Articles in Technique
For the last eight months, I have been growing vegetables on a 323-square-foot plot of land rented from a Chinese perma-culture farm on the rural outskirts of Beijing. The farm, organized by a community-supported agriculture nonprofit called Shared Harvest, was based in Changping district nearly 25 miles north of Tiananmen Square.
More from Zester Daily:
“Perma-culture” or “circular farming” integrates animals (pigs, lambs, chicken, fish) and their waste into the ecological loop of growing fruits and vegetables, which in turn feed the animals as well. From the crops I gathered each biweekly visit, I was able to almost entirely sustain myself, minus the tofu, starches and seasoning I continued to purchase from supermarkets. Aside from the obvious nutritional benefits, my first experience managing agricultural land left me feeling ever more thankful. Thankful for the increased knowledge of how food is grown and thankful for the friendships I’ve developed, as well as a renewed appreciation of the difficult work farmers do, worldwide.
Escaping the city for community farms
Just as the back-to-the-farm movement has been picking up speed in the United States, in China there is a similar trend with community farms. I had been receiving food deliveries from the CSA and when they began to rent plots of land, offering to train and provide all necessary tools and seeds, I took the opportunity.
Turns out I was the only foreigner to jump at the chance to lease the land. All the other “gentlemen farmers” were upper-middle-class Chinese, who would drive out each weekend in their luxury vehicles and SUVs with their three-generation families and work their plots together. I, meanwhile, would get myself out there via a crazy combination of bike, subway, bus and foot, commuting up to 2½ hours each way. Still, I remained committed. Many of the other casual farmers, like me, enjoyed the chance to get out of the concrete eyesore that is Beijing, though the air quality was rarely better out there than in the city center. The region’s smog is partly attributed to industrial coal burning around Beijing. Similarly, we plot holders were all looking to ensure a source of safe food for ourselves amid a slew of adulterated food cases in China. In many cases, though, there was a deeper desire to “get back to the farm” where so many Chinese had lived and worked in earlier generations.. In the rush to urbanize, modernize, and become wealthy, many had been left feeling spiritually or socially lost.
It took me months comparing my ugly, unruly first-timer plot to the well-tended ones around mine before I realized that many of these nouveau riche had previously been farmers. It didn’t hurt that they also came with several laborers ready to work: grandparents, their children and then grandchildren all toiling together. While they all played and laughed in groups, I at first went out solo and learned to appreciate the kind of slow, wearying, physically-demanding labor that accompanies manual farming. As a single foreign female sweating and struggling over a plot of land that could easily feed a family of four, however, it meant I was a curiosity who attracted the attention and help of the others on the farm. Generally, this meant the two families of farmers who were hired to live on the land and oversee farm management, focusing especially on the animals, the larger plot, which grew food for CSA delivery, and the kitchen where many groups would eat lunch after a long morning of work. These incredible people taught me the basics needed to grow food.
There were also scores of young Chinese volunteers from universities or recent graduates who came to community farms from around the country looking for a mission to trumpet, seeking a change of pace from exhausting city life, or just hoping to learn a new skill until they found the next job.
Cooking up the bounty
From these two groups — farmers and volunteers — I learned an incredible amount. For one, I had a chorus of Chinese chefs indicating to me how best to cook each surprising new vegetable that would emerge, week by week, from the soil on my plot. For example, radish leaves work well as a leafy addition to a miso or any other soup; and green beans, if the pod skins get too old, can simply be removed and then blanched briefly before getting a good stir-fry with rice.
Additionally, I began to memorize the “qi” quality of each ingredient: those that cause the body to heat up, and those that cause the body to cool. Most intriguing were conversations about the role food plays in our lives, and how modernization has moved humans away from direct access to safe, healthy food grown in a sustainable manner.
In that transition, our knowledge about soil, plants, seasons and how food is grown was replaced by other types of information: food brands, advertising campaigns, famous restaurants and chefs. Deep into these conversations, while weeding the soil or furrowing the field in preparation for sowing seeds, I came to feel united with a certain group of people in our commitment to learning about our food from its source. It didn’t matter that we were speaking Mandarin in Beijing’s rural districts. It could have been any farm on the outskirts of any city, be it New York, Rio de Janeiro or Paris.
Top photo: Manuela Zoninsein and friend Gigi Peng take photos of weeds to try to identify them back home. Credit: Courtesy of Manuela Zoninsein
At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.
When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.
Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.
More from Zester Daily:
How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?
Storage and starch
Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.
Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.
“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.
Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”
I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.
When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.
“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.
Not your ordinary Russets
Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?
“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”
He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.
On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”
More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½ sticks of butter.
“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.
Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)
“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.
As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.
Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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
Hazelnut farmer Barb Foulke watched in disbelief as the relentless storm lashed Oregon’s Willamette Valley in late September. Two weeks of rain punctuated by a 5-inch deluge over four days.
More from Zester Daily:
A warm May meant the valley’s hazelnuts had matured early and were already lying on the ground when the rains started. Instead of “vacuuming” up the nuts in the typical whirl of dust, Foulke’s crop was sitting in the mud. “It’s painful,” she said.
Hazelnuts (filberts in England) have become a hot commodity in Oregon with acreage dedicated to the scrubby trees increasing 10% a year during the last decade. Three thousand more acres were planted this year with the region’s 2013 crop predicted to be close to 40,000 tons.
That’s slim pickings when compared to the flow of hazelnuts from Turkey, which produces 75% of the world’s crop by weight. Still, it’s enough to give the state runner-up status along with the countries of Italy, Georgia, Greece and Spain.
Foulke and other growers are working to distinguish Oregon hazelnuts in terms of quality by focusing on sustainable farming and modern harvesting technology. As the Portland culinary scene has exploded, the locally grown nuts have become a signature ingredient.
Discovering great hazelnut recipes
Visiting the Willamette Valley for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in August, I fell in love with the nut’s rich, creamy texture and sweet flavor. In the shell, they look like acorns. Lightly roasted, they lose their paper-thin skin and have a bite that is firmer than a cashew, softer than an almond.
A dinner in the sleek, new Sokol Blosser Winery tasting room, created by Jenn Louis, chef/owner of Lincoln in Portland, featured crushed, toasted nuts in a honey spread spiked with toasted rosemary, chili oil and sea salt. Louis’ slab of roasted porchetta was made from pigs fed on the meaty nuts.
The same holy trinity of toasted hazelnuts, honey and rosemary was the heart of a tapas prepared by Colin Stafford and Alex Yoder of Portland’s Olympic Provisions with paper-thin lardo enveloping whole hazelnuts.
When I returned home, I dog-eared half a dozen yummy hazelnut recipes in my cookbook collection. All called for toasting the nuts — 10 to 20 minutes at 350 F, single layer on a baking sheet, removing the skins by rubbing the toasted nuts between tea towels.
Beloved L.A. food guru Joseph Shuldiner features chopped hazelnuts in his dukkah and halvah. He grinds them into fig paste, folds them into his mushroom risotto and tosses them atop his wild mushroom polenta in “Pure Vegan” (Chronicle).
Taking my shopping list to the grocery store, I began looking for hazelnuts.
Getting nuts on the grocery shelves
“You don’t see hazelnuts that much in stores,” said Mike Klein, a spokesman for the Willamette Hazelnut Growers. While the exploding sales of Nutella — a sweetened hazelnut spread — are testament to the popularity of hazelnut’s flavor, the naked nuts are rarely on the shelf. Grocery chains don’t think cooks want to mess with toasting them, he said.
You rarely find them in cans of roasted mixed nuts because they are relatively rare. Only 40 million pounds of shelled hazelnuts are produced each year compared to 1.8 billion pounds of almonds, he said.
I found hazelnuts at Surfas in Culver City and there were a few containers of them at my neighborhood Whole Foods. But the local Ralphs grocery store doesn’t carry them.
The easiest way to buy hazelnuts, said Klein, is to go to the website of an Oregon grower and buy direct. Unfortunately, Oregon growers sold out months ago, and you’ll have to wait for the new harvest.
The line is forming at Barbara Foulke’s Freddy Guys Hazelnuts, the nuts many Portland foodies consider the gold standard. Her small-batch processing using a tricked-out little roaster she traveled to Italy to buy directly from the manufacturer provides the obsessive attention to detail that appeals to the local DIY ethos.
And Foulke will have plenty of nuts. The rains stopped the second week of October. The sun came out and ushered in an Indian summer as odd as the earlier deluge. The warm days dried the ground, allowing the crew to “vacuum” up the nuts with Foulke’s harvesters before mold or mildew could gain a foothold.
The 2013 harvest is expected to set records.
Top photo: Cracker thin toast with fresh ricotta, stewed kumquats and other fall citrus, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnuts from Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown
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.
More on Zester Daily:
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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
In late summer, it’s common for people in the Southwest to spray herbicides on their noxious weeds.
These weeds are, according to the Colorado Weed Management Association, “non-native plant species that have been introduced into an environment with few, if any, natural biological controls, thus giving them a distinct competitive advantage in dominating and crowding out native plant species. Noxious weeds are aggressive, spread rapidly, possess a unique ability to reproduce profusely, and resist control.” The Cardus family of weeds — including the musk thistle, plumeless thistle, Canada thistle and bull thistle — are those most frequently targeted.
The Soul of the Soil
Second in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
More from Zester Daily:
I have an artist friend who clips the blooms, saving the seeds from spreading during high winds. She puts the bright blooms in a Navajo basket, which is beautiful. Another friend uses the thistle greens to blend with lemonade berries and apples. She then strains the liquid from the pulp into a glass for her morning juice. These plants are edible. Some say they can be used as a medicinal tea to strengthen the stomach, reduce fever, kill intestinal worms or stave off constipation.
A legacy of herbicides
For years, thistles were sprayed with Roundup. Now they have become immune to Roundup and the herbicide that is now commonly used is a strong agent called aminopyralid, one of a class of herbicides known as pyridine carboxylic acids. This group includes clopyralid, picloram, triclopyr and several less common herbicides. It is specifically used for broad-leafed plants, and it can be broadcast over pastures without harming the grass.
Aminopyralids are of real concern to vegetable growers because they enter the food chain via manure from animals that eat sprayed pasture greens or hay. When manure containing these herbicides is applied to gardens, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas and beans are deformed and the plants produce poor, often nonexistent yields. My concern is that this will have the effect of ending the 10,000-year-old process humans have used to increase soil fertility by applying the animal waste back into soils for vegetable production.
Aminopyralid is made to be applied to pastures, grain crops, residential lawns, commercial turf, certain vegetables and fruits, and roadsides. And Dow, the company that manufactures these herbicides, claims in its warning pages that the forage can be safely eaten by horses and livestock, including livestock produced for human consumption.
But Dow’s website posting concerning aminopyralid stewardship also explains the herbicide does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. My concern is that manure may contain enough of the herbicide to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals for years to come. Dow warns that forage growers should inform the recipient of hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.
Dow goes on to say the company has been trying to work with farmers and gardeners when carryover has occurred. Dow recommends farmers test manure on a few plants before spreading it across an entire garden or field, particularly if farmers don’t know the manure’s origin. The trade names of this herbicide are Chaparral, CleanWave, ForeFront, GrazonNext, Opensight, Pasturall and Milestone.
In February of 2008 Grab N’Grow, a California soil products company, petitioned the Sonoma County, Calif., agriculture commissioner to create rules limiting clopyralid’s use on plants that feed animals that produce compost.
A drifting problem
For the last 18 years I have had an herbicide/pesticide-free property. I have posted signs so that, should I be out of town, the herbicide man and/or the county that sprays the edges of all county roads will not spray my property under any conditions.
The problem is the property owners around my house spray and the “drift” from the pesticide and/or herbicide runs off in the rain, downhill into my pond and my soil. I am concerned that pesticides can damage hay, vegetables, flowers and livestock.
There are real questions about long-term health effects of chemicals in our soil. At a time when we are more aware of what goes into our bodies and more reluctant to ingest the residues from herbicides, it seems vital to question the use of anything that contaminates our soil.
Top photo: Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner
New York State has malt fever. This January, the Farm Brewery Law went into effect, and people are amped up about homegrown beer. The law makes it easier to open small breweries that use the state’s agricultural products like hops and grains. Everyone from politicians to home brewers thinks this is swell. Not me.
I’m a baker, and I’ve been following flour back to the field for a few years, meeting people who are putting wheat into local markets. I’m getting to know the brewers and distillers who are thrilled about barley for malting, which turns the grain into base ingredients for beer and spirits. Barley and wheat are small grains, and need similar infrastructure for growing and handling, so the interest in alcohol has the potential to expand small-scale grain farming overall. Still, I’m sorry this frenzy didn’t happen over bread.
Why does beer command more attention than bread? At the state level, I believe it is strictly mercenary. If there was a bread tax, I’m sure I would have met politicians on my flour tours a long time ago.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been meeting farmers, millers and bakers working outside the wheat belt. They are passionate, and devoted to helping grain production get rolling in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country. So are the researchers and food activists they work with. But those with beer fever outnumber them.
The interest in localizing beer is impressive, but confuses me. Meetings about hops and barley are booked beyond capacity, crowded with people thinking of planting hops to get agricultural tax credits, and farmers who have never grown grains.
I am not immune to the powers of alcohol. I used to adore India Pale Ales, or IPAs, especially any made by Stone, but I can’t drink anymore. It just makes me feel lousy. Still, I remember how beer brings unity and bliss, creating a brotherhood of the bottle. Even cheap beer can do this — I never understood baseball better than when I held a plastic cup of Budweiser in Yankee Stadium. America, understood.
Bread is also communion. This social symbolism works even for the non-religious. We break bread to be together literally and figuratively, yet neither the concept nor the practice influences our expectations of cost. If bread means so much, why do we think that the staff of life should be cheap?
More on Zester Daily:
Sure, artisan breads command our imaginations and a good market share in bakeries and supermarkets and at farmers markets. But think about the way you think about staples. Don’t you want your milk and bread inexpensive, so you can spend money on treats like lattes, cupcakes and craft beers?
Milk doesn’t have as many philosophical strings attached, yet it, like grain, when removed from standard pricing systems (commodities for grains, fluid milk prices for milk), costs more than the price of production, and more than most people are comfortable paying — myself included.
The dairy industry is working to change the way fluid milk is priced. The current system was developed in the 1930s and is bizarrely linked, by an algorithm few can understand or explain, to the price of cheddar set by the Chicago Board of Trade. Making milk is often more expensive than farmers can earn selling it. No wonder, then, that over the last 30 or 40 years, dairy farms have disappeared quicker than ice cream on a hot day.
Bread makers know the cost of cheap
We get cheap flour and bread because grain production is centralized on 2,000- to 5000-acre farms in states such as Kansas and Montana. While heirloom tomatoes are almost clichés of local food, grains are late to local tables because these low-value crops need a lot of land, labor and equipment. Prize vegetables such as arugula or heirloom tomatoes can bring a lot of money per acre. Grains generally cannot. Grain growers need costly tools, like combines and grain bins. A nuanced understanding of planting, harvest and storage techniques is required to produce high quality grains.
We’ll pay 4 bucks for a cupcake, but bakers have a hard time making the numbers work for flour whose cost is not balanced by federal subsidies for commodity crops. Beyond price considerations, bakeries of all but the smallest, most hands-on scale are hesitant to work with flours that do not have the predictability that comes from blending seas of pan-American wheat.
Bakers used to know how to work with flour that varied from field to field and year to year. Mills were local — look for the abandoned millsones at the edge or your most tumbling stream. Is the answer to retreat from industrialized food so that what we eat costs what it costs to grow? I don’t know, but I would like to see fewer fields of corn and soy and more amber waves of grain.
Sowing outside the grain belt
That is happening, bit by bit. Farmers are figuring out what varieties of wheat grow and harvest well in the humid Northeast summers. Having more demand for barley for malting or wheat for baking will help build the infrastructure required to get grains in the ground and get those grains to market.
There are discussions of community mills and cooperative granaries in New York, Maine and elsewhere. Many partners — the Northeast Organic Farming Assn.-New York, the Pennsylvania Assn. of Sustainable Agriculture, Cornell, Greenmarket Regional Grain Project, OGRIN and others — are in the middle of a four-year grant sponsored by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative. They’ve been educating farmers about growing practices, building a mobile cleaning unit to help process grains, and conducting field trials of wheat varieties.
Despite my sour grapes at the beer frenzy, I am hopeful that the desire for local barley will feed the need for local flour, and help bring prices closer to manageable for bakers and eaters. Let’s see whether beer — in a sense — grows bread.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to urge flour along. Ask your artisan baker if they make a local loaf. Buy that local loaf once they start baking. And get your co-op to carry that flour and use it for your biscuits, pancakes and pie crusts, OK?
Top photo: Baked goods. Credit: Courtesy of Amy Halloran