Commitment versus Convenience

If you want the same products week after week, always in stock and preferably on sale without any regard to how they were produced or where they were grown, shop at a corporate grocery chain, not a farmers market. Complaining to the farmers won’t get you fresh asparagus a month early or fresh pastured roasting chickens when the ground is frozen solid.

I’ve beaten this drum regularly for the last year while writing Dishing the Dirt, but we’re at the tail end of winter and I’ve noticed that customers are getting cranky. I recognize there are people on this earth that no matter how good they got it can only see the glass as half empty, however, I am a stalwart optimist when it comes to local foods.

Winter markets are tough on vendors as it is, these last several weeks being the most challenging start to a new year. Last Sunday when a customer complained about the “lack of variety” of fresh vegetables, he picked the wrong person to air his complaints. I was quick to point out his bag of three different colors of carrots, a few heirloom tomatoes, a bag of kale and bunch of tatsoi he had clutched to his chest.

We’ve been your farmers for how many years? Yeah, we know who the die-hard regulars are and these last few weeks have even been a struggle for them (and we dearly thank you). With the combination of no rain and mild temperatures, the markets were full and busy this past week, many forgetting winter market hours begin an hour later. Talk about hitting the ground running.

Having been winter farming for at least ten years, many of the farmers at Central Farm Markets have made significant capital investments in greenhouse and food storage technologies to bring customers both seasonal and extended season fresh produce in the winter months. Why? Because of how well-supported we are by a loyal customer base. If you grow it, they will come. This is our commitment to customers…we’re not here for the convenience.

Along that same vein, as farmers we have to keep our personal commitments. How many weeks prior to the end of the year did Rob Young warn his loyal greens lovers that during the winter he’d only be here every other week? Please don’t begrudge that man his Sunday mornings off with his family when there isn’t enough salad growth to warrant a trip to market. Worried about not having enough? Buy an extra bag; it will last just fine in the fridge. Trust me.

If customers knew how physically demanding field fruit and vegetable cultivation is, they’d welcome the down time to have a personal life. Don’t even get me started on livestock….

While markets have strived to add convenience for our customers in many ways—multiple communication outlets, lots of parking, market concierge, gift certificates—the truth is we are here because of our commitment to a robust local food system with an emphasis on sustainable farming and business practices as well as community involvement. And when was the last time you heard a talented musician playing a Leonard Cohen tune live while you shopped for groceries nibbling on a genuine French or Austrian pastry? That stuff doesn’t happen in convenience stores.

We’ve got five winter markets left in 2019. Let’s make the best of them no matter what Mother Nature hurls our way. Don’t forget to get your Winter Market Loyalty card punched because your commitment to Central Farm Markets from January to April earns a tangible return.

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Garlic Breath

There’s nearly a foot of snow on the ground, but before Mother Nature laid down her white blanket, I’ve begun seeing more signs of spring around the farm and at Central Farm Markets. Horseradish has begun peeking through the dirt and the hair sheep are beginning to roo their winter coats which is when their fleece peels off to reveal a slick warm-weather coat.  Last week I spied one of my late-winter favorites at market—green garlic—a sure sign spring is just around the corner. Although we are fortunate to have growers who utilize an assortment of greenhouse technologies to keep us in leafy greens, winter root vegetables and even cucumbers and tomatoes during the winter months, green garlic begins showing up at market mid-winter as growers begin thinning their garlic beds to make room for the mature bulbs.

Thinning?

It is the labor-intensive process where immature vegetables and fruits are removed to make way for larger, mature growth. When my father was a kid in the wilds of Pennsylvania fruit country, his job was to thin young peaches from his uncle’s orchard. His work paid off with softball-sized fruits sold on the family’s road-side stand and put up in jars in his mother’s basement.

These are the behind-the-scenes chores that go on prior to the picking of premium products. But unlike peaches, vegetable thinning yields a salable and often sought-after product, like green garlic.

Not to be confused with garlic scapes, the curly shoots with tightly closed buds on top which show up at market later in spring, green garlic is basically baby garlic. Right now, you’ll find bunches similar to scallions but instead of hollow tubular leaves, the green garlic’s leaves are flat. As the weeks go by, the individual bulbs will begin to swell and divide, but the paper-like husks on the bulbs will be tender and moist.

Green garlic is valued as much for medicinal as it is a culinary staple. For over 5,000 years, garlic has been cultivated for its immune-boosting properties. Garlic contains the protein ferroportin, responsible for carrying iron from inside a cell to outside a cell. Garlic is also rich in polysulfides and manganese, both critical for heart health.

Prior to modern medicine, green garlic was prescribed as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and even an aphrodisiac!

Want to give green garlic a try?

The first thing you have to do is get to the markets early as it tends to get snatched up in the first hour.  Once you’ve scored your bunch, figure out what delicious meal to try and then make your way around gathering all the necessary ingredients.

Green garlic can be used raw in salads or as ingredients in a simple oil & vinegar dressing. My favorite is to mix green garlic with fresh mozzarella, tomato and cucumber. Green garlic can be used in place of regular garlic or onion in just about any recipe.

But if you’re really in for a hefty dose of garlic breath, give this recipe a try and toss with fresh pasta.

Green Garlic Pesto

Ingredients:
1 bunch green garlic, trimmed and cut into 2” pieces
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup flavorful hard cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino Romano)
¼ cup nuts (pine nuts, pistachio, walnut)
¼ teaspoon sea salt

Directions:
In a blender or food processor, pulse together green garlic and nuts until they reach a granular texture. Gradually add in olive oil and cheese. Season with salt to taste.

What Does Ethylene Have to do With Food?

Every now and then I’m reminded of how sheltered I am in my agrarian bubble where everyone is onboard when it comes to local, seasonal food produced by small farms, many using some type of regenerative practice and who aspire to deliver products that meet both our philosophical values as well as our customers’ demands. Recently, a customer passed along this full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal and asked what I thought.

My first reaction was that there was no way anyone would find a fresh American peach in the midst of a polar vortex. Sure, you can find fresh peaches at gourmet grocers, but the label will be from Chile and they won’t taste like much. Any hankering for local peaches can still be satisfied while shopping at Central Farm Markets’ winter markets, but you’ll find them in a jar or a can…not fresh in a mitten.

After reading the text, I tried to decide if it was the peaches making the ethylene or the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM). Ethylene is a colorless, flammable hydrocarbon gas given off by fruits such as peaches, apricots, avocados, bananas, melons, mangoes, papayas, pears, plums and tomatoes that promotes ripening. Alternatively, there are ethylene-sensitive foods which should not be kept with those foods that produce ethylene. They are apples, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, eggplants, green beans, leafy greens, potatoes, squashes and watermelons.

Farmers have long understood the mechanics of ethylene production in plants. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese utilized both the plants’ production of ethylene and external sources such as incense to hasten the ripening of figs and pears. Today, ethylene is the most widely used organic compound by the chemical industry in the world.

But let’s be honest about the ethylene the advertisement is talking about. Given that the AFPM shelled out nearly a quarter million dollars for that full-page ad, they’re not making plastic bags, milk jugs and food wrappers out of rotting fruit. The majority of ethylene is created out of the distillation of oil and gas by a process called steam cracking. The process has been in use since the late 1800’s and utilizes heat and pressure to break down large hydrocarbons into smaller ones.

Having worked in the petroleum industry for many years prior to farming, I am well aware of the energy and technology needed to get crude out of the ground and into my gas tank. Maybe that’s why farming has quelled the overwhelming hugeness of it all as I strive to use as little as petroleum as possible knowing well the environmental costs.

But there is no escape from ethylene, even at the farmers market. Meat in plastic vacuum-sealed bags, plastic containers, fuel to get there, the tables, coolers, tent, the boots keeping my feet warm, my iPad and credit card transaction stand. And if you think I’m just being cheap when you request a bag and get a single-use plastic bag now on a second lifetime, you’re wrong. I still believe that every little step I take to reduce petro-chemical dependency is a step in the right direction. That’s why I farm.

The Groundhog Is Still In Bed

The first year I attended college in California my grandmother called to ask what my groundhog had predicted.

“Grandma, there are no groundhogs out here,” I told her.

“How will you know if spring is going to be early or late?” she asked in all seriousness. From then on, I could look forward to a call from grandma every February 2nd to announce the determination of the spring’s official prognosticator.

The groundhog was always spring lore in my family, but I never paid much attention to it until after returning east to farm and finding a huge groundhog hole freshly excavated inside one of the stalls of the barn on Groundhog Day. I didn’t care about his shadow, only the condition of my barn.

Groundhogs are big rodents—think a fifteen-pound short-tailed rat with a prominent overbite. That means they make big holes, actually burrows, which are a series of holes that can encompass an area of several square yards including chambers for hiding, hibernating, birthing, mating and excreting. Digging their burrows results in piles of dirt and rock around each hole. Running over one of these unexpectedly with farm equipment can be dangerous and damaging. Larger livestock, such as horses and cattle can injure themselves by stepping in holes, and smaller animals can become caught, unable to extricate themselves. And they can be hell on a septic system causing thousands of dollars in damage.

Primarily herbivores, very clean and perfectly sized for a crock pot, I took the time to hunt, clean and cook one. It had the consistency and taste of roast beef, but the aftertaste? My dining companion remarked that even a menthol cigarette couldn’t erase it. Despite their proliferation, there’s a reason they aren’t showing up on adventuresome locavore menus.

But why February 2nd?

Since my first encounter with my groundhog, I’ve kept track of burrows on the farm noting their activity on my annual calendar each year. Their appearance is always within the week on either side of that magical date which also happens to be the half-way point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

The belief that if the groundhog sees his shadow on this day there will be six more weeks of winter and if not spring will come early traces its roots to Greek and Roman festivals marking the crossroads between winter and spring, groundhog lore gained footing in northern Europe as farmers noted the appearance of hibernators, such as badgers and hedgehogs, as signs of impending spring which they used as a guide for planting crops.

With the profusion of German immigrants, including my ancestors, to the central Pennsylvania region in early America, it’s easy to see how the groundhog became their harbinger of spring. However, they are not emerging from their winter hibernation to be the center of attention to a bunch of men in tuxedoes and top hats watching for signs of a shadow. Actually, the groundhog’s awakening has nothing to do with the weather. It’s all about…SEX.

Think of it as Valentine’s Day for hibernators. It’s not just the groundhogs plowing through the bean field. With red foxes, the vixens are screaming for the tods to come hither—a frightful noise. The next sign, even more reliable than the groundhog is the skunk. A whiff of the familiar musk is a sure bet the days are growing longer and warmer.

As society has urbanized, our folklore is often lost in context, but in an agrarian setting makes perfect sense. I’ve been watching my groundhog holes (there’s a big one under my porch) and so far, I haven’t seen any action. If I were a groundhog, I would have stayed in bed on February 2nd this year, too! Although famous Phil of Punxsutawney is calling for an early spring, I think I’m going to side with mine this year.