Being a Locavore, because I Can’t NOT be a Locavore

Our Locavore Challenge starts tomorrow, September 1st!  We invited our Locavore Challenge intern, Tess, to write a post about what that word, “locavore,” meant to her.  Here’s her great response.

When I was asked what being a “locavore” meant to me, the first thing that came to mind was spending summer vacations at home with my mom and little sister. My mom was prepping us to be locavores without us even being aware with her close attention to (or what we thought was an obsession, at the time) what foods were in season during the summer months and beyond. Strawberries, cantaloupe and black cherries were always a part of our breakfast and mid-morning snack breaks between playing in our infamous dirt pile. Corn on the cob was a staple of our nightly dinners around the picnic table in our backyard. Eating asparagus past June was a no-no (which was fine with me, as I hadn’t developed a taste for it yet). To this day, my mom almost never buys produce out of season due to her old adage of it “just not tasting right”.fresh rasberries

Now that I am older and a little bit wiser when it comes to shopping for produce, I totally understand why my mom was so adamant about only buying produce in season. There is something about picking a strawberry fresh off the vine in the beginning of the summer that just doesn’t compare to buying them from the grocery store in the off season, after it has probably traveled thousands of miles from its original patch. Besides the great taste, the other big motivation for me to embrace my inner locavore is knowing that I am supporting local farmers and my community in more ways than one. I grew up in the country, and the thought of giving a boost to my local economy and reducing pollution in any way I can is comforting. It just makes more sense to me – we live in a world where big corporations seem to cast a looming shadow over local farms and small communities, so each time I buy something fresh from a farmer in my hometown; it really does make me feel better about myself and my community. How could it not? I realize that at this point in my life, I can’t really imagine shopping or cooking any other way when it comes to my produce.

Can you guess what month this photo was taken?  Hint: everything was harvested at the same time, in Rochester, NY.

Can you guess what month this photo was taken? Hint: everything was harvested at the same time, in Rochester, NY.

That’s why I’m excited to see how many other people get motivated to go locavore during NOFA-NY’s Locavore Challenge in September. I’m glad I got to grow up with a locavore of my own. Thanks mom!

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When Worlds Colllide: Your Health and (Mis) Use of Antibiotics in Livestock

Pastured dairy cow raised antibiotic-free

Pastured dairy cow raised antibiotic-free

As many of you know, in May of this year I transcended a 30+ year career in health care to join the organic and sustainable food and farming movement as Executive Director of NOFA-NY.  During my decades in health care, misuse and overuse of antibiotics was a major public health issue, an area of significant focus and concern for those of us who saw firsthand how overuse and improper use of antibiotics to treat human illness was having a horrible and unintended consequence on our health.  New breeds of antibiotic resistant and sometimes deadly “super bugs”  such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) were becoming prevalent in hospitals and spreading in the wider community.   It is horrible to watch someone contract an antibiotic-resistant illness suffer such health consequences.  More than 2 million people in the United States suffer from antibiotic-resistant diseases every year, and more than 20,000 die from them annually.  The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have taken this seriously and for years have included consumer and provider education regarding antibiotic use on their website.   The problem is not small, and despite the best efforts of many health care professionals, public health officials, and consumers, it continues to grow.

When I started my job with NOFA-NY, I thought I was leaving behind the public health impacts of antibiotics.  I avoid antibiotics when possible and use them responsibly when required.  I eat mainly vegetarian, and when I do eat meat or dairy I ensure that it’s at least antibiotic free, if not certified organic (which means no antibiotics have been used).  Krys Cail’s article in the Fall 2014 Issue of NOFA-NYs  New York Organic News surprised even me, a veteran of the healthcare industry and a self-proclaimed responsible eater!  I was shocked to learn that the use of antibiotics in livestock (even that which I choose not to eat) is potentially affecting my health and your health, too.   A whopping  80% of antibiotic drugs, by weight, are used in the livestock industry!  The driving force behind this high use of antibiotics in conventional agriculture is the practice of feeding livestock low doses of antibiotics routinely in order to prevent illness in crowded living conditions and to promote growth.  In her article titled, “Foolish Practice,” Krys Cail, an agricultural development consultant and active member of NOFA-NY’s policy committee, describes the current issues and impacts of antibiotics in conventional agriculture and the health consequences this can have for all of us – even those of us who are vegetarians or who eat organic, antibiotic-free meat and dairy whenever possible.

Not one to take this lightly, I went to the health care providers’ “bible” – back to the CDC website.  There I found a strong alarm:

Antibiotics must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to the emergence, persistence, and spread of resistant bacteria. Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern. Food animals serve as a reservoir of resistant pathogens and resistance mechanisms that can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic resistant infections in humans.”

“Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can have a negative impact on public health.”

In fact, a 2013 study published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found conclusive evidence that a person’s risk of contracting MRSA is significantly higher if he or she lives near a conventional hog farm or near a field fertilized with manure from a conventional hog farm.  This is just one of many examples of how the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock impacts public health.

100_0399We know that all farmers, both conventional and those who practice organic and sustainable methods, want to produce healthy, good food.  Many conventional farmers who feed antibiotics routinely to their animals would prefer to stop doing so.  However, until the practice is banned, market competition acts as enough pressure to force these farmers to feed antibiotics routinely to prevent illness and encourage animal growth in line with their peers’ production.  This is not about hurting or blaming farmers.   It is not about appropriate use of antibiotics to treat illness.  It is about preventing mis-use and overuse of antibiotics in animals as well as people for the health and well-being of both.   If you would like to take action on this issue, you can check out Food & Water Watch’s campaign.

 

Surprising Sweet Corn – Fresh Today, Frozen Tomorrow!

Corn from Maple Slope Farm August 2014

Fresh Corn from Maple Slope Farm

Sweet Corn!  We hope for it to be knee high by the 4th of July, but it’s now tall and tasseled and ripe for the picking and enjoying, be it steamed, grilled, roasted or raw.  There is no bad way to eat fresh picked sweet corn.   There is no such thing as too much sweet corn.  There is only sadness when sweet corn season ends.  Well, I have found a way to enjoy the late summer taste of sweet corn all year round, and you can too.

Fresh sweet corn is very easy to freeze, and this is the time of year when I buy in bulk to assure my winter supply.  Just shuck the corn, remove the silk, and scrape the kernels off the cob using a sharp knife.  Put the kernels (along with any “milk”)  into the freezer container of your choice – I like to use 1 quart sized freezer bags, and I put the kernels from 2 ears in each bag.  Then just pop the containers into the freezer, and you are done!  When the dark winter hits, you can use the frozen corn in any recipe that calls for corn – and it almost as good as fresh summer corn when simply steamed and served with some butter, salt and pepper.  It is like summer in a bowl for sure!

One of my favorite and most surprising recipes for fresh or frozen sweet corn is Sweet Corn and Herbes De Provence Risotto, a recipe from chef Cat Cora that I found on the Food Network website.  There is something very soothing about the process of making risotto, even for a marginal cook such as myself.   Anyone can stir a pot, after all!  It can be made using either the chicken broth as in the recipe, or you can use vegetable stock or even plain water if you prefer.  It requires a handful of ingredients that are easy to keep on hand (or substitute with local versions–a dry NY white wine, a hard sheep’s milk cheese from one of our awesome farmers) and is delicious with either fresh or frozen corn.  This dish is particularly wonderful with a side of a lightly steamed, bitter greens like Swiss chard, spinach, or beet greens, which really compliment the sweet “pop” of the corn and the flowery notes of the Herbes de Provence.  Leftovers also freeze well!

For many more tips and ideas for freezing your produce, see our earlier post on this very topic.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t (just) let your children grow up to be farmers.

It took me about a week to sit down to read the heavily-circulated New York Times Opinion piece by a Long Island farmer named Bren Smith, entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers.”  I read many social media reactions and thought about what that title could possibly mean.  Farmers and farm supporters were not across-the-board siding with or against the opinions in the piece, so I was glad when someone handed me an actual paper copy of the piece.  I could mark it up, and read it undistracted by the many tasks of my job as Chief of Letting Children Be Farmers (also known as Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator).  I had been occupied each day of the week planning educational opportunities so more farmers would learn to be strong business owners, and contacting leaders of the current new farmer community with information they’d requested to further strengthen their skills as meat, vegetable, medicinal herb and dairy farmers.  I was not sure what I’d end up writing, but I wanted to highlight a few points of the article from my perspective of working nearly 4 years on this singular goal of getting more people to be on the path towards farming success (as they define it).  I’m leaving it a little raw and unedited, so forgive the stream of consciousness.  This is merely a blog post, after all, not a letter to the editor (many have been written in the past week).

First, that title.  Oh, that title.  As a lover of words and debate, I love the title.  It sparks interest, engages the reader to read more, and is subject to interpretation.  I actually agree with one interpretation.  I say, of course we shouldn’t let children grow up to be farmers.  We don’t merely let a child become a doctor, a lawyer, an electrician, an astronaut or a senator.  We nurture them.  Thus, we should HELP our children LEARN to be farmers if we want to eat.  A farmer who came from a family of farmers did so through an intention by the family.  If I (and many of my colleagues in the farm-education world) had my way, each family would spend a decade training the next generation in farm business management and allow the next generation time to explore farming practices away from the family farm.  We call this “Farm Succession Planning” and there are organizations and training programs for farmers on this topic.  Transfer of assets can happen over the course of a year, or through a signed legal document, but it’s generally agreed that there is indeed work to be done to keep family farms going, and that work is in transfer of management.  So, family farmers, don’t just let your children take over your established farm.  Teach them, guide them, encourage them to reach their potential as your farm’s next great leader and business owner.  Allow them to have major setbacks, absorb their costs of learning, and incubate them before the risk is entirely theirs.  The older generation can retire, and the younger can run the farm with a solid grounding in the history of the farm’s management and decision-making process, but with a new perspective for modern marketing and methods as well.

Farming is a career choice, and a viable one.  It is no accident. The majority of the aspiring and beginning farmers I work with are not family farmers.  They want to farm, and have chosen it.  I believe we can call our farmers as trained and professional as anyone else with a prefix or a suffix.  Shouldn’t we call them Farmer ____ as we’d call a priest Rev. _____?  Or, shouldn’t they sign their names, Mr. _____, Farmer as we’d call someone Mr. _______, Esq?

Many come to farm after other careers, or after an education in a different field. and so they come to it intentionally, planning to farm for some reason.  More often than not, I hear that my generation (I’m 29, college-educated and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer) wants work that allows them to add value to the world around them.  They want to improve a situation for others and live simply but healthily, and see farming (as well as craftsmenship and culinary trades) as a means to those goals.  Who are we to stop this group?  I’ll mention that we can’t be stopped, so why not join in supporting us?  Some will farm for a long time and see success in those goals.  To help, we (meaning the world of farmers, family members, supporters, politicians and advocates) must not let them slide into farm business ownership or management casually, without acknowledgment, without helping them find an education in production, business, marketing and self-care.  We must give them the chance to dabble and experience farming by providing healthy, safe, respected and affordable options for practical and academic education.  There are excellent farms that teach their motivated employees more than just the daily tasks that must be accomplished; these training farms provide an immersive experience so that aspiring farmers learn to make decisions about production, purchases, marketing and labor management.  There are “incubator farms” sprouting up that allow new farmers the opportunity to test their production and marketing skills in a somewhat risk-protected environment; equipment may be shared, land is available, and the farmer can make sales, invest in smaller purchases that can be taken with them, and grow their earnings before moving to independent farm ownership.  There are countless farmers who educate new farmers over the phone, through online forums, through consultation services and through mentorship programs.  This is the right way for our community of farmers to grow.  No mentor is about to give an unrealistic perspective on the realities of farming.  They have told me, time and time again, they don’t want the next generation to repeat mistakes.  They want farming to continue into the future.

Farmer mentorship in the field.

Farmer mentorship in the field.

We need more farms who don’t let “children” (which I use to mean “aspiring farmers” to reflect on the article’s title) grow up to become farmers.  We need more farms who enable children to learn to farm.  There can be more of these farms if we embrace the concept of training farmers in a professional manner.  Many of these “children” will decide farming is not their passion, as it is a hard and unpredictable life.  Given the right opportunity to test their interest, aspiring farmers can self-sort into the producers-for-life and the farm-supporters-for-life.  Increasingly, there are farm training programs which a family can encourage their high school senior to seek out and apply for.  The Sustainable Agriculture Education Association compiles a list of degree and non-degree programs that teach production and business, often rounding that degree out with an education in food justice or rural development issues and economics.  When the author of last week’s article talks about organizations and supporters, who better to grease those wheels and get farmers’ ideas moving than those who have tried out farming or who have studied it in a focused way?  I’ll count myself in that group.  I hold a B.S. in Plant Sciences from Cornell University (I focused heavily on sustainable agriculture and rural development issues), I have farmed and may farm again one day.   For now I’m involved in helping many many aspiring and new farmers get the education they need.  I refuse to let them grow up to become farmers.  I will fight so that anyone who might become a successful life-long farmer knows exactly their career pathway to that end, and that they are neither discouraged by their community nor underprepared for the challenges ahead.

We must not look the other way, lest aspiring farmers be fooled into thinking that farming is not a serious career and a serious decision.  Worse yet, if organizations do not intervene, our promising aspiring farmers and children may fail to find the right education or support program (government or otherwise) to catalyze their success.  To this end, I was confused by Farmer Smith’s words that farmers must start organizations to get what they want, and that their stories must be told.  Farmers must make use of organizations and support and tell them how more they can help.  These organizations are eligible for grants for which farmers are not eligible, in many cases.  They can do the work that can’t be done by farmers who want to be in the fields, producing food and selling it and enjoying the lifestyle they have knowingly, willingly, eagerly entered.  There are organizations, from the National Young Farmers’ Coalition to The Greenhorns to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to the one I work for, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) that are there to help farmers find their community, to organize, and to come out a step ahead.  National Young Farmers’ Coalition runs an excellent blog, called Bootstrap, which follows several young farmers per year on their journey.  Those are real stories.  The Greenhorns is involved in everything from storytelling to compiling best practices into fresh, readable and useful literature on topics such as cooperative farming models to land access success stories.  These organizations regularly and reliably connect with farmers to enact policy change.  NOFA-NY also lobbies and supports policy that affects farmers.  Based on members’ positions, we take on a few policy initiatives each year, inviting all in our community to participate in political action on legislation that affects small-scale organic and sustainable farmers.  Moreover, we organize on-the-ground education and networking opportunities for farmers on topics ranging from organic fruit pest control to scaling up equipment to meet the farm’s ultimate vision for size and sales.  Research organizations like SARE provide grants for farmers to try innovative practices and guide research with university personnel, and share their findings with their community.  This research often has a bottom-line-assessment component, asking questions such as whether a certain labor-intensive practice impacts volume of production enough to change the farm’s profit/loss numbers for the better.

Farmers teaching each other, in community, about business practices.

Farmers teaching each other, in community, about business practices.

Reflecting back on the whole article (as I’ve mostly just reflected on the title and a few points that really struck me), I see that the abrasive title doesn’t exactly match the content of the piece.  It catches the attention, but when I read on, Farmer Smith and I certainly agree that more must be done to help farmers find success, especially when it comes to sales, marketing and policy.  I think the title of the article might be better with a few more words.  “Don’t Just Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers: Find a Way to Help Them!”

Further Reading (Farmer Blogs):

Jenna of Cold Antler Farm reacts to “Don’t Let…”

Letters to the Editor in response to “Don’t Let…”

Wondering How to Avoid Food Containing GMOs? Read on…

Frederick wheat

GMO-free Organic Wheat

Genetically engineered (GMO) ingredients are found in much of the processed and conventionally grown foods available to us today.   Currently there is no requirement for food to be labeled if it contains GMO ingredients, making it challenging for people who prefer to avoid eating foods containing GMOs.  While the movement to require labeling of GMO foods is gaining steam across the country and in New York State, many people are wondering today how they can avoid GMO foods.  While we continue to fight for your right to know what is in your food, here are some quick and easy steps that you can take if you would like to avoid GMO foods when possible. Continue reading

Frozen Foods for when the Ground is Frozen

It’s now-or-never season. That is, it’s now or never (this year) that you can buy an abundance of the freshest, most flavorful summer foods and store them for the long term. Sure, canning and pickling projects are worthwhile endeavors, but here we offer some freezer alternatives. Grab a permanent marker, some thick plastic bags and stackable containers, clear out some freezer space, and enjoy this roundup of freezable sauces and prepped meal components.

Chopped vegetables and fruits: How to Avoid Ice Blocks and Make Cooking from Frozen Easier

Many vegetables and nearly all fruits can be frozen simply, and mimic what we are used to finding in the frozen foods sections of a grocery store.  Since most home cooks don’t have access to technology for individual quick freezing (which is what creates the grocery store frozen peas, etc.), you’ll need the following technique to get better quality and to avoid a solid frozen block that would be hard to cook with.  It’s recommended that you spread a layer of the cleaned, dried and sliced/chopped/shredded vegetables on baking sheets (hopefully ones with rims).  When sufficiently frozen, transfer the vegetables to labeled plastic freezer bags, bang them around a bit to loosen the stuck-together pieces, and squeeze out the air before freezing and sealing.  Shredded veggies (like zucchini and carrots) can be pre-measured and packed into muffin tins.  Once you have frozen pucks of shredded veggies, you can freeze them in bags.  Make your life easier by writing how many cups make up each zucchini puck.

freezing abundance

Some vegetables do better in the freezer after being blanched.  Blanching is the process of quickly boiling (3 minutes on average) and then chilling vegetables in an ice bath.  This will help them keep their color and texture better than if they were just frozen from fresh.  This is especially necessary with spinach and other leafy greens.  Leafy greens can be frozen in smaller portions by placing “nests” of blanched greens on baking sheets, or in muffin tins, before freezing.

Nests of blanched beet greens await their turn in the freezer.

Nests of blanched beet greens await their turn in the freezer.

A lengthy guide to freezing and blanching can be found at Mother Earth Living online.

The Next Level: Freeze in Natural Combinations

Prepare in the same individually-frozen technique, but using multiple vegetables that you’d likely use together or in a particular way in recipes.

  • Classic mirepoix (because how often can you get local celery, onions and carrots at once?)
  • Cajun-creole holy trinity
  • Stir-fry or saute mix: just visit the frozen-foods aisle in the grocery store for inspiration!

Condiments are great candidates for freezing, and ice cube trays are a nice size mold for freezing your preparations.  Once frozen, release from the ice cube trays and package in labeled freezer bags.

herb cubes the kitchn

Tomatoes and tomatillos hold up nicely to the freezer, though they’ll exude some water after defrosting.  No reason not to stow away some bruschetta topping, salsa verde, or pico de gallo with hot peppers, herbs, onions, garlic and tomatoes from right now!

Cook-the-Glut Technique: This takes your preparations a step further than blanching, but is not as much a commitment as frozen meals and recipes.  Think about how you’re likely to want to incorporate the vegetable in question at a later date.  Would you be excited to have pre-grilled slabs of eggplant and zucchini to easily layer into casseroles, or to chop up and reheat as a stew this winter?  Prepare your vegetables in bulk in these simple ways, then let them cool, and finally freeze as instructed above (single layers on baking sheets).  This works particularly well with large pieces of sweet peppers, whole hot peppers, chunks or slices of onions, garlic (squeeze out of its casing once roasted and store in a small bag or airtight container), slabs or chunks of eggplant, slabs or chunks of zucchini (drain some of the excess water after cooking), whole tomatoes (your choice whether to drain) and tomatillos.

  • Oil-salt-and-pepper coated, then roasted or grilled
  • Herb-and-garlic marinated, then roasted or grilled
  • Soy-sauce-and-garlic marinated, then roasted or grilled

Roasted Tomatoes (click for some time travel)

Purees and Liquids:  A smart, space-saving way to store liquid items like sauces, soups, fruit purees and more is to pour them into freezer bags and lay the bags flat (use any freezer-safe pan or plate to create a flat surface) until frozen.  Then you can stack them vertically or horizontally.  Check out this post from The Kitchn for some freezer organization inspiration.

  • Fruit purees
  • Winter squash and sweet potato (cooked) purees
  • Roasted (better yet, fire-roasted and smoky) eggplant, smashed
  • Roasted garlic, squeezed out and smashed
  • Big batches of summer soup
  • Tomato puree (raw)
  • Tomato sauces (marinara and its friends)

Be Prepared for Late Blight (and other Leaf Disease!)

Our Fruit and Vegetable Coordinator, Maryellen Sheehan, shares very timely information about late blight, a serious disease affecting tomatoes and potatoes.  Gardeners and farmers alike should be careful to scout for and properly dispose of the infected plants.

These past few cool, wet weeks were unfortunately quite conducive to a host of foliar diseases. Keep an extra eye on your tomatoes and potatoes for signs of late blight in particular, which has been confirmed in parts of western, central and eastern NY, Long Island, and central PA.  A national map of confirmed late blight cases (and sample submission protocol) can be found at: http://www.usablight.org/map.

Late blight spores are airborne and move quickly. We generally see lesions on middle and upper level leaves, but key signs are when the moist looking, gray-brown lesions form on the plant stems and leaflets. On potatoes, the lesions can almost look greasy. Identification and scouting help can be found in E-Organic’s scouting video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCzIFVfyNow and NYSIPM’s video to help separate late blight from all of its imitators (this is also a bad year for early blight and other leaf funk): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aA4PuEKaQpY

Images courtesy of Meg McGrath and the Long Island Horticultural Information & Research Center

Images courtesy of Meg McGrath and the Long Island Horticultural Information & Research Center

If you find suspected late blight on your farm, please report it immediately to your Cornell Cooperative Extension Vegetable specialist (or through http://www.usablight.org) and find out how to send in a sample (it’s important to have these samples to see which race of blight is spreading this year).

The late blight pathogen comes on so fast, by the time it is found in a planting, it is often too late to save the crop. Preventative management, including pruning, wide plant spacing, trellising, and preventative sprays, is key to blight management. If you scout daily, catch an infection early, and have a lightly affected planting with good airflow and trellising, it might be possible to try and save the plants by starting off just removing any affected tissue and beginning a fungicide program immediately (remember to check with your organic certifier before using any products!). However, a widespread infection on heavy, lush plant growth will likely not be controllable. Late blight spores spread disease rapidly, so removing infected plants quickly helps prevent infection spread to neighboring plants (and your farming neighbors).

Additional late blight management articles can be found at:

http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Spring2010/LateBlight/tabid/1555/Default.aspx
http://lateblight.nysipm.cornell.edu/
http://vegetablemdonline.ppath.cornell.edu/PhotoPages/Spin/Tom_Spin.html
http://lateblight.nysipm.cornell.edu/files/2011/08/Pot_LB_OrganicMgt10.pdf
http://www.longislandhort.cornell.edu/vegpath/photos/lateblight_tomato.htm