Picnic Time

How about the gorgeous fall weather we’re having! Sunny and in the mid-70s along with all the brilliant autumn colors. The oranges, golds, reds, and browns combined with the greens make for the perfect palette to get outside and enjoy it while we can. Daylight Savings will rob us of our evening hour of sunlight on November 1st.  We have less than two weeks to revel in the waning afternoon sunshine.

The last seven months have been interesting for all of us, to say the least, but as we head towards winter I’m hearing angst from even my cheeriest of customers.

What are we going to do when winter comes?

Well, winter isn’t here yet and like they say in the 70’s sitcom, a Merle Haggard tune and the sobriety manta—one day at a time—and today, that means picnic time. You know what’s great about fall picnics besides colorful scenery and weather that won’t turn your potato salad into a pathogenic soup? No bugs. The cool nights and a few frosts have eased up on the creepy crawlies to the point where sitting in the grass on a blanket isn’t a battle against the flies and ants. Sure, an occasional cricket may visit, but no more swatting at yellow jackets and worrying if there is an Epi Pen in the glove compartment.

The itch to get outside and go somewhere is worse than bad case of poison ivy. We’re so desperate for normalcy that we are literally eating in the streets. I know restaurants are having a tough time right now, but there’s nothing wrong about ordering take-out and going into the Great Outdoors to dine. We miss having meals with our friends, dipping our bread in the communal bowl of olive oil, sharing a table full of mezze, and forget having a piece of birthday cake after someone has blown out the candles.

But it’s ok to make a few adjustments that will still keep you in line with CDC recommendations. Picnics with friends outdoors are a wonderful way to fill your social needs tank, only your dining companions will have to have their own picnic blanket six feet away. Even better than sitting on the ground, most standard picnic tables found at parks are eight feet long—two whole feet longer than guidelines suggest!

For everyone shopping at the farmers market, right now there is an amazing assortment of foods perfect for picnicking. There are the standards– breads, cheeses, fruits, salamis, and pastries. Want something sweet that is easy to carry in a basket or backpack, try a chocolate bar, although an apple would be a healthier choice. Ciders are showing up with the advent of fall. Fill a thermos with a hot mulled cider for chillier weather. And speaking of thermoses…soups can make a quick and simple socially distanced picnic in no time. I may live alone, but I know I have enough single serving insulated containers that I’ve accrued over the years to have a party for six. While re-usable containers are more environmentally correct, at this time it’s more sanitary to use disposable and pop them in the trash when done. The plus side—no dishes to clean up.

While we want our dining experiences to be over the top, sumptuous and memorable, a simple picnic in a local green space or taking a drive to a state or national park can feed the soul as much as our tummies. There are numerous places within an hour of our homes that we might not even consider had the pandemic not happened. With Halloween just around the corner, try taking a walk and having a picnic in a cemetery. Sounds morbid, right? You’d be surprised at how beautiful many historic cemeteries are. Earlier this summer I met a friend at Gettysburg where we not only had a quiet place for a delightful visit, there were lovely carved granite benches under a flowering ornamental tree with not a living soul in sight except us. And it wasn’t even Halloween!

Picnics can be over the top if you put them in a backpack and head up a trail. Throughout the region there are many great hikes with expansive overlooks from mountain top rock outcrops. Once when I was trying to find my way home from market after an accident turned I-70 into a parking lot I stumbled upon Lake Linganore where I stopped and had my own little picnic with goodies from market at a lakeside picnic table. I wish I would have noted the GPS coordinates as it was a amazing spot.

We have been so caught up in the frustrations of what we can’t do that we don’t often consider what we can do and right now is the time when we are still able to have a picnic.

COVID-19 Screwed Up My Vacation

This was supposed to be my big week off, a vacation all my own to go where I wanted, see who I wanted, and do what I wanted. It’s the one non-holiday, non-inclement weather off-week I get a year that I can plan for. The Sunday after Thanksgiving is a given, but better paid professionals snatch up those premium slots at resorts, workshops, Air B&Bs, and adventures on one of the week-long celebrated holidays of the year.

This was the year to do something completely out of the ordinary and totally for fun. I’d promised myself. I’d saved for it. No one would be having babies. The meat birds would all be gone.

But damn you Corona Virus, because the Bethesda Arts Festival has been cancelled this year, market will be open on that weird date of the third Sunday in October when normally we’re closed. Some vendors love hanging out with their families that day, going to local fall festivals, sleeping in, catching up on projects that require several uninterrupted hours, and yes, escaping for a few days.

This year the stars were aligning for a real retreat until the pandemic threw a wrench in the works.

No cross-country skiing in the Tetons, no surf yoga camp for girls in Costa Rica, no weaving school in New Mexico, no visiting friends in California, Washington State, Maine, or Connecticut. Even a trip to the Azores was on the table. I seriously considered writing each choice on a piece of paper, pulling randomly out of a bag, and going with whatever fate decided.

Covid19 has already killed off John Prine at Wolf Trap, a local weaving workshop, a trip to New Hampshire for my sister’s 50th birthday, and Mom’s biennial quilt show. The last time anyone visited me on the farm was Christmas. I have neither attended nor entertained socially distanced cocktail hours or dinner parties. My last night out was Samson and Delilah at the National Opera a few nights before the rest of 2020 was canceled. 

Just go ahead and take that Sunday off, I was advised.

But no.

I can’t do that when I know there are people who would be standing in line for access to local foods during these challenging times. And I’ve got to hand it to how amazingly supportive Central Farm Market patrons have been. I tried taking the week off after that first Sunday of panic buying in March only to wake up to a phone full of worried messages, most asking Are you OK? No matter how far in advance or how many times I announce I’ll be missing a market, someone always calls to see if I’m sick or broken down along the freeway. Despite the interruption, it still warms my heart how much customers and fellow vendors care.

From the start of the pandemic, I realized that the cancellation of all things didn’t mean I had to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs. In truth, my project and entertainment list is now longer as I’ve taken on an assortment of my own art projects, classes and events that would otherwise require traveling.

I’ve started taking weaving classes from instructors in California and Australia, studying Art History with professors from Ivy League schools and lessons in Bhangra dancing from a Punjabi who lives in the Canadian Yukon. Zoom isn’t so awful as it’s allowed me to attend annual meetings and memorial services without driving out of state. This weekend I’ll get to go to a Facebook Live wedding I may not have been able to attend in person. At this point, I haven’t sprung for a virtual wine or cheese tasting where everything is sent ahead of time, but I haven noticed the quality of my own culinary indulgences creeping upward—wild Alaskan Keta Ikura, joining a local hard cider club instead of occasionally picking up one or two bottles, and cooking over-the-top meals despite having no dining companions. Unfortunately, the frequency of these indulgences my waistline is also increasing, which is now being referred to as COVID 25.

There are bound to be countless more disappointments in the coming year. The silver lining–cancelations offer opportunities to try something new. Instead of wasting energy trying to recapture the lost, channel that same effort into that which you’ve always wanted to do. If you can’t come up with an idea, consider doing something nice for someone else. As a farmer, I can attest that we are at the mercy of the microbes. Playing by their rules is the only way we’re going to get through the pandemic.

Again, as a reminder, there will be a Bethesda market this Sunday due to the cancellation of the annual arts festival. With the increased flow of creativity thanks to COVID-19, maybe when the arts festival resumes, I’ll still trek down to the city, only this time as an artist instead of a farmer.

It’s Apple Season

Thanks to advanced storage technologies, we can pretty much have access to apples year-round, but the advent of crisp fall air brings out a want of all things apple for me. Forget pumpkin spiced everything. As Grandma told me when I was young, “Applesauce runs through our veins.”

During a heated argument with a co-worker over evolution, my father was asked if he honestly believed that his ancestors lived in trees. Without missing a beat Dad shot back, “I know they did. My family were apple pickers from Adams County.”

I was an adult before I realized that my parents stored bushels of apples in their bedroom because it was the coolest and darkest room in the house—not to keep their three kids from eating all of them.

This was the time of year that when Dad would go fishing, he’d also come home with apples—a true hunter/gatherer. No one ever left my parents’ home without a bag of apples.

We tend to think of fruit as ubiquitous throughout the country, even the world, as transportation can ship what we want, when we want, to where we want practically overnight. When in season, I can order my beloved blood oranges and pixie tangerines from my former neighbors in Ojai. Like the citrus, fruits tend to taste better when the come from the environment for which they are best suited. Here in the east, the apple basket is in southcentral Pennsylvania, with Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, and York counties harvesting between 10 and 12 million bushels annually.

There’s a reason that Adams County is home to the National Apple Museum and the National Apple Harvest Festival, which was sadly, cancelled for the first time in 56 years due to the pandemic. Even the Biglerville High School sport teams’ tip their hats to the local industry, calling themselves the Canners.

Being an apple grower once meant selling to the processing plants like Musselman’s, Mott’s and Knouse Foods (the largest fruit processor in the nation) and/or having a little roadside stand. But over the years, many of the local orchards have evolved to maintain a legacy. Some have diversified with an assortment of fresh vegetables as well, growing their roadside stands into larger venues. Others host pick-your-own and agritainment events. With the rise of metropolitan markets, orchardists headed into the cities with their goods, many developing loyal followers due to the variety and quality of fruits and vegetables offered that were not normally found in commercial grocery stores. When was the last time you saw fresh quinces, currants, or gooseberries in the produce section?

While apple cider and apple butter reigned as the value-added products for producers, it wasn’t long before they caught on to the idea that they, too, could have their fruits canned to sell during the off-season months. Additional innovative and tasty offerings appeared like BBQ sauces, ready-made pie fillings and premium products made from a single varietal of fruit.

Over the last several years apple farmers have begun upping their game to the next level with world class regional hard ciders, brandies, and distilled spirits. You’ll find libations such as these at Central Farm Markets with seasonal vendors like Distillery Lane Ciderworks from Jefferson, Maryland who will back at the Bethesda location on November 1st. When I picked up a bottle of their Witches Brew Sparkling Apple and Aronia Berry Wine (cider), I was pleased to hear that all proceeds from the sales of that particular variety would be donated to the Maryland Food Bank.

While all this talk about apples conjures up images of pies, cakes, fritters, caramel and candied apples, there’s a savory side to this versatile fruit. One of my favorite recipe ideas for autumn braised roasts is using apple cider as the liquid with a sliced apple or two tossed in along with the meat and vegetables. If you’re not inclined toward meat, try adding apples and cider to hearty squash soups. There are so many ways to prepare and store apples, including with the latest kitchen gadget, an air fryer! I’ll stick with my trusty Excalibur dehydrator and Italian food mill to put up the harvest. But the best way to enjoy a fresh local apple from the farmers market is to bite right into it.

Good Ideas Don’t Always Work

It lasted a whole two weeks before meltdowns from both vendors and patrons caused the market management to toss up their hands in frustration and abandon the online ordering system for curbside service through the Local Food Marketplace. It sounded like a great idea, but sometimes reality fails to precipitate positive results.

It’s understandable that the pandemic has everyone’s last nerve dangling and we’re all stepping on each other like a polka dancer with two left feet. We want things to get back to normal. We want things to work easily. A little annoyance, ok. Months of constant change on a near weekly basis

As a farmer, I completely understand when things don’t work out as planned, especially those things out of my control. A freak Mothers’ Day frost that kills all the heirloom tomato starts planted from seed, the remnants of a hurricane that took off the barn roof, the cat that eats a dozen turkey poults, when two thirds of the baby goats born die from viral pneumonia, when a market doesn’t work out or closes, or when a processor shuts down or screws up so badly they lose my business—you get the idea.

What I have struggled with the most during the pandemic are bright ideas that turn out to be nightmares. I accepted the reality of more work with the logistics of serving my customers, increased costs of doing business and additional time in the office managing online ordering systems. I’ve always had an informal pre-ordering system for my regular customers, but with the advent of COVID19, the Square site had to be solidified into more than just a place for expats to score dog treats.

It wasn’t just me. Many fellow vendors ramped up existing online sales, others either spent the time themselves or paid to have an online pre-ordering site up and running by the middle of March. The market itself was pivoting for multiple ways for zero-contact service. The concierge service morphed into curbside. The Farm to Fridge delivery service was created.

Along the way, each vendor encountered logistical challenges, met in a way with which they felt best for their business. At the same time the rest of the world was changing along similar lines. Most stores spun up their own online ordering systems and curbside services. It’s easy to drive from Target to Giant to Tractor Supply gathering up orders with a simple press of the van’s automatic tailgate. Why shouldn’t market customers have the same level of service? However, the functionality of a single site for the market versus customers ordering from individual vendors took time to evolve and during this time most of the farmers stabilized their original chaos into a system they and their customers could live with. Being the individuals we are, albeit operating under the umbrella of Central Farm Markets, everyone had a different way for reaching their customers, ordering ahead and getting products into the customers’ hands.

I totally understand why customers would want an Amazon-like experience that puts all of the vendors on one site for ordering, but none of us are Amazon. We don’t have massive warehouses full of inventory that an army of laborers pull from 24/4 to be passed off to others for delivery.

The Farm to Fridge delivery service matured over the months with the overhaul of the markets’ website and the migration to a profession application, The Local Foods Marketplace, which to its credit, has been around since 2009. To be honest, it was a joy to be able to manage products and inventory through the system myself instead of having to remember if I sent off an email adjusting available inventory before 9 AM on Monday morning.

Not all the vendors at the market wanted to participate in the Farm to Fridge service, each for their own valid reasons. Some vendors tried, only to find that the added logistics of picking and packing individual orders for both the market and delivery overwhelming, others sold too much leaving limited inventory for those who continued to physically patronize the markets. Some chose to only sell via pre-orders and others created their own delivery services. Some even chose to forgo any sort of preordering service altogether. Most of us muddled on in ways that settled into a comfortable pattern of delivery, curbside and in-person shopping that we could handle.

After a few months, however, needs grew into wants. I saw how customers used the convenience of delivery some weeks and at other times reverting to curbside or pre-ordering directly from vendors when specific items were either unavailable or sold out through the delivery service.  “I forgot to order,” became a regular message through text, voice mail and email, especially from regulars who had been customers through thick and thin for years. How could we say no?

With the growing popularity of curbside services, it became apparent that was becoming the way for regulars to shop. It seemed only natural to migrate to an all-in-one site for curbside service, right?

Let me explain that an all-in-one system is like an iceberg—patrons only see the tip above the surface. That’s about as far as the analogy goes. Below the surface are layers of moving parts, in the market’s case, over sixty different vendors each with dozens of items. The idea of getting everyone to participate in a single online interface was a utopian idea. Those who chose to do so rapidly understood the ramifications of letting go of the customer-farmer relationship we’ve worked diligently over the years to build.

Needless to say, it did not go as planned and unfortunately, the market’s management got caught in the middle. Customers were upset that their regular items were not available through the new curbside system. Vendors were upset that participating in the curbside program created more office logistics and inventory management. Even I will admit to a Saturday afternoon melt-down text to staff when I realized the pick labels had no distinction between delivery and curbside customers sending me back into my office in the middle of packing to figure out who got what.

It was at that moment I realized I was now managing five different product fulfillment streams and inventories instead of two. Finding myself in tears on a Saturday night overwhelmed with the prospect of too many moving parts is not a place where I wanted to be. The following day I learned I was far from alone.

While the new curbside system may have sounded like a great plan, too many of us were left exasperated with the feeling of I just can’t do this.

As I have said, we’re not Amazon. The vendors have spent years developing relationships with patrons over which we’ve all become protective for an assortment of reasons. Poaching customers has always been frowned upon in the farmers market community, but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. I have weekly customers who have followed me throughout the assorted markets I’ve attended in the city over the years before settling down with Central Farm Markets and I wanted them to have access to their food more so than an anonymous person shopping with the system.

Similarly, the management of the market is struggling to figure out how to keep sustainability in our services. Growth of the curbside services has required the addition of more paid market staff. Thus far there has been no cost to either the patrons or the vendors, but the market alone can not absorb all the costs in the long term. Farmers are already struggling with the choice to raise prices with the additional expenses associated with COVID-19.

These issues are difficult to discuss amid chaotic times, but as farmers, we’re used to picking ourselves up and moving on when something fails to work out. From a variety of tomato that doesn’t produce well to a breed of chicken that don’t lay as many eggs as the others, we learn, adapt, try something new, and go back to what works. I don’t want to label the curbside ordering through the Local Foods Marketplace as a failure because it’s a well-designed application that works great for the Farm to Fridge Delivery service. It just didn’t work out for everything and that’s OK.

I want to thank everyone who gave it a go—customers, vendors, management. We all tried. That doesn’t mean we can’t try again in the future with different circumstances, but for now we’re going to shelve the one-stop shopping online for curbside service.

When Life Imitates Art

Several years ago I was gifted with what has become a cherished piece of art. After hearing about the tribulations I was experiencing with a neighbor across the street, the original drawing of the Free Range Chicken offered a small respite from the constant harassment from a residential homeowner who should have never moved into an agricultural neighborhood.

It’s the same story over and over. City folks want to escape to the bucolic hamlets with farms making up the majority of the landscape, quaint ranchers dotting an acre or two here and there. The only problem is often reality is not to their liking.

Functioning farms on which people derive most, if not all of their income are a far cry from the manicured and matching spreads seen in the likes of Garden & Gun or Modern Farmer magazines. Even the most immaculate farms have bone piles of old equipment for spare parts, compost piles or manure pits, and sometimes livestock, which can be loud and get loose. During busy harvest times, there is added traffic to sleepy back roads. A more recent contention between farming and non-farming neighbors is the addition of agritainment such as festivals, mazes, pick-your-own and event venues for weddings and such that might draw hundreds, even thousands of people. For some farmers, these have literally saved their multigeneration farms from bankruptcy and loss as prices of traditional commodity products like fluid milk and row crops (corn, soybeans, wheat) have remained stagnant while production costs rise. Even the uptick in traffic from customers patronizing a simple on-farm store can bring about law suits over zoning.

As large holdings get whittled down into smaller parcels interspersing residential homes with operational farms there is bound to be occasional contention. There are cows in heat whose amorous bellows echo at all hours, the crowing rooster who can’t tell the weekend from weekdays, cackling guinea hens, goats who break out to prune roses and wandering piggies who rototill gardens prematurely.

But in all my years of farming, the most grief and aggravation came from a single laying hen who would cross the street every day and lay an egg under the ornamental Japanese Maple next to the front porch of the opposite the farm. It didn’t scratch up the bedding plants or leave deposits on the doorstep; the little red chook just wanted to lay her egg somewhere different than the rest of the biddies.

You would think that as coveted as farm fresh eggs are my neighbor would have been elated, but no. She called the township and the state police on multiple occasions. My trivialization of it all served only to inflame. The drama elevated when she began driving from her garage out to her mailbox–fifty feet at most–to collect her mail because she feared the too free ranging chicken would peck out her eyes.

At first, this was an endless source of why did the chicken cross the road jokes in the neighborhood, but soon devolved into daily harassment. At one point, a state trooper suggested I should get rid of ALL my chickens just to restore the peace. I told him I’d give his name and telephone number to all of my egg customers so they could complain directly to him about his idea. Plus, I added that I was not charging her for the eggs which were in high demand.

No amount of amps in the electric netting or wing clipping could keep that hen on her side of the street. One day my neighbor’s shrieking became unbearable and I dispatched the offending clucker in a grand public display in the middle of the road and then went on to pluck it in the front yard for all to see before heading inside to get out the stew pot. Nothing was going to waste. Within a few hours, a Humane officer was knocking on the front door. She was promptly schooled in Right to Farm laws in the state and I offered her a dish of freshly made chicken soup.

The dream of having a nice little farm on the edge of suburbia had become a nightmare. My neighbors preferred shopping at Walmart. They even refused the farm fresh eggs I tried to give them citing their flavor too strong.

Since those days I’ve relocated to a more rural and secluded farm away from residential neighborhoods and honed my chicken wrangling skills. However, when a big storm took out one of my portable hoop coops for the meat birds this past summer I became quite lax, letting them roam the big hay fields during the day and then penning them up at night to keep them safe from nocturnal predators which are in abundance this time of year.

The meat birds quickly learned where my coop was and would congregate on the side porch pecking at the sliding glass door until I tossed them some feed. Before long, I was the one who was well trained. Each time I’d leave the house, I felt like the Pied Piper with my entourage in tow. When I drove in the lane, chickens would run at top speed from all directions, their wings spread out for balance like animated cartoon characters. I thought this is the life and openly laughed at my shenanigans despite having to power wash the chicken poo from the porch daily.

In last week’s Dishing the Dirt, I shared how difficult it was to procure a new stove from a local business, but that was only part of the story. Without big strapping deliverymen to carry the new stove into the house I was left to my own devices. Calling on neighbors to help was not an option so I took a good look around and gathered a handful of items that would make MacGyver proud. Using two canoe paddles, a plywood market sandwich board, some rope and one of my favorite tools—a come-along that I anchored to the couch ratcheted the unwieldy box out of the van, through the front door and into my living room. How’s that for chronic self-sufficiency!

The final step in the ordeal was to dispose of the old stove. Easier to move that the new stove in the box, I muscled it out to the front porch until I could make a run to the metal recycling center. It didn’t take long for the chickens to investigate. I could not resist getting out a fat tipped Sharpie and turning the scene into a reproduction of the drawing hanging on my wall. Now I can really say I have free range chickens!

The Payoff

Last week during a conversation with a few friends who also happen to own local small businesses I admitted to feeling guilty about all the positive changes that have taken place with my own business since the advent of COVID19. “I know what you mean,” they said as they, too, feel the same awkwardness when people apologize for the overall state of disruption due to the pandemic. With so many stories in the news about small businesses struggling under the weight of reduced capacity, supply chain interruption, shelter-in-place orders, and worker safety, now seven months into this pestilence what could have been the death knell for some businesses has turned into a blessing. The common denominator in many such cases is the adherence to the local paradigm.

There have been two distinct camps—the ones who are still screaming at the top of their lungs in anger and frustration about having to change and the ones who have taken a deep breath and said, “What do we need to do?” The popular term, I believe, is pivot.

Over the last several months I’ve witness many business owners making changes they could have never imagined such as restaurants and specialty shops turning into neighborhood bodegas because the grocery chain stores had empty shelves while perishable foods filled their walk-ins and shelves with nowhere to go. Even my local grain elevator started carrying milk and toilet paper!

But there is more than just changing your business model to reflect a new way to meet your customers’ needs. Just about every big box store and grocery chain now boasts online ordering and curbside service. Heck, yesterday I ordered a new stove online and picked it up via curbside at Lowe’s! Yes, they had free delivery, but that service was backed up over three weeks and I couldn’t see cooking off my propane camping burner that long. I tried the local independent appliance stores first, but both said the same thing—most appliances were back-ordered until late October, one even going so far to add he hadn’t seen such brisk sales in all the years he’d owned his store—42 years!

It finally dawned on me; people are starting to see the benefits of being a local small business. For over thirty years I have been banging on the local foods drum–from helping start regional producer markets to cold-calling chefs. When I look at the local businesses who let out a collective hell yeah, we’ve got this, they are all active participants within their communities. They are the first ones to hold fundraisers for others in need or causes affecting their workers, friends, and families. They reach out to others, often behind the scenes and seeking no attention for it. They sponsor local sports teams and purchase club projects from the local 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) groups. They make sure the local food banks and shelters are well-stocked. While a local restaurant’s dining room was empty due to the initial shut-down, they used the space to make lunches for low-income kids who might not otherwise get a meal because they were fed at school. Most importantly, they support other small businesses, helping each other in supportive ways instead of cutthroat competition. No where has this become more evident than in local food and beverage production.

The Cornucopia Institute once offered the measurable statistic that a dollar spent on local food multiplies ten times. That dollar goes even further when workers are able to live within the communities where they are employed.

Cultural geographers are predicting large migrations of people within the United States over the next five years due to many businesses requiring employees to work virtually and environmental factors such as fires and flooding. There’s a reason that retail chains have taken over the country with each shopping center a cookie cutter footprint designed to entice shoppers no matter from where they hail. But how many times have you walked into a large chain store where the checker (if there is one) knows you by name, questions when you’re forgetting a usual item, or alerts you to something special they know you’ll enjoy. Try forgetting your wallet. Chances are no one will say, “It’s ok, pay me next time.”

It is precisely that type of service, of localness, that is driving customers to support businesses in their communities like never before. When restaurants cautiously opened back up, some were faced with an unexpected throng of customers wanting to show their support through patronage. As one chef told me, “Our customers tell us they are coming here to spend money because they know we’ve been supporting local growers for years. It’s their way of showing how much they care.”

My guilt has been replaced with a sense of accomplishment as I see so many small businesses and customers coming together during times of crisis to help everyone get through as best we can. We are finally living up to the slogans on our bumper stickers, t-shirts and hats.

Big Systems

Last summer I did a continuing education course on Systems Thinking with a friend who works with NGOs, especially those involved with public food insecurity. For months, instead of spending hours listening to an audiobook while doing farm work or driving, I had latched on to the mental puzzle of all the moving parts of the food system as I knew it. The data set grew out of control with disparate pieces, all inter-related and interdependent. My notebooks have grown full of connections that bounce off each other like a vintage pinball game, lights flashing and bells ringing when ah-ha moments pass through a synapse and land on a bullseye.

I started having conversations about the complexity of it all with my mentors in their 70’s, 80’s and even a few in their 90’s—all of them actively farming in one way or another. They were the generation that pushed for protections at the federal and state levels, who created the Certified Organic programs, began regional farmers markets, and started food cooperatives. They were the first to recognize the benefits of alternative energies. They put their properties in agricultural conservation easements, some feeling so strongly about protecting the land that they did so without any compensation for future development rights.

There’s a quiet reserve in them, a peace in knowing that they’re doing their best to farm, to work, to feed others in a way that respects the environment, their communities, the farm workers, animals, watersheds, and wildlife. There is also a distinct shift, an understanding that all is not well in the grand scheme—the big systems are off kilter. One topic that keeps popping up over and over is the systemic dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and research centers at the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In the last three years many of the protections put in place since the 1970’s have either been rolled back or are currently in litigation to prevent their loosening. While I know these changes are taking place from what I read and peer discussions, more importantly, I am also hearing about them from my customers, namely the ones who have spent their entire careers at the agencies tasked with enforcement. They are devastated by what is happening.

With Systems structures, it becomes clear how laws and regulations that seemingly don’t have an impact on farming actually do. The Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Act protects healthy ecosystems. Without a healthy owl and hawk population, the rodents would take over the farm. On the citrus and avocado orchard where I lived for many years out west, the rancher had installed numerous owl nest boxes after the government outlawed his favorite rodenticide. Within the first year it was evident the owls did a much better job and cost much less. Ongoing proof of such practices can be seen today such as in the documentary, The Biggest Little Farm which was filmed in the same county.

Over 20,000 farm workers are poisoned each year when mixing and applying chemicals, yet the laws and regulations regarding the education and licensure for people to use such are being gutted. Furthermore, bans on agricultural chemicals that negatively affect pollinators and aquatic life are being curtailed. If bees disappear, so will over half of our fruits, nuts, and vegetables. And if you’re wondering how your farmers are affected by taking the legal teeth out of chemical drift, talk to some of your Certified Organic growers about the possibilities of pesticide drift from their conventional farming neighbors next door. There’s a reason some have invested an incredible amount of money in greenhouses, high tunnels and row covers to keep their crops safe. All it takes is one untrained idiot with a spray boom on a breezy day to destroy years of organic cultivation. Instead of the ability to seek recompense, they’ll only get sorry about your luck.

Almost seventy regulations have been reversed or revoked, including pollution controls on streams and wetlands, which was pushed for not only by drilling and mining lobbyists, but by farmers who considered it a win for them. Really?

You know what that meant for me? The conventional dairy farmer upstream is able to rip out the riparian buffer and plant corn and soybeans right up to the stream bank. He is able to let his cows wade into the stream, creating massive amounts of sediments and an overload of nutrients, eroding the bank, damaging the sycamores that shade the water keeping it cool enough to support a native trout population. In just a few years, the meandering creek down over the hill from my house no longer has trout. This year the clusters of frogs eggs I’ve seen each year were gone. That little stream is part of the bigger system of the Chesapeake Bay watershed who also is on the losing end of deregulation.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States and we are suffocating it with agricultural waste because we’re allowed to do so. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

These are the dominoes that are falling and soon the impacts will be felt in our national food supply. Record-breaking fires are currently burning out of control in California, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and Colorado. These states produce a heck of a lot of food. But you say, I get my food at the local farmers market. True, but as the pandemic has taught us, when the grocery stores’ shelves are empty, people turn to the farmers markets. I witnessed firsthand this past spring how panicked people become when there are blips in their supply chain.

It’s not all about agriculture. Most fishmongers today tout sustainable fisheries. Without regulations regarding catch limits, seasons, fishing waters, by-catch, and bans on equipment and practices that decimate catch populations to the brink of collapse, much of the seafood we enjoy today would disappear. Some already has.

An even bigger canary in the coal mine of humanity in the wake of the gutting of the EPA are the forever chemicals which are increasingly being found in our foods and our bodies. Dairies and feedlots both large and small, throughout the country are prevented from their goods entering the food stream because of toxic chemicals far exceeding what the EPA considers a healthy limit. We’ve got politicians squabbling over raw milk crossing state lines on one hand and on the other, ignoring the removal of monitoring, research, funding, and regulations to prevent this from further happening.

The number one issue to new and beginning farmers is access to land. Many are turning to remediated brown sites, plateaus formed by mountain top mining and tailing sites. Will they, too, spend a lifetime pouring their heart and soul into building soil, growing food, creating a business only to be told their goods are toxic and cannot be sold? Or by then will the regulations be nonexistent? We have been so caught up in minutia that we’ve quit examining the big picture with all its moving parts.

This afternoon I was reminded again of the Butterfly Effect—a theory that tiny events can translate into huge impacts-as I walked through the pasture filled with milkweed being eaten by Monarch butterfly caterpillars who will soon transform into a miraculous creatures and make a 3,000-mile migration to Mexico. Along the way, they will provide food for wasps, ants, birds, snakes, toads, rats, lizards, frogs, and spiders—all pieces of the system we call Earth. My government tells me it is perfectly ok to kill the milkweeds and caterpillars with chemicals. My heart tells me it is not.

Good Advice

Yes, I know…shop and move, but I’ve noticed lots of new faces over the last several months. In the few minutes it takes to conduct a transaction, plenty of information can be passed between patrons and vendors. Customers continue to question each other and comment on choices even while socially distanced.

New customers tend to stand out because they don’t know who has what and where everything is located. Each week I try to make loop around the market prior to the opening to take a quick inventory, noting new products just coming into season and mentally logging those which have passed.

The knowledge vendors share is often taken for granted by seasoned market shoppers who have learned to grill their producers for an assortment of information from agricultural practices to varieties that work best for certain recipes. They show up with totes, wagons, and bags ready to load up on groceries sans the ubiquitous carts found in grocery stores. A few weeks ago when it rained, the early birds placed their carts and bags in a queue at the entrance of the market and then retreated to their cars until opening time so they did not have to stand in the inclement weather.

However, I’m meeting folks who have never shopped at farmers markets, opting to give it a try for an assortment of reasons in the age of COVID19.

“I don’t want to go into a grocery store anymore. Outdoors is safer.”

“Delivery service is difficult and I don’t always get what I order.”

“I heard that masks are required and it is enforced.”

As we enter fall I’m certain they’ll start asking, When is this market over?” to which I’ll get to explain why farmers are able to produce and sell year-round, often much to their amazement.

So for all you market newbies out there, this week’s Dishing the Dirt is to get you up to speed and shopping like a market pro in no time.

  1. Be early. Unlike a grocery store, market vendors must back-haul anything they do not sell. Most farmers of highly perishable goods have been doing markets for years so they’ve got a fairly good idea of how much to bring. Showing up later in the day to avoid the line means you will miss out on coveted staples such as breads, dairy items, and eggs—these often sell out first. If you can’t be early, learn to pre-order. Pro-tip: pre-order your perishable staples and then pick up at your leisure while still perusing seasonal produce, prepared foods, flowers, and libations.

 

  1. Bring multiple bags. You can always spot a seasoned shopper with numerous bags slung over each shoulder. At least one bag should be insulated for cold and frozen items. Having multiple bags will allow you to protect delicate items like ripe fruits and tender greens from bruising bulldozers like melons, squash, and potatoes. Shopping for a family, the weight of all that food can add up. Consider investing in market cart or collapsible wagon like the ones Central Farm Market staff uses to gather curbside pickup orders. No, the market does not provide carts for customer use.

 

  1. Get to know your producers. Unlike traditional grocery stores, you are purchasing directly from the producer. I’ve watched as the proverbial light has gone on with a customer on multiple occasions when I tell them I shop for my food at the farmers market. Ask us how to use what we sell. Many of us can also point you in the direction for other ingredients.

 

  1. Be adventurous. There is a lot of food at the farmers market that you will never see at a traditional grocery store—not even at those fancy gourmet chains. Some farmers grow heirloom fruits and vegetables that aren’t suited for larger scale production, have short harvest windows, and don’t travel or keep well. Why do they bring it to market? It may be an excess from a crop an ancestor planted, or a traditional food grown for a cultural community, or for the shear joy of watching customers snatch up a rare delight with glee. Some items are edible by-products of production practices like green garlic from thinning and the garlic scapes from trimming a main garlic crop. For the ultimate adventure—let the producer pick out something for you. Hint: we’re always going to offer the choicest items to make you happy because we want you to keep coming back.

 

  1. Get connected. It’s the twenty first century and we all carry around mini-computers more powerful than the processor on the first manned space mission. Use them! Keep up to date with what’s happening at Central Farm Markets by signing up for our weekly eBlast. This will become important as winter weather arrives that may necessitate the cancellation of market. The market also relays information via social media with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  And don’t forget your vendors! Many of us also have presences on social media as well as websites that offer information, online ordering, and plenty of ideas for how to serve all the delicious goodness you’ll find at the market.

A Summer Treat

 

Peach season is in full swing which means there is only one thing to do: make ice cream.

One of my favorite things growing up was when my family made ice cream. We had the old-fashioned kind with a wooden bucket and a hand crank. Grandma and Pappy always made pineapple, occasionally there was a batch of strawberry. Being a machinist, Dad attached the churn to a grinder wheel on a bench automating the process and relieving the kids of their churning duties. He was way ahead of his time.

I tried to recreate the memories but ended up with an aluminum sleeve that was kept in the freezer and went inside a plastic tub with a plastic churn. It didn’t last long and homemade ice cream fell by the wayside.

When I returned home to Pennsylvania and became part of a vibrant farming community, the amazing fruits being grown in the region combined with milk and cream from my own livestock rekindled my want of home-churned ice cream. One of my elderly neighbors had an old churn in their garage and I borrowed it for a picnic I was having. The outcome jogged memories and offered a holiday gift idea for my parents. Later that year I received my very own White Mountain Ice Cream Churn only this one had an electric motor.

There’s something about their dasher and wooden paddles that makes the final product turn out the perfect consistency no matter what type of recipe I’m using. I’ve make sherbet, gelato, frozen yogurt, and custard. There’s been ice cream made with cow’s milk, goat milk and even sheep milk which is decadent beyond belief.

Given my regular orders most of the year, the ice cream and gelato dealers vendors must think I’ve gone cold turkey on a diet, but the truth is quite the opposite. I’ve been cheating on them with the fruit vendors, making my own while the season is ripe with possibilities limited only by my desire to drive over to the creepy gas station for a bag of ice.

Several years ago I stumbled on to a recipe that I’ve had to make at least once a year. It starts with peaches roasted with honey and just gets better. But this year I decided to give it a try with the enormous sweet blackberries that were the size of my palm that showed up at market. Then there was the batch with strawberries and nectarines. Fortunately, my neighbors also like ice cream so I am not forced to eat all of it myself.

With the growing list of cancelled events, I vote for everyone to take up making home-made ice cream to ease our socially distanced souls. If you’ve got kids, splurge on a hand-crank model and let them take turns. Trust me, they’ll never forget the experience. Home schooling? Making ice cream is a great chemistry lesson. Why must you add rock salt to the ice for the process to work? And for our budding chefs, let them create their own flavors and add-ins.

There’s plenty of opportunities for adult fun, too. How many of you put away a jar full of pitted cherries in your favorite booze back during cherry season? Mix those into a batch of vanilla home-churn. I dare you.

And if all this seems a bit too much for you, fear not, you’ll still find artisanal and farmstead frozen desserts at the farmers market made with the plenty of ripe fruit that was grown with love.

Plumtastic!

It’s that time of year and they’ll only be here for a few weeks—Italian Plums. One of my all-time favorite seasonal fruits, these plump purple beauties are the stars of both sweet and savory dishes that are a must cook every year when they make their appearance at the farmers market.

Italian plums are the same variety used for making prunes. Yes, prunes are simply dried plums—they are not a fruit variety in and of itself. I’m shocked at how many people don’t realize this. One of the aspects that make them an excellent candidate for drying also lends well to the fleshy fruits holding up to cooking and baking.

Originating in Iran, plums are believed to be one of the earliest domesticated fruits. Evidence of their cultivation has been found in Neolithic archaeological sites along with figs, olives, and grapes. Today, there are four main cultivars—Greengages (green), Mirabelles (yellow), Victoria (red), and Damsons (purple). Taxonomically, they are a member of the genus Prunus which is further divided into three sub genus—Old World, New World, and Armeniaca (apricots). The Italian Plums are Old World originating in Europe and Asia.

Throughout the millennia, plums have been consumed in a multitude ways—made as jams, pastes, fermented into wines and brandies, dried, salted, creamed, jellied, pickled, and of course, eaten fresh off the trees. Worldwide, over 12 million tons of plums are commercially produced each year, with the United States being one of the top five producers along with Serbia, Romania, EU, and China.

As I continue to hear the lament from market patrons of I don’t know what to cook, here are a few ideas for dishes containing delicious and nutritious Italian plums (or any other variety you choose).

In a Salad

While the oppressive heat of summer has waned, it’s still hot outside. Combined with my lack of enthusiasm for making elaborate meals, a simple salad will often suffice for a quick bite. Despite the abundance of vine-ripened tomatoes, occasionally I like to opt for another fruit to grace my greens. Basil, greens, and plums with a citrus spiked vinaigrette works for me. If I’m feeling decadent I’ll add burrata or feta. Bon Appetit don’t even bother with the greens. They just mix plums, cheese, pepper, and olive oil. If you do want to get fancy with your plum salad, check out the grilled plums and radicchio from The Food Network. I think I’ll save this one until it’s safe to have guests for dinner again since heating up the grill for one has become a rare occasion.

Savory Companions

Absolutely nothing beats Braised Brisket with Plums, Star Anise and Port. I’ve had brisket cooked seven ways to Sunday and this folks, is the bomb. It calls for two and a half pounds of halved, pitted plums and is a three-day process from start to finish, but well worth the effort. Hint: It freezes very well once cooked. File this one away for Rosh Hashana.

I know there are some of you out there excavating your freezers and working your way through the odd stuff stashed away. Any type of roast with large fibers will work for this dish. Last year a hunter friend gifted me with a bear roast. I substituted it for brisket with stellar results. Moose, elk, or venison roasts would easily replace beef.

Delicious Dessert

Plum Torte—that is all. This is the most requested recipe from the New York Times Cooking website and once you make it you’ll no doubt understand why. The simplicity of butter, sugar, eggs, and flour combined with fresh plum halves is an ethereal delight. There’s something about the way the torte bakes around the plums. The fruit shrinks back when cooled creating a stained-glass effect with pink windows into the dessert—perfect for filling with a dollop of freshly whipped cream or a spoonful of vanilla ice cream, especially if served warm.

No matter how you choose to serve the bounty of fresh plums available at the market be certain to do so soon. Plum season will be over before you know it. Enjoy it now.