Spinach Season

Eat your spinach so you’ll grow up to be strong like Popeye the Sailor Man,” my parents would tell me, but Mom’s repertoire of spinach dishes were limited to Stouffer’s spinach souffle and fresh spinach salad during the summer that always had mushrooms, hardboiled egg, red onion, and hot bacon dressing with enough sugar to put a diabetic into a coma. The idea of spinach out of can was then and continues to be downright nauseating. Most kids today would think of the fast food joint at the mention of Popeye and the notion of a sailor sucking up something green through his pipe…well, that wouldn’t be spinach. 

Spinach had traditionally been a cool season green with thick bunches of leaves, often muddy, and if the weather too warm, bitter. Not exactly something you wanted to eat raw. But when baby spinach began showing up at the grocery stores prewashed and in fancy containers the demand took off. Marketers were simply following the lead of savvy farmers market vendors who had begun offering mesclun.

My taste for spinach began to mature as I discovered dishes like spanakopita—a savory Greek pie made with phyllo, feta, and spinach. A Florentine omelet at a fancy brunch, spinach pasta at a trendy bistro, spinach pesto from fancy foods purveyor, and then came the juicing craze. I drew the line at spinach shakes.

As ubiquitous as spinach has become in the American diet, it’s rather a seasonal item, at least for good spinach. A cool season crop, spinach actually has two seasons each year—spring and fall. Too cold and wet and it won’t grow. Too hot and it will bolt, meaning it sends up it’s flowering stalk to produce seeds and the leafy part of the plant dies back to put all the energy into reproduction.

There are three varieties of spinach so the crop may appear different from vendor to vendor. There’s Savoy, which produces large thick crinkled leaves, is the most cold-tolerant and grows close to the ground.  Semi-Savoy is a variety that has been bred to stand more upright, be more disease resistant and slower to bolt. The leaves are less crinkled. Smooth-leafed spinach is as its name suggests and is most often used in frozen and canned products as it is the easiest to clean.

Spinach originated in Persia and is a member of the amaranth family and is related to quinoa and beets. China has been growing spinach as a food crop since the 7th century, but only introduced into America in the early 1800’s.  Today we consume 57 million pounds of fresh spinach annually.

Spinach is packed with protein, iron, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, K and E which puts it on the list of super foods when it comes to immune support. Gram for gram, there is more iron in spinach than beef and more potassium than bananas.

March 26th is National Spinach Day so let’s celebrate at market by picking up a bag of fresh spinach from your favorite veggie vendor.  Fair warning though, spinach loses half its nutrients a week after being picked so eat it within a few days of purchasing.


Changing Times

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ll be glad when this clock-changing idiocy is over and done with. Too bad we’ll have to wait until 2023 if it happens. I’m sure there will be a stampede of programmers coding updates so our electronics won’t automatically spring forward or fall back anymore.

There’s been grumbling already about having to go to school or work in the dark and cheers for having daylight longer into the evening, but the truth is you can’t please everyone at the same time. And then someone erroneously exclaimed, “I’ll bet the farmers will be happy!”


More proof that everyday folks are so far removed from food production they don’t know how farming really works.

First off, plants and animals don’t use clocks. They set their own schedules by the length of the day unless they’re forced to do otherwise. By that, I mean things like heated greenhouses, feedlots, and industrial barn production where the farmers set the schedule. Most of the dairy farmers I’ve known over the year keep an insane schedule of milking in the pre-dawn hours or late at night. That’s not the cow’s schedule, it’s the farmers’, many who have had to have an off-farm job to make ends meet or get health insurance. They do their farm work before they go to a full-time job and again when they come home. Daylight savings or standard time doesn’t mean a hoot to them as long as the work gets done.

You know you can farm in the dark? Tractors have headlights. After driving a big rig all day, my neighbor does most of his field work at night. There’s nothing like drifting off to sleep to the constant hum of a combine or worse, a manure spreader.

After the arctic blast last week that gave me an ice cream headache while doing chores, I kind of envy the greenhouse guys who were able to work out of the wind. All the greenhouses around here are glowing in the early mornings or late into the evening as the artificial lights trick the plants into doing their thing faster so plants can get a head start on the growing season.

Back in 2017 when the U.S. experienced a solar eclipse I was out with my homemade shadow box and welding goggles when I noticed the critters heading in from the fields as daylight waned in the middle of the day. The chickens roosted, too, something they do naturally as the light fades. But as the light returned over the following hours the look of confusion was evident on everyone’s face. I kid you not, the sheep and goats kept looking at the sky and then to me as if to say WTF!

We’ve already tried switching to Daylight Savings Time permanently back in the 70’s for a few years and Americans couldn’t stand the dark winters, quickly switching back to the old system.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the option for permanent standard time, but that would mean sunrise happing prior to 4:30 am in many parts of the country. Sleep researchers worry that would wreak havoc with humans’ circadian rhythms precipitating an assortment of health problems. Talk to anyone who has to work rotating shifts and they’ll tell you how it messes with their diets and sleep patterns.

Why choose one over the other?

Permanent daylight savings benefits would last 240 days while going full time to standard time would only offer 120 days of benefits so it looks like DST will be the choice. Either way is fine with me. I’m only chained to my alarm on market days. The rest of the week I awake when the sunlight streams through my bedroom window, when the rooster crows, when the turkeys gobble, when the woodpeckers start pounding on the trees, when the Canada geese noisily fly by on their way to the pond, when the songbirds start singing, and these days, when the bottle babies I keep in the foyer start bleating for their breakfast.

Energy & Economics

Midway through the market on Sunday my phone started chirping from ALERT MONTGOMERY with Severe Traffic Alerts due to demonstration activity. Oh no, not again. I made the mistake on Friday of running errands near Hagerstown and got caught up in Freedom Convoy traffic. So when I rolled out of the market on Sunday I turned on Waze and braced myself for a longer drive home. Fortunately, the only slow traffic was due to a few convoy participants broken down on the side of the road and at one overpass where it appeared as if someone was tossing glitter from overhead, but other than that the drive home was the usual speedway.

When I stopped to fuel up, however, I ran into a few of the convoy participants at the pumps. They were howling mad at the cost of fuel, griping, and squawking to everyone within earshot. “The damn president needs to open the Keystone XL pipeline and allow more drilling,” the man at the adjacent pump screamed at me while I watched the cost of my own weekly trip to market double.

“The president and the pipeline have absolutely no impact on the price of gasoline,” I said shaking my head at the man’s ignorance.

“F#%king libtard, what do you know. You drive a Honda. Buy American,” he wailed before speeding out in his monster truck festooned with assorted flags of dissent.

Here’s what I do know: my van was manufactured in Lincoln, Alabama and getting oil out of the ground and into that van is not any easy process.

Not all of us have been farmers for the entirety of our working life. For some, like myself, it’s been a new career path altogether; the fruition of a long-sought goal. While my parents joked, so much for her college education, my previous vocations have given me a solid foundation upon which I’ve built farm life, none more so than when I worked in the petroleum industry, specifically on offshore drilling rigs. It gave me a ringside education about exactly what it takes to get crude oil out of the ground and into the tank.

The principles of economics apply to everything from eggs to energy although hydrocarbons aren’t perishable. When the demand for a salable item drops, production is reduced or even eliminated. When demand is reduced, so is the cost. Why? Storage is expensive. It doesn’t matter if it’s a walk-in freezer or a tank farm, storage facilities cost money to maintain and can’t be spun up overnight. So when all of the world goes on a pandemic lockdown with few commuting and few traveling, there’s going to be a glut of gasoline meaning the price will drop. At the height of lockdowns my weekly trip to market was less than twenty bucks. Last week it went over fifty.

We can try to blame it on politics, both domestic and international, but as Pogo once wisely said, We have met the enemy and he is us. A year after the widespread rollout of vaccines, we’re back on the road and at the office. Each week more customers are telling me of their travels when for the last few years they’ve hung out at home. Everyone seems to be traveling and those planes, trains, and automobiles don’t run on without fuel.

In a way, producing oil is a lot like farming—it doesn’t happen overnight. Not only is there a significant investment in money for leases/land, but also to build the requisite infrastructure before any production can begin. An oil well isn’t like a water tap that can be turned off and on at will. You don’t turn off milk cows or laying hens either. When there’s a glut, like early in the pandemic when kids weren’t in school and restaurants were closed, commodity farmers who sold to those market segments were giving away milk and eggs for free because there were no customers. Similar circumstances apply to processing. Remember how hog and chicken farmers were depopulating by the thousands and bulldozing into large pits because they had no access to processing when over twenty major slaughter facilities were closed down due to COVID19? A lot of oil wells in this country have had the misfortune of not being able to produce again once shut down. When they’re shut in, they’re out of production for good. At least pork and chicken began showing up again at the grocery stores after the shelves went bare due to supply chain issues.

We’re at a junction where energy companies are hesitant to invest in costly new wells when renewable energy technologies are on the rise. Gas guzzling drivers are demanding more wells be drilled, but the energy companies are having none of it. They hold and maintain thousands of unused leases that could be developed but aren’t due to economic conditions. Anyone who has ever maintained a lease knows they’re not free. Somewhere someone is making a business decision based upon supply, demand, and profitability.

Just as most people have little to no idea about where their food comes from or how it was produced, they have even less knowledge of the fuel they used to heat their homes, power their cars, and drive just about every aspect of the economy. Life in the oil patch is dirty, hard, and dangerous—like farming. In farming, we have seasons and crops. In petroleum, there’s drilling and production. Did you know that most wells are drilled in less than 30 days with crews moving the drilling rig from site to site? It’s like using a tractor to till different fields. On an offshore platform the rig is moved to a new hole, some platforms having as many a hundred different wells supported by a single platform, like a farmer growing multiple crops on the same farm.  

And don’t get me started on the whole pipeline issue. That would be like getting mad at Mitch when a vendor raises their prices, demanding more vendors be brought in so the prices drop. We’re rapidly approaching fruit season and anyone whose shopped at market long enough knows the first few weeks of berry season you’re going to stand in line and pay a premium until the glut kicks in.

Here’s the truth: farmers depend on fuel to get food from our fields to your tables. No matter how much we try to reduce our energy usage, be it driving fuel efficient vehicles to switching over the farm to solar, the price of your food will always be tied to the costs of energy. Believe me, when Honda or Toyota puts an electric minivan on the market, I’ll be first in line.

Some days I wonder if basic economics are still taught in school given the level of ignorance about it. My fuel pump didn’t spit out a receipt and I had to go into the store to get one. There I stood behind another customer complaining about how the current administration is impinging on our personal freedoms with the rising fuel costs, but they didn’t bat an eye forking over nearly sixty bucks for a carton of Marlboro’s.

Not Funny

My father’s philosophy was to invoke humor in the face of disaster. On the worst occasions he’d come up with a comment meant to elicit at the very least, a smile, despite its inappropriateness. Myself in the midst of kidding and lambing season, which is akin to Mother’s Day for a florist and tax season for a CPA, I hadn’t really been paying too much attention to the news. Social media kept circulating images and memes of the Ukrainian president so when Sunday rolled around I cracked a joke about it, but my Ukrainian friend didn’t laugh and I instantly realized how badly I’d behaved by the look on their face. Sorry Dad, in this situation your way of dealing with a horrific situation wasn’t the solution.

Equally bad was the terse email I shot off earlier in the week to a Ukrainian customer who failed to show up the previous week for a standing order of perishables. How dare they inconvenience me. Now I felt like a heel.

The world is a big place geographically, but as we’ve learned in the last few years with the COVID-19 what happens on the other side of the globe can severely impact everyone on the planet.  Pandemics, politics, climate change, energy, and food security are all at the forefront of the issues affecting humanity as a whole. Suddenly the world doesn’t seem so big anymore. Spend enough time at the farmers market and it will seem downright small. True story: one of my customers is a Ugandan refugee who was resettled near my hometown and graduated from the same high school I did.

After my terrible faux pas on Sunday morning the Universe had to drive the lesson home as both my Ukrainian and Russian customers’ eyes welled with tears each time I asked them how they were doing. They shared family updates via images and history lessons in an attempt to explain what was happening to their homelands. “Now you know why we live here,” one added and that was what broke me. I’ve never had to leave home the way they have. Many Europeans were also upset along with anyone else who had a conscience. There was more egg on my face than in my cartons.

On the way home I listened to NPR instead of my audiobook. At the end of my day I opened news apps instead of social media. I saw what was happening in the world and was ashamed of my ignorance at events that are impacting my friends, my customers.

In the twenty years of attending farmers markets in the MD/DC area I’ve had the privilege of serving customers from over 60 different countries (that I know of) –people from all walks of life. Given that food is an integral part of holidays and festivals, I’ve become enamored with learning to celebrate the various traditions practiced by the people I see week after week, year after year.

I get to share in the joy when I provide the ingredients for festive meals, but there is more to life than happiness and good times. No, there comes a time when one must also acknowledge grief, disappointment, injustice, and hardship meeting the challenges with empathy.

Not Quite Yet

But soon…I promise, Spring is on the way. Well, I hope so. Maybe?

As a market vendor, it’s been a brutally cold season yet I’ve only missed one week due to inclement weather. Temperatures in the teens has been the norm for weeks. The market itself has remained opened weekly without any mandatory closures due to snow, ice, or single-digit cold. Patrons have been stalwarts, bundling up, dashing in, even taking advantage of the ongoing curbside service. As far as business continuity goes, it’s been great.

This week temperatures have been in the low 60’s. There’s over 11 hours of daylight. Hints of green are appearing. Then I look at my weather app and it tells me we’re going to dip back into a trough of cold for the weekend. Seems like we just can’t catch a break.

According to the calendar, there’s thirty more days until spring. A lot can happen in a month. My Pennsylvania Dutch roots have taught me there’s always an Onion Snow, one last dusting of white after the green shoots of onion starts poke through the dirt. March has ushered in several blizzards over the years dumping more than thirty inches of snow. My plows and snow shovels remain vigilant.

One thing is for certain, there’s only three more Sundays I’ll be driving into the blinding sun. People may grumble about pushing their clocks forward, but if it means not batting my visors back and forth as I wind my way south I’m all for it.

This weekend will also be the last market of winter hours at Bethesda Central Farm Market. Patrons will be able to get their goodies a half hour earlier so they can get on with their day and I will have to tighten my morning routine to be at market, set up and ready to go. I’m just grateful last week I was able to have my technology warm enough to function by the time customers poured in. Nothing has been more frustrating than a credit card machine that refuses to turn on. Few carry cash anymore, even when you give them a valid reason.

The best signs of spring that make me happy are online if you can believe it. They are the pictures from all the markets’ field farmers with greenhouses loaded with what will become their spring harvests and summer crops for the coming market season.  I’ve seen flats of spinach, Swiss chard, collards, and mustards. While sprouts have satisfied my need for greens during the bleak months of winter, but I can’t wait to shamelessly use a large bunch of kale in a pot of bean and sausage soup. For now I’ll have to stick to root vegetables.

Could it be that our always on/always available modern lifestyle is what has led to rampant unhappiness? You want strawberries? No big deal, just pick some up at the store even though they’ll be tasteless tiny sacks from Mexico. No, I’d rather wait in anticipation for those first juicy local fruits packed with fresh-picked flavor that deliver unsurmountable joy, well, at least until blackberry season and then cherry season and then peach season.  Never have I seen anyone giddy over pairing hot house tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, but when those big colorful beauties show up there’s never enough mozzarella to go around. We need something to look forward to. Shopping at the farmers market and eating seasonally is the remedy.   For now those insulated coveralls are hanging on the hook ready for more chilly market mornings. As much as I’d like to give them a good washing and pack them up until next year, not quite yet.

Food Security

A few news stories caught my attention this week with food security showing up in the articles. As a farmer, it’s my job to stay up to date on what’s happening with my industry especially when it comes to disease outbreaks.

For the last two years thanks to the COVID19 pandemic, everyday folks have become up close and personal with what growers have had to deal with since the dawn of agriculture. Today, less that 2% of the population in the United States are farmers. Out of that pool less than 2% are involved in organic/sustainable/regenerative agriculture that direct markets what they grow. That means that 98% of the rest of the world has little idea about how their food is raised, where it comes from and how it is kept safe from being decimated by disease.  

The big one is the most recent outbreak of bird flu in the U.S. A., one outbreak being reported in Virginia. Considering most migratory fowl is now moving from the south to the north, this bit of news put a blip on my radar. When most people read the words bird flu (also swine flu, dog flu, horse flu) 98% tends to anthropomorphize their own experience with human flu—you get miserable sick and sometimes die. The other 2% understand that their livelihoods can be wiped out before their very eyes and they have absolutely zero control over the situation. Let me explain.

In America, we have a government agency called the United States Department of Agriculture that governs our food system. It is comprised of a vast network of agencies, including the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that surveil farming and food production to protect national food security which includes livestock health and any threats to national economic viability.

I’ve joked among my fellow farmers that if APHIS would have been in charge of the COVID19 response, it would have been wiped out a lot sooner. They never laugh because they know how disease outbreaks in our food system are controlled. It’s not pretty, especially when the disease is zootonic, meaning it can pass between humans and animals. And if it has the capacity to cause economic devastation, there will be no mercy.  Forget about the tyranny of having to wear masks, anti-vaxxers, or 5G conspiracy theorists. No one would be self-medicating with livestock de-wormer. There would be no legal challenges hinging on a right or left leaning court. Infected individuals and those in proximity would be removed, period.

Protecting America’s food supply and economy from highly contagious infectious diseases is controlled by depopulation. Yes, that’s a very ugly work and means exactly what you think it does. And it happens much more often than the 98% realizes.

When APHIS comes calling there are no personal property rights or privacy. If disease is found it isn’t only the sick that is removed and destroyed, but every individual of that species with a specific radius. It doesn’t matter if it’s dozens of chicken barns each housing up to 20,000 birds or a few fancy backyard chooks for the kids, everything in an identified disease management zone gets destroyed and removed.

It’s not just livestock producers who can get caught up in disease mitigation. In 2000 during the Plum Pox outbreak that affected much of the growing area for our local markets local inspectors tromped into my parents’ backyard in a residential neighborhood to inspect their two flowering cherry trees which were susceptible to disease. Due to the capacity to cause severe economic damages to the region’s commercial fruit production, my parents had no say in the matter. They were still a few miles outside of the eradication zone, but the inspector wanted to identify all stone fruit trees in case the borders expanded. My parents were mortified at the prospect of losing their stunningly beautiful trees. Over the mountain in Adams county entire orchards were being uprooted and burned. It was illegal to purchase and plant new stone fruit trees within a disease zone. This is how I ended up raising livestock instead of planting a peach and cherry orchard as my original farm business plan entailed.

It’s not just in the United States such unforgiving practices are utilized when it comes to controlling infectious diseases in the name of food security and economic stability.

I have fellow farming friends throughout the world thanks to the Internet. Last week one of my dairy pals from Wales was extremely upset 51 of her milk cows tested positive for Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB), a highly infectious zootonic disease that can spread between cows and humans. Cows who test positive are automatically removed from the farm and destroyed. Before the 1950’s when antibiotics were discovered to treat tuberculosis in humans, those diagnosed with TB were often forced into sanatoriums by public health officials with stays averaging six to nine months. And people today howl indignantly about quarantining at home after being exposed to or testing positive for COVID19.

You know what happened to pigs throughout Asia when they go swine flu? They didn’t binge watch Netflix series and sip warm TheraFlu; they were depopulated. And no, you can’t eat the meat of infected animals. Between 2019 and 2021 Asia lost two thirds of their pigs to disease making pork scarce and costly.

If you’ve crossed international and state borders one of the most frequently asked questions is Are you carrying any fruits, vegetables, live plants, meat, or dairy items? I drove across the country with a horse, two dogs and a cat. Not once was I asked to see their health papers, but at the Arizona border I had my oranges confiscated to reduce the spread of citrus canker, a bacterial infection spread by the movement of fruit and wood. In the last year Customs and Border Patrols’ (CBP) issued 1,049 Emergency Action Notifications for unmanifested/prohibited animal products coming from countries with active diseases and infections in agricultural products. They were the ones who were threatened in Mexico over inspecting avocado imports which has now led to the recent ban on Mexican avocados jeopardizing your avocado toast and guacamole.

You know what secures most of the livestock supply today? Vaccines. Without them modern commercial agriculture would not be possible and food would be much more expensive. The eradication of viruses takes years to accomplish and only through stringent public health protocols under which there are no exemptions. Even then, 100% containment may not be possible due to the reservoir in the wild.

Speaking of which, last week Penn State University released research on growing COVID19 infections within Whitetail deer populations. A Washington State University zootonic disease researcher was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “That could be a big problem for food production stability.”

So far we’ve been dealing with blips in the food supply due to processing, transportation, and workers getting the products on shelves which means the human factor has been the weak link. However, we often fail to consider food security at the very source—the plants and animals themselves.

So the next time you feel a bit cranky over having to wear a mask, quarantine, or flash your v-card, remember that it’s not just your health that is at risk, but your food supply. COVID19 has been a wake-up call for the 98% as to what your farmers must deal with on a daily basis.

True Love

Last year the holiday of hearts happened on a Sunday. There was a collective suffering from a year of pandemic life, social distancing, and lock downs. Vaccines were only starting to be administered. Restaurants were at limited capacity, if not outright shuttered. Love was not in the air.

One of the wisest challenges ever put forth to me was to do something nice for others when I felt low. It had been a year of struggle across the board. Friends and family members had succumbed to COVID-19. I worried about elderly and immunocompromised parents, neighbors, and customers. Everywhere people were demanding, irritable, short-tempered, and frustrated.

Over the years I’ve come to accept the lack of cards, candy, flowers, baubles, and romance on February 14th, but last year my inner malaise went far beyond agrarian solitude. Physically and emotionally I hurt. Worse, I was out of colorful paper needed to print out my weekly market signs. So far into a case of the blahs I considered using plain white paper because that’s how I felt, devoid of all color.

Ordering online for a curbside pickup, once again I was reminded about Valentine’s Day with a popup banner interrupting my navigation to the office supply section. BOGO ALL CHOCOLATE it read. The first thought was to drown my sorrows in a few bags of heart-shaped Hershey’s, but back at the farm a new idea took shape. Instead of me not being someone’s Valentine, I was going to make all my customers my Valentine.

A few minutes at the computer and an evening spent cutting out bright pink hearts with a corny poem as I listen to Barry White while sipping wine by the fire put me in the mood for what I was about to do. I’d slipped an assortment of things into patrons’ egg cartons previously—birthday wishes, invitations to coffee, colorful feathers, and Hanukkah gelt. While the gestures began as something for them, it created immeasurable joy for me, too.

I was done wallowing in self-pity and was going to own Valentine’s Day. Packing for market I placed pink hearts and festive chocolates in my customers’ orders and went to bed with a warm feeling of satisfaction.

Farming is a true love, a passion. Talk to any of your farmers and not a single one will tell you they’re in it for the money, the benefits, prestige, or a flexible schedule. We work 24/7/365. There aren’t many holidays that offer a day off from our chores. Just ask the farmers who showed up at market on December 26th and January 2nd. The farms and our customers are our priorities putting loved ones into third place at times. Try scheduling a date with a normal person when your work week is Friday through Monday.  For that very reason this year’s Valentine’s Day will also be moot.

So if your struggling over your loneliness this weekend, do something special for someone else. Trust me, it will make you a believer in the power of true love.

More Winter

The groundhog died. No kidding. Not the Pennsylvanian prognosticator, but the one from Jersey. Betty White dies right before her 100th birthday and the day before February 2nd, this whistle pig says, Hold my beer. 2022 seems to be shaping up to be the year of thick irony.

Tears ran down my face in laughter as I read in the news outlets that a suitable replacement could not be found in time. We’ve become such an on-demand society that reporters made it seem like it was Amazon’s fault one could not order a fresh, live one in time, much like having live lobsters delivered overnight to your doorstep.

For most folks, the only live groundhog they’ll ever see will be the one in news stories online or in print; one who is held aloft by a top-hatted, black-gloved member of a secretive men’s organization much like the Masons or Skull & Bones. Let me tell you that groundhogs are not the docile, cuddly looking critters Mr. Tophat would have you believe.

First, if you ever grabbed a wild one without thick gloves complete with long, suede gauntlets covering your forearm, you’d end up with a set of nasty scratches. It takes a mattock and serious sweat to dig even the smallest of hole in the shale soil out in the fields, but with their mighty forearms and long claws they effortless excavate warrens deep enough to swallow tires on farm equipment.  If you don’t let go from the scratching, you’ll get bitten. Teeth on a groundhog are referred to as tusks. Tusks tend to be sharp, pointed, and able to inflict lots of damage. And that’s if you can catch one. Despite being a fireplug of muscle and fur, woodchucks are fast. Faster than racoons, opossums, skunks, and porcupines, they’ll scurry back to their burrows at the slightest sound or movement, especially an opening door or window and clicking off the safety on a rifle.

Groundhogs aren’t necessarily something that is routinely kept as a pet or bred in captivity either.  Over the years I’ve known plenty of wildlife rehabilitators and environmental programs who keep assorted wildlife for demonstration purposes, but I’ve never met any who had a tame groundhog. That should tell you something right there. This must mean that the Inner Circle who houses and cares for Punxsutawney Phil must handle their groundhog pups (also called kits or chucklings) from an early age. Gestation for a groundhog is only 30 days, but they are born much like other rodents—hairless and blind. They must have fun meetings where everyone passes around the baby groundhogs for cuddling.

 I’d also like to see the enclosure where Phil & his phamily reside. Groundhogs are notorious for pushing their way through woven wire fence, burrowing deep under walls, gnawing their way through wood, and even going through electrified netting if caught inside.

Groundhog Day is strictly an American tradition. Each year at the market after that overweight squirrel makes his (actually it’s a her) prediction, at least one international customers asks What’s up with this groundhog thing? I give them the traditional reason, being that if the groundhog sees his shadow we’ve got six more weeks of winter as well as the scientific reason, male groundhogs are coming out of their burrows to visit the ladies.

Groundhogs are a true hibernating animal. They don’t technically sleep the entire time, but instead go into a state of torpor where they do not eat or drink. When groundhogs emerge from their burrows it means the days are getting longer and the ground is warming from longer days. Males are always the first to emerge with females following about a month behind coming out for a good meal or two before giving birth.

“So it’s not a real thing?” they’ll ask after given the explanation.

Nope, it’s just another marketing schtick to get people to visit small towns who keep groundhogs for predicting spring. Afterall, Phil once flew to Chicago to be on Oprah for Groundhog Day. I’ll stick with the real signs of spring when the animals start shedding out their winter coats and the pastures begin to turn green. I suggest if they really want to see a true sign of spring to wait for the cherry blossoms which are much prettier than Phil. By the way, my groundhogs didn’t bother to come out and tell me if spring will be early or late this year, but the livestock are starting to shed their winter coats which means spring is on the way.

Kiss My Grits

Growing up north of the Mason-Dixon Line, grits were not something I encountered until I was an adult. Just the name conjured up the idea of a mouthful of sand at summer vacations at the shore. As distasteful as the thought, my first real experience with the southern staple wasn’t much better.

Working on a crew made up coworkers from the Gulf Coast (including the cafeteria staff), I queued up for breakfast our first morning on the jobsite. It had been a bone -chilling shift, kind of like how one would feel after standing out at a winter farmers market in January. Miserably, I shuffled through the line and welcomed what I thought was Cream of Wheat, the breakfast of my childhood winters. Everyone stared in horror as I loaded the mushy substance in my bowl with brown sugar, cream, and raisins, but the horror was all mine as I took that first and last bite as everyone else at the table burst into laughter.

No more grits for me.

Prior to the Age of the Internet to prove me wrong, I argued that the fancy polenta chubs laced with sundried tomatoes, basil, and garlic I bought at European grocer was not Italian grits. The illusion pushed away the visceral disgust I felt every single time I heard the word grits.

Occasionally I would meet up with a fellow farmer who graciously delivered my products to a restaurant in DC that we both serviced. We’d meet up for the exchange at a Waffle House just over the Maryland border and every single time he’d order a side of grits. Nope, just couldn’t do it.

But one Sunday at market a beloved customer showed up and offered me half of his cheesy grits, a racquetball-sized deep fried mass of grits and cheddar with a spicy sauce drizzled atop. {Note: do not look for this item at market because the vendor has given up her food truck in lieu of being an awesome mom to two kids} He had been so kind to me during a most difficult time and I did not want to appear ungrateful so I accepted his offer preparing to choke down half of his order. It didn’t look to be that much.

Call it an epiphany, a redemption. All I know is at that moment I was hooked. Every week after that I had a standing order for cheesy grits on Sunday morning for breakfast.

Despite my adventuresome spirit when it comes to cooking, I’d never attempted to make cheesy grits for myself.  Cooking for one is not conducive to anything requiring a deep fryer. For that matter, I’d never cooked grits, period.

But last Sunday as I chatted with the fishmonger while he bagged up the lobsters for my mom’s 80th birthday dinner he pointed to the new vendor across the way, Migrash Farm—a Maryland farm and stone grist mill—and wondered if they had any grits left. Before he could hand over the crustaceans I headed across the isle and procured myself a bag of grits. After chatting with the farmer he said, “Remember, four to one,” meaning liquid to grits. “The first time, just cook with water to experience the nuanced flavor of the corn,” he suggested.

I’m not going to lie; I didn’t listen to him. I still used the ratio of grits to liquid, but how could I pass up rich homemade stock, mixed mushrooms, and green garlic—all delights from the farm and the market? I stirred until the mixture bubbled and spat and then let it sat for a few minutes before spooning into a bowl, stirring in fresh mozzarella, and drizzling with this year’s bottle of olio nuevo. I wished my old crew could see me now, but they’d probably still laugh at the way I prepared my grits.

Migrash Farm will be at alternating dates at Bethesda Central Farm Market. In addition to grits, they also grow and mill a variety of grains for assorted flours.


Are we living in some cosmic meme like the chess players in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension? First, a global pandemic chest-thumps at the speed it has spread across the Earth and then a volcano in Tonga says, “Hold my beer.”

Weather stations around the world recorded the increased atmospheric pressure within hours of an explosion that was 500 times more powerful the worst nuclear weapon ever used by humans. Puny humans.

While we can’t reliably predict the future, existence as we know it follows a certain path of effect. A day, a season, gestation, decomposition, to name a few. As humans, we’ve come to take so much for granted, especially our food system. For many, unfettered access to food is as much a given as the sun rising each day…until it isn’t.

Just like the expected tsunami along western coasts, the food system is experiencing shockwaves from COVID19, some locales worse than others.

Everywhere I turn there’s woes about supply chain issues. It’s become like an obnoxious car alarm that continues to shriek. Oh please, will someone just press the damn button and turn it off!  That’s easy to say until it’s your car’s alarm and it’s being stolen. Folks tend to ignore what doesn’t directly impact them. That attitude has been pervasive when it comes to the food system.

There have been warning about supply chain gridlock and food shortages since March 2020. I can vividly recall getting a text from a fellow vendor asking if they thought anyone would show up to market given the impending lockdowns. I was sitting in a shopping center parking lot waiting for my Target curbside pickup, something I’d been doing prior to the pandemic in an effort to save time. It was my annual stock-up trip for things like paper goods, cleaning supplies, and household staples. A Thursday afternoon in March looked more like Black Friday with nary a parking spot to be had. Idling vehicles lined up in the fire lane. Shopping carts were stacked. Take as much as you possibly can, was my response to my fellow farmer. The girl who brought my order to the van apologized for the delay because people kept trying to swipe the toilet paper and Clorox wipes out of my order as she wheeled it through the store.

As soon as the weatherman says, snowstorm everyone runs for bread, milk, and toilet paper so much, it empties the isles of grocery stores within hours for an event that will only last for days, a week to dig out from the big ones.

This is how we’ve treated the impacts on our food supply over the last few years, taking for granted the overall stability in our access to what we want.

For weeks there have been reports of food shortages in major grocery store chains citing not enough workers, trucking issues, COVID outbreaks, and every excuse that would stick to the wall. Images showed up in social media feeds and were reported by major news organizations. Could these images be legit or is it click bait, I wondered.

Maybe it’s because I make my living from the food system that I pay close attention to what amounts to the tsunami warnings many have been ignoring as much as they did over a new novel virus were two years ago with an I’ll believe it when I see it attitude.

Well, I’ve seen it.

Last week when I popped into the local independently-owned grocery store to pick up a few things I noticed several cars with Maryland license plates. It was easy to figure out who the out-of-staters were. Their carts were piled high and they were wearing masks. The meat case was more picked over than usual, the frozen food cases had gaping holes between less appealing items, and I’d never seen the produce department so sparse. The item limits per customer signs that had been removed months ago went back up; only two 4-packs of toilet paper per customer.

Knowing that temperatures would hover below freezing for all of Sunday market I was tempted to pack light, but the scene from the local store earlier in the week nagged at the back of my mind. Afterall, there had been winter storm predictions. Was I being paranoid?  Would customers be buying food for the storm or for storing? I’d see for myself when I made my normal pit stop at a large grocery chain just after exiting the freeway.

Just like the images online and in the news most of the perishables were absent. Shoppers stood dumbstruck as they surveyed the shelves while contemplating their next move. Oh boy, there’s going to be a tidal wave today, I thought as got in the van for the final few miles to market.

At market, the crowds looked more like it was a 70 degree day a weekend prior to a major holiday. Shoppers crowded the isles, stood in lines stamping their feet to stay warm, and clutching baskets and bags full of what they could not get at their local heated indoor grocery store. There were lots of new customers, not just those opting for the farmers market instead of a grocery store, but people who had never shopped at a farmers market before, ones who knew absolutely nothing about seasonality. One shopper asked for peaches and when handed a jar replied, No, I want fresh ones.  

There are many reasons why consumers patronize farmers markets—access to fresh, local foods, support for regional agriculture, buy-in on eco-friendly farming practices, but supply chain security—that’s the latest and rapidly becoming the most critical of all. In many cases, your farmers are the employees, the trucker, and the clerk all rolled into one. Yes, many of us struggle with labor, transportation, distribution, but we still manage to get to market. So get ready for a new influx of market customers in the coming weeks, if not months (we love new customers!) while the commercial supply chain restocks the grocery shelves.