Articles in Agriculture

Garlic tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.

But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.

I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.

As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.

All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.

FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy

Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced

Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter

GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)

Aroma: Almost no aroma

Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action

Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding

GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Strong, classic garlic

Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick

Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk

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Garlic tasting lineup. Credit: Terra Brockman

INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington) 

Aroma: Mild garlic aroma

Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor

Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long

KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas

Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives

Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it

MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)

Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas

Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues

Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent

NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)

Aroma: Nice perfume.

Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering

Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted

RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: Spicy and earthy

Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed

Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.

And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.

Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.

I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of  The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.

Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.

“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.

That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.

Seed Exchange impact

For Wallace, that’s the point.

“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”

Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.

LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”

This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.

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Ira Wallace, founder of Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival. Credit: Susan Lutz

Grain diversity

Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.

Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”

There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.

My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.

Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.

“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”

Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz

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In London Cru's urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

The way to make a small fortune in wine, they say, is to start with a large one. The phrase comes to mind as I taste the first vintage at London Cru, the eccentric, possibly uneconomic, but very serious urban winery in southwest London: the first in the UK capital.

London Cru follows a pattern of urban wineries such as 8th Estate in Hong Kong and New York’s City Winery, buying in grapes and vinifying them in the city. It is the brainchild of the keen young team that surrounds Cliff Roberson, a 74-year-old wine merchant of considerable renown.

He started the importer Buckingham Vintners in 1974, and in 1991 opened his flagship shop, Roberson Wine, in London’s Kensington district. By 2004, he’d sold all of his shares in Buckingham (by then one of the UK’s biggest wine companies, selling 40 million bottles a year) to the European wine group Schenk, to focus on the retail side of the business.

A couple of years ago, Roberson “got itchy” as he put it. When his right-hand man, Adam Green, suggested they set up a winery, he was interested.

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred businessmen would have run a mile,” Green says. “Cliff is that one in a hundred who saw the possibilities.”

From warehouse to urban winery

They enlisted as a partner an itinerant entrepreneur, Will Tomlinson. With a million-pound start-up fund, they equipped a former gin distillery in Fulham that served as Roberson’s warehouse with five open-topped stainless steel fermenters and a barrel cellar. The capacity: 2,500 cases, They hired Australian winemaker Gavin Monery, whose résumé  includes premium wineries such as Cullen and Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, Chave in Hermitage, and Remoissenet and Alex Gambal in Burgundy.

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Australian winemaker Gavin Monery eyes the latest vintage at London Cru. Credit: London Cru

Roberson, a company with annual wine sales of 10 to 12 million pounds through retail and the restaurant trade, and with a fine wine broking arm, has access to premium producers in every wine region of the world.

“Most of the guys we are buying grapes from, we import their wines anyway,” Monery says.

So he can control harvest dates (they pick early for freshness), and quality. To ensure they get exactly what they want, they pay handsomely —  more than double the going rate, in some cases.

The first vintage, the 2013, consists of four wines: a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Syrah from Roussillon, and a Barbera from Piedmont. Monery has sourced three more for 2014, a Syrah and a Garnacha from Calatayud in northeastern Spain, and a white English grape Bacchus, from Sandhurst Vineyards in Kent. Labels are minimalist: the wines are called SW6 (London Cru’s postcode) White Wine No. 1, Red Wine No. 1, and so forth. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, the UK’s Byzantine food laws forbid the mention of vintage or grape variety on the label.

A long journey by refrigerated truck

When the grapes are picked, they are transferred immediately to refrigerated trucks, which then make the 36-hour journey through mainland Europe, over the English Channel and into the winery. The trucks are key to the operation, Monery says. A fleet of such vehicles buzzing back and forth through Europe can’t come cheap. Is this a viable business model?

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

Renowned London wine importer and retailer Cliff Roberson has joined the production side of the business by launching London Cru, an urban winery in the UK capital. Credit: London Cru

“Well,” Green says with a smile, “it’s not the safest or the most rational business plan you could come up with, but, equally, it’s one that we all thought was interesting. We are thoroughly aiming to offer our investors a good return, and they see the aesthetic pleasure of being involved, and of bringing something genuinely new to London.”

Indeed, it is aesthetically pleasing to be in a fully functioning winery — complete with pungent aromas of oak and fermentation — in the middle of London. And the wines themselves? I don’t know what I was expecting from French and Italian varietals vinified in Fulham by an Australian, but I found them fresh, bright, charming, and loaded with varietal character.

It’s a pity that the 2013 is made in such tiny quantities — far fewer than 1,000 cases in all, and they are down to their last bottles. There’s a small fortune to be made here.

London Cru wines

All about $24 (£15) , available from the winery’s website.

SW6 White Wine 1 – Chardonnay: Bright, fresh, rather exotic nose with nice creamy roundness, this mitigated on the palate by brisk and precise acidity cutting through crunchy apple and some high tropical notes. Charming.

SW6 Red Wine 1 – Syrah: Picked early at 12 degrees alcohol. Delicate white pepper nose followed by a savory palate with dark fruit topped with ripe black cherry. Soft tannins with grip dissolve into lovely mouth-watering juice. Excellent.

SW6 Red Wine 2 – Barbera: Ruby red hue, bitter cherries on the nose, dancing acidity, tannins that are dry, even dusty, quickly releasing gouts of mouth-watering juice leaving a memory of ripe fallen damsons. Fresh, wild and utterly beguiling.

SW6 Red Wine 3 – Cabernet Sauvignon: Aromas of leaf and nettle that swirl out of the glass like a genie from a lamp. Classic blackcurrant leaf palate, tannins with grip and heft, scent of menthol alongside the hedgerow fruit, lots of juice on the finish. The best of a very strong quartet of wines. Bravo.

Main photo: In London Cru’s urban winery, workers led by winemaker Gavin Monery prepare Chardonnay grapes for pressing. Credit: Ian Sterling/London Cru

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Pyale Paşa Bostan, a market garden in Istanbul.

The purple skin of the Kavak fig is so thin that the fruit can be eaten whole, without peeling — and so fragile that it cannot be transported long distances. One of the few places this Istanbul delicacy is grown is a small market garden (known as a bostan in Turkish) in Rümeli Kavağı, a windswept waterfront settlement near where the Bosphorus Strait opens into the Black Sea.

“It’s probably the last historical bostan along the Bosphorus, just 100 meters from the water. It’s registered as green space, but threatened with development because of the third Bosphorus bridge being built nearby,” explains Aleksandar Sopov, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in history and Middle Eastern studies who is researching Istanbul’s Ottoman-era agriculture.

Fruits and vegetables were once widely grown within city limits, with many neighborhoods becoming well known for their specialty produce. Istanbul old-timers still wax poetic about the flavorful romaine lettuce of Yedikule, near the Byzantine city walls; the fragrant strawberries grown in the Bosphorus village of Arnavutköy; and the cucumbers from Çengelköy, along the Asian side of the strait, and from Langa, now part of the gritty central-city Aksaray neighborhood.

As recently as 1900, historical sources indicate, Istanbul was home to more than 1,200 market gardens covering as many as 12 square kilometers. Today, most have been plowed under and paved over — and most of those that remain face the threat of a similar fate. But the wheels of urbanization and development that began churning vigorously in the 1970s and 1980s have more recently also spurred a grass-roots resurgence in urban food growing.

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Volunteers at the Tarlataban community garden. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

The Tarlataban garden in the Rümeli Hisarı neighborhood was among the first in this new wave.

“When a Starbucks was opened at Boğazici University, there was a protest against the increasing food prices and commercialization on campus and some of us said, ‘Let’s see if we can grow our own food instead,’ ” garden volunteer Pınar Ercan recalls as she sits on a tarp picking chard seeds from a stack of dried stalks and gathering them in a jar. “We didn’t know if we could do it or not.”

Three years later, the small plot of land on a woody, remote corner of the university campus supplies produce to a student-run collective kitchen and serves as a laboratory for seed saving, composting and other sustainability initiatives. From a distance, the growing area looks like a wild tangle of plants, but move in closer and bright purple eggplants, red tomatoes and green peppers emerge from their vines, while robust melon and squash flourish in the undergrowth. (Crop diversity and rotation are notable characteristics of traditional bostan, which typically yield 15 to 20 different types of produce a year.)

A small group of volunteers tends the Tarlataban garden each week using techniques derived from the environmentally friendly practice of permaculture. Learning as they go, they have recently been sharing the knowledge they have acquired with students from other local universities who want to start similar projects on their campuses.

Demonstrations spur urban gardening projects

Istanbul’s new urban-gardening movement got a dramatic boost last year, when mass protests broke out in response to the threatened destruction of a centrally located green space to make way for a shopping mall. During the week or so that demonstrators occupied Gezi Park, some of them planted a small vegetable garden along its northern edge. After the park was cleared by police, similar gardens began to pop up around the city.

“Many places were cultivated after Gezi — empty plots of land owned by city municipalities and often threatened by development,” Sopov says.

In the Cihangir neighborhood, a short walk from Gezi Park, the Roma Bostan sits on a vacant hillside with a million-dollar view of the city, next to a staircase often crowded with young beer drinkers and littered with the broken bottles they leave behind. A sign on the fence surrounding its cornstalks and cabbage heads reads: “In the summer of 2013, this area was cleared of garbage for the first time. The soil was treated, planting beds created, and vegetables and healing herbs planted from local seeds. … It is kept alive by the collective effort of neighborhood residents. We await your support to keep it clean and protected. …”

Across the water, on the Asian side of the city, residents of the Kadıköy district have rallied, so far successfully, to keep their postage-stamp-sized Moda Gezi Bostan from being covered with asphalt for a parking lot.

“It’s all totally free — people plant and take whatever they want,” says a local who ambles up to chat with a visitor.

Small in scale and tended by hobbyists, these community plots can’t make up for the destruction of the historical bostan whose gardeners passed down a lifetime of knowledge from one generation to the next and fed the city for so many years with the produce they grew to sell at local markets. But the Tarlataban garden’s Ercan and others hope they might just be able to point Istanbul in a new direction.

“We understood after Gezi that we can be an example,” she says. “We’re trying to make what we need for ourselves, and the garden is a way to show people a more sustainable model for living.”

Main photo: Piyale Paşa Bostan in Istanbul. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Visitors enjoy the outdoor Sculpture Garden at the Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery

On a recent visit to Northern California, I wanted to see how art and wine mix in Sonoma County’s famed wine country. My sister, who works in public relations for the wine industry, took me to visit one of her clients, Paradise Ridge Winery. The Santa Rosa vineyard has a view of many appellations in Sonoma County. The fog, responsible for the deep flavor that imbues the Paradise Ridge Winery wines with their distinctive tastes, was just rolling in. There was a crescent moon. And as a complement to the divine Sauvignon Blanc I was drinking, the evening’s festivities included a tour of the winery’s sculpture gardens that change annually.

Marking the winery’s 20th year, the new exhibit in this natural outdoor gallery — the 20@20 Sculpture Exhibition —  is inspiring, with many pieces created by Burning Man artists. (Burning Man is a weeklong annual event that began in San Francisco’s Baker Beach and migrated to the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada.) The food we enjoyed was from Rosso Pizzeria, cooked on site in a state-of-the-art pizza oven, and made with homegrown tomatoes, herbs and Sonoma County cheeses.

Sonoma theater production

The night also included the first presentation in the newly built “Field of Dreams” amphitheater, which had been created for Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC), a nonprofit theater company in Sonoma that brings Broadway stars to wine country to entertain in open-air venues. This year’s, “Oh What a Beautiful Mash-Up,” starring Stephan Stubbins and Leah Sprecher, both well known to “Broadway Under the Stars” concerts, was a funny, touching and uplifting evening and a great beginning for Walter Byck, a founder of the winery and the man behind the amphitheater, who intends to have the artists perform at the winery each summer.

Recently Transcendence was named Theater of the Year by Broadway World San Francisco for its 2013 Season. The company is made up of musical theater artists with Broadway, national and international tour, and film and television credits.
TTC’s summer season includes the “Broadway Under The Stars in Jack London State Park” and the “Transcendence Artist Series” concerts, as well as the Broadway Kids Camp, “Skits Under The Stars” community nights, and community service, engagement and education programs throughout the entire Sonoma Valley.

Through an innovative arts and parks partnership, TTC is partnering with a nonprofit park operator, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Assn., to bring live theater and cultural education programming into Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Calif.

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The entrance to Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery

Paradise Ridge’s beginning

Paradise Ridge is a 156-acre estate owned by the Byck family, and established in 1978. The estate’s integrity was initially maintained by planting only 17 acres of vines in and around the majestic oaks and the other established trees, none of which were cut down.

With the severe drought currently affecting California, Paradise Ridge Winery and other vineyards across the state have put in place conservation measures to preserve their aquifer. Dan Barwick, Paradise Ridge’s winemaker and a member of the Byck family, says “the most important concern for the vineyard this year is maximizing water efficiency while maintaining healthy soils and vines.”

“One of the great fortunes of our paradise is that we are self-sufficient with the water for our vineyard, winery and all our hospitality efforts. Our water is completely independent and we use it mindfully, appreciating the scarcity of this natural resource,” Barwick says. “In the vineyard during drought years, we deeply soak the vines in the winter to allow the route system to deepen and spread so that when vines awaken in the spring they will be strong and vibrant. Our access to estate lake water allowed us do this in December and January, ensuring healthy vines as we moved into the 2014 vintage.”

“During the rest of the year, we water our vineyards in response to the needs of each vine, as opposed to a set regime of irrigation. We have recently overhauled our irrigation to pinpoint specific zones. We now have the ability to water only those areas as needed, as opposed to irrigating the entire block,” Barwick says. “These changes allow us to irrigate far more efficiently and save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year.”

Winery’s water conservation methods

Paradise Ridge Winery also had plans to cultivate a sustainable vegetable garden in 2014 to supply their winery, weddings and special events with produce, but because of the water shortage, they are delaying that venture.

The Herb Garden & Wine Sensory Experience established at the Tasting Room in Kenwood, Calif., by Annette McDonnell is a natural attraction for the winery. The idea of matching Paradise Ridge wines with various herbs is innovative. “Herbs like lemon basil, known to have citrus aromas often associated with Sauvignon Blanc, are also found in Chardonnays and Rieslings. The citrus will bring out the bright qualities in white wines while helping highlight fruit characters,” says McDonnell.

The sensory experience was created to showcase the chemistry of the wines and their relationship with herbs as well as cuisine. The garden has been divided into four areas and wine can also be broken down into similar groups:

Bitter – High acid, low to no sugar

Bright – High acid, low sugar

Savor – Moderate acid, moderate sugar

Sweet – Low acid, high sugar

The herb-and-wine experience encourages you to trust your palate when pairing wine and food.

Paradise Ridge Winery was a good way to begin my fun and educational trip through Sonoma wine country. The vineyard offered a complete wine-country experience: tasting superb Russian River Valley wines that had been paired with thin-crust pizza made with fresh herbs, taking in the magnificent view of the vineyard while strolling among world-class art in the outdoor gallery, and being entertained by Broadway stars performing under a crescent moon.

Main photo: Visitors enjoy the outdoor sculpture garden at the Paradise Ridge Winery in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, California. Credit: Paradise Ridge Winery 

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Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

A number of Chicago’s 3,000 Burmese refugees have found a place that feels like home, improbably situated in the middle of a thriving metropolis of 2.6 million people: a lush, sprawling acre of Midwestern farmland. Tucked inside an 8-foot-tall metal fence and pinched between the shadows of large brick apartment complexes, this all-organic farm gives these and other refugees a chance to do what they know best.

“Just about everybody here was a farmer back home,” says Linda Seyler, the manager of the Global Garden Refugee Training Farm. “They used the word home a lot, especially when we were building this. It’s in a ‘being resettled finally’ sense.”

AUTHOR


Maddy Crowell

Maddy Crowell is a multimedia freelance journalist who has previously reported out of Ghana and Morocco. Twitter: @madcrowell

Converted from the ruins of a candy distribution warehouse, the land was purchased by the Refugee Agricultural Partnership (an arm of the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement) from the city of Chicago for $1 (although apparently the city has yet to collect). Located in the ethnically diverse Albany Park neighborhood, it is the only refugee farm in Illinois, and one of a small handful in the United States.

Seyler says many of the urban farmers at Global Garden spent at least 20 years of their lives in refugee camps after being forced out of their home countries. “That’s 20 years in limbo,” she says. “They were not allowed to work, and everything is rationed — food, water, living space.”

With the farm, the refugees nurture a small piece of land they can call their own, rent free. For many, it’s also an escape from the chaos of the city. A hundred individual plots feed about 100 Bhutanese, Burmese, Nepalese and Congolese families, and anything left over can be sold at a nearby farmers market.

It’s a living amoeba of shared space, with farmers tending not only their own gardens but also their neighbors’. Some farmers push their growing season as late as November to get the last of the summer harvest.

Despite ministering to four different ethnic groups, Seyler found surprising agreement when it came to choosing which crops would kick-start the farm. “There would be one picture of some greens in the catalog, and they’d all say, ‘We like that!’ The pictures evoked something,” she says. She ordered anything they requested from a Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog.

Roselle is a sour surprise

At first, the farm was dotted with standard American crops — spinach, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, basil, thyme, sunflowers, mustard greens. Soon, however, Seyler began to notice a crop she didn’t recognize.

Chin baung, or roselle in English, announced itself in the form of red sticks poking up from the ground and appeared on the farm three years ago. A chewy, leafy, tart relative of the hibiscus family, the plant is as common in Myanmar as basil is here. Many Burmese families began searching it out as soon as they emigrated.

“My dad first ordered it from Thailand because he didn’t know there were seeds here,” explains 16-year-old Su Mon, a Burmese refugee who has spent the past seven years in Chicago. Mon sells her family’s vegetables at a local farmers market in Chicago every Saturday, including bunches of chin baung. “It’s very, very popular. Every Burmese family plants it.”

Before the Albany Park farm was founded in 2011, the Mon family stocked up on chin baung by traveling to Fort Wayne, Ind., which has a large Burmese population. Although the seeds are expensive, chin baung grows fast and stays hearty in the field a long time. It emerges as a maroon stem, and then buds into a three-leaved green leaf, edible immediately.

Known as mei qui qie in Mandarin Chinese, krajeap in Thai and asam paya in Indonesia, the plant does more than add a tangy kick: it’s full of iron, calcium, niacin, riboflavin and vitamin C, and can either be ground for tea or chopped up and added to salads. Mexicans put its red flowers in their tea for a tart Flor de Jamaica-flavored accent. Most Burmese throw the leaves on top of anything, from chicken soup to fish curry.

At the local Horner Park farmers market, one bunch of chin baung sells for $2 and is becoming popular among American customers looking to add some exotic leafy greens to their dinners. It provides a chewy complement to a lemony chicken or whitefish.

But for the Burmese, chin baung is invariably the featured ingredient of any meal. Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry, a deeply flavorful whirlwind for the taste buds — spicy and sour at the same time.

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A Burmese refugee sits after a long day of farming. Credit: Maddy Crowell

Chin Baung Kyaw (Fried Roselle Leaves)

Cooking Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 3 to 5 servings

Ingredients

2 bunches roselle leaves

1 tablespoon cooking oil

¼ tablespoon turmeric powder

¼ tablespoon red chili powder

1 medium red onion, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon pounded dried shrimp (optional)

1 small can of shredded bamboo shoots (not raw)

6 green chilies

Bean noodles (optional)

Directions

Prepare the roselle by breaking off the leaves at the base. Wash and drain the leaves.

Heat the oil in a frying pan.

Add turmeric, red chili powder, onion and garlic. Stir until the onion paste is golden brown.

Add the dried shrimp if using, roselle leaves, 1 tablespoon of water and stir well. Add salt if desired.

When the roselle leaves are soft, add the shredded bamboo shoots and green chilies. For extra spice, cut small slits into the chilies.

Cover and let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a separate pan, heat up the bean noodles if using or steam rice for extra texture.

Main photo: Chin baung kyaw is a popular Burmese curry. Credit: Maddy Crowell

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The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.

Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.

Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.

The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.

The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.

Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.

Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.

In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.

Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?

The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.

Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.

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James Birch at the Flora Bella Farm stall at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market. Credit: David Latt

After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.

In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.

But Birch is in a bind.

Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.

Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.

To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.

Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.

To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.

In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.

And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.

Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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