First Freeze

Farmers mark their trips around the sun not by the Gregorian calendar or even the astrological designations of the season. We adjust our endeavors according to the weather. Thanksgiving this year is a prime example – it was the first extended period of sub-freezing temperatures designated as the first hard freeze.

Mother Nature usually gives a warning, reminding us it’s time to take care of the infrastructure, especially anything having to do with water. We’ve dipped into the twenties briefly overnight, but the days warm to as much as the high 50’s. I‘ve seen as low as 22 degrees when leaving for market on a Sunday morning, but by the time I arrived home I’d shed four layers.

There are light frosts signaling the picking of tender greens and fruit as early as October, followed by a killing frost which is when all bets are off for most outside row crops. Some farmers ward off the worst of winter weather using insulating mulch, floating row covers, greenhouses or a combination of the three providing nearly year-round production.

“Arugula and spinach are tough!” said Audrey Fisher Pedersen, co-owner and farmer of Bending Bridge Farm whose greens survived a two-week stretch of below zero temperatures.

As a livestock producer, sometimes I feel as if I have my own crystal ball to what winter will bring. When the animals start growing their winter coats in early September it’s a signal to start projects that need to be done prior to the onset of colder weather. The years that the critters don’t fuzz up until December; an ominous warning there will be little skiing.

All farmers rely on water. To grow crops, water livestock and process products, access to affordable, clean water is the backbone of our industry. But water also requires additional equipment to facilitate its use. There are hydrants, hoses, pumps, wells, tanks and valves. Being unprepared for the hard freeze can cause significant damages if the expanding water splits man-made materials. Not only can these repairs be expensive, they also require an all-stop in order to be fixed.

Stock tank heater

With the advent of the hard freeze comes the deployment of my favorite critical little device that prevents stock tanks from freezing. Last year when the barn was rewired, I was adamant about an all-weather electrical outlet installed on the exterior closest to the large, communal galvanized stock tank. How I do love thee!

Over the years I’ve fought with contractors about dropping electrical lines in the same trench as a water pipe being run out to an area for watering livestock. This is also the most proffered advice to new farmers building out their operation. This is the voice of experience.

Too many times I’ve watched as nearly solid hundred-gallon tanks have had holes beaten through the top with a sledge-hammer only to discover when the weather warms that the ice has spit the tank rendering it useless. They are not cheap to replace.

There are hacks for insulating water tanks, but this works better for larger animals such as cattle and horses. For small ruminants, like sheep and goats, and poultry a large tub inside a tractor tire filled with concrete and foam does not bode well. And pigs! Watering pigs when temperatures don’t rise above freezing for several days in a row can severely try a farmer’s patience.

But with an outdoor power outlet, a thirty dollar gadget from Tractor Supply and a short length of hose that can easily be removed and drained once the tank is full, frigid weather becomes a little less miserable. If all else fails, it’s a bucket brigade in lieu of the gym.

Frozen mud

For a few days I was able to enjoy walking on solid, albeit frozen ground. Then temperatures went back into the 40’s and the mud returned, but HARD FREEZE was written on the 2018 calendar as a record to compare to years past in years to come.

If you want to learn more about farming cold weather, chat up your vendors at Central Farm Markets in Bethesda and Mosaic during the Winter Market months from January through March. We’ll always have a story to tell.

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Happy Thanksgiving: Honest Mistakes

Thanksgiving: bound by tradition or a time to get creative. No matter which way you carve up the turkey (or ham), some of the most memorable holidays over the years have been defined by culinary faux pas. Growing up, each year at least one item would be left off my grandparents’ overflowing table – the can-shaped cranberry sauce being the most common offender. But when I became responsible for the preparations and cooking, I took Thanksgiving mistakes to new heights.

“Sandy, you’re supposed to take the giblets out of the turkey before you cook it,” my dad said as he resumed carving the bird for my first (and last) hosting of Thanksgiving dinner at my farm. It was the first year, so I hadn’t yet raised my own turkeys. What I didn’t want to tell him was the year previously when I had raised my own birds while living out west, I had also forgotten to remove the bird’s crop that was tucked into the chest in the narrow of the wishbone. Wait, I didn’t use corn in my stuffing….

In addition to growing my own turkeys, I’ve also prided myself on other holiday accompaniments that have resulted in good laughs.

During the years in which I kept a family milk cow, making butter was one of my favorites. In preparation for the holidays, I had purchased a set of wooden butter molds in which softened butter was stuffed and then plunged out producing a perfectly round pat with a holly leaf. I thought it was cute. My guests thought it was white chocolate. Or worse, when my cat slyly licked the fresh stick of butter set out on a plate to soften and my aunt commented on the “pretty little curls.”

A few years later the pendulum swung in the other direction…when I was in a rush to bake my from-scratch & home-grown pumpkin pies, I left out the sugar, which created an unwelcome savory dessert.

But in truth, my Thanksgiving screw ups had been going on for years. While working at a hot springs resort restaurant that featured regional foods, I learned the hard way that vegans don’t eat butter or cream (hey, it was the 80’s) and not to use the same tongs for the Caesar salad and the house salad which contained walnut oil (sorry about that anaphylactic reaction).

I should blame my cringe-worth holiday meals on my Grandma Miller, though. She forged my path with blunders such as pre-heating the oven but forgetting to take out a Tupperware container of pretzels stored in the oven resulting in her house filling with black smoke and a visit from the fire company.

Always one to look on the bright side, I’ve never burned a bird, had it swiped off the counter by a large dog, given everyone at the table intestinal distress with a bad batch of oysters or served bourbon-laced whipped cream to someone fresh out of Betty Ford. (Yes, I was at all those tables.)

This year I’m playing it safe and letting someone else do all the cooking.

Best wishes for a delicious and heart-filled holiday to all my customers and fellow vendors of the Central Farm Markets family. See you back at the markets on December 2nd.

Filling or Stuffing?

Let the official countdown to turkey day commence. Thanksgiving, an American holiday where we gather around the table with family and friends, filling our collective faces with more calories in a single meal that is more in line with a week’s allotment, before beaching in front of the TV to watch parades and football. Although contentions may arise over politics and sports teams, food is what really presses people’s buttons.

Is it filling, stuffing or dressing?

Traditions run deep when it comes to the accompanying side dishes to the centerpiece. Territorialism and cultural geography go together like mashed potatoes and gravy when it comes to filling/stuffing/dressing. Does it get cooked inside the bird, soaking up all the meaty juices into a moist amalgamation of stale bread, onions and celery or bake independent of the bird in a casserole for a crunchy crust? That would be dressing, especially if you hail from the south.

One of the earliest known cookbooks written over four thousand years ago by a Roman gourmand was filled with recipes for stuffing assorted animals with herbs, vegetables, nuts, grains and offal. Today, recipes are a result of regional influences. Oysters are a staple ingredient in the Northeast. Near the Great Lakes rice replaces bread cubes. In the southwest the bird serves as a giant tamale wrapper for a spicy masa filling. The south dishes up cornbread dressing laced with peppers to sop up the gravy which also has a kick of heat.

There are two camps when it comes to side dishes and condiments. First, there are those who will launch a full-scale family meltdown if anyone dare stray from grandma’s recipe for gravy no matter how vile the ingredients. And then there are the adventuresome souls who conjure innovative flavor combinations as if from an Ottolenghi cookbook.

Any way you bake it, there will be some combination of starch, vegetable, fruit, nut and seasoning which will be identified as filling, stuffing or dressing.

What color is your potato?

This dilemma can easily be solved by providing both white and sweet potatoes at your table. There are a zillion ways to cook potatoes, but at Thanksgiving potatoes must be made just so. The checklists come out – smooth or lumpy, done by hand or with a mixer, how much butter, how much seasoning, to add cream or not?

Sweet potatoes are another minefield – canned or fresh, sweetened with brown sugar and toasted marshmallows or savory. No where does sweet potato snobbery become apparent than with vegetable growers. I’ve met many fresh produce vendors over the years who grow one or two kind (there are over 6,500 varieties worldwide) specifically for their family and take any excess to their weekly markets only the week prior to Thanksgiving.

Sweet potato arguments also bubble over into dessert where they fill flaky crusts instead of pureed pumpkin. Pecan or apple is also a valid argument, but please, let’s dispense with the Watergate salad. The 70’s are long over.

Made from scratch

If you’re shopping at the farmers market, chances are good you’re not going to gum up your green beans with sludge out of a can or gravy from a jar. Thanksgiving is the ultimate holiday where people show their appreciation for one another through sharing a meal that represents an abundant harvest. Depending at whose table I am eating, I’ve had everything from pho (they gave the bird to their Vietnamese mother and that’s how she cooked it) to Hawaiian surfers’ turkey (slathered in mayonnaise before popping in the oven and hitting the waves for several hours).

Thanksgiving offers everyone the opportunity to pay homage to their family traditions or experiment with the vast assortment of bounty the mid-Atlantic region offers at Central Farm Markets.

Please note that not all vendors will be attending the Special Thanksgiving Market on Tuesday, November 20th at Pike Central Farm Market from 10 – 2.

Where is my favorite vendor?

It’s market day. You get out of bed and get to market early to be guaranteed first pick of everything only to arrive and find your favorite vendor MIA.

Annoyed? Yes, but it happens.

Debbie Moser, co-founder of Central Farm Markets explained that this year has been an especially difficult year for vendors due to the weather. “When it rains all the markets have less foot traffic, meaning lower sales. Some vendors choose not to come when the weather is too wet due to decreased sales or possible damage to their products.” From a management standpoint, this is frustrating because the same amount of time and resources is needed to put on the markets.

From a vendor perspective, a market absence often boils down to a financial decision.

Last January when customers complained about vendors not showing up on one of the coldest weeks of the year, this blog voiced the hurt many farmers felt over making the choice to protect their crops, infrastructure, products and themselves from single-digit temperatures. But it’s not winter…

There are many other reasons your favorite vendor might not be at market for a week or be gone for good.

Most vendors who have planned absences will alert their customers the previous week as well as through their social media. Prepared food vendors, especially ones with catering services, will sometimes trade out a market for a private event.

“I love all the market vendors and customers, but occasionally a special event wins out especially if it is more profitable and less stressful. It just makes good economic sense for me,” explained Josh Anson, owner of Cipolla Rossa Pizzeria.

Similarly, Janet Cherchuck, owner of Floradise Orchids has lamented being unable to attend market regularly as the temperatures drop. “We can’t have the orchids exposed to temperatures less than fifty degrees for any length of time or it will kill the buds,” she explained, “We don’t want to disappoint our customers with damaged orchids.” Floradise has experimented with ways to take orchids to market during colder weather but found that the fumes from propane heater (which many vendors use) kill the orchid flowers. “We’re taking it on a week-by-week basis, but the weather hasn’t been too cooperative.”

Inevitably, there are also unannounced absences. Vendors have unexpectedly skipped markets due to automotive troubles and illness. No one wants to break down or get sick, but it happens.

Sometimes vendors disappear for good. The two most common reasons are the business outgrows the weekly market model for a brick-and-mortar location and due to lack of help.

Farmers markets serve as incubators allowing businesses to cultivate a following in specific geographic locations before taking a permanent plunge. Products can be tested, tweaked and perfected prior to going into a larger commercial production without a big overhead and less risk.

Many of the vendors participate in multiple markets on the same day. Having reliable help is critical. When a vendor struggles to maintain employees they usually disappear from the market.

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally vendors get tossed from a market for failing to follow the rules or unacceptable behavior.

Even beloved successful vendors hang up market life. To this day customers still ask about Culinary Nomad. We all miss Valerie’s Hot Mess, but she put it best. “I am a wife, a mother and a food truck owner. I wanted to have another child and knew I couldn’t do all three at once to the best of my ability. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be my family.”

As the regular season wanes along with decreasing temperatures, customers will begin to encounter fewer vendors at the markets. Farms that grow field crops will be gone by the end of the regular season in December. The Saturday (Pike and Westfield) markets close on November 17th until next spring.

The winter season is not far off now, beginning on January 6. The best way find out if your favorite vendors will be attending market on any particular week is to subscribe to the Central Farm Markets’ weekly eBlast newsletter which lists what vendors have committed that week to attending.

The Buzz About Bees

Everyone knows how much I love Halloween (or any other occasion that affords me the opportunity to dress up livestock and go to market). So far, I’ve managed a spider, a wolf – thanks to the generous help of one of Bethesda’s extremely talented customers, a reindeer, a few very young ones wearing the worn out gray wool sock with the red top that has been repurposed as a critter coat, and this year’s shenanigans, a honeybee.

As much as I wanted the ensemble to segue as a teaching moment between farmers and customers, the lure of something very cute and fuzzy completely overrode what I wanted to tell my customers I’ve been learning about bees.

Bees are something I have never kept. They’ve always been in the periphery; someone else’s work. When I had mentioned this to a fellow farmer during the fabrication of Purl’s costume, she suggested I give it a try knowing my enjoyment of animal behavior and carpentry. “Think of all that wonderful honey,” she said cinching the deal on my curiosity before adding, “Now you have a bee suit, get building.”

Indeed, the tools are idle with the completion of a set of portable pens. If I begin now they’ll certainly be done by spring when the bees get busy. My favorite designs so far are the Mason Jar Hive and Top Bar Hive, both well within my capabilities.

But the bees themselves, their history in America, their critical necessity to modern agriculture and the perilous issues facing the apiary (beekeeping) community today are fascinating. Here’s my chance to share with Central Farm Market customers how important bees are to the cultivation of your favorite fruits and vegetables, especially blueberries and cherries which are completely dependent upon pollination by honeybees.

Oddly enough, honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought here in 1622 from Europe by the early settlers. Now three out of four crops grown for food in the United States are dependent upon honeybees for pollination, an estimated $24 billion dollars each year to the U.S. economy.

Walking into the greenhouses of vendors who grow produce to maturity inside and you’re bound to see cardboard boxes with holes scattered about. These are purchased pollinators who have only one job to do—spread pollen.

Here’s the fun part about bees: anyone can do it! “This is perfect!” exclaimed a customer as he spied my big bee on Sunday. He was planning to spend his afternoon working with the two hives he keeps in his back yard. No sprawling farm in the country needed.

Unfortunately, over a quarter of bee species in the world are experiencing a steep decline due to a variety of factors – loss of habitat, climate change, disease, parasites and pesticides.

Here are some ideas of how you can help save the bees.

  1. Plant bee-friendly landscaping that includes flowers and flowering herbs.
  2. Don’t use chemicals and pesticides to treat your lawn and garden. White clover and dandelions are not weeds, they are bee food!
  3. Buy raw honey from local beekeepers and farmers. Or better yet, try your hand at keeping your own bees.
  4. Bees drink a lot of water. Consider a small bowl of water with stones for the bees to land on and drink.
  5. Understand that honeybees are not aggressive and out to sting you. They are vegetarians, not bloodsuckers.
  6. Remember, hives become inactive in colder weather which makes honey seasonal. Stock up now for the winter now.

Honey is available at all Central Farm Markets locations.