Founding Farmer

No, I’m not talking about the upscale-casual restaurant chain, but the founding farmer, George Washington. While he was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the United States’ first president, he thought of himself first as a farmer. Although his name is attached to the nation’s capitol, counties, schools, parks and monuments, rarely do we associate it with agriculture.

Looking at Washington’s farming practices and accomplishments, it’s easy to see how he’d fit in well among fellow vendors at Central Farm Markets. In honor of President’s Day, let’s get to know George Washington, the farmer.

Innovator

Washington was more than just a farmer – he was an agricultural innovator. If Washington were alive today and farming, he’d be a rock star of sustainable agriculture. Breaking from the norms of his time, he was the first to recognize how harsh tobacco farming was on the land. He greatly reduced the number acres in tobacco on his farms and instituted crop rotation to enrich his soils and reduce pests. He designed and built barns to meet specific agricultural needs. He experimented with over one hundred varieties of crops—some successful, others complete failures, and many that are routinely found at farmers markets today, including pumpkins, beans, cabbages, kale, carrots, beets, turnips, peas, parsnips and potatoes. He focused on quality over quantity.

Thanks to the detailed records he kept, we know today that Washington pioneered many of the crops and practices found on today’s mid-Atlantic diversified farms.

Businessman

Not only did Washington keep extensive records on what he planted, his ledgers also revealed that there was little to no financial profits from tobacco, which is why he began experimenting with different crops including flax, hops, hemp, rye, barley and wheat – all that put his farms firmly in the black.

Washington took it a step further, as many farmers have done so today, by excelling at value-added products using his crops. For example, he turned experimental cultivars of grapes into fine wines, tree fruits into vinegars and ciders. He even built a distillery to make whiskey from his grain crops. In 1799, the distillery at Mount Vernon turned out over 11,000 gallons of rye and corn whiskey making it the largest distillery in the country at that time. The leftover distillers’ grains were used to fatten up to 150 hogs. The hemp he grew was turned into high-grade ropes and spun into canvas for ships’ sails.

Slave Owner

While it is true that Washington owned slaves, what many do not know is his detailed agricultural records sowed the first seeds for the abolition of slavery as his records documented the eventual breakdown of agriculture when practiced by a slave labor force cultivating crops with only seasonal labor needs as most northern states required.

Today, agriculture continues to struggle with what amounts to modern-day slavery practices in the industrial food chain. One of the advantages of shopping at regional outdoor farmers markets is that customers are often able to meet the farm owners as well as the workers who harvest, pack, process and sell the food. If you ask your farmers if they share a similar philosophy with the founding farmer, I bet most of them would agree – including me.

I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” ~George Washington

To learn more about George Washington, you can visit Mount Vernon where much of his farm has been recreated and operated as it had been during his lifetime.

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Market Mythbusters

This past Sunday at the market I had a customer ask if my chickens were “heritage” or a “GMO Frankenbird.” I took a deep breath and spent the next few minutes in education mode as I recognized the inspiration for this week’s Dishing the Dirt post.

As a farmer, I tend to forget how far removed most people are from their foods’ production. Heck, when I bring baby goats and lambs to market most people don’t know the difference, even going as far as to believe one grows up to become the other!

While this post may be a bit lengthy, hopefully it will serve as a primer so Central Farm Markets shoppers can better understand modern agricultural practices used by vendors, the impact it has on our products and on your food choices.

GMO vs. Non-GMO

Currently, there are only ten genetically modified crops grown in the United States – corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, papayas, squash, canola, alfalfa, apples and sugar beet. While it’s true that some of these types of products appear at the markets, the chances of them being the GMO version are slim to none. Why?

First, GMO crops are predominantly used in large, industrial, mono-crop (one super big field) farms. Vendors at farm markets tend to be smaller diversified operations. Which leads to the second reason: diversification promotes a healthier ecosystem. GMOs have risen out of the need to fight blights, pests and support the use of chemicals, such as RoundUp Ready crops that can withstand being sprayed with a powerful herbicide that will kill everything but the crop plant. When a single crop is grown in one place over and over, the bugs and blight take over. Third, the producers who choose to vend at farmers markets are often here because of their beliefs in a holistic system of health, ecology, community and parity.

To be clear, there is no such thing as a GMO “Frankenchicken”, cow, pig or any other animal. Like dogs which have been bred for generations to express certain traits, such as wrinkles in a Shar Pei, livestock have been bred to express certain characteristics including size, rate of maturity, milk production, leanness, uniformity, etc. However, most GMO crops are grown for livestock feed. If you are worried about the effects of genetically modified organisms for personal or ecological reasons, the question to ask is “are GMO-feeds fed to the animals?”

Hormones

The truth is that cattle, alongside people and all other animals and plants, naturally produce hormones that are vital to growth, development and health. That’s why meat and plants can never be completely hormone-free. However, for the last thirty years cattle producers have been using synthetic estrogen implants in beef animals to promote faster growth. As with GMO crops, these products are often used by large feedlot operations and not hands-on farmers who tend daily to their own livestock which are direct-marketed. Due to the age required for implants and the length of time needed for the implants to work properly, they are not used in veal production.

Hormones will not make a chicken grow faster and larger or lay more eggs. Similarly, there are no hormones approved for use in pork production. If you see a label on poultry or pork products that claims, “No Hormones,” it is nothing more than slick marketers preying upon the fears of uninformed customers.

Antibiotics

This is another marketing scare tactic often printed on our foods’ labels. Yes, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is a recognized issue. However, most consumers fail to understand that the bulk of antibiotics produced in this country are fed to livestock not to keep them healthy, but as a sub-therapeutic growth stimulant. Again, these practices are predominantly used in industrial production.

In Certified Organic products, absolutely no antibiotics can be used. In the event of illness or injury, naturopathic remedies and practices can be used if the animal is to remain on the farm. Some Certified Organic farmers choose to isolate and treat the animal, especially if it is a good producing milk cow or breeding animal, bringing it back to health prior to selling to a conventional (non-organic) farmer. The most common issues in which only therapeutic antibiotics are used are pneumonia, mastitis and abscesses, especially in the feet.

Farmers vary in their practices of antibiotic use. Some will only use topical applications, such as with foot rot, infected abrasions and for mastitis. Others will treat non-food chain livestock (breeding animals) for specific maladies when they arise. Some will choose to harvest or dispatch afflicted animals rather than treat them with antibiotics. The truth is no farmer wants to see their animals ill, injured and suffering.

In all the marketing claims, the ones stating there are no antibiotics in dairy products irk me the most. Just as the use of synthetic hormones in pork and poultry, there will never be antibiotics in milk. All milk is antibiotic-free. When milk is picked up at a farm by a tanker, a sample is taken. Another sample is taken at the processing plant from the entire tanker. If there is any trace of antibiotics, the entire tanker is dumped and there are strict regulatory consequences to the offending dairy. For small-scale dairies that bottle on-farm and/or produce farmstead products such as cheeses, yogurt and ice cream, the FDA requires testing of every batch bottled or used in value-added products for drug residue.

And yes, your kale and carrots are also antibiotic-free so there is no need to ask.

Presidents, Kings, Hearts & Dragons

Four holidays all in one week – Lincoln’s Birthday, Mardi Gras, Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year. Talk about a week to party! Celebrate one, celebrate all. What matters is you have everything you need to celebrate in proper style.

Lincoln’s Birthday

In food historian, Rae Katherine Eighmey’s book, “Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: A Culinary View of Lincoln’s Life and Times,” we learn our 16th president liked to cook. According to Eighmey, one of Lincoln’s favorite foods were apples. Given the prolific orchards throughout the mid-Atlantic region, it’s no wonder apples were a staple at the White House.

Mardi Gras

If there is one holiday that screams FOOD, it’s Fat Tuesday. Depending on your geography, traditional foods vary from sweet pastries like King Cake and doughnuts to heartier fare such as gumbo, po’ boys and seafood. The whole idea, no matter where you’re from, is to use up the eggs, milk, butter, lard, yeast, and sugar prior to the Lent fast.

Pancakes are traditional. In the Pennsylvania Dutch region, the day is referred to as Shrove Tuesday which means Fastnachts. Had I grown up in New Orleans I would have called them Beignets. The recipes and folklore for both are similar, warning that if not eaten on Fat Tuesday the crops will suffer the following year. As a farmer, you can bet on Monday night my dough will be rising.

Valentine’s Day

Although this holiday has its roots in the festival of Lupercalia, the Roman god of agriculture, I much prefer flowers and chocolate over sacrificing a goat while slapping women and crops with the bloody hide to make them more fertile in the coming year. (Hey, how about another helping of Fastnachts?) Let’s stick with chocolate.

The Aztecs have been gifting loved ones with chocolate long before Valentine’s Day. It was John Cadbury who first packaged his confections in a heart-shaped box in 1822 beginning a tradition that continues today.

Chinese New Year

If you’re not stuffed by now, you will be as food plays a significant role in celebrating the “Spring Festival.”

Different foods, all that can be found at Central Farm Markets, have symbolic meanings.

 

  • Eggs: big and healthy family
  • Lobster: endless money rolling in
  • Shrimp: fortune and wealth
  • Roasted pig: peace
  • Duck: loyalty
  • Peaches: longevity
  • Fish: surplus and wealth

And if you’re not up for cooking, Washington D.C. boasts one of the largest celebrations in the country.

So, munch on fresh apples, fry up some doughnuts, savor some chocolate while snuggling up with a loved one and 恭贺新禧 (gōng hè xīn xǐ), respectful congratulations on the New Year.