Monday, August 31, 2009

A new spin on things

From Oakwood, Ollie and I got a lift across the border with Scott and JT who were dropping off some stuff at Three Rivers -- the natural food co-op in Fort Wayne, Indiana. While chatting with a few of the staff as we unloaded crates in the produce department, I learned of an organic farm that was more or less along the route I would be taking to get myself to La Porte, where Don and Judie were expecting me in a few days. I cycled on over to see if Dan, who runs the Country Garden & Farm Market in nearby Roanoke, could use a hand for a day or two. (Seriously, would any farmer turn down a woman willing to pull weeds or dig up potatoes? If so, I haven't met that farmer yet.)

I drifted in just after lunchtime, introduced myself, changed out of my bike gear (spandex is good for biking but not so much for walking through thistle patches, which are quite abundant on midwestern farms, incidentally), and not 20 minutes after my arrival was picking tomatillos and chatting away with Emily. I learned as we worked, and later while we cooked dinner together at her house the next two evenings, that my picking partner was the only other full-time worker on the farm. With dozens of heirloom varieties bursting with color amid the foliage across the farm -- tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, leeks, okra, strawberries, beans, and more -- I was amazed at how much the farm could produce with such a small workforce. Dan's wife helps with some of the work at the various markets they supply, but she has a job off the farm so the lion's share of the manual labor falls on Dan's shoulders. There are a few folks who do work shares a few hours per week in exchange for food during the growing season, but with over 100 shares for the year-round CSA and multiple farmers markets, out of necessity Dan has to be creative and efficient wherever possible. All the while he refuses to sacrifice the quality or diversity of his crops.

In many ways, Dan epitomizes the kind of thoughtful observation and connection to the land that agriculture lost when it became industrialized...and what it needs to relearn. He knows his land and his crops down to the most minute detail, but he looks outward, too. He was curious about other farms I'd visited: what kinds of cover crops they used, how they managed weeds (and if everyone had quite so many -- they generally did), what varieties of garlic they grew. As a general practice, he regularly evaluates his methods to see if there are things he could be doing better, incorporating ideas from his own observations, from what he's read, from his peers. On occasion he'll come up with something quite novel.

Take his method for washing greens, for instance. He grows quite a cornucopia of lettuce greens -- I know because I helped to harvest at least 5 or 6 varieties -- and is meticulous about rinsing and storing them for his customers. The same goes for kale -- at least 3 varieties (including my favorite, dinosaur kale). Dan and I stood next to each other at the deep sinks, talking as we worked, soaking everything in the first tank, picking out any leaves that were questionable before giving them a soak in the second sink. But the best part was the drying. Dan had bought a second-hand washing machine recently. He tossed the double-washed greens in, flipped the machine on the spin cycle, and about 15 seconds later our greens were crisp and ready for bagging. It was essentially a giant salad spinner -- you know, like the kind your mom uses. Now the greens would not be in danger of getting soggy and we didn't have to crank bucket after bucket of the stuff in the usual, small spinners. This is the kind of practical ingenuity I keep encountering on the farms I have been working on, the kind of thing the Podolls would have come up with in "Deeply Rooted" (which I just finished reading last night). Whether for philosophical or economic reasons, these farmers are constantly inventing new ways to do things, working to minimize the oil-dependent energy and chemical use in their practices, and quietly, slowly succeeding.

I departed around lunchtime on Friday for Goshen, where I would be staying with Emily's friend Joe and checking out the farmers market before at last trucking myself (most of the way) to La Porte on Saturday. Before I left, I teased Dan that he needed to take a vacation. It'd been something like 5 years since the last one, he admitted, but with so many folks counting on him for fresh, local food each week, how could he take time off? "I mean, they depend on me. Plus, all I'd want to do was be back tinkering with some of the stuff on the farm I never seem to get to, anyway," he smiled. "That reminds me, I need to look into a few more garlic varieties for next year. And I need to figure out a way to cut down on weeds in the melon patch. And I keep meaning to revise that cookbook for the CSA members...."

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Happy as a pig in, um, fresh straw

After the "udder chaos" of bottle feeding calves back in New England -- good one, Sheffy -- one might have thought I was done with hands-on dairy, but no. Within an hour of my arrival at Nothing But Nature, I was milking my first goat, Rosie. (Well, after a snack -- I'd biked nearly 60 miles that day.) It's a very hands-on kind of place, and master gardeners Diane and Phil encouraged me to get right in there during the days I spent at the farm: pickling cucumbers, driving a bobcat, harvesting tomatoes, milking goats. Phil in particular is a thoughtful and patient teacher, and Diane is a darn good cook -- I must have that chicken and dumpling stew recipe! And the herbed chevre? Divine.

I'd learned about the farm in my WWOOFing guide. (For those unfamilar with the term, WWOOF stands for "Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms" -- a global organization that supplies folks interested in working on organic farms with information on farms willing to host volunteers.) I'd worked at a number of WWOOF-affiliated farms by now and had come to this farm with the hope of learning about some of their biodynamic practices. I did, a bit, but found myself more powerfully taken with the way the farm runs as a whole, especially in regard to the livestock.

Every animal on the farm is named: goats, sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, calves. Naming is one thing -- heck, I named my bicycle and even my friend Ben's bike that I learned on (Ollie and I miss you, Sheldon!) and Diane named the electric golf cart the couple zips around in between the house and the barn. That's not unusual, right? What is really cool is how each animal responds when called and trots on over, even from across a field. "Emily!" Phil would call, and the she-goat would gallop over. My first morning at the barn, I arrived a few minutes earlier than Diane's son Scott and his wife JT for morning chores. Dave, Buster, Tennyson, Emily, Lily, Gail, Bullseye, Buttercup, and others ambled over to survey whether or not I brought alfalfa or food scraps for them. They were friendly without being needy, clearly comfortable around people, and the goats were downright eager to be milked. When a baby sheep was born prematurely a few days before my arrival, it was named after JT (whose birthday it was, too) and Diane and JT (the human one) patiently worked with the mama sheep and the little lamb to help it suckle, cooing and coaxing until by the fifth day or so the little guy could nurse on its own. Would this happen on an industrial farm? Hardly.

The following day Phil explained a bit more about his philosophy on raising animals. They are in many ways treated like members of the family: named, coddled, talked to, well fed, and left to roam the large grazing area as they chose. Their diet of grass is supplemented with sweet dried alfalfa, buckets of apples and watermelon rinds, organic grain, and occasional table scraps. In the fall, the farm receives truckloads of dry leaves that are scattered around the barn, nearly 5 feet deep in some places, over a few piles of table scraps. The animals root around, nibble on scraps, add their own fresh fertilizer, and mix everything up with the hay bedding. As Phil adds more scraps and hay throughout the winter, the compost develops for his spring crops, the animals are well fed, and the heat from the composting process warms the barn. Genius! How come I haven't heard of this before?

The animals seemed to live happy lives -- good food, plenty of land to graze, thoughtful and affectionate caretakers, a comfortable barn -- and I'll tell you, the fresh goat milk was amazing. Maybe there's a connection between the quality of an animal's life and the food (milk, eggs, meat) it produces after all....

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Food for all

After chores and breakfast on my first morning at Nothing But Nature, I tagged along with Phil as he ran errands at a few other local farms. We stopped by the first place, an orchard, to pick up apple cider vinegar for the afternoon's pickle making and chat about the sales at the previous weekend's market, then commandeered a delicious yellow seedless watermelon at the second farm where he had to return some crates. You see, Phil picks up crops from different farms and makes them available along with his own stuff at the markets he supplies. (A smaller carbon footprint in terms of transporting goods to market, to be sure...if you're into that kind of thing.) Phil and Diane are proponents of building the kind of community where rather than competing against each other, local farmers specialize in different things: various fruit and vegetable crops, cheeses, bread, eggs, honey, meat. Everybody wins. Oh, but it gets better.

As we ran our errands, Phil told me about an amazingly successful program in the area (10 counties in this part of Ohio) that for the past 6 years has been encouraging folks to buy local produce. Senior citizens receive a stack of coupons from the Department of Agriculture -- $50 each growing season -- that can only be used at farm stands and farmers markets. And boy do they get used. Coupons are in $5 increments, Phil told me, and since no change can be given when they are used folks have become pretty conscientious about utilizing every penny to get the best fresh, local produce each week. And after a little taste of the pea shoots or juicy cantelope samples, few can resist Phil's wares.

I've heard of nutrition initiatives like this in my own hometown -- at least up until the time I left DC in April, the WIC program (geared toward low-income women and children) gave out something like $25 per family per season in coupons -- but the senior program and WIC here in northwestern Ohio seem more widespread and successful. I'm not sure why that is, but I have a few ideas. I've heard from farmers elsewhere that such coupons are tedious and slow to be reimbursed; here in Oakwood the turnaround is something like 2 weeks from when a farmer mails them in to when he is paid. Not too shabby. In contrast, I recall hearing the timeline to be something like 2 months in the DC area. Not fair for the farmers, to be sure, and many farmers markets are simply not equipped to handle coupons or EBT (formerly food stamp) cards.

Now, the word on the street is that DC's Mayor Fenty has pushed to furnish more farmers markets with the equipment to process WIC and EBT credits. I've also heard rumors of a White House farmers market. I'm not sure what will come of either of these, but they seem to be steps in the right direction of making locally grown, organic food accessible to more people. Some may think these are no more than symbolic gestures from our nation's capitol. Maybe they are. But just as Michelle Obama's vegetable garden has gotten more folks talking about gardening and nutrition, so the DC spotlight on farmers markets may lead to policy changes to allow more equitable access to the fresh food they provide. And that can't be a bad thing.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

An oasis in the food desert

Bemoaning the limited food options in northwestern Ohio after last night's dinner of french fries, fried fish (not from Lake Erie, oh no, but flown in from Alaska), and canned green beans, Ollie and I were pleasantly surprised this afternoon when, by crazy random happenstance, we came across a sign on the side of the road announcing "all organic grown." I practically leapt into the stand of tomatoes, broccoli, peppers, and squash. Then I remembered my manners -- and my mission (to learn about food and the folks who grow it) -- and scampered over to where I saw an older gentleman in overalls working on some kind of tractor part.

About two minutes later, John was showing me around the vegetable garden, grown without any sprays, he told me proudly. "You see," he confided, "I was raised in town, I'd never used sprays. I tried it once. I had to get a suit with a hood and goggles to cover everything and I thought, 'Why am I putting this stuff on my food?' So I never used sprays again." John is retired from metalworking but sells certified organic hay. The vegetables are mostly around because he likes growing things; his wife is the cook. He has a little roadside stall for passersby to pick up a few fresh things and leave a few dollars -- the "honor system" plastic cash box sits next to the cabbage. Mostly, though, he just gives food away to friends and family. There are only so many tomatoes a man and his wife can eat, after all, and John seems to have quite the green thumb. The garden is bursting with fresh goodies, including the broccoli I clipped for part of my dinner.

Like many of the farmers I have spoken with along my journey, John possesses an innate love of growing things and a curiosity akin to childlike wonder when it comes to trying out new vegetables. "Those over there? Why that's butternut squash. I've never had 'em before, but I've heard they're good. I've grown summer squash and acorn squash and figure these will be good, too. I imagine I can cook 'em up in the microwave and add in some brown sugar like we do with the acorn and it'll taste just like pudding -- so sweet!" Wanting to know more about this midwestern anomaly -- an older man, a Catholic, an organic farmer who views Obama as "a man who took on a nearly impossible job and is working hard to try and help poor people instead of those people in Texas with silver spoons" and who listens to classical music while he tinkers with an antique cider press in the barn -- I asked if I could talk with him while he worked. I offered to cook dinner in exchange for a place to pitch my tent. (I reckoned I was a bit less than 15 miles shy of the campsite I was bound for and figured I could make up the difference and have a slightly longer biking day tomorrow.) John offered the apple orchard as a good spot, so after I pitched my tent I joined him on the front porch to listen to A Prairie Home Companion, a ritual here on Saturday evenings on the farm. After splitting a footlong sub for dinner (no cooking tonight after all), we chatted on the front porch until past sundown, at which point I strolled back to the orchard and crawled into my sleeping bag -- another cool evening in the 50s -- to do a bit of writing.

John reminds me so much of the farmers I've been reading about in Lisa Hamilton's "Deeply Rooted," a book profiling 3 unconventional farms in the midst of a sea of conventional agribusiness. All day I had biked past mile after mile of GM corn. It's across the street from John's property, I noted as we sat on the porch. He doesn't grow corn, so there's no concern about cross-pollination, but his neighbors are required to maintain a 25-foot distance from his land when spraying. (Having biked in the Ohio headwinds for the past week, I can tell you that 25 feet is laughable as a barrier, but I'm not the person who sets USDA policies. I wonder if that person has ever been to blustery Ohio.) But John continues doing things his way, refusing to spray, continuing to test out new vegetable varieties, and persisting in his determination to cultivate a sense of joy in people and the miraculous world around him. God bless this lone farmer, who has given me hope that our country may yet come around to celebrate and renew -- rather than destroy -- our beautiful land.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Road shoulders optional

It was a beautiful day to be out on the open road. I do wish, however, that the open roads here in Ohio were a little more bike friendly. Now, admittedly, I am not on the prescripted Adventure Cycling circuit, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't be able to get places in this state on a bicycle. It's not like I'm on the Interstate highway -- that would be crazy (and illegal). I can't always be on truck routes, and yet no matter what road I take in this state, I have noticed 3 things:
1) there are a lot of semis,
2) there is rarely a shoulder, and
3) there always seems to be a headwind (regardless of what direction I'm going -- kind of reminds me of PA where it was uphill no matter which way I turned.)

Seriously, forget "Birthplace of flight" (North Carolina practically co-opted it anyway with its "First in Flight" tagline); Ohio's license plate should read "Road shoulders optional." This mental trajectory led me to fantasize about how I might change the license plates of each state I have passed through, with an eye to cycling:

Maryland -- We're sorry about Baltimore

West Virginia -- A hill for every hillbilly

Pennsylvania -- Land of 1,000 hills

Connecticut -- High property taxes mean nice bike paths

Massachusetts -- Our drivers are jerks

New Hampshire -- Beautiful scenery to distract you

Vermont -- You can't get there from here

New York -- Uphill both ways

You think I could land a job designing vanity plates with these alternative slogans? Maybe bike license plates. Which reminds me, I've been meaning to design one for Ollie: "Washington or bust."

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Take cover!

From my friend Katie's house just west of Cleveland, Ollie and I made our way south to Wooster, OH to work with Matt and Debora on their small farm (or, rather, large garden) and learn about green manure. Matt, a professor of environmental entrepreneurship at the nearby college, spoke passionately and eloquently about the many merits of green manure -- using "cover crops" like oats, rye, and vetch to keep down weeds and enrich the soil in between food crop plantings. (Have you heard of vetch? I hadn't before I started working on farms. It's a kind of legume with little purple flowers, but every time I hear it I think "kvetch." Ollie has asked me to refrain from making jokes along the lines of kvetching about sowing seeds of vetch, so I'll do my best.) Green manure isn't the only green farming principle at work here: the couple is testing out using rolls of inexpensive (biodegradable) brown craft paper and old newspapers -- rather than the more common plastic sheets -- to block weed growth, retain moisture, and minimize soil erosion. The first morning I was there, Debora and I measured out and laid down enough of this paper and covered it with a 1" layer of compost to prepare space for 10 rows of spinach and lettuce, most of which Matt and I planted that evening (mere hours before a severe thunderstorm).

The second day was pretty rainy, so I wasn't out in the garden too much. Instead, I spent the day cooking, playing "spaceship" with 4-year-old Luka, and learning more about cover cropping and green manure. During my visit to the Rodale Institute a few months back, I'd seen a demonstration of a contraption that "crimped" (rolled over and bent) rows of cover crops where they stood, converting fields of rye into instant mulch that suppressed weeds while trapping moisture and warmth for the soon-to-be-planted seeds. Here at Hopeful Gardens -- Matt and Debora's operation -- cover crops are used in much the same way, but on a smaller scale using hand-operated equipment. Matt joked that he and his wife have a symbiotic relationship with weeds, but aside from perhaps the potato patch (and they were rampant there) I didn't notice much undesirable greenery in the garden. Rather than rows of crops interspersed with bare ground, as I've seen most other places, one sees rows of various vegetable crops amid neatly trimmed grass, with a few beds of newly cut cover crops awaiting seeds.

One of the cool things particular to legume cover crops (like clover, vetch, or soybeans) is the additional benefit they provide of trapping nitrogen moving about the surrounding air and soil, slowly releasing the valuable compound back into the soil when they decompose. Why don't more farmers use legume cover crops instead of chemical fertilizers (for nitrogen) and herbicides (for weeds)? My suspicion is that it takes more attention and careful planning to plant and cut these crops at the appropriate time than many farmers have the interest in committing. And, Matt added, there is the uncertainty of exactly how much nitrogen a particular cover crop will yield in a given year... what if it's not enough? (One of the experimental beds at Hopeful Gardens had too thin of a rye crop to block the weeds in the bean patch, for instance, but on a comparatively small scale this was a nuisance rather than a tragedy.) With so much uncertainty inherent in farming already, who can blame a farmer for seeking out the certainty of chemical fertilizer, a known quantity? It's easier and there's less room for error. But with so many obvious benefits to the non-chemical, cover cropping method, isn't it worth the effort? It may work out to be more economically sound as well: my initial suspicion is that the machinery involved in cover cropping vs. fertilizer/herbicide methods would be comparable in price, so unless all of the chemicals work out to be cheaper than a sack of vetch seeds -- and in the current industrial agricultural scene it may be -- cover cropping may make financial sense as well. (Are there agricultural economists or researchers out there who can help me out on this one?)

You're probably wondering why there is a picture of tomatoes included in this post. Well, the short answer is that I am perhaps as obsessed with heirloom tomatoes as Matt is with cover cropping. And I've been eating them constantly since I arrived. And, well, aren't they just gorgeous? A perfect accompaniment to the red onion and rainbow chard quiche I made for dinner....

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The kindness of strangers

I've been composing variations on this post for some time now in my head -- with only Ollie and a limited number of woodland creatures to talk to much of the time, I do a lot of thinking on the road -- and I think it's about time I took a bit of space to mention how unbelievably lucky I have been to encounter the folks that I have along the way. I mean, seriously, there have been some cantankerous folks now and then, grumpsters who, unsolicited, tell me what I'm doing is ridiculous. There have been meanspirited drivers who have taken it upon themselves to ignore the (bright yellow) "share the road" or (eye-catching green) "bike route" signs and yell, "Get off the road!" as they swerve past. Clearly these people were not loved as children. But for the most part, I have been inspired again and again by the innate goodness of my fellow Americans.

I get lost. A lot. I've written a few times about the shortcomings of my [censored] GPS. I have less than perfect maps (or hair, but that's another story). I eventually get to where I'm going, but more often than not this is at least partially due to the kindness of a complete stranger. This display of generosity may be something as simple as giving me directions or letting me fill up my water bottles. It may be lending me maps, inviting me to stay in a spare room (I apparently look too pathetic on my as-yet-unweighed-but-nonetheless-blatantly-overloaded bike to be threatening, in spite of my training in both kickboxing and kung fu), or insisting on buying me a sandwich (when I come puffing into a diner on the aforementioned cycle with a crazed, hungry look in my eye). Some folks are just downright curious about what the heck I'm doing all loaded up, and once I tell them, the vast majority -- from phone company repairmen to postal workers to people I meet at the local pizza shop while waiting for a slice -- have given me great tips on local farms to check out, and a handful of times now I have been adopted by kind locals for an evening. (Which is good especially when the blasted GPS directs me to a nonexistent campsite, as it did just last week.)

I've been working with amazing farmers, gardeners, advocates, and educators who have welcomed me into their homes (and kitchens). I've also been taken in by various friends, family, friends of family, family of friends, and friends of friends. (Whew!) I mean it when I say I would not be able to do this without you guys. (I swear I've gotten to know more of my friends' parents on this trip than I had ever managed before -- and to you my parents send their thanks along with mine for keeping me well fed and cleaned up. Few things make me happier than clean laundry or a comfy mattress.)

And so, before this gets overly mushy, I'll stop. To those I haven't visited yet -- and you know who you are because you don't yet have a cookmark on your fridge or a lingering scent of garlic around the house -- I'll get there. With a little help from my friends (old and new).

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Why am I doing this?"

I've been talking with a lot of farmers these days. Mostly (I think) I've been doing a lot of listening. Except when topics like cooking, science fiction, or domestic healthcare policy (not to be confused with science fiction) come up, I like to let conversations drift and see where the farmers take them. One thing that has come up many times is a farmer wondering how -- and sometimes even if -- his or her work matters in the grand scheme of things. I mean, can a sustainably grown tomato change the world? "Why am I doing this?" This very point came up a few days ago when I stopped in for a spell at J. Faulkner Farm in Portville, NY, just ahead of storm number two (of three) that afternoon.

It was an unanticipated stop, for the most part. I'd been chatting with Elaine the postmistress (in I believe it was Bolivar, NY) as I bought yet another sheet of postcard stamps -- I may be single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business these days -- and she suggested that since I would be passing through Portville later that afternoon I might stop and chat with a man named James about his organic farm -- a pesticide-free oasis amid the surrounding farms with happy chemical trigger fingers. So I did.

Michael Pollan has Joel Salatin; I have J. Faulkner. A rare balance of patience and caution with enthusiasm and curiosity became evident pretty quickly as James showed me about. The farm is run by the thoughtful but softspoken farmer and his mother and boasts an amazing diversity for such a small area (4 acres, I think he said): at least 5 varieties of heirloom corn, rows of leeks, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, squash, carrots, lettuces, blueberries, beets, potatoes, broccoli, and several other crops he is tinkering with, all grown from seed. Oats, clover, and rye cover the other fields, enriching the soil and keeping them ready for planting if the farm expands one day. In spite of the two farmers markets he sells at locally, James admitted that the operation itself wasn't enough to support the family, that his wife had a regular job. And yet he feels compelled to grow things, and grow them the *right* way, enrich the soil, give people an option to buy good, local produce.

He quietly lamented the slow acceptance of his work. "People ask me why they should pay two dollars for a head of organic lettuce at the farmers market when they can get regular lettuce at the supermarket for a dollar fifty. Then they walk away. But I keep bringing it and slowly more people are buying it." He's thinking about a larger spinach crop, for sale rather than just personal consumption since a friend mentioned his wife had stopped eating supermarket greens after a series of national e. coli contamination scares. He's trying out a few longberry bushes to see how they fare in the area. Longberries, he'd heard, have an even higher concentration of beneficial antioxidants than blueberries and they're pretty hardy in colder climates. (Maybe they'll be the new pomegranate or acai berry craze in a few years.) Slowly, slowly he tests out new crops, new varieties, new ideas. He grows everything organically, but hasn't been certified, at least not yet. Instead, he told me, his produce is "certified naturally grown" -- an honor-system-based designation which has farmers (rather than some USDA employee) periodically checking up on each other's farming practices. Pretty cool, and in my humble opinion much more true to the spirit of local, organic farming in its purest form.

Ollie and I headed out soon after the storm subsided, bound for Allegany State Park. James insisted that I take a tomato and a bell pepper -- "You don't even need to cook 'em. Oh, but I wish it were a better season for tomatoes!" -- and conceded that I didn't really have space for a few squash. I tell you, after storm number three blew through about two hours later, I couldn't resist nibbling on the perfectly red, tantalizingly juicy tomato. Did I say nibble? It was amazing: I devoured it right there on the sidewalk in front of god and everybody. It may be a drop in the bucket, but I'll bet if more folks tasted tomatoes like that they won't deign to put one of the round, supermarket tomato-shaped imposters to their lips. Keep doing what you're doing, J. Faulkner, we'll catch on. A tomato may yet change the world.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Appetite for distraction

I am, admittedly, a bit zealous about food. I am also pretty excitable when it comes to books and movies, especially those about food (go figure). While I haven't yet seen "Julie & Julia" -- what looks to be quite a fun adaptation of the book (which I'd enjoyed a few years back when my best friend Felicity gave me a copy) of the travails of a young would-be foodie stumbling through "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in her cramped NY apartment interspersed with anecdotes about the fascinating life of Julia Child -- I hope to catch it, maybe when I manage to get myself and Ollie to Chicago. The upcoming release of the film provided an excuse for my man Michael Pollan to take a hard look at the disconnect between people's fascination with cooking shows in our country and the decline of actual cooking in their kitchens. I do have a bit of an inexplicable soft spot for Iron Chef, but otherwise I agree pretty heartily with his arguments. I mean, how is it that people claim to have no time to cook but can plunk down and watch TV for some 2 1/2 hours each day? Psh. It takes me less time than that to put together a full curry dinner for 6 people from scratch (provided I've already done the shopping)!

If you're looking to learn more about food, get yourself to the nearest farmers market (if you don't know where that is, you can find it here: and get yourself into the kitchen. Bring a friend (or, as I like to call them, a sous chef). Should you want to sit and watch a worthwhile film about food afterwards, I'd recommend any of the following:

Food, Inc.
This is a documentary out in theatres now and, should you not have the attention span to read The Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation, the movie covers many of the key points from both books. You'll not look at the supermarket the same way again. Guaranteed.

King Corn
This is another documentary, albeit a more fun one. Or rather, it brings up a lot of serious issues in an openly curious and entertaining way. It's the story of two best friends who, knowing little about corn or farming, decide to grow an acre of corn in Iowa. While waiting for their corn to grow, the guys explore everything from government subsidies to the history of corn cultivation to where their harvest is likely to end up. We had a screening of this and a local food potluck at Evolution Yoga in Burlington while I was there and folks agreed that the film, in spite of its playful tone, really makes you think. (The guys, men after my own heart, became food activists:

The Future of Food
Mark and I watched this anti-GM (genetically modified) food documentary one cloudy afternoon in Burlington. While parts of it felt like viewing an educational video in high school health class, it did propose some pretty shocking ideas on the lack of testing or dispersal of information on GM foods. There are elements of some interesting conspiracy theories as well, ranging from GM crop and chemical supply companies planting (haha) evidence and suing small farmers to surprising ties between these companies (mostly Monsanto) and fairly high level positions in the Dept of Agriculture and regulatory organizations. Not fun, but worth a watch.

[Rant interlude: Very likely most of these genetically-modified foods aren't dangerous, but they should at least be labeled so people can choose whether or not they want to consume, say, GM corn. Then again, if you've seen King Corn you know how ubiquitous GM high fructose corn syrup is, and you might agree that perhaps it would be cheaper and easier to label anything that does *not* contain any GM ingredients. Oh, wait, I think that's what "organic" is supposed to denote. So then is everything not strictly certified "organic" in the supermarket pretty much steeped in GM corn products? Pretty much, unless you count the perhaps equally scary, chemical-laden low fat and fat free aisle. Get yourself to a farmers market. At least you know what's in the food there! This concludes my rant...for now.]

Finally, if you're looking for a few fun, non-documentary flicks about food, I highly recommend "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman" (the original in Chinese with subtitles is far superior to the later knock-off "Tortilla Soup"), "Like Water for Chocolate" (in Spanish with subtitles), "Mostly Martha" (in German with subtitles), Ratitoille (thanks for recommending this Pixar gem set in Paris, Julius!), and "Chocolat" (in English and starring my boy Johnny Depp). Funny how many of my favorite food films are from other countries where they haven't abandoned the kitchen for the couch....

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

The birds and the bees

After 4 1/2 days of intense biking across hilly northeastern New York, Ollie and I made our way to the Cazenovia farmers market, where we met up with Alison and her son Jason who gave us a ride back to Frosty Morning Farm in nearby Truxton, NY. Their farm, on the site of the Common Place Land Trust, was quite the model of sustainability -- from solar panels to a composting toilet to organic farming to homemade yoghurt. In everything they do, Alison and Karl reaffirm their dedication to living in a way that celebrates everything and wastes nothing. The final evening of my stay, Karl whipped up something of a kitchen sink pasta sauce that included some ground meat in the freezer, a couple jars of homemade pasta sauce, and whatever vegetables were around, including fennel, zucchini, and onions.

Karl is quite the wine, cheese, and yoghurt maker. (Needless to say, we all ate and drank well.) One of Alison's passions, it turns out, is herbal medicine. Another is plant breeding, especially using open pollinating varieties. She'd worked with some programs that bred and field tested varieties of vegetables now and again and had developed quite a knack for hand pollinating squashes and zucchinis. As we finished up our barbecue on my first evening on the farm and sipped beers while admiring the fading sunset, a head-lamped Alison excitedly waved me over to see the blossoms she was flagging for the next morning's hand pollinating: male and female flowers tied with reflective tape to keep bees (aka would-be errant pollen carriers) out. The next morning after breakfast, and for the subsequent 5 days on the farm, I worked with her to meticulously pollinate a variety of gourds. Alison was an engaging and patient instructor, and we chatted away as we worked -- well, at least when we didn't have flower parts in our mouths. (Alison's solution to holding multiple stamen securely while preparing a series of them to pollinate the pistils was to hold them in her mouth, a technique I have not heard of elsewhere, but then few things are done traditionally here, and it worked so I did it, too.)

Now, there is something to be said about the birds and the bees here. No wonder parents use those euphemisms: the process of hand-pollinating, for example, was very...intimate. This was way different than I'd imagined while studying my genetics textbook in college. There I sat amid the leafy tendrils and sunshine colored blooms, gently untying the slipknots and peeling back the delicate petals to reveal the bright yellow stamens and pistils which I was then instructed to rub gently but thoroughly against each other. For hours I couldn't get Marvin Gaye out of my head (except for the occasional Al Green reprieve -- not much better) and at times I actually found myself blushing. Must be that Catholic upbringing. It didn't help that the scent of nectar was mildly intoxicating....

By the time my friend Rob arrived to whisk Ollie and I away to Ithaca on Thursday afternoon, Alison and I had weeded a long row of onions, baked 3 dozen giant wild raspberry-blackberry scones (I must get that recipe!), and I was deemed by Alison to be practically an old hand at pollinating. I'm looking forward to learning more about plant breeding, seed saving, and heirloom vegetables along the bikeable feast. But first I need to get Love Train out of my head....

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Souper Tuesday

I've been learning all sorts of things here at a small farm and intentional community in upstate New York: composting, CSAs, herb drying, hand pollinating, seed saving. A post on those and other interesting tidbits is on the way in a few days. But by special request, I wanted to post a couple of recipes I tried out on Karl and Alison earlier today.
When I arrived at the farm on Saturday afternoon, I called dad -- as is my custom -- to let him know Ollie and I had arrived safely after our marathon 220-mile trip from the last farm in Essex. Since it was dad and I, the conversation invariably turned to food, and dad mentioned that he'd heard a recipe on "The Splendid Table" along the lines of a cold borsch. Raw beet soup! I was intrigued. As I'd accidentally picked a few too many beets yesterday for the CSA boxes, today for lunch I thought I'd take a crack at making it. I knew the ingredients, but not the proportions. How hard could it be? In truth, not hard at all. (The leek was not in the original ingredient list dad gave me, but it filled out the otherwise raw soup's flavor quite nicely... and it's seasonal... and was just sitting there on the counter gazing longingly at the Cuisinart as I was gathering the other ingredients.) Here's roughly the recipe for the experiment that, according to my lovely hosts (and willing guinea pigs), was quite a hit....
Summer Beet Soup
-1 leek, chopped, in olive oil for about 5 minutes
Meanwhile, puree in a blender:
-2 cups of unpeeled raw beets, chopped into chunks
-4-5 cloves of raw garlic, sliced
-2 cups of plain yoghurt (we used raw sheep's milk yoghurt)
Add leek to blender along with salt and pepper to taste. Puree once more. Serve with crusty bread and, if you're feeling adventurous, a side of the beet greens sauteed with olive oil, sliced garlic, raisins, a sprinkle of nutmeg, salt and pepper.
Are beets still boycotted at the White House? Let me into that kitchen....
Then for dinner, after I accidentally dug up a few onions while weeding the onion patch -- I'm loving these edible mistakes -- and Alison hooked me up with some fresh parsley on my way back to the house, I decided it was time to try to replicate my friend Ellen's vegan lentil soup. (The recipe is again an approximation, and not nearly as good as I recall Ellen's being but, ahem, she never gave me the recipe.) I forgot to add about 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes, but otherwise here it is...
Ellen's Lentil Soup, Redux
Soak in cold water for 2 hours:
-1 cup of lentils (preferably red)
Saute in a large pot:
-2-3 onions, chopped
-6-8 cloves of garlic, chopped
Add in:
-1-2 cups of unpeeled, cubed potatoes
-1 cup of unpeeled, chopped carrots and/or parsnips
-1 cup of peeled, cubed sweet potato (not in the original recipe but we had one from the food co-op lying around)
-lentils, drained
-6-8 cups of water
-2 bay leaves
-a whole mess of fresh parsley (1 cup?)
-salt and pepper (and red pepper flakes if you are less spacey than I am and remember to add some)
Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for 45 minutes. Serve with toasted bread rubbed with raw garlic and olive oil.
Hmmm. I wonder if I might have to put together a second edition of cookmarks....

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Sunday, August 2, 2009


Since Ollie and I began the on-the-road portion of the Bikeable Feast -- 100 days (tomorrow) and over 1000 miles ago -- I've noticed a few questions keep cropping up. As such, I thought it might be useful to answer some of these FAQs (frequently asked questions, that is, for those who might be unfamiliar with the term -- and if you haven't been working for the government, a nonprofit, or in the public school system, you might not be)....

1. The #1 most asked question so far has been "How much does that bike weigh??" Now, people, you don't want to see a grown woman cry. I purposely haven't weighed Ollie all loaded up. She's heavy enough that when I come to a fallen tree across the path (usually amid a torrential rainstorm) I have to unload her, carry everything over in stages, and then reload her to continue biking. She weighs enough to pick up momentum on the downhill stretches such that we have passed the occasional car. I've moved bushels of carrots and bales of hay, but I cannot lift her, loaded, more than about 2 inches off the ground. In short: I don't want to know. A lot.

2. Next up is a tie between "Where are you headed?" and "Where did you start?" The answer to both is Washington, DC. The more nuanced answer to the second is "via Seattle, San Diego, and Houston."

3. Next up is "What made you decide to do this?" I generally give folks an abbreviated version of the first two blog entries, but basically I was becoming increasingly agitated the more I learned about the way we as a country deal with food: the way it is grown and transported, what and how and why we consume the way we do, what food systems we as individuals (and our communities and larger government through its policies) are supporting, who has access to good food and why, the devaluing of farming (and farmers) as a critical component of a healthy population and economy. And so I decided to leave my previous job and devote myself to learning as much as I could about these and other issues, about the challenges and solutions, and be something of a pollinator by sharing what I learn. (The unparalleled access to amazing fresh produce, dairy, and meat is an added bonus. And seeing the country by bike has been an incredible experience so far, in spite of the rain, hills, potholes, clipless pedals, and scary drivers.)

4. Fourth in line is a tie between "How long are you planning on doing this?" And "Are your parents nervous wrecks?" It's looking like it will take about 14 months total to get myself around the country with a reasonable number of stops to learn and work (and before my savings run out). As for my parents, initially, yes, they have been working very hard at being supportive in spite of a plethora of fears stemming from idea of their only daughter traveling around the country alone on a bicycle. If you see them, hug them. And give them a hand in the back yard, which is steadily shifting from a lawn into a vegetable garden.

5. Finally, there is "What do you plan to do after this?" You know, I'm not sure. Grow things, I'm sure, and educate, advocate, write, get the word out. And continue to not only shake the hand that feeds me but help it grow stronger.

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