky crusts instead of pureed pumpkin. Pecan or apple is also a valid argument, but please, let’s dispense with the Watergate salad. The 70’s are long over.

Made from scratch

If you’re shopping at the farmers market, chances are good you’re not going to gum up your green beans with sludge out of a can or gravy from a jar. Thanksgiving is the ultimate holiday where people show their appreciation for one another through sharing a meal that represents an abundant harvest. Depending at whose table I am eating, I’ve had everything from pho (they gave the bird to their Vietnamese mother and that’s how she cooked it) to Hawaiian surfers’ turkey (slathered in mayonnaise before popping in the oven and hitting the waves for several hours).

Thanksgiving offers everyone the opportunity to pay homage to their family traditions or experiment with the vast assortment of bounty the mid-Atlantic region offers at Central Farm Markets.

Please note that not all vendors will be attending the Special Thanksgiving Market on Tuesday, November 20th at Pike Central Farm Market from 10 – 2.

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Where is my favorite vendor?

It’s market day. You get out of bed and get to market early to be guaranteed first pick of everything only to arrive and find your favorite vendor MIA.

Annoyed? Yes, but it happens.

Debbie Moser, co-founder of Central Farm Markets explained that this year has been an especially difficult year for vendors due to the weather. “When it rains all the markets have less foot traffic, meaning lower sales. Some vendors choose not to come when the weather is too wet due to decreased sales or possible damage to their products.” From a management standpoint, this is frustrating because the same amount of time and resources is needed to put on the markets.

From a vendor perspective, a market absence often boils down to a financial decision.

Last January when customers complained about vendors not showing up on one of the coldest weeks of the year, this blog voiced the hurt many farmers felt over making the choice to protect their crops, infrastructure, products and themselves from single-digit temperatures. But it’s not winter…

There are many other reasons your favorite vendor might not be at market for a week or be gone for good.

Most vendors who have planned absences will alert their customers the previous week as well as through their social media. Prepared food vendors, especially ones with catering services, will sometimes trade out a market for a private event.

“I love all the market vendors and customers, but occasionally a special event wins out especially if it is more profitable and less stressful. It just makes good economic sense for me,” explained Josh Anson, owner of Cipolla Rossa Pizzeria.

Similarly, Janet Cherchuck, owner of Floradise Orchids has lamented being unable to attend market regularly as the temperatures drop. “We can’t have the orchids exposed to temperatures less than fifty degrees for any length of time or it will kill the buds,” she explained, “We don’t want to disappoint our customers with damaged orchids.” Floradise has experimented with ways to take orchids to market during colder weather but found that the fumes from propane heater (which many vendors use) kill the orchid flowers. “We’re taking it on a week-by-week basis, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.”

Inevitably, there are also unannounced absences. Vendors have unexpectedly skipped markets due to automotive troubles and illness. No one wants to break down or get sick, but it happens.

Sometimes vendors disappear for good. The two most common reasons are the business outgrows the weekly market model for a brick-and-mortar location and due to lack of help.

Farmers markets serve as incubators allowing businesses to cultivate a following in specific geographic locations before taking a permanent plunge. Products can be tested, tweaked and perfected prior to going into a larger commercial production without a big overhead and less risk.

Many of the vendors participate in multiple markets on the same day. Having reliable help is critical. When a vendor struggles to maintain employees they usually disappear from the market.

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally vendors get tossed from a market for failing to follow the rules or unacceptable behavior.

Even beloved successful vendors hang up market life. To this day customers still ask about Culinary Nomad. We all miss Valerie’s Hot Mess, but she put it best. “I am a wife, a mother and a food truck owner. I wanted to have another child and knew I couldn’t do all three at once to the best of my ability. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family.”

As the regular season wanes along with decreasing temperatures, customers will begin to encounter fewer vendors at the markets. Farms that grow field crops will be gone by the end of the regular season in December. The Saturday (Pike and Westfield) markets close on November 17th until next spring.

The winter season is not far off now, beginning on January 6. The best way find out if your favorite vendors will be attending market on any particular week is to subscribe to the Central Farm Markets’ weekly eBlast newsletter which lists what vendors have committed that week to attending.

The Buzz About Bees

Everyone knows how much I love Halloween (or any other occasion that affords me the opportunity to dress up livestock and go to market). So far, I’ve managed a spider, a wolf – thanks to the generous help of one of Bethesda’s extremely talented customers, a reindeer, a few very young ones wearing the worn out gray wool sock with the red top that has been repurposed as a critter coat, and this year’s shenanigans, a honeybee.

As much as I wanted the ensemble to segue as a teaching moment between farmers and customers, the lure of something very cute and fuzzy completely overrode what I wanted to tell my customers I’ve been learning about bees.

Bees are something I have never kept. They’ve always been in the periphery; someone else’s work. When I had mentioned this to a fellow farmer during the fabrication of Purl’s costume, she suggested I give it a try knowing my enjoyment of animal behavior and carpentry. “Think of all that wonderful honey,” she said cinching the deal on my curiosity before adding, “Now you have a bee suit, get building.”

Indeed, the tools are idle with the completion of a set of portable pens. If I begin now they’ll certainly be done by spring when the bees get busy. My favorite designs so far are the Mason Jar Hive and Top Bar Hive, both well within my capabilities.

But the bees themselves, their history in America, their critical necessity to modern agriculture and the perilous issues facing the apiary (beekeeping) community today are fascinating. Here’s my chance to share with Central Farm Market customers how important bees are to the cultivation of your favorite fruits and vegetables, especially blueberries and cherries which are completely dependent upon pollination by honeybees.

Oddly enough, honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought here in 1622 from Europe by the early settlers. Now three out of four crops grown for food in the United States are dependent upon honeybees for pollination, an estimated $24 billion dollars each year to the U.S. economy.

Walking into the greenhouses of vendors who grow produce to maturity inside and you’re bound to see cardboard boxes with holes scattered about. These are purchased pollinators who have only one job to do—spread pollen.

Here’s the fun part about bees: anyone can do it! “This is perfect!” exclaimed a customer as he spied my big bee on Sunday. He was planning to spend his afternoon working with the two hives he keeps in his back yard. No sprawling farm in the country needed.

Unfortunately, over a quarter of bee species in the world are experiencing a steep decline due to a variety of factors – loss of habitat, climate change, disease, parasites and pesticides.

Here are some ideas of how you can help save the bees.

  1. Plant bee-friendly landscaping that includes flowers and flowering herbs.
  2. Don’t use chemicals and pesticides to treat your lawn and garden. White clover and dandelions are not weeds, they are bee food!
  3. Buy raw honey from local beekeepers and farmers. Or better yet, try your hand at keeping your own bees.
  4. Bees drink a lot of water. Consider a small bowl of water with stones for the bees to land on and drink.
  5. Understand that honeybees are not aggressive and out to sting you. They are vegetarians, not bloodsuckers.
  6. Remember, hives become inactive in colder weather which makes honey seasonal. Stock up now for the winter now.

Honey is available at all Central Farm Markets locations.

What the heck is a quince?

The first frost arrived last week along with one of my favorite seasonal fruits at Central Farm Markets – quinces! Not exactly a mainstream attraction, yet this pear-like pome has its own cultish following who seeks them out to make seasonal culinary favorites including pastes, butters and tarts. Quinces also fare very well with savory dishes.

Quinces were popular in early America, cultivated throughout the mid-Atlantic region, most notably at Monticello by Jefferson. I’ve been passing the Quince Orchard Road exit on the way to market for how many years?

Native to Asia, quinces first migrated to the Mediterranean during the Roman and Greek empires, making their way around the globe in the following millennia, most often prized for medicinal purposes. Quinces are high in vitamin C, full of antioxidants, loaded with dietary fiber and rich in minerals including iron, copper and zinc.

Cydonia oblong is a one-off, a solitary member of its genus belonging to the same family as apples and pears, Rosaceae. Similar in cultivation, shape and size to apples and pears, quinces grow from deciduous trees and shrubs. You can’t miss quinces at the market with their fuzzy appearance and brilliant, almost neon color.

Unlike apples and pears, quinces don’t bode well for snacking on raw due to their astringent pucker factor and dry, chalky, hardness. However, a little heat unlocks their sweetness and softens their consistency. Widely cultivated in Spain, dulce de membrillo is a sweet paste made from quinces and traditionally served with Manchego cheese.

Naturally high in tannins, quinces are a natural tenderizer when cooked with meat. Quinces are prized for making jellies, jams and preserves due to their high pectin content. Firmer than either apples or pears, quince flesh holds its shape when baked into pies and pastries or cooked in compote.

Quinces have held a place in literature and art throughout history. From speculation that it was a quince and not an apple that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to the sacred emblem of Aphrodite, these golden fruits have been referenced for at least 4,000 years. Quinces were served in the court of Charles II during the 17th century and distilled into a delicate liqueur de coing in France.

With Thanksgiving only weeks away, quinces would make an excellent addition to cranberry sauce recipes that call for either apple or pears.

Even if you have no desire to eat quinces, they are aesthetically pleasing and have a fragrant aroma that lends well to sitting in a lovely bowl to naturally perfume your home. But trust me, you will want to enjoy their taste as well as their scent.

Quinces can be found at all Central Farm Markets locations.

Fall Fermentation

fermentation: an enzymatically controlled anaerobic breakdown of an energy-rich compound (such as a carbohydrate to carbon dioxide and alcohol or to an organic acid)

The heart of fall means making sauerkraut. Fermentation is an easy and nutritious way to preserve fresh vegetables for the coming winter months when the fields are frozen. With the first frost predicted this weekend, it was time to act.

My friend Tom announced he wanted to make sauerkraut, so I gladly procured over 100 pounds and headed to his house where we spent the afternoon shredding away with a wooden Austrian kraut cutter. Unlike an electric food processor, the ultra sharp blades on this wooden washboard-style cutter deliver a thinner cut with longer, feathery strands – something he deemed critical to making good sauerkraut.

We packed our crocks full of the gossamer brassicas, two teaspoons of picking salt for every pound of vegetables, and then topped each container off with several of the large outer leaves set aside earlier as we were splitting the heads. By the time each was two-thirds full, the salt had started to leach moisture from the cabbage shreds, creating a natural brine. This in turn would create the anaerobic environment for fermentation.

For the next six weeks I’ll be checking my crocks daily to make sure the cabbage remains submerged under a plate topped with a gallon jug full of water to keep the kraut submerged and to skim off any scum that has formed on the surface of the liquid. According to Tom, this step is critical otherwise the kraut will begin to rot or at the very least, have an off taste. And my house will develop a distinct odor. It’s been less than a week and I can tell all those little microbes are already hard at work.

Why do humans ferment food? Have you ever stopped to realize how much fermented foods we consume? Think about all the fermented foods you find at Central Farm Markets – pickles, kimchi, krauts, beer, wine, liquor, cider, vinegar, kombucha, charcuterie, cheeses, yogurt and bread. Yes, all those foods in one way or another have been fermented using naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria or have been inoculated with cultures to achieve a specific result.

There are two main types of fermentation – lactic acid and alcoholic. Sauerkraut and kimchi undergo a lactic acid fermentation using only the naturally occurring bacteria from the vegetables. Dairy products and meats require the additional exposure to specific cultures for their fermentations.

All those wonderful cheeses you see have varieties of cultures that create their individual flavors, colors and consistencies. For instance, blue cheeses are inoculated with Penicillium Roqueforti. Those lovely bloomy rind camembert are a veritable ecosystem containing Penicillium camemberti, Geotrichum candidum, Debaryomyces hansenii, and Kluyveromyces lactis all working together, keeping each in check to create color, consistency and flavor.

The white stuff on the outside of salami – you guessed it, good mold. There are many types and strains of cultures added which are good bacteria to outcompete bad bacteria that turn meats rancid.

Forget science fiction, real life has SCOBY molds. Drinks such as kombucha and kefir are fermented from a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria & Yeast by means anaerobic fermentation of the yeast’s ethanol, the bacteria’s lactic acids and ethanol oxidation to acetate all happening at the same time. This complex process produces a gelatinous, cellulose-based biofilm called a pellicle on the surface of the liquid. Sometimes referred to as a mushroom, a SCOBY is not related to fungi. Other products utilizing SCOBY molds include vinegar and sourdough starters. Although the yeasts are eating sugars and burping out alcohol, the trace amounts of booze in these naturally fizzy beverages are far lower than those of beer, wine and cider.

And we all know about beer, wine and cider….right?

In addition to preservation, fermentation offers other advantages including increased digestibility, better flavor, safer to eat, more nutritious and lots of probiotics.

According to fermentation guru and author, Sandor Katz, humans have been fermenting food for approximately 12,000 years. “We still do it the same way today,” he said. “Why? Because it works. It’s hard to mess it up.”

A Day Off

“What are you going to do with your day off next week?” was the Question of the Day at market last week.

Since Bethesda Central will be closed on Sunday, October 14 due to the arts festival, customers were curious as to how their vendors would spend their day.

When there is no market due to inclement weather, there is not much of a chance for asking. But when a day with no market occurs on a sunny fall day with temperatures in the 70’s images of mountain hikes, long bike rides, sleeping in and a brunch buffet with bottomless mimosas tend to be the fantasy of choice. Unfortunately, it’s far from reality.

Many of the Central Farm Markets vendors participate in both the Bethesda, Mosaic and other markets on Sunday, so when I casually asked, their response was, “I’ll go to another market.” For those of us who only attend Bethesda we allowed thoughts of leisure to linger before admitting that we will use our time wisely to address projects that require our undivided attention for several hours.

“I’ve got so much that needs to get done before winter,” said Rob from Young Harvests.

Brian, over at Zeke’s, had grand plans for a mini vacation until his phone broke. “When did phones start costing $800 to replace? And that’s not even the newest model!” He’ll still get away, just not as grand as originally planned.

Audrey at Bending Bridge Farm is taking the time to head out-of-town to visit family. Nicole at Two Acre Farm is also devoting the day to family. “We have fall fest family days! We spend the day doing October festivals – hayrides, corn mazes, bonfires, eating lots of fall foods.”

“It’s nice to have a Sunday off,” said Josh at Cipolla Rossa Pizzeria

Yes, Josh, I hear you on that one. Now if I can remember to shut off my alarm clock.

Vendors aren’t the only ones questioning each other about what to do without the Bethesda market on Sunday. Just as we are set in our schedules, so are many of our customers.

“What am I going to do?” was our shoppers’ collective groan when reminded there would be no Bethesda market on October 14.

Savvy shoppers stocked up last week, but that’s not possible for some perishables or due to storage space.

Here’s what you are going to do for one week – shop at one of Central Farm Markets’ other three locations.

Pike and Westfield are right in Bethesda’s backyard, but you’ll have to shop on Saturday. Both are only five miles from the Sunday market location and both have ample parking. Many of the same vendors attend the Saturday markets – check the CFM website to see which vendors attend each market. If your favorite Sunday vendors aren’t at the Saturday markets, try someone new.

If you are unable to shop on Saturday, but want to patronize your specific farmers, you’re going to have to take a drive, about fifteen miles to Mosaic Central Farm Market in Fairfax, VA. Again, there is plenty of free parking and familiar faces.

What am I going to do? I haven’t decided. The fun side wants to spend the weekend in the city hitting up a show, going out to eat or visiting a museum before lambing season kicks off the following week. However, I think the practical side will win out preparing for a new batch of babies. Either way, I, along with all my fellow vendors, will be back in Bethesda on Sunday, October 21. See you then!

Year-Round Markets

Customer: When does this market close?

Vendor: 1:30 PM

Customer: No, I mean when does it close for the season.

I have that exchange at least twice a week now that fall has arrived. As a Central Farm Markets vendor at Bethesda, I get to see the faces of inquiring customers bloom with delight when I tell them the Bethesda and Mosaic markets operate year-round, with reduced hours (10 am-1:30 pm) January through March.

Why have a winter market?

“It’s what our customers demanded,” said Mitch Berliner, co-founder of Central Farm Markets, emphasizing by adding, “They really demanded it.” That was six years ago at Bethesda, with Mosaic being added three years later. Both winter markets offer approximately half the number of vendors.

About the same time that Central Farm Markets instituted a winter market, Toigo Orchards, Twin Springs Fruit Farm and Bending Bridge Farm undertook infrastructure expansions allowing for extensions of their growing season and storage capacities to better facilitate year-round markets. “It’s important to us that our customers have year-round access to healthy food,” said Audrey Fisher-Pedersen, co-founder of Bending Bridge Farm which has attended all the winter seasons thus far with Certified Organic produce.

Farm practices and philosophies are as varied as our customers, meaning that not all producers are able or choose to sustain year-round production or invest in technical mass storage systems. January, February and March are the three coldest months in the mid-Atlantic region. Season-extending greenhouse technologies get put to good use by vendors such as Toigo, Bending Bridge and Young Harvests, but the reality is not everything can be grown indoors. Even with the use of greenhouses and insulating row covers, the growth rates are dependent on temperature and sunlight.

Rob Young, owner of Young Harvests laments having limited greens due to the weather fluctuations, “Our greens don’t grow much without sunshine or with extremely cold temperatures.” Even the recent ongoing cloudy and rainy days have had an impact Young Harvests’ production as anyone who has shopped the latter part of the day and found themselves staring at his empty bins.

Lucas Brownback of Spiral Path Farm explained why he chooses to not attend winter market. “Most of our crops are seasonally grown in open fields. We believe in giving our soil time to regenerate, and the farmers need a break, too,” but Lucas pointed out that come January the crew is right back at it seeding for a new season in the greenhouses.

Let’s all repeat the word together again – S E A S O N A L – and talk about the timeline for the transition from the regular market season to the winter markets.

November 17th will be the last Saturday market for the Pike and Westfield markets this year. However, on Tuesday, November 20th there will be a Thanksgiving Market taking place at the Pike Central Farm Market location that will host vendors from all the markets who have products such as fresh turkeys, prepared goods, fruits and vegetables, etc. Keep in mind that not all vendors attend this market. A full list of vendors will be posted online and sent out in the market’s weekly email prior to the event.

The Sunday following Thanksgiving (November 25) there will be no markets. No one will have any room in their refrigerator to store more food. Eat your leftovers and let the farmers enjoy the holiday weekend with our families. We will all return to Mosaic and Bethesda on Sunday, December 2 with the regular Sunday schedule until January 6, 2019 when the winter market schedule (10 am – 1:30 pm) kicks in along with the Customer Loyalty Program.

But my favorite part about winter market is when the regulars gripe about the cold weather. I remind them that during the summer when everyone was sweating off their turnips, I told them this day would come.

Hubba Hubba

Autumn officially arrived last Saturday at 9:54 PM. For me, that means goodbye zucchini, hello Hubbard. I’m talking winter squash, those uniquely shaped and textured cucurbits that have already begun to appear at Central Farm Markets.

In my youth, winter squash were merely decorations that sat on the front porch stacked around corn stalks, the big orange pumpkins carved with triangle eyes and a toothy grins lit with a votive candle. This tradition continues today with house-proud holiday decorators going out of their way to procure the largest variety of what look more like alien pods.

Humans have been growing and breeding squash for over 8,000 years. “You have a huge demand for squash and gourds that are aesthetically interesting and different from each other. That’s been popular for a while, and it’s been really trendy the last few years,” explained Adam Pyle, a horticulturist at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. in an interview with NPR.

Eating winter squash other than in dessert was a foreign concept to me. Grandma’s ingredients for pie came out of a can. It wasn’t until one of the vendors at my local farmers market when I was in college was handing out slivers of brilliant orange flesh cut our of what looked like a fifty-pound green-skinned hollow cucumber. Hesitantly, I took a piece and was instantly converted by the sweet, firm fruit (yes, squash are fruit). Each week I would purchase a large chunk as it was inexpensive, perfect for a student budget. I learned to cook winter squash every imaginable way—baked, sautéed, grilled, pureed in soups, raw in salads. Wanting to grow it for myself, I asked the farmer if I could have some of his seeds as my purchases never contained any.

“No way, this is my squash. It took me over ten years to come up with this,” he replied. Miffed by his rebuff, I never bought his squash again and instead, sought out other unusual varieties, though none ever came close to the flavor and size of his.

After I had begun farming, a neighbor asked if I’d haul away her fall decorations to feed to my animals. She had a full pick-up load of every imaginable color, shape and size of squash, gourd and pumpkin. There was even a giant pumpkin which required the use of a wooden pallet and forklift to load on the truck. While most of the bounty went to the livestock, some I took slices from several to see how they would cook up and taste. The bluish-green Hubbard was my favorite out of all. Some had warty skins so thick I had to use an ax to cut into them!

The best part, though, was watching as the animals rolled them down the hill running in hopes of getting a bite one they broke open. The old red mare became the barnyard hero after she discovered if she stomped on the squash the succulent flesh was exposed. The pigs crawled inside the giant pumpkin through a hole they chewed open, eating it from the inside out. Everyone ate themselves silly and the following year squash grew throughout the pastures, many making it to maturity before the residents broke into them.

Winter squash, especially Hubbards, have become a staple of my fall and winter meals. Their size, versatility in preparation along with their storage capacity—up to a year in a cool, dry place—means there are always one or two along with other interesting varieties such as butternut (aka: neck pumpkins), Cinderella and Spaghetti squashes.

One of my favorite ways to prepare squash is to cube up the flesh and place in a container along with other sliced/cubed fall vegetables such as beets, carrots, and parsnips, add olive oil, crushed garlic, rosemary and fresh cracked pepper. Shake until the vegetables are thoroughly coated in oil and then spread on a baking sheet and place in a 375-degree oven until the roasted soft and caramelized. Got leftovers? Put in a blender along with a few cups of broth for instant soup. Add a little curry powder and a dollop of Greek yogurt for an international flair.

And yes, just about all varieties of winter squashes can be used to make pie.

Here are some tips for choosing and storing winter squash.

  • Winter squash are prone to decay. Examine the entire squash for any soft spots or signs of mold if you plan to store them for any length of time.
  • Choose squash that are heavy for their size and have dull rinds. The rinds should be firm. The heavier they are, the moister and tastier they are.
  • Winter squashes can be stored in a dark, cool, well-ventilated space for six months. Varieties with very thick, warty rinds will last for a year.
  • Cut squash can be wrapped and refrigerated for several days.

It’s Not Too Early

A few weeks ago, I saw an exasperated lament on social media about a notice to order Thanksgiving turkeys. “It’s September,” she posted. And I knew immediately this was a topic for Dishing the Dirt to tackle.

Yes, if you want a locally raised holiday bird, reserve it now. But it’s only September you say. We’ve become an on-demand culture believing that everything can be ordered online and overnighted to our doorsteps. While most customers who shop at farmers markets get the concept of seasonality, there are those who fall short on understanding availability.

Let’s talk turkey.

If you are purchasing your Thanksgiving turkey from the farmers market, it’s coming from a diversified farm, meaning multiple species are raised by the farmers. Their flocks number in the hundreds, not thousands of birds as is with commercial growers meaning there is a limited number, often first come, first serve. Farmers with smaller flocks may require a reservation – even a deposit – in the spring when ordering poults (baby turkeys) since the young chicks can be costly – up to $15 per poult for some of the rarer Heritage breeds. This is a significant investment considering how quickly a flock of holiday dinners can be decimated by bad weather and predation.

I mentioned Heritage breeds. These are the much sought-after varieties that have not had their physical traits tinkered with through selective breeding to create a fast-growing, big-breasted snow-white bird known as the Broad Breasted White. These birds, along with their cousins, the Broad Breasted Bronze, are the de facto standard in commercial turkey production. They have been bred for generations to produce extra-large breasts for lots of white meat which has also led to their inability to fly. This is why many pastured poultry farmers have shifted their production flocks to these two varieties.

Although I no longer raise turkeys, for years I raised a small flock of Heritage birds – Bourbon Reds, Standard Bronze and Blue Slates. They were lovely birds, but I grew tired of clipping wings and explaining to customers why their Thanksgiving turkey had small breasts and lots of dark meat. One year I failed to clip their wings in time and returned home from a Friday night market after dark to find all 75 turkeys perched on top of the fence rail. They had free range not only of the farm, but of the entire neighborhood which did not bode well for my residential neighbors. After that I switched to Broad Breasted Bronze which still produced excellent flavor and texture on pasture without too rapid of growth, they looked pretty and most importantly, they did not fly.

Unlike chickens, turkeys are very seasonal in their egg production. Heritage breed hens will lay only two to three eggs a week starting in early spring going through June. Because the Broad Breasted hens are unable to mate naturally (those big breasts get in the way), they must be artificially inseminated. This intensive husbandry allows for practically year-round access to poults from production breeds.

The slow-growing Heritage breed turkeys require 25-32 weeks of growth to be ready for Thanksgiving harvest. That means starting poults in April as opposed to the Broad Breasted varieties that can reach harvest weight in half that time. The difference in growth rates is also why customers are most likely to have sticker shock when choosing a Heritage breed turkey. Twice the amount of time to grow means twice the amount of feed. Turkeys also require feed which is significantly higher in protein than chicken feed – read: more expensive.

Now it’s half way through September and the farmers can see the back stretch, a sprint to Thanksgiving. From now until November, these birds will consume a fearsome amount of food and water, requiring daily attention. By the middle of October farmers hope to have reservations for the majority of their birds as they begin chanting a daily count-down to the week prior to Thanksgiving which is a Herculean task of labor and logistics.

There’s always that person who shows up at the last-minute wanting the biggest or the smallest bird. Sorry, those went to the shoppers who called back in September and reserved what they wanted.

Turkeys, fresh or frozen are not exactly easy to pack in coolers for storage or transport so when the farmers can get a fairly accurate estimate as to how many birds to bring, it makes their lives so much easier. Trust me, no farmer wants to back-haul fresh turkeys. Even worse, leftover fresh turkeys are a pain in the cloaca to freeze. Think about stacking large bowling balls in a freezer.

So, if you are planning on serving a fresh turkey from your favorite farmer this year for Thanksgiving, talk to them in the coming weeks and make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier.

Florence & The Farm Markets

Before there were iPhones with news and weather apps, there was my dad who was always clicking between The Weather Channel, The History Channel and Fox News. On days he knew I was at market, he’d pay particularly close attention to the weather. Occasionally I would get a telephone call warning me of a fast-moving storm in my direction, him going so far as to tell me once to pack up and get out of there NOW. Other times when the sky would turn black, I’d call him for an update to see which way the storm was tracking.

Now there are multiple weather reporting outlets who rely on experienced forecasters, super computers and satellite images that can be called up on demand, but predicting the weather is still a crap shoot. Any farmer will tell you that with no uncertainty. Trust me, we are all glued to our weather apps right now, especially farmers in Virginia.

Customers have already begun asking, “Will there be markets this weekend?” The answer: we don’t know…yet.

We know there won’t be markets the weekend after Thanksgiving and there won’t be a Bethesda market on October 14th due to the Bethesda Row Fine Arts Festival, but to say with any certainty in advance about weather-related cancellations is about as predictable as the weather itself.

“We intend to stay open rain or shine,” says Mitch Berliner, founder of Central Farm Markets.

However, due to the agreement with Montgomery County for the Bethesda location, the market must close if the county closes the school for weekend activities due to a weather event like a major snow storm or a direct hit from a hurricane. Similarly, the other locations (Pike, Westfield and Mosaic) will cancel markets only when weather conditions such as ice becomes dangerous to patrons and vendors.

Ice won’t be an issue this weekend, but the remnants of Florence, depending on where it makes landfall, may result in conditions – high winds and rain – that necessitate closures. Sure, vendors go without tents on breezy days, but tent weights only work so well before either the frame collapses from the sustained stress or a strong gust whips the entire structure into the air (weights included) and plunks it down on shoppers, on vehicles, on other vendors’ tents. Over the years I’ve witnessed several tent wrecks due to high winds. In an instant there were injured people, broken windshields, damaged products and destroyed tents.

If there is rain coupled with extremely high winds, that’s when it makes sense to pull the plug. According to the Capital Weather Gang, “based on the best available computer model forecasts, the storm’s extreme rainfall is likely to remain south of Washington.” That does not mean the region will not experience the effects of Florence as their forecast added, “There is still some chance that the region will endure disruptive rain and wind from the storm.”

Chances…

Some vendors travel over two hours to and from Central Farm Markets. That means that the producers traveling from the south are much more likely to be impacted by Hurricane Florence. Westmoreland Produce, located in Virginia between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers has chosen to err on the side of caution and will not be attending markets this weekend. Other vendors located closer to the estimated path of the hurricane are weighing their options as well. It’s not that vendors want to skip a market due to inclement weather. After all, we must work in all types of conditions to get the food to our customers.

Experience has taught us that picking and loading during dangerous storms is an unwise choice, that even though we are loaded and rolling flooded roads, downed trees and power lines can thwart our efforts. With supersaturated ground from all the recent rains, a blast of high winds can quickly bring down trees and poles. When state governors and the District mayor all declare states of emergency ahead of a major storm, we give pause and consider our trek into the city.

Other times we take a chance on an ugly forecast, standing for hours in the first bone-chilling rain of the season such as last week and are rewarded with patrons showing up in full support and colorful rain gear.

Yes, this still doesn’t answer the question will there be markets this weekend.

“We will wait until Friday IF we are to call off the markets, but at this point we intend to go forward,” says Mitch Berliner.

Here’s how you can stay on top of how Hurricane Florence will impact all the Central Farm Markets.