Articles in Farmers
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
At 8 p.m. on the Saturday before the first snowfall, organic grower Patrick Thiel harvested the last of his 50,000 pounds of potatoes in eastern Oregon. His crew — an itinerant chef, some furloughed firefighters and day laborers — unearthed the haul by hand. Alby’s Gold, Corolle and La Ratte Fingerlings were among the heirloom varieties Portland’s top chefs demanded of Thiel’s tiny Prairie Creek Farm.
When Gabriel Rucker, Naomi Pomeroy, Vitaly Paley and Portland’s other culinary all-stars create a potato side dish or make French fries, they don’t accept any old spud. That got me thinking about Thanksgiving.
Next to turkey, mashed potatoes play the best supporting role. They are essential. You may mess around with a vegetable side dish, invent a salad or even mix in a new pie, but mashers are on the menu each and every year.
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How, I wondered, could this year’s mashed potatoes be their very best?
Storage and starch
Snow flurries scattered on the silver roof of a makeshift potato shed in Prairie Creek Farm’s fields. My feet were cold within moments, but I’d come to learn what I could from the most renowned potato grower in Oregon. Gene Thiel, the farm’s founder known as “Potato Man,” died in July at 77 and left the legacy to his son, Patrick. They’d worked side by side on their leased patch of glaciated soils making their root crops — beets, carrots and potatoes — memorable highlights of many menus.
Looking like a miner with a helmet and headlamp, Thiel led me inside his potato shed. The earthy air was noticeably warmer and dark as night. Hills of soil-caked potatoes reached head height — 50,000 pounds, Thiel estimated with undisguised disappointment.
“It should be 100,000,” he said. But he couldn’t get enough organic seed potato for a full crop. Shaking his head, he noted that meant rationing the smaller yield to his 50 chefs to fulfill deliveries from now to spring.
Bent over a bulwark of 50-pound bagged potatoes, Thiel commented offhandedly, “Cooking potatoes is a question of sugar content and temperature.”
I realized my lesson had begun. He explained that in cool storage (within 40 to 45 F), the potatoes retain their sugars. So, you want to store your potatoes, whether from the store, farmers market or your own garden, as cool as you can for long keeping.
When they’re warmed up, the potato’s sugars convert to starches. Because the best mashed potatoes require a starchy potato, Thiel’s key advice was simple: Warm your potatoes before boiling.
“If your sugars are high, you’ll get glue,” Thiel said. Then, he added, “My dad could tell the good chefs who set their bag of potatoes by the stove.” Their French fries had the best color and their mashed potatoes the best texture. Flavor is another story.
Not your ordinary Russets
Thiel is a soft-spoken father of four with a brown cap of hair who harbors fervent opinions on potatoes. I asked him outright, What is the best potato for mashing?
“If you like light and fluffy, use Russets,” he replied. “If you like flavor, use better varieties.”
He was speaking, of course, of heirloom potato varieties. Not the Idaho potato, the Burbank Russet, grown for uniformity in size, starch, color and flavor. Commercial potato growers are paid to produce to specifications and penalized if their tubers don’t make the cut. Thiel and his dad left behind commercial-scale potato growing many years ago and became committed to producing diverse breeds, including Alby’s Gold, a yellow variety that is the farm’s mainstay.
On this topic, Thiel is passionate. “No potato has better color, flavor and texture than Alby’s,” he said. “They come alive like no other potato.”
More brightly colored than Yukon Gold, Alby’s is the only potato that can hold an astonishing amount of butter when mashed, according to longtime Chef Pascal Sauton. Just 1 pound of Alby’s potatoes can absorb 1½ sticks of butter.
“Put that much butter in anything, it’s incredible,” Thiel conceded. He also recommended blending them with good quality olive oil, duck fat, bacon fat or truffle oil.
Prairie Creek Farm grows roughly eight potato varieties, including Ranger Russet, best adapted to the growing conditions in Oregon’s alpine region. Throughout the country, small farms offer their own favorite heirloom breeds. (Find the one closest to you at LocalHarvest.com.)
“When you’re using different potatoes,” Thiel advised, “you need to know your potato.” On his weekly delivery runs, he informs chefs about the storage conditions, but stops short of the direct instructions his father shot off for cooking them. “I don’t have the courage to argue with them like my dad,” he said with a shy smile. He does confide in me that when he wants an extra fluffy mash, he’ll mix a few of his Russets in with his favored Alby’s.
As I stepped gingerly between piles of potatoes to exit the shed, Thiel shined his headlamp to the roof to show me droplets suspended there. Entombed, the potatoes make their own moisture, respiring and living in a state of waiting until we claim them for our own Thanksgiving Day feast.
Top photo: Patrick Thiel. Credit: Lynne Curry
My family and I recently moved across the country, and I have found myself desperately looking for new sources of locally grown food. The easiest place for a city dweller to find local food is at a farmers market. But a farmers market, at its best, should be more than simply a supermarket with outdoor booths. A good farmers market makes you a participant in an entire system, not just a consumer.
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Food comes from your farmer. So as a newcomer to the Mid-Atlantic, I was determined to find my farmer — at least one — who would hopefully lead me to others in the future.
I began on a Saturday morning in Alexandria, Va., at the Del Ray Farmers’ Market on a tiny corner lot at the end of a street full of shops and family-friendly restaurants in the historic port city outside D.C. I tried to remain focused amid the array of tents and booths, steering clear of the glitzy world of bakers, cheesemongers and kimchi purveyors. There was plenty of time for preserved foods later. My mission was clear. I needed raw ingredients, the building blocks of meals.
Then I stumbled upon the stall for Smith Meadows Farm, providing fresh beef, pork, lamb and chicken that were grass-fed and free range. I bought a pound of frozen ground beef, a pack of freshly made chicken empanadas and a book by Smith Meadows’ owner Forrest Pritchard. “Gaining Ground” reveals Pritchard’s struggle to save his family farm by raising grass-fed beef in a sustainable way.
That evening I made four amazing cheeseburgers with Smith Meadows ground beef, then began to read Pritchard’s book with fascination. When I was done I told my husband, “He’s the guy.” I’d found my first farmer.
I contacted Pritchard through his website and he graciously invited me to tour his 500-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, just outside of Berryville, Va. He and his family raise hogs, chickens, turkeys, sheep and beef cattle. But it turns out that Pritchard is as passionate about forming connections with customers as he is about farming itself. He is committed to creating and supporting the sustainable economic system of small farms, local markets and concerned participants. Not only had I found my farmer, my farmer could tell me how to find other farmers.
How to find farmers
Our conversation was as free-ranging as the hogs Pritchard tended as we talked. But I’ve distilled his advice into several key tips for those who want to find their farmer.
Most farmers markets have an online vendor list, and from there you can check out the farmers’ websites. Those sites should be able to tell you whether they’re sustainable, organic, pesticide free and/or free range. Ask friends and neighbors where they get their food. Yelp and Angie’s List also will have reviews. The world is wired, even for farmers who usually deal with life’s more tangible elements.
Pose specific questions to the vendors at the farmers market. Ask your livestock farmer, “Is your beef grass finished?” This assures customers that the cattle have never been given any grain. Ask a produce farmer, “What’s at the peak of the season?” Buy the peak produce, and don’t worry too much about prettiness or durability. Some farmers will be responsive, some not, but you’ll be able to tell whether they care about their product. More important, you’ll find out if they care about the same things you do.
Shop for what interests you
There’s no point in eating great food you don’t like. Enough said.
Grow your own food
Plant a garden and ask the farmers at the market for advice. Your local farmer knows better than anyone which plants will grow best in your soil and climate zone. Raise chickens, a pig or even a single steer. There’s no better way to appreciate a farmer than to try to grow food yourself.
Be passionate and have fun
The quest to find your farmer should have a sense of adventure. The more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Farmers at a market are usually passionate about what they do. They will respond to your own passion.
I’d come away with a list of questions and tips to help me create relationships with the people who help feed my family. In the coming months I plan to seek out more of my local farmers and see what I can learn about our local honey, goats, root vegetables and cider.
Pritchard and I talked about a lot more: grass fed versus grass finished, the difficulty of storing ovoid-shaped foods such as frozen chickens and the surprising economics of ground beef. But throughout my conversation I realized how lucky I was to have found my first farmer. He wants to spread the word about sustainable farming. He’s hard at work on his second book, which combines photographic portraits of sustainable farmers with the farmers’ favorite recipes. He’s committed to promoting small, local food systems that include the buyer and cook as part of that ecosystem.
Pritchard may have more to say about farming than most farmers. Your farmers might not be quite so talkative but they’re probably just as passionate about the food they grow. Meeting your farmers and buying food at a farmers market turns you into one more thread in the web of good food.
If you care about food, you care about where it comes from. So I urge you, find your farmer.
Top photo: Forrest Pritchard stops to say hello to one of his flock. Credit: Susan Lutz
So what’s a gal to do when she’s spent her whole adult life as an organic farmer passionately promoting the benefits of organic food, and then she spends a weekend in the Hamptons with her in-laws and finds out that the neighboring farm — the one with the great little produce stand selling just-picked very sweet corn, crisp string beans and amazing vine-ripe tomatoes — is conventional? Well, the truth is that I ended up buying three big bags of their delicious vegetables. We cooked it up and enjoyed it, but I felt unsettled and perturbed.
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Was I wrong to support a conventional farm that uses petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides because it was right down the road from my in-laws’ house? It didn’t feel better to fight peak summer traffic and drive to the mall to shop at the supermarket that had an organic produce section. I doubted those supermarket veggies would hold a candle to the farm stand’s bounty.
The truth is, I wish that I hadn’t had to make such a hard choice. If the local farm was organic, the decision would have been simple, and I would have felt 100% great about the meal our family enjoyed.
But taste and freshness are so important when you want to cook a delicious meal, and eating local food makes me feel grounded and connected to the unique environment and community I’m visiting. I love eating food harvested nearby, so fresh that it still smells like the earth it grew in. But that enjoyment is marred by knowing that the armful of corn I’m carrying away from the field had probably been sprayed with a dangerous chemical.
Come winter, residents and visitors in the Hamptons will be buying their produce at that supermarket in the mall, and I’m thrilled that they’ll be able to choose from organic options. Every time someone purchases organic instead of conventional, it creates a positive feedback loop: the store stocks more organic food, demand for organic items increase, and eventually more land is transitioned to organic methods. Right now, less than 1% of the farmland in the U.S. is being farmed organically, so this conversion is extremely important.
Don’t assume small, local farms are organic
Many people assume that all family-run local farms use safe, sustainable methods to grow their food. In truth, most conventional farms — large ones and small ones — rely on virtually the same potent arsenal of toxic herbicides, fumigants and insecticides, as well as synthetic chemical fertilizers. These chemicals pollute our water, damage our soil, and often leave residues on the food we eat. They are also unhealthy for farmworkers, surrounding wildlife and those who live, work and go to school nearby.
We need local farmers to thrive if we’re going to preserve our farmland and have convenient access to fresh-picked produce that inspires us to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to prepare more delicious home-cooked meals. But we want our local farmers to go organic so that their produce is as healthy as possible for our families, our neighborhood, and our environment.
At my local farmers market in Monterey, Calif., there are so many stalls it’s easy to buy my peaches from an organic farmer. Even if there are days when the conventional ones look a little better and cost less, I still choose organic. I want the conventional growers to see how long the lines are for organic items and eventually deduce that giving organic a try might be a good business decision, despite the challenges and additional costs involved. People willing to pay a premium for organic food creates that incentive.
Converting conventional farms one at a time
Over my three decades in the organic farming business, I’ve seen many conventional farmers transformed into organic farming advocates. When they stop using chemicals, they begin to see their soil come alive. They see it’s possible to grow beautiful produce in cooperation with nature, and that their yields increase over time. We can influence this transformation by choosing organic whenever we shop, and by letting our local farmers know we prefer our food produced without any synthetic chemicals, and that we’re willing to pay more for it.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if next time I visited my in-laws I learned that the farm next door was converting to organic, and I didn’t have to worry that there were chemicals on my produce or being sprayed so close by?
Top photo: Myra Goodman. Credit: Sara Remington
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
As we approach the floating dock, Chris Quartuccio cuts the boat’s engine, and the steady hum of the motor is replaced by what sounds like a large pile of broken plates being raked. We’ve reached Blue Island, Quartuccio’s oyster farm out on New York’s Great South Bay, the 29-mile-long body of water sandwiched between Fire Island and Long Island’s South Shore. On the other side of the dock, one of his employees is tumbling oysters, vigorously shaking mesh bags filled with the bivalves before stacking them in an open rack to be lowered back into the bay, where the oysters will continue to grow.
Tumbling heightens what wild oysters would naturally endure as they are tossed around by the tides, rasping off their still-feathery edges to produce the relatively smooth shells that are served up on ice at raw bars. Having spent the day listening to Quartuccio discuss the history of the region’s shellfish industry, however, it’s hard not to see tumbling as a metaphor for the trade and the lives of the people who ply it. Ebb and flow is putting it gently; it’s a saga filled with hope, desperation and Mother Nature’s merciless logic — from boom to bust to boom again, repeat ad infinitum.
Although he’s only 48, Quartuccio has lived through a few of these cycles already. A native of Sayville, N.Y., he started digging for clams when he was 12. “Back then, clam diggers here were making a lot of money. The better ones lived in the same neighborhoods as the doctors and lawyers. But as more people got into the business, they started putting a lot of pressure on the bay.” To maintain their high incomes, many began to work the winter grounds illegally, targeting areas of the bay that were rich in shellfish but that also served as important spawning zones. By the 1990s, the population of hard-shelled clams was wiped out.
Reviving the real Blue Point oyster
During my visit, Quartuccio takes me to Blue Point, the spit of land for which the renowned oyster is named. In 1908, New York state decreed that in order to be sold as a Blue Point, an oyster had to have spent at least three months in the Great South Bay — though the law is rarely enforced, and it’s not uncommon to see menus with oxymoronic offerings such as Chesapeake or Connecticut Blue Points.
Like clams, oysters here have had a checkered history, periods of great abundance followed by foreseeable — and unforeseeable — decline. “This area was paved with oysters back then,” said Quartuccio, referring to the first third of the 20th century, but things changed after the great hurricane of 1938, dubbed the “Long Island Express.” Killing more than 600 people, the storm destroyed large parts of Fire Island and created numerous inlets into the bay, causing the oyster beds to be silted over.
Later attempts to get the industry going again were foiled by brown tides, the result of excess nitrogen in the water, as well as the appearance of parasitic diseases that — although not a danger to consumers — decimated the oyster population. In 2002, a local fish hatchery manager was quoted in The New York Times as saying the Blue Point oyster had likely reached its end.
Or had it? Predictions of its demise appear to have been premature. Thanks to seeding efforts and laws prohibiting the harvest of the youngest oysters, parts of the bay have become hospitable again. Quartuccio purchased his farm back in 2005 (he owns the dock and leases his prime underwater location from the town of Islip), and his company now sells its delightfully briny, firm-textured Blue Points to a roster of high-end restaurants that includes New York’s Four Seasons, Craft and Momofuku and San Francisco’s Waterbar.
Serving them up ‘Naked’
Despite his success, Quartuccio has learned to avoid putting all his shells in one bucket. In addition to his Blue Points, which he sells under the name “Blue Islands” — to distinguish them from competitors who’ve appropriated the original name for their oysters — he also deals in oysters from other parts of the country. And he’s always looking for the next big thing to promote.
To make a good living in the industry, he tells me, marketing is key. “If you don’t have the right name, I don’t care how good the oyster is. It’s not gonna sell,” he noted. With his newest item, a diver-harvested oyster from Long Island Sound, it appears he’s hit the jackpot. Christened after Times Square’s most famous tighty-whitey-clad denizen, the “Naked Cowboy” is Blue Island’s best-selling oyster to date. “When customers see the name on menus, they tell their waiters, ‘I want to know what the Naked Cowboy tastes like.’ That happens all the time.”
Although these calculations may seem crass to some, the economic realities of the industry defy the landlocked’s tendency to romanticize a seafaring life. These days, Quartuccio spends more time in the office than out on the water, but when I ask him whether he misses that part of the job, he smiles. “I’ve seen so many sunrises and sunsets. And when I say that, I mean they were long days. When you’re out here, day after day after day, in all kinds of weather — from 100 degrees to watching the ice form on the tips of your fingers … ” he explained, the echo of his Long Island accent hanging in the air for a moment. “I’ve seen enough for a lifetime.”
Top photo: Freshly shucked Blue Point oysters. Credit: Sofia Perez
In late summer, it’s common for people in the Southwest to spray herbicides on their noxious weeds.
These weeds are, according to the Colorado Weed Management Association, “non-native plant species that have been introduced into an environment with few, if any, natural biological controls, thus giving them a distinct competitive advantage in dominating and crowding out native plant species. Noxious weeds are aggressive, spread rapidly, possess a unique ability to reproduce profusely, and resist control.” The Cardus family of weeds — including the musk thistle, plumeless thistle, Canada thistle and bull thistle — are those most frequently targeted.
The Soul of the Soil
Second in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
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I have an artist friend who clips the blooms, saving the seeds from spreading during high winds. She puts the bright blooms in a Navajo basket, which is beautiful. Another friend uses the thistle greens to blend with lemonade berries and apples. She then strains the liquid from the pulp into a glass for her morning juice. These plants are edible. Some say they can be used as a medicinal tea to strengthen the stomach, reduce fever, kill intestinal worms or stave off constipation.
A legacy of herbicides
For years, thistles were sprayed with Roundup. Now they have become immune to Roundup and the herbicide that is now commonly used is a strong agent called aminopyralid, one of a class of herbicides known as pyridine carboxylic acids. This group includes clopyralid, picloram, triclopyr and several less common herbicides. It is specifically used for broad-leafed plants, and it can be broadcast over pastures without harming the grass.
Aminopyralids are of real concern to vegetable growers because they enter the food chain via manure from animals that eat sprayed pasture greens or hay. When manure containing these herbicides is applied to gardens, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas and beans are deformed and the plants produce poor, often nonexistent yields. My concern is that this will have the effect of ending the 10,000-year-old process humans have used to increase soil fertility by applying the animal waste back into soils for vegetable production.
Aminopyralid is made to be applied to pastures, grain crops, residential lawns, commercial turf, certain vegetables and fruits, and roadsides. And Dow, the company that manufactures these herbicides, claims in its warning pages that the forage can be safely eaten by horses and livestock, including livestock produced for human consumption.
But Dow’s website posting concerning aminopyralid stewardship also explains the herbicide does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. My concern is that manure may contain enough of the herbicide to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals for years to come. Dow warns that forage growers should inform the recipient of hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.
Dow goes on to say the company has been trying to work with farmers and gardeners when carryover has occurred. Dow recommends farmers test manure on a few plants before spreading it across an entire garden or field, particularly if farmers don’t know the manure’s origin. The trade names of this herbicide are Chaparral, CleanWave, ForeFront, GrazonNext, Opensight, Pasturall and Milestone.
In February of 2008 Grab N’Grow, a California soil products company, petitioned the Sonoma County, Calif., agriculture commissioner to create rules limiting clopyralid’s use on plants that feed animals that produce compost.
A drifting problem
For the last 18 years I have had an herbicide/pesticide-free property. I have posted signs so that, should I be out of town, the herbicide man and/or the county that sprays the edges of all county roads will not spray my property under any conditions.
The problem is the property owners around my house spray and the “drift” from the pesticide and/or herbicide runs off in the rain, downhill into my pond and my soil. I am concerned that pesticides can damage hay, vegetables, flowers and livestock.
There are real questions about long-term health effects of chemicals in our soil. At a time when we are more aware of what goes into our bodies and more reluctant to ingest the residues from herbicides, it seems vital to question the use of anything that contaminates our soil.
Top photo: Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner
When it comes to things local, New England has a bounty of good food. On a recent visit, I looked forward to driving down the country roads and picking up some artisan cheeses, maple syrup and apple cider to bring back to Los Angeles. Instead I came home with a carry-on bag full of something totally unexpected: miso, made in the Japanese farmhouse tradition in Conway, Mass.
I met Christian and Gaella Elwell, owners, founders and managers of the South River Miso Co., at the annual Northeastern Rice Conference held in Vermont; they invited me to come visit their farm afterward.
Miso is the staple Japanese high-protein seasoning made of koji — fermented rice; salt; and soybeans, barley, or other grains. I usually buy miso at the Japanese market or when I go back to Japan. On occasion, I make my own, as my mother did, but not as often as I would like to. In the old days, almost every household in Japan made its own miso. I keep a good stock of miso, at least two or three varieties, because we like to have miso soup for breakfast every day, as part of my family’s health regimen, and also use it to make salad dressings and marinades. Miso offers a nutritious balance of natural carbohydrates, essential oils, minerals, vitamins and protein of the highest quality, containing all the essential amino acids. Finding another variety of miso is as exciting as coming upon an unfamiliar cheese.
I realized I had once tried ordering South River Miso Co.’s miso online, but because the company’s miso is unpasteurized and doesn’t travel well in warm weather, they don’t ship to the West Coast during the summer. I learned, though, that even with such down time on the West Coast, they have a loyal following around the country and sell out of the 70 tons of miso they produce each year.
Miso part of macrobiotic lifestyle
The Elwells have been making miso for more than 30 years. The couple met in Boston in 1976, when they were students of the macrobiotic way of life as taught by Michio and Aveline Kushi. The macrobiotic lifestyle promotes a diet of freshly prepared seasonal whole foods, which includes having miso soup for breakfast. Back then, miso was available only from Japan, and the Elwells wondered, “What would it be like to make miso in this country, right here in New England?” Such inquisitiveness led them to the late Naboru Muramoto, a macrobiotic healer in Glen Ellen, Calif., with whom they studied miso making for three months in 1979. A year later, the Elwells went back to New England to start their miso-making operation, and they have been at it ever since.
As the story goes, their first shipment of miso was packed in an unheated barn and hauled across the shallow icy waters of South River on a horse-drawn wagon to meet the UPS truck at the farm’s roadside. This may sound wild, but there are young farmers living across from the Elwells who choose to farm with horses, so things haven’t changed much in this part of the country for good reasons.
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The Elwells’ miso workshop has a view of their vegetable garden and a field of flowering buckwheat. There is a strikingly beautiful rice paddy in the shape of a circle. In ancient Japan, the crops grown on round paddies were offerings to the gods. Some people see the round paddy as the reflection of the moon. The rice grown in the Elwells’ paddy is not used for making miso, but I am certain that having such serene setting does good things to nourish your spirit .
Various shades of light caramel to dark brown glass jugs topped with lids are the first thing you see when you enter the South River Miso Co.’s fermentation room. The malty and sweet smell emanates from the large, handcrafted 3- to 5-ton wooden vats of miso which take up most of the room. “Try some of this miso tamari,” says Christian, gently pouring out the dark liquid from the glass jug into a little cup. “It is the puddle of liquid that settles at the middle of the miso vats,” he explains with a gentle demeanor. I take a sip. Like miso, miso tamari has a malty aroma and sweet taste. It’s like soy sauce but less sharp and delicious.
Miso requires a two-step fermentation process. To start, lightly milled organic brown rice or barley grains are inoculated with koji-kin or aspergillus mold. The inoculated grain is stacked in traditional wooden trays and fermented inside the muro, a temperature-controlled room that heats up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the optimum temperatures for making koji. The production workers monitor the temperature, which goes up as the rice ferments; it takes about 36 hours to complete the fermentation process. To the koji, he mixes in sun-dried sea salt and cooked soybeans or other beans such as garbanzo and azuki, which are slowly cooked in a caldron for 20 hours over hand-fed wood fires in a brick oven. Christian and his workers combine the mixture by stamping on the beans with their feet, which gives the miso better texture than if they were done by machine.
The fermented grains, salt and cooked beans are combined and transferred to the wooden vats to ferment for anywhere from three weeks for the Kyoto-style, sweet white miso to three years for the darker, savory brown rice, chickpea and barley miso. South River Miso Co. produces more than 11 varieties of miso, many of which are gluten-free. They also make some specialty misos, like Dandelion Leek, which is made with wild leeks picked from the woods in spring. I wonder what kind of miso the Elwells will concoct next. How about buckwheat miso?
Miso Soup with Tofu, Eggplant, Wakame Seaweed and Scallions
4 cups of Fragrant Dashi (see recipe below)
1 Japanese eggplant, halved and sliced into ¼-inch pieces
2 teaspoons wakame seaweed, hydrated and cut into bite-size pieces
½ a block of soft tofu, cut into ½-inch squares
3½ to 4 tablespoons light, barley, azuki or brown-rice miso, plus extra as needed for flavoring
2 scallions, sliced thinly crosswise
1. Bring the dashi and eggplant to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer for 3 minutes.
2. Add the hydrated wakame seaweed and tofu and simmer for another minute.
3. While the stock is simmering, dissolve the miso paste in a few tablespoons of warm dashi. Add the mixture to the saucepan.
4. Taste and add more miso paste, dashi or water, depending on how strong the soup tastes.
5. Turn off the heat once the miso is added to the dashi. Do not boil the soup.
6. Pour the soup into individual bowls and garnish with scallions. Serve immediately.
This dashi will keep five days in the refrigerator, so you can make it ahead of time and just add miso paste and vegetables for a quick breakfast of miso soup. You can find bonito flakes and kombu seaweed at Japanese markets.
1 piece dried kombu seaweed (6 inches long)
4 cups water
3 cups dried bonito flakes (katsuo-bushi)
1. Using scissors, make several crosswise cuts in the kombu. This helps to extract the flavor during cooking.
2. Place the kombu and water in a medium saucepan and let it stand 15 minutes to overnight at room temperature.
3. Cook the kombu on medium heat. Remove it just before the water boils to avoid a fishy odor. Discard the kombu.
4. Turn heat down to a simmer. Add the bonito flakes and cook for a couple of minutes. Turn off heat and let the bonito flakes steep like tea. When the bonito flakes have settled near the bottom, strain them through a very fine mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper towel. Don’t press the bonito flakes.
5. Use the dashi stock to make miso soup.
Top photo: Miso soup with eggplant, tofu and wakame seaweed. Credit: Sonoko Sakai