Friday, October 30, 2009

Farm News: Gossip

This summer at the farms in the Valley there were two marriages and a
baby born in one of the worst seasons for blight and bad weather we've
seen in a long time. Although that might sound like a Natalie Merchant
song, with the dust from wagon wheels coming up next, it is all true.
Ryan Voilard and Sarah Ingraham of Red Fire Farm got married at their
barn in Granby as did Meaghan Arquin and Rob Lynch, up at Riverland
Farm in Sunderland. Last month, at The Kitchen Garden, Caroline Pam
gave birth to Oliver, her second child. These young farmers run
membership driven farms, also known as CSA's (Community Sponsored
Agriculture) and for several years now are making a go of it despite
inconsistent weather and economic patterns. The Food Bank Farm of
Hadley has hung in there since 1991 as one of the first CSAs in the
country. Things have changed since shareholders were invited to share
the ups and downs of a farm by investing in it at the beginning of the
season in return for a share of the harvest in good times and in bad.
Now farmers are tracking fickle weather patterns with a Blackberries
strapped to their jeans and the number of CSAs in the region has gone
from two in '91 to a total of 17.

A press release issued last month from The Food Bank of Western Mass
announced that The Food Bank Farm would be no more. The reasons are
more complicated than 'it was a tough couple of years for the harvest'
because this farm is unlike the others in the area or the country. The
way Food Bank Farm works is like a typical CSA in that shareholder
dollars shelled out at the beginning of the season, pay for the
operation of the farm. The exception with Food Bank Farm is that food
is grown not only for shareholders but for the Food Bank of Western
Mass in Hatfield to distribute to agencies--200,000 pounds of it this
year. In a deal struck with Docter back in 1991, The Food Bank of
Western Mass in Hatfield bought a 32 acre farm in Hadley. Docter could
farm it and realize his dream of providing fresh produce to the hungry
but it was up to him to pay all expenses, including the lease. The
money would come from shareholder dollars. This unique model has been
operating for almost twenty years. In Hadley, Docter has been both a
fixture, driving all manner of farm machinery on Bay Road, and the
future.

Farm News: Let the wild rumpus begin!


Docter farmed organically back in the day when UMass
extension was just beginning research on pesticide farming. There was
some organic farming going on but not on a large scale. There was too
much at stake. For traditional potato and tomato farmers, no spraying
meant vulnerability to blight and unpredictable weather. But Docter
managed to pull if off. The farm's roster of crops included corn, many
kinds of greens, melons, garlic, and other root vegetables, along with
experimental crops. A bakery that produced cookies, pies and corn
muffins made from the corn grown on the farm was built and when the
place was in full swing, hens and roosters dotted the barn yard, a sea
of red poppies could be plucked from rows of flowers and lunch was
being cooked up outside under a little tent. Food Bank Farm was so
popular that no one ever left. An added element of bliss was the
interns, a tanned subculture of laborers, many of whom trained under
Docter. Rob Lynch and Meaghan Arquin started Riverand after working at
Food Bank Farm. "There was a lot coupling going on that summer," said
Arquin. "I think there were at least four who got married."

The last time I visited the farm, it was late in the season. The
flowers were mowed down and the only crops left were rows and rows of
kale. As I drove in and pulled around a lake sized puddle in the
parking lot, a cat came across my path with a dead mouse in its jaws.
Farm life as usual. Inside, things were not as usual. Inside the barn,
Docter was surrounded by a potatoes, winter greens with five kinds of
apples and a group of shareholders surrounding him. Michael's Maurice Sendak universe was closing in. "Can't we just write some letters?" inquired one person. Docter said he was
sorry but it was truly the end. His eyes were red. Someone else asked
if there was anything at all that they could do to which he replied,
"No, it was final, a mutual decision..." he said shaking his head and
looking down. Meanwhile at the register up front, Sherrie munched on
an organic, chocolate chip oatmeal cookie. She has been with the Farm
since its inception. "It's a combination of things," she said as she
rang people up and commiserated. "Some of this land has to lie fallow
for a while...."

After farming at the pace Docter was farming, it could be that more
than just the land needed to lie fallow. Two years ago, Docter asked
former intern Ben Perrault to take over as farm manager of the Food
Bank Farm. Perrault and his wife Liz own Mountain View Farm in
Easthampton across the river. While Ben and Liz handled the farming,
Docter managed the farm store at Food Bank Farm in Hadley.

Typically a farm will sell some products from local sellers of eggs,
milk, pickles and some cheese. The Food Bank Farm store, on the other
hand, featured local producers of grass fed beef, cheese, dairy, eggs
and all at prices that would put Whole Foods to shame. Wild caught
bluefish, Atlantic cod, responsibly farmed salmon were for sale as
were chickens from small producers at the Crazy Eddie price of $1.99 a
pound for thighs.

In the span of two decades, Docter went from hunger maverick to
organic farmer to uber grocer. It was a sweet ride for Food Bank Farm
shareholders, while it lasted. Now they are being given the choice to
either stay with Docter and join his new CSA or hook up with Mountain
View and pick up their food in Easthampton. Food Bank Farm will continue to oversee the operation and distribute food as always.

Last year Docter and his wife Lynne purchased some property abutting the Food Bank and have hired Ray
Young, another former intern, to run a new CSA. Docter says he is
scared to be starting from scratch on his own but is more concerned
about shareholders. "Things change, and yes, to everything there is a
season," he said. "I just feel bad about this community we created."
He looked around the barn at the people milling about and said, "Oh
well, I guess we just move the community up the road..." The name of
his new CSA is, "Next Barn Over." Let the wild rumpus begin!

Friday, October 16, 2009

"I'm here for the grain....."

Locavore Journal: October 15, 2009

Picked up 2-50 lb bags of spring wheat from Allen at Lazy Acres farm
in Hadley. I was sent by Jonathan at Hungry Ghost in Northampton. My
job was to fetch wheat berries from last years growing experiment and
bring them back to the bakers. For my trouble I would get some local
wheat to make my own bread. The timing couldn't be better. The day
before I lost my source for local cornmeal. The guy over at Food Bank
who used to grind local corn for me on his bicycle was moving on to
greener pastures. Hello? This stuff is not available anywhere else.
The key to eating locally is to make your own bread whether it be corn
bread or wheat bread. Without that, being a locavore is no more a
matter of being a discerning shopper.

I stood next to my in the mud filled driveway of his house and waited
for Allen to come out. A tall guy with a felt hat, he walked very
slowly to my car and held up his hand in greeting. We gave each other
the once over. "I'm here for the grain," I said. "Stay here," he said
and strode over the to the barn and pulled a large board off the door.
It fell open. (So that's what those boards are for...) A boy stood
beyond the barn in front of a field of oats. Cover crop. The boy and I
gave each other the once over. The day was pretty gray but when Allen
came out of the barn carrying the sack, my mood improved. "That's
really it?" I said. This has been a long time coming, this local
wheat. "Yep," he said and tossed the sack in the back seat of my car,
seeds flying all over. I heard this crop was pretty good. Allen came
out with a second bag. I tried to take it from him to put into the car
myself but he shouldered past and tossed it in there, right next to
the other one. Another stream of grain. I asked him about the gluten
content. "Oh it's springy alright," said Allen. "It passed the chew
test really well." With the rain, the cool summer, the lack of sun and
the heretofore near impossible task of growing wheat in western Mass,
Allen's accomplishment is nothing short of a miracle.

Back at Hungry Ghost, one of the bakers was chewing away on a piece of
bread made from this very grain. This bakery is famous for its
opinionated help, wood fired stove, superior bread and flour all over
the place. The combination of the mud on my shoes from Allen's farm
and the flour on the floor at the bakery created a tsunami effect.
Coming through the screen door, I fell to the right and then to the
left. It was the smell of bread and this little wonderloaf on the
cutting board that kept me aloft. After an experimental taste I had
steady myself once again. Plenty of flavor, nice gluten content making
it airy and soft with, then, the lovely bite of sourdough. Now, at least as of
this writing, a perfectly local bread can be eaten by all. Bread is the heart of everything whether the grain be corn or wheat. From the Mayans to the Europeans in one short, historical week in the Pioneer Valley.

Fall To Do List - Stalking the Bag of Spuds

All over the world, gleaners are busy during the harvest collecting the remaining carrots, tomatoes and kale that has been overlooked at the end of the season. This is free to the taker and appreciated by the recipients.

Gleaning takes many forms. The next couple of weeks are ideal for gleaning without getting all dirty. Take a drive along routes 5 and 10 to scout out large 50 lb bags of the region's finest onions and potatoes. Stock up on roots for the winter when prices for local sacks of spuds are as low as 20 cents a pound. Local onions and potatoes are on sale at various farms, farm shares (CSAs) stores like Atkins and Serios and other small stores. Store out of the light to prevent sprouting. The cooler the environment the better. Temperatures should range from 34 to 60 degrees. Keep dry. If you don't have a root cellar, any dark cool place is good. Use paper or cloth sacks to prevent light from getting to the vegetables. In addition, try to keep somewhat ventilated. There is nothing like rooting around for a local spud in January and finding exactly that, with many more to spare, to keep going through out the winter. Saves quite a bit on gas, going to the store and money, of course.

Recipe of the Week: Shishigatani Pumpkin Soup


This recipe is made from a pumpkin given to me by seed saver and grower Dan Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm. Known for its flavor, the Shishigatani Pumpkin has no rival but can be approximated. See recipe below. For more information about getting seeds for the Shishi and to learn about seeds in general, Laughing Dog, a farm in Gill, is a good repository of information. A former commune, Laughing Dog is now a place where fig trees, goats, Shishigatani Pumpkins and other exotic forms of flora and fauna exist in harmony all year round.

2- Medium onions, peeled & sliced thinly
1- Stick butter
1- Small/Medium potato, peeled and quartered
1- Half a hand of sage leaves, fresh and shredded
1- Half a hand of thyme, dried
1- Exotic Japanese (or Butternut) Squash
1- Dried red pepper skin, fingernail sized, cut up
S&P (salt & pepper)
1/2 to 1 heavy cream (fat is where the flavor is) or whole milk yogurt

Cook onions in butter with sage and thyme until caramelized (cooked slowly until the sugars are released, around 20 minutes.)
Peel squash, cut in half, remove seeds and place in baking dish, skillet, what have you.
Cover with olive oil or butter and bake at 350 until soft (around 40 minutes)
Boil potato in sauce pan until soft but not too soft. Reserve the water.
Add squash pieces and potatoes to onions and all allow flavors to meld
Add some of the potato water to thin soup
Season with dried red pepper and salt, as well as ground black pepper
Mix together in a food processor, blender or one of those immersion wands
Put back on to heat and add cream or yogurt.
Heat until blended and serve with spot of cream on top and sage leaf, if you have one.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Farmer Chic

Have your Locavore Lunch and Eat it Too

Harvest is the arc and the aggregate of food in the Valley. Suddenly the summer food spectrum is spread before you. Even with a blight on tomatoes and potatoes and a very bad season for tobacco leaves (no survivors due to wetness, lack of sun and cool temperatures) we are rich in food that goes beyond traditional fall fare. Extended growing initiatives such as moving hoop houses are getting some produce out earlier and later than the three months of summer.

The ancient tradition of making a big fire and dancing to a full moon continues in the Valley. In New York at a relatively new "Farm to Table" establishment, they are just getting the hang of the harvest. At the Tarrytown-based Stone Barns, over 2500 city types showed up to get a little taste of farm life in early October. My friend Chef Donna Fisher and I went to check it out and enter the pie bake off. We got there early as hoards of people jumped off the train and into taxi cabs to check out the harvest at this combination of a non-profit farm and Blue Hill, a for-profit restaurant.

It was the usual harvest stuff except bigger and more dramatic. There wasn't just one but many pigs roasted over a spit and there was a demonstration of butchering and evisceration. Kids squealed and parents pleaded for just one shred of crispy fat. Dress was farmer chic. One woman wore Chanel rain boots over her jeans and her girls sported black muck boots. Food vendors from the City sold scones and croissants and pulled pork sandwiches from the sacrificial pigs were going fast.

Roasted Roots

Also, besides the ever rotating pig, there were gardening workshops and lectures. In Covered Barn B, Chef/owner Dan Barber held forth on the superiority of New England root vegetables. "The cold weather makes beets something amazing in winter. To stay warm, the plant turns its own starch into sugar....such sweetness! You only get this in New England and we never say anything about it! All the plants in California do is have sex over and over again." (The menu at Blue Hill at Stone Barns consists of a list of food that is in season, most of it grown on the farm, and many courses are served. Such items as house made ricotta, tomato flavored salt, lardo, tomato water cubes with okra flour with an okra floret as garnish, lardo on slate, chicken hearts on a stick and other novelties are brought to the table with extensive introductions. It is not cheap but it is not average either. When is the last time you had marrow on the thigh bone of a deer with a tiny line up of fish eggs on top?

Barber shared his roasted root vegetable technique for Jerusalem Artichokes. "Get the moisture out of the J-chokes first in a fry pan on top of the stove with olive oil and garlic," he said. "Then blast them in the oven at at least 450 or as much as your oven can take..." At the end of his roasting demonstration, he told the crowd that he believed the rutabaga is going to be "very, very big" this fall. Chef Donna didn't win the pie bake-off. She got third place although her pie was perfection with local MacIntosh Apples and a butter crust. The winner's entry was a recipe from Cordon Bleu and the crust was pate brisee--about as American as a Pugeot.

In the Valley, food fairs continue to be very big, beginning with the Tomato Festival in August, the Garlic Festival, myriad town fairs and of course the Big E, an agricultural extravaganza complete with the Craz-E burger, 1500 calories of bacon, cheese, beef and a glazed donut. The donut acts as a bun. (The Big E Craz-E made national news. Isn't it bad enough that legislators are promoting the Fluffernutter as the state sandwich?)

The Forager and His Take....

At the Garlic Festival, I ran into a forager who was holding a plastic bag with what looked like a massive brain inside of it. It was a healthy haul of "Chicken of the Woods," (Laetiporus Sulphureus), a mushroom typically found on rotted tree stumps in the forest. The forager and I were standing at the top of the hill taking in the spectacle that is Garlic Fest. The aroma of fried sausage mingled in the air with the scent of roasted coffee beans. We exchanged pleasantries and as usual his behavior was somewhat furtive. He stopped talking and looked to his right and then to his left. When the coast was clear, he reached into the bag and handed over a substantial chunk of the mushroom. I couldn't believe my luck. Chicken of the Woods is not easy to come by. Strange things happen at Garlic Fest, what with the music on solar powered acoustical systems, belly dancing, a riot of exotic foods and fairway spectacles such as Apollo, the guy who grows figs and has arms that seem as though they can squeeze sap right out of a tree.

I examined my gift through the filmy plastic he offered and the forager whispered a recipe. "My step daughter makes chicken fingers by breading and deep frying the mushroom. This part," he said pointing to the stem of the mushroom, "acts like a little handle." He recommended I eat the mushroom soon. "Today is best." he said. I went home and tried his step daughter's recipe and it was nothing short of a revelation. Essentially this mushroom, in the guise of fast food, becomes a protein with the flavor of lobster but none of the sacrifice.

The ultimate locavore lunch is one that is completely local and seasonal. Even the plate for this lunch, a paper bag from the Leeds Package Store, was foraged within a mile of my house. Kale is in the garden and the eggs are from my friend's boyfriend's house in Belchertown. Chicken of the Wood mushroom fries are a matter of provenance. Not are they only available in late summer and early autumn, unless you are a skilled forager, the best shot you have at getting the fungus is to go to the Farmer's Market in Northampton behind Thornes on a Wednesday and ask for Paul. If he is there, he might sell them to you, if he has them.

Recipe of the Week: Locavore Lunch

Dino Kale Sunny Side Up with Chicken of the Wood Fries

what

5-leaves dino kale
1-farm egg
1-head (size of your brain) of Chicken of the Woods fungus, sliced into 1/2" strips length-wise

how

julienne kale by rolling it up and slicing to ribbons
sear in olive oil or butter till crisp but not dark brown
remove and replace with egg
fry until white is cooked through
remove egg from pan and melt 2 tablespoons butter
fry up the fungus fingers until somewhat softened and very slightly browned

create little nest of kale and top with fried egg
arrange fungus next to the kale

enjoy with home made ketchup!

Friday, October 2, 2009

An Author, A Mayor and A Plan

Hunger Summit at Mass Mutual
Several weeks ago at the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield, a New York
author and political activist stood up in front of a crowd of around
150 people to speak his mind about the state of hunger in the U.S. and
the state of things in the Valley. Joel Berg, formerly in the Clinton
Administration as a member of the USDA and currently heading up the
New York City Coalition Against Hunger was keynoting at the first
annual Hunger Summit. "The poor will always be with us," he said. "It
is referenced many times in the bible." Berg is author of "All You Can
Eat, How Hungry is America?"

Sponsored the The Food Bank of Western Mass, Berg was on hand to
provide a big picture on hunger situation in the U.S. Berg's solution
to the 36.2 million Americans living in homes that can't afford enough
food. He comes to this after many years in the field, beginning with
going door to door working with people. His conclusion from early on
has been to get government involved. "Pantries and charity and rock
and roll stars can't fight this alone. The problem is too big," he
said comparing charity to old fashioned bucket brigades, designed to
put out fires. "When is the last time you heard about an entire city
burning down?" he said. "The way we are handling hunger with charity
is not effective." He advocates a $24 billion infusion from the
government to effectively solve the problem. That solution includes an
increase in minimum wage and more money for food stamps. "There need
to be more dignity in this system," he said.

Most of the people witnessing Berg holding forth have seen hunger
first hand. The assembled included people who work for places like
Kate's Kitchen, Rachel's Table, The Center for Sustainable Living,
Holyoke Health Food and Fitness Policy, area Salvation Armies and other organizations. In addition
to those on the front lines were Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno and
other politicians. Berg took a moment to praise not only the Red Sox
and Francis Perkins, a Mt. Holyoke alum, for her early research on
poverty in Hell's Kitchen in New York. "Those conditions were nothing
like you see now," he said adding that small children were hired to
climb into small areas for construction work, often losing limbs in
the process.

No stranger to the myriad food banks across the country, it is Berg's
impression that The Food Bank in Hatfield, one of more than 200
certified food banks affiliated with Feeding America, is among the
most progressive. "Growing their own food means a focus on nutrition,"
he said and added that initiatives to develop food policy at the state
level is also key to its success. Every year 200,000 lbs of organic
food from The Food Bank Farm in Hadley goes to 400 member agency
programs. Recent numbers show one in every eight residents in
Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties seek food
assistance through the emergency food network, according to The Food
Bank documentation.

Before Berg spoke, Sarno announced a The Springfield Food Policy
Council, a new alliance. According to Food Bank's Executive Director
Andrew Morehouse, the council will bring a diverse group of relevant
stakeholders together on a regular basis. "Youth, seniors, the faith
community, community-based organizations, municipal government and
food-related businesses." Ultimately the collaboration will lead to
affect policy at the state level and access resources. "This will
strengthen the local food system so that all residents will have
access to affordable and nutritious food," said Morehouse. In
Springfield's Mason Square, close to 60% of the K-12 population is
overweight and obese.

Currently the State House leadership is considering a bill to
establish a Massachusetts Food Policy Council that will serve the same
purpose at the state level as the Springfield (and Holyoke and
Worcester) food policy councils. Getting the bill (H. 1138) passed by
the House Ways and Means Committee will require such initiatives as
the Springfield Food Policy council and support from state
representatives. The Food Bank's recent work with Mason Square put a
grocery store in the neighborhood is at a standstill. "The Food Bank
and now the Mason Square Health Task Force are continuing to explore
this option even though the economic crisis has put a damper on this
project," said Morehouse. On Sumner Avenue in Springfield, there has
been a Farmers' Market in the parking lot of Trinity for over ten
years. It attracts vendors from the all over western Mass and
Connecticut. "We’re also looking at other ways for neighborhood
residents to access affordable and nutritious foods such as
transportation to supermarkets," he added. "We’re also supporting
faith- and community-based groups to grow community gardens on
abandoned lots. We expect the Springfield Food Policy Council to
support all of these efforts."