Handicap Parking

One of my regulars has Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Normally a mild-mannered person, on Sunday she fumed with seething indignance over an able-bodied person without a permit parking in a designated handicap spot. At first, she politely pointed the error, hoping the driver would relinquish the space to a handicap permit holder. Instead, the driver got out of the vehicle explaining they were “only going to be a few minutes” adding that in the event of being reported they would be gone before the police arrived.

Ouch! What a lame excuse for illegally parking in a handicap space on top of a heap of rudeness.

Yes, the school lot where the handicap spots are located gets congested, but there is ample free parking all around the neighborhood. Mitch Berliner, founder of Central Farm Markets, pointed out that there is free covered parking in the lot on Saint Elmo just off Old Georgetown. “You can get a spot there and get into the market using the Wilson Street entrance much quicker than getting stuck in traffic waiting for a spot on the school lot.” Plus, your vehicle won’t be boiling hot when you return with your market goods.

Similarly, Pike, NOVA and Westfield all have reserved handicap parking in proximity to the market. Don’t want to haul all your shopping across the street or into a parking garage? Central Farm Markets provides concierge curbside pickup. Just ask market staff at the information tent. Similarly, disabled customers who need assistance, please ask your vendors. If we are unable to assist you, we will locate market staff who can.

Listen, I know it’s been hot, and the market gets crowded earlier. Even if you are quickly running in to get a bag of coffee, fresh bread, pastries or a dozen eggs unless you have a valid handicap parking permit, DO NOT PARK IN A HANDICAP SPACE. {I hope this conveys this issue loud enough}

As able-bodied people, there is so much we take for granted with our unfettered mobility. Before going out in public we don’t have a running internal dialogue about curbs, stairs, restrooms, doors, etc. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, we’ve had thirty years to integrate this issue into our daily lives yet there’s always those out there who have zero compunction for stepping all over someone else’s civil rights.

In Montgomery County, the fine for blatant disregard of the law is $250. In other parts of the country where the problem is more rampant, fines can be as much as $1,000 and a 30-day revocation of the offender’s license for the first offense.

Here’s a reminder about the different types of handicap parking spaces you will encounter and the importance of respecting the specified boundaries. All permitted spaces will be marked with the universal logo of a white wheelchair on a blue background. Van accessible spaces may have one or two areas on either side for ramps and lifts. These spaces are not for parking motorcycles or bicycles and are necessary to facility entry and exit of the van. Do not block these spaces either.

No one is above the law when it comes to parking in disabled parking spaces without a legally administered placard. In addition to respecting the laws regarding handicap parking spots, be cognizant when they are occupied during your drive through the parking lot. Wheelchair visibility can be impaired when driving a high-profile vehicle, especially when backing. People with mobility challenges may not move as fast. Please be vigilant, patient and most of all, kind.

A note to our disabled customers: We at Central Farm Markets believe that everyone deserves access to the farmers market. If you encounter a navigability issue within any of our markets, please bring it to our attention.


Packaged for the Future

Single-use plastics are rapidly becoming a planetary problem. They don’t go away. Sure, they break down into smaller and smaller particles with the capacity to cause bigger and bigger problems. There are five major plastic accumulation zones in the planet’s oceans, the largest being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with an estimated area covering over 600,000 miles. For perspective, that’s twice the size of Texas.

I realize that many customers shop at farmers markets because they understand the positive environmental impacts of a local food system—less food miles, farmers who believe in Earth-friendly agricultural practices be they regenerative, organic, grass-based, etc. Unfortunately, up to 2.41 million metric tons of plastics continue to enter the oceans via rivers every year with 74% happening during May through October. Ouch! That’s basically market season.

Since the opening of Central Farm Markets, customers and vendors alike have been encouraged to reduce plastic usage, the number one way being to bring your own reusable market bags. More often I am also seeing customers ask for their purchases to be put into their own washable mesh produce bags thus alleviating the need for plastic.

One of the requirements for prepared food vendors at Central Farm Markets is they must serve in compostable or recyclable containers. No poly foam containers are permitted as they are not biodegradable, lasting indefinitely. An estimated 30% of landfill waste is made up of these single-use containers.

But what about recycling?

Education and access to recycling services has grown significantly over the last forty years, however, there are very few materials recovery facilities that accept and recycle polystyrene containers (aka: #6 plastics). Exacerbating the issue with recycling these containers are food residues and adhesive labels rendering them non-recyclable.

Want to know what else isn’t commonly accepted in curbside recycling? Plastic grocery bags. Municipalities have tried taxing them, banning them yet what do you do when faced with carrying multiple items and you don’t have reusable bag? Most grocery stores conveniently offer the option to purchase a reusable bag for a nominal fee. Similarly, most grocery stores also accept plastic grocery bags for specialized recycling.

Although the recycling movement has matured over the last few decades to the point where we now have single-stream curbside recycling (no more separating and hauling to the recycling center once a month for most of us), the process continues to be dependent the local collection services and the price of oil.

The global demand for recycled products crashed in 2017. When municipalities could sell a bale of mixed paper for $100/ton easily financing their recycling programs, they are now faced with having to pay upwards of $20/ton to dispose of it. Without expensive state-of-the-art recycling centers, many waste management companies are forced to put recyclable materials into landfills.

In order the avoid this, the next step is composting.

Composting, you might ask isn’t that like soil. Well, yes…eventually.

Let’s use a cardboard pizza box as an example. It would be recyclable if it didn’t have grease and bits of melted cheese stuck to it. Most recycle centers do not accept food contaminated containers because of the overwhelming pests (rats, mice, flies, beetles, etc.) attracted to the food. However, that same greasy cardboard box is 100% compostable meaning that when tossed in a bin with other organic matter, aerated and kept moist, it will degrade back into basic organic matter.

Recognizing the benefits of composting over recycling, innovative entrepreneurs have targeted the food industry manufacturing everything from hinged clamshell food containers made out of cellulose to grocery bags and clear cups made from plant starch (PLA). The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) is a non-profit certification for compostable packaging currently listing over ten thousand products for commercial use.

The BIG THING to keep in mind about compostable versus recyclable is they are not interchangeable. Please do not put compostable items in recycle bins. They will only end up in a landfill and sadly, most compostable items do not break down in a landfill environment due to the lack of oxygen.

Even more confusing are cardboard containers with plastic film like milk cartons. Some composting centers will accept them while others do not. These will also fail to remediate in your backyard compost bin. Only fully compostable items can be labeled “compostable” because these items have been certified by a third party like Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).


You may have already noticed that some of your favorite vendors have changed their packaging. Heirloom Kitchen has already gone 100% compostable and is heading up the effort to assist fellow vendors in sourcing compostable packaging.

Central Farm Markets is currently planning to place composting containers for single-use food containers at each of our market locations. Who knows, your ice cream, soup and drink containers just may become the soil in which your produce is grown.


Folks tend to think of farming as a bucolic back-to-the-land vocation with lots of manual labor. It is, I won’t deny that, but many are shocked to find out how much automation, technology and even robotics are now routine in modern agriculture, especially on organic and regenerative farms.

I have mentors in their 70’s and 80’s who baled hay with horse-drawn equipment when they were in their teens. This past week my neighbor baled the hay on this farm with his half-million-dollar tractor using a mower that cut a ten-foot swath and a machine that spit out 60-inch round bales weighing in around 900 pounds. They were scattered about the fields where I fetched them with a skid loader—basically a steel cage on a diesel motor with a mechanical arm topped with three long spikes—to store them in a pole barn for use this winter. The thermometer read 91, the weather app said feels like 100.

I was grateful for this technology. Physical labor in summer heat is no picnic, but a necessity when the crop is ready.

Your farmers at Central Farm Markets employ an assortment of technologies that make their jobs more efficient and safer for workers. To explain the different technologies used by farmers today, I’m going to deconstruct one of the quintessential Fourth-of-July goodies that have been showing up at picnics since the very first Independence Day celebration—cherry pie.

Let’s start with the crust—flour and butter. This old farm is littered with stone disks with a hole in the center of all sizes. Younger visitors always ask what they are—mill stones for grinding grains. Pennsylvania and Maryland were powerhouses for gristmills due to their waterways and good soil for growing grains.

Most flour is made from wheat, but it can be made by grinding any starchy plant. Instead of grindstones, modern wheat passes through a series of technologies–harvesters, separators, cleaners, blowers—before passing through large steel rollers for grinding.

Similarly, the butter has come a long way from hand-milking, separating the cream by skimming and churning in a wood vat with either paddles or a dasher to robotic milkers, centrifuged cream separation, stainless steel drum churns with augers for expelling excess liquids from the solids prior to packaging.

Now that our lovely crust is in the pan, let’s fill it with fresh cherries.

Picking fruit has a long history of manual labor, especially with transient migrant workers following the harvests depending upon what’s in season. Talk to any orchardist and they’ll tell you their labor woes, especially given this anti-immigrant federal administration. Anyone in agriculture knows that the harvest can’t wait.

Mechanical harvesters have reduced the amount of workers needed to bring in a harvest. Driving through the back roads near Gettysburg recently, I witnessed a modern cherry-picker in action. An entire tree was harvested in minutes. Similarly, those same cherries need to be pitted. Anyone who has ever pitted a flat or even a quart by hand will attest to the task being time-consuming and messy. Once again, there’s a machine for that.

And the sugar? The equipment used to harvest both beet and cane sugar looks like it belongs on the set of a dystopian science fiction movie. No more slashing with machetes.

Agriculturalists have always been innovators to solve problems. Today farmers often use leading-edge technologies combined with time-honored knowledge. Machines are engineered and built to solve problems. If they don’t save time and money, on to the scrap heap (or eBay) they go!

Pie a la mode? Yes, please, even if the robots made the ice cream. It’s something I have to look forward to after getting all the hay in the barn.

Happy Independence Day. I hope it includes pie.

Berry Berry Good

Berry season is in fully swing. Those first sweet nuggets of nature designed to deliver much needed energy after a long, dark season. But wait! Do you know that what we typically refer to as “berries” aren’t really berries at all?

Most of the fruits referred to as berries aren’t botanically berries but aggregate fruits which are produced from a single flower and multiple ovaries. True berries are fruits produced from a single flower with one ovary. Technically, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, avocados, squash and such are berries. The only true berries we consider as fruits are currents, pomegranates, grapes, cranberries and blueberries.

The bramble fruits—blackberries and raspberries—showing up at market are grown from thorny canes that flower and bear aggregates of drupelets. A drupelet is one of those tiny bubbles of flavorful flesh. Similar to fruits called drupes, which include peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and olives, the fruit contains seeds, or a pit surrounded by flesh covered in a thin skin.

Whatever you want to call them, their abundance at market are a true sign that the summer season has arrived.

While many of the pints and quarts never make it past the parking lot or are consumed on the drive home if not stashed out of reach, stocking up and preserving are easier than pie (that’s a great idea, too!). My personal philosophy is the three-box rule—one for eating outright, one for cooking and one for freezing so on those wintery days in January and February I can pull out a handful to go with my yogurt as a reminder that before I know it berry season will again roll around.

Berries hold up well to freezing. Simply wash, dry, spread on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer. When the berries are frozen, pop them in an airtight bag or container.

With Independence Day approaching, nothing beats a berry pie for holiday celebrations. And if you’re intimidated by making a pie crust, there are grunts, buckles, crumbles, cobblers and brown Betty to try. These are basically crustless fruit desserts, some cooked in the oven and others on top of the stove.

But berries aren’t only for sweets. There are plenty of savory ideas for berries as well. One of my favorite recipes includes sautéing blackberries to go over lamb chops. Sour cherries pair well with roasted pork and I’m certainly not going to complain if someone tosses blueberries into my salad.

For those who want something unique for happy hour, try infusing one of the many spirits from one of the several Maryland distilleries who visit Central Farm Markets. Simply wash and dry two cups of berries and add to three cups of your favorite alcohol in a glass jar with a lid. Set in a cool, dark spot for a few days and then strain the fruit from the liquid. One recipe I read called for tossing out the fruit—sacrilege! Top your favorite ice cream (I’d vote for Rock Hill’s ginger ice cream) with that boozy fruit for an adult dessert.

Whatever you do, remember to get to the markets early. Berry season is fleeting, with strawberries practically over. Last week all the fruit vendors had lines and the berries were gone before noon.

Meat is Meat

I raise meat as do several other farmers within the Central Farm Markets Family. Our philosophies differ from the run-of-the-mill industrial meat complex such as concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFO)—both indoor and outdoor. We fuss about feeds—non-GMO, grass-fed, grass-finished, stocking densities (what our farms can sustainably support), and animal welfare which can run the gauntlet from the use of antibiotics to transportation. As livestock producers using sustainable farming practices and selling direct to consumers, we represent less than two percent of total meat production in the United States.

According to the USDA, the average American was expected to consume 222.2 pounds of meat last year. Overall domestic meat production at the same time was expected to surpass 100 billion pounds. That’s a lot of steaks, chops, burgers and sausages.

I don’t need to paint the picture of how most of that meat is raised and processed as most people who shop at farmers markets do so specifically because they do not want that type of mass-produced and often highly processed meats.

Customers are continually inquiring about farming practices, breeds of livestock and human handling issues. A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with a shopper over the types of meat chickens I raised. He informed me that he would no longer buy my birds because they were Cornish Crosses, a standard meat bird variety that have been bred to grow fast. I tried telling him that a slower-growing heritage breed would take twice as long to produce the same size bird, thus bumping the price as high as $9. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a fifty-dollar chicken is not going to go over well with my customers. He recited what he’d read on the Internet and I countered with experience. These are tough conversations when both parties are emotionally vested in the issue.

But over the last few weeks, I have been repeatedly asked if I offered “veggie burgers” and if I have tried a “meatless” burger. This is were I find myself coming dangerously close to crossing the center line of civil discourse through face palms and gritted teeth.

You know what’s impossible about the Impossible Burger? That you would ever get a self-respecting farmer who sells meat at a farmers market to eat one. Here’s what’s in them.

Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

Compared to a four-ounce beef patty, the impostor has a similar amount of calories (210 vs. 240) and identical amounts of fat—14 grams. But the Impossible Burger contains 8 grams of saturated fat while the real deal has only 6 grams. And sodium, a whopping 370 milligrams, more than three times that which naturally occurs in beef. Let’s not forget the added sugar of which a patty that once mooed has zero.  Real meat also contains more protein. The only benefit one might claim is more dietary fiber, but I’d prefer to add my fiber to a burger in the form of pickles, lettuce, tomato and onion.

I get it. Everyone points to the environmental impact of meat; the carbon footprint, climate change, global warming. As a former professional in the petroleum industry, I know what it takes to get a gallon of gas in my tank as well as burgers on our plates.

From my point of view, it’s going to take a LOT more petroleum to grow, transport and process soybeans, sunflowers, coconuts and potatoes as well as synthesize the other highly refined ingredients.  I don’t know of any coconut farms in the continental United States. Let’s add all those food miles to the end product.

While artificial and lab-cultivated proteins have become popular, the companies engaging in the production and promotion are multinational chemical conglomerates who are driven by shareholder profits, not personal passion and convictions. A 2019 study published in Global Food Security Journal by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), found that 86% of livestock feed is inedible to humans. When livestock utilizes marginal forage-based landscapes incapable of supporting crops, acres for acre more highly valuable nutrients, such as proteins, can be produced.

Our diets have transformed from that of sustenance to political statement. As a firm believer in agreeing to disagree agreeably, especially when it comes to the meat vs. meatless debate, I don’t begrudge my vegetarian/vegan friends and respect their choices, treating them as I would any other individual belief such as kosher, halal and nut allergies.

However, there is one aspect of the meatless movement that rubs me raw: quit naming your food to sound, look and taste like my food. Fake burgers that bleed beet juice, fake bacon a.k.a. facon, tofurkey, and my personal favorite, fleggs & sheese are some of the foods that have me wondering, mostly how to pronounce their ingredients. But my all-time favorite was the recipe for a meatless rack-of-lamb, complete with frenched rib bones made out of leeks.  As I like to say, my sheep turn sunshine and water into meat, what’s your superpower?

Tools from My Father

A question I’m occasionally asked at the market is on what kind of farm did I grow up or if my parents were farmers. They are surprised when I tell them my father was a machinist and my mother stayed home with their three kids until I went to college and my siblings were well into high school. Home was a quintessential small town of light industry over the mountain from the rural orchards of Adams County, Pennsylvania where Dad’s family had raised fruits and crops for generations before his parents made good by escaping to steady factory work starting in the 1940’s. Their children followed in their footsteps as did my siblings in their choice of careers.

But I’m the black sheep, the one that was bitten by the bug of agriculture and it is all Dad’s fault. Trips to Uncle Orrie’s orchards where we would pick buckets full of sweet cherries from the trees in the hot July sun, eat peaches so ripe and sweet you simply squeezed them from their fuzzy skins into our mouths, the juice running all over our hands and arms and take Sunday drives visiting rural cousins, aunts and uncles who would load us with bounties from their vegetable gardens. Great grandma lived on a farm with a bank barn complete with a spring house near a creek. I loved how the barn smelled of cut hay and livestock, the lower level built of limestone into the side of hill always a cool hideaway in the heat of summer.  As a child, I knew this was the life I would someday live.

While all attempts at corporate life yielded some degrees of success, my heart wasn’t in any of those careers. The idea of working for the same company until what society considers retirement age was not my calling. Instead, I bought a farm.

Anyone who has ever farmed can tell you that something is always needing built or fixed. Over the years, I turned to Dad when I needed help. He’d been walking me through assorted repairs since the purchase of my first car, giving me a nice set of Craftsman tools one year for Christmas. Every time he’d visit the farm he’d come with a tool for me—a vice, a locking block & tackle, an industrial extension cord, a die tapping kit, a cutting torch and my favorite, an immaculate vintage SkilSaw complete with carrying case and extra blades he picked up at a sale. When the local lawnmower repair shop tried to sell me new blades instead of sharpening mine, he gave me a bench grinder and taught me to do it myself.

The week my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness I showed up to market to be repeatedly bombarded with the question, “What’s wrong?” from fellow vendors and customers alike. When you see the same people week after week it’s not hard to pick up when something’s amiss. I warned everyone that if I failed to show up, the inevitable had happened. In kind, everyone responded with understanding, going out of their way to comfort me through the difficult time.

During one of my visits with Dad in the final weeks of his life, he joked that when he died, he would do it at the beginning of the week. He knew how important my market days were—not only for income, but for emotional support. True to his word, the Monday after his 73rd birthday my father passed away in the home he shared with his wife of 53 years and where he had raised his family.

The following Sunday was Fathers Day. As much as I wanted to have a good cry, it just wasn’t in me yet and much to my own surprise would take years to arrive.

Grief can be like a tsunami where all the water gets sucked off the beach, exposing a calm rawness that lulls one into a sense of strange security before inundating with unexpected force. Tightening up the battery terminals on the diesel runabout at the farm a few years after his passing, I noticed there was something etched on the wrench in my hand…Dad’s name. He engraved all his tools, many of which where given to me after he retired.

It is often said that the greatest gift a father can give to his children are the proper tools to become productive adults. Mine did in a literal sense, I thought to myself as the once dead engine roared to life and I sat in the grass having the big ugly cry I held back at his memorial service, at market the week after his death, on the first day of trout season the year after he passed, when we spread his ashes a year later in Adams County in the creek by the house where he was born. It was a matter of when, not if.

I’d give anything to have another day with my father, but realize now that each day I farm, each Sunday I go to market, I carry with me so much of him who has made me the person I am.

Happy Fathers Day to all the dads this Sunday.

Colorful Cauliflower

Sadly, we humans have been conditioned to believe that certain vegetables must be a specific color or else there is something wrong with them. Gradually farmers are getting customers over fears of heirloom tomatoes sporting green, orange, purple and yellow colors along with a variety of shapes. But after a brief conversation with a patron at market last week I see how far we still have to go.

Spotting the colorful heads of cauliflower at Westmoreland Produce I knew I had to nab mine before market opened or it would certainly be gone at the end of the day. I picked out two small heads—one purple, one green—and chatted with the farmers while forking over some cash. “The season is just getting started. We’ll have more of the purple ones next week, but we’ve got lots of the cheddar,” I was told.

The word “cheddar” must have set off the conversation between two ladies I couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

“Does it taste like cheddar? one asked.

“I don’t know. Do you think they spray it or dip it in something to color it or flavor it?” asked the other.

As their banter about the origins of the cheddar cauliflower continued, I finally had to butt in and tell them it grows that way. “Cauli-flower. Flowers grow in many different colors, don’t they?”

So, let’s talk about those colorful cauliflowers this week in Dishing the Dirt.

Cauliflower, along with broccoli and Romanesco (the one with fractal shapes) are all members of Brassicaceae which is broken down into different cultivars. Other brassicas (also referred to a cruciferous) you will encounter at the market this time of year are cabbage, radish, bok choi, collards, kale, chard, turnips, arugula and mustard greens.

The farmers you encounter at the market are considered the minorities of agriculture representing less than a quarter of food production in the USA, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. I decided a long time ago that if I’m going to be labeled at the odd one out then by golly, I was going to live up to it by not doing what everyone else did! I know many of my fellow producers share similar philosophies and that is why you will find varieties of vegetables not widely available, especially in grocery stores, which is where you’re most likely to find vegetables that have been colored and flavored.

Cauliflower’s superpower is versatility. It can be cooked seven ways to Sunday, and you won’t eat the same recipe twice. Growing up, the only way I ate cauliflower was steamed or boiled and then slathered in béchamel, but today one of my favorites is a whole head dipped in yogurt with curry powder, roasted in the oven until a rich golden brown and sliced into slabs. Raw florets make great bite-sized snacks and hold up well without refrigeration. While I’m not a big fan of cauliflower pizza, steamed and pureed is one of my favorite ways to make a creamy soup without cream. Imagine that same soup with cheddar or purple or green cauliflower!

The bonus with vegetables of color are more nutrients, like beta-carotene and vitamin A. No, they are not colored because they are GMOs in the sense of adding genetic material to ward off pests or withstand chemical spraying, but the colorful varieties were developed from cross breeding a naturally mutated cultivar given to Cornell University back in 1970. The purple varieties contain anthocyanin, the same phytochemical that makes red, blue, or purple fruits and vegetables, and red wine. The colorful varieties are extremely popular so get to the market early.

Plain ol’ white cauliflower has rightfully been branded a superfood with scientific validations of antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, immuno-boosting and reduction of cancer and heart disease. Cauliflower is full of vitamins. 100 grams of cauliflower delivers 2 grams of protein and only 5 grams of carbohydrates, mostly in the fiber.

The popularity of cauliflower as a low-carb substitute for rice and potatoes, though, has recently landed cauliflower in hot water with the government. Leave it to Louisiana state legislature to pass a law prohibiting cauliflower rice, but the words riced cauliflower are ok. In truth, the law was about labeling lab-grown proteins parading as meat. But that’s a subject for another Dishing the Dirt.

Sweet & Sour

There are many fruits that are erroneously labeled as vegetables, such as tomatoes, but did you know that there are also vegetables that get treated like fruits? The one you’re most likely to find at Central Farm Markets this time of year is rhubarb.

As with the fruits-called-vegetables, rhubarb was officially deemed a fruit in 1947 by the U.S. Customs Court to reduce import taxes simply because it was most likely to be prepared and served as a fruit. Take a taste of this fruity imposter and you’ll quickly learn why as it begs for added sugar to temper the mouth-puckering tartness.

I grew up with rhubarb pie, rhubarb jam and what my family affectionately termed, “rhubarb slime” which was ladled warm over home-churned strawberry ice cream. But my eyes were opened to its versatility when a chef I was working for during my college years braised pork loins in shallots, rhubarb, apple cider vinegar and honey. It’s a dish I’ve since made annually with the first fresh stalks of the season.

Just what is it? The stalk, which can be green or pink or red, is actually the petiole of the leaf. The unopened flowers, considered a delicacy is Asia, are also edible. However, the leaves and roots contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid, enough so that a few ounces could kill you. Alternatively, the same properties that can be poisonous in large quantities have also made rhubarb one of the most widely used medicinal plants in Asia for thousands of years. Only when sugar production became widespread in the 17th century did rhubarb begin showing up in historical documents as a food.

Fresh rhubarb arrives at the market about the same time as strawberries. Due to its tartness, rhubarb is typically paired with sweeter fruits such as berries and apples. However, in the Washington Post’s award-winning food column, Voraciously, eaters are encouraged to cut back on the sugar with recipes that included pickles, sauces and shaving the stalks into tangy ribbons.

Another place where rhubarb is making a splash is in the beverage scene. Switchels, shrubs, kombuchas, and cocktails made with locally sourced ingredients have bellied up to the bar elbowing their way past the cloyingly sweet drinks. I gave the idea a spin with a refreshing recipe for a Pink Gin using McClintock’s Forager Gin. Simply cube up a few stalks of red or pink rhubarb, place in a jar with a couple tablespoons of sugar, shake well and let sit overnight for all the juices to settle. Strain and add the juice directly to gin. {Hint: toss in a few strawberries, too}

And if you’re not ready to indulge in a recipe that will utilize an entire bunch of rhubarb, fear not. Spiral Path Farm reminds us that rhubarb is easy to preserve, “Just cut into 1-inch segments and throw in the freezer in a sealed bag!”

The Importance of Fun

Being a farmer is a 24/7/365 job. It doesn’t matter if it’s livestock, produce, fruit, flowers, mushroom or bees, the responsibilities rest squarely upon our shoulders at all times. As many gear up for a three-day weekend over the Memorial Day holiday, market vendors are preparing for a busy sunny weekend. Customers often ask when we take time for ourselves or what we do in our “off” time. Our concepts of clocking out are a bit different, sometimes coming only at the end of a season lasting several months.

Burnout is a very real issue in this line of work. Stress is a routine part of our lives. The weather, pests, parasites, sales, broken equipment, increasing regulations, finding and retaining help—just about everything that keeps a farmer awake at night is out of our control.

There’s no one-stop solution to alleviating stress and avoiding burnout for farmers. In researching this topic, it was easy to see that many of the suggestions for reducing stress were obviously written by non-farmers. Taking deep breaths and meditating don’t go far when hail is decimating the blossom set for summer fruits. Exercise is an often-touted panacea for stress, but when your days are endless manual labor the idea of more physical exertion can be daunting. And just how do you get off the farm to do something you enjoy with others or socialize when the issue that is creating added stress in the first place ties you to the farm? Planting. Harvesting. Birthing. Milking. Markets. There is no putting off until we feel better, even to the point of working while sick, injured and mourning. {I’ll admit to being guilty of all three}

How do we cope? We build fun into our routines.

The inspiration for this week’s Dishing the Dirt came from Rob at Young Harvests as I watched him cruise around the parking lot after market a few weeks ago on his OneWheel, an electric motorized skateboard with a single fat tire in the center. The smile on his face said it all.

“I don’t normally spoil myself with toys like this, but it is so darn fun,” he said, going on to explain how he can move about the farm and his daily chores when he uses it, “I couldn’t believe I put eight miles on it in one day while working!”

Last winter customers noticed my felted hats and scarves. “You should sell those,” they urged, but my reply was always the same, “This is my fun.” Yes, I raise sheep and have an abundance of wool, but there needs to be a distinction between production and peace-of-mind.

As a computer geek sitting in an air-conditioned cube farm with a white-knuckle hour-long commute, my daily decompression was building a farm. Self-care was milking, moving electric netting, collecting the eggs, planting vegetables. My livelihood was not dependent upon the farm until I traded my carpeted cubicle for a tent on the black top. That shift required a retooling of my version of fun. Shoveling manure for a dozen animals was fun; a few hundred, that’s work. I had to find new fun.

The issue of burnout in agrarian communities is a constant subject as we live with the all-too-real statistic of farmers dying by suicide at twice the rate of veterans. Resiliency has become a buzzword for not just the soil and environment, but for the farmers themselves. How do we emotionally bounce back when we hit a rough patch? By doing something fun.

We play instruments, go biking, have horses, paint, sculpt, write, knit, swim, run, build, cook, play volleyball, fish, hunt, boat, volunteer, make jewelry, read, weave. Ask your farmer what makes them happy. Pay attention and you just might catch them doing it.

Don’t Be a Snob

Last Sunday on my way home, I stopped at the Common Market Food Coop, as do many farmers traveling the 270/70 corridor to and from the MD/DC/VA markets. My day had already been miserable thanks to the weather. I wouldn’t have even stopped if it had not been for a few items needed for a get-together later in the week. As I stood in the check-out line behind a fellow farmer whom I knew from attending another market in previous years, she looked into my cart and said, “Hmmm, ice cream and chips…that’s healthy.”

Already physically and emotionally drained, I ignored her snide remark and the urge to argue my choices. The chips were certified organic and I knew the farmers who produced the milk and fruit for the gelato. If I’m going to eat ice cream, my choice will add to my fellow producers’ prosperity as well as align with my values.

Having been floating the topic of food bullying for Dishing the Dirt this week, this encounter cemented my choice.

Bullying, snobbery, and judgement—we’ve both dished it out and received at one time or another. I’ll admit to being guilty of all three myself, however, I’m choosing more to follow my heart instead of the crowd as the years go by. There can be no productivity, forward motion or resolution with the attitude of my way or the highway.

As humans, we started out with “Yay! We’ve got food,” and over 200,000 years progressed to Portlandiaesque consumerism where our chickens have names, wear sweaters and live better than 20% of the world’s population.

In March, I broached the subject of divisiveness from the perspective of culture, but the issue is becoming far more pervasive, enveloping our food choices, creating an us versus them culture based upon our chosen diets. You want to be vegan or vegetarian? That’s your choice, but that does not make my choice to raise, eat and sell meat inherently wrong.

In a 2018 Food Literacy study conducted by Michigan State University, 87% of the respondents admit to their buying decisions being influenced by food labels and marketing speak.  While I am a firm believer in production transparency, fearmongering has become a routine tactic.

The biggest offender in my opinion—labeling and advertising products as Non-GMO or gluten-free when there is no GMO version or gluten to begin with! While consumers may fall for such bullying tactics designed to sway their purchases, producers struggle with the decisions in regard to their production practices.

Nowhere has this become more evident to me than on multi-generational farms. Recognizing consumer demand for more environmentally conscious products, the latest generation of farmers struggle in succession from their parents’ and grandparents’ way of farming. It’s tough to watch as a customer asks a young dairy farmer if their cows are entirely grass-fed and then haughtily walk away at the word “no”.  They don’t want to hear how after five generations, the farm is transitioning to organic or grows all their own feeds.  They, as non-farmers, do not understand the impossibility of switching a grain-dependent herd over to solely grass in a single season. To implement such changes can take years, breeding for traits that favor grass-based production.

Even more disturbing is the trend to vilify farmers for their agricultural practices. While being interviewed recently, the host referred to conventional farmers as “devils”. I had to interrupt to clarify that while there are farming practices that are not congruent with our personal values, they are still farmers. In the wake of the horrific flooding in the Midwest and Plain earlier this spring, the images of drowned livestock, pastures with several feet of water, ice, sand and silt, barns and farmhouses underwater had me in tears each time they flashed online. I wasn’t asking if they used antibiotics or chemicals or regenerative practices. Mother Nature didn’t distinguish between a good or bad farmer based upon the ways they chose to farm. For me, they were fellow farmers and my heart ached for what was happening to them.

Everything is a label, a judgement—right down to the choices of what foods to purchase. When asking farmers about their foods, don’t be a snob by walking away as soon as you’ve decided that the buzzwords do not match your criteria. There are plenty of farmers using organic, biodynamic and regenerative practices yet choose not to be certified. I’ve been to plenty of certified farms who have egregious labor violations, pollute their community with an overload of nutrients by raising far more animals than the environment can support and use and excessive amount of CO2-producing inputs such as plastics and fuel. Yet the food snob will not take into consideration any of these factors…only the label, and then judge others for not also purchasing likewise.

Award-winning journalist Tamar Haspel put it best when she tweeted, “There is DANGER here because consumers take away the idea that ONLY stuff with a label like ORGANIC or BIODYNAMIC is RESPONSIBLY GROWN. When in reality some CONVENTIONAL stuff IS and some of that other stuff ISN’T. You can’t know.”

Well, you can know when you shop at the farmers market and take the time to get to know your farmers, their practices and their beliefs. While I don’t pretend to agree with everyone’s way of farming, truly making a difference boils down to actions instead of accusations.