Seed Saving Can Save Us All

Last Thursday (9/25/14), our friends at Turtle Tree Seed led a field day of their seed-production farm and seed company based at Camphill Village-Copake.  About 30 individuals contribute to the management of the gardens, the harvesting and processing of mature plants to extract seed, the cleaning and sorting of seed, and the marketing and packaging of the final product.  Many of these individuals are residents of Camphill Village who have developmental disabilities, who have meaningful and fulfilling work thanks to the connection between Biodynamic Agriculture and the Camphill Village philosophy. The growers explained that to grow biodynamic seed, one simply grows the plants biodynamically (and organic seed comes from certified organic farms and plants).  Because of the length of time in the field (seed crops are generally harvested well beyond eating ripeness), any plant grown for seed will face much more disease and pest pressure; this is why organic and biodynamic seed production is so important for environmental health, and why all growers should consider supporting only organic and biodynamic seeds; conventionally-produced seeds have a heavy impact on the environment before they are even planted by a farmer or gardener because pests, disease, weeds and soil fertility can all be managed through chemical methods.  No matter the production philosophy or certification, one needs to isolate plant varieties in time and space if they are a crop that is likely to cross-pollinate (and therefore change the genetics of the seed produced).  Additionally, plants that are grown for seed also need much more room because they will grow much larger.

This is zucchini at a seed-mature stage.  Not exactly eating quality squash any more.  One would scoop out the inner flesh and clean the seeds using water and a scrubbing motion before drying and storing the seeds.

This is zucchini at a seed-mature stage. Not exactly eating quality squash any more. One would scoop out the inner flesh and clean the seeds using water and a scrubbing motion before drying and storing the seeds.

The group learned three different seed extraction methods: dry harvest, wet harvest, and fermentation/wet harvest.  Each technique involves taking the plant with fully mature seeds and separating the seeds from the rest of the plant, and cleaning out any immature seeds, making use of seed weight and seed size to help in the separation.  For dry-harvested seeds (where the plant has flowered and created a pod that dries out), one uses significant pressure to crush and break down the pod and plant parts, then winnows with air to separate off lighter-weight plant parts and debris, and finally passes the seed through a set of screens to filter out larger particles and long bits of stem.

Using a fan to winnow lettuce seeds.

Using a fan to winnow lettuce seeds. The heavier seeds land in the bin nearer to the fan, and the debris lands in the second.

For wet-harvested seeds (where the plant’s fleshy parts contain the mature seed), one has to open the fruit and remove the flesh and seeds.  In the case of cucumbers and tomatoes, the seeds are left to ferment for several days to break down a protective membrane around the seeds.  The seed saver uses a water winnowing technique for wet-harvested seeds.  Seeds and flesh are placed in a jar or bowl, and water runs on top.  Then water is poured off, and with it goes the non-useable part of the mixture, which floats to the top, and the heavy, mature seeds stay at the bottom.  After water winnowing, the seeds are spread on paper to dry.

Purple tomatillos after blending. This mixture will be filtered and water-winnowed.

Purple tomatillos after blending. This mixture will be filtered and water-winnowed.

Watermelon seeds are extracted by eating and spitting!  This variety is called Cream of Saskatchewan.

Watermelon seeds are extracted by eating and spitting! This variety is called Cream of Saskatchewan.

We learned how variety selection works in root crops, which take two seasons to set seed.  At Turtle Tree, the growers harvest mature (eating-stage) onions, carrots, etc. and sort them based on the varieties’ written descriptions.  The 25% that most exemplify healthy, true-to-type specimens will be grown for seed that becomes the future seed stock on the farm.  This helps ensure a purity in the variety for the long-term.  The middle 50% of the crop will be replanted in the second season, and its seed will become what is harvested for sale through the Turtle Tree Seed Company.  This is still a high-quality and true-to-type seed!  The bottom 25% of the crop (they do not exemplify the variety characteristics as well as the top 75%) is used as food in the community dining hall.  To account for differences in growing conditions, plants are harvested in very small batches and compared within their batch (then added to the graded piles).  That way, the grower can control for the fact that poor soil in that few feet of the garden bed impacted the shape and size of the carrots, for example.

carrot grading buckets poor good select carrot grading 2

While not every one of us will become seed farmers, it’s important to support the work of the companies who are preserving the range of plants and subtly-different varieties.  It takes more land and plenty of extra vigilance on the part of the grower, especially if the plants are being grown organically!  Here are a few other seed companies we know and love (and who have taught us about seed farming in the past):

seed grower to do list

Further Resources:

Discovering Joy, Community, and a Healthier Self through Local Food

Sondra Gjersoe is one of the friendly voices you may hear when you dial our general office line.  She’s the Administrative Assistant for NOFA-NY, and when she’s not answering general inquiries, she coordinates Sponsorship and Advertising opportunities, the Locavore Challenge, the Farmers Pledge program, the Neighborhood Farm Share program and so much more!  Here’s her tale of becoming a Locavore.

About a decade ago, I had a bit of a revelation. I had reached an all-time low, the end of a long term relationship, dissatisfaction in my job, a loss of self-identity and self-worth. I would go to work, come home, shut myself off from the world and sit in front of the computer fiddling around until I was so tired I’d pass out. My sedentary lifestyle took its toll on me physically; I reached my heaviest weight ever, and began to have heart palpitations at work when I was moving quickly. This was different from the Sondra I knew I could be.  I come from a long line of mariners (ask me how to pronounce “Gjersoe” the proper way).  My Scandinavian heritage and childhood upbringing instilled in me a great love for the sea, a frolicsome friend full of joy, laughter and mirth… I go there when I’m happy and my spirit longs to be wild and free.  At that dark time in my life, just like other periods of struggle or quiet reflection, I was longing to feel grounded, longing to be reminded of the roots I had forged in my community and longing to share in the creation of new growth.  I knew I had to be willing–nay, eager–to put forth the effort to make positive changes to improve my health, and the pathway seemed to involve connecting to the earth and growing anew.

I eased into it, did some research on nutrition and started changing my diet, incorporating fresh organic foods rich in vitamins and nutrients that boosted my mental health. I began to visit local farmer’s markets and discovered a rich tapestry of life, a community coming together.

So much inspiration can come from a box of vibrantly colored "lunchbox" peppers.

So much inspiration can come from a box of vibrantly colored “lunchbox” peppers.

I would often strike up conversations with the farmers, learning more about their lives, their passion for farming. There was a sense of coming together and sharing and I found myself filled with inspiration. I started doing things that brought me joy again; cooking new dishes, sewing, yoga, and I bought myself a bike and started cycling.

SondraCycling

The weight flew off, my muscles strengthened, and the feel-good endorphins kicked in.  I was living again, laughing, appreciating the abundance around me. I realized that though the source of the change started within me, I fueled that power to change with healthy, delicious food rooted in a community both vibrant and welcoming.

Stir FrySharing recipes and ideas was important at the start of my locavore journey.  My wok became my best friend as I began to eat more healthy, so I thought I’d link you to a garlic chicken stir-fry recipe.  That said, I don’t worry too much over recipes–technique is more important than what can look like lengthy ingredient lists.  [Editor’s note: if you want more recipes and technique guidance, Serious Eats will walk you through all the ways to maximize flavor while you choose which local and organic produce and meats to use as the star players].  I prefer to play “mad scientist” with what’s available and seeing what I come up with.  It’s part of the fun of taking ownership over my healthy lifestyle.

When Buttercups are Bad: Co-Pasturing Field Day at Wild Geese Farm

Nancy Apolito, our Finance & HR Manager, sends in this report about her recent adventure in Western New York, staffing a field day in Rushford, NY at Wild Geese Farm.  The field day’s theme was “Maintaining Pasture Systems to Meet Your Farm Goals.”

Lynn and Shawn Bliven pasture feed a herd of cattle, 5 horses, and 25 sheep in addition to housing a dozen chickens.  Lynn Bliven led the field day with a walk through four of the pastures to demonstrate the results of co-pasturing livestock.  Aaron Santangelo from Cornell Cooperative Extension–Allegany & Cattaraugus County provided valuable information regarding pasture plants that are harmful to livestock and the way that these plants propagate.  Farmers who know about the full lifecycle of these invasive can strategically manage their herds on pasture to avoid problems and sometimes alleviate the weed pressure using the animals’ inherent capabilities.

Bull Thistle

Canadian Thistle

Bull Thistle

Canadian Thistle and Bull Thistle grow and spread differently.  Bull Thistle needs two years to produce seed–it’s less aggressive when its life cycle is disturbed yearly by turning the soil, but it’s a problem in pastures since they are not tilled.  Canadian Thistle has underground growth that makes it problematic even in tilled fields.  I found out that even common plants, like buttercup, can be very dangerous to a herd.  Grazing behavior (as in, what to eat) should be taught to animals–they won’t know what is poisonous by instinct.  Older animals in the herd or flock can set the right example, and farmers should be careful to watch what the young animals are eating.  Lynn shared that she lost 15 sheep due to their grazing on a plant in the nightshade family.  Even wild rose can cause problems for the smaller animals.

The highlight of the afternoon for me was seeing the sheep and the cattle pasturing in separate areas. Lynn spoke of the differences in the pastures after the different herds have been grazing.  I was amazed at the difference (I don’t live on a farm, remember!) between the vegetation in the pastures, which was impacted by the physical size and shape of the different species.  One great way to deter invasive plant species is to allow cattle in to trample the plants down.  The sheep on pasture clip the field down farther than the cows want to and this maximizes the value of each pasture.

The pastures at Wild Geese farm have taken 17 years to reach this point.  Co-pasturing takes organization and each species requires different enclosures and management; Lynn also discussed some common problems with grass fed herds, weaning calves, and establishing healthy environments for many types of animals on a farm.  However, going this route has helped make the pastures more productive and the farm more profitable.

Lynn shared aerial maps and grids that help the farm plan out pasture schedules.  They’ve also used this tool to carry out a slight re-grading of the landscape and some drainage improvement projects.  This allows for animals to have access to high-quality pasture areas and a water source at all times.  Healthier animals will make for higher-quality meat and better returns for the farm!  My day was rounded out by two Red-Tailed Hawk and one Osprey sighting over the gorgeous landscape.

Further Resources:

Farmer Voices: Peace & Carrots Farm’s Past, Present and Future

By Tess Gee, Locavore Challenge Intern

At Peace and Carrots Farm in Chester, NY, partners Laura Nywening and Jason Uhler exemplify hard work and sustainability in farming. With a growing CSA of 60 members and a burgeoning calendar of farm events, Peace and Carrots is laying a path of successful development for their future.

Laura Nywening wasn’t always planning to be a farmer, but is glad she decided to veer in this direction after graduating from Westfield State University in Massachusetts with a B.A. in History Education. She got a job working for the National Park Service in Virginia post-college, and quickly realized that she wanted to include nature and the outdoors as part of her life’s work. Luckily, Laura comes from three generations of farmers before her, and the transition to farming seemed natural. She grew up on the same land she works now, and her family runs a dairy farm close by. Her partner Jason grew up in the area where his family always had a large kitchen garden. After working a few retail jobs, he realized he would rather be working outside and giving back to the land. He began working at Keith’s Farm in Westtown, NY where he met Laura and eventually partnered up with her to start Peace and Carrots.

So far, Laura and Jason work on the farm together with the help of one part-time employee. A typical harvest day begins at 7 a.m. as they pick crops and start prepping to deliver their produce to Groundwork Hudson Valley out of Yonkers, which bought 30 of their CSA shares this year. There is usually a lot of weeding to be done, as they use hoes instead of machinery. They also pride themselves on preserving their soil as much as possible by not over-tilling the land.

Peace and Carrots Farm currently has a growing variety of crops available to their CSA members and the public. They do not grow sweet corn due to the overwhelming amount of GMO corn fields in the area surrounding the farm. The farm yields leafy greens such as kale and chard, garlic, cabbage, tomatoes, squash and much more throughout the spring, summer and fall. Peace and Carrots CSA members are mostly made up of families or thirty-something’s, and Laura says interacting with members is her favorite aspect of the job. She can put names to faces and has a great level of appreciation for each member. While the CSA shares seem to be the most rewarding part of the job, it does require focus, organization and close attention to detail.

Peaceand Carrots“The easiest part of my job is getting to interact with customers. We have the greatest members, and everybody is so happy with what we have to offer. The hardest part is a combination of planning out the shares for each week and implementing that plan. It is so much out of your control sometimes,” said Laura.

So what is in store for the future of Peace and Carrots? Growth. They are currently raising chickens, but are looking into getting more livestock for the farm in years to come. Laura would also like to boost attendance at farm events. So far she has organized potlucks, a beekeeping workshop, a canning class, and even a photography workshop over the summer. Peace and Carrots is holding their own Harvest Festival on October 18th which will include games, hot cider, live music and hay rides. Laura hopes to gain more ideas for different events to hold at the farm for the near future.

Laura and Jason display physical and mental dedication, stay informed about growing practices and sustainability, and commit to showing a deep respect for the land they work on. They understand that organic farming is important because the land provides us with everything. At Peace and Carrots Farm, the golden rule applies to people as well as the earth.

“I love the land. If I want the land to continue to provide for me I have to treat it well,” says Laura.

Further Reading:

How a Reformed Tomato Hater Preserves Tomato Bliss

BIG Brandywine!

BIG Brandywine!

When I was young I hated tomatoes.  You know the kind I am talking about.  They were packed three to a plastic tray and wrapped in cellophane.  They were pale red on the outside and almost transparent on the inside, and they were hard.  So hard if you threw one at your brother it wouldn’t break open.  It would hurt.

I remember vividly the first time I tasted a real tomato, picked fresh and sun-warmed directly off the sprawling vine that my neighbor was tending among her flowers.  It was a revelation!  A hefty classic beefsteak that, when sliced, was larger than the bread I used to make my sandwich.  It was bright red throughout, juicy and sweet and slightly acidic.  I was hooked.

From cherries to beefsteaks and from red to yellow, purple, orange, and even black, the tastes and varieties of tomatoes available at our local farm stands, farmers markets, and CSAs are astounding and delicious!  As I look at my own garden this year, I am grateful for the farmers and seed savers who have brought back my favorite heirloom varieties that seemed long gone when I was a child.  Who knew tomatoes would become one of my favorite foods?

But here is the problem.  If you are a tomato lover like me, you may have also planted many more tomatoes than you could ever eat.  Even during a harsh growing year like this one and with the late blight finally hitting my plantings, I still have more tomatoes ripening than I can reasonably consume before they go bad.  I can’t stand the thought of wasting a single tomato.  However, the thought of standing over a hot stove, canning or putting up a sauce is well, uninspiring to me!

So here is my solution – slow roasting and freezing

Take any variety and amount of tomatoes you have on hand.  Slice them in halves or quarters if need be, cherries can stay whole.   Put them in a pan, drizzle with good olive oil, add some minced garlic to taste, along with a good grind of sea salt and fresh pepper.    I wait and add herbs later.  Pop the pan in a 300 degree oven for about 2-3 hours, until you see the tomatoes caramelize.  Remove them and when they come to room temperature, pack into the container of your choice and freeze!

Some cold and blustery Friday night in February, when you are settling in for the weekend and in no mood to go out, take this out of the freezer.  It is delicious served with hot fresh pasta, or you can chop it up more finely and use it as a topping on any kind of toasted bread – it makes a great bruschetta or pizza depending on the herbs and other toppings you choose.   Now you can enjoy your fresh local tomatoes all year!

Roasted Tomatoes with EVOO and Garlic

Roasted Tomatoes with EVOO and Garlic

Wednesday Worksheet #3: Analyzing your Locavore-ability

A throwback to last year’s Locavore Challenge Worksheets

NY Locavore Challenge

In a new move for this blog, we’ve come up with four printable worksheets, which we’ll post on Wednesdays this month.  We all need a little back-to-school type fun this month, right?  So download, print and enjoy!  If you feel so inclined, snap a photo of yourself and your worksheet and share with us on Facebook and Twitter!  Make sure you tag, tag, tag!

locavore tags

This third worksheet challenges you to identify characteristics of an entity you’d like to make more local-food-and-farming friendly.  Could be your household, your group of friends, or even your own self.  A Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat analysis is a classic way for any group to get a quick picture of their situation, and we highly encourage you to try it out and share with others.  It’s hard to TAKE ACTION if you haven’t brainstormed some of the main characteristics you’ll encounter within your locavore challenge.

Download week 3’s worksheet…

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How My Locavore Breakfast Measures Changes in the Local Food System

I eat oatmeal almost every day, with fruit and yogurt.  Eating my breakfast on the second day of Locavore month, I had a moment of realization.  This was locally grown food, and it was not the struggle to source my oatmeal that it was on September 2nd, 2013 (and 2012 or 2011).    In years past, September meant an alternative porridge made from New York cornmeal or buckwheat groats; or cold pre-cooked wheat berries, barley or Freekeh bathed in yogurt and fruit (very cooling during a September heat wave).  Great as those breakfasts could be, I did always miss oats in September; it seemed a weird thing to give up in the spirit of going as local-foods as possible, because I knew oats were and are indeed grown in New York (I was always on the hunt for rolled NY oats in bulk, grabbing them when I could).  It’s not as though I was pining for the mangoes and bananas I ate when I lived in the tropics…So, what’s changed that’s made my breakfast more easy to source locally?  It’s not really about a shift in the amount of oats planted in New York (maybe a little shift, but not that much).  Rather, I can pinpoint two important factors, which affect every locavore in some way.

Nectarines thanks to K & S Bischoping Farm in Williamson, NY; Oats grown at Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, NY; Yogurt cultured in my apartment in Rochester, NY, from cows raised and grazed in East Meredith, NY and bottled by First Light Creamery

Nectarines thanks to K & S Bischoping Farm in Williamson, NY; Oats grown at Gianforte Farm in Cazenovia, NY; Yogurt cultured in my apartment in Rochester, NY, from cows raised and grazed in East Meredith, NY and bottled by First Light Creamery

Factor 1.  Value-Added Production.  This is a broad group of processes and actions that turn today’s harvest into tomorrow’s shelved products.  It could be as simple as labeling and packaging a ready-to-go food, or as complex as a certified commercial scale processing of fruits into jams or milk into aged cheese.  Value-added production allows for farmers to offer more than a raw, fresh product; from the locavore’s perspective, value-added processing done by small-scale producers and artisans allows for eaters to have locally grown versions of the foods and products they regularly eat: from syrup to pancake mix, jam to bread, a lot of foods fall into the value-added product category.  These processes allow for products to be sold in a greater range of venues, from farm stands to grocery stores.  Because of value-added processing (specifically, farmers being able to roll the oats, and a local bakery packaging them for sale) I’m able to reliably find bags of organic, New York-grown oats in at least one supermarket in Rochester, NY as well as at several farmers’ markets.  My brain is happy because I’m able to reconcile my love of oats with my desire to support local organic farms; my mouth and belly definitely notice a difference in the sweet, fresh flavor of the oats.  This is not a food I just eat during locavore month (which would be something hard to source reliably or economically throughout the year).  This breakfast absolutely has a superior flavor and is now just as convenient for me to source as any alternative.

RFIT_ABCS of preserving2Behind the increased visibility and availability of many foods made with local ingredients, there is a bigger story.  Farmers choose to add value to a raw product, anticipating being able to sell it differently (at a different price, scale, venue or time of year).  Consumers pay a different price for that same amount of good produced at the farm, hence the term value-added, but it’s not necessarily easy for a small-scale producer or food artisan to make investments in the technology and marketing effort to get that product made (or simply packaged according to the end sellers’ requirements) and sold.  Last week, the USDA released its list of Value-Added Producer Grants for 2014.  I had not paid much attention to this grant in the past, but this year it really hit me because many of the farms I work with (and that NOFA-NY works with) were on the list of recipients.  The USDA funded investments for Ashlee Kleinhammer (North Country Creamery) to quickly label her yogurt containers (a major labor-saver); for hops processing for McCollum orchards (again, ensuring quality and labor efficiency) and to support marketing and processing support for many growers who want to produce and sell hard cider from their New York fruit.  This grant will boost producers across the US so they can sell more than a raw product, and put that product into markets that normally could not or would not accept a raw product.  Even without a grant, producers seek ways to add value to their raw products, giving those farmers sales opportunities beyond the growing/producing season, sometimes beyond the farmstand, and sometimes beyond a one-on-one relationship with a customer (which happens to be Factor 2 below).  They are able to use beautiful, descriptive labels to tell the story of their farm from shelves of an independent cheese shop or natural food store and reach customers who are quick to gravitate to a highly flavorful, thoughtfully crafted food or ingredient to include in their meals.

Factor 2. Direct Marketing.  Direct marketing and distribution opportunities bring farmers and their customers in direct contact, without many of the traditional buyers, brokers and sellers involved in large-scale movement of food from farm to tables.  Examples of direct marketing are Community-Supported Agriculture, farm stands (wherein the products sold at the stand are the farmer’s own), and farmers’ markets.  The direct marketing option often (not always) allows for the local eater to get to know farmers, to tell them what they’re looking for, to hear what’s going on at the farm, and put a face and a story behind the food on the table at home.  Extremely important to both producer and consumer, direct marketing ensures that the most possible money is going to the farmers because the food hasn’t been bought and re-sold by a number of middlemen.

garlic_DavidTuran_AtTheMarketThis direct from farm to consumer marketing works for farmers at a certain scale, but isn’t the only way that farmers choose to make their living (in other words, don’t read this as a directive to never buy local products sold outside of direct marketing channels).  While value-added can open up opportunities for farmers to reach consumers indirectly, direct marketing benefits farmers and consumers to similar heights; case in point: the fruit and yogurt on my oatmeal.  In my own fortunate situation of living in Finger Lakes/Western New York, there is never a week I’m without local fruit.  True, about half the year it’s apples and whatever fruits I froze or dried from the summer (I admit to eating out-of-location bananas and mangoes during the winter).  I am buying those apples from farmers during the winter, thanks to recently-established winter producers’ markets; I could go on for hours debating my favorite summer fruits, so ripe and tender because having traveled only a short distance from farm to the market, and I’m pretty sure the farmers near me used to think I was feeding a family of four on the amount I would purchase (nope, just me).  The milk that I turn into yogurt is available at farmers’ markets, too, though I have pre-paid the farmers who own the pasteurization and bottling facility (again, value-added products) for a weekly half gallon of cream-top grassfed milk along the lines of a vegetable Community Supported Agriculture share.  In short, I invest up front and hope for all to go as planned, but understand that product loss might happen and I’m not getting a refund in exchange for the fact that the farmer continues to farm.  I’m putting my grocery money directly to the farmers in these instances, receiving satisfaction and major flavor rewards.  This is not a challenge for me in the sense that I have to make myself do this.  It happens year-round, thanks to the people who recruit producers to sell directly to consumers.  Have you thanked your farmers’ market manager lately?  Put that on your to-do list (I just did).

Direct buying is an alternative grocery shopping option.  For example, I could buy yogurt under the label of Ithaca Milk Company, Maple Hill Creamery, Evans Farmhouse Creamery (also recipients of a Value-Added Producer Grant), or several other creameries that stock the shelves at stores in Rochester.  I’m fortunate that these brands were created, turning hormone-free, often grassfed milk into yogurt which I can reliably find and providing dairy farmers a way to transform their raw product for slightly longer shelf life and higher value.  Yet, I love to get my half gallon of creamy Jersey Cow milk from First Light Farm & Creamery (I’m one of the customers who “asked for it for years” thanks to regularly seeing the farmers at weekly markets) and devote part of it to yogurt and part of it to some other delicious cause (lately, that has been sherbet and ice cream).  Since I’m not allowed to keep a cow in Rochester, I’m glad that direct marketing (and in a pinch, local grocery stores partnering with farms) provides multiple chances for me to secure a half gallon of top-quality organic milk.

Farmers’ markets have rapidly increased in number, and many have increased in size/diversity of products, over the past few years.  Grants and incentives now make it possible for farmers to accept EBT (SNAP, WIC and other benefits programs) in New York, meaning that those beneficiaries can get to know farmers and flavorful foods.  CSA is an increasingly popular way for farmers to distribute their produce, with a rise in participation of local organizations and partnerships that help bridge the price for lower-income consumers.  Farmers receive their asking price, and customers enjoy quality, seasonal foods.

Yes, this whole blog entry started in a revelation that came to me over sleepy bowl of post-long-weekend breakfast porridge.  A lot has changed since my first official locavore challenge (though I’d been a local eater for years prior, my first challenge caused me to examine what more I could be doing as a locavore).  Locavores, what’s changed for you since you first discovered local eating?  Was it yesterday, last week, or last year?  Let’s all take our moments this month stop and enjoy the positive trends in our local food culture, and get out there and keep supporting the diverse and growing options for local food enjoyment!

Further reading: