Articles in Family Farms
As befits the City of the Big Shoulders, the Chicago outpost of the food emporium Eataly, which opened last week, is the largest to date, with two floors totaling 63,000 square feet and containing some 10,000 products, 23 eateries, 21 retail areas devoted to specific products, two espresso bars, two wine bars, a Nutella bar and a fine-dining restaurant.
While Eataly is a huge space with an immense number of offerings, it’s quite the opposite of the alienating experience of mega-grocery stores. Instead of dutifully pushing a cart up and down sterile, fluorescent-lighted aisles, getting your nameless, faceless (and often tasteless) boxed and canned goods, you pleasantly wander past floor-to-ceiling windows and in and out of a maze of small eateries and counters. Each counter is dedicated to a specific item: vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, olive oil, beer, wine and much more.
Bringing an Old World market experience to modern urban shopping
About halfway through my meander, it occurred to me that Eataly is the perfect marriage of old and new. It’s a place where the Old World 10-stop shopping experience (going to the fishmonger, the sausage maker, the cheese shop, the baker, and a half dozen other small shops), meets the convenience of the New World one-stop shopping experience.
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And there are plenty of eating and drinking opportunities to indulge in while you shop. You can stop at the pizza corner for a true Neapolitan pizza, the fritto stand for fried foods, the rosticceria for roasted meats or the panini shop for a sandwich. For drinks, there’s a beer hall and two cafes, one upstairs and one down. Wines are served in the central piazza area, which is crowned with a Hemingway quote: “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”
In fact, the Eataly Chicago is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway. This may seem incongruous, but Eataly’s founder, industrialist Oscar Farinetti, a great fan of Hemingway’s work, explains that the author was born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and spent significant parts of his life in Italy. That he was also a man of large appetites is just icing on the cake.
I’ve been making pilgrimages to Eataly ever since the first one opened in 2007 in an old vermouth warehouse in the Lingotto district of Turin, at the far end of the Fiat factory. Farinetti’s brainchild is a paean to food that is “good, clean and fair.” These are the watchwords of Farinetti’s friend, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, who champions food that is delicious and untainted by chemicals. He also is devoted to treating farmers and food workers fairly. Farinetti and Petrini want shoppers to stop being passive consumers and instead become active “co-producers” by learning who produced what food, and how, and why that’s important.
In fact, one tenet of the Eataly Manifesto is “Eat. Shop. Learn.” Another tenet explains: “We feel that it’s not just important that we know everything about what we sell and serve, but that you also learn about the products we are so passionate about. We share with you the stories of the people and places behind all that we offer. The more you know the more you enjoy.”
Local sourcing and fresh produce at Eataly Chicago
In keeping with the precepts of Slow Food, Eataly Chicago has paid special attention to local sourcing. There is a whole section of canned and bottled goods made by Chicagoan Lee Greene’s Scrumptious Pantry, a selection of West Loop Salumi’s cured meats, pork from Bensmiller’s Farm in Iowa, Piedmontese beef from Toro Ranch in Nebraska and many more products from other Midwestern producers.
Among the can’t-miss features at Chicago’s Eataly is the vegetable butcher. As soon as you walk in the doors, you are greeted by a beautiful farmstand-like display of seasonal fruits and vegetables. You can then take your selections to the vegetable butcher, who will trim your artichokes, peel your carrots, shred your cabbage or do whatever you need for ease of cooking once you get it home.
The store’s Gelateria Alpina gelato bar offers favorites such as nocciola (hazelnut) and cioccolata (chocolate), as well as seasonal offerings. In addition to hand-scooped gelato, and unique to the Chicago store, are soft-serve gelato spigots!
As Federico Fellini says in a quote gracing a wall in Chicago’s Eataly, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” His words could just as well be applied to Eataly Chicago, that is, if you consider “pasta” a metonym for all great food. And great food makes us better. As Sophia Loren is quoted, in yet another Eataly sign, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
Top photo: Pasta for sale at Eataly’s newest location in Chicago. Credit: Terra Brockman
It’s a frosty morning in Paso Robles, Calif., and I’m on my way to Fandango Olive Oil for its harvest. Why is it that these places always feature stunning views in the very early morning and late afternoon? I arrive at the ranch run by Jerry and Carolyn Shaffer and park my car behind the trucks of the pickers who are already at work.
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Fandango has been making olive oils I’ve admired for years. The ranch grows only two cultivars, arbequina and koroneiki. The former is of Catalan origin, and the latter Greek. Fandango makes sensationally flavored, mouth-popping blends if you like that sort of thing. I do. In 2013 alone, it won 20 medals in various California competitions.
The Shaffers are among the few certified organic olive oil producers in the region. A lot of sweat and paperwork goes into earning that distinction. For example, the buckets they use have to be scrubbed and free of mud, and when olives go to the mill to be pressed, the crusher and malaxer have to be cleansed thoroughly — at extra cost to the producer — because there mustn’t be residue from a previous, non-organic pressing. One miller told me this cleaning costs an additional $500 on top of everything else.
Olive oil producers must get the timing right
At Fandango, I have a Bourdain moment when Jerry Shaffer takes me out for a tour in his souped-up golf cart. It’s all blue sky and vapor trails. What you typically see in this region and on these ranches and estates are steeply sloping hills. Several growers have told me these slopes in a way create their own microclimate. A dropoff of 75 feet might mean a difference in temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. And this, of course, means olives ripen at different rates, so the grower has to tape off areas that need to be picked for harvest.
Out in the trees, the pickers work by hand, dropping the olives onto blue tarps, which are then carried over to be emptied into buckets. After being sorted, they will be delivered to be pressed within the same day. This is mean, hard and fast work, as evidenced from this email I received from another grower after my tour of Fandango.
Art Kishiyama, the grower at Olio Nuevo, has this to say about his picking schedule: “As fast as possible but within 4 hours. My schedule for tomorrow — first trip to the mill at 10:00 am, 3 hours after the first olive is picked — 2nd trip at about 1:00 pm, again 3 hours after the first olive is picked after 10:00 am, then around 4:00 pm latest, with the same logic, presuming the worst case of the pick day being extended to 9 hours. To make this work, I use two trailers — the 2nd trailer is being loaded while the first trailer is being towed to the mill. Round trip … is 30 minutes — I have 12 bins and use them up to 3 times each with a heavy fruit set.”
Harvesting olives involves a lot of hurry up and go.
The final lap on my tour of olive ranches took me up to San Miguel Olive Farm in San Miguel, Calif. There I met with Richard and Myrna Meisler. As Richard explained to me, olive trees go through “alternate bearing years.” This year happened to be a poor one, but next year could be a great one.
Other growers have given me the same story, but it’s not all bad news. Jerry Shaffer told me that although his yield was disappointing, the quality of his pressed oil was really good. Richard Meisler allowed me a blind tasting of his just-pressed oil. This is a sensory experience; it’s best to do this without bread. What I got at the front of my palate was a buttery beginning. When you taste a high-quality oil, you should expect either a buttery or grassy flavor, and then there is a delayed reaction: A second or two later, you get a peppery finish. It’s a similar experience to tasting wine.
At San Miguel Olive Farm I got another tractor ride, this time with Richard, who showed me something Jerry had done as well. He picked a perfectly ripe olive and squeezed it, checking for water content and oil. I popped it in my mouth, and it tasted like a good olive. This is how the real guys in the business do it. You may have read that eating a raw olive will make you gag. That’s not entirely true. It depends on the degree of ripeness. A really green one might cause you some discomfort, but those are the polyphenols at work. More on polyphenols in our next chapter.
Top photo: Half-ripe olives. Credit: avlxyz / Flickr
Mexico is at the center of corn biodiversity, which strengthens the ecosystems that sustain the land and its inhabitants. Just as indigenous people, like the native Californians, possessed a deep knowledge of oak management and acorns, in Mesoamerica the same is true for corn. Zea mays, the Latin binomial for corn, is the literal foundation of many Mesoamerican cultures. Maize is at the core of many creation stories from pre-contact time to the present. Individuals are not only made of corn, but people make corn. Corn is one of the few staple crops that require human intervention to reproduce. Yet corn’s biodiversity is under siege.
“Dignity. Good white corn is part of a dignified life,” declared a Mexican store owner about the importance of corn in her culture, according to Elizabeth Fitting. Fitting is the author of “The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside.” She conveys the nuanced layers of the transgenic corn debate. And she shines a light on the disadvantages of neo-liberal trade policies in Mexico. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, she reveals — through story and data — how small land holding farmers’ ability to maintain biocultural diversity of Mexican corn varieties (criollos) is threatened.
Since the start of NAFTA, Mexico imports U.S. yellow corn to meet the appetite of its growing livestock industry. When local farmers do not grow enough of their preferred white corn — due to a lack of rainfall or access to well water or the effects of climate change — they purchase yellow corn, normally meant for animal feed. Making matters more difficult? Studies in Mexico have identified genetically modified corn strains mixed into the local (criollo) landraces. If transgenic corn spreads to multiple local landraces, the potential to wipe out the biodiverse base, and the corn industry, is real, according to Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. (“Without Corn, There Is No Country” is a campaign, founded in 2007, that supports food sovereignty, in particular non-GMO foods, and the sustainable revitalization of rural Mexico.)
Mexican corn farmers fighting to keep traditional methods
The debate about transgenic corn has only escalated since the 2011 publication of Fitting’s book. Activists in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas declared 2013 the year of anti-GMO corn. To that end, a judge recently disallowed any trials of transgenic corn in Mexico.
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Nixtamalized white corn, an alkaline soaking process to improve the nutritional quality of corn, is a sophisticated practice developed centuries ago and not transferred to Asian, African and European countries when corn colonized those lands.
For additional reading resources on corn cultures in the Americas, check out:
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Despite the extra expense, many, especially elder, farmers still grow their own corn in the milpa system for food security. (Milpa is defined as a field intercropped with three principal species: maize, beans and squash, often with other minor species, and in which edible leafy weeds, locally called quelites, are tolerated and harvested.) In a recent phone interview, Fitting reminded me of her conversation with the Mexican storeowner in the cradle of corn diversity, the Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, north and west of Oaxaca and Chiapas, respectively. “We grow [white] corn because we want to have good, soft white tortillas. They do not turn out the same in the city. In Mexico City (where yellow corn or non-nixtamilized yellow corn is used), a truck carrying masa (dough) comes around as if it were mud. It’s even uncovered! They say we live like animals here in the countryside, but in the city, they eat like animals!” Her words resounded with taste, dignity and self-reliance.
So the tortillas you eat, whether in Mexico or North America, might not be made of white corn flour anymore. Moreover, the nixtamilization process has been essentially eliminated in mass-produced masa flour. Not only do you get a different-tasting corn, but you also eat tortillas with less bioavailable nutrients.
Two Chicana professors, Luz Calvo and Catriona R. Esquibel, founded the Facebook page Decolonize Your Diet. During a Skype conversation with both professors, I learned their Facebook page grew out Calvo’s desire to help a student eat a more healthy diet and learn basic cooking skills. The page quickly exploded, and a blog followed. Calvo, an associate professor of ethnic studies at California State University East Bay in Hayward, Calif., says her students are predominantly first-generation Americans. On campus one day, students were selling Krispy Kremes to raise money.
Shocked, Calvo countered, “I’d love to support you, but how could you sell and eat such unhealthy food?” Her students rebutted, “But this is healthy, professor, there are no transfats!” From these exchanges, Calvo decided to teach a new course called Decolonize Your Diet. She described the class as “simply beautiful.” For example, she told of two Chicana sisters, originally from the state of Guanajuato in Mexico. “They made delicious sour tamales for a class requirement,” Calvo recalled. “Shaped like jelly rolls, the tamales overflowed with chilies and cheese.” Suddenly Calvo’s idea that only a few types of tamales could exist expanded.
Her partner of 16 years, Esquibel, an associate professor of race and resistance studies at San Francisco State University, reminded me that in the Mexican codices, specifically the Florentine Codex, there are multiple descriptions of tamales with chia seeds, pumpkins or peanuts, shaped like seashells, or rounded. “There is no one way to make tamales in the codices,” she emphasized. “In fact there is a feeling of experimentation and joy in food expressed throughout. We both seek to remind, teach, revitalize and celebrate our ancestral foods.”
A gift that grows
Those same sisters gifted Calvo red-dent corn to grow in her Oakland garden. (You can hear Luz on a recent Latino USA podcast talk in her garden and kitchen.) Calvo is growing them out, drying most and saving some for the next planting season. Soon she will prepare nixtamalized red-corn masa for tortillas. If you can’t wait, read their article on how to nixtamalize your white or yellow corn and make tortillas. And like Calvo, a cancer survivor, perhaps connecting to your food from inside the earth to inside your body will nudge you just a bit closer to health and healing.
Top photo: Corn on the cob at a street festival in New York City. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.
When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.
Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.
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How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?
Storage and starch
Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.
Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.
“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.
Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”
I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.
When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.
“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.
Not your ordinary Russets
Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?
“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”
He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.
On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”
More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½ sticks of butter.
“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.
Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)
“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.
As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.
Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry
My family and I recently moved across the country, and I have found myself desperately looking for new sources of locally grown food. The easiest place for a city dweller to find local food is at a farmers market. But a farmers market, at its best, should be more than simply a supermarket with outdoor booths. A good farmers market makes you a participant in an entire system, not just a consumer.
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Food comes from your farmer. So as a newcomer to the Mid-Atlantic, I was determined to find my farmer — at least one — who would hopefully lead me to others in the future.
I began on a Saturday morning in Alexandria, Va., at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market on a tiny corner lot at the end of a street full of shops and family-friendly restaurants in the historic port city outside D.C. I tried to remain focused amid the array of tents and booths, steering clear of the glitzy world of bakers, cheesemongers and kimchi purveyors. There was plenty of time for preserved foods later. My mission was clear. I needed raw ingredients, the building blocks of meals.
Then I stumbled upon the stall for Smith Meadows Farm, providing fresh beef, pork, lamb and chicken that were grass-fed and free range. I bought a pound of frozen ground beef, a pack of freshly made chicken empanadas and a book by Smith Meadows’ owner Forrest Pritchard. “Gaining Ground” reveals Pritchard’s struggle to save his family farm by raising grass-fed beef in a sustainable way.
That evening I made four amazing cheeseburgers with Smith Meadows ground beef, then began to read Pritchard’s book with fascination. When I was done I told my husband, “He’s the guy.” I’d found my first farmer.
I contacted Pritchard through his website and he graciously invited me to tour his 500-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, just outside of Berryville, Va. He and his family raise hogs, chickens, turkeys, sheep and beef cattle. But it turns out that Pritchard is as passionate about forming connections with customers as he is about farming itself. He is committed to creating and supporting the sustainable economic system of small farms, local markets and concerned participants. Not only had I found my farmer, my farmer could tell me how to find other farmers.
How to find farmers
Our conversation was as free-ranging as the hogs Pritchard tended as we talked. But I’ve distilled his advice into several key tips for those who want to find their farmer.
Most farmers markets have an online vendor list, and from there you can check out the farmers’ websites. Those sites should be able to tell you whether they’re sustainable, organic, pesticide free and/or free range. Ask friends and neighbors where they get their food. Yelp and Angie’s List also will have reviews. The world is wired, even for farmers who usually deal with life’s more tangible elements.
Pose specific questions to the vendors at the farmers market. Ask your livestock farmer, “Is your beef grass finished?” This assures customers that the cattle have never been given any grain. Ask a produce farmer, “What’s at the peak of the season?” Buy the peak produce, and don’t worry too much about prettiness or durability. Some farmers will be responsive, some not, but you’ll be able to tell whether they care about their product. More important, you’ll find out if they care about the same things you do.
Shop for what interests you
There’s no point in eating great food you don’t like. Enough said.
Grow your own food
Plant a garden and ask the farmers at the market for advice. Your local farmer knows better than anyone which plants will grow best in your soil and climate zone. Raise chickens, a pig or even a single steer. There’s no better way to appreciate a farmer than to try to grow food yourself.
Be passionate and have fun
The quest to find your farmer should have a sense of adventure. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Farmers at a market are usually passionate about what they do. They will respond to your own passion.
I’d come away with a list of questions and tips to help me create relationships with the people who help feed my family. In the coming months I plan to seek out more of my local farmers and see what I can learn about our local honey, goats, root vegetables and cider.
Pritchard and I talked about a lot more: grass fed versus grass finished, the difficulty of storing ovoid-shaped foods such as frozen chickens and the surprising economics of ground beef. But throughout my conversation I realized how lucky I was to have found my first farmer. He wants to spread the word about sustainable farming. He’s hard at work on his second book, which combines photographic portraits of sustainable farmers with the farmers’ favorite recipes. He’s committed to promoting small, local food systems that include the buyer and cook as part of that ecosystem.
Pritchard may have more to say about farming than most farmers. Your farmers might not be quite so talkative but they’re probably just as passionate about the food they grow. Meeting your farmers and buying food at a farmers market turns you into one more thread in the web of good food.
If you care about food, you care about where it comes from. So I urge you, find your farmer.
Top photo: Forrest Pritchard stops to say hello to one of his flock. Credit: Susan Lutz
So what’s a gal to do when she’s spent her whole adult life as an organic farmer passionately promoting the benefits of organic food, and then she spends a weekend in the Hamptons with her in-laws and finds out that the neighboring farm — the one with the great little produce stand selling just-picked very sweet corn, crisp string beans and amazing vine-ripe tomatoes — is conventional? Well, the truth is that I ended up buying three big bags of their delicious vegetables. We cooked it up and enjoyed it, but I felt unsettled and perturbed.
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Was I wrong to support a conventional farm that uses petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides because it was right down the road from my in-laws’ house? It didn’t feel better to fight peak summer traffic and drive to the mall to shop at the supermarket that had an organic produce section. I doubted those supermarket veggies would hold a candle to the farm stand’s bounty.
The truth is, I wish that I hadn’t had to make such a hard choice. If the local farm was organic, the decision would have been simple, and I would have felt 100% great about the meal our family enjoyed.
But taste and freshness are so important when you want to cook a delicious meal, and eating local food makes me feel grounded and connected to the unique environment and community I’m visiting. I love eating food harvested nearby, so fresh that it still smells like the earth it grew in. But that enjoyment is marred by knowing that the armful of corn I’m carrying away from the field had probably been sprayed with a dangerous chemical.
Come winter, residents and visitors in the Hamptons will be buying their produce at that supermarket in the mall, and I’m thrilled that they’ll be able to choose from organic options. Every time someone purchases organic instead of conventional, it creates a positive feedback loop: the store stocks more organic food, demand for organic items increase, and eventually more land is transitioned to organic methods. Right now, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is being farmed organically, so this conversion is extremely important.
Don’t assume small, local farms are organic
Many people assume that all family-run local farms use safe, sustainable methods to grow their food. In truth, most conventional farms — large ones and small ones — rely on virtually the same potent arsenal of toxic herbicides, fumigants and insecticides, as well as synthetic chemical fertilizers. These chemicals pollute our water, damage our soil, and often leave residues on the food we eat. They are also unhealthy for farmworkers, surrounding wildlife and those who live, work and go to school nearby.
We need local farmers to thrive if we’re going to preserve our farmland and have convenient access to fresh-picked produce that inspires us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to prepare more delicious home-cooked meals. But we want our local farmers to go organic so that their produce is as healthy as possible for our families, our neighborhood, and our environment.
At my local farmers market in Monterey, Calif., there are so many stalls it’s easy to buy my peaches from an organic farmer. Even if there are days when the conventional ones look a little better and cost less, I still choose organic. I want the conventional growers to see how long the lines are for organic items and eventually deduce that giving organic a try might be a good business decision, despite the challenges and additional costs involved. People willing to pay a premium for organic food creates that incentive.
Converting conventional farms one at a time
Over my three decades in the organic farming business, I’ve seen many conventional farmers transformed into organic farming advocates. When they stop using chemicals, they begin to see their soil come alive. They see it’s possible to grow beautiful produce in cooperation with nature, and that their yields increase over time. We can influence this transformation by choosing organic whenever we shop, and by letting our local farmers know we prefer our food produced without any synthetic chemicals, and that we’re willing to pay more for it.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next time I visited my in-laws I learned that the farm next door was converting to organic, and I didn’t have to worry that there were chemicals on my produce or being sprayed so close by?
Top photo: Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington
“… A land of oil olive, and honey …” Deuteronomy 8:8. Of course, that’s Old Testament, and today I’m writing about the New. In that biblical quotation, “oil” is indeed the adjective, not vice versa.
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The California olive harvest is approaching soon, and, according to some growers, it’s arriving sooner than usual because of the weather. I admit I’m doing the John the Baptist thing in preaching about the superiority of California olive oils now compared with imports. I truly believe California oils are about where California wines were back in the 1970s. These are oils that are winning international competitions and slamming down big-time medals.
Recently I attended meetings with growers who are affiliated with the California Olive Oil Council, or COOC, and the Central Coast Olive Growers, or CCOG. Their work impressed, and the industry standards in this state are far stricter than those in Europe’s International Olive Council. But that’s enough acronyms for one paragraph.
Olive oil has gone high-tech
In some ways I’m coming at this backward. Years ago I visited an olive frantoio, or olive press, in the backwoods of Umbria, Italy, which was a literal stone age. Giant stone wheels mashed up olives. The olive smell that greeted you was overwhelming — in a good way. It’s a sensory experience that’s hard to describe. But I wanted to explore the modern world of olive harvesting and milling, so I turned to the people I know. Today, olive-oil production is super high-tech and the stakes are high.
Art Kishiyama, grower/producer at Olio Nuevo and president of Central Coast Olive Growers, put me in touch with other people who not only grow olives but mill them too. One of those people is Gregg Bone in Paso Robles, Calif., who owns the olive farm Kiler Ridge. Bone is a self-described “polyphenol farmer.” For those who are curious, polyphenols in fruit — olives, in this case — give it the big, rich, olive taste you either love or you don’t. I love it.
Bone grows on 57 acres, 14 of which feature 2,700 planted trees, but he also mills oils for other local olive ranchers. He is a science geek from the California Institute of Technology with strong but well-informed opinions on the subject. And his milling process is very high-tech. Taking olives from harvest to mill is a very interesting but also scary process. Unless you are a large producer, mechanical harvesting can be a risky thing. The optimum method is to pick by hand just when the olives are ripe. Anything that bruises or damages the fruit initiates the fermentation process more quickly than is ideal. From Bone’s point of view, it takes perhaps 30 workers to pick a ton of olives in an hour. And then optimally the picked fruit has to make it to the milling machines within four hours. There’s lots of hustle in this process. A season’s worth of sweat equity can be wasted in a few hours if these things are not done in exactly the right way.
What happens after the harvest goes like this: wash, crush, malax, then centrifuge once to remove solids and centrifuge a second time to remove water. Those are the steps simplified. Bone compares the “crusher’” to your garbage disposal. The “malaxer” does the kneading to coax out oil drops from the paste, and at the other end of the run you get your oil — sediment included, which takes some time to settle.
What makes olive oil extra virgin you ask? Don’t ask Rachael Ray. Extra virgin has to meet sensory and lab-testing requirements. The California Olive Oil Council’s standard is 0.5% acidity. That’s even stricter than the International Olive Council and U.S. Department of Agriculture, which, until not so long ago, used terms like “fancy” to grade olive oil.
The University of California Davis, which is the most preeminent institution in the country when it comes to olive cultivation, released a study in 2010 which observed that 69% of imported olive oils did not qualify as extra virgin. However, they did affirm that an overwhelming percentage of California-produced oils did meet the test criteria.
And now for the olives. Olive cultivation in California dates to Spanish mission days. Mission and manzanillo go back hundreds of years in this region. However, California growers use tree stock and grafts from the Mediterranean and often blend the pressed oils. One of the more popular cultivars is arbequina, from the Catalan region of Spain. Its popularity derives not just from its flavor, which is excellent, but also its yield per acre. Some growers also use Italian cultivars here in the Paso Robles area.
I have so much more to say on Californian olive oils, the above being the simplification of a complicated subject. For now, though, I’ve got to get my boots out into the fields for the harvest. The olive oil is coming my friends. Beata lei!
Top photo: Olives before harvest. Credit: Wollombi / Flickr
In late summer, it’s common for people in the Southwest to spray herbicides on their noxious weeds.
These weeds are, according to the Colorado Weed Management Association, “non-native plant species that have been introduced into an environment with few, if any, natural biological controls, thus giving them a distinct competitive advantage in dominating and crowding out native plant species. Noxious weeds are aggressive, spread rapidly, possess a unique ability to reproduce profusely, and resist control.” The Cardus family of weeds — including the musk thistle, plumeless thistle, Canada thistle and bull thistle — are those most frequently targeted.
The Soul of the Soil
Second in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
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I have an artist friend who clips the blooms, saving the seeds from spreading during high winds. She puts the bright blooms in a Navajo basket, which is beautiful. Another friend uses the thistle greens to blend with lemonade berries and apples. She then strains the liquid from the pulp into a glass for her morning juice. These plants are edible. Some say they can be used as a medicinal tea to strengthen the stomach, reduce fever, kill intestinal worms or stave off constipation.
A legacy of herbicides
For years, thistles were sprayed with Roundup. Now they have become immune to Roundup and the herbicide that is now commonly used is a strong agent called aminopyralid, one of a class of herbicides known as pyridine carboxylic acids. This group includes clopyralid, picloram, triclopyr and several less common herbicides. It is specifically used for broad-leafed plants, and it can be broadcast over pastures without harming the grass.
Aminopyralids are of real concern to vegetable growers because they enter the food chain via manure from animals that eat sprayed pasture greens or hay. When manure containing these herbicides is applied to gardens, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas and beans are deformed and the plants produce poor, often nonexistent yields. My concern is that this will have the effect of ending the 10,000-year-old process humans have used to increase soil fertility by applying the animal waste back into soils for vegetable production.
Aminopyralid is made to be applied to pastures, grain crops, residential lawns, commercial turf, certain vegetables and fruits, and roadsides. And Dow, the company that manufactures these herbicides, claims in its warning pages that the forage can be safely eaten by horses and livestock, including livestock produced for human consumption.
But Dow’s website posting concerning aminopyralid stewardship also explains the herbicide does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. My concern is that manure may contain enough of the herbicide to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals for years to come. Dow warns that forage growers should inform the recipient of hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.
Dow goes on to say the company has been trying to work with farmers and gardeners when carryover has occurred. Dow recommends farmers test manure on a few plants before spreading it across an entire garden or field, particularly if farmers don’t know the manure’s origin. The trade names of this herbicide are Chaparral, CleanWave, ForeFront, GrazonNext, Opensight, Pasturall and Milestone.
In February of 2008 Grab N’Grow, a California soil products company, petitioned the Sonoma County, Calif., agriculture commissioner to create rules limiting clopyralid’s use on plants that feed animals that produce compost.
A drifting problem
For the last 18 years I have had an herbicide/pesticide-free property. I have posted signs so that, should I be out of town, the herbicide man and/or the county that sprays the edges of all county roads will not spray my property under any conditions.
The problem is the property owners around my house spray and the “drift” from the pesticide and/or herbicide runs off in the rain, downhill into my pond and my soil. I am concerned that pesticides can damage hay, vegetables, flowers and livestock.
There are real questions about long-term health effects of chemicals in our soil. At a time when we are more aware of what goes into our bodies and more reluctant to ingest the residues from herbicides, it seems vital to question the use of anything that contaminates our soil.
Top photo: Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner