Articles in Organic
In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”
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by Susie Middleton
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What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?
I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.
What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?
I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.
Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.
It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.
You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?
If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.
I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.
I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.
With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?
Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.
How did your first two books lead toward this one?
I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.
Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?
I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.
Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press
Blessed with a unique terroir and distinctive indigenous cheese varieties, Northern California’s organic dairy farmers and cheesemakers are aiming to grow the region’s reputation as a hotbed of artisan cheese.
On a recent evening at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, Cowgirl Creamery‘s Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, along with Sunset magazine food editor Margo True and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, were celebrating the release of their book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.”
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Importance of milk
The word “milkshed” appears often in the book, and Conley explained it simply refers to the place where a region gets its milk. The milkshed of West Marin County, just outside San Francisco, for instance, enabled and inspired Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses. Specifically, it was the milk from the Holsteins and Jerseys on the Straus dairy that gave the Cowgirls their start in cheese making.
In the early 1990s, small family dairies were facing financial challenges that threatened their survival. Second-generation farmer Albert Straus had the idea to transition his lands and herd to a certified organic operation; his neighbors thought he had lost his mind.
At the time industrial agriculture was expanding, causing milk prices to be too low to sustain family farms. Straus thought that going organic would be the key to a viable business model because of the higher profit margin such methods yield. He also believed organic methods would be a more environmentally responsible way to manage the farm.
In 1994, the Straus Family Creamery became the first dairy west of the Mississippi River to go organic. It was Albert Straus’ vision that set the table for the artisan cheese movement in Northern California: to create a product that would save agricultural lands and dairy farming in the area.
Conley and Smith traveled to England and France and observed regional cheese making. Often an appellation is created that reflects the flora and surroundings of an area, (like Comte cheese from France), and the Cowgirls realized that they had the ingredients to do this at their creamery in bucolic Point Reyes Station, outside San Francisco.
“We had this beautiful milk,” Conley said. “It’s all about the milk, the health of the animals and the beautiful pastures. We realized we had [those elements of an appellation] in our own place.”
So using Straus milk exclusively, they started out making fresh cheeses like quark, cottage cheese and fromage blanc. Their first effort at an aged cheese was called Mt. Tam, after the landmark mountain in Marin County near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The cheese is a triple cream and is meant to showcase the spring milk from the herd at the dairy. It is a buttery, mellow, approachable cheese that won second place at the American Cheese Society competition in 2010, and it is considered Cowgirl’s signature cheese. Next was Red Hawk, a rich and savory cheese with a pungent aroma and a red rind, also an award winner at the ACS, the Los Angeles County Fair and other competitions.
Years later, more inspiration came during the recession. They wanted to make a big, utilitarian cheese for daily use, a cooking cheese similar to fresh Asiago, which was requested by their friend Judy Rodgers, from Zuni Café in San Francisco. The initial efforts didn’t work well, so they made successive batches, bringing tastes to the farmers market for customers to give their opinion. The final recipe is a washed rind, semi-hard cheese that is versatile for cooking and eating. It won gold at the California State (2011) and the Los Angeles County Fairs (2010).
The Cowgirls also make four seasonal cheeses using organic milk from Taverna Dairy in the small hamlet of Chileno Valley. The Taverna herd is all Jersey cows; and the cheeses, although made by a recipe similar to Mt. Tam, have a very different taste profile because of the milk and its terroir.
In addition to their own cheeses, Conley and Smith collaborate, support and promote artisan, farmstead cheesemakers throughout the region. Using the model of Neal’s Yard in London, they sell these local products at their cheese counters in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Point Reyes Shop, believing that helping the artisan cheese movement grow is crucial to the future of the small family farm and to agriculture in this country in general.
To that end, Straus told the crowd at the Jewish Community Center that he and the Cowgirls were looking at creating an organic processing hub.
“What we’ve done in Marin and Sonoma counties is created this model of farming that we are trying to work on how can we revitalize the farming community and get the next generation of farmers in succession farming,” he said.
The Straus dairy, Cowgirl Creamery and maybe other organic producers would partner in one facility. A demonstration dairy would allow the public to see everything from the cow to the finished product. There would be an incubator of sorts for up-and-coming farmers, to help them get established in the business and explore ways to save energy and promote land stewardship.
“Our book teaches how cheese is made, but not how to make cheese,” Conley said. But “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks” is more than just a primer for how cheese is made. There are notes on composing cheese plates, delicious accompaniments to enhance them and myriad recipes that showcase glorious cheese and milk products.
Smith said her favorite recipes are in the chapter called “Ends and Bits,” which was designed to give ideas for what to do with all those pieces that end up in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Her favorite recipe from this section is Parmesan broth, which uses the leftover bits of hard cheese to make a rich, flavorful stock. That stock lends itself to a soup that celebrates spring.
Adapted from “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks,” Chronicle Books 2013
Makes 3 quarts
12 cups cool water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups medium-diced onions
1 cup coarsely chopped carrots
1 cup coarsely chopped celery
¼ ounce dried mushroom, such as porcini or shiitake
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley
About 1 cup leftover bits of hard cheese and natural rind
1. In a large pot, bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat.
2. While the water heats, use another large pot to melt the butter over medium heat. When it’s melted, add the onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots, celery and mushrooms are soft, about 8 minutes.
3. With a wooden spoon, stir in the cheese bits. Let the cheese and vegetables sit on the bottom of the pot for short periods of time, no longer than 10 seconds. This will allow the vegetables and the cheese to brown the bottom of the pot a little. (You don’t want all the vegetables browned, but just the bottom surface needs a little color.) Stir often.
4. When the vegetables and cheese at the very bottom of the pot show some brown and the cheese is beginning to melt, slowly introduce the simmering water to the pot, stirring in just 1 cup/240 ml to start. Stirring constantly, deglaze the pan’s bottom with the hot water to loosen any browned bits. When the pot bottom is clean of any brown, pour in the remainder of the water. Decrease the heat to medium-low and monitor the heat, adjusting the flame so the broth stays at a gentle simmer.
5. Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, stirring every 3 to 5 minutes, so the broth doesn’t pick up a scorched flavor. Strain the broth into a very large container or another clean pot and allow it to cool. Once it’s cool, you can easily skim the top of any fats. Store this in your refrigerator for up to 3 days or in your freezer for up to 3 months.
Spring Soup With Asparagus, Potatoes and Leeks
Makes 1½ quarts
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large leek, split lengthwise to the root, rinsed well then cut into thin, crosswise slices — about 2 cups
1 cup celery, thinly sliced crosswise
1 bunch asparagus, bottom ¼-inch removed and discarded, tips removed and set aside, remaining stems sliced crosswise into 1-inch pieces, about 1½ cups
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic minced
1½ cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced – about 2 medium
4 cups Parmesan broth
¼ cup crème fraiche
1. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat until shimmering. Add leek, celery and asparagus pieces and sauté until coated with oil. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
2. Turn heat to low, cover the pan and sweat the vegetables until soft but not colored, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and potatoes and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Add broth, ½ teaspoon salt and 3 grindings of pepper from a mill, stir to combine, turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer.
4. Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, lightly steam asparagus tips until crisp tender. Set aside.
6. Purée the soup using an immersion blender, food processor or traditional blender until smooth.
7. Serve in bowls with a dollop of crème fraiche and an asparagus tip on top of each serving.
Top photo: Cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson
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
The global importance of Slow Food — the food activism movement that was born in Italy in 1986 — continues to spread. Its South Korean chapter — in collaboration with the city of Namyangju and Slow Food International — recently staged an ambitious and highly successful event, AsiO Gusto, the first of its kind to be held in Asia. The impressively organized festival hosted 500,000 visitors over six days.
“Our goal was to gather over 400 artisan food producers and cooks from 40 countries within Asia and Oceania under one roof, to celebrate their diversity and to spread the word about the many unique foods we have in Korea,” says Kim Byung-soo, a member of Slow Food’s International Council and one of AsiO Gusto’s main organizers.
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AsiO Gusto (the capital “O” stands for Oceania) took over a large, modern youth sports center on the outskirts of Namyangju, a city southwest of Seoul that is home to the world’s first organic agriculture museum. Three vast tents pitched on pristine artificial turf pitches formed the nucleus of the show. Each pavilion had a subject: South Korea’s featured more than 100 Korean products, including fermented, eco-friendly and local foods. The International Pavilion focused on foods from 32 Asian and Oceanic countries, including marvelous dried fruits from Afghanistan; Rimbàs black pepper from Malaysia; Palestinian olive oil; Nagasaki yuko vinegar from Japan; Indonesian coconut sugar; Tibetan plateau cheese; heirloom rice from the Philippines; raisins from Iran; Georgian wine and taro and yam from New Caledonia. It also housed six international restaurants and a taste workshop. The “Theme” Pavilion showcased some of Slow Food’s most important projects — the Ark of Taste, Presidium seeds and A 1,000 Gardens in Africa — as well as South Korean temple food and local Slow Food educational activities.
Outside, a large, lively area was given over to street-food stalls from South Korea and beyond: vendors cooked everything from barbecued pork and griddled mung-bean pancakes — made from freshly stone-ground soaked beans — to ash-roasted soya beans and Indian naan breads baked on the spot for thousands of visitors exploring the festival’s “streets.”
An organic vegetable garden was grown on the site, with neat rows of rice, amaranth, squashes and beans on display for the thousands of schoolchildren who visited the fair to learn from. They were also encouraged to enter a walk-in beehive — though not before they’d been covered from head to toe in protective netting; their anxious mothers waited outside until they re-emerged, sting-free. A jovial South Korean farmer made narrow baskets for holding hen’s eggs from rice straw, and used his docile brown cow to give children rides on a converted plow.
Elsewhere, in a gym-turned-hall, visitors attended authoritative conferences on the culture of fermented food, animal welfare and food justice; or witnessed the Korean tea ceremony enacted like a synchronized dance by seven beautifully groomed women in long, traditional dresses, accompanied by their distinctive songs. Music is ever-present in South Korea, from the national passion for karaoke to the lively displays put on during the festival by entertainers from the South Korean armed forces who sang everything from pop to opera and even performed magic tricks on the baseball field where families picnicked and rested in the shade of gazebos.
Buddhist monks’ temple cuisine
One of the most fascinating Korean stands was dedicated to the temple cuisine of the country’s Buddhist monks. Under the discerning eye of the Venerable Dae Ahn, this display showed the remarkable diversity of natural foods — cultivated and wild — the monks eat during the year. Their diet is meat, fish and dairy free, and also avoids foods from the onion family (they’re considered too “hot”). Yet the range of fresh and fermented foods the monks enjoy is impressive.
“In our Buddhist practice, we learn how to cultivate and cook our food,” says Dae Ahn, who also runs the Balwoo temple food restaurant in Seoul. “It’s a central part of our daily lives and is connected to our philosophy of harmony and patience. After all, nothing could be slower than the fermented foods — some of them aged for up to 20 years — that we use to complement our fresh, seasonal ingredients.” The monks also make use of hundreds of wild foods, including pine needles, lotus root, burdock, mushrooms, ginko nuts and acorn jelly. “Our lives, livelihoods and the entire universe change according to what we eat,” she says.
Fermented foods still integral to Korean cuisine
Fermented food is a staple of Korean cuisine and was at the festival in all its guises. Fermented ingredients range from soy sauces to bean and chili pastes (doenjang and gochujang) and kimchi. Best-known as a fermented cabbage dish enlivened with ginger, chili and garlic, kimchi can be made from dozens of vegetables and plants. Traditionally, each farm or household stored its fermenting foods outdoors in large, dark brown ceramic jars. Many still do. Kimchi is served at every Korean meal as a side dish and digestive aid. Fermentation was an important way to preserve perishable ingredients in pre-refrigeration times. These foods are still key elements of the country’s rich food culture.
As with all Slow Food events, the message goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of food to learning about its myriad cultures and sources, and to defending our right to food that is good, clean and fair, as Carlo Petrini, the movement’s founder, maintains. For a first-time visitor to South Korea, AsiO Gusto offered a stimulating chance to experience Korea’s complex, delicious foods and to feel closer to the many heroic artisan food producers from Asia and Oceania who attended it. For anyone interested in attending, the next AsiO Gusto is already being planned for 2015.
Top photo: A young girl studies the Buddhist temple food display at AsiO Gusto. Credit: Carla Capalbo
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
Beijing has been a hotbed of culinary activity since at least as far back as imperial days when localities would dispatch their best chefs to cook up regional delicacies for the emperor there. Creativity and diversity in food shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Beijing is city of more than 20 million people.
These days, food-related activities are increasingly focused on building awareness around sustainability, DIY culture and farm-to-fork conscientiousness. Nothing reflects this greater than the early October Beijing Design Week.
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This year, organizers added Food Loop, a sustainable food festival within Design Week, to what had previously focused exclusively on visual arts, architecture, interior design and issues related to urban planning.
Based out of 751 D-Park, which is a section of the well-known 798 arts district but with elevated walkways and stairwells winding up into old factory structures, Food Loop’s sustainable food exhibits included a demonstration of urban farming and workshops about beekeeping, desktop aquaponics and pickling.
Panel discussions and a self-harvesting vegetable market were complemented by a vegan pop-up restaurant run by Chef Laura Fanelli. Fanelli is the founder and former head chef at the Veggie Table, a vegan restaurant on the popular Wudaoying hutong within the historic neighborhood of Beijing’s second ring road.
At the Food Loop, overlooking a postmodern conjunction of old factory buildings, contemporary art galleries and sculptural installations, Fanelli served dishes including a meat-free version of the classic Beijing noodle dish zhajiangmian. Traditionally, wheat noodles are topped with a (usually pork-based) bean sauce and garnished with bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions as well as julienned carrots and cucumbers, resulting in a smoky, satisfying dish somewhat like spaghetti Bolognese. In Fanelli’s version, tofu bits and soybeans were added to the mix, and soy protein takes the place of pork in the sauce.
Floating aquaponics in China
Sick of food safety scandals and mystery meats — most recently, rat meat being passed off as lamb — Beijing is not only experiencing something of a vegetarian and vegan renaissance, it is also seeing a boom in home-based food-growing projects. A local aquaponics association has begun offering regular DIY classes on setting up desktop aquaponics systems, which was offered by Food Loop during design week.
I’ve purchased one aquaponics kit and once the weather turns too cold to grow food on my rented plot of land outside of the city, this is one way I hope to continue to feed myself, at the very least supplying my own herbs in a way that I’m confident is chemical free.
On the higher end of the spectrum was the dining, video and design installation called “Meating Amy.” A partnership between Chef Brian Reimer of Maison Boulud and design firm Jellymon, it took participants through the story of a pig raised in Yunnan, before it was slaughtered for consumption. Then a meal using parts of a pig from that same farm was served, and parts of the pig were also converted into small material items that helped to create a food cart. The goal, in part, was to reinforce the connection between what we eat and where it comes from.
Sustainable food trends reach Beijing
Beijing and its culinary scene continue to evolve. There is booming creativity in cooking here and the local community is focused on exploring alternatives and advances beyond the current food status quo. The same trends that we see in New York City, Paris or Singapore are also emerging here, with unique expressions that are particular to Beijing’s challenges and needs.
Top photo: An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Linley Dixon has always been a farmer at heart.
She studied agriculture in high school and college before becoming a graduate student researching tomato diseases on organic farms at West Virginia University. After graduate school she followed her retired parents from Maryland to Colorado, where she and her husband, Peter, launched a farm they called Adobe House Farm, named after the passive solar home that was on the land.
The Soul of the Soil
Third in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
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The first February they were in Colorado, Linley and Peter used aged horse manure, known as black gold to organic farmers, to get their tomato seedlings started. But only a few seeds germinated and those that did curled and stopped growing. Linley switched to bagged potting mix and started again.
That first year they grew enough to sell at the farmers market and for a small community supported agriculture operation. But as the tomatoes came in, a few plants growing where the compost had been dumped were misshapen and had leaves curled as if they had tomato curly top virus. Linley asked around, and many farmers in the area had been experiencing the same thing.
Because Linley had studied tomato diseases, she understood that viruses don’t appear in seedlings on a windowsill in the middle of February without a vector. Plus it was unusual that only the tomatoes grown over the composted manure pile showed those same symptoms. Linley suspected that something in the compost was the problem. With help from the extension service she tested for the virus and one of many persistent herbicides. Both tests came up negative, but often they do because they cannot detect every issue.
Meanwhile, the thistles in the farm’s region were being sprayed with a relatively new herbicide called Milestone, which is a version of aminopyralid, made by Dow to be used for invasive broadleaf weeds.
It does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. Manure may contain enough aminopyralid to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals.
This means forage growers should warn people who use hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid. Aminopyralid may not be used on hay intended for export outside the United States.
After checking with the farmer who had given her the manure, Linley discovered it came from horses that had ingested grass sprayed with Milestone.
Farmers in nearby Montrose, Colo., told Linley that Milestone sprayed on a windy day drifted, killing the farm’s solanaceous crops and the legumes. This forced them to cancel a CSA and lose income. She also heard that Milestone has gotten into composting systems in other states, including Vermont. But still, the spraying continues.
The Pesticide Action Network shows that in the United Kingdom those gardens and allotments contaminated by manure originating from farms where aminopyralid was sprayed have grossly deformed broadleaf vegetables. Linley also has observed about 20 home gardens and farms all over the Southwest with curly tomato leaves. The common denominator among them is that they all used organic manure from fields sprayed with Milestone. “Most of our important food crops are broadleaf plants, so it makes sense that an herbicide designed to kill broad leaf plants could harm crops,” she said. “The symptoms of herbicide carryover damage the most sensitive crops. Some farmers even report that their crops have failed.”
Even though she is an organic farmer, Linley understands some sustainable farms use an integrated pest management system that includes the use of chemicals in some circumstances. They must be used responsibly, though, which includes spraying them on non-windy mornings and not using them on crops, she said.
“But the aminopyralids are like DDT, their half life is extremely long. These herbicides simply stick around,” she said.
Dow said aminopyralid is safe to use and poses little threat, pointing out that the EPA has given the product its green chemistry award because of its ability to control weeds with just small applications.
“It can, however, pass through the systems of grazing animals unchanged and pose unintended problems for sensitive plants if manure from animals grazing treated material is composted,” the company said in a written response to Zester Daily’s inquiries.
Dow said it warns users on aminopyralid labels about these potential problems. The company advises any gardener or farmer who experiences problems with aminopyralid damage to not eat contaminated produce, even though the chemical residue from the herbicide should be so low that it wouldn’t be harmful to people or animals.
“As a general rule, if the produce is damaged, I’d disc it under as a soil amendment; and if it isn’t, I’d eat it,” a company representative wrote. “Best thing to do though may be to ask questions right at the start before accepting compost, manure (plant material, etc.), of uncertain origin and if you don’t get straight answers, test the material by using it as intended on a few of the plants you plan to grow and wait and see what happens.”
An indefinite legacy
Adobe House Farm was lucky. Linley quickly identified and diagnosed her problem and stopped using composted manure. Her garden is now growing beautifully. She is studying the area where the compost was dumped to test how long the herbicide will stick around. Right now, that’s three years and counting
Linley has switched to coffee grounds, leaves and other organic matter such as her farm’s own pasture grass clippings. She never harvests from the spot where the contaminated horse manure pile was located. But she thinks the use of aminopyralid and chemicals like it will could force farmers and gardeners to stop the age-old practice of trusting manure as a good source of fertilizer.
Top photo: Linley and Peter Dixon at Adobe House Farm. Credit: Katherine Leiner