Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rest in Peace, Pig.

I can handle killing animals for food. In fact, I just killed a chicken on Tuesday at Stone Barns with no remorse. But when one of our yearling Old Spot sow, Laverne, died all of sudden last week, and then a few days later another sow's one and only piglet died, I have to admit it got to me. Then again, seeing the sow nudge her dead piglet and then just laying by it, completely ignoring the food I put down for her, could bring a bad-ass biker to tears.

Losing an animal is not the same as killing one because the latter is the expected outcome of raising animals, and the former causes you to stop and reflect. Am I being a good animal husband? Or have I let the animal down? We have an obligation to feed, provide shelter, ensure they remain in good health without suffering. We care a lot about our animals on the farm and we try to provide them the best care. But when an animal dies suddenly we owe it to them to stop for a moment and analyze our practices. For the most part we may not be able to prevent death, maybe they have a disease or infection that shows no signs or symptoms. But sometimes if we were just a little more in tune, maybe we could have intervened. The point is to recognize when you make a mistake and then learn from those mistakes. In the future, precautions can be taken.

Death happens on the farm or in the wild. It is a fact of life. What I take away from this experience is that raising animals is not something you take on lightly, its a big responsibility. When I have my own homestead or farm I will try to remember the importance of being a "good husband" for better, or for worse.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The ant and the grasshopper

From childhood onward I have read, or have had read to me, well over a hundred books. Many stories are forgotten, but there is one story from my childhood that I keep thinking of lately, Aesops fable, the Ant and the Gasshopper. The grasshopper played and fooled around all summer long while the ant worked diligently to store food away for the winter. When winter came along and there was no food to be found the grasshopper was begging the ant for food. I think the ant said no dice, and in the end the grasshopper died from starvation, or something along those lines. The point is, these days I feel like an ant. While millions of Americans are peeling off the plastic from their microwaveable supper I am diligently washing, chopping, peeling, seeding, canning, freezing and vacuum sealing my food away for the winter.

I won't preach about the virtues of cooking from scratch, frankly, I am too tired from working in the garden and all this kitchen prep to climb onto my pedestal. But I will share with you why and how I became so obsessed about preserving things. It all started with blueberries.

I am no stranger to canning, I like to can salsa and occasionally I try my hand at pickles. Mainly though it's been a once-a-year occurrence. But this year I started making jam. My husband and I found a wild blueberry patch 20 minutes from our house. We have picked there several times, even dragging my poor dear mother-in-law along, in the blazing sun, when she came for a visit. We accumulated enough blueberries to make 10 jars of jam before the drought cut the season short. Then we found a black raspberry patch and red raspberry patch withing walking distance, so we made another 6 jars of jam. Because I was getting the berries for free, the jams were only costing me the price of sugar, the jars and my time. It was like buying organic jam for a little over a $1.00.

At work we often have one crop in abundance at any given time and there is only so much zucchini or cucumbers we can unload on our CSA members. The wheels in my head go into overdrive thinking of uses for our vegetables. One time I decided to take home the lemon cucumbers and make pickles. I made up the recipe and put lemon and basil in the pickling juice. They were so beautiful looking.

My co-worker Lise asked me why I didn't freeze more. Personally, I like my salsas and jams in jars. Its easier to transport and convenient to use. But we both agreed that canning can be quite time consuming. She introduced me to the vacuum sealer and I will be forever in her debt. The first thing I vacuum sealed was beans. I quickly learned that grated zucchini must be flash frozen before being vacuum sealed because there is so much liquid being sucked out that the seal can't form.

Being obsessed with preserving the summer bounty can be quite stressful at times. All day I am thinking about what I have to do when I get home. A few weeks ago I went peach picking with the Glynwood crew at Fishkill Farms, really great U-pick farm that uses IPM, and brought home 15lbs. The next day I was expecting a friend from Montreal to visit with me for the weekend. I rushed home after work on Friday and started making peach salsa and peach and blackberry jam. I was in a frenzy trying to use up the peaches because there was rock salt on them, the rock salt was in the trunk next to my peach bag and I accidentally knocked the bag over. The peaches were super salty, even after soaking them for 12hrs in water, and couldn't be eaten raw anymore. Just as my jam was beginning to boil the power went out. I was in the dark thinking to myself, are you kidding me? It's August, I have salsa ready to go and my jam has reached a critical point and the power goes out. Turns out a tree fell on a power line. Lucky for me, my husband set-up our outdoor propane stove to I could finish canning.

This week has been especially tiresome. Every day I have been coming home with bags of tomatoes. Monday I made a quart and half of rich and flavorful tomato sauce, Tuesday I froze whole skinned tomatoes, Wednesday I made ratatouille and more tomato sauce. Today? Taking a break, but I will be back at it tomorrow. Maybe I will roast them in the oven this time...see, even when I am writing about food I am thinking about food.

Deep down I know this is all worth the effort. In the middle of winter, when the power goes out and the we are thigh deep in snow, I can reach deep into my freezer and pull out the ratatouille and I'll be able to re-live the taste of summer. The most delicious and freshest, organic, local, wholesome summer.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Urban Agriculture: A trip to the big city

Yesterday was jam packed with activities, but none of them required me getting my hands dirty. In the morning we hosted a group of local teachers. We gave them a tour of the gardens pointing out all our sustainable practices and gave them a hand-out, we created it on a rainy day, that included the definition of sustainable and pro's and con's of conventional, organic, and sustainable agriculture. The groups aim was to somehow incorporate agriculture into the curriculum at school.

After concluding the tour we hurried to grab some lunch before making the long trek to New York City.
Added Value, Red Hook, Brooklyn

Entering New York City the landscape suddenly seemed devoid of color. The sky was as gray as the buildings looming over us. Only a few hours earlier my scenery was green and lush, and now it feels like I have suddenly stepped into a black and white film. Its hard to imagine that I lived here a year ago.
Added Value, Red Hook, Brooklyn

The first urban farm we visited was Added Value in Red Hook. We were told to meet by the Ikea. So we follow the signs for Ikea on the road. After left turns and right turns and u-turns, we finally see the monolithic yellow and blue building come into sight. On our right, a garden appears out of nowhere. Entering the chain link fence, its former purpose as a park is still evident. Asphalt peeks out where soil is not laid and there is a batting cage in the far right corner.

We meet with the Added Value crew by the baseball diamond and sit in a circle. Ian Marvy, Co-Founder and Executive Director, gives us a little history of Red Hook and of how this place came to be and what its all about. To quickly sum it up, Added Value is a farm/park/youth program/CSA/market. As Marvy put it, "they aim to affect the teens' mind, heart, and hands." The teens are not the only beneficiaries though, at their market on the weekends they accept FMNP coupons and have an EBT device allowing them to accept credit cards and federal benefits.

The teen leaders gave us a tour of the farm and I was very impressed with their knowledge of farming. They built their raised beds with compost and had drip tape in the rows to directly water the roots and prevent runoff. Their compost system included wind rows, bins, and vermi-composting. People from the community could drop-off food scraps in one of the compost barrels, add a handful of wood chips, and give the handle a few spins to mix it. They also collected compost from restaurants that they sell their produce to.

The types and varieties of produce were impressive; tomatoes, okra, collards, corn, melons, salad mixes, herbs, peppers, cucumbers, squash, to name a few.

I could see how easy it would be to drown out the sounds of trucks and horns, to erase the piercing image of Swedish consumerism, and focus on the contrast of soil and greenery. A slice of paradise carved out in an unlikely place.

Our second urban farm visit presented us with another vista, the East River and Empire State building. Walking up the stairs of a non-descript warehouse you would never guess the roof was housing a farm. We met with the energetic Annie Novak, one of the founding farmers, for a tour of Eagle Street Roof Top Farm, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Eagle Street Roof Top Farm, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

The 6,000 square foot green roof farm was started in 2009 and produces food for restaurants, CSA members, and their own farm market open on Sundays. Growing on a roof with limited space presents a lot of challenges. It is much harder than growing on land or asphalt even because weight is a concern. The growing medium is comprised of compost, rock particulate, and shale. The beds have a soil depth of 4 to 7 inches. The plants looked a little stunted which is not surprising given the conditions, no wind breaks and shallow soil depth.

The roof top also boasts a modest flock of chickens and four bee hives. Novak recounted how one time the chickens, spooked because of rabbit, flew the coop. The image of chickens flying off the roof and into traffic below is both comic and terrifying, for the cars in the street below that is.

My overall honest impression of the farm was that, while I loved the idea of growing food in cities and even more so on a roof, it is not an equivalent substitute for growing on soil. There are varieties that just cannot grow in those conditions and those that do may not reach their full potential. The CSA share was very small, the share of vegetables is what I would basically eat for snack or lunch, a handful of tomatoes, cilantro, some cut lettuce. I also wondered about fertility of the soil. But considering the constraints, I applaud her effort. And I imagine the CSA members support her cause regardless if they receive bounty in return.

Farming is part science, part intuition and the rest is trial and error. I look forward to seeing how the rooftop farm progresses over the next few years.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Intern swap: Stone Barns for a day

Darien and I, last December at Blue Hill

Light rain and gray clouds could not diminish the beauty of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. As we slowly drove down the driveway, with mobile chickens coops on the left and Angus cows on the right, the gardens came into view. We rounded the corner and the stone buildings with their attached stone silos tower over us in an awe inspiring way. I love this place. It's enchanting with its combination of beauty, agriculture and haute cuisine.

I will disclose that I have eaten at Blue Hill, located in Pocantico Hills, Ny, three times over the last couple of years. The first two times my husband and I were living in New York City and were desperate for a country experience. We are also food enthusiasts with a passion for local food. This restaurant, while a bit pricey, far surpasses those expectations. When we moved north of New York City, and finally got a car, I applied to be an apprentice in the greenhouse at Stone Barns, Stone Barns is the agricultural side of the of the equation, growing food for both the restaurant and market, but was told the position was already filled. But I lucked out and got a position at Glynwood.

Me, in front of the greenhouses last year for my Birthday dinner

Dayna and I pulled up to the expansive greenhouse. It was 8 am and we were ready to begin our day of work as interns at Stone Barns. Two of their employees were at Glynwood replacing us. The morning was sticky and warm, a foreboding sign of what lay ahead. In the greenhouse I met with Sara, the greenhouse apprentice. We spent the morning cutting lettuce, varieties like totsoi, speckled trout belly, and arugula. They mix the cut lettuce and sell the mix at the weekend market they have on site. I asked jokingly if they washed and dried their lettuce by putting it in a mesh bag and swinging it around like we do. Alas, they have a washing machine and they put the lettuce through the spin cycle.

At 11:30 am a man named John working in the compost department asked if we wanted to see how they made bio-char. Of course we did. The wood was cut into small pieces and placed inside a re-purposed gallon drum which is then placed in another drum with wood pieces shoved tightly in between the two. Dayna and I were tasked with splitting the wood into small pieces. A half an hour later my right bicep was throbbing. After packing the drum with wood we started a fire using some hay, biodiesel, and regular diesel then placed the smoke stack on. Bi0-char can be used in the garden and the charcoal was being used by the chefs in the kitchen.

After lunch I "helped" harvest potatoes. I say this rather loosely because the only thing I did was dig out half a dozen potatoes. Stone Barns harvests potatoes a little differently then us, they used a tractor with an implement to dig up the potatoes and they had about 20 eager kid volunteers to pick through the soil. Sure beats using a pitch fork. What took them five minutes on the tractor would have taken us an hour. They are big into education, hosting many school tours for kids of all ages, and they run a farm camp in the summer. Before the potato harvesting began though me and another farmer were serenaded by the children. One of the counselors played the ukulele and the kids sang a song about potatoes.

At 4pm it was quitting time, an 8 hr work day! We were invited to have dinner with them. Every Thursday the restaurant invites the farm staff to participate in family meal. I almost feel guilty walking into the kitchen in my dirty clothes. A bowl of steaming pasta with tomato and eggplant is placed next to toasted baguettes slices with a pesto on a stainless steel table. I try to quickly scoop up the pasta and move on as the line behind me grows longer by the second. A big bowl of mixed fresh cut lettuce is placed on another table. On a terrace overlooking the garden the restaurant staff and farmers congregate, separately, and hungrily eat their meal. The clean, crisp uniforms of the restaurant staff contrasted with the dirty, sometimes painfully fashion challenged, interns and apprentices.

Nena, the woman who helped organize the intern swap between Glynwood and Stone Barns, introduced us to the crowd. A few other workers spoke provided updates from the different areas of the farm. I thought it was great that they were trying to keep the restaurant staff in the loop. As the greenhouse manager was speaking I spied out of the corner of my eye Dan Barber appear out a side door, dressed in his immaculate chef whites. I had secretly hoped all along I would catch a glimpse of the sustainable food god. He didn't say anything and quickly retreated back to the kitchen when the speeches were finished.

I really enjoyed working with the Stone Barns crew and found everyone to be really enthusiastic and an absolute delight to work with.