Fields of Greens at Remembrance Farms

There is nothing quite like the late afternoon light on a summer day in the Finger Lakes.  As I pulled up the gravel road to Remembrance Farms in Trumansburg, New York, even the dust kicked up from my tires seemed to shimmer.   This was my first visit to a certified biodynamic farm and I was curious and excited to learn more about this unique way of farming.

A fellow farmer taking notes in the fields of greens

A fellow farmer taking notes in the fields of greens

Remembrance Farm offered a fascinating view of how the philosophy behind biodynamic farming turns into something we can see, touch, and taste.  As we followed farmer Nathaniel Thompson down the farm path, the fields of greens rolled out in waves ahead of us, all in various states of maturity depending on when they were planted.  The Golden Cornet hens squawked and ran and the geese honked a warning from their pasture as we walked by.  A row of mustard trials waved their yellow flowers in the breeze, and on the other side of the hedge row, varieties of onions and other root crops stood their ground despite the recent downpours.

Remembrance Farm is the only Demeter-certified Biodynamic farm in the Finger Lakes region, where Nathaniel and his wife Emily specialize in baby salad greens and stored root crops for wholesale markets throughout New York State and a collaborative CSA in the Ithaca area, the Full Plate Farm Collective.   Grains are used on-farm to feed the laying flock, and the eggs are sold to primarily to CSA members.

As the crowd gathered, Nathaniel gave us a brief overview of the history and philosophy of biodynamic farming.   Biodynamic agriculture is a holistic method of farming which emphasizes sensitivity to subtle processes in Nature, with the goal of producing food that truly nourishes the body and spirit. While the fundamental principles of present day organic farming (the exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in crop production) are included in biodynamic agriculture (and to be certified biodynamic one must first be certified organic according to NOP standards), its breadth and depth extend beyond the technical definition of organic farming.  A biodynamic farm is understood to be a living, breathing organism, so farming practices strive to balance the overall health of the farm in order to produce the very highest quality food.  The role of the farmer in biodynamic farming is to understand and nurture, in very intentional way, the health of the farming organism.

On the farm something was always being planted, germinated, growing, and harvested.  Nathaniel explained and showed how through trial and experimentation he used biodynamic principles to learn what worked best on this particular farm.  In some cases he was partnering with other farmers, such as Fruition Seeds located outside of Naples, to discover which plant varieties had the best germination and production levels in the unique climate of Upstate New York.  Certainly the winter of 2014 helped all of us discover truly winter hardy varieties!

The mustard trials

The mustard trials

Nathaniel also showed how organic and biodynamic farming can also be quite mechanized and efficient in its production. Nathaniel has invested heavily in buildings and equipment and pays close attention to cleanliness and safety in his salad green packing area.

Remembrance Farm was an amazing combination of beautiful, practical, and mystical. As we closed the day and the evening light turned gold, I felt the experience could not really be described fully in the two hours I spent there. For more information, you can check out their website at http://www.remembrancefarm.org.

Advertisements

Learning from Expert Host Farmers

Our Beginning Farmer Program is always a little tough for me to explain to people.  I’ve created an extensive set of inter-linked pages back at the NOFA-NY website, to which I’m happy to direct anyone who’s seated at a computer, but it still doesn’t quite tell the underlying story about what it is I do!  Nope, NOFA-NY doesn’t run a training farm for beginning (or experienced farmers), but we do provide a suite of support services and programs that help beginners (and experienced and transitioning-to-Organic farmers) get the information, experience and boost they need to continue in their farming careers.   Just as importantly, we provide resources for experienced farmers, often simply lifting up the best practices that farmers have developed for training beginning farmers, so that more farmers will be skillful and encouraging trainers to the up-and-coming set of aspiring farmers.  Better trainers will mean better-equipped and more beginning farmers!

For the past nearly 4 years, NOFA-NY has been a part of a project with 6 other Northeast states (5 other NOFA state chapters and MOFGA in Maine) to develop several distinct programs or services, all within a broader “Beginning Farmer Program.”  We rely on farmers’ expertise and experiences to develop broadly-applicable and useful information for beginning farmers.  Sometimes they teach workshops for other host farmers, and sometimes they teach directly to beginning farmers.  Recently, they were teaching me and my interstate colleagues!

farm tour panorama

We went on a daylong learning retreat to discover and be inspired by the on-farm training practices of some of our region’s respected host farmers.  Sure, there are legal issues regarding on-farm labor that each NOFA provides resources and trainings about (the laws vary by state), but the core design and intention of any on-farm training program is critical to successfully train new farmers.  It must be fulfilling to both host and aspiring farmer, and increase the aspiring farmer’s preparedness to take a next step in farming without dropping the productivity of the farm to an unsustainable level.  Not easy, but not impossible.

We visited Indian Line Farm, Caretaker Farm and Cricket Creek Farm, all in the Western Massachusetts region.  Elizabeth (Indian Line) and Don (Caretaker) both have nearly a decade of training aspiring farmers on their farms.  Suzy (Cricket Creek Farm) is newer to that role, though has developed an excellent structure that works for the less-experienced host farmers among us (more structure is better in that situation, to establish clear chains of command).  They shared specific details about how they assign the work on their farm (good lessons whether or not a farm is trying to train the next generation of farmers) but also about how they discern and decide about aspiring farmers to bring on to the farm.  Some best practices I noted, which are generally good practices for having anyone working on your farm.

Clear, central, visible task lists accompanied by permanent guidelines for tasks.  The guidelines (or Standard Operating Procedures) are taught, but all workers can refer back to them in the central location.  So while apprentices may be harvesting or weeding for the first time, they have a standard to refer to, lessening the likelihood for mistakes that can be avoided.

Chore list bulletin board and Elizabeth Keen

Elizabeth Keen of Indian Line Farm shows off the task board, complete with instructions and the Chore board (each apprentice plus Elizabeth rotates between being responsible for the big 4 areas: Watering, Driving the Truck (and managing the greens, just because those tasks seem to go together), Unloading, and Spraying/Nutrient Management.

Captains/leaders rotate through roles.  This helps the farm run smoothly and forces each apprentice or worker to think about all the little things that need to happen under their watch.  The crew becomes invested as they are accountable, but the manager/lead farmer is never so removed that the tasks can’t be explained until the crew is comfortable.

Don in apprentice book library

Don Zasada at the Caretaker Farm lending library.

A priority and emphasis on learning aside from daily tasks.  All farms we visited were members of a CRAFT group, so the apprentices are provided with a schedule of farm tours on other farms.  It’s a chance to make a group of apprentice friends, get off the farm, and learn new ideas and methods by seeing the way other farms do what they do.  This particular CRAFT group enforces a “no penalty for going on CRAFT farm visits” policy.  The farmers explained that it is good for the morale of the apprentices, gets them excited to think about problem-solving on the farm, and helps lessen the load to teach everything or represent more farming methods than the farm actually employs.  A lending library and apprentice-captained research or building projects allow apprentices to dig even deeper.

Scheduled Checking In and Communication.  Each farm does this differently, but each farm we visited did one thing the same: they scheduled communication meetings to talk about the way things were going for education goals, for farming production goals, and for interpersonal issues.  At Caretaker Farm, each meeting takes a slightly different structure so feedback is given all around, in a way that makes sense for that point in the season.

Whole-Farm Perspective.  Farmers give the apprentices on-farm “workshops” or learning opportunities to talk about the business aspects of farming; everything from keeping good records to calculating budgets and financial statements.  Apprentices must learn these skills to know how they would manage a farm for themselves.  Regular farm walks and discussions allow apprentices and workers to understand the flow of all the aspects of the farm, especially as they begin to specialize in one area or a different area is less visited during the season.

Caretaker farm panorama1

A Chef, a Famer and a Child Transform a Field at Katchkie Farm and the Sylvia Center

Flowering Bok Choy at Katchkie Farm

Flowering Bok Choy at Katchkie Farm

Inspiring was the first word that entered my mind as I drove into Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY.  What had been a tangled mess of scrub brush, weeds, and rocks just 7 years ago had been transformed to a vibrant, year round organic farm certified by NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC.  As I pulled in the drive and stepped out to meet my guide, Julie Cerny, my eyes quickly feasted on the rows of vegetables and flowers, brimming greenhouse, and the bordering woodland preserve.  Julie explained to me that the transformation was made possible by the imagination of chef Liz Neumark, owner of the catering company Great Performances, the vision of farm manager Bob Walker, and the lively energy of children and young adults participating in the on-site Sylvia Center.

Katchkie Farm is dedicated to building connections between food professionals, families, and healthy delicious local food. Katchkie prides itself in holistic stewardship of the land and its bounty, celebrating local flavors, and through its partnership with the Sylvia Center, inspiring children to eat well.

Katchkie supplies Great Performances with fresh produce for special events, as well as farmer’s markets and Great Performance’s cafes.  This focus on farm to restaurant meant a few pleasant surprises for me. I was treated to the taste of my first summer tomato from the high tunnel, a sample of an unbelievably sweet strawberry from a field – and perhaps my favorite, a nibble of a flower from a bok choy that had been let go specifically for the purpose of providing edible flowers for salads.  They are a lovely yellow and taste like a brassica.  Katchkie also supplies an 800 member CSA.

Katchkie Farm also hosts the Sylvia Center, which is a non-profit organization that works with over 1000 youth and their families each year.  Through its garden-to-table program, the Sylvia Center inspires young people to discover good nutrition on the farm and in the kitchen.  Julie toured me around the rainbow shaped garden, where children and young adults are able to taste fresh food right out of the garden and learn to plant, tend, harvest and cook food for their own fresh meals.  A popular spot is the amazing wood-fired pizza oven, designed in the French style and impressively stationed in the nearby gazebo overlooking a pond and meadows.  I had to stop and admire the flowering bee garden that made up part of the rainbow.

Pizza oven at the Sylvia Center

Pizza oven at the Sylvia Center

At the end of my visit, Julie helpfully gave me a copy of a calendar with tips on eating locally grown food year round.  For more information about Katchkie Farm and the Sylvia Center, you can check out their website at http://www.katchkiefarm.com.

The Backyard Party a la Locavore

Sarah, our Membership and Development Coordinator shares her family’s outdoor cooking experiences and adventures in smoked meats with us, in honor of the upcoming July 4th holiday (plus the entire rest of the summer and fall when we like to cook outdoors)

If you’re looking for noteworthy meat dishes or a satisfying food hobby, try smoking your meat! My husband started smoking meats last July for our daughter’s birthday party.  Here’s what we’ve learned since then.

Beef Brisket and Pork Butt

Beef brisket and pork butt. The brisket was smothered with mustard and rubbed with brown sugar, chili flakes and powder, garlic and onion powder, paprika, pepper and salt. The pork was soaked in orange juice overnight with whole allspice, cloves and star anise and then rubbed with the same seasoning as the brisket. Smoked with apple wood at 180 – 200 degrees until reached temperature, about 20 hours for the brisket and 18 hours for the pork.

Buy Organic: Like any food, the quality of your meat starting from the source really matters! My husband and I have noticed that the texture of organic meat is far superior to non-organic meat, and requires less seasoning, if any, to be tasty.

Buy Local: Locally sourced meat is the way to go if you’re looking for freshness and to potentially save your pocket book. There are many ways to source your meat locally. We asked our local butchers if they were able to source local, organic food. If yours doesn’t offer an organic selection, their local selection will likely still be fresher and cheaper than meat at a grocery store. We also shopped around the markets, often finding that we liked different types and cuts from various farms. The price of meat at a farmers’ market may not always be the cheapest option, but we have found that it can sometimes be well worth the extra expense! In these cases, you could always ask the farmer if you can buy larger portions for a better price per pound.

Evaluate the Cut: The cut of your meat matters too! Brisket, for example, should flex easily when bent in half by hand and tastes best when it has a thick layer of fat on top, and well distributed marbling in a pork cut is ideal for pulled pork. Before you select your meat, do some research as to what the ideal characteristics are for your cuts of meat. There is no need to reinvent the wheel on this one.

Smoked trout caught by a neighbor from Lake Ontario. Salted overnight, lightly seasoned with dill, garlic granules, lemon slices rosemary and pepper. Smoked with apple wood at 180 degrees for 2 – 3 hours.

This trout was caught by a neighbor from Lake Ontario. We salted it overnight, lightly seasoned with dill, garlic granules, lemon slices rosemary and pepper. After this picture was captured, we smoked the fish with apple wood at 180 degrees for 2 – 3 hours.

Pair your Wood: Typically, hickory and mesquite wood is used to smoke beef, while fruit woods offer a milder flavor for fish, poultry and pork. However, pair your meat and wood to your taste buds. I personally like the fruit woods best for all the meats we use, and we often get this wood from local farms.

Share the Goods: My husband usually cooks very large amounts of meat, but gives most of it away. We found sharing delicious food gets people talking about food, which inspires more delicious food. It has also sparked new and strengthened standing relationships within our community. He even brings his smoked meat back to the butcher to taste, and it’s never a bad idea to butter up your butcher.

And to add to all that goodness, we wanted to give you some extra options for locavore ideas during your outdoor cooking and eating adventures:

Once again, Kaela at Local Kitchen Blog is a source for grilled (meat) recipes and techniques suitable for the locavore cook–from 100% local ingredients to highlighting local meat with great sauces and marinades involving extra ingredients from farther off.

The veggies are amazing this time of year–here are locavore tips for making salad great.  If you’re making a grain-based salad, that’s an excellent choice for a vegetarian–include a cooked grain and a cooked bean and it’s a very nutritious, filling locavore choice.  Try to use an actually-local grain (quinoa and rice are really only grown on an experimental scale at the moment in New York): farro, spelt berries, freekeh, wheat berries are all great choices that are often found locally-grown from farmers or at natural foods stores.  Grilled vegetables also go great on top of salad–no need to keep things 100% raw!

This summer locavore salad includes roasted tomatoes, sweet corn, kale, peppers, cabbage, zucchni, green beans, carrots.  Lettuce-less salads hold up very well over longer times, and can be prepared ahead.

This summer locavore salad includes roasted tomatoes, sweet corn, kale, peppers, cabbage, zucchni, green beans, carrots. Lettuce-less salads hold up very well over longer times, and can be prepared ahead.

Farro atop greens, with some other veggies.

Farro atop greens, with some other veggies.

Cold soups, when not too thick and nicely pureed, can be served in teacups, juice glasses, etc. to be made more hand-held than you’d normally think of for soups:

Marcus Samuelsson’s Lemon-Scented Summer Squash Soup would be perfect in this situation, and as we’re not yet tired of summer squash in early July.  If you find lemon balm or lemon basil from farm-fresh sources, you’ll be able to eliminate the need for non-local lemons in this recipe; just include a bit of that herb, chopped up, along with the standard basil it calls for.  Need to simplify?  Eliminate the cooked-flour roux step and you’ll have a less thick soup, and have spent less time with hot cooking.

Classic Tomato-based cold soups start off with the best tomatoes you can find (local and in-season only, please, as you need that amount of juiciness and flavor that far-traveled tomatoes don’t have), whizzed in a blender, food processor or even crushed by hand.  Throw in some raw garlic, onion, peppers and herbs for a simple choice, or soak some old bread in the tomatoes’ juice before pureeing for a thicker soup.  Cucumbers are not at all bad in this soup, either.

While we could once again expound the fact that butter, dairy and flour are all available locally, therefore cakes and cookies and pies are inherently locavore-ready, make the sweet side of your party or picnic even simpler and oven-free:

A chilled bowl of cut-up local fruits drizzled with a little local honey, will be amazing on a hot day.

You can even grill your fruit:  

Clean and dehull strawberries and skewer them, grill over the low heat and watch carefully.  They’re “done” whenever you want them to be, probably not more than a few minutes will cause them to release their juices.  Just don’t let them melt into the fire!

Make a foil “tray” and place cleaned berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries) and sliced rhubarb in a single layer.  Add a little sugar and about a tablespoon of butter.  Place flat on the grill and allow the berries to get juicy and cooked.  This makes a great topping for cakes, yogurt and ice cream.

Halves and slices of peaches, nectarines and melons will be great grilled once they come into season.

In the fall, try grilled apples and pears, sprinkled with cinnamon once they’ve been taken off the grill (burnt cinnamon isn’t a great flavor).

grilled-peaches

For something more advanced and decadent, Sarah recommends: Mix a stick of softened butter, 1 tsp cinnamon, 2 tbsp sugar and a pinch of salt together in a bowl. Cut 6 peaches in half and remove the pits. Baste the flat surface of the peaches with oil and place them flat side down onto the grill. Grill until golden brown and top with your butter mixture. Garnish with mint. If you use salted butter, you can skip the pinch of salt.

Need to keep your foods chilled?  No worries, do what farmers do at market: chill from below with a few packs of ice wrapped in towels underneath the bowl.  Be food-safe by changing the ice packs when needed.

Working with such nice ingredients and feeding large crowds means you should brush up on best practices for food safety working with raw meats.  Here are detailed (and perhaps extreme) guidelines from the FDA.