A Walk on the Wild Side

Happy Sheep!

Happy Sheep!

As the heat rose up on Saturday, July 18, more than 13 current and aspiring farmers traversed from across the state – from areas as far away as Binghamton and Scottsville – to join Don Wild at Wild Acres Family Farm in Great Valley NY (near Salamanca) to learn how to make better use of forages through small scale intensive pasture management.  tatiana Stanton from Cornell University also joined to discuss the on-farm study looking at the effect of tannins given off from grazing birdsfoot trefoil on parasitic worm populations in sheep. Rod Porter, from Kings AgriSeeds and a NOFA-NY Farmer, was available with information about various pasture seed mixes and types. I felt very lucky to be the NOFA-NY staff for this event.

Wild Acres Family Farm is a small diversified farm specializing in small ruminant management, multispecies grazing and vegetable production. Beautiful and lush flower gardens created a dramatic first impression as we walked towards the back of the farmstead to set up for the event. Under the welcome shade from a stand of trees, we heard the gentle clucking of Don’s laying hens and the soft baaaing of his ewes and lambs. In a small pasture nearby, a flock of meat chickens were busy enjoying their life on pasture, and next door to them was a small herd of miniature horses. In this idyllic valley setting our lesson began.

Farmers of all ages attended the day

Farmers of all ages attended the day

As we walked around the farm, Don surprised us all by showing that his core farm is only 1.5 acres. He has used that land to the maximum, and also bartered for use of some neighboring lands, showing the value of community to the farm and its neighbors. Through rotational grazing and effective monitoring and management of his pastures, Don demonstrated how he optimizes health in his sheep flock, reducing pest pressures while producing a highly nutritious forage diet.  He showed examples of expanding grazing capacity through incorporating small grains such as forage oats, as well as summer annuals and alternative forages, such as field peas, into an effective pasture plan.  tatiana shared her research on the use of birdsfoot trefoil and the seeding rates being tested on Don’s flock of lambs. Don discussed options for fence posts and permanent as well as temporary fencing options to make the best use of small spaces and rotating fields. As we walked we could see the pattern of re-growth on the pastures one, two, and three weeks out from its last grazing. Some key tips from Don:

    • Test your soil: test your soil before you seed – not all land, even when amended with materials such as lime, will be suitable for all types of forage.
    • Expect changes: your pasture composition will change through the year as well as from year to year depending on the weather and other factors, so pastures need to be monitored regularly.
    • Diversify: mixtures tend to do better than single cultivars when planting pastures. Different forages compliment each other and thrive at different times depending on the weather and changes in soil composition across a field.
    • Water: having a good watering system in place assures consistent pasture forage throughout a season. Don shared his easy and affordable solutions to watering pastures.
    • Have the right tools: fence tighteners, a digital volt meter, and a grazing stick are three basic and very valuable tools for managing fencing and monitoring pastures.  

      Field peas ready for grazing

      Field peas ready for grazing

At the end of the session we enjoyed refreshments under the shade of the trees along with some great question and answers from Don and tatiana. Many thanks to Don and family for hosting this event, and for tatiana for coming to share the latest research with us.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Lexington Community Garden.  Photo courtesy of Paul Minor

Lexington Community Garden. Photo courtesy of Paul Minor

One of the beautiful things about food and farming is that inspiration and gratitude are constant companions, unfettered by any definition of “on the clock”.

Last week during my summer vacation  I took the opportunity to visit with my good friend Judy Bennett and some of the urban gardens managed by the Rochester International Academy Interact Club, which is sponsored by the Rochester Northwest Rotary.  This is a unique 50 member club, comprised of refugees from many countries such as Congo, Eritrea, Nepal, Somalia, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen. Students in the club worked in partnership with Foodlink and the Rochester City School District, and with a grant from Wegmans Food Markets, Inc and donations from Johnny’s Seeds to raise almost 5,000 vegetable plants this year in the greenhouse attached to the former Jefferson High School. The seedlings have been distributed to the Foodlink sponsored community gardens throughout the greater Rochester area, providing healthy, affordable produce to emergency food programs and a source of meaningful connection to the earth and their food for many refugees.

Judy took me on a visit to two of the gardens, the first behind the Calvary St Andrews Presbyterian Church off Averill Avenuein Rochester’s Southwedge neighborhood.  This church runs an emergency mobile food pantry, with donated food augmented by an array of fresh vegetables in season that are grown in the Foodlink-sponsored Alison Clarke Community Garden – an oasis of 18 beds of fresh produce growing behind the church.  The mobile pantry had just run that morning, and an abundance of swiss chard, kale, and collard greens had been picked and distributed.  We discussed the challenges of composting in city gardens and checked out the progress of an impressive plot of summer squashes and cucumbers.

Swiss Chard at the Alison Clarke Community Garden

Swiss Chard at the Alison Clarke Community Garden

From there we drove to the Foodlink sponsored gardens on Lexington Avenue.  Every time I visit a farm or garden I am inspired by the creative genius of farmers and gardeners, and this was no exception.  These community gardens are largely managed by Nepalize refugees. There on a vacant city lot, old walk-in coolers had been transformed into raised beds.   Instead of using conventional stakes and trellises to support the plants, tree branches were stuck in and around each raised bed, creating an amazing effect of a forest in the middle of the garden!  Around each bed the twisting limbs were green with slender tendrils of peas, pole beans, and cucumbers and carrying the weighty branches of tomatoes and their promise of ripe fruit to come.

Thank you Judy for this wonderful visit and for letting me see collaboration and inspiration in action, bringing healthy food to so many.

Bright Blue Skies with Fresh Snap Peas and Mint

Snap pea with blue skies

Snap pea with blue skies

Ahh, sweet sunshine!  A rare sighting this spring and early summer.  Perhaps the only two things thriving in my garden at the moment are snap peas and mint.  Ok, my lettuces and fennel and a scary amount of slugs are thriving too, but that is a story for another blog!

This is the time of year when I am heavy into foraging for my food from my garden, meadows, and woods.  This is not because I am a remarkably creative person, it is because I am really tired of making shopping lists, driving to the store, and well, shopping.

With the last of the asparagus picked and eaten, we are onto the next wave of garden bounty – peas – and in particular my favorite snap peas.  Peas are among the oldest cultivated vegetables, and there is evidence of cultivated peas in ancient Egyptian tombs!  There are more than 1000 varieties of peas in existence today.  Snap peas are unique in that their pods are edible as well as the sweet peas inside, and for those of us who are too impatient for a lot of shelling (although I do love shelled peas as well), snap peas are a great alternative as you can eat them pods and all.  When looking to enjoy snap peas, there are only 3 basic rules:

  • Buy fresh – if you don’t have a ready supply of peas bursting in your garden, you can find fresh snap peas at farmers markets, roadside stands and in your CSA basket this time of year – to find a farmer selling snap peas near you, check our on-line directory.  Just look for firm, glossy pods that are filled almost to bursting.
  • Keep them cold – in snap peas, the sugar converts to starch the way it does in corn, and keeping them cold helps slow down that process and will preserve their crispy texture and powerful nutrients.  Snap peas are a great source of vitamin C and K as well as folate, iron and protein.
  • Eat them soon – while most of the commercially grown pea crop is now sold canned, frozen and even dried, most people agree that snap peas are best fresh.  Fresh snap peas are best eaten within 3 days of picking.
Fresh mint

Fresh mint

What are some great ways to eat fresh snap peas? This is where the mint comes in.  There is nothing as lovely as snap peas with fresh mint.   Other wonderful accompaniments include lemon, garlic or green onions.  Snap peas can be cooked almost any way you can imagine – steamed, sautéed, fried, roasted.  The key is that however you cook them, fast is best as it retains the wonderful crisp texture of the pods.  For those who love preserving, snap peas can be pickled much like green beans.  For me, nothing beats eating fresh snap peas, straight from the garden, raw.

In addition to eating the snap peas, you can also enjoy the blossoms and leafy plant tips or pea shoots.  Just remember that ornamental “sweet peas” are NOT edible.  Another boon to planting snap peas is that like all legumes, peas are great for soil conditioning and are a tasty and wonderful addition to your garden crop rotation.  Enjoy this wonderful early summer treat!