A Different Calendar

There are over a dozen major calendars used throughout the globe—Hebrew, Chinese, Ethiopian, Islamic, Persian, and of course, the Gregorian which is what the majority of us use for legal and business purposes. However, there is another type of calendar of sorts. One that follows no movements of the sun and moon, no auspicious numbers, no designation of standards, yet thousands have faithfully followed its dates and seasons for millennia. I’m talking about the calendar of nature to which those of us in agrarian endeavors often follow.

How would you feel if your calendar were a moving target with some seasons longer than others, that seem to go backwards at time, skip around at others, or worse yet, fail to appear at all?

Welcome to farming.

This was on my mind after I walked down to the barn this week and saw the first heron of the year on the pond. Herons don’t randomly show up. For it to land on the pond, the pond itself must have what the heron wants: food. That means that turtles, snakes, fish and other small critters are starting to poke their heads out from winter. Along with the herons the Bald Eagles arrive because—you guessed it—Bald Eagles eat herons. I don’t even have to see the great birds of prey because the livestock guardian dogs will tell me they have arrived with their specific intruder alert barking as they race across the pasture following the silhouette in the sky.

On social media, Spiral Path Farm began counting down the weeks until their first harvests begin with an image of stubby red rhubarb buds peeking through the ground. I went outside to check on mine and yes, there they were, too. But nature’s calendar is still a bit wonky as I have not spied any groundhog activity despite their official day now over three weeks passed.

The birds, though, are my favorite bellwethers of changing seasons. Occurring now is the telltale sound of woodpeckers excavating nest cavities in which they will lay their eggs. As I walked under the big maple tree by the barn the ground was littered with wood chips and dust. Looking up, an assortment of holes started and abandoned for different spots on a dead spur were evident, a few possibly deep enough to house a clutch of eggs.

The Great Horned Owls have been quite active. They make an assortment of vocalizations that few would immediately recognize as an owl. The Barn Owls who nest in the abandoned silo have yet to be seen or heard. They are extremely territorial and a few times each year I get buzzed by them on my walk back to the house from the barn at dusk. The first time it happened I screamed like a little girl. While the rush of air off the wings so close and unexpected is startling, I now understand they are simply asking for some privacy.

Like clockwork, the fledgling owlets will take their first flight out the top hatch on the full moon in late July/early August swooping from the silo across the hay field to the woodlot. Back and forth they will fly with their parents learning to hunt mice, voles and other small critters that live in the grass.

Several years ago after the young had fledged, I went into the silo to see their nest. A perfect owl feather had been left behind. I snatched it up and wore it in my hat the following Sunday to market. But the reaction to my adornment wasn’t what I expected.

“Hand over the feather and I won’t make a big deal of it,” said one of my regulars.

“No way, this came from the owls in the old silo. It’s mine,” I joked back. But the gentleman wasn’t joking. He pulled out his Federal Wildlife Marshall’s badge and informed me that I was in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. When he told me what the fine could be for my offence I quickly relinquished the feather.  He then educated me on which feathers from wild birds I’d be allowed to wear in my hat. Fortunately, wild turkeys were safe. They, too, have a timetable on the farm, but more of a daily routine.

Tom (male) turkeys in the wild have harems and territories. I have counted as many as seven groups some years. One male will begin gobbling at dawn and they will go down the line and back several times. This ritual will be repeated in the evening, too. Without looking at my iPhone, a clock or a watch, I can hear when it is time to wake up in the morning or finish up my daylight projects.

But my favorite migrants are the hummingbirds. Last summer was a banner year for the tiny iridescent precision flying nectar drinkers with me filling the two feeders every other day to meet their demands. I’ve learned what flowers they like best and try to surround my house with them. Like the wild turkeys, the hummers are fiercely territorial with epic open-air battles. One flew into my house and refused to leave despite all the windows and doors being open. I learned that hummingbirds, like the chickens roost when it gets dark making it easy to snatch them off their perches.

There will be Blue Birds and Baltimore Orioles, Red-winged Blackbirds, crows and buzzards. When the hay gets mowed the Barn Swallows with swarm scooping up in mid-air all the flying insects that rise from the sheared grasses. I was heartbroken when contractors who rewired the electricity in the barn had to remove all the mud thatched nests the swallows had built on the beams. Would they return? Indeed, they did rebuilding their nests in exactly the same spots.

While I am forced to follow standardized measures of hours, days, weeks, months and years, it is nature whom I prefer to alert me to the passage of time.

The One & Only American Shochu

You never know what you are going to encounter at the farmers market. As vendors, management and even the legislature fret about over-saturation in local markets, the one thing that makes a market stand apart from the pack is having unique and innovative products. This week I learned how fortunate Central Farmers Market is to have The American Shochu Company as one of our vendors.

Despite Maryland’s long history of distilled libations, historical references of the Japanese white liquor, shochu dates back at least five hundred years. While most Americans are familiar with sake, for Japanese, shochu is the spirit of choice. So how has no one until recently—about four years ago—produced an American shochu?

I’m familiar with the rotation of Maryland distilleries who show up at Central Farm Markets, but last year I noticed that Taka Amano was showing up weekly with his product, the very first American shochu. Customers were paying attention, too, as I saw many carrying bottles exclaiming UMAI!

“Hey, is that stuff good?” I asked one of my regulars.

“Are you kidding? This is my third bottle. I love this stuff,” came the response and off I went to procure my own taste. Heading into winter, it was a chilly morning. After introducing himself, Taka meticulously poured a taste of warm liquid from a thermos for me.

“It can also be mixed for cocktails,” he said as I sipped my sample. Sold. The bottle went into the collection to be handed out to friends and family during the holiday season. The recipient’s reaction said it all.

Anyone who has ever traveled to Japan knows about shochu as it has become the most popular alcoholic beverage there, surpassing sake for the last 15 years when marketers began promoting it for use in cocktails. Being a neutral spirit like vodka, shochu is a versatile white whiskey made from sweet potatoes, rice or barley. UMAI! Is made using Certified Organic barley grown in the U.S.

“There is nothing cooler than shochu, so someone had to introduce Americans to it,” said Taka who had split his time between Japan and the United States with a small business that bridged American and Japanese industries.

That experience served as foundation when four years ago when Taka began producing premium shochu at his distillery in Frederick, Maryland. Unlike Japanese distillers who are loathe to waste product, The American Shochu Company wanted to produce a smooth, premium product leading them to cut the heads and tails which are the beginning and end of the distilling process. Compounds found in the heads and tails are responsible for those skull-crushing hangovers leaving UMAI! to get a reputation for being hangover-free. “My shochu is the cleanest in the world,” Taka expressed with great pride.

It is also the top selling brand in Montgomery County liquor stores, a fete that Taka credits to his products’ exposure to the public at the farmers market. “Nowhere else could I get my product in front of such a large group of people as well as collect immediate feedback.”

Recently, Taka returned from a trip to Japan—his first in three years—to share his American shochu with his friends and former colleagues. And the results? Same as the name of his flagship product—UMAI! {translation: yummy}

Learn more about American shochu at their website or stop by Central Farm Markets for a taste and to visit with Taka.

Something We Can Agree Upon

In this time of political incivility and divisive civics I’m often caught expressing my want of an alien invasion so we can all just be humans. But as a farmer, even I cannot escape innate behaviors for specific groups to separate and at times, clash.

Recently I spoke at a conference about the profitability of small ruminants, explaining that sheep and goats can be kept together, but they’ll separate into groups of their own species barely tolerating each other. Humans don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to partisan politics.

I’ve had customers decry the death of democracy and roar over the fallacy of impeachment, but most are becoming ambivalent to the constant sniping on either side of the isle. Like the sheep and goats who keep in separate areas of the pasture, market patrons just want to eat. In these frustrating times, I see many turning to comfort foods. The one that keeps cropping up:

Mashed Potatoes

With Thanksgiving and Christmas in our rearview mirrors and temperatures reaching the 60’s, one would think mashed potato season is over—wrong. Potatoes are winter staples due to their extended storage capabilities. There are Russets, Yukon Golds, and Peruvian Purples {my personal favorite} from which to choose. When feelings of despair start creeping in, it’s time to whip up a batch of Market Mashed Potatoes using my grandma’s old-fashioned hand masher to take out my aggressions. Forget butter and cream—go straight for the crème fraîche with a splash of hot beef stock, preferably with some melted tallow to crank up the silky texture. Any week now green garlic should be showing up at the markets, too. Garlicky mashed potatoes…mmmmmm, but for now I’ll have to make do with the green shoots from the red onions I’ve overwintered from Spiral Path Farm.

If that’s not enough to chase away the doldrums, add cheese…lots of cheese. A few tablespoons of fresh ricotta, a half a log of chèvre, a cup of grated Gruyere—it doesn’t matter as long as the gooey goodness lulls you into starch, fat and flavor coma drowning out the talking heads debating only their point of view.

Similar to our government’s two-party system, yes, potatoes come in two affiliations; don’t forget the sweet potatoes. Have you seen those two-pound honkers showing up as the market season goes on? They’re often referred to as number twos since they are so huge and appear as the premium tubers (number ones) dwindle in supply.

Sure, you can make savory mashed potatoes out of them, but in more than just name they beg to be sweet. I prefer those mashed potatoes to be mixed with maple syrup (of which the season is almost upon us), a few eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg a splash of bourbon in lieu of vanilla and baked in a pie shell, preferably one made with rendered lard.

If that’s not enough to alleviate my fears for the future, there’s only one thing that can top my mashed potatoes. No, not a ladle of gravy or a dollop of whipped cream. It’s time to pull out all the stops and go snuggle with the baby lambs.

Sharing Knowledge

This is the time of year that many regional agricultural conferences take place. A few years ago, I took off a Sunday from market to attend one in New York, but this year I went to the Future Harvest CASA (Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture) conference that took place in East Hyattsville, Maryland. This meant it was close enough for me not to skip out on Sunday.

Like many conferences, there are pre-conference workshops that are day-long or run for several hours as opposed to the 60 to 90-minute sessions offered during the main two-day event. There was also a trade show, photo contests, meals, and awards—the usual conference stuff. It’s when you walk past another farmer you went to market with years ago and haven’t seen in a while, so you make a bee line to each other for a hug and greetings. There were inspiring speakers, authors signing and selling their latest books, and old sages whom I aspire to become more like the years pass.

But something happened this year which I never experienced: market customers went to the conference.

They’re not farmers or even aspiring farmers. One is a food professional, but the others wanted to know more about the environment and how their food choices made an impact.

“Wow, I never realized how complex farming really is,” exclaimed a long-time Central Farm Market customer who caught up to me in the hallway at the conference center after attending the workshop, Life in the Underground: Healthy Soils, Healthy Plants, Healthy Planet. “How do you manage to learn all this stuff?” he asked.

Like everyone else, by reading, attending conferences, workshops, and the best teacher of all—experience.

Not everyone wants that type of hands-on knowledge when it comes to their food so here’s where organizations such as Future Harvest CASA steps in. Now in their twentieth year, the non-profit serves the Delmarva region along with West Virginia and Pennsylvania. While that might sound like a huge territory, consider that I can drive to Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia from Pennsylvania in less than an hour. Similarly, take a look at where your market vendors are located. Sound familiar?

Future Harvest CASA’s mission, To build a sustainable Chesapeake foodshed from farm and fishery to table, sums up in what we are all interested. Working not only with farmers and fishers, but also with chefs, stakeholders, local, state and federal agencies, and consumers, the nonprofit offers a variety of programs, events and trainings throughout the year geared to a variety of audiences from seasoned farmers to consumers.

In addition to many vendors being members, Central Farm Markets takes on responsibility in leadership. Deb Moser, co-owner of Central Farm Markets and Shane Hughes, owner of Liberty Delight Farm are both are members on the non-profit’s board of directors. Similarly, I often see the organization’s Executive Director, Dena Leibman shopping at the market.

I am warmed in knowing that there is support from multiple avenues for Future Harvest CASA, including from everyday eaters who may never step foot on a farm or fishing vessel. Food production has a HUGE impact on carbon emissions as well as sequestration. Much of the science is lost on the general public when it comes to global issues such as climate change leading to charged accusations on both sides of the coin. On one side, consumers demand unfettered access to inexpensive food while producers want to farm using environmental and socially responsible practices while remaining financially sustainable. Thanks to organizations like Future Harvest CASA, there is a platform {other than the farmers markets} where producers and customers can come together to figure out how to make our food system work better for the common good of humanity.

No Excuses

Thanks to the power of the Internet, Social Media, and cellular communications, farmers and customers are able in interact on a scale never before experienced in human history. What to see where and how your food is grown? Check out your favorite farm’s website. If they don’t have a website, there’s often a Facebook or Instagram account. If you really want to take the pulse of your farmer, lurk about their Twitter account. I know my personal opinions tend to slosh about in that particular digital venue.

A few years ago I began training my customers to text or email orders for items that tend to sell out quickly each week. This works especially well for those who like to sleep in on cold Sunday mornings. Having cut my professional teeth on the Internet over thirty years ago {anyone remember BBS and DOS?}, I tend to stay digitally connected through multiple technologies and applications and my customers know this.

But not all farmers or customers are tech savvy and driven. Despite this, they find workarounds. Last Sunday an hour into market I received a text from a regular who was not placing an order, but simply inquiring if Rob the salad guy was at the market this week. Had they subscribed to the markets’ weekly eBlast (you can do so HERE), they would have seen Young Harvests listed in the weekly roster of who is coming to market. Fortunately, texting technologies now identify questions and offer one-touch responses to yes or no. Yes, Rob is here this week. No, I will not go get two bags of salad mix for you.

Through assorted applications, customers keep abreast of what’s happening on the farm with cute pictures of babies and get great ideas for how to cook what they procure at the markets. However, a fairly regular communique from customers reaching out when they are AWOL from market is there is not enough variety to warrant a trip for shopping.

To everyone who has sent me that message via text, email, Messenger, IG and Twitter, this week’s Dishing the Dirt is dedicated to you.

What do you mean there’s not enough? Seriously. Even the pickiest eaters and vegans can find plenty to eat at the farmers market in the dead of winter. Our farmers are tops when it comes to getting product to market when the rest of the mid-Atlantic is frozen into submission.

As a vendor at market each week, I have access to everything our foodshed has to offer. Granted, I have to schlep to Target for toilet paper and cat food, but you won’t catch me buying bagged salad there.

Even though Young Harvest only comes to market every other week during the winter months, I can guarantee that a bag of their greens will remain edible two full weeks. This is the Voice of Experience. Even when the spinach or bok choy is looking a little sad on the second week, it’s perfectly fine for cooking. Don’t believe me? Check out meal I made with wilted greens and shriveled mushrooms. Plus, fermented foods will keep in the fridge for months. Looks delicious {it was}, doesn’t it?

This is also soup and stew weather. Nothing warms the house and adds humidity to dry indoor air like simmering a pot of homemade stock on the stove. My personal favorite this time of year is mushroom bisque of which all the ingredients are readily available at market.

Omnivores have plenty of choices to pair with their proteins. One of my favorite winter meals is a pork chop cooked with caramelized onions and apples with a splash of cider to deglaze the pan served atop a mound of mashed potatoes. Again, all the ingredients sourced at the market.

The powerhouse of winter greens, though, are brussels sprouts. On just about every trendy menu today, these once-reviled sulphurous gas-inducing minicabbages have become the go-to seasonal darling at the market along with their cousin, kalettes. A few nights ago I roasted brussels sprouts with garlic, butter, maple syrup and coarse salt and pepper. Or give them a try the way Boundary Stone serves them sautéed with honey balsamic glaze and toasted pecans. Try tossing them in boiling water to cook along with pasta or shredding them to top a toasted flat bread. The combinations and cooking methods abound.

Next are the root vegetables—carrots, potatoes, beets, turnips, kale, chard, rutabagas, celery root, onions, leeks—starches and sugars. Last week at market I counted five different varieties of potatoes alone. Tired of white potatoes, try sweet potatoes, there’s at least three different varieties.

In addition to the seasonal goods, the staples are at the market on a weekly basis—milk, meat, fish & seafood, breads, cheeses, yoghurt, pastries, pickles, coffee, pasta, sweets, oils & vinegars, mushrooms, and libations. For those who don’t want to cook much, there are also prepared foods. Many farms also offer jarred fruits and sauces made from their own produce while in season.

I get it. People get stuck in food ruts such as needing tomato on their salads, year-round asparagus and strawberries for smoothies. It’s easy to go to the grocery store, leisurely shop in relative warmth and get whatever you want regardless of season. For this I will not fault you too much, however, please do not text me with the blasphemous message there’s nothing much there to eat at the market this time of year. On that, I respond, ah-hem—manure!

No, it’s not nice.

Even though I wore my non-insulated coveralls to market, I should have broken out a pair of shorts. There was plenty of skin showing, including a few fair-haired vendors who sported the bright pink hue of a January sunburn. All market long, customer after customer remarked how nice the warm weather was. Sure, we didn’t have to bundle up to ward of the cold, but for farmers a jaunt of unseasonably warm weather spells: work & worry.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a balmy day…just not in January. This is the season for cold weather. As farmers, we prepare for it. A day in the 70’s this time of year has us scrambling and struggling.

My first worry was for the orchardists. A warm stint too early has the danger of waking tender fruit buds. There’s no doubt of bitter cold weather still ahead of us this season. A tree’s calendar is based upon external temperatures. Warm weather begins the awakening from seasonal dormancy. If this happens too early, there’s the potential for damaged or lost crops. Stone fruits like cherries, peaches, apricots and plums are very susceptible to damages from early warm weather.

Similarly, the vegetable folks are kept on their toes. Touching base with Rob at Young Harvests to see how the hot weather would impact one of his coveted off Sundays, he lamented that this is the weather that keeps him on his toes. “It’s a pain, but I have to protect the tender greens,” said Rob as he explained there’s more problems with disease and fungus this time of year. “I need to be super on it, opening up when ventilation is needed as the temperature rises. Having already buttoned down his greenhouses in preparation for freezing temperatures, opening them for needed ventilation to keep the vegetables from cooking is one chore he’d rather not have to do.

And for those of us with livestock—one word: MUD!

“My Pyrenees look more like Chocolate Labradors,” said Shane Hughes at Liberty Delight Farm as we traded our weekly farm stories. We both have big white hairy dogs. We both have mud.

I’ll take the cold, the dry cold, the mud frozen solid cold. Despite the warm air temperatures, alpaca wool socks inside thick neoprene vulcanized on to waterproof synthetic rubber will not hold up to thawed mud, chilling your feet painfully numb even with a HotHands stuffed in the toes. This is slip-and-fall weather. It is when liquid silt wicks up the legs of quilted clothing to the point when they dry, they will stand up stiff as a bodiless mannequin propped in the corner.

By now, the seasonal grasses that comprise the pastures have gone dormant. Turning the livestock out to graze would cause more damage than good. They’re stuck in what farmers tend to call the sacrifice lot, the barnyard, the paddocks, etc. It’s the place where hay (think stored pasture) is fed. Getting hay to everyone means the use of heavy equipment whose tire spin in the slick mud making a miserable mess and occasionally get stuck. {I tend to say very bad words when this happens}

And did I tell you it’s lambing season? All those very pregnant sheep in full winter coats were none too happy during the heat wave.

The spike in temperatures equates to stress. When livestock are stressed, so are their immune systems leaving them vulnerable to parasites, bacterial infections and viruses…kind of like Young Harvests’ greenhouses.

For four wonderful hours on Sunday, though, I was able to stand in the sun and enjoy the unseasonably warm temperatures But like all the other farmers, I went home to more work than usual and a BIG mess. The plus side—it was perfect weather for Rock Hill Orchard’s ginger ice cream.

The Year of the Knife

Have you ever noticed a reoccurring theme in a brief time? A specific totem or item appearing as if synchronicity? The innocuous and mundane throwing a metaphysical sparkle to make your Spidey-sense tingle?

“What’s your sign?” I was once asked, quickly followed up with “What’s your Chinese sign?” I had to think about that one. Got it wrong and am now continuously referred to as a snake woman so I don’t forget. While my sun and moon signs cause groans of dismay from astrologers—a Leo with a Scorpio moon—I take comfort in knowing at market each week I will have my horoscope delivered right to my stand.

These ethereal occurrences follow no calendar year or star chart, yet their clusters are uncanny and cannot be considered random. As a farmer, I assign year-end designations according to such events–Year of the Tornado, Year of the Fish Kill, Year of Carpentry and my least favorite, Year of the Maggots.

Recently I have entered into the Year of the Knife.

While reference to such New Age woo woo would have my conservative Methodist forebearers rolling in their graves, what’s a little heretical humor in personal time keeping. But the stories of sharp edges and gifts keep arising and begging to be told.

The Year of the Knife began in October with a request for my mailing address from a former co-worker from a former information security career. {yes…I have more lives than a cat} As a self-avowed dilatant, over the years I’ve watched my friend dabble in photography, costumes, leatherwork, rubber chickens, woodwork, horses, candy making, silicon molds, soapmaking and most recently metal work which distilled into knifemaking.

As with many relationships of the twenty first century, ours is maintained vicariously through social media. Somewhere along the line I commented on his craft and one day a package appeared in the mail. It was a 1095 wire rope Damascus with a differential quench and a vintage redwood handle with a redwood burl bolster. It passed the tomato test with flying colors.

After writing about Central Farm Markets’ resident knife sharpener for Dishing the Dirt, I resolved to take better care of my knives, but it seems each time I remember to take them along, that’s the week Robb’s Edge Express is at the NOVA market as he alternates between there and Bethesda. Yet, here I was with dull knives because against Robb’s advice, I put mine in the dishwasher.

Over Thanksgiving more knives began appearing. First, the gorgeous Global high-tech molybdenum/vanadium stainless-steel razor-sharp kitchen knives at the gourmand’s home where I spent the holiday weekend. They were such an absolute joy to work with I promised myself not to miss another sharpening date at the market. The perfectly balanced blades sliced smoothly through roasted duck breast, carrots and parsnips with barely a hint of pressure. But those were not my knives nor were they in my budget.

However, Santa arrived later that afternoon when friends visiting family not far from my weekend escape stopped by to drop off a gift. You guessed it—a knife. Not just any knife, but a Japanese Shun Carving Set nestled in a red velvet foam lined wooden box. I didn’t even have to write him a letter telling him what a good girl I’d been. To further express my gratitude, I served three different roasts during December’s spate of holidays, so I’d be able to carve them with my new knife set. But a carving set isn’t intended for everyday use and I’d again missed my chance to get my knives sharpened.

New Year rolled around and I spent it with family and friends, one of whom is a master craftsman woodworker. My home includes a display box coffee table made from American Chestnut salvaged out of a former chicken coop, a shadow box with four different scene plates, hand-carved spoons and butter paddles, a jewelry box and a couple cutting boards. I’m always excited to see what new projects he’s embarked upon which usually results in a flurry of commissions from friends that keeps him busy throughout the coming year.

As I inquired about his latest projects, he brought out a box which contained—you guessed it—knives. Turns out that one of the hottest woodworking trends is making custom handles for cutlery, especially blades from traditional Japanese metalsmiths reviving historical knife forging skills. A cheese knife, paring knife, chef’s knife, chopping knife and ooooooh, a filet knife. Their handles were carved from Tiger Maple. “Look here,” he said handing me the cheese knife, “I even got the stripes to line up perfectly on this one.”

Take my money, I thought to myself trying to decide on which one to commission as I mentally inventoried my current knife collection. It’s between a nakiri, which I do not have or the filet knife. The one I have now was my father’s and has been sharpened so much over the years the blade is half its original size.

 

Now for the next question: Tiger Maple, Curly Cherry or Mahogany. If I’m ambitious, I’ll dig through the barn and find a piece of American Chestnut. Either way, this sharp vein of serendipity will continue to flow and just maybe I’ll remember to bring my dull and abused knives to market next time Robb is there. And yes, I’ll keep this one out of the dishwashing machine.

 

Looking Back, Moving Forward

There’s no missing it this time of year—looking back on the year and the decade; twenty years into the new millennium. I don’t need to reminisce about all that’s happened in the news, but I would like to take a look at farming and farmers markets for first Dishing the Dirt of 2020.

Sustainable Agriculture

In 20 years we’ve gone from crazy hippies to cutting-edge agriculture. Recognizing that there was something inherently wrong with beating mother nature into submission with drugs, chemicals, monocultures, genetic manipulation and what amounts to slave labor, farmers and ranchers began tuning their methods in accordance with nature. Grass-based livestock, heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, seasonal production, rotational grazing were methods we turned to along with third-party audits and certifications to guarantee our production practices.

But sadly, even that has not been enough to sustain ourselves environmentally and financially. I recall a conversation with a third-generation farmer giving up and getting out of farming around the turn of the century because there was “no money in it.” There they were with a lovely mortgage-free fertile farm in the golden triangle of DC/Baltimore/Philadelphia, but because they had always grown commodity crops for livestock feed the idea of growing and selling food for people was beyond their grasp. The farm is now a housing development.

Now the direction has become regenerative agriculture. No longer satisfied to sustain the status quo, farmers are working to repair the damages done by years of farming and development practices that are causing severe environmental issues such as topsoil erosion, aquatic dead zones, pollinator die-offs, invasive species, zootonic diseases (passable to humans), and that’s not including all the natural disasters caused by a rapidly shifting climate. Now more than ever, farmers are needed to heal the planet using agricultural practices that not only produce a saleable crop using environmentally responsible methods, but going the extra mile to build rich, healthy soils, protect waterways and promote wildlife.

But what about organic? In no way do I begrudge my fellow market vendors who choose the USDA Certified Organic route, however, in the coming years there is going to be a lot of changes to the food system in terms of what is considered certified and what isn’t. The fact remains that one can purchase a dozen eggs from a high-end grocery store that are Certified Organic and cage-free yet those eggs came from a large contract operation where there were 30,000 chickens crammed in a long barn where they never see the light of day, their manure pollutes the neighborhood and the workers barely make a living wage.

In the coming years, I see consumers becoming more aware as to how their food was produced as opposed to where which leads me to the next topic…

Local Foods

Where farmers once had to beg municipalities for use of public spaces they are now courted by real estate developers and redevelopment authorities who build out spaces in communities specifically for markets. Campaigns such as Buy Fresh Buy Local and No Farms No Food make for great hats, shirts and bumper stickers, but the reality is procuring 100% of our diet from our foodshed is practically impossible. I wouldn’t last long on that diet without my coffee, chocolate or citrus.

In addition to creating a robust local production of food, we also need to create the businesses that can utilize, process and distribute local foods. We need to create and support businesses that have a direct impact on regional economies. This means getting local foods back into school cafeterias, hospitals, and hospitality.

The first ten years of the 2000’s was spent getting our balance as farmers markets exploded throughout the United States. According to USDA statistics, in 2000 there were approximately 2,600 markets. That number has grown to over 8,600 today.

Farmers have more choices than ever as to where to sell their products. No longer are we limited to only farmers markets. Food hubs, cooperatives, community supported agriculture (CSA), buyers’ clubs have gained traction in the shift to local foods by the general public. Chefs and restaurants have built their reputations and businesses on their ability to source locally. Even large-scale grocery chains are turning to local producers to cash in on the trend.

The numerous choices had markets struggling to brand themselves in order to stand out. At first, the trend was producer only which turned out to be a load of manure. I’ve been to too many of those where the farmers are shackled to their own properties while the value-added producers have a free pass using ingredients with sketchy origins. Imposing geographic limits as to who can sell and who can’t is also a lose-lose for the farmers and customers.

For many of us who have been in this business any length of time we know the reality that organic and local have gone mainstream. Walmart sells certified organic foods. Whole Foods offers heirloom produce. Boutique butchers are popping up all over the place sourcing regional meats and cutting from whole carcasses. Consumers no longer have to shop at farmers markets to procure locally grown goods and that means as vendors we need to be agile and dynamic in our marketing as well as production.

One of the largest trends to come out of this has been…

Value-added Products & Collaboration

Nowhere was this explained better than in the Bethesda Magazine’s article A Day at the Market. The author and photographer (who are both market regulars) captured the trend that makes a successful market tick as they followed both vendors and shoppers throughout the market for a day.

Sure, customers can buy fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro and peppers to make their own salsas, but the truth is convenience is king. Instead of composting all that less-than-perfect produce, vendors are taking the extra steps to produce their own products and capturing more profit.

Take a walk around any market today and you’ll see a much larger variety of prepared goods than ten years ago. Entire industries are being built on the next generation of innovation. Fruit growers are making ciders and vinegars, vegetable growers have sauces and pickles, meat producers make sausages, burgers and charcuterie, and dairy farmers offer everything from farmstead cheeses to ice cream. Instead of being sold as commodity crops to large corporations making processed foods, local grain growers are helping to revive local breweries and distilleries. And every single one of those non-farm vendors are a local small business which are also important to a vibrant farmers market.

The biggest trend I’ve seen at the markets, though, has been collaboration between vendors to offer unique items that can only be procured at that particular market; an exclusivity that draws customers who know they will not find those goods anywhere else. Industrial agriculture has long had the practice of pitting farmer against farmer, but the successful farmers in coming years won’t be the ones who hope for their neighbors to go out of business but the ones willing to reach out and work together to create a food supply that is a win-win for both producers and customers alike.

There you have it, the trends from the last twenty years at the farmers market. What’s next? Here are my predictions for the coming year at Central Farm Markets.

  • Customers are going to see more collaboration between market vendors. Prepared food vendors know that sourcing ingredients from market producers gives them the edge.
  • Both customers and vendors are turning to environmentally friendly practices. Look for more compostable packaging and more bikes at the market. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see an electric box truck or delivery van in the near future.
  • Look for new varieties of produce, stuff you wouldn’t find even at upscale grocery stores. The same goes for value-added products.

Here’s to wishing all of my fellow vendors and customers a happy, healthy and prosperous 2020.

Our Stories

Last week I had a wonderful opportunity, to co-present at the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network annual symposium at Temple University with a professional folklorist teaching the workshop We All Eat At The Same Table: Food Connects Us. The workshop was interactive with participants filling out a simple worksheet asking them questions about the four basic pillars of folklore based upon their personal ethnicity and cultural background as a point of reference.

  • Oral Traditions—narratives of memorable events or customs, music, games, dances and jokes
  • Material Culture—handmade crafts, natural remedies, the process and knowledge of making
  • Family Life & Foodways—long held recipes for foods distinct to a specific group of people
  • Festivals, Rituals & Celebrations—seasonal events, rites of passage, body language

Around the world, there are 74 recognized holidays—both religious and secular—in December alone. Nowhere is this more evident than at Central Farm Markets with our diverse group of customers and vendors.

Here’s the best part about tradition and folklore—it’s not set in stone. Nowhere was I reminded more of this than several years ago when luck would have it the Kosher bacon vendor was placed directly across from me. At first, I thought it was some kind of bad joke, but as the weeks of market rolled by, we rapidly became friends over our shared love of great food.

As the Chanukah drew closer, Chaim began eradicating much of my ignorance about Jewish holidays which had previously been explained to me as they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat. He also clued me in on the pronunciation of both the holiday and his name.

Although the menorah was a familiar symbol, I had little understanding of its significance until my market neighbor was kind enough to answer all my questions. “It’s a minor holiday with little religious significance,” he told me, “A celebration of miracles.”

I joked with him that with some of the miracles that had occurred in my life maybe I, too, should be celebrating Chanukah. The next week Chaim showed up to market with a small silver menorah and a box of candles for me just in time for the first night.

Chaim no longer goes to market, having moved on to his Tripping Kosher project which chronicles Kosher Americana, but I still have the little silver menorah that I light every year. Is it cultural appropriation? To some, maybe, but for me it was a kind gesture from a fellow vendor that has ingrained itself into my own folklore as people enter my home at the holidays, their eyes darting between the candelabra and the Christmas tree trying to figure out what’s going on.

As a goat farmer, my customers have long been referred to as “ethnics” which only intensified my curiosity for cultures and religions different that my upbringing in white Protestant central Pennsylvania. Throughout the years so many colors, flavors, aromas and perspectives have been woven into the tapestry of my life. Thanks to others willingness to share their folklore and traditions, I wouldn’t think of roasting a goat without the skin on as is done in practically all subsistence cultures in which goat meat is a staple. I celebrate Eid which I have dubbed the new Thanksgiving (the food is better and there is no drunken fighting), and I will totally rock a saree for an Indian party. Chinese New Year is always a favorite when it comes to parades and superstitions about luck and prosperity.

At the same time, I hold on to my own folklore such as Fastnachts on Shrove Tuesday (PA Dutch Mardi Gras), pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day, and my personal favorite, Groundhog Day.

No matter your faith, culture, ethnicity or identity, this year as you gather with your family and friends throughout the holiday season, consider your own folklore. Talk about traditions with family elders and listen to how often the common thread of food binds all of us together.

Don’t Be a Grinch

There’s no mistaking that the holidays are rapidly approaching—baked goods for Hanukah, fancy meat cuts for Christmas, colorful lights, sparkling decorations and gifts galore.  Serving diverse market patrons, unless I specifically know which holiday they celebrate I offer the encompassing greeting of Happy Holidays.

But inevitably each year I encounter a Grinch.

“I don’t celebrate,” snapped back a grumpy customer as I handed over her purchase with my seasonal greeting. In the moments after she scuttled away with her crabby mood the unmistakable melody from the market musician caught my ear.

“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.” I hummed along with the irony.

True, we do not all share the same beliefs and traditions, but that’s no excuse for a bah humbug attitude in the coming week. As a firm believer in diversity being the peppermint spice of December, a better response might be “And the same to you.”

The Gregorian calendar is a veritable dart board of holidays with multiple New Years, faith-based celebrations and secular holidays all which hold significance in someone’s heart. Humanity is not a monoculture.

As a farmer, this time of the season I tend to identify with the Winter Solstice. I put up my evergreen tree, feast upon the bounty of the year, share my abundance with loved ones, and wait for the return of the sun as the pastures enter dormancy while the insulated coveralls come out of the closet. No gathering is complete without food even if it’s only cookies and hot cocoa. For farmers, this translates into a busy time. Just ask those turkey farmers!

After a short silent hiss at my Grinchy customer, compassion tapped me on the shoulder to remind me that for many people this is not the most wonderful time of the year. There are few places to turn where we are not bombarded with decorations, music, food, festivities and glad tidings. Several years ago after having experienced a deep personal loss, the raw emotions of grief left me Grinch green and sequestered alone in a home devoid of decorations. I was planning to eat cold pizza for Christmas. It was a fellow farmer who recognized my distress, showing up without shaming or judgement, instead offering me the comfort of knowing I was not alone. Since then as each year passes it seems the Ghosts of Christmas arrive to gently remind how blessed I am to be part of the Central Farm Markets family with our dedicated customers who show up week after week, year after year.

But I’ll let you in on a secret. There’s another reason vendors look forward to this time of year—Winter Markets. For the seasonal producers this means the end of Sunday markets. With their fields put to rest until spring, it’s time for them to renew themselves, especially those who head to warmer locales to sit on the beach and sip drinks sporting little paper umbrellas stabbing a piece of pineapple. For those of us remaining for Winter Markets it means we’ll get to sleep in an extra hour for the next three months. For those traveling from the north, we won’t be driving into the blinding rising sun on our way into the city.

But the farmers aren’t the only ones in Whoville singing for joy. With the return of Winter Markets comes the Customer Loyalty program which rewards customers for shopping during the colder months so stop by the Information Tent at both markets to pick up a Customer Loyalty card. When you come to a winter market (January-March), come to the green Market Information Tent and get your card stamped. For every four stamps, you’ll get a $5 gift certificate to use at any of our markets. Attend all the winter markets and receive an additional $10 gift certificate – so you’ll get a total of $25 to spend at the markets.

No matter how you celebrate the holidays this winter, that’s a sure gift that will make your heart grow three sizes.