Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sweet Potatoes

by Farmer Richard and Farmer Andrea

First there was the rush to get them planted, then the waiting and hoping game…will they get enough
warm days to form sizeable sweet potatoes? Next came the threat of frost, which for this tropical vegetable would mark the end of its life cycle. We scurried to get covers on them and just in time. Safe from frost and warm under their covers, they pushed through a few more weeks of growing time. Finally, it was time to harvest. After several good, hard days of harvest, over 45,000 pounds of sweet potatoes were safe in the greenhouse! Every year we anticipate the first tastes of sweet potatoes, and they are finally ready!

So where did sweet potatoes come from? Who knew a sweet little vegetable could have such a sordid history and cause so much controversy. The answer is, well– it depends on where you look for the answer. There are a lot of different theories and stories. In our research, we found they have been domesticated for at least 5,000 years. While there are no definite answers as to their origin, which was more than likely South America, it seems they made their way to Europe via Columbus somewhere in the late 15th century. There are references to sweet potatoes dating back to the 16th century in China. Asia and Africa come into the picture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Sweet potatoes are the most widely grown root by quantity in the world, although China feeds quite a bit of them to their animals. (How silly!) Most of the sweet potatoes grown in this country come from southern states and California.

Sweet potatoes are a member of the Morning Glory family, not the ‘Potato’ family also known as the Solanaceae family. It is true that the sweet potatoes pre-date the ‘regular’ potato. Now that we’ve made that distinction, lets tackle the controversy between sweet potatoes and yams. George Washington started calling them ‘sweet potatoes’ to distinguish them from the traditional ‘Irish’ potatoes. The term yam was used to distinguish the orange flesh sweet potatoes from the traditional white flesh sweet potato in Louisiana. Yams and sweet potatoes are not related. Yams have dry, starchy and often white-colored flesh. Sweet potatoes have a more sweet and moist flesh. While both the yam and the sweet potato are considered tropical plants, the sweet potatoes are also a temperate plant. Yams will only grow in tropical climates.

Sweet potatoes are not senescent, which means they do not grow old and die. Tropical countries are able to replant a piece of the vine to regrow them year to year. We ‘propagate’ our sweet potatoes from a new shoot or vine growing from selected potatoes saved from last year’s crop. This does require quite a bit of greenhouse space in April, so we supplement our plants with ‘slips’ from the south. In the warmer climate, they can be produced in outside beds. This year we had a new supplier from North Carolina who is certified organic. It has been challenging to source organic sweet potatoes slips in the past, but this farm sent us a timely shipment of very nice slips. We plant a total of 16,000 slips on raised, plastic covered beds. We used a variety called Covington, which originated from The University of North Carolina. There are really only 3 (maybe 4) varieties of sweet potatoes that will yield well in our area of the North. Thus far, we like the Covington variety better than the Beauregard or the Georgia Jets.

Covers extend the growing season of our sweet potatoes.
Because it was a cool summer, we covered our 2 acre field in September to protect the sweet potatoes from frost and trap heat under the cover. They grew up very well to yield 46,000 pounds of very nice size and shaped tubers. The national average yield is 14,500 pounds per acre, so we are well above that number! Although that number is still below the 30,000 pound average per acre that a good southern grower might get, we are still pretty happy with our yield.

The average sweet potato consumption in the United States is down to about 5 pounds per person per year, although I bet the average CSA member’s annual sweet potato consumption is much greater than this. In the 1920’s that number was closer to 29 pounds per year, which is a huge change. In recent years, the average number is again on the rise, and that is being attributed to a renewed interest in their high nutritional value, including the beta carotene content.

Sweet potatoes curing in greenhouse at high temperatures
and high humidity.
Because the sweet potato is not senescent, it will never develop a thicker skin in the field. We must harvest them with ‘kid gloves’ so to speak and handle them with extreme care until they have cured fully. We cure our sweet potatoes in our greenhouse a full week at temperatures of 85° – 90°F and the same high humidity. This will ‘toughen’ up the skin so they can be easily handled and have a longer storage potential. The curing process also converts the starches in the sweet potatoes to sugars, thereby making them a truly “sweet” potato.

Sweet potatoes do store very well and they are so versatile that it’s hard to grow tired of them! They can be baked, roasted, boiled, pan-fried and even deep-fried. You can dice them up and add them to soups and stews. You can bake them and then scoop the flesh out and puree it. The puree can then be used in baked goods, desserts (sweet potato pie or cheesecake!), breads or as a spread or ingredient for pizza, quesadillas, lasagna, etc.

Because sweet potatoes are part of cultures all around the world, you’ll find many different ways to prepare them. They pair well with a variety of ingredients including apples, oranges, coconut, cranberries and limes. Common spices used with sweet potatoes include cumin, coriander, chiles, thyme, rosemary, chili powder, curry powder and more. Sweet potatoes can be accompanied by a variety of cheese, including Parmesan, fresh goat cheese, gouda or others. One of the most basic ways to enjoy a sweet potato is to simply pop the whole sweet potato into the oven and bake it until it is tender. Cut it open and garnish it with coconut oil or butter and a dash of cinnamon or chile powder. Captain Jack’s all-time favorite way to eat sweet potatoes is sweet potato French fries….hold the spice and add a side of gravy if you really want to win him over.

Sweet potatoes will only get better with time, so don’t feel like you have to eat them all within a week (although it’s hard not to!) The ideal storage temperature for sweet potatoes is about 55°- 60°F. If you want to store sweet potatoes well into the winter, try to find the spot in your home that is closest to this temperature range. Sweet potatoes are sensitive to cold temperatures, so if you don’t have an ideal storage location it’s better to err on the side of a little warmer instead of a colder temperature.

We have a lot more sweet potatoes to come your way. While we have our favorite ways to prepare them, we’re always looking for new recipes. If you have a favorite recipe, we’d love for you to share it with us! You can email them to

Sweet Potato Vinaigrette
Recipe adapted from Lorna Sass’ Complete Vegetarian Kitchen

Yield: About 1 cup
1 medium (8 oz) sweet potato, baked until very soft
¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
3 to 4 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 Tbsp maple syrup
Large pinch ground cloves
½ tsp cumin
⅛ tsp cayenne
Sea salt, to taste
¼ cup water, approximately

1. Peel and mash the baked sweet potato. (You should have about ½ to ¾ cup)

2. In a blender or food processor, combine the sweet potato, oil, 3 Tbsp vinegar, maple syrup, cloves, cumin, cayenne, salt and enough water to create a thick but pourable dressing.

3. Taste and add more vinegar and salt as required. Allow the vinaigrette to set for about 15 minutes, then taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Use immediately or refrigerate in a tightly sealed container for up to 5 days. If the dressing thickens in the refrigerator, thin it with a tablespoon or two of water.

Variation: Add complexity to the dressing by substituting ¼ cup hazelnut or walnut oil for ¼ cup of the sunflower oil.

Serving suggestions: I (Andrea) was intrigued by this recipe and had to give it a try…I would never have thought to use sweet potatoes to make vinaigrette! I recommend using this vinaigrette to dress a fall spinach salad garnished with thinly sliced red onions, chunks of apples and toasted nuts. You could also use this vinaigrette as a dipping sauce or sandwich spread. You might even toss roasted vegetables with this vinaigrette for the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking time.

Peanut & Sweet Potato Soup
“This Africa-inspired peanut soup is roundly seasoned with spices, enriched with peanut butter, and given a crunchy, aromatic finish with roasted peanuts, cilantro and red pepper flakes.” –Deborah Madison, Vegetable Literacy.

Yield: 6 servings
1 small bunch cilantro
2 to 3 Tbsp roasted peanut oil
1 large onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 (1-inch) piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1½ tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp red pepper flakes
2 pinches of ground cloves
1 cup crushed canned tomatoes
3 cups sweet potato, medium diced (about 1½ pounds)
Sea salt, to taste
½ cup organic peanut butter
½ cup salted, roasted peanuts
Juice of 1 small lime
Red pepper flakes, to taste

1. Wash the cilantro, including the stems, then separate the stems from the leaves. Finely slice the stems and set the leaves aside.

2. Warm the oil in a wide soup pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cilantro stems, give them a stir, and cook until the onions have begun to soften and even brown in places, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, pepper flakes and cloves. Add the tomatoes, sweet potatoes, 1¼ tsp salt and 4½ cups water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the sweet potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in the peanut butter. Taste for salt.

3. Puree 3 cups of the soup in a blender until creamy. Stir the puree back into the pot. Or, if you prefer a completely creamy textured soup, puree the whole amount. Taste for salt and stir in half the chopped cilantro leaves.

4. Chop the rest of the cilantro with the peanuts, leaving some texture, and mix in a few pinches of pepper flakes and the lime juice. Ladle the soup into bowls and add a spoonful of the peanut-cilantro mixture to each. 

Vegetable Feature: Winter Squash

by Andrea Yoder
Front: Delicata squash, Festival Squash, Butternut Squash, Sweet Winter Squash
Back: Red Kuri squash, Sugar Dumpling Squash, Spaghetti Squash, Honeynut Butternut Squash

Honeynut Butternut Squash
Sugar Dumpling Squash
As the leaves turn to shades of orange, red and yellow and the nights get chilly, we welcome the changing of the seasons and transition from cool, refreshing summer vegetables to those that offer us warmth and comfort. Winter squash holds a special place in a seasonal Midwestern diet, with the potential to feed us all the way from September through the cold winter until spring comes again. We grow several different types of winter squash, several varieties you’ve already had in your boxes. We start off our squash season with delicata and spaghetti squash, followed by two of our sweetest varieties—Sugar Dumpling & Honeynut Butternut. Both of these varieties are higher in natural sugars making them very tasty, but the downside is they don’t store as well as some of the other varieties. The little honeynut butternut squash in your boxes this week are a special treat with their rich, sweet flavorful flesh. They are personal sized squashes that need nothing more than to be cut in half and baked cut side down until tender. Season the squash with salt, pepper and a pat of butter and you’ll find they taste like pumpkin pie filling!

Butternut Squash
Kabocha Squash

Soon we’ll be delivering the more familiar butternut variety with buff colored skin followed later in the season by the multi-colored festival squash and red kuri squash. The red kuri squash is a small, round, bright orange squash with dark orange flesh resembling a kabocha squash (a variety we’ve grown in previous years). These three varieties are amongst the varieties that are best for storing. But wait…there’s one more variety! We recently discovered a variety called Winter Sweet. It has a dusky blue-gray skin with a dense, dry yellow flesh. The beauty of this squash is its amazing ability to store well into the winter, and thus this will be the last one we send your way.

Winter Sweet Squash
Winter squash pairs well with a wide variety of other ingredients. You will often see it prepared with fruits including apples, pears, pomegranate, citrus and coconut. It is often flavored with herbs and spices including sage, rosemary, thyme, curry, cumin, coriander and chile powder. As we transition from summer to winter, we find ways to prepare squash alongside summer vegetables including sweet and hot peppers and tomatoes. As we venture deeper into the winter, squash finds its way into dishes alongside other root vegetables, onions, leeks, garlic, dried chiles and dried beans. You’ll find recipes for winter squash from cuisines from all around the world including many Asian countries, Europe and the Americas.

The simplest way to prepare any winter squash is to cut it in half, scoop out the seed cavity, and bake them cut-side down in a baking dish with a little water until they are tender. Remove them from the oven and turn the squash over to cool. When cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh out of the shell using a spoon. The flesh can be mashed or pureed and eaten simply with salt, pepper and butter, or use the puree for other preparations. Squash can also be peeled and sauteed, pan-fried, steamed or roasted. It is often used in soups, stews and curry dishes. It can become a filling for tarts, quiche, turnovers, and ravioli. It pairs well with grains and can be used to make risotto or even incorporated into warm or cold grain salads, such as wild rice, barley or quinoa. For a more sweet approach, incorporate squash into baked goods such as pie, quick breads, bread pudding, custards and even cheesecake. You can substitute squash puree in any recipe that calls for pumpkin puree. As you can see, there are a lot of different ways to enjoy squash! If you find yourself growing tired of eating squash in the middle of the long winter, look around for some new recipes and try a different approach to how you prepare it.

An added bonus with several of the squash varieties is that the seeds are edible. Generally the seeds from the delicata, sugar dumpling and festival squash are tender enough to eat. Sometimes the butternut and orange kuri squash seeds are also tender enough to eat. After you remove them from the squash, rinse the seeds in a colander to remove any squash flesh. Dry them out a little bit by spreading them on a cookie sheet and put them in a dry location overnight or in a low temp oven. Once the seeds are dry, toss them with oil, salt, pepper and any seasonings you might desire. Spread the seasoned seeds on a cookie sheet and toast them in a 350°F oven until they are golden and crispy.

If you want to store your squash for a longer period, it is best to store it in a cool, dry environment between 45-55°F. If you just have a few squash in your collection, you might want to adorn your tables or countertops with their beauty until you’re ready to eat them. Check them frequently and if you see any spots starting to form, that’s your cue that it’s time to cook them.

Corsican Turnovers with Winter Squash
Recipe borrowed from The French Market Cookbook by Clotilde Dusoulier.

Serves 4
Winter Squash Filling
1 Tbsp olive oil for cooking
3 small red onions, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, to taste
1 small kuri, butternut or kabocha squash, peeled, seeded and diced
2 tsp dried rosemary, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Olive Oil Tart Dough
¼ cup olive oil for cooking, plus more for the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tsp fine sea salt
1 large egg
1 large egg white

1. First, prepare the filling. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, garlic, and ½ tsp salt and cook, stirring often to prevent coloring, until soft, about 10 minutes.

2. Add the squash, rosemary, and ¾ tsp salt. Cover and cook, stirring often, until the squash is soft, 15 to 20 minutes. If the squash has released juices—this will depend on the variety—turn the heat up to high and cook for a few minutes longer, uncovered, until the juices have evaporated. Sprinkle with black pepper, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Set aside to cool.

3. Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

4. Now prepare the dough. In a medium bowl, combine the flour and salt. Add the oil, egg, and ¼ cup cold water and mix them in with a fork until absorbed. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead lightly until it comes together into a ball. Add a little more water or flour as necessary.

5. Dust the ball of dough and a rolling pin with flour. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one of the pieces into an 8-inch square. Scoop one-fourth of the squash mixture onto the middle of the square. Bring two opposite corners of the dough into the center of the square and pinch them together. Lift the two remaining corners up to the center, matching the seams so they meet to form raised ridges. Crimp to seal. You’ll get a square turnover, with ridges forming an “X” on top. Lift carefully with a spatula and transfer to the prepared baking sheet.

6. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling to form 3 more turnovers.

7. Brush each turnover with egg white.

8. Bake, rotating the sheet in the oven halfway through cooking for even coloring, until golden, about 30 minutes. Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving

Winter Squash and Leeks Baked in Parchment
Recipe borrowed from The Greens Cookbook by Deborah Madison. 

Serves 4
2 cups winter squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ¼-inch cubes
¾ cup leeks, chopped into ½–inch squares
1 tsp garlic, finely chopped
¼ cup olive oil
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 pieces parchment paper, cut to about 12” x 15” 
1-2 Tbsp butter
8 fresh sage leaves

1. Toss the squash, leeks, garlic, and olive oil together, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. 

2. Preheat the oven to 425°F. Fold the parchment papers in half to make a crease. Open them up and generously butter the bottom half, covering all but an inch from the edge. It is important to coat the surface thoroughly, or the sugars in the squash will stick to the paper and burn. 

3. Divide the vegetables evenly amongst the 4 papers, heaping them into the center of the buttered area. Tuck 2 sage leaves into each one. Lay a few small pieces of butter on top of the vegetables. Fold the top half of the paper down and tightly roll the edges over onto themselves to make a half circle. Give the paper a good twist at the end to hold the packet firmly closed. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and open carefully to allow the steam to escape.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

October Madness…Time to Harvest!

by Farmer Richard and Farmer Andrea

Last Saturday we awoke to a chilly morning as we experienced our first frost of the season. With it came the sense of urgency we feel every fall as the reality of the changing seasons sets in. Richard made his annual fall harvest & “projects” list to outline the work that needs to be done over the next several weeks. We have a lot of crops to harvest and put into storage, fields need to be put to bed for the winter with compost, minerals and cover crops. Several crops need to be replanted for next year, equipment needs to be prepared for winter storage, the final boxes of the CSA season need to be planned AND plane tickets back to Mexico need to be booked for our seasonal field crew members who are anxiously awaiting their return to sunny, warm Mexico to spend the winter with their families. Whew!! There’s a lot to accomplish over the next several weeks! It’s an exciting time of the season with a lot of crucial tasks to complete. Here’s a little glimpse of some of the things we’ll be doing over the next several weeks.

The Asa-Lift is used to harvest root crops such as parsnips, carrots, celeriac,
turnips and winter radishes.
While we continue to do our weekly harvests of salad greens, fresh herbs, bunched greens, etc, we now add some of our major harvests to the “To-Do” list as well. All of our root crops need to be harvested and put into storage for the winter. We have several different methods for harvesting root crops. Some of them we do by hand, while others are harvested mechanically. Last year we invested in a new harvester called the Asa-Lift. This is a machine that is used to harvest root vegetables that have tops, including parsnips, carrots, celeriac, turnips and winter radishes. This requires a crew of 4 to operate, and when conditions are just right they can harvest tons of roots in a day! Celeriac is one of the more vulnerable crops that could be damaged by a hard frost, so it’s top on the list for harvest this week. Other crops including parsnips and turnips will survive a frost better, so they are further down on the priority list.

Burdock has a very deep root which adds to the
challenge of the harvest.
Burdock root is a major crop for our farm with a high value return per acre and it is an important crop that contributes to the overall sustainability of our farm. We are one of just a handful of farms in the country that produce burdock. We do not include this vegetable in CSA boxes as we realize it has a limited following, but nonetheless there are many people who rely on this crop for medicinal purposes or as part of a traditional diet (it is more commonly eaten in countries such as Japan). If you’ve ever attempted to dig burdock root out of your yard, you’ll quickly realize the roots have the potential to go very deep. We utilize two of our most powerful 4-wheel drive tractors connected by a chain with a lifter on the second tractor to cut deep into the ground and loosen the dirt so a crew of our strongest men can pull the roots out of the ground. This is a very tiring task, so they pace themselves by trading off and taking some time to rest their backs. While it’s a challenging harvest, it’s also a very rewarding one. Burdock can be stored for up to one year. It is one of the few crops we can sell year-round, which means work for our crew in the winter and winter income.

Sunchoke roots are brought to the surface where they
are picked up by hand.
Ok, what else is on the list? Sunchokes! This crop employs yet another means of harvest with a different digger that brings the roots to the surface of the ground where they are picked up by hand and put into bins. One of the important parts of this harvest is selecting nice seed pieces for next year’s crop which needs to be planted yet this fall. The same is true for horseradish. We’ll dig the horseradish and put it into the cooler, then on frosty mornings the harvest crew will sort the horseradish roots and select pieces that are best for planting next year’s crop.

Sweet potatoes on their way to the
greenhouse for curing.

While we’re in the midst of harvesting, we can’t forget about some of the other things we need to get done. By the end of this week, we hope to have our garlic field planted for next year’s crop. We’ve already saved the best bulbs of garlic from this year’s crop to be replanted. Each bulb will need to be cracked to separate the individual cloves. It will take the crew several days to crack all the garlic, plant it, cover it and then mulch the field to insulate it for the winter. It’s crucial to plant the garlic at just the right time in the fall so it can send down roots and become established before winter.

In the midst of all the hustle and bustle, we can’t forget to harvest the brussels sprouts and tat soi for your boxes in November! We’ll still be harvesting spinach, bok choi, and several other greens for a few weeks as well. In just one short week the sweet potatoes will be cured and we’ll spend mornings in the toasty warm greenhouse where they will be washed.

We take each day as it comes hoping for dry weather to dig roots and hoping that the hard freeze holds off until the end of the month. Our crew members are starting to count down the days until they return to their homes in Mexico where their families and children anxiously await their return. As we near the end of the month, our focus will shift to yet another season as we head into winter. Plans for next year’s crops are already underway as we keep looking forward. After a little time to rest and rejuvenate, we’ll be ready to dive into another growing season!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Vegetable Feature: Jicama

by Andrea Yoder

Jicama is a tropical plant that resembles a bean plant and is also known as yam bean, Mexican potato, chop suey bean, or “cooling tuber.” We grow jicama on plastic covered beds to trap additional heat and make the plants think they are in a warmer, tropical location. The plant forms blossoms that produce a pod containing seeds that can be planted to propagate the next year’s crop. While this is happening above ground, a tuber is swelling below ground. Sometimes a plant will produce a single tuber and sometimes a second one develops below the first.

Jicama bears resemblance to a potato or turnip. It has a thick, light brown skin that should be peeled away prior to eating. Jicama’s beauty lies inside with its crisp, crunchy white flesh. It is a mild, neutral flavored vegetable that is slightly starchy with a touch of sweetness. Jicama can be eaten raw or cooked. One of the most basic ways to eat jicama is to slice it into sticks and give it a squeeze of lime juice and a light sprinkling of chili powder. This is a common street food in many parts of Mexico. Jicama is most often used in salads and slaws, which are a nice accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken or beef dishes. It pairs well with citrus fruits and juice including limes and oranges. It also goes well with sweet & hot peppers, cilantro, mint, apples, mango, onions, chipotle, and sesame oil. While jicama is typically eaten raw, it can also be cooked. In Asia it is used in a variety of stir-fry type preparations. When stir-fried, jicama should be added towards the end of cooking to retain the crisp texture. If you let it get just slightly soft, it has an almost potato-like flavor and buttery texture.

It is best to eat jicama within a week or so. Because it is a tropical vegetable, it is susceptible to chill injury if stored at temperatures less than 55 degrees. Thus, we recommend storing your jicama at room temperature until you are ready to use it.

Apple-Jicama Slaw
Recipe borrowed from The Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook

Serves 6
1 medium jicama, peeled and cut into very thin matchsticks (about 3 cups)
3 crisp red apples, cut into very thin matchsticks (about 3 cups)
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
1 small fresh jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
2 Tbsp sunflower or olive oil
2 Tbsp orange juice
1 Tbsp lime juice
1 Tbsp honey
Salt and black pepper, to taste

1. In a large bowl, combine the jicama, apples, onion, jalapeño and cilantro.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, orange juice, lime juice and honey. Add the dressing to the vegetables and toss to evenly coat. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Sautéed Jicama
Recipe borrowed from The Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook. 

Serves 4
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 pound jicama, peeled, halved and cut into thick matchsticks
1 carrot, cut into thick matchsticks
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
⅓ cup water
Salt, to taste

1. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the jicama, carrot and garlic. Cook, tossing frequently, until the jicama is golden brown around the edges, about 7 minutes.
2. Add the water and cook until the jicama and carrot are crisp-tender and the water has evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste.
Note: This is a basic recipe that you could do any number of spin-offs with. In addition to or in place of carrots, you could also include sliced sweet peppers, broccoli stems or celery. For an additional touch of flavor, add a little bit of soy sauce and orange juice in place of the water. You could also add a drizzle of a flavorful nut or toasted sesame oil just before serving.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Future of Food Series, Part V

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

This week we return to our Future of Food series with Tom Folger’s article “The Next Green Revolution,” a piece that discusses the potential role of biotechnology in the quest to feed the world. I’ll say at the outset that this is one of the more contentious issues we’ve delved into up to this point. It is very likely that each person coming to this discussion already has a strong opinion surrounding the creation and application of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Since the space that we have to discuss this issue is minimal, I’ve included a few resources at the end of this article for people who are interested in continuing the conversation.

Folger begins his piece in Tanzania, where the whitefly—invisible to the farmer’s eye—is silently ravaging cassava crops throughout the countryside. Alongside an agent from the Agricultural Research Institute, he witnesses Juma, the farmer at the center of this opening story, being told that he must immediately harvest his whole crop in order to avoid losing all of it. Harvesting one month early will hopefully allow him to feed his family, but he will have made no financial gains over the course of the growing season. Like 90 percent of Africa’s farmers, Juma practices variations of small-scale and subsistence agriculture. For these farmers who are already operating on the margins, the implications of a lost crop can be wholly devastating and may very likely have consequences that resound for years.

With Juma, Folger quickly establishes the moral imperative that appears to largely guide his argument for advancing GM crops: we need them to keep farmers like Juma alive. We’re reminded that by 2050, our population will likely reach nine billion, with half of that growth occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and another 30 percent taking place throughout South and Southeast Asia. Incidentally, Folger points out, “those regions are also where the effects of climate change—drought, heat waves, extreme weather generally—are expected to hit hardest.” With a nod to the Malthusian panic preceding the emergence of the Green Revolution in the 1960s, Folger insists that we need another green revolution in order to once again stave off the starvation of billions.

While he does acknowledge the possibility that solutions to these dilemmas may be found within the low-tech arena, one could easily contend that Folger’s allegiance lies with the high-tech agenda. We are introduced to Robert Fraley, chief technology officer at Monsanto, and to Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), who expound on modern geneticists’ and plant breeders’ ability to identify and manipulate an ever-increasing number of plant genes. The ability to do so, Fraley argues, will make farming “more productive and resilient.” It follows that the geneticist’s ever evolving toolkit can be used as a force for good in a world rife with hunger and malnutrition. Folger points to Golden Rice, a GM variety produced at IRRI that contains corn genes. These genes enable the rice to produce beta carotene, the consumption of which is essential in the fight against vitamin A deficiency. Additional examples are found in salt-tolerant and flood-tolerant rice which, Folger discusses, have already been used with a certain degree of success by farmers in parts of Asia.

As a graduate student whose research revolves around small-scale and subsistence agricultural development in the Global South, I have to admit that the heavy and, at times, seemingly insurmountable burden of hunger and malnutrition makes part of me wish that there was an overarching, just solution to be found in biotechnology. But, as Janet Maro—a Tanzanian woman who co-founded and runs a nonprofit called Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania (SAT)—insists, heralding biotechnology as the solution to smallholders’ plights is simply “not realistic.” She goes on, asking: “How likely is it, in a country where few farmers ever see a government agricultural adviser, or are even aware of the diseases threatening their crops, that they’ll get the support they need to grow GM crops properly?” What this article comes down to, for me, is this question. Biotech leaders are pointing to small-scale farmers like Juma as one of the main drivers of their research and development efforts, but when it comes down to it, the introduction of new technology—whether it be GM crops or a mechanical milking machine—must be met with the extension of knowledge, of training, of ongoing support. Moreover, these approaches must be tailored to fit each local context. Folger makes no mention of this, but any student of development knows that these components are absolutely essential if the goal is long-term, effective use. In using GM crops, small-scale farmers would not only be adopting new seed varieties, they would also be tying themselves to the associated inputs—the specific fertilizer, irrigation and pesticide requirements of that particular seed. As Maro discusses, before some of the farmers she works with transitioned to organic methods, they were spending US$300 on the fertilizer and pesticides needed to treat just one acre of land (this in a country where the per capita income is US$1600). One farmer who spoke with Folger mentioned that after incurring these expenses she had no money left over to send her children to school.

An additional concern, which Folger breezes over, is the minimal safety trials that GM crops are subject to, and our subsequent limited knowledge and understanding of the possible implications of consuming GMOs. For example, Monsanto tests newly developed GMOs over the course of 45 or 90 days, using either broiler chickens or rats. In one study, a team of independent researchers reanalyzed the test results of an approved GM variety of maize. The raw data in fact revealed signs of kidney and liver toxicity in the study rats, a discovery that led to this team’s results being published in The International Journal of Biological Sciences, a peer-reviewed publication.

Folger closes his discussion in Tanzania, where he provides us with a glimpse of the low-tech alternative. With an eye on farmers, on the environment, on the local economy—this approach looks somewhat more promising, especially when considering these factors within a whole-systems framework. Farmers, some working with Maro and SAT, have begun planting a greater variety of crops, which not only works to control for pests but also provides households with a safety net in the event that one of their crops fails. The use of a specific wild sunflower variety, planted between rows, has proven effective in deterring the whitefly from cassava crops. Meanwhile, compost is being promoted as a means of improving soil quality, and the decrease in fertilizer use has had a positive impact on water quality in the region. Owing in part to the efforts of SAT, today Tanzania has the fourth highest number of certified organic farmers in the world.

It goes without saying that, like the biotechnology approach, organic farming is not a simple, straightforward solution. It too, requires the ongoing training and support that I mentioned above. However, at this point let’s return to the overall concern in this Future of Food series: how we’re going to feed the world. I would argue that perhaps a narrower focus is appropriate here—rather than this large-scale, macro question, we might instead want to ask how farmers might acquire the tools, the knowledge and the skills to continue feeding themselves and their communities. While biotechnology might provide farmers with climate-tailored seeds, lower tech approaches have the potential to place power in the hands of the farmers themselves—power in the form of knowledge and real skills that they might use in deliberately cultivating a healthy, resilient, and diverse landscape. As the climate changes, farmers will have to change with it, but if they’re starting from a position of power and understanding grounded in a deep-rooted connection with their environment, this adaptation might prove to be more manageable over time.

Reading list:

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Trade and Environment Review 2013, “Wake Up Before it is Too Late” 

Benbrook, Charles, M. “Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. -- the first sixteen years”, Environmental Sciences Europe, 2012.

de Vendomois, J. S., Roullier, F., Cellier, D., & Séralini, G.E. (2009). A comparison of the effects of three GM corn varieties on mammalian health. International Journal of Biological Sciences, 5(7), 706–726.

Ford Foundation, Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, Mann, Charles C. “Diversity on the Farm” 

Patel, Raj, “How to be Curious about the Green Revolution”,, 29 Aug. 2014.
Tomorrow’s table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak

Friday, September 26, 2014

Vegetable Feature: Turnips

by Sarah Janes Ugoretz

Baby White Turnips
In Europe, turnips were once the vegetable of choice to throw at someone as an insult, and an eligible English maiden would present her suitor with a turnip when rejecting him. As you can see, our vegetable feature this week has certainly experienced its fair share of ups and downs over the course of history. A great degree of this unfortunate reputation can be attributed to the fact that turnips were (and still are, though to a lesser extent) often used as livestock fodder and were thus prone to being viewed as unfit for human consumption. Fortunately, turnips seem to be making their way back into the good graces of consumers, though we at Harmony Valley Farm have loved them all along! With the arrival of fall and knowing that colder days are just around the corner, now’s the perfect time to get acquainted with this wonderful, versatile veggie.

As members of the mustard family, you may hear turnips referred to as Brassicas—a classification they share with cabbage, kohlrabi and cauliflower, to name just a few. Turnips are what we call a cool-weather crop, in that they do best in the chillier days of spring and with the nearing of fall, when we see a drop in the nighttime temperatures. We grow two different classes of turnips. The baby white turnips in your box this week are classified as a salad turnip and are planted early in the spring and again in the fall. These pristine beauties are more similar in size to radishes and have a sweet, mild flavor and tender texture. They are harvested with their green tops which are also edible. The greens are quite nutritious and are a good source of vitamins A, K, and C. The greens can be eaten raw or lightly sautéed. Baby white turnips are meant to be eaten within a week or so after you receive them and are not meant to be stored.

Our second class of turnips, on the other hand, are grown for their storage potential. These include the common purple top turnip as well as two of our favorite varieties—Golden & Sweet Scarlet. The latter two are characterized not only by their colorful skin, but they are also more mild & sweeter in flavor than the traditional purple top turnips. Storage turnips are very dense and have a thicker skin making them better for storage throughout the fall and well into the winter. During a time when eating seasonally was more a necessity than a choice, turnips were often a staple due to their ability to endure long-term storage. Today, the average household likely keeps turnips around for a week or two by storing them in the fridge. You can, however, make them last for up to six months if you store them correctly.
Scarlet Turnips

This week’s baby white turnips really just need a quick scrub to remove any residual dirt. Given their thin, tender skin, there is really no need to peel them. From here, you can eat them raw—sliced or grated into a salad. They can also be lightly cooked with a quick saute or stir-fry, gentle boiling or steaming, or you can even roast them. Storage turnips are a great addition to a hearty soup or stew. You can even mash them, just as you would potatoes. Hold onto this information and refer to it in November and December when we include storage turnips in your box.

Quick Stir-Fried Celery & Turnips
Recipe by Andrea Yoder

Serves 3-4
2 Tbsp vegetable oil, divided
1-2 dried red chiles
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced thinly
1½ cups celery, sliced thinly
4-6 baby white turnips, medium diced
2 Tbsp soy sauce

1. Heat a wok, cast-iron skillet or a sauté pan over high heat. Make sure all of your ingredients are ready before you start to cook.

2. Add 1 Tbsp of oil to the hot pan and add the dried chiles. It’s best to tear or cut the chiles open. The quantity of peppers will be based on your heat tolerance.

3. Stir the chiles to keep them moving so they get toasted, but not burned. After about 45 seconds, add the garlic and continue to move the garlic to keep it from burning.

4. Immediately follow the garlic with the mushrooms and continue to stir-fry until the mushrooms are softened. Add the remaining tablespoon of oil along with the celery and turnips. Stir-fry for several minutes or until the vegetables are tender, yet still crispy. Turn off the heat and add the soy sauce. Stir to combine the soy sauce with all the vegetables. Serve immediately. 

**Note: This is an incredibly simple preparation that is a delicious accompaniment to meals such as teriyaki beef with steamed rice or hoisin chicken and rice.

Roasted Squash with Turnips, Apples & Caramelized Onions

Recipe by Andrea Yoder

Serves 3-4 
2 cups winter squash, medium dice
6 tsp sunflower or olive oil, divided
Salt & Pepper, to taste
2 medium apples, medium dice
4-6 baby white turnips, medium dice
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp dried thyme
½ tsp salt
4 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp butter or coconut oil

⅓-½ cup toasted squash seeds or chopped hazelnuts

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. In a medium baking dish, toss winter squash with 2 tsp of oil. Season with salt and pepper and place in the oven. Roast for 15-20 minutes, then add the apples and white turnips along with 2 tsp more oil. Stir to combine the vegetables and return to the oven. Continue to roast the vegetables for an additional 30-40 minutes or until the apples and vegetables are soft, tender and lightly browned.

2. While the vegetables are roasting, heat a medium sauté pan on the stove top over medium-low heat. Add 2 tsp oil, onions, fennel seeds, dried thyme and ½ tsp salt. Cook over low heat for about 20-25 minutes or until the onions are soft and a light brown in color. You will need to stir them frequently and adjust the heat in order to caramelize them and not fry them.

3. Once the onions are caramelized, remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the apple cider vinegar. Add the butter and let it melt in the warm pan. Stir to combine everything and then set aside.

4. Once the vegetables are roasted, remove the pan from the oven and stir the onions into the hot vegetables. Put in a serving bowl and top with toasted squash seeds or hazelnuts.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Harvest Party Recap:

by Sherri Froh-Byrne
Wagon Tours at our Harvest Party, September 21, 2014 
We could not have asked for a more beautiful day for our annual Harvest Party on Sunday with mostly clear skies and temperatures right around the 70 degree mark! Our party kicked off at noon with live music featuring the sounds of Sonic Love Child filling the valley with Americana, classic country, folk and blues.
Live music with Sonic Love Child 
The music set the tone for the day and heightened the great spirits of all present! We also had a few activities planned such as “Pumpkin Ring Toss” which proved to be more challenging than we thought, but everyone who gave it a try had fun! I think Farmer Richard was one of the very few who was able to “ring” his pumpkin stem with the embroidery hoop!
Farmer Richard competes in a game of "Pumpkin Ring Toss"
We loaded up 4 wagons and made our way to the fields. Our first stop was the sweet potato field which was covered with giant field blankets to protect them from the threat of frost and to keep them warm. As we pulled back the cover, we were momentarily distracted by a Leopard frog that was sitting on top! The cover was caught by the wind and suddenly it had its own personal trampoline as it bounced freely before hopping off and landing on the ground.

Leopard Frog on field blanket

Leopard Frog caught!
Quick photo before its release.
We focused our attention back on the sweet potatoes, and with Farmer Richard’s direction, started to cut away the vines. We had many willing helpers to lift the sweet potatoes out of the ground. Several members who weren’t afraid to dig in the dirt walked away with bunches of sweet potatoes. Hearing the “ooh’s” and “aah’s” of children as the sometimes odd and twisted shapes emerged from the ground and watching each person hold up their sweet potatoes was priceless. Captain Jack and Richard determined we should let them grow just a few more weeks before we harvest the field.
Curious eyes look on as sweet potatoes are lifted from the ground
Next stop, the carrot field! We arrived at the carrot field and listened while Farmer Richard explained where to find the different varieties before giving the go ahead to start pulling carrots. Just like in the sweet potatoes, the sounds of satisfaction after pulling up beautiful bunches of fresh carrots filled the air. The children were especially excited about the different colors of carrots that they found. Farmer Andrea walked with a group out to where the radishes are grown and many members came back to the wagons with nice bunches of radishes. Captain Jack played a game of “stick”, and somehow he ended up with a tail full of burrs. After a bit of grooming he hopped on a wagon and we were on our way to our final stop, the pumpkin field.

Now that's a huge carrot!
The highlight of the wagon tour was the pumpkin picking. Everyone was excited to start looking for their very own perfect pumpkin. Farmer Richard pointed out which variety of pumpkin was most suitable for making pumpkin pie.
The search for the perfect pumpkin!

A few people found some “warty” pumpkins that caught their eye and others found some that would most certainly make the perfect Jack O’ Lantern. Some of the children were on a mission to find a special pumpkin that Farmer Richard had etched with Andrea’s name. I heard the lucky one cry out “I found AJ! I found AJ!” That little girl was so proud of herself for finding Andrea’s pumpkin.
Farmer Andrea's pumpkin

Captain Jack also had a pumpkin with his name etched into the skin that was found amongst all of the pumpkins in the field. It was fun watching everyone decide which one held the most beauty in their own eyes and I am certain that there was not one person who left the field feeling disappointed in their decision.
Captain Jack looks for his pumpkin!
Now that everyone worked up an appetite with all of that field work, we headed back to the packing shed for our potluck. The food was plentiful. Chef Caleb made some delicious Vegetarian Tamale Pie packed with veggies and our own dried beans. This was accompanied by an abundance of salads, side dishes and desserts. I think that it is safe to assume that nobody left the party hungry. Sonic Love Child performed during our meal and for the remainder of the celebration. Again, the music was pleasing and I am certain that I saw toes tapping and lips moving as people sang along with a few familiar songs!
So much food! Truly a bounty of the harvest!

Our big activity this year was “Pack a CSA Box”. The mission of this game was to see who could assemble a box and pack it full of vegetables, fitting all of the vegetables from their tote into the box without crushing or damaging any items. Teams were not only racing against the clock and each other, but racing against Farmers’ Andrea and Richard. Since they have a bit of an unfair advantage due to their combined experience in CSA box packing, it was decided that they would have to compete while wearing blindfolds.
Farmer Andrea and Farmer Richard compete in "Pack a CSA Box"
We had a tie between 2 winning teams who were able to complete their task in a record 43 seconds. Each of the winning teams took home a special box full of vegetables. The remainder of the teams took home the produce that they had packed and we had additional prizes for everyone participating in the game. Farmer Richard and Andrea were great sports for playing blindfolded. They did come in last place, but certainly their reward was the greatest as because of them and their effort, everyone who attended this year’s harvest party had a super time.

All in all, it was a very successful harvest party. So many people commented on how they couldn’t have asked for a better day for a drive to the farm! It was great to meet so many people and for Richard and Andrea to see so many familiar faces of people who have supported the farm and encompassed the whole CSA concept. Thank you to all of the Harmony Valley crew who showed up to make this day successful by helping with set up, assisting with parking, driving the tractors and clean up. Thank you to those of you who came, and to those of you who couldn’t make it, we hope to see you next year!