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Food For Thought: Simon’s Rock Brings Education To The Table

By Nichole Dupont

thinkfood greensMaryann Tebben may have just landed her dream job, and she didn’t even have to leave her office. Throughout the last 14 years, Bard College at Simon’s Rock’s French studies professor has incorporated all of the elements she loves most – food, culture, history – into what will become the college’s next major offering. The Center for Food Studies, which has been slowly building thanks to strong student, faculty and community input, is an intellectual feast that incorporates classes in all disciplines, from French literature to agriculture to biology.

Maryann Tebben. Photo by John Dolan.

“It is prime time for food in the Berkshires and for the culture as a whole,” Tebben says. “I’ve noticed just in the last few years here at the college that we have much savvier students in terms of eaters and academics. Many are doing internships on local farms or related to food, we have several alums who own farms in California and Vermont. They are literally hungry for this kind of knowledge.”

The program will host its first (hopefully of many) major community event on Saturday, April 19 at the college’s Kellogg Music Center. The daylong Thinkfood conference, co-sponsored by The Nutrition Center, brings together three major components of the food world: media, academia and food services. An impressive array of panelists and moderators from across the gastronomic spectrum – Dan Shaw, Matt Rubiner, Serge Madikians, Lisa Damon, Andy Cox – will converge to share their thoughts about the challenges and potential of the region’s (and the country’s) current love affair with all things palatable. The conference will also provide an opportunity to fill in some gaps in a dialogue which has been, over the last decade, largely focused on sustainability and food sourcing. Peter Stanton is the founder and director of The Nutrition Center which provides one-on-one nutrition counseling and cooking education and outreach throughout Berkshire County (including to dozens of public schools and community centers). He would like to see the conversation about food and agriculture (especially policy around both) expand to reach beyond niche truffle farmers and trendy locavore movements.

Future chefs of Berkshire County. Photo by Lisa Vollmer.

“It makes sense for an academic setting to be paying attention to these other elements of food culture, especially the media and food services,” Stanton says. “I see journalism, writing and communications as a way to bring this to people who wouldn’t otherwise see what’s going on with food, and a way to drive the awareness forward. These stories, about the everyday farmer for instance, are real and they have an effect on everyone all the way down the chain.”

If ever there was a place where every link on the chain was present, this region is the perfect testing ground for exploring all pieces of the food puzzle, from small-time vegetable growers to master butchers to big-time distributors. Even the ‘lunch lady’ (especially the ‘lunch lady!) has a place at the table, and not just because Jamie Oliver said so.

“Food services is really interesting because here we have people talking about food and advocating quietly for better quality but then struggling with how that gets played out in the cafeterias,” Stanton says. “It’s a huge challenge, but there’s potential with a studies stream like this to talk about where we want to be and how we want to get there and how far we have to go. The desire is there. Change is happening.”

Sea urchins are the new “it” harvest of the sea. Photo: Janet Okoben.

Thinkfood and the new Food Studies stream is a testament to that change and Tebben knows that she is sitting on a veritable gold mine when it comes to being able to develop the program and provide Simon’s Rock students with hands-on, community based experiences as well as rigorous academic exploration into the world of what we eat. One of the major challenges is timing: students leave on summer break just as the growing season kicks into high gear. But given the almost overwhelming level of interest in the new program, the campus – and the surrounding towns—may very soon be crawling with young farmers/interns/ecologists/ceramicists and their equally dedicated community mentors.

“I’ve already started encouraging the faculty to start dreaming up more courses that incorporate food studies in some way. We are finding new internships every day and this is slowly becoming a clearinghouse for all things related to food,” Tebben says. “This generation is learning to feed themselves better. That’s where it begins.”

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Posted by Nichole on 04/13/14 at 10:35 AM • Permalink

AgriCulture: The Corn Is Green

It is harvest time.  Tomatoes are starting to turn, green beans are weighing on the vine and it’s almost to the point where you can’t even give away your cucumbers anymore – there are just so many! Farmer’s markets are in full swing and one of the things everyone is looking for is farm fresh sweet corn – maybe you’ve even tried growing some yourself.  Corn itself, is very interesting.  There’s not quite another crop like it in the typical vegetable garden.  To celebrate this summer staple, here are some things that you might not know about corn:

Corn should be planted in blocks – Because it is wind pollinated, corn should be planted in rows of four or more.  This will give the plants ample opportunity, on all sides, to get exposure to the sperm germ coming from the male flower. 

Corn silks are actually flower styles – the male flower is the tassel, or top of the corn and produces pollen. From there the pollen grains (or sperm germ) falls onto the silks of the young ears of corn that you have growing on the plant.  Each silk is connected to an individual flower inside the husk.  Pollen is carried by the silk via the syle to the pistil’s ovaries where pollination occurs.  These individual pistils, once pollenated, develop into kernels – every individual kernel on an ear of corn goes through this process.

Sweet to Starchy – With corn, freshness really matters.  The quicker you can get it from the stalk to the pot (or the grill) the better.  Once picked, the sugars in corn start to break down and turn into starch.  A lot of the corn you see in supermarkets has been engineered to be SUPER sugary so that this process takes longer to allow for transportation.  That’s why “local,” “fresh,” or “picked today” are buzzwords you want to pay attention to at farm stands.

FUN FACTS: 
Each ear of corn has about 800 kernels
Farmers grow corn on every continent exceptor one; Antarctica. 
A bushel of corn measure 56lbs consisting of more that 72,800 kernels of corn. 
From just one of those bushels, you can sweeten 325 cans of Coke, get two pounds of oil for margarine, or get enough starch for 1 ton of paper.
Corn is America’s largest crop and accounts for more than 90 percent of the total value and production of feed grains.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 08/01/13 at 06:45 PM • Permalink

AgriCulture: Spinach Tales

spinach2AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Peter writes.

Our fava beans, spinach, lettuces, cabbages, and swiss chard have germinated, and many other seeds are planted and not far behind. The earliest spring greens are coming in—a time that often triggers a reverie of one kind or another. I usually enjoy writing about greens with a curious history or mythology. For instance, vegetables associated with the antics of the Greek gods that have played a role in mytho-historic droughts, famines, and disasters, or that have come to us as a result of strange doings in the Garden of Eden. It’s not the goody-goody vegetables that grab my attention, but those that are reputed to act as amulets against evil, that are believed to ward off diseases, and that serve as aphrodisiacs—or, in some cases, cause madness—that tend to fascinate me.

persiaHomely spinach is not one of these. Despite its ancient history (originating in Persia, spinach spread eastward by Arab traders to India, Nepal, and China, while also spreading westward by the Saracens to Sicily, Spain, France, and Britain) self-effacing spinach seems to have never taken on the associations and beliefs that have accrued to other more flamboyant vegetables.

Spinach probably reached China in 647 AD and Sicily in 827 AD, finally appearing in France and England in the 14th century. Apart from certain Arab medical and agronomical treatises in the 10th and 11th centuries, spinach doesn’t seem to have gotten much press. While it’s true that the great Arab agronomist Ibn al-‘Awwam did in the twelfth century (by which time spinach had reached Spain) proclaim it the “captain of leafy greens,” it’s an accolade that’s, sad to say, nothing to write home about.

de mediciPerhaps its most significant moment of historical recognition, the apotheosis of spinach so to speak, came in 1533 when Catherine de Medici became Queen of France. It’s reputed that she so fancied spinach she insisted on having it served at every meal. What the French court thought of her passion is not known. But her influence continues to the present, as any dish including spinach, in honor of Catherine’s origins in Florence, is described as “Florentine.”

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until the appearance of Popeye the Sailor Man in the 1920s that spinach took on mythic significance. While spinach didn’t gain recognition as the food of the gods, it did achieve a kind of American fame as the food that fueled the exploits of a comic everyman kind of superhero. This myth was apparently the outgrowth of another myth: that it had ten times its actual iron content. The story, also apocryphal, was that in the 1870s a German scientist, Emil von Wolf, misplaced a decimal point when measuring spinach’s nutritional value. Hence, those exploding cans that gave Popeye his great power in times of need.

sailor manWhile not living up to popular belief, spinach is actually very rich in iron. In comparison to most foods, it’s extremely nutritious and high in antioxidants and folic acid. It also has high calcium content, so when Popeye popped those cans and chugalugged them down, he was not only receiving an energy boost but taking in food values that protected him from various potential illnesses.

But as rich as spinach is in food value, its values are easily dissipated since it loses many of them after being stored for little more than several days. Given the length of time that most of our supermarket vegetables spend in transit and being artificially “freshened” by mists in the cooled produce section, the likelihood of the food values of spinach surviving are remote. The message is: grow your own spinach or get it directly from the grower.

But even if you do this, the food values of spinach are also easily lost in cooking. Best, obviously, is to enjoy it raw in salads or boiled or sautéed very lightly.

In addition to positive values, spinach also carries certain dangers, as it’s one of the most pesticide-retentive vegetables on the market. It’s one vegetable, therefore, that it makes sense to buy organic.

It was neither Catherine de Medici nor Popeye who converted me to spinach, but as with so many foods, it was my time living in Turkey that opened my eyes to the delights of this homely vegetable. There, I was introduced to a form of sauteed spinach that definitely caught my fancy. And this is how they do it:

Wash a large bunch of spinach and remove tough stems. Put in spinner to dry.
Heat 4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy bottomed sauce pan at moderate heat. Add finely minced garlic. As it turns golden, put in the spinach leaves and turn, coating the leaves with oil. Salt and pepper.

Lowering the heat a bit, take a heavy wooden spoon and as the spinach wilts use the spoon in a downward motion breaking up the fibers. Continue doing this until the fibers are broken down but don’t go so far as to make a puree. Take off heat and stir in a thick yogurt. Correct seasoning. This is best served at room temperature.

Afiyet olsun as they say in Turkey; or, in other words, bon appetit.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 04/28/13 at 06:08 PM • Permalink

AgriCulture: The Herd Instinct

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Mark writes.

NO  crowdWe have returned from our glorious annual escape to the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, with renewed energy to plunge back into the busy spring activities of the farm. Peter has written about New Orleans as a place isolated from an agricultural hinterland, with an inhospitable environment for cultivation of the sorts of flora and produce we’re accustomed to. But there’s an “on the other hand” to be noted about the city. Whatever its relationship to the vegetable, it has an infectious and lustily full-throated spirit of indulgence with regard to our own “animal” natures and elemental desires.

That elemental spirit is evident in the prodigious quantities of food and drink so extravagantly prepared and avidly consumed. The spirit is inescapable as one strolls past the honky-tonk strip joints on Bourbon Street. And you feel this outrageous spirit when you listen to music as it is experienced there. Unless you’re going to rock concerts or mosh pits, a public musical performance in New York is likely to find the vast majority of the audience seated, attentively listening, making judgments about the performance and applauding politely. In New Orleans, a big proportion of the audience, and sometimes virtually everybody, will be up dancing or at least swaying and clapping their hands to the music. When a marching band passes in a New York parade, it usually leaves its audience standing where it found them; in New Orleans, likely as not, many in the crowd will peel off, form a dancing “second line,” and caper off with the band. Their distinctive style of moving to the beat can be entrancing. 

new orleans festivalFestivals, which seem to occur in New Orleans every few weeks, are the sorts of events the city does best. All cultures have events in which people assemble to enjoy arts in crowds, but New Orleans has made a specialty of it. And watching the dynamics of the crowd is fascinating to me. Just as spending time with our animals has given me repeated moments of insight into how much like humans they really are, spending time with large herds of humans engaged in our collective activities has reminded me of the reciprocal truth: that is, how much like our animals we actually are. The human crowd, it turns out, has a dynamic not all that different from that of the sheep herd or turkey flock.

pirate groupPerhaps one of the most memorable episodes of this trip was our dinner at Galatoire’s, the old Creole war horse of a restaurant on Bourbon Street. It usually seems like a very staid place, where the New Orleans elite meet and everyone has their favorite waiters. On this visit, a “Pirate” social organization, perhaps a Mardi Gras crew, was having its annual dinner, and for some reason the management had seated the group not in an upstairs private retreat, but in the middle of the main downstairs dining room. A table of 42 middle to late middle-aged prosperous-looking men, some in pirate regalia or with false stitches pasted on their cheeks, sat at one long table. At two separate tables sat their wives, a few children, and other non-members, presumably business associates, friends or relatives.

At first this raucous gathering in the center of the dining room seemed quite intrusive, and we wondered whether we should have gone somewhere else. Periodically, for no apparent reason, the group would erupt and begin bellowing in unison, a few more members joining each time, in a deep sonorous “whoaaaaaah.” They were attracting attention to themselves, and the bellows would arise at seemingly random intervals. But for us, coming from the farm,  where a chorus of nonsense syllables arises from almost all assemblages of farm animals, only to die out a few moments later, it all began to seem strangely familiar, and far more entertaining than annoying. Looking at the “Pirates” table, I thought “cow pasture,” the cows are bellowing for something they want. And as we enjoyed our gumbo and crab and watched, the group proceeded to a call and response routine, in which one “pirate” asked what their favorite letter was, and because the letter was, undoubtedly for reasons of the sound it made, “R,” they replied with a sonorous, elongated arrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.  And this reminded me of our turkeys, who gobble incessantly in response to particular oral cues. 

As they finished their main course, the “Pirates” and guests began circulating around the tables, visiting one another in a happy babble of greeting, touching, and conversing. Again, I was reminded of our turkeys. The toms preen, strut, and dance to gain the admiration of the hens, and our “Pirate” toms and hens seemed no less engaged in that kind of socialization. 

Ultimately, the “Pirates” united in song. One couldn’t generally understand the lyrics, but then the content didn’t really seem to matter that much. Seen through the prism of the barnyard, the entire event seemed more about display, demonstrating unity as members of the group, and simply soaking up the atmosphere of the particular time and place than it was about any substantive purpose. This is both basic animal and basic human instinct. The daily afternoon gatherings of our turkeys just before they are to enter their perching coop is hardly any different.

turkeysNext week our flock of Naragansett, Bourbon Red, Spanish Black, and Holland White birds will arrive by U.S. Mail as day-old poults from the hatchery. They will, within minutes of arriving, begin socializing and milling about in what Peter calls “the eternal slumber party,” and within a few weeks will be vocalizing in unison expressing the deeply ingrained behaviors of their animal group. By summer, we’ll be laughing at their Shriner-parade-like milling about and their display dances as if they are in some way incomprehensible activities. Yet the rhythmical ritual song of the human, the dance of the social group, is hardly any different.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 04/21/13 at 12:39 PM • Permalink

AgriCulture: Land of the Lotus Eaters

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Peter writes.

petergardenAs much as I loved New Orleans when I lived there, it was, I am convinced (after living on Turkana Farms these past twelve years), one of the least agricultural places I have ever lived. It’s true that you don’t expect big cities themselves to be agricultural, but you do see most of them in the context of a larger agricultural setting.

New Orleans—with the Gulf on one side, the Mississippi on another, Lake Ponchartrain on yet another, and miles of bayous and swamps on what is the city’s only tenuous connection to the mainland—is strangely isolated from any semblance of an agricultural hinterland. It is as detached from that kind of familiar world as Venice, for instance.

Living in New Orleans, as I recall, was like living on some exotic Caribbean island that had somehow drifted close to the American mainland but never really quite connected to it. I am thinking about all of this because Mark and I are off to New Orleans tomorrow for our annual celebration of Mark’s birthday at the French Quarter Festival. A glorious event with jazz on every street, square, and levee, and Creole and Cajun food everywhere.

We will soon find ourselves in a world as far from farming as one can get. In New Orleans, as sophisticated as it is, one feels closer to a hunter/gatherer kind of world, a world dependent more on oystermen, shrimpers, crabbers, and crawfishers than on the agricultural world of truck farmers, ranchers, orchardists, and dairymen.

gardenWhen I first moved to New Orleans in the early seventies I expected, because of its garden-city-like character and warm climate, to be able to really indulge my passion for gardening. I had always had, no matter where I lived, a flower and vegetable garden if at all possible. With the big double lot I had purchased in what was really the Irish Channel (but dubbed by real estate developers as “The Fringe of the Garden District”) it looked to me that I would have plenty of scope for my gardening pursuits. Like my 1844 “shotgun-camelback” house, the grounds had not seen much care for a good half century, but I was, of course, game to bring it all back. So it was not long before I strode energetically to the back of the lot with a spade to turn the ground for a small vegetable plot. I knew that there had been an old wooden shed on that spot but was confident that everything had been cleared away, except maybe for some very rotted wood embedded in the ground. I sank my spade into the bog-like soil. As I turned the soil, I shrieked, suddenly leaping back. And stopped breathing, as hundreds, maybe thousands, of cockroaches erupted out of the ground. I was momentarily traumatized. My appetite for gardening was considerably diminished. After that, cockroaches seemed to become omnipresent. I was awakened on one of my first nights by a rustling sound and looked down to see a very large cockroach dragging a Mars Bar candy wrapper across the floor. One night, sitting out on my front porch enjoying the intense, almost overpowering burst of night jasmine, I was simultaneously grossed out by realizing that the wrought iron fence railing was from one end to the other a moving procession of cockroaches out for the evening to eat the oils left on the railings by human hands.

NOgardenI soon realized that the prevalence of insect pests, together with the incredible heat and humidity of June, July, and August, were not conducive to gardens, gardening or gardeners. At least not the kind of gardening world I was familiar with. And I gradually became aware that no one around me in the city had vegetable plots. And there were no colorful herbaceous borders, not even in the Garden District, of the sort I took for granted. Instead, a narrow range of hardy subtropical plants, shrubs, and trees seemed to satisfy the tastes of the people of New Orleans: caladiums, elephant ears, camellias, liriope, vinca, bay laurels, banana trees, fig trees, and live oaks. So I reluctantly learned to do without homegrown vegetables and seeing a passing procession of flowering perennials.

One weekend afternoon I was on hands and knees transplanting caladiums into the border that ran along the front of the porch when I was confronted by Billie, one of the neighborhood kids.

”Mistah Pete,” he said, this being what the neighborhood had decided to call me. “Mistah Pete, why are you growing flowers?”

“Well, why not, Billie,” I replied.

“Because men is s’posed to only grow things they eat,” he replied.

“But I eat flowers” I could not resist replying with a sly grin.

He looked a bit nonplussed and wandered off. I suppose I should have explained to him how all the conditions in New Orleans seemed to conspire against a man growing things to eat, but I could not resist the joke. And so I probably became “Mistah Pete, that strange Northerner who eats flowers.” Ultimately, I would have to wait for my return to the north to do what a men are expected to do—grow things they eat.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 04/15/13 at 04:03 PM • Permalink

AgriCulture: Boarish Behavior

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Mark writes.

pigletsWhile spring is a time of new birth and a surging life force, sometimes it seems like farming during the season is at least as much about second takes, repairs, and responding to changes caused by winter’s hard conditions. Tree limbs break and need to be sawed completely off or cut back even further; dead and fallen branches must be cleared. Water lines freeze and then need re-plumbing. Fence posts rot in the ground or get heaved up. Heaved up also are small boulders that last year were hidden in the soil but this year must be picked up and moved off to maximize pasturage for the grazing animals and to protect machinery. As you can imagine, this reality has its frustrations.

Nowhere are these so apparent to me as in our pig-raising operation. Pigs are, in my opinion, relentless sources of chaos. They take perfectly beautiful green pastures and turn them, in relatively short order, into plowed-up expanses of holes and hills, constantly burrowing and rooting in the earth. Two weeks ago, as our helper Kyle and I were carrying a pig trough up one side of the pig pasture, my left leg suddenly disappeared, almost up to the knee, in a sink hole they had created digging for Lord knows what. Peter says they are after grubs and such, things that like damp, wet places.

pigeating1But they don’t stop with digging up the earth. Working principally with their powerful snouts, their teeth, and the brute force of their weight, pigs upend whatever human-created structures they encounter. Their shelters are essentially small metal Quonset huts which we secure to the ground with metal stakes. We got these to replace an old wooden hut we had used at first, a good part of which they either ate or demolished. We place their metal shelters carefully on higher, dry ground, to face south or east, to catch the morning and midday sun, perfect for pig snoozing in a sun trap all through the winter. No matter how ideally placed this arrangement is, it is almost inevitably undone over time. We frequently find that the pigs have used their haunches to raise the hut from its moorings to the ground and shift it askew. Sometimes the hut moves from high and dry ground to lower, wetter ground, even though the latter is far less comfortable for them. The instinct that causes them to shift things around this way is mysterious. It seems it’s the activity itself, not the end result, that they are pursuing. 

While the moving of the huts is a sometime event, the attack on whatever vessels we use to provide them with water is a daily thing. In winter, we have tried numerous options to keep them with fresh water. Electric heaters are not even a possibility given what the pigs would likely do to the cord — and themselves — in the process. We’ve tried rubber water containers that we can turn upside down and jump on to break up the ice, remove it, and refill with fresh water; triangular plastic vessels that can be wired to their fence and from which we can chop out the ice to refill with water;  metal containers dug partly into the ground. It doesn’t matter. No matter what shape or how the water trough is secured, the pigs are adept at figuring out how to up-end it, empty it, and move it to an inaccessible part of their pen so that we have to climb in and retrieve it in order to keep them watered. Pigs are at least as intelligent as dogs, but there seems to be no training them to stop fooling around with the water vessels.

Our frustration over how they treat their water containers led Peter to fix on a traditional wooden design he found in that 1893 farm classic, Harris on the Pig, by Joseph Harris. The Harris design is a long (six to eight feet) v-shaped trough, made up of two thick planks, roughly 3” thick by 6” wide, assembled in a V shape, with a wooden divider in the middle, creating two compartments, one for food and one for water. The V-shaped trough is fitted with perpendicular boards attached at each end, which provide a straight surface so the trough rests upright on the ground. Because of their bulk, their awkward shape, and their weight (probably 60 to 70 lbs.) they would seem to me almost impossible to move, especially as they are often mired in mud. Yet the pigs, in their enthusiasm for their feed, may stand in them, tipping them askew, or may, with their snouts, nose them up and tip them in a different direction. Ultimately, as impossible as this may seem, they get broken up. We have had to replace three already this spring.

Vernon?Above all else, what is at risk from the pigs is the fencing that is intended to keep them in some place or out of some other place. They push out fencing and gates that are not strongly secured. They burrow under fencing panels and then with their snouts push the panels upward, pulling the T-posts to which they are affixed out of the ground. Electric lines can be helpful, but the the pigs have been known to bury them by heaping dirt on top of them, thus shorting the electric charge. Last week I noticed that Jane’s litter of six piglets was nosing about in front of the pen where they were supposed to be confined with their mother, and noted the major escape hatch, burrowed under some of our metal fencing,  through which they had exited. Kyle fixed that during the week. Then on Saturday, I saw more escape hatches, some newly created since the week before, and spent an hour or so securing them with pieces of old broken wooden boxes. Yet Sunday, when I went down to feed them, all six piglets were out in the back pasture, having gone though even more escape routes in the fencing that had passed unnoticed before. Peter and I spent four hours Sunday morning re-pounding T-posts into the ground, re-securing fence panels to those T posts, and sometimes adding a second layer of fencing to the first or putting down mesh and small pieces of old paneling in gaps near the base, places that might tempt a piglet to dig out. How long this repair job will last is pure conjecture.

About three weeks ago, exasperated after moving the five feeder pigs born last year back to their summer pasture, and hearing that within hours they were rampaging around terrorizing the cows in the pasture, I told Peter I had had it with breeding pigs. Either they go, or I do. He said he’d weigh the pros and cons carefully and with due deliberation and get back to me. I’m still awaiting a decision. 

In the event Peter decides, as I suspect he will, to keep the pigs, I will do my best to train Vernon, our people-friendly boar (pictured above), to take over my turn every other week doing an essay. Vernon is a charmer. It’s not every 400-pound plus tusked board who comes over to be petted, to have his ears rubbed, and to smile at visitors. People love him, and I’m sure he has great insights to impart to you. But I dread to think what he will do to the office and the computer.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 04/08/13 at 11:31 AM • Permalink

AgriCulture: Holy Cow!

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Mark writes.

Roxie and calfThe momentous news on the farm this week is that Roxie the cow gave birth to a sweet, petite heifer calf on Friday morning. Nearly a week earlier I had become convinced that the birth was imminent, based on a variety of observations: that Roxie’s udder had blown up to the size of a beach ball, practically dragging the ground; that she seemed as wide as a house; that she was lying uncomfortably a lot of the time and standing off by herself a bit. And that this most feisty of cows, who has nobody’s favorite personality and who seems more unpredictable and aggressive than our bull, Titan, was suddenly docile and pliant. When I walked up to stroke the side of her face, she willingly accepted the attention rather than, as she usually does, butting her head to drive me off.

My pronouncement that the birth was imminent raised expectations all around. Peter and I spent a great deal of time tracking Roxie’s movements and looking for signs of labor. Wednesday Peter observed Roxie going down into the woods at the bottom of the pasture, alone, and grew concerned that perhaps she was feeling ill because of trouble calving. Whenever Peter and I spoke, Roxie was the first order of business.

roxieThursday at midday, Peter, fearing that Roxie (at right) was carrying a dead calf, phoned our cow-savvy neighbor, Jordan Kukon (who has been helping birth cows since childhood on his family’s dairy farm) to come over and examine her. Jordan easily drove Roxie into the corral, but getting her into the narrow chute where she could be locked in and examined turned out to be another matter. In the process, Jordan was almost knocked over, Kyle was butted up against the corral fencing, and Peter nearly trampled when Roxie smashed through the side wall of the chute and escaped. But not before Jordan managed to probe her enough to determine that the calf had moved down and appeared to be alive. His advice was to wait and see. Good advice, as it turned out.

Trooping out early in the morning to start chores on Friday, Peter and Kyle were pleased to discover that Roxie’s calf, a tiny, snowy white female with black ears and kohl lined eyes, had been born. Her arrival induced not only a great sense of relief but also a sense of well-being and even prosperity. Although the calf may have started small, one can be sure that a year from now she’ll weigh more than 500 pounds and, ultimately, that she may tip the scale at close to a half ton. 

goldencalf1It is easy to understand why cows are so associated with wealth and comfort. Remember the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which Jews retell each year at this time (Passover), that a golden calf was the false god the Israelites worshiped while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai. And recall that one of the devastating plagues visited on the Egyptians in order to induce their release from slavery was, according to the Haggadah , “murrai,”  which is, as Wikipedia states, “an umbrella term for a number of different diseases, including Rinderpest, erysipelas, foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax, and streptococcus infections” that kill cattle and other livestock. At this period, the welfare of livestock was synonymous with the welfare of the group.

Given how central the welfare of our cattle may be to the economic success of our farm, I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about whether there’s a better way for us to manage them. Roxie arrived here as a two-year-old, so I don’t feel responsible for her personality. I don’t blame her mother, Alicia, either.  Alicia and Roxie arrived together, and Alicia is perfectly docile, friendly, and manageable. But Roxie’s almost ceaseless resistance to us has led me to speculate about whether we could have done something to induce in her a friendlier, more cooperative disposition.

In considering the question, I was surprised to find myself thinking back to a classic work of ethnography, The Nuer, by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, which left a major impression on me in college. The author studied the Nuer tribal group in the far reaches of the Sudanese Upper Nile in the early 1930s and it’s hard to imagine a people more dependent on their cattle. As Evans-Pritchard described it, the Nuers’ diet was almost entirely cattle-derived — principally milk (which they used alone or in a porridge with their staple grain, millet), but also soured milk kept in gourds, and cheese made using not only the cow’s milk but also its urine. They even let the cows’ blood occasionally to use as a dietary supplement. The Nuer valued cattle for their meat, too, although they usually did not obtain it through deliberate slaughter but rather when the cattle died a natural death.  As one informant described it, at a cow’s death “the eyes and heart are sad, but the teeth and stomach are glad.”

nuer tribeThe Nuer were also dependent on various parts of the cow for their clothing and household implements. Cow dung was gathered as fuel and for use in plastering the outside of domestic structures. Dung ash was used in food preservation and as a white powder for ritual use on the human body. The cows were the Nuer’s chief repository of wealth, and the Nuer lived in small encampments with their livestock kept closely among them.

As Evans-Pritchard’s comments, “It has been remarked that the Nuer might be called parasites of the cow, but it might be said with equal force that the cow is a parasite of the Nuer, whose lives are spent in ensuring its welfare. They build byres, kindle fires, and clean kraals for its comfort; move from villages to camps, from camp to camp, and from camps back to villages for its health; defy wild beasts for its protection; and fashion ornaments for its adornment. It lives its gentle, indolent, sluggish life thanks to the Nuer’s devotion. In truth the relationship is symbiotic; cattle and man sustain life by their reciprocal services to one another.”

A corollary (we can’t say if it’s actually the result) of this assiduous devotion to the herd’s welfare was, as Evans-Pritchard describes it, incredibly docile cattle. The Nuer then typically lived their lives barefoot and naked, and they could be perfectly comfortable and safe among their cows in that unprotected state, gently directing the movements of the herd. Evans-Pritchard saw this as living proof of how primitive the Nuer were. But to me it also says something about the tribe’s recognition of the cows’ value to them and an intelligent decision to devote themselves to effectively fostering that value. The reason the cows are so responsive to human needs and direction is that such unstinting attention and effort has gone into their comfort and well-being. A cow would not be so stupid as to defy or harm the source of her welfare.

Well, dear readers, don’t expect to arrive at the farm to find Peter and me naked but for a few strands of beads. However, we may take at least a page out of the Nuer book and do more to establish a personal “best friend” relationship with our cattle — in particular the irascible Roxie.  Oh God, give us the time and energy to do so.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 03/25/13 at 10:43 AM • Permalink

AgriCulture: Give Peas (and Favas) a Chance

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Peter writes.

FavasIt was only a few days away last week, as of this writing, from St. Patrick’s Day. No, I’m not Irish. In fact, I have always tried to wear orange on that very green day. And no green beer for me. And no “Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” The significance of the date to me (forever loyal to the House of Orange) is that it is the day one traditionally tries to get fava beans and peas into the ground, giving them the necessary time to grow and bear before the heat of early summer makes them wither and die. And wither and die they will, even before bearing, if they have not gotten an early start, or if unseasonably hot weather arrives. There is nothing more disappointing than seeing beautiful fava bean plants and pea vines flowering only to have them shrivel and die before producing. With our strangely evolving climate such disappointing outcomes threaten to be more and more common.

pea vinesBoth favas and peas are cool weather lovers and incredibly hardy, able to make a start in cold ground and withstand frosts and cold weather within reason. But as I write this, the weather has done one of its frequent about faces and, after a few days of spring-like temperatures and heavy rain, the ground is frozen once again — at least, that is, on the surface. So it will be touch and go as to whether or not the ground will be workable for planting this week.

For a few planting seasons, given the uncertainties of mid-March, we have tried starting our favas and peas in the greenhouse, only moving them out as seedlings to the vegetable garden when it was clear that spring had arrived. But on last year’s St Patrick’s Day, we mounted something of an experiment in planting fava and pea seeds both directly in the vegetable garden and in planting trays in the greenhouse. Much to my surprise, there seemed to be little advantage to doing the greenhouse planting. If anything the seeds sown directly outdoors, despite the ups and downs in the weather, seemed to have a better outcome ultimately.

It’s now clearer to me why in my homeland, the U.K., peas and favas, known there as “broad beans,” are such major vegetables. And why my grandmother would signal so many dinners with a cheerful: “Lovely peas…” or “…lovely broad beans today.” The coolness and wetness of the climate there means that peas and favas are not just making dinner-table appearances as springtime vegetables but have a much longer serving season.

garlic shoots 1As I walk around the vegetable garden reconnoitering for planting beds for the favas and peas, I am struck by the starkness of the scene and not encouraged by the rock-hard earth underfoot. The only green shoots I see are in the three circular beds of garlic we set out last October. Already the garlic shoots, poking through the straw, are around 3-4” tall, about neck and neck with the daffodil shoots in the flower gardens. It gives me great pleasure to see both. And particularly to see the tiny white blooms of the clumps of snowdrops coming up here and there.

I do a mental inventory of the vegetable garden: still no sign of any green in the sorrel patch, nor are the aggressive-looking red and green buds of rhubarb erupting yet. And there is not a single spear to be seen in the new bed of red asparagus we started last spring. It appears that parsley, which sometimes survives a mild winter, has not managed to survive this time.

straw patchNot all, however, is as dormant as it seems. I know there are carrots and parsnips resting beneath the straw mulch, left there in a kind of winter storage for spring consumption. And I expect the remaining leeks, now invisible beneath the straw, to make a late spring revival before they quickly go to seed. I anticipate a last burst of collard leaves from what appear to be dead brown stumps, and I better understand the importance of these hardy greens to African American slaves.

I reflect on life as it once was, before supermarkets and the eternal availability of everything. I can imagine the anticipation there once must have been for the sight of anything fresh, green, and edible. And wonder about our different experience of food, now that seasonal restrictions on availability have been all but wiped out. This week, for instance, I was sorely tempted by the bunches of asparagus at Adams Supermarket but resisted, virtuously vowing to wait for ours. Certainly, I tell myself, there will be a heightened pleasure because of the wait and the anticipation. I am reluctantly willing, therefore, to wait, but cannot help shouting inwardly the refrain: “Bring on the spring, bring on the spring.”

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 03/17/13 at 11:49 AM • Permalink

AgriCulture: Needing That Buzz

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Mark writes.

bees pollinatingThere’s nothing like a late season snow storm to put visions of the blossoming trees, flowers, and buzzing insects of spring in one’s head. Peter began on this bent last week even before the storm. When I arrived Friday to piles of wet snow, in my mind’s eye I substituted a magnolia tree laden with saucer shaped blossoms for the puffy piles of snow blooming on its branches. Fortuitously, I had just read an article in The New York Times about bees and their attraction to varieties of nectar that contain caffeine and give them a buzz, so to speak. 

Apparently, several varieties of coffee and citrus plants bear flowers that produce nectar containing low levels of caffeine. Scientists at Newcastle University in England have conducted experiments that demonstrated that bees are far more likely to remember the connection between the odor of that plant and the reward of the nectar when that nectar contains caffeine, and therefore the bees are more likely to return to that plant. The Newcastle scientists studied the effect of caffeine on neurons in the bee’s brain and found that it leads to more sensitivity in the Kenyon cells, the neurons involved in learning and memory. A similar effect has been demonstrated in laboratory rats. No evidence, apparently, that the bees and rats are kept up late at night.

pigseating2This article helped settle an ongoing debate Peter and I have been having. In winter, when the rose bushes are buried in snow and I sometimes don’t feel like venturing outside to dump coffee grounds on them, I often just put the old grounds in with the compost destined for the big pile by the barn. I have vehemently objected to Peter’s practice of mixing the grounds in with other food scraps as part of our pig slop, on the supposition that coffee, like the citrus fruits that pigs really do not like, has no place in a porcine diet. Now recognizing the universality of the apparently pleasurable brain stimulating effects of caffeine throughout the animal kingdom, I’m going to concede the point to Peter. No, pigs don’t need help staying alert at their desks — they seem plenty alert and active all the time — but why should I deny our pigs the pleasurable jolt of mental focus I derive from my morning cup of coffee? Coffee grounds in the pig slop will now be standard fare at Turkana Farms. Peter interjects here that, as usual, he is right. I obsequiously bow.

The lesson of the coffee grounds was echoed for me in an article I read about sheep rumens a few weeks ago. This article, which I found while looking for remedies for diarrhea in lambs, pointed out that zealots for restricting sheep and cows to a grass-only diet, because grain is not a “natural” substance for ruminants to digest, are often exaggerating the animals’ intolerance for grain. Grains often grow in fields where these ruminants graze. Grasses (and other pasture plants) have seed pods which are much like grains. Our staple grains all descend from grasses that one could call proto-grains. Ruminants eat such grass seeds all the time in small quantities, with no ill effects. And we know first hand the enthusiasm that sheep and cows have for fermented grain. Whenever we dump fermenting grain from the chicken coop floor or turkey shed onto the compost pile, we’ve learned to cover that grain with older compost immediately lest the sheep and cows, drawn by that sickly sweet scent, plow through or jump over the fence to get to that irresistible attraction.

grains1I now realize that the happy feeling the sheep experience from that fermenting grain must be similar to the buzz a human (or a bee) gets from alcohol, which is so often fermented grain. Or that the cows get from the fermented hay in their baleage. I imagine that the sheep’s enthusiasm for unfermented raw grains with a touch of molasses, which we give them in limited quantities as a daily treat, is like their cocktail hour, akin to the joys of having a beer or a scotch with some cheese and crackers at the end of the day. When the sun sinks toward the horizon and Orhan leads the flock up near the barn door to mill about, it has something of the atmosphere of a crowd awaiting the opening of happy hour at their neighborhood bar; A late afternoon decompression session. And I think that’s just fine. If I can enjoy an early evening drink, why not my sheep? Or even my cows? 

Strict anti grain, pro-grass orthodoxy is, I’ve decided, a little too strict for our ruminants. No, I don’t want a bunch of lushes just hanging around the barn slopping up the sauce all day, with all the ill health effects a heavy grain or fermented grain diet would likely bring them. But I want happy sheep and cows. And if we recognize the universality of happy reactions to substances like fermented grain and caffeine among all animals, ourselves included, we should not deprive them of such pleasures, in moderation, out of some misguided notion of diet purity. Live a little, my dear ruminants. As they say in New Orleans, let “les bons temps rouler!”  Welcome to the Turkana Farms Happy Hour.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 03/10/13 at 08:45 AM • Permalink

AgriCulture: Spring Awakening

AgriCulture bloggers Peter Davies and Mark Scherzer are the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, NY. This week Peter writes.

Spring Turkana 1Spring, as they say, “is in the air.” A few days ago was March 1st, St. David’s Day, one of the oldest harbinger’s of spring for me: It’s the day that honors the patron saint of Wales, for which all little Welsh boys wear baby leeks on their lapels, and girls daffodils on their bodices. Wearing a leek to school on St David’s day was as close as I came to agriculture in those days, apart from the remote act of eating, of course.

More to the present, there is a sudden increase in bird activity around the farm as they wing about all day establishing territorial rights and scoping out nest sites. Unfortunately, there is also the too-early morning arrival of a pair of Canadian geese on the pond outside my bedroom window, their loud gabbling cacophony signaling the beginning of our annual battle: trying to force the pair to move on elsewhere. No sign yet of the red winged blackbirds with their beautiful whistling call, usually amongst the early arrivals.

And, of course there is the mud, eternal mud, mud squelching everywhere as we gingerly make our way, sinking and slipping, from house to coop, coop to barn, and barn to piggery. At this season our mud room fully lives up to its name. “Am I the only one around here that knows how to sweep?” I’ll soon be complaining.

Boots TurkanaThere are other signs too. Every day my trip to the mailbox brings seed and garden catalogs by the bunches: Fedco, our favorite, Burpee (our least favorite), The Cook’s Garden, Seeds of Change, Jung’s Seeds & Plants, Miller’s Nurseries, Burgess Seed & Plant Co., Harris’ Seeds, and on and on. They pile up untidily on my bookcase, some in duplicates and triplicates, defying my annual vow that I will not let the build-up lead to the usual clutter and chaos.

I go to shop for groceries at Adams and am appalled to see a huge section of the store given over completely to seeds, bulbs, planting trays and cells, greenhouse lights, insecticides, pesticides, ceramic pots, garden tools, and every garden-related thing in the universe. “Too early,” I find myself saying.”Too early.” I have the same feeling I have when weeks before Thanksgiving the same store section becomes a Christmas phantasmagoria of artificial trees, twinkling lights, shiny ornaments, tree stands, wreaths, and all manner of seasonal geegaws. “Too early. Too early.”

I realize, with very mixed feelings (I dearly want spring to come but am enjoying my winter hibernation) that, in spite of myself, it is time to sort out the chaos the greenhouse was left in when we moved all the seedlings out to the garden last spring. Yes, the planting tables need to be set up, the planting cells and trays organized, and the potting soil purchased. The plastic walls of the greenhouse walls need patching to keep in the sunlight’s heat for the cool nights to come. 

On inspection I see, fortunately, that the rat plague in the greenhouse has at last been eradicated, thanks to the diligence of Kyle, our new farm helper. Our rat problem had gotten so severe this winter that the parsley, cutting celery, chard, and lettuces we usually rely on throughout the winter were devoured as fast as they leafed out. But they are now slowly making a comeback. And our vegetable seedlings will be safe.

Turkana Spring 1It is also time to send in our annual spring seed order, something Mark and I are supposed to do together, sitting for hours at the kitchen counter going painstakingly from item to item with somber deliberation: “Did this variety do well last year…do we want to repeat this…should we double our order on that?” Finally the order is ready to go, but Mark, unable to restrain himself, always goes sneakily beyond the jointly agreed on order and adds packets of this and that exotic seed — chervil, mache, and such, things that strike his fancy. It is the only excess he seems to indulge in. Consequently, we are never able to exhaust our seeds in a given season, and inevitably have a backlog of seeds the following spring, causing us to ask: “Will this germinate or not if we plant it?”

A central issue in our seed order discussion this year will be how big do we want our garden to be? Getting through the hottest summer on record last year raised many issues. Do we, for instance, need to invest in a more elaborate irrigation system? The vegetable garden is one of the farm’s most labor intensive activities and, unfortunately, demands the most attention during the hottest months. Since we use no machinery or pesticides or herbicides, and take no short cuts and, therefore, require many hours of farm help to carry the burden, it is also one of our most expensive activities. As everyone warns “It’s hard to make money raising vegetables.” We can’t argue with that.

Last summer also signaled a decline in our vegetable customer base. Whether this was because of the economy or because buying vegetables directly from the farm was losing its novelty, we do not know. So we are seriously discussing how far with the vegetable garden beyond our own needs we wish to go. 

And so we are considering a plan that may help answer this question, somewhere between the way we have been operating up to now, which is that people order as they see fit by e-mail on a weekly basis, and pick up their vegetables at the farm or in the City or a CSA model. Somehow, given our responsibilities, we do not see ourselves taking on the elaborate organization and multifarious responsibilities involved in running a CSA. And we feel a lot of our customers, because they are not necessarily around every week, do not see the CSA arrangement as best serving their needs.

We are therefore, asking those of our customers who are interested in receiving our produce this summer to indicate, as a vote of confidence, that they are willing to do so, by sending in a deposit. This deposit will serve as a standing credit that can be drawn on for getting vegetables and eggs throughout the growing season. We are hoping that the response we get to this appeal will serve as a useful indicator to us as to the scale of vegetable garden we’ll plan for this season. While farming is, perhaps, one of the most traditional of activities, it nevertheless requires constant innovation to stay abreast with the ever changing times.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 03/03/13 at 11:30 AM • Permalink

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