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South Farms: Something Good Grows in Morris

By Jacque Lynn Schiller

Lately, I must confess, Instagram has been providing a map of sorts with its intriguing photos of new places to visit. A couple of months ago, venerable Chef Joel Viehland (formerly of Community Table) posted a photo of an old Ford AA truck with a logo for “south farms Morris, Conn.” painted on its side. Intrigued by the typography as much as the vehicle, I wondered what else might be going on at this homestead. Curiosity paid off, leading not only to a model of preservation and agri-tourism, but also a lively Sunday market, stunning event space and, just in time for fall, an impressive corn maze – a real map being essential to navigate in this case.

Ben Paletsky, business manager of South Farms Agricultural, shared the property’s Native American and farming history (including an outspoken, wall-building sheriff), tracing it to more modern times and Sam Paletsky, the Connecticut farmer who purchased it in the late ‘40s. It has remained in the Paletsky family for four generations.

Sam’s grandson, Ben, has committed to revitalizing the iconic 150-acre historic homestead and is the driving force behind making the family farm, now called South Farms, into one of the state’s most ambitious agricultural place-making endeavors. Partnering with lifelong family friends and fellow neighboring farmers Erica Dorsett-Mathews and husband Corey Mathews, Paletsky has launched a heritage breed meats business, which expanded to include the very fun Morris Marketplace featuring live music, an array of local vendors and even a sit-down lunch area.

“We felt that by selling our meats off-farm, our mission of connecting customers with the goodness of the farmland experience was compromised,” he says. “So, we invited a selection of awesome farms and artisans, both old and new, to come together with us at the homestead on Sundays.”

The community is receptive to the bucolic vistas and naturally inviting atmosphere, making it a true weekly gathering. “We want guests to feel welcome at the farm and stay for a while, not just grab and go, so we mixed in live music, free crafts for kiddos, and, of course, unbelievably good farm-fresh food.”

“Small towns need — correction, small towns thrive — when there exists a cultural centerpiece that everyone can appreciate, enjoy and rally behind,” Paletsky says. “We intended to design an experience at South Farms that would drive agricultural and economic growth while cultivating positive cultural involvement for the community and visitors to the area. Our guests embraced the idea and they have become some of the market’s best advocates.”

And what an amazing assemblage of area farms and artisans! CIA graduate Amanda Glover serves incredible made-from-scratch pastries from her converted Airstream trailer, Sweetie. There’s fruit and cider from March Farms, a neighboring multi-generational family farm and orchard. Fresh chicken – and turkey for anyone thinking ahead to Thanksgiving – is on offer from Pond’s Poultry. The list of vendors also includes fresh Bantam Breads, hot sauce from Dragon’s Blood Elixirs, organic veggies (and an awesome bloody Mary mix) from Waldingfield’s Farm and refreshing treats like Chet’s Italian Ice and Hardcore Cupcakes. Area restaurant Oliva’s provides prepared food and Winvian Farms boasts not only a veggie stand but also a mobile lunch.

Beyond food, there’s a revolving collection of artisans and merchants selling anything from jewelry, paintings and photography to alpaca wool, children’s books and soaps. In addition, every week the market features an area non-profit in order to help promote awareness of their cause. The goodness just grows, along with the corn.

Ever wonder how mazes are created?

Paletsky revealed the workings. “This year’s “I HEART MORRIS” theme is drafted out on computer,” he says. “We like to include a cool visual theme that looks awesome from the air (there are regularly hot-air balloons meandering above the farm) and one that’s challenging to explore. In the maze are several checkpoints to discover. Actually cutting paths into the maze requires using a sub-compact tractor outfitted with precision-GPS to make patterns with incredible accuracy. It’s pretty high-tech.”

Several of the much younger folks blazed through the labyrinth with ease, laughing when a dead end was encountered, ready to run through the whole thing again and again, says our reporter. Afterwards, she rewarded her route-finding skills with an iced coffee in the shade of the barn. (Photo at top of page is last year’s maze.)

Corn, you say? Oh yes, the eating kind and the get-lost-within variety. For the second year, South Farms has created a remarkable corn maze. Two, in fact, one a bit shorter for the not so adventurous. I heeded the advice from the ticket booth to orient myself by noting the position of the sun upon entering the path (seven-foot stalks and nothing but blue skies can throw off one’s sense of direction). The view of the barns on the hill is always pretty, but looks downright magnificent after triumphantly navigating the maze.

Which brings us to another aspect of South Farms; it also makes quite an attractive event space. This fall they’ll host a number of weddings, the weekly market will run through the end of October and they’ll likely have a few “pop-up” markets in the barn near the holiday seasons.

And they’re just getting started in terms of expansion. Pioneer Hops of Connecticut has co-located onto South Farms, creating one of the state’s largest commercial hops yards. There’s a plan for the portfolio of farm and agri-tourism businesses partnered with South Farms to expand in a lot of exciting directions and investments. 

“Our vision includes South Farms’ role as a cultural, educational and ag investment hub for Litchfield County and the state,” says Paletsky. “In parallel, we’re thinking about ways to maximize the use of our farmland. South Farms intends to create new models for farming in the state – models that highlight both business viability for agricultural production and connect non-farmers to the farmland experience.”

South Farms’ giant white barn just might mark the spot where inspiration leads to even more action.

South Farms
21 Higbie Road, Morris, CT
The South Farms Corn Maze is open for the season and will run through the end of October as well on Sundays from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Morris Market
Sundays 11 a.m.-2 p.m. from mid June-late October.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/15/15 at 09:48 AM • Permalink

Little Ghent Farm Bridges Farming, Food And Community

By Katherine Abbott

On a Thursday morning, Mimi Beaven stands over a restaurant stove, preparing to make paté. The Black Freedom Ranger chicken that provided the meat on her cutting board grew in the pasture outside her window.

Mimi and her husband, Richard, have built a rare combination — a working farm with a commercial kitchen and farm store. Visitors can find fresh eggs, blueberry ice cream with lemon swirl, sourdough bread and cuts of meat from ham to pig’s tail.

Word has spread about the Made in Ghent farm store at Little Ghent Farm, just off County Route 22, and so have their products. People show up having tried one of Mimi’s chocolate salt cookies at a friend’s house. Eugenie Sills of Harlemville, N.Y., recently gave a jar of peach jam to a neighbor.

Sills found the farm through Instagram in the spring, she says, and she’s watched their following grow since then. She has come back to tour the fields and rolling chicken coops, to meet young chicks and enjoy paté and fresh eggs, onion relish and garlic scape butter. And she will come in the fall for entrepreneurial inspiration. Little Ghent is bigger than a farm shop, she says: it’s a hub. People connect here. 

Photo courtesy Richard Beaven.

Along with original recipes and sometimes unusual ingredients, the Beavens are launching workshops to encourage local enterprise. On Sept. 23 and 24, their friend David Hieatt, co-founder of DO Lectures, will talk about building a brand with very little money. Farms are about growth and productivity, Richard says, and for him that means the growth of ideas, local businesses and community.

Mimi and Richard planned their own venture for many years, while she ran a restaurant and Richard went into advertising — he is now a professional photographer with work in the Wall Street Journal (hence the gorgeous images on Instagram). They have built a dream from scratch.

After 10 years in Westchester County, coming to Ghent on weekends, they bought 75 acres, an old farm fallen into disrepair. They could not save the original house and barns, but they have rebuilt using materials from the old buildings and designed their own place — a 21st-century farm.

“People are so accustomed to seeing farms that have been here for a long time,” he says. “If you start with a clean slate, what does a farm look like today?”

It looks rustic and modern — buildings made half from reclaimed boards and beams and half with new cedar siding in black paint.

Bees hum in four top-bar hives. Some 200 chickens and laying hens scratch in the pastures, and pigs root in the woods and fields. The animals get organic feed, Richard says, with treats from the kitchen or apples and hickory nuts from farm trees.

He and Mimi grew up knowing farms. Her father was a French chef, and she spent time between his restaurant and a neighboring farm. She went through agricultural school and ended up working at a restaurant to support herself.

“I ended up running it,” she says.

She moved to London when she met Richard, and when they lived outside New York City she volunteered at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Little Ghent Farm grew from there. In these last few years the Beavens have expanded into the farm store, and this summer they’ve offered a young farmer, Jesse Tolz, land to grow vegetables and wildflowers.

A neighbor plowed the field so Tolz could plant. Another neighbor helps to process the Little Ghent chickens. That sense of community matters, Richard says. Farms have always been a key part of their surroundings, and as farms have been wiped out that feeling has faded. Here visitors take photographs in the wildflowers, and the local farmers band together.

“Farming’s always had that reputation,” he says, “and we love that.”

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/17/15 at 01:42 PM • Permalink

Letterbox Farm Introduces The CSA Meal Share

lbfc1By Jamie Larson

With a long hard winter finally behind us (knock wood), it’s time again to sign up for a CSA share from your favorite local farm. With regional produce and high-quality, ethically produced meats better and more widely available than ever, choosing a CSA has become an increasingly fraught, if enviable, dilemma.

Making that decision harder (or maybe easier) is the newest addition to the CSA scene in Columbia County, Letterbox Farm Collective. The three-year-old farm’s new CSA has garnered a lot of deserved attention with a brand new idea — the “Meal Share.” This thoughtfully engineered CSA will provide weekly offerings of produce and meats geared towards specific meal plans, timed with the seasonal growing schedule.

“It’s really just based on the way we want to eat and how we get to eat as farmers,” says Faith Gilbert, the Collective’s founder and co-owner. “It’s a beautiful and holistic cooking experience.”

While this is its first year as a CSA, Letterbox’s quality of both produce and protein has already been recognized and put to use in the restaurants of top local chefs at Fish & Game, The Crimson Sparrow, Swoon Kitchenbar, Hudson Food Studio, Bonfiglio & Bread, Panzur and others. They also provide ingredients for world-renowned Momofuku Ko in Manhattan. These are endorsements not to be taken lightly.

lbf2“I think we have a reputation for quality because of our scale and amount of preparation,” Gilbert continues. “We know exactly what you’re going to get every week. The age of just throwing stuff in a box is over. We are offering a particular experience in eating.”

Along with a CSA schedule geared towards providing members with a seasonally balanced offering of vegetables, fruits, herbs, starches and extras each week, the Letterbox share also includes weekly chicken or duck eggs, a whole chicken every other week and 75 “points” that can be used towards the farm’s meat options each week. Letterbox will offer cuts of pork, fowl and rabbit, and extra points can be used to supplement other things you might want beyond that week’s allotment, including honey from the farm’s own bees and soap made from the farm’s goats’ milk.

Here’s an example of a meal share week CSA members can look forward to:


Letterbox founder Faith Gilbert.

August 8: Pizza Week
Choose your eggs (chicken, duck or quail)
Choose your meats (i.e., 1 lb. pork sausage and 2 pork chops)
Bundle of alliums and herbs: 2 onions, summer savory and oregano
Choose twenty-green salad mix or baby red spinach
1 Prosperosa eggplant
1 qt. Carmen peppers
2 lbs. heirloom tomato mix
1 lb. Sparrowbush Farm whole wheat flour

The idea sounds more complicated than it is. For the CSA member, picking up and cooking Letterbox goods is simple and intuitive by design. CSA members will also be supporting a farm with a modern sustainable ethos. 


The Letterbox Farm Collective: Audrey Berman, Faith Gilbert, Nichki Carangelo, Laszlo Lazar and Moo.

“We share a lot of the values of other young farmers,” Gilbert says. “For us, the continuation of sustainable food production is such an important issue. We want to live in a community of producers, not just consumers. It’s important that we figure out how to keep farming this land while maintaining expectations for our quality of life.”

Being able to pull off a plan like this is a testament to the hard work of the young but experienced Letterbox team. Laszlo Lazar and Nichki Carangelo worked a small livestock farm in Connecticut and as Army Corps of Engineers park rangers before coming to join the Collective with Gilbert, a long-time friend. Gilbert herself clearly uses her years of farming experience as well as her academic background in research and community organizing. She literally wrote the book on Cooperative Farming for The Greenhorns. The newest member of the collective is Audrey Berman, who previously worked as assistant manager for Sisters Hill Farm, a highly respected CSA farm in Dutchess County; she excels at systems and infrastructure design, skills vital to this formative year of development at the farm.

lbf5“We’ve built a great team. Everyone has something different to offer,” Gilbert says. “We are career farmers.”

This is also the first year the collective owns its farm outright, receiving funding assistance from regional ag organizations and Scenic Hudson, which supported Letterbox’s philosophical goals to be responsible stewards of the unique acreage. The farm is set on a rolling slope with a beautiful view of the valley and the Catskills beyond, and the Collective plans to protect and enhance the beauty of the landscape as part of their long-term growth plan.

The members and staff of the Letterbox Farm Collective are excited about the potential for this season but also see this year’s CSA as the start of a lifelong career in community-engaged farming. If their humble, hardworking and inventive approach to the Meal Share is any indication, the area — and especially CSA members — have a lot to look forward to for decades to come.

lbf6CSA Details:
Full meals for $52/week
Pickup location: Letterbox Farm, 4161 US 9, Hudson (2 miles from downtown)
Pickup schedule: Saturdays, 10 a.m.-noon, June 6-Oct. 17
Price: 20 weeks for $1,040, payable by June 1.

Letterbox Farm Collective

4161 US 9, Hudson, NY
(518) 828-1413

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Posted by Jamie Larson on 04/06/15 at 12:45 PM • Permalink

Mixing It Up: Connecting Farmer And Landowner

Picture this: a mixer — what they used to call dances — with farmers on one side of the hall, landowners on the other. They’re staring at each other. Who’s going to be the first to ask someone on the other side to dance?

Fortunately, we’re not talking junior high sock hop, so there probably won’t be any wallflowers at Berkshire Grown’s Farmer-Landowner Mixer next week. The area’s biggest local farming cheerleader has plans to spark some connections between those who want to farm and those who have the land to farm on.

“We’ve been trying to do this for years,” said Berkshire Grown’s director, Barbara Zheutlin. “Matching farmers and landowners is something that the Columbia County Land Conservancy does really well, and we’ve been learning from them.”

On October 28 in Williamstown and October 29 in Great Barrington, these mixers will connect farmers seeking land with established farmers and farmland. The free events (which include a light supper and beer) will offer information and resources to help sustain and increase farming in the Berkshires. A panel of speakers from several land trusts, foundations and like organizations will get the conversations going. The events are part of the Berkshire Farmland Initiative, co-sponsored by Berkshire Grown, The Carrot Project and Land For Good in partnership with Berkshire organizations committed to supporting farming in the Berkshires, including the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College.

So far, the response has been good, Zheutlin says. She was receiving emails from farmers and landowners whom she didn’t know, who aren’t members of Berkshire Grown — and if she doesn’t know them, that’s a good indicator of the number of people out there ready to farm more, start farming or sell off some land.

“We’re attending because we’re looking for land to make hay on for our cows,” says Suzy Konecky, manager of the creamery at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown. “Open farmland can be hard to come by around here. A lot of farmers are on the lookout for more. I just hope landowners will be coming to the mixer!”

Deadline to RSVP (to reserve dinner) is October 24. Email and let her know if you are a farmer seeking land, transitioning, or a landowner.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/21/14 at 02:27 PM • Permalink

License To Support: Fresh & Local Gets Its Own Plate

By Lisa Green

Once a cause announces it has its own specialty license plate in the works, you know the issue has attained a critical mass. Readers of Rural Intelligence may not find it surprising to learn that the latest license plate initiative will champion Massachusetts food and farmers. The “Choose Fresh & Local” plate will benefit a trio of organizations dedicated to farmers, farmers markets and the Massachusetts food economy…if the campaign itself gets enough support from drivers.

The idea for a “buy-and-eat-local” license plate has been in the works for years; back in 2008, the Department of Agricultural Resources tried to push through a plate with the tagline “Go locally grown!” Whether it was because the design sported a cow with rather crazed eyes, or the timing just wasn’t right, the organizers didn’t reach their goal, and the plate was never produced.

Spearheading the current effort is New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, based at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition, Science and Policy, which works locally, regionally and across the country to support and train new farmers. Jennifer Hashley, the director of New Entry — and a vegetable and livestock farmer herself — says they actually had their campaign started before the agriculture department’s, but they waited to see how that one fared. When it faltered, New Entry stepped in and got its own proposal through the state registry.

These are not vanity plates. The mission of the “Choose Fresh & Local” plate is to raise awareness of local food and farmers. “We want to provide a sustainable source of support and training for new farmers across the state to insure the next generation of farmers,” Hashley says. Proceeds from the license plate will support not just New Entry but Mass Farmers Markets and The Beginning Farmer Network of Massachusetts. (Berkshire Grown is a member of the latter group, and collaborates with all of them.)

Critical Mass Example #2

In August, the United States Post Office issued a set of four Farmers Market first-class mail Forever stamps. “Farmers markets are an old idea that’s new again,” says the USPS website. 

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into designing a stamp, check out the story — including audio comment by the art director — on the creation of the design on the Post Office’s blog. (The Post Office has a blog?)

There’s been a bit of controversy over some of the depictions (a loaf of bread is shown on the stamps as selling for $7, grapes at $8 a bunch, potatoes at $5 a bag). But the design is pretty compelling. Who wouldn’t want to go to a farmers market like this one?

“We were really struggling with the design for a while,” she says. “We wanted to be sure it was attractive enough for people to want to put on their car.” A variety of images, designed pro bono by Harry Bartlett of Bartlett Interactive, were vetted at winter farmers markets in Boston. And wouldn’t you know it — shoppers at the markets chose the original design created nearly a decade ago.

So far, more than 400 people have signed up, but that’s just a pledge, not a signature and accompanying check. The minimum requirement is 1,500 signups but the goal is to get 3,000 signups by December, after which organizers will have to collect the information and money from those who have expressed interest. The plates will cost $20 per year (in addition to regular RMV license fees) — which is tax deductible, by the way.

Signing up for the plate is easy; you can do it right here.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/30/14 at 03:32 PM • Permalink

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.

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

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