Articles in Agriculture
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday in Lowell, Massachusetts. The regular sights and sounds of the street unfold: sirens blasting, students playing in a courtyard, construction workers hammering away, and the homeless and hungry lining up outside the Lowell Transitional Living Center.
Adjacent to the shelter, tucked into a previously vacant lot, is a scene uncommon in most urban areas. Chef Nick Speros from Project Bread is harvesting arugula, kale, radishes and strawberries to create a fresh salad later in the day with our students. As a member of FoodCorps, I’m helping. People often stop to inquire about our small but productive urban garden oasis. The quick response is, “We’re growing food in Lowell for our community and schools.” But that is just scratching the surface of what we do.
Lowell is a uniquely diverse city. The birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, Lowell is also home to the second-largest Cambodian population in the country. We continue to welcome refugee families into our community while also recognizing our historic roots.
While Lowell celebrates the cultural identities that make up the fabric of our city, the challenges our families face regarding food access and finding food that is culturally relevant are real and urgent. More than 40% of Lowell residents are unable to find culturally appropriate food near their homes, and more than one in three neighborhood stores do not sell any produce at all, according to the Lowell Community Food Assessment. Moreover, nearly 80% of Lowell students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, and 36% of our students are overweight or obese, according to a report, The Status of Childhood Weight in Massachusetts.
Beginning with one garden
In 2011, Mill City Grows’ founders Francey Slater and Lydia Sisson started working with the idea that Lowell could be a place known for its innovative approach to food production and food justice. Mill City Grows (MCG) launched with the creation of a community garden hidden away in an abandoned park.
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The success of that garden created buy-in at multiple levels within the community — from residents to city officials to schools. Soon, the Lowell Public School district was requesting assistance from MCG to build school gardens and provide programming for students across the city. The demand for school gardens is high in Lowell as gardens continue to prove how powerful they are in tackling childhood hunger locally.
The grassroots efforts that MCG embraces are successful. What began as a single community garden has grown into four community gardens located across Lowell, two urban farms, eight school gardens and a Mobile Farmers Market that makes eight stops around the city.
A growing garden program
To sustain this movement and continue deepening its scope, Slater and Sisson realized that they needed to reach out to a national organization to help build their capacity. In 2014, MCG became a FoodCorps service site to support the expanding school garden program in the Lowell Public Schools system, which is expected to grow from eight to 12 schools next year.
FoodCorps is a nationwide team of leaders working to bring children closer to “real food.” As the FoodCorps service member for MCG this year, I have worked with nearly 2,000 Lowell students from grades preK-12 and built three school gardens.
Looking for long-term change
This past September, we created a free farmers market outside one of our schools, sponsored by a local hospital. For eight weeks, we provided beets, kohlrabi, cabbage, apples and tomatoes to hundreds of families, along with information about how to cook with these ingredients. Every week we heard about how grateful families were and how they discovered that their children actually like fruits and vegetables. This fall, we will launch family cooking classes and introduce children and their families to simple and delicious recipes that utilize fresh seasonal vegetables available from their garden plots or our Mobile Market.
The partnership between FoodCorps and Mill City Grows is the recipe for long-term change impacting childhood hunger and food sovereignty in Lowell. The movement that MCG started and FoodCorps is strengthening is integral to increasing food security for our families. The pieces are there for Lowell to be the food-secure community Mill City Grows envisioned it could be four years ago. With FoodCorps, we are starting to put those pieces together.
FoodCorps Service Member Christopher Horne won the 2015 FoodCorps Victory Growers Award “for a compelling account of hunger and food insecurity,” winning a $5,000 prize for his service site, Mill City Grows, in Lowell, Massachusetts. The award, sponsored by C&S Wholesale Grocers, highlights that many children struggle with hunger and food insecurity, and that the food they receive at school is the most important meal they will get all day.
Funding for FoodCorps is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, AmeriCorps and a diverse array of private and public donors. FoodCorps’ host in Massachusetts, The Food Project, works with local partners in Boston, Cambridge, Lynn, Gloucester, Lowell, Holyoke, Lawrence and Chicopee. Find out more about The Food Project and the FoodCorps team in Massachusetts at https://foodcorps.org/where-we-work/massachusetts
Main photo: Students at McAuliffe Elementary help plant radishes as part of a FoodCorps program. Credit: Courtesy of FoodCorps
Extra virgin olive oils made in hot climates have not had a great reputation. Oils from Sicily and Puglia in Italy and Andalusia, Spain, and other Mediterranean regions, where harvest temperatures are often searing, are frequently dismissed by exacting consumers. And with good reason: Far too many suffer from a major defect called fustiness.
What does fustiness taste like? I know it on my palate, but I can’t always summon words to describe it. To me, it tastes like badly preserved black olives and smells like moldy hay in a neglected corner of the barn. (But few people recognize that aroma in this day and age.) Fusty oils lack the complex bitterness, pungency and rich fruitiness that characterize good, fresh, well-made oil. And they usually leave an unpleasant, greasy feeling in your mouth.
The cause of fustiness
But fustiness is so common that for many people it remains the true taste of olive oil. All too often, in rankings of extra virgin olive oils in national publications, it’s the fusty ones that win top honors. Nevertheless, fustiness is a defect, and a major one.
How does this happen? Usually fustiness develops because of a delay between the harvest of the olives and the conversion into oil at the mill. In the days before the use of continuous-cycle, stainless-steel equipment to process olives and produce oil, that delay could last many days, even weeks. In addition, many farmers were convinced that olives left to “rest” after harvest actually yielded more oil. They don’t, and the oil they do yield is defective because olives piled up in a corner of the frantoio (mill) or packed into burlap bags undergo anaerobic, or lactic acid, fermentation, and that’s what produces fustiness. That fermented effect is almost endemic in hot-climate oils where temperatures at harvest are intense, as they often are in October and early November in regions of southern Italy and Spain, as well as North Africa.
A change for the better
Now, growing numbers of smart, usually small-scale producers are changing that hot-climate flavor profile for the better. How? Simply by speeding up the gap between harvest and pressing — the best producers make oil in a matter of hours rather than days — and maintaining a pristine milling environment, sometimes even using air conditioning to cool the mill and storage areas. What that means for discerning consumers is more and better oil from places in the world that were not known for excellence.
I’m a big fan of many southern oils. I’ve written in the past about Pianogrillo from the Monte Iblea mountains in east-central Sicily, a perennial favorite, as well as Olio Verde from the Belice Valley down near the sea on the south coast of the island, and Titone from the west coast between Marsala and Trapani.
Many regions producing quality oils
But recently I’ve been introduced to several other Sicilian oils, including Mastri di San Basilio, made by the Padova family in the Val d’Ispica, a region of southeastern Sicily that is, somewhat surprisingly, south of the city of Tunis. Their riserva is a blend of moresca and rare verdese olives with lots of fresh green almond flavors that make it an ideal garnish for summery vegetables, whether raw or cooked.
Another Sicilian newcomer is Barbàra from the same western region as Titone, made primarily from cerasuola olives mixed with mild biancolilla and the local cultivar nocellara del Belice. Barbàra’s round, fruity flavor ends with pleasantly marked bitterness in the aftertaste. I liked it with a few drops of lemon juice as a garnish for simple grilled fish.
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And then there’s Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, with a climate akin to that of Greece. Olio di Melli’s Re Manfredi oil from the Gargano peninsula, the spur on the heel of the boot, is a lushly piquant oil made from ogliarolo and coratina olives. Another candidate among top southern climate oils is Crudo, made by the family of Gaetano Schiralli from ogliarola olives in Bitetto, not far from Puglia’s Adriatic coast. The name says it all: Crudo means raw. This is an oil to use in its raw state on the fabled platters of raw fish and shellfish that are the specialty of the region. A plate of raw oysters with a drop of raw Crudo on each one is a revelation.
(The Puglia region was hard hit by a vicious Xyllela bacterium last year, but it has not so far been detected in the areas described, and authorities hope to confine it to the Basso Salento.)
Not to be outdone, the Spanish region of Andalusia seems like one vast olive grove stretching across southern Spain. It’s a hot region where the bulk of Spain’s low-cost, highly commercialized production takes place, but it is also home to some extremely astute growers, including Melgarejo, whose oil is highly touted, though I have not tasted it recently. One of my favorites is Castillo de Canena, which wins awards for its growing portfolio, the latest of which is a smoked olive oil. While I hold no brief for flavored olive oils, I think Canena makes some of the finest olive oils in Spain, including especially its picual, which I tasted again very recently — and was once again bowled over by the effect it has on a fresh-from-my-garden tomato, exalting the fruitiness of the tomato without overwhelming it. Just a simple raw tomato, sliced, sprinkled with sea salt, with a glug of Canena’s picual, is a perfect summer lunch at my house. Try it on toast for breakfast!
Olive oil recommendations
Here are some contacts for sourcing these oils. Note that Mastri di San Basilio is shipped from Italy via UPS. The producer, Francesco Padova, has had no problems with this system and ships, he says, all over the world.
Main image: Despite a reputation to the contrary, you can find good quality olive oils from hot climates. Credit: Copyright 2015 Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Three cheers for the nationwide revival of the all-but-lost American hard cider tradition! This renaissance is an outgrowth of spreading interest in locally sourced products and farm-to-table cuisine. Where there were perhaps a dozen artisanal hard cider makers in 2000, today there are 400, with new farm-to-bottle cideries opening every day.
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Tom Wark, a longtime wine industry publicist, launched “The Cider Journal” last year to track artisanal cideries and give vent to his passion for the movement. “These are complex, interesting drinks that are worlds away from the sweet, artificial tasting stuff I used to think was hard cider,” he says. “There is a growing band of dedicated craft cider producers across the country. Some have been at it for years, others not so long. But all of them are artisans.”
From the vast apple orchards of the Northwest to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, here is Zester’s look at some of our favorites.
Main photo: The Rev. Nat West, right, an ordained minister, preaches the gospel of good cider and is renowned for exploring the boundaries of cider making, starting from his basement and now flowing from 12 taps at his northeast Portland, Oregon, taproom. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
New York’s Hudson Valley is fertile terrain for organic farmers. Organic is a gentler, more gracious way of farming, seemingly old-fashioned when compared to the prevailing industrial example, where chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides are used. When asked by those in corporate farming, “How are you going to feed the world?” Ken Kleinpeter of Glynwood Farm in Cold Spring, New York, speaks for many organic farmers when he answers: “I don’t have to feed the world, I have to feed my community, and someone could feed their community, and someone else could feed their community. That’s how we’re going to feed the world.”
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The free banquet for 400, held at the Garrison Landing on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of New York City, was the brainchild of Garrison locals Stacey Farley and Carinda Swann. “And it all started with the plates,” Farley says. “I looked around my kitchen and noted that none of my plates were made in the U.S.A. Seems like if we are going to all the trouble to grow organic fruits and vegetables and grass-fed meats locally for farm to table, why not serve this precious and delicious food on homemade ceramic plates!”
So local artist and potter Lisa Knaus set about over the summer teaching people in the community to make plates. The ensuing meal, served on the plates, included locally grown vegetables, homemade mozzarella, baguettes, chicken and fruit tarts. What ensued was a lovely, generous community meal, a summer’s last prayer before fall, and a gathering of people who will long remember its grace and beauty.
Main photo: Glynwood Farm provided the locally focused meal’s chicken, which was brined and peppered and simply delicious. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton
Late summer and early fall’s sweet and tart bounty are harbingers of cooler temperatures, the start of school, and for me, the Jewish New Year. Jews who celebrate nothing else often head to services for the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and/or the upcoming the day of atonement (Yom Kippur).
Here’s the reason in a one-two-three homily of the day. Instead of saying “Happy New Year,” folks gather in fancy dress-up clothes at services or suppers and wish each other a good and sweet new year. Apple and honey are both good and sweet. Good and sweet — why both?
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Here are some delicious dishes and snacks made with these two ingredients that can grace any fancy table for dinner, breakfast or a snack.
Best wishes for a good and sweet New Year to everyone!
Main photo: This Honey-Lemon Chicken With Apple-Squash Couscous, with plenty of savory shallots in a rich gravy, yearns for a salad, warm pita with hummus and harissa, and a very dry, very citrus-y white wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 TheWeiserKitchen
Would you like to reduce agricultural waste, save water, support innovation, lower your grocery bill and eat farm-fresh produce all at the same time? Imperfect Produce in San Francisco’s East Bay has you covered.
In “Wasted,” a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, scientist Dana Gunder estimated that 40% of all the food produced in the United States is lost due to inefficiencies in the supply chain. Her analysis showed that, in the case of fresh produce, these losses occur before it even hits retail stores, the greatest percentage happening in the field and post-harvest in the packing sheds — primarily as a means of meeting customers’ “expectation of cosmetic perfection.”
Three committed food-waste experts — Ben Chesler, Ben Simon and Ron Clark — founded Imperfect Produce to reduce this waste by developing a supply and distribution network that brings physically “flawed” yet edible, in-season fruits and vegetables culled from packing plants directly to customers’ homes via a weekly delivery service. As the slideshow explains, it’s a perfect solution.
Main photo: Roopam Lunia, director of marketing at the company Imperfect Produce in San Francisco‘s East Bay, shows off an eggplant culled in the packing sheds. Promoters have struggled with descriptors such as “ugly,” “misshapen” or “funny-looking” — but how about “practically perfect”? Credit: Copyright 2015 Seth Joel
Foraging for wild mushrooms can be a fun way for food lovers to enjoy being outdoors before bringing home ingredients for a gourmet meal. However, without years of experience, mushroom hunting can be an exercise in frustration. These insider tips can help you find greater success in your quest.
Be 100% certain of identification
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The first rule of mushroom hunting is to never eat a mushroom unless you are certain that you’ve correctly identified it. One of the best ways to safely learn about mushrooms is to go on a foray with an expert. Seek out your local mycological society. They lead walks for people of all knowledge levels, identifying mushrooms with experienced hunters. These events often end with a mushroom tasting.
Additionally, make certain you know the regulations regarding mushroom collecting in your area. Even if there are no limits or permits issued where you live, obey the greater laws of not taking more than you can use and never leaving a place less beautiful than you found it.
Know your trees
Each species of mushroom grows in a very specific habitat. Mushrooms tend grow in association with a particular tree. If you don’t know how to identify the trees where you are hunting, mushroom foraging is a shot in the dark. Save your time and focus your efforts by researching which tree your desired mushroom grows near or upon.
Scout locations in the off-season
The act of seeking out and collecting mushrooms is time-consuming. When mushroom season comes around, you’ll want to target areas where you have the best chance of finding them. Take advantage of times outside prime mushroom season to walk new trails, carefully noting habitat.
Mine the Internet
Your local mushroom club more than likely has social media groups where you can post questions, arrange forays and share pictures. You can use that information for clues about when and where to hunt. If many people in your region start to share pictures of the mushroom you desire, then you know it is time to hit your favorite spot.
When it comes to searching the Internet for mushroom hunting information, don’t underestimate unusual sources. Hiking blogs will often mention what kinds of trees are alongside a trail and will share pictures of “toadstools” seen on the hike. If you know that fly agarics grow in the same area as porcini, and you see a picture of a red-capped mushroom with white spots on a hiking blog, you’ll know it’s a trail where you’d have a good chance of finding fungal gold.
Keep a journal
Note the date and location of your forays, which species you saw, what the conditions looked like (Is the ground too dry or too wet? Is a particular flower in bloom, or a kind of fruit ripe?), as well has the number or weight of each species of mushrooms you collect. Also, record the weather patterns in the time leading up to and during mushroom season. This information is invaluable in learning the fruiting patterns of mushrooms, as well as predicting when and where a flush will occur from year to year.
Learn a few less-loved edible mushrooms
If you know every hunter in your area will be looking for a choice mushroom, it’s nice to know some less obvious edibles in case an area has already been picked over, or isn’t flushing. In the Rockies, a mushroom that looks like a hawk’s wing, Sarcodon imbricatus, grows in the same habitat as porcini. Some don’t know it is edible, others find its flavor too strong, so it isn’t often harvested. However, it’s a wonderful mushroom to dry for the pantry because that beefy mushroom flavor gives muscle to deep-winter dishes such as stew.
Field dress your foraging finds
Mushroom knives almost always come with a brush attached to aid in cleaning at the time of harvest. Gilled, pored, and toothed undersides of caps grab onto dirt and won’t let go when dirty mushrooms are jumbled together for the ride home. Field dressing saves time in the long run.
Be prepared for bugs
Mushroom hunting can be a dirty affair in the obvious way. Stalking through the forest, plucking mushrooms and kneeling on the ground can leave you filthy. What may not be known to the novice is that many species of mushrooms are as loved by bugs as they are by humans. You may think you’ve found a beautiful specimen, only to discover that it’s riddled with squirmy larvae.
Factor in cleaning time
You’ve have had a glorious day on the trail, joyfully picking pounds and pounds of your favorite mushroom. When you get home, all you want to do is take a shower and kick up your feet. Not so fast! Mushrooms are perishable, and some, particularly ones that may have bugs inside, should be cleaned and cooked or prepared for storage immediately. Depending upon the species and how many you have collected, this can take quite a bit of time and tends to feel tedious compared to the high of finding wild edible mushrooms. The task of cleaning mushrooms is undoubtedly made more pleasant by good company and a nice drink.
Learn how to store each species of mushroom
There is no one method that is fit for preserving all mushrooms. Porcini excel as dried mushrooms. Their flavor actually concentrates and improves. Chanterelles, on the other hand, lose their magical aroma and silky texture when dried, and are better frozen. Knowing how each species is best preserved saves the frustration of discovering too late that the mushrooms you put up are no longer as tasty as they could be.
Main photo: Each species of mushroom grows in a very specific habitat. Credit: Copyright 2015 Wendy Petty
Chickens came into my life in an unexpected way. I am a city girl. I was raised in the suburbs of New York City and later lived in the city and in Boston. I neither thought of nor envisioned raising backyard chickens. But my move to the Berkshires of western Massachusetts — Stockbridge, to be exact — and the little boy, Matthew, who would become my stepson, changed all that.
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We didn’t buy those chicks that day, but I did promise that we’d get some when we returned home. Being a new stepmom, I had no idea — let me say that again, no idea — my seemingly clever solution to not buying the chicks in Montana, an intended false promise that I was sure Matthew would soon forget, would result in my love affair with chickens and an amazing bond with my stepson.
Raising backyard chickens has increased in popularity in recent years. An online survey of backyard chicken owners, by the Poultry Science Association in 2014, found that nearly three-quarters of the nearly 1,500 respondents owned fewer than 10 chickens. And the major reasons for raising backyard chickens were as food for home use (95%), gardening partners (63%), pets (57%) or a combination of all three.
Here are my “top fives” — breeds to own and reasons to raise backyard chickens.
Top breeds to own
I have bought my chickens from a variety of sources, from the local Agway or Tractor Supply to mail-ordering them from Murray McMurray’s. Storey Publishing has a great book about breeds and raising chickens. Here are my favorite five:
Easy to care for
Chickens need a safe roosting spot at night to protect them from land and air predators such as coyote or owls. They need an area to peck around outside. Our chickens are free to roam, but you can build a caged area or get movable solar-electric fencing. The chickens need fresh water and chicken food. Local nursery or tractor supply stores carry chicken feed.
Our backyard chickens’ antics immediately melt away any negative feelings or issues I might be carrying from my daily activities. With a side-eye glance, the chickens quickly communicate to me how they love seeing the hand that feeds them. And, of course, what do I do? I feed them. I would be an excellent Pavlovian subject. Chickens have great personalities. They are playful and social. Last summer, one of our chickens, Honey Bunny, was in love with my husband. He was working on the barn and would hear rustling and out would pop Honey Bunny. She was so present during the project that she even managed to imprint her feet in the concrete footing. If that doesn’t provide a good giggle, I don’t know what will.
They become family pets
Many days when I arrive home, I am greeted by the joyful explosion of rapid wing-fluttering, running chickens. Who knew they could bond so strongly with human caretakers and be so excited to see us? The bonding happens at the human level as well. For me, chickens, like most pets, become family members. Adults and kids alike fall in love with the spirited personalities, joyful antics and the wonderful communicative noises of the chickens. While we all recognize the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster, the hens trill, purr and cluck — each in her own voice. I have learned to discern sounds of contentedness versus fear.
When you’ve got chickens, you’ve got eggs. And that means your neighbors quickly become your friends as there is nothing better than fresh eggs! The eggs also make great hostess gifts. My stepson had a great egg business for a while — he sold eggs to many neighbors and friends who both loved seeing this proud little boy but also enjoyed the rich eggs.
Who doesn’t love fresh eggs?
This may be the most obvious of all … but the eggs are perfection. Once you have had an egg from pasture-raised chickens that eat bugs, grass and the like, you will find store-bought eggs tasteless and anemic.
Their yolks are the color of the setting sun, their texture and fresh extraordinary taste are unparalleled. Poached eggs on toast are perhaps the best way to relish the perfection of the egg and its taste, while a frittata, in any flavor, offers a perfect simple lunch or dinner entrée.
Perfect Poached Eggs
Prep time: 1 to 2 minute
Cook time: 3 to 8 minutes
Total time: 4 to 10 minutes
Yield: 1 serving
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
Toast of your choice
Salt and pepper
1. Boil water in a sauté pan with white wine vinegar.
2. Crack egg and boil until preferred doneness.
3. Placed on buttered toast.
4. Add salt and pepper, and savor each bite.
Prep time: 10 to 15
Cook time: 35 to 40
Total time: 45 to 55 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 potatoes, boiled and sliced
1 onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
6 eggs, well-beaten
1/2 cup cheddar
Chives, chopped for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Heat the olive oil in a medium frying pan, making sure the sides are well coated.
3. Add the potatoes and onion and sauté until nicely browned. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Add the eggs and sauté over medium heat for a minute or two until the eggs set up, remove from heat.
4. Sprinkle cheddar on top and place in oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven. Take a spatula around the edges and slide frittata onto a plate.
5. Slice and garnish with chopped chives.
Main photo: Teenage chickens rule the roost. Credit: Copyright Carole Murko