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.

The Story of Our Conference Food

This is a re-telling of the story of how our conference food program came to be. It is dedicated, in gratitude, to our wonderful conference food donors.  Read on for the tale of the NOFA-NY conference meals, as told by Bethany Wallis (Education Director, Conference Food Coordinator).  If you’re inspired to help us meet our menu wishlist, please be in touch!

Amazing food is the underlying pillar of NOFA-NY’s Annual Winter Conference. True, it’s not the first thing that might come to mind when you hear “farming conference,” but maybe it should be.  Yes, each year a new theme is chosen for our beloved winter conference and our staff works tirelessly to put together education around that theme that informs and represents our organic farming community.  This ever-changing and constantly-evolving conference is a venue for new research to be shared, farming techniques to emerge, friendships to begin, collaborations to blossom, and families to grow.  The constant is evident: this conference exists because everyone in attendance seeks to support the growth, distribution, and enjoyment of delicious, wholesome food grown in a way that supports the environment and the people who toil to bring it to the masses.

While many conferences offer delicious food, the NOFA-NY conference food stands apart because the ingredients provided for all of the meals, breaks, and social gatherings is sourced organically and locally, almost all donated by our farmers and business supporters.

I first came to NOFA-NY as a volunteer to assist in procuring the food for the winter conference many years ago when the conference was still held in Syracuse and boasted an attendance of over 300 farmers.  It was the best way to be introduced to the greater organic community of New York State.  Then and now, the generosity with which people are willing to donate is unbelievable.  Farmers in our midst wholeheartedly want to share the products they know are the healthiest available–making their actions speak for their ideals.  They care deeply that the food they grow and produce can be enjoyed while participating in an event that helps to strengthen the organic community.

child at buffet John-Paul Sliva 007

I am excited to once again be organizing the food donations for this great conference.  Each year, over 1200 attendees walk through the door, ready for 80+ amazing workshops, engaging keynote speakers, and plenty of social activities.  They’re hungry, too.  This year we will feed over 7200 meals, provide snacks for more than 900 people on Friday and Sunday and 1300 on Saturday, make sure that the 500 folks who attend our receptions also have munchables while they network.dining hall

That is no small feat with a farmer’s appetite!  The kitchen and service staff at the City Center often stand in the dining room, amazed at the way the crowd (respectfully, patiently) descends upon the trays of roasted vegetables and salad just as much as the heartier foods–we know about balanced and abundant plates!  Curious as to how many potatoes it takes to feed this hungry bunch? 500 pounds! Milk?  Only 125 gallons.  Then there are eggs (600 dozen, so get crackin’) and over $3000 worth of locally baked bread.  Everything is donated from the salt and pepper on the table to the transportation of the donated products from across the state.  The list goes on.

city center kitchen scene 2

buffet line with green veg

It is an intense experience to find all the needed items based on the menu and to confirm all the donations.  For example, if in late November we have 5 of 6 main ingredients to make a roasted pork dish, but we’re missing the meat, we have to decide whether to change the menu and use the 5 procurable ingredients in a different way, or to keep looking for organic, local pork.  We are so fortunate that the Saratoga Hilton and Chef Vik are so willing to work with us to make all of these meals possible without compromising our community’s values.  From September forward there is almost daily communication to nail down all the bits and pieces.

City Center Kitchen CrewOnce we arrive on site, everything is different than the norm of hotel food management.  The food is not pre-prepared for the kitchen staff, and sometimes comes in very close to meal time.  How quickly can one staff peel butternut squash before it needs to go in the oven?  The kitchen and service staff is involved in listing all the donors and ingredients in the dishes on the buffet line; I’m behind the scenes with key volunteers checking off and labeling deliveries, ensuring that snacks and products are left in their packages so folks associate farms and brands with the delicious food they’re eating and reminding kitchen staff to please NOT peel the carrots and to let the artisan cheeses come to the right temperature before serving (do not serve our Board President’s famous cheese at refrigerator temperature!).  We are for certain an interesting group!

I would personally like to thank each person in this amazing circle of food for a feast.  Thank you to the farmers, to the transporters, to the preparers, to the servers, and to the educators who keep us coming back every year to learn more, fueled by such delicious food!  I manage the intensity of this job because I am so rewarded to see how we unite in the love of food, in our support of each other, and in our commitment to work today for a better tomorrow for our ever-growing community.

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NOFA-NY Winter Conference Breakfasts are a hearty, healthy affair. Roasted potatoes, organic fruit including citrus from Thorpes Organic Farm citrus grove in Florida, meat, yogurt, granola, and milk!

Enjoying the Harvest from Canandaigua to Mattituck

Jazzy photo bombs harvest dinner

Jazzy photo-bombs my harvest dinner

One thing I learned this fall is that no one appreciates a good dinner party like a Corgi.   The other thing I learned is that if you invite folks to come to a dinner featuring fresh organic and sustainably grown food from local farmers, they will come!  They will come even if you tell them it is a fundraiser and they will need to make a donation to your cause!

In honor of National Organic Harvest Month, many of us on the staff and Board of NOFA-NY held harvest dinners at our homes across the state as a benefit for NOFA-NY.    I co-hosted my dinner with Sharon Nagle of Firefly Farm at my home in Canandaigua on a beautiful September evening.

My initial plan for a small dinner for 8 grew and ripened like my giant Brandywine tomatoes to a dinner for nearly 30 people.   Fortunately, Mother Nature smiled upon us and provided a late September Saturday where the temperature was 78, the breeze was light and the sky was perfectly blue.  We were able to set up a big tent outside along with folding tables and chairs.  Jazzy the Corgi designated it worthy of photo bombing.

This Way to Food!

This Way to Food!

A meal that took a few hours to eat was months in the making.  The food at the table came from more than 12 different farms from Canandaigua to Mattituck.  The fruits, vegetables, honey, and eggs, poultry meats and wine took months (and in some cases, years) of dedicated farmers’ time and skills to plant, nurture, harvest, age and ferment.  It was my thankful task to simply gather the bounty.  I was also very grateful for Sharon Nagle’s help as a farmer and co-party planner, for the culinary skills of local chef, Evan Schapp of Roots Café, who created an array of side dishes, and for my husband Chris, who manned the smoker that infused extra flavore into locally-raised turkey and Chris’s famous ribs.

Dinner started with an array of fresh vegetables and roasted acorn squash hummus from Sharon Nagle’s Fire Fly Farm located in nearby Canandaigua and delectable raw milk cheeses from NOFA-NY board president, Maryrose Livingston and her Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon.  Both created a buzz with guests, who quickly searched their smart phones to learn that these were foods not typically (if ever) found at grocery stores.

For our main course, Chef Evan Schapp created an array of sides with Sharon’s vegetables, including a velvety potato-leek soup in the French style, a medley of roasted potatoes with foraged white pine needles, and a fermented slaw of baby bok choy.  Alongside was the most amazing corn bread, made with roasted white corn flour from the Iroquois White Corn Project in Farmington and raw honey and certified organic eggs from Browder’s Birds certified organic farm in Mattituck.

Iroquois White Corn

Iroquois White Corn

During the meal we discovered that there is nothing like Hampton tomatoes – and what a treat all the tomatoes were from Board member Phil Barbato’s Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamesport.  We ate beans from the famous Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett,  fresh rosemary from Marion Gardens in East Marion, wheat berries from Amber Waves Farm in Amagansett canned heirloom tomatoes from Sang Lee Farms in Peconic.

YUM!

YUM!

Browder’s Birds honey also found its way into a signature Finger Lakes Fall dessert – grape pies made with locally raised concord grapes from Naples, NY.  We also had wild apple galettes served with fresh organic cream, along with chocolates and ice cream from Rochester’s Hedonist Artisan Ice Cream and Chocolates.

As I explained all about NOFA-NY to my guests, the fragrance, textures, and tastes from so many different farms and regions of our beautiful State wafted around us.  New York State is wooded, grassy, flowery, hilly, flat, rocky, smooth, salty, loamy, sandy, and if there is such a word, “clayey”.   Each of these soils and micro-climates transferred a unique flavor to the food raised upon it.  Some of my guests had never experienced this range of fresh, local organic and sustainably-grown food.   Most had no idea the diversity and flavor available from their neighborhood farmers.

Biodynamically grown grapes from Shinn Estate Vineyards

Biodynamically grown grapes from Shinn Estate Vineyards

 

The sun set a red cloak over the Bristol Hills, the crescent moon rose up and the stars leapt out.  Somewhere on a distant hill, a small town held a fireworks display.  The food was amazing, fresh, and all local.  The company was wonderful, and we made a number of new friends and some generous donations for NOFA-NY.  Thank you all!

If you, too, would like to donate to NOFA-NY during our Harvest Appeal, please head to our online donations form, or if you have questions, contact Cecilia Bowerman at (585) 271-1979 ext. 512.

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.