We’re farmers, too!

Just because you can’t eat it doesn’t mean it wasn’t farmed. While food is first and foremost at farmers markets there are several vendors who are every bit farmers in the sense that they grow the products they offer…but you can’t eat them.

Flowers

Nothing puts an immediate smile on shoppers faces like gorgeous flowers. The vibrant colors and assorted shapes offer instant happiness. While it is still early in the season for the full spectrum of garden bouquets, there are still plenty of blooms to grace the lives of Central Farm Markets customers.

Floradise Orchids, the newest flower vendor at Bethesda, have been cultivating orchids since 1979. They grow hundreds of varieties and have a dedicated following of enthusiasts. In addition to selling individual plants at the market, their lovely orchids are often seen in professional offices, lobbies, restaurants, spas and embassies throughout the DMV area.

For those wanting fresh-cut flowers and bouquets, Wollam Gardens (Bethesda), Sunnyside Flowers (Pike), and Cabin Hill Farm (Mosaic) all offer individual stems and bouquets. Just like fruits and vegetables, flowers have their own seasons. Jeanette Smith of Cabin Hill Farm explained the differences between winter and summer annuals. “The flowers showing up at market this time of year have been slowly growing since last fall like rudbeckia, snap dragons, stock, Canterbury Bells and bachelor buttons. As the summer heats up, those give way to sunflowers, zinnias, statice, amaranth and celosia that were planted in May after the threat of frost. As cooler weather arrives in the fall, the brilliant dahlias and asters make their way to the market.”

Claire O’Brien, grower and florist at Sunnyside Flowers, also pointed out that just like other farmers who make educated choices on the varieties and species which best serve their market, flower growers do the same. For instance, growing the varieties of sunflowers specific to cut flowers which do not produce pollen or ones that stay nice for the entire week, if not longer, such as lisianthus.

Fiber

Just as colorful and unique as market flowers, the yarns and knitted wares at Kiparoo Farm (Bethesda) are farmed products. Driving back the lane to Annie Kelly’s 158-acre working sheep and dairy farm, visitors are greeted by her flock of Border Leicester sheep grazing peacefully in lush green pastures. But wait…they’re all white. The magic happens in a small building behind the farmhouse where kettles of color meet skeins of white yarn after it returns from the mill where it is sorted, cleaned, carded and spun into various types of yarns. When I visited Kiparoo Farm last spring, I saw an entire shed full of freshly shorn fleeces bagged up and ready to be sent off for processing which showed up at the market in the fall as yarn ready for winter projects.

Every bit of a farmer as the rest of us, I look forward to exchanging the “what did your sheep do this week?” stories with Annie in a comforting comradery of validation to our agrarian lives.

For those who want to see where your wool comes from, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday (April 20, 21 and 22) is the Countryside Artisan Studio Tour and Kiparoo Farm is one of the stops. There will be lots of lambs to cuddle. NOTE: Kiparoo Farm will not be at Bethesda Central Farmers Market this Sunday due to the studio tour.

Advertisements

Market Mashups

Recently I became involved in a heated discussion about prepared food vendors at farmers markets. My antagonist, a fellow farmer, maintained their moral superiority for attending a “producer-only” market claiming that many farmers markets have become upscale mobile food courts.

“Are you still eating gas station breakfast burritos and Starbuck’s muffins and coffee for breakfast on market day?” I asked. Their silent glare was all I needed to know I had stepped on a nerve. To add insult, I whipped out my iPhone and pulled up a few pictures – a wood-fired pizza topped with chorizo and cilantro sprouts, a rice bowl with pickled vegetables and Korean BBQ topped with a fried egg.

“Yeah, that looks good, but they probably shop at Costco,” was the retort.

*Queue sound of game show buzzer for wrong answer*

“No. Actually, I watch each week as the prepared food vendors walk around the hour prior to the opening of market to pick out their ingredients for the day. Some even get from me so I’m essentially eating my own food that I didn’t have to cook.” But my conversation didn’t stop there.

Statistics reported that in 2017 50.3 million people ate at a fast-food restaurant ten or more times in thirty days and twenty million dined in a sit-down restaurant in the same period.

Recognizing the growing number of people who want convenience combined with fresh, locally produced foods, farmers markets have evolved to meet consumer demands.

To set the bar, Central Farm Markets includes specific guidelines in their operating regulations for vendors to maximize the use of local products. For instance, condiments such as mustard and ketchup must be made by or for the vendor selling it using local produce.

There is more collaboration between vendors taking place at farmers markets than ever before. Didn’t get to see the prepared food vendors shopping first thing in the morning on market day? Stick around after the close of market and you’ll see scenes such as Heirloom Kitchen gathering up ingredients from fellow vendors that will return to market as delicious soups, fermented foods makers with crates of raw ingredients and bakers amassing fruits and cheeses.

The latest generation of market vendors are taking prepared foods to the next level. The Gather Company provides culinary services, including prepared meals that use ingredients fresh from the market.

In addition to the feel-good atmosphere of vendors helping vendors, Central Farm Markets considers the waste associated with ready-to-eat products. Vendors serving foods that are prepared for consumption at the market are asked to use compostable or recyclable plate-ware and cutlery. No poly foam containers are permitted.

Having prepared foods that used ingredients from the markets has a bonus. Consumers get to taste ingredients they may easily overlook at the market because they are unfamiliar with their preparation.

Look for market mash-ups throughout the season as vendors enjoy pointing out when they combine other producers’ ingredients to cook up a delicious success.

Biking to Market

With the arrival of warmer weather, everyone wants to maximize their time outdoors. For some, this means riding their bicycles to their favorite farmers market. By utilizing baskets, saddle bags and even a backpack, shoppers can stock up on local goods while getting to market on two wheels instead of four. In addition to exercise and sunshine, there’s an added bonus – not having to worry about a parking spot!

Getting There

From Bethesda to Georgetown, the Capital Crescent Trail is a 9-feet wide asphalt path providing easy access to Pike, Bethesda and Central Farm Market at Westfield Montgomery. For the Mosaic market, two popular trails – the Cross Country Trail and the W&OD offer plenty of bike access and low stress bike friendly street routes in and around Mosaic District.

There are bike racks for parking at Westfield, Mosaic and Pike. At Bethesda, riders often use sign poles located on the market ground or stash their bike next to a keen vendor who will keep an eye on their bike while they shop.

Packing is Key

Over the years I’ve seen everything from chefs balancing two whole pigs on either side of their rear tires to a mother toting two kids along with a week’s worth of groceries on a Surly Big Dummy. Bike culture abounds in the region and customers can be seen biking to market in the most brutal conditions. There is one thing on which they all agree – packing market bounty makes all the difference in getting it home intact.

There are numerous ways to carry items on a bike – saddle bags on the front, back or both, a basket affixed to the front and/or rear and a backpack/messenger bag. Saddle bags that easily attach/detach to the frame can double as market bags which means you won’t be tempted to buy more than you can carry.

Homemade or purchased equipment doesn’t matter as the laws of physics apply the same to both. Here are tips for carrying your purchases home from Central Farm Markets on your bicycle:

  • Distribute the weight evenly, packing the heaviest and most durable items in the bottom of the carrier and the most delicate on top.
  • Separate cold and warm goods, either in separate carriers or with a physical barrier. Keep cold items together. An insulated bag works great. Frozen products double as cold packs for perishable items such as cheeses, yogurt and milk.
  • Consider double-bagging anything with the potential to break or leak.
  • Carry a supply of rubber bands to add extra security to items such as eggs and to-go food containers. Small bungee cords are a plus for securing odd sized items. For delicate fruits that can bruise and glass containers, add a few sheets of bubble wrap to your totes for cushioning.

The Next Generation of Family Dairy Farmers

Photo by Rock Hill Orchard

Over the last few weeks stories of despair have appeared in the news and on social media regarding the plight of family diary farmers. Record low prices that don’t even cover the costs of production combined with cancelled processing contracts have hundreds of dairies throughout the country selling their milking herds and turning out the lights. Digital memes ask us to buy an extra gallon of milk or order extra cheese on our pizzas and tacos and when all else fails, there’s always thoughts and prayers.

According to the USDA, the cost of milk production in the United State averaged $22.27 per hundred weight. [Note: milk is sold by the hundred-weight, abbreviated cwt. A gallon of whole, raw milk weighs 8.6 pounds so there are 11.63 gallons in cwt]. Unfortunately, the current price per cwt, which is set by the government based upon the commodity price of a 40-pound block of cheese on the Chicago Exchange, is currently around $11.75 cwt, about half of production costs.

Unlike water faucets, cows cannot be turned off. Even when dry, meaning they are not in milk production, cows still must be fed, housed and bedded. Since many dairies have bred their cows for numerous generations to have the traits specific to that farm’s needs and environment, cows are not something that get bought and sold as prices for milk fluctuate. Add to that the personal interaction from twice daily milking, cows tend to become part of the family. When dairy farmers lose their cows, it cuts far deeper than merely losing a job. It’s no wonder dairy processors are including suicide hotline numbers along with dwindling milk checks and contract cancellation letters.

The renaissance of artisan cheese and farmstead creameries can be directly attributed to the backlash to the “get big or get out” mentality of the USDA in the 1970’s. In the mid 1980’s rising costs and shrinking commodity prices brought about major agricultural losses spawning Farm Aid and other non-profit organizations geared toward helping farmers once again become profitable.

When you purchase milk, ice cream, yogurt or cheese at Central Farm Markets, you are ahead of the pack and for that matter, so are the farmers. By choosing to bottle their own fluid milk or turn it into value-added products such as cheeses, yogurt, and ice cream that are retailed directly to customers, smaller dairies have been able to stay afloat and even thrive in the hostile commodity dairy arena.

I spoke with a few of Central Farm Markets’ dairy product vendors to help our customers better understand the economics of small dairies, farmstead, and artisan creameries.

Photo by Rock Hill Orchard

Fluid Milk & Ice Cream

“If we were milking cows to ship milk to a processor we might as well dump it down the drain,” said John Fendrick, the friendly face at Rock Hill Orchard at the Bethesda Central Farm Market.

As many multi-generational dairy farmers were planning their exit strategy, John and his family chose to build a dairy from the ground up and in 2013 began milking a small herd of Guernsey cows, processing their own milk and selling directly off their farm and at market. They were the first new dairy to open in Montgomery County in over sixty years and are part of the county’s agricultural reserve.

John credits their success to several factors. First, the project was planned from the start to be sized appropriately to sell everything at their on-farm market and farmers market. Instead of milking hundreds of cows, Rock Hill only milks around 35 cows, a number that rises and falls depending upon the season. Secondly, their cows are grass-fed using managed intensive grazing which means they are moved several times a day to fresh pasture. This provides Rock Hill with premium cream line milk to bottle or to turn into delicious ice cream. And third, they opted for a robotic milking machine. Yes…a robot. By utilizing the latest technologies in dairy automation, John can minimize his labor. “Cows milk when they want to milk. It’s on their routine, not mine which makes for happier cows.”

The final factor of Rock Hill’s success has been the return to diversified farming. Although customers only see bottled milk, ice cream and honey at the market, Rock Hill raises vegetables and fruits, including the ingredients for their ice cream flavors such as peach and ginger.

Aging washed rind cheese

Artisan Cheeses

If you want to compare the price of a cloth-bound and waxed cheddar to what is available at the grocery store, there’s no denying the hand-crafted wedge is going to be several times the cost of a plain, vacuum-sealed block from a national producer.

Customers new to locally produced artisan cheeses sometimes experience sticker shock, however, the cost of the cheese is a more accurate reflection of the true cost of production. Farmstead and artisan cheese makers rely on the quality of their raw ingredient – the milk – which is dependent on multiple factors including the breed of cow (or goat or sheep) and how it is fed while producing milk. Once they have produced or purchased high-quality fluid milk, it must then be turned into cheese.

According to Susan James, proprietor of Stonyman Gourmet Farmer (at all CFM markets), there are many factors that go into producing fine cheeses. “It depends on the breed of cows, what they are eating, how they are kept,” she began.

Small-scale cheesemaking requires a significant investment in a plant and approved stainless steel or copper vats. Some types of cheeses, such as soft, fresh cheeses require a pasteurizer – a very costly piece of equipment. Add in cultures, inoculants, coagulants, salts, cheese molds, presses and specialized tools such as curd cutters, cheddar mills, bluing needles and production costs on top of the milk begin to grow.

Hold on, there’s more. Once the cheeses are made, molded and pressed, affinage (aging) begins. This is much more than simply setting blocks or wheels on a shelf. Storage must be in temperature and humidity-controlled environments and each cheese must be regularly inspected to ensure it has not contracted any rogue bacteria, fungus or mites. Some cheeses are washed in beer or wine, some brined in large tanks with special salts, others rubbed with olive oil or lard and some sprayed with an additional inoculant all to develop an outer rind.

“There is a big difference between a wine that is two years old versus one that has aged for ten years to develop character. The same is true for cheese. Affinage can turn a good cheese into a great cheese,” explained Susan James.

For producers of raw-milk cheeses (meaning the milk is not pasteurized prior to production), their products must be aged a minimum of 60 days to meet FDA requirements. That is two full months before the producer can begin to recoup their costs. The bottom line is that storage costs money.

When the time comes to sell, add in cutting, packaging, labeling, and getting the cheese to the customer. Those expenses add up and must be reflected in the final cost of the product.

As one of the founding vendors at Central Farm Markets, Stonyman Gourmet Farmer has seen the demand for quality local cheeses grow. “Our customers demand better and better cheeses.”

The question of why dairy producers go to great lengths is often asked. Dairy farmers are by far the most passionate agriculturalists there are. They will work full-time jobs in addition to farming and cheesemaking (both full-time jobs in their own right) to afford their craft while building a business. Their livelihoods are dependent upon nature – the weather, the seasons, their livestock. One common thread in successful dairy producers is their fierce independence and dedication to their craft. The vendors at farmers markets who offer dairy products have overcome incredible odds in an environment where the deck has been stacked against small producers. They have survived and thrived because of customer support and thanks to you, they are here to stay.

 

Spring, Where Are You?

Yesterday (March 20) was the first day of spring and the picture above was the view outside my window as I sat down to write. “No, there are not any fresh pastured chickens available,” I will be telling customers for the next two months.

Compared to last year, this winter has not been very nice to the farmers, yet we have managed to do our best to keep the local foods flowing despite polar vortices, rainy weather and frigid windy conditions. Driving a box truck on the highway in gusts of fifty miles an hour is a white-knuckle adventure. Forget setting up a tent shade or risk losing a piece of equipment that will cost hundreds, if not more, to replace. Seriously. Did you see that walk-in outfit The Mushroom Stand had in the twenty-degree weather to shield their fragile fungi from the frigid cold? Add to that the cost of a propane heater rig and the fuel to fire it off for hours.

But we’re trying to usher in the new season…we promise. Here are some of the ways in which the Central Farm Markets vendors are working hard behind the scenes to bring you the best possible products from the mid-Atlantic region.

Bending Bridge Farm greenhouse

Fruits & Vegetables

New greenhouses are being set up. Existing ones are full of flats in which seeds are quickly germinating into young starts that will be planted into the fields now being plowed even if the farmers must bundle up in several layers to fend off frosty conditions. Next will come miles of black plastic mulch to deter weeds and eliminate the need for herbicides. Mulch also helps retain soil warmth and moisture. Tomato stakes will be pounded into the ground, floating row covers prepared to unfurl and weight down, and netting set up to protect succulent berries from being decimated by birds.

Orchard crews have been busy pruning trees and canes to promote larger fruits and prolific berry production. Planning for years ahead, not just seasons, orchardists – especially those who produce artisan ciders – are grafting heirloom varieties of apples and pears found by exploring old hedgerows in former orchards spanning the last two centuries.

While most fruit and vegetable operations can function with a core crew over the winter months, farms are labor-intensive and require the use of seasonal labor which means hiring people in addition to the current workload.

With several of the Central Farm Markets vendors being Certified Organic, spring also brings lots of paperwork. This is the time of the year when Certified Organic farms must submit their annual review which includes an updated field plan of what will be grown and the types of fertilizers and compost used. For a diversified fruit or vegetable farm these documents are incredibly detailed and complex, taking weeks of office time to complete.

Meats

To get livestock from our pastures to your plates involves far more than most customers understand. Prior to an animal stepping on the trailer for its final trip before going to market in a plastic bag, there are a multitude of seasonal activities, especially in spring.

If the animals have not already been born over the winter months, the pregnant females are waddling around ready to pop with the first greening of the grass. Birthing babies is a 24/7 venture leaving farmers bleary-eyed whether they are bound for the fields or market.

But before that grass can get green, farmers need to be out there fertilizing which usually involves lots of manure, soiled bedding such as straw and plenty of saddle time on their tractor hauling a manure spreader. Other types of spreaders we’ll tow around include a lime spreader (the white powder, not the green citrus) and a seed spreader. There are also things such as spring-toothed harrows to scratch up the soil so seeds have nooks and crannies into which they can fall so they are not blown away by the wind or eaten by birds, a drag or cultipacker to cover the seeds or even a seed drill which puts seeds into the ground at a specific depth for optimal germination.

And then there are chickens which begin arriving in the mail as day-old peeps. Order too soon and by the time they are done in the brooder (the enclosed, heated area where they go from being fluffy to feathered), the weather is still too cold to put them outside on pasture. They will eat food to stay warm, not grow. A scrawny broiler is a loss for both farmer and customer.

Photo by Bending Bridge Farm

For Everyone

With the main market season now less than a month away, all the vendors are taking inventory of their equipment, fixing what needs to be fixed and replacing the worn out and broken. Trust me, setting up and taking down signs, banners, tents, shades and tables combined with the jostling in and out of vehicles puts quite a beating on the equipment.

Prepared food vendors are renewing requisite licenses and reviewing the regulations to ensure their food preparation set-ups meet all the federal, state and municipal health codes.

There is a flurry of activity to communicate with customers, be it social media, newsletters, or blogs. Customers want to know what’s going on both at the farms and markets. If you haven’t already done so, sign up for the Central Farm Markets weekly eBlast to stay in touch or follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

And don’t worry, spring is on the way. We promise.

 

Pies & Shamrocks

Another week with multiple celebrations!

Today we start out with math geeks and bakers favorite – Pi Day. Growing in popularity, this new national holiday was recognized by Congress in 2009. Pi Day – March 14th (aka 3.14) –  was first celebrated in 1988 by Larry Shaw, a physicist at the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum in San Francisco. Shaw thought the date fortuitous as it was also Albert Einstein’s birthday. The first party included circular themes, a circular parade and pie-eating festivities.

This modern holiday offers nerds the opportunity to crack math puns as well as a great excuse to bake and eat pie.

What do you get when you take a bovine and divide it by its circumference?

A cow pi.

But what does pi have to do with pie?

In mathematics, pi is the constant ratio of a circle’s circumference to the diameter. The Greek letter denoting pi is derived from the Greek word for circumference – perimetros. Pies are the perfect way to celebrate Pi Day because they are circles.

Silly as it may sound, the discovery of pi is considered one of the greatest mathematical achievements leading to the creation of modern engineering and architecture.

So, bake up a pie today for Pi Day.

If pie isn’t your thing, there’s still another cause for celebration this week – Saint Patrick’s Day.

Not Irish? Don’t worry, neither was Saint Patrick; he was a Roman Briton who was kidnapped by pirates as a teenager and sold into slavery in Ireland to tend sheep. After escaping, he returned to Wales and then traveled to France where he became a priest before returning to Ireland where he was a missionary for forty years.

Saint Patrick’s Day didn’t even originate in Ireland – it began in 1737 with the Charitable Irish Society in Boston. It was basically a big party among a group of Irish immigrants in the Massachusetts colony to celebrate their heritage and to promote unity within the community. Given the revelry with rowdy parades and drinking, the tradition caught on and has expanded globally as a way for the Irish to celebrate their ancestry and for others to wear green, get pinched for not wearing green, to bake soda bread, eat corned beef and cabbage, and of course, tipple some Irish whiskey with a shamrock floating on top for good luck.

As with most celebrations, food plays an integral part of Saint Patrick’s Day. Chances are this holiday would not have come about if it weren’t for a blight-causing mold which led to famine in the Emerald Isle after four consecutive years of crop failure beginning in 1845. By 1850, over a million poor Irish – considered refugees – relocated in the United States, overwhelming cities on the eastern seaboard.

Corned beef and cabbage are not traditional Irish foods but were what immigrants substituted in place of their traditional bacon and lamb, which were costly in late nineteenth-century America. In Ireland, cattle were valuable as draft animals and not slaughtered for food unless injured or old. Beef was considered a luxury. However, in the United States, beef was plentiful and relatively inexpensive. To feed large groups of people, Irish immigrants turned to beef brisket – the cheapest large cut of meat that cured well in coarse salt – the “corns” – and cabbage as an alternative.

Similarly, soda bread did not become an Irish staple until after 1843 when baking soda became commercially available as an alternative leavening agent. When combined with the lactic acid in soured milk, tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide formed to raise the dough. It was a creation designed to utilize poor quality wheat during the potato famine and large quantities of bicarbonate were distributed to the underprivileged as it was much less expensive than yeast. Creameries were able to sell what was essentially a waste product – old milk – to the impoverished so they could make bread using soda. Modern recipes call for buttermilk, yogurt and even stout beer to provide lactic acid.

If you want to give Irish Soda Bread a try this Saint Patrick’s Day, here’s a recipe from The Art of Irish Cooking by Monica Sheridan (1965).

Brown Bread

Ingredients

  • 4 cups Stone Ground Whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups White flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp Baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp Salt
  • 2 cups Buttermilk

Preparation

Mix the whole wheat flour thoroughly with the white flour, salt, and baking soda.
Make a well in the center and gradually mix in the liquid. Stir with a wooden spoon. You may need less, or more liquid – it depends on the absorbent quality of the flour.

The dough should be soft but manageable. Knead the dough into a ball in the mixing bowl with your floured hands. Put on a lightly floured baking sheet and with the palm of your hand flatten out in a circle 1 1/2 inches thick.

With a knife dipped in flour, make a cross through the center of the bread so that it will easily break into quarters when it is baked. Bake at 425 degrees for 25 minutes, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake a further 15 minutes. If the crust seems too hard, wrap the baked bread in a damp tea cloth. Leave the loaf standing upright until it is cool. The bread should not be cut until it has set – about 6 hours after it comes out of the oven.

What is Fair Trade?

Over the years I’ve received about every question one could ask – are your products grass-fed, organic, humane, biodynamic, local, sustainable, vegetarian-fed, predator friendly, non-GMO? The answers always serve as a teaching moment to explain the importance, hype and impact which precipitated the question.

But last Sunday was the first time anyone asked if my stuff was “Fair Trade.” Before I could offer my explanation, the customer threw up her hands in exasperation, spun on her heels and stormed away. Ma’am, if you are reading this week’s Dishing the Dirt blog post, it’s dedicated to you.

What is Fair Trade?

Fair Trade began as a social movement to help producers in developing countries cultivate better trading conditions and to promote sustainable agricultural practices. Fair Trade products Central Farm Markets customers most likely encounter are coffee, chocolate, tea, spices and sugar.

The basic tenets of Fair Trade designation are:

  • Farmers are paid an equitable price for their goods covering the cost of production plus a profit to ensure a decent standard of living. Similarly, living wages for workers is factored into the cost.
  • Neither slave or child labor is used in the production.
  • There are working hours and conditions standards for safety and healthy.
  • To sustainably manage resources to benefit the environment.

The Fair Trade movement has been around since the 1940’s, and was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1968. As it has matured, offshoots promoting specialized agricultural practices such as shade-grown (better for birds, less chemical use) as well as social justice causes (women-owned cooperatives).

Since Fair Trade only involves imported goods, one will not find Fair Trade produce or meat products at Central Farm Markets. The proper questions to ask should focus on domestic third-party certifications. Here are a few to consider.

  • Certified Organic
  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • GAP Certified
  • Certified Naturally Grown
  • Certified Humane

Keep in mind that many of the producers who opt for third-party certifications are often selling to retailers in addition to participating in regional farmers markets where they are interacting directly with their customers. Third-party certifications are a tool in remaining competitive in a wholesale environment and often required by retailers.

Each certification requires extensive record-keeping, which for mid-sized farms might mean hiring an extra person just to do the paperwork. Smaller farms may not have the income to pursue third-party certifications or prefer to devote their resources to tangible agricultural practices, such as infrastructure, training and quality of life.

As one of my fellow vendors explained, “My customers know me, they trust me. I can spend the money on a piece of paper and a fancy logo on my label or I can take my family on vacation.”

For our customers, if you are concerned about our agricultural practices, just ask us, and please be prepared to listen to our answers. We’ll feed your mind, as well as your body.

A Taste of What’s to Come

Wasn’t that 70-degree weather lovely last week? I took advantage of it to clear out a few gardens from the detritus of last year in want of slipping some early seeds into the warming earth. The local garden center had lines as long as those waiting for tender salad greens at Young Harvests on a Sunday at Bethesda Central.

But Mother Nature is a tease, dancing away in full burlesque only revealing enough to get us excited before dropping her skirt back to a seasonal modesty.

As much as I want to sow a few rows of turnips, beets and carrots, my livestock is telling me that winter is not quite done. Animals never lie. Some of the cross-bred wool/hair sheep have begun rooing which is when their heavy winter fleece begins to peel away from the shorter undercoat as warm weather approaches. Long wisps have begun hanging from their necks, but the rugs on their backs are still firmly in place. Similarly, the Great Pyrenees Livestock Guardian Dogs have yet to leave swaths of downy white fluff on everything they touch – including me. The rest of the animals are firmly holding on to their winter coats. And then it will happen all at once, a fur storm as everyone rubs, rolls, scratches and grooms away winter. But we’re not there yet.

Instead, we are firmly planted in Mud Season, that boot sucking time of the year trying even the most stalwart farmer’s patience. Remember, plants grow in dirt. Water + dirt = mud. When snow and ice melt, we get mud. When it rains, we get mud. No matter what recipe you use, Mud Pie is on the menu for the next several weeks until temperatures stay above freezing consistently. Early season practices such as floating row covers and mulch don’t help if the fields are too wet to work. Turning livestock on to soggy pastures is a sure way to ruin fields for future grazing so for now we’re resigned to stockpiled or purchased hay.

Though the sun may shine, and temperatures soar near 80, we know to jump the gun means tractors tearing ruts in our fields, expensive seeds lost erosion or to the next hard freeze as temperatures dip into the twenties which, according to weather forecasters should happen the second week of March. No, we’re not done with winter.

And for that matter, neither is Central Farm Markets. Our Winter Loyalty Program is still in full swing. If you haven’t been keeping up with it or even begun, there is still an opportunity to earn a $5 gift certificate if you sign up at the market information tent this week. Just visit our markets four times between now and March 25th, the last winter market before we go back to regular season hours of 9am to 1:30pm on April 1st.

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.

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.