When Bugs are a Good Thing

Insects and Imperfections

Last week at one of the markets an irate customer wanted to return lettuce from one of the Certified Organic vendors because they had found larvae in it. It could have been a grub or a caterpillar. Good thing it wasn’t me fielding their ire or I would have told them they were lucky they weren’t charged for the added protein.

Seriously.

Here at Dishing the Dirt we’ve been talking about the challenges of Certified Organic produce production and the weather this last month. Today we’re going to put both topics together to drive home the point of how much weather impacts production.

Yes, lots of rain brings planting, growing and harvest challenges for all farmers and producers, including those of us who raise livestock. The rains and humidity increase incidences of pests and fungus.

Think about those two words, pests and fungus.

Why do people buy Certified Organic foods? Could it be because they don’t want pesticides and fungicides sprayed on their food? I’ll try to make this as simple as possible. You can either have bugs, slugs, beetles, grubs, worms, larvae, flies, snails, and hoppers on your fruits and veggies or you can have chemicals. You can have mold, rust, spot, rot, blight and slime on your fruits and veggies or you can have chemicals.

One of the biggest pet peeves of anyone who grows sweet corn is when customers peel back the husks, find one small worm at the top of the cob just under the silk and then toss it aside in search of an ear without a worm. “They don’t want spray and they don’t want worms,” groused one farmer who threatened to quit growing sweet corn until posting a sign toward the end of the sweet corn season that read, “We guarantee that every ear of corn contains a worm. You don’t have to check.”

And about chemicals, before passing judgement, realize that not all non-certified producers use pesticides and fungicides and those who do may have no other choice. Not all “chemical” means of pest control are alike in their toxicity, persistence in the environment and range of action. Unlike conventional pesticides which are synthetically formulated to be chemically toxic causing death in the pests using nerve or stomach agents, biorational chemicals are less toxic. Examples include pheromones that lure pests away from produce to be caught in sticky traps. A pheromone is a chemical compound, but it is nontoxic, only confusing the pest instead of directly killing it. Other non-toxic chemicals include attractants, repellants and anti-feeding agents.

In addition to the insect explosion that is inevitable with wet, hot, humid weather, fungi go into overdrive. Notice how ripe fruits on your counter tend to grow fuzz and liquefy at lightning speed during the dog days of summer? This is the work of fungus among us and it is what farmers must deal with on a large-scale every growing season.

Customers have become accustomed to pristine produce, choosing only the most perfect specimens, passing over anything sporting a blemish. Farmers strive to offer the best they can, but sometimes nature has other plans. If you watch closely, you’ll see vendors constantly roving throughout their stands picking out the less-than-perfect and tossing it in a compost bin behind the tables. Unfortunately, that’s difficult to do when an entire crop, like mustard greens, all have tiny bites from Flea Beetles on each leaf.

Last Sunday I brought home a couple of eggplants, one that had been tag-teamed by pests & fungus and another with a cosmetic blemish. The bulb of garlic was struggling in the humidity to properly cure and would have most likely rotted if not used soon. Despite these imperfections, my baba ganoush was delicious.

Here are some tips for dealing with pests and fungus you may find on fruits and vegetables in wet, hot and humid weather.

  • Wash it. Even if you purchase Certified Organic, the produce still needs to be thoroughly rinsed to remove debris such as soil and {gasp} bugs. Rinsing and drying will also cut down on fungus during storage prior to consumption.
  • Refrigerate it. Warm temperatures and moisture are the perfect environment for eggs laid by pests to develop. In a chilled environment, the eggs will fail to develop.
  • Eat it. Don’t wait until Thursday or Friday to make that peach cobbler or caprese salad if the fruit was ripe on Saturday or Sunday when purchased.
  • Buy it. Fruits and vegetables blemished by environmental factors took the same amount of time, labor and resources to grow—probably more due to the battle against nature. Losing crops = losing income and farmers still need to pay their bills.
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Rain. Rain.

After I left market on Sunday I swung by the Amtrak station in Rockville to collect a dear friend who had traveled from the small agricultural valley in southern California where I had lived for many years before returning east to farm. I was wet from tearing down and packing the stand. I had driven through flooded streets, water spraying so high from passing cars they caused a wet slap on my windshield with each one driving by. My mind was clicking through worst-case scenarios of what the deluge meant for me back at the farm – flooding in the barn, flooding in the lower pastures, erosion, mud, flies, foot rot.

Exiting her train, my friend’s first words were, “All this rain, it’s so wonderful. Everything is so green. You are so lucky!”

As we caught up on too many years gone by, she told me what fourteen years of drought has meant for her. The one that took away my breath – hay cost $18 a bale, more than four times the average cost in the mid-Atlantic region. “We had pastures for about a month this year,” she said. When there is no pasture, one must purchase hay. In comparison, I have pasture for nine, some years ten months out of the year. My perspective was quickly shifting about the impending week of storms.

The big shocker, when it rains her local farmers markets get canceled!

“You still had market today with the rain?” she asked, and I responded that markets are only shut down for hurricanes and single-digit temperatures although once there was a market right after a derecho. No one bought anything because everyone was out of power.

The down side.

A week of torrential rains can create havoc on a farm. At Spiral Path Farm all this water means the fields are too wet to safely plant, drive through, and harvest without harming the soil. Many summer crops, like melons and tomatoes, need it to be hot and dry to grow and ripen properly. “Think of a vine-ripe cantaloupe sitting in nine inches of water,” lamented Lucas Brownback.

At Two Acre Farm all the green beans and tomatoes needed to be replanted. Nicole Olson explained, “Moisture from all the rain-soaked in the beans themselves causing the beans to be rubbery and entire tomato plants simply rotted out of the ground.”

The up side.

For Lucas at Spiral Path, the plus side of the rains is there is no irrigating needed. I thought of my farming and ranching friends out west who have had to let entire orchards of citrus and avocados die because they could no longer afford the water needed to irrigate and livestock ranchers selling off entire herds due to lack to water. Drilling a new well into a depleted aquifer is futile.

When customers lament the rain, I remind them how critical it is, even if this week it seems to be too much of a good thing. Yes, there will be many crops impacted, but there is enough water to sustain future plantings. Other geographic regions both in the United States and throughout the globe experiencing severe droughts do not have this option and are instead saddled with economic losses, social changes and migrations of both people and animals.

I’ll take the rain.

Life Doesn’t Always Go as Planned

I should have been hitting the I-81/70 interchange right 6:30am on my way to Bethesda Central Farm Market, but at a stop sign several miles into the commute the Check Engine and Traction Control System lights came on. Nothing happened when I stepped on the accelerator. As a reformed geek, my immediate assessment was to first reboot. Restarting the engine turned off the Traction Control System light, but not Check Engine. An emergency call to my mechanic precipitated another call to AAA.

Vehicles can be repaired and replaced. I wasn’t worried as much about the van as I was my customers. An overwhelming guilt washed over me. Unloading and reloading into the bed of a truck would be difficult and time-consuming. All the coolers would be exposed to the blazing sun during the hottest part of the day on the drive home. I took a deep breath and accepted reality – I would not be going to market.

It happens to us all. The unexpected rears up and changes plans. As we’ve become a culture of availability where big box stores, franchises and chain stores have fail-safe work forces offering 24/7 service, occasionally this expectation spills over into farmers markets.

One of the favorite things customers do which I have come to appreciate over the years is they tell their vendors when they won’t be at market or when they are moving away.

“I’ll be gone for six weeks,” warned a regular. Sure enough when the seventh week rolled around he was back with his insulated bag and standard order.

Unlike the homogeneous (and boring) world of corporate retail, farmers markets are dynamic, ever-changing experiences. This is a more realistic view of a food system, especially agriculture. On a daily, seasonal and annual basis farmers must be flexible to accommodate everything the world throws at us while trying to get our products to the customers.

Breakdowns; it’s not a matter of if, but when.

In the early years of my agrarian endeavors, I always thought farmers spent a lot of time fixing stuff. Experience has taught me that if you’re fixing stuff, you’re farming. Tractors, implements, fences, watering systems, tables, tents and yes, vehicles all take a beating in this industry (sometimes the farmers, too). As much as we try to prevent such events through regular maintenance and mitigation, manure happens.

Many Central Farm Markets vendors travel the same arteries into the city. When a fellow farmer’s vehicle is broken down on the side of the road, one, two and even three other vendors have pulled over to help get them safely off the busy highway, to market or back to the farm. These are events few customers ever witness or hear about.

Trust me, we don’t want to break down, get injured, get sick or anything else that causes an unexpectedly missed market. Farmers with planned absences try to inform customers the week prior to not being at the market. The market staff does an excellent job at listing all vendors attending markets that week.

Breaking down on the way to market was stressful, but thanks to all the wonderful messages of concern from both customers and fellow vendors the frustration of the experience was significantly lessened.

Staying Sharp

With the purchase of meats, vegetables and fruits comes the task of preparation. What is the primary tool for such tasks?

The knife.

From paring to carving and every size and shape in between, slicing, dicing, boning and peeling all take their toll on a blade over time. Unless you know your way around a whetstone or sharpening steel, keeping an edge on frequently used knives means turning over your tools to a professional.

So, it made perfect sense for Central Farm Markets to include a mobile sharpening service as one of the markets’ regular vendors.

Robb Balfour, owner of Robb’s Edge Express, rotates through all four of the Central Farm Markets sharpening everything from scissors to scythes. “Kitchen knives are by far the most common item,” Robb said when asked about his work at the markets.

Most services can be performed in an hour with Robb’s mobile sharpening equipment. Simply drop off your knives, scissors and gardening tools like loppers and hedge shears with Robb and his wife, Keli, enjoy shopping at the market and pick up your tools on the way out. Some things, like chainsaw blades, circular saw blades and hand saws must be done at Robb’s workshop in Hagerstown, MD. They can be dropped off at the market and will be returned on his next trip.

Although Robb has only been with Central Farm Markets for four years, he’s been sharpening blades since 1961. He is certified by the National Beauty Tools Sharpeners Guild and regularly attends trade shows to stay up-to-date. In addition to the markets, Robb specializes in professional salon scissors, clippers and clipper blades. He also repairs Andis, Oster and Wahl clippers (I know there are horse and dog people who frequent the market who should know about this).

Robb is currently working with Shepherdstown University to offer a workshop on basic sharpening.

I asked Robb if he could tell people one thing to stop doing with their knives, what would it be? “Do not put knives in a dishwasher.” He explained that the humidity and moisture attack the edge which is very thin. “The edge gets pitted and etched.”

For those who put their knives in the dishwasher, here is Robb’s schedule so you can have your knives restored sharp enough to split a hare (or a chicken, or a tomato). Bring your blades wrapped in a towel, in a box or in a sheath for a proper sharpening.

Robb’s Edge Express Schedule for Central Farm Markets

Pike: 2nd Saturday
Westfield: 4th Saturday
Bethesda: 2nd & 4th Sunday
Mosaic: 1st & 3rd Sunday

Happy Independence Day

You know the great thing about the Fourth of July falling in the middle of the week? Sure, it screws up the three and four-day weekends, but it also stretches the festivities across two weekends instead of one. Flags appear, cherry pies get baked and the fireworks begin. The first two icons are easy to understand, but when did fireworks become part of the celebration?

From the very beginning, thanks to John Adams.

The drive to market from the farm is my time to listen to audiobooks. Last year I went through a founding fathers phase queuing up biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a slew of similar works. After all, they too were farmers.

In Joseph J. Ellis’ book First Family: John and Abigail Adams, there were excerpts of a letter Adams had written to his wife on July 3, 1776 detailing his vision for marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence the following day. He told Abigail that the occasion should be “commemorated with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” The weight of Adam’s words carried far beyond his personal letters and the very first public Independence Day celebrations were held in Philadelphia and Boston on July 4, 1777 with large fireworks displays. The tradition continues…

As for the cherry pie, walk through Central Farm Markets and you’ll find cherries galore right now. How fortuitous that cherry (and berry) season occurs during the first week in July. We can thank the Dutch for importing cherry trees to New York (when the region was under the sovereignty of the Netherlands) in 1689.

There are assorted shades of the stone fruit which basically fall into two categories: sweet and sour.

Today, we think of cherries as fruit for eating, but in colonial times each type of cherry had a purpose. Sour cherries were a favored remedy for gout as they lower uric acid levels in the blood. Added to brandy, sour cherries served as an antiviral, antibacterial and to reduce muscle and joint pain. Sweet cherries are high in the antioxidant melatonin that has a calming effect on the central nervous system, alleviating insomnia, headaches and irritability. I can attest that a bowl of fresh sweet cherries and Blue Ridge Dairy Greek Yogurt can quickly cure a bad case of grumpiness due to oppressive heat.

This year my go-to recipe for cherries has been Spiced Brandied Cherries. They store well in the refrigerator or can be canned. A spoonful is perfect over ice cream for a quick and easy delicious summer treat. Old Fashioned anyone?

Brandied Spiced Cherries

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cloves
  • 2-3-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise pod
  • 2 allspice berries
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1 quart cherries, pitted and stemmed
  • 1 cup brandy

Directions:

Combine spices and sugar in a sauce pan with ½ cup water. Simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add cherries and brandy to the mixture. Store in jars in refrigerator.