Fresh edamame are a delicious seasonal treat from the farm. These are edible soybeans, especially popular in Japan but catching on in the US. Generally you can only find them frozen in speciality food sections, but they can certainly be grown fresh by local farmers (just look at how many acres are in their commodity cousins in Missouri). We grew some for the first time last year at a foodie friend’s suggestion, and were amazed at their popularity. They just flew off the market stand, no questions asked. So this year, we planted a lot more.

We’re growing four varieties this year, each with their own features. Some mature faster, some have larger pods, some plants are taller, and so on. Above you see Joanna in a lush stand of beans; you can tell that the variety in the two right rows are taller than those to the left.

These were planted in our 2.5’x40′ beds, with lots of carefully planned experiments on spacing. We’re running a series of tests to determine the optimal spacing for our land, so that each variety is planted in either one or two rows per bed, with plant spacings of anywhere from 2″-6″. As we harvest, we’re trying to track what differences we see in per-bed and per-plant yield so we can improve our yields next year. We’ve already decided that the double-row plantings make harvest more difficult, as the plants tend to crowd the narrow aisles and make it hard to move.

Edamame form bush-habit plants with the beans mostly clustered along the stem, as seen above. Some varieties mature all at once, while others slowly mature to their own beat. Our earliest two varieties, Fiskby and Agate, fit the latter pattern, so we’ve been out every day or so harvesting pods as they mature. Edamame are reasonably easy to grow overall, as they quickly form a thick canopy that shades out weeds, and as a legume actually improve the soil as they grow. But harvesting them is extremely time-sensitive if you’re not using heavy equipment, as you have to move slowly down the row searching for plump pods among the still-growing ones. Much of the price we charge reflects the work involved in hand-picking to get just the right quality; this time investment will get even heavier as more varieties come on.

Edamame are quite easy to prepare; we just toss them in boiling salted water for 3-5 minutes. After this light cooking, they’re easy to shell and eat like a pea, with a really nice flavor. Some people will shell and then toss into a stir fry or salad, but most just eat them like popcorn. Several customers last year told me their kids loved the fun of shelling edamame, and they do make a tasty, salty, yet healthy treat.

In a time when most soybeans are large-scale, GMO, heavily sprayed commodities, we enjoy growing fresh organic beans as direct food rather than grist for the industrial food mill. Come to the market and try some for yourself!

Linking low-income consumers with farmers markets

Another interesting observation from my recent NY trip involved that state’s program linking low-income consumers with farmers markets:

The New York State Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) provides checks to low-income, nutritionally at-risk families enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Senior Nutrition Programs. The checks are redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets. The purpose of the program is to promote improved nutrition through increased consumption of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also intended to expand sales at farmers’ markets. The Department collaborates with the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Office for the Aging, and Cornell Cooperative Extension in administering the program.

As it appeared at the markets I visited, qualified people receive paper checks that look like travellers checks and are marked “for use only for fresh produce at farmers markets” or something like that. Farmers I talked to seemed to think it was a good program.

Ideally, I’d prefer to live and farm in a world where the government didn’t need to prop up people’s budgets to afford decent food, where the overall food system didn’t shovel money into making it necessary for low-income people to need subsidies to buy fresh food. I’d prefer to live and farm in a world where decent food was a high priority in home budgets of any level, ahead of electronics and over-consumption. I’ll never understand why a population that happily shells out $4 for a hot dog and $6 for a beer at a baseball game complains that local farmers are gouging with their prices.

I’m also somewhat reluctant to back such proposals, because I fear that subsidizing anything leads to people taking it for granted. For example, I have very mixed feelings about programs that seek to get lots of donated food from farmers to give away to those in need. It’s hard to argue with the societal value of such things, but economically I’d rather have those folks as customers than dependants, and I worry that giveaways and subsidies encourage people not to value what they’re given at its true value. How many people grateful for a donated potato would scoff at the $4/lb I charge to make a decent income on growing it, because society and government taught them that food should be free or cheap at all costs?

That being said, we don’t live in that world right now, and it seems that the NY approach is a pretty good attempt to bridge the gap. It’s one of many ways states are experimenting with supporting low-income populations while also supporting local farmers (who often themselves could qualify for welfare based on their annual incomes). I remember seeing another type of program in either Maryland or Virginia while I was helping in a farm in the latter. As I recall, it involved doubling the value of food stamps when used at farmers markets, as a way to offset the perceived higher cost of fresh local food as compared to processed out-of-state food.

I do much prefer this kind of subsidy to other kinds, as rather than just giving money to people or businesses, it provides the support through actual economic activity. The farmer has to work to earn their part of the bargain, and the user has to make the effort to seek out the food. Far better than sending straight checks to either one.

Observations on NY agriculture

While visiting western NY this July, I was able to check out two farmers markets and chat with many vendors there, while also making some observations about NY agriculture in general. Take with plenty of salt, but this is what I saw and heard:

Brighton Farmers Market

Held in the school parking lot of this Rochester, NY suburb, this market boasts around 35 members sourced from within a 50-mile radius. According to its website, “The market aims to support farmers who use sustainable growing methods and to encourage farmers to move toward greater sustainability”. This was confirmed in my conversation with the market manager, who felt very strongly about this point. There were probably 20-25 stalls the day I visited, and nearly every one boasted various levels of sustainable practices, including at least four certified farms. Browsing the market’s website, I find it interesting that all their vendor listings include descriptions of the farm’s sustainable/organic growing methods, even for the conventional operations.

I especially enjoyed chatting with the folks at (certified organic) Fraser’s Garlic Farm, whose 30,000 heads a year put into perspective our pride in our 800 or so. Probably the most enlightening talk I had was with an organic pork producer whose card I unfortunately forgot to grab. He noted that there wasn’t a single organic-certified slaughterhouse in all of NY, so he and every other organic farmer he knows has to drive their animals 3 hours (in his case) one-way to an operation in northern PA. This is as bad as Missouri, which only has a single one down in southeast Missouri (where local folks like JJR Farm drive hours each way). Just shows how bizarre and unsupportive many aspects of our food system are right now.

Ithaca Farmers Market

Frankly, my impression was that this market is one of the holy grails for those who believe local foods and sustainable agriculture are the way of the future. As “a cooperative with 150 vendors who live within 30 miles of Ithaca, New York”, it supports an excellent network of direct-market farmers, despite being based in a college town of around 30,000 people hours away from larger cities (by comparison, Columbia is closer to 100,000, both numbers excluding college populations). There is little or no practical or agricultural reason that makes Ithaca unique as compared to other parts of the country; mid-Missouri and the rest of the Midwest could easily do this if the culture and economic choices were present.

I didn’t make it to one of their huge weekend markets in their beautiful lakeside pavilion, but even the smaller weekday morning market in a downtown park was excellent. About twenty vendors were set up, about 1/3 prepared food vendors and 2/3 farmers. I especially enjoyed talking with Mary McGarry-Newman of Buried Treasures Organic Farm (no website), who used to live in Columbia and Jefferson City years ago before settling with her husband on their current farm near Ithaca. They were a classic example of folks leaving other occupations to farm, and seem to be building up an excellent business in a very supportive environment.

The Ithaca market really pushes sustainability as well, including a Zero Waste Initiative that includes partnering with a local company to compost all waste from the market for use by local farmers. Good stuff.

Other observations

In driving across various parts of western NY, I was struck by just how diverse and vibrant (relatively) the agriculture was. Like much of the upper Midwest, NY has preserved far more of its small farms, and their crops are far more diverse. There were far more well-kept houses and barns than in much of Missouri, and it seemed that every other farm had a vegetable stand in a density only seen in Amish country here. With no massive 4-lane highways like most of Missouri’s major routes, it was still practical to stop at local farms and shop or visit. Approaching Ithaca, it became clear what the local government’s priorities were, as most of the standard tourist-type signs pointed to local farms and dairies rather than fast-food restaurants or other chains. Imagine driving into Columbia and seeing highway signs for Sparky’s, Main Squeeze, Sycamore, Shakespeare’s, Goatsbeard, etc.

Western NY is also home to Wegmans, a fantastic regional grocery chain that has been quite successful balancing a full-service grocery business with ethical and sustainable business practices. Often voted one of the top companies to work for in America, they are seriously dedicated to local farms and produce. Their produce sections are laced with a variety of NY-grown produce that most Missourians could only dream of right now, displayed under huge signs showcasing the farms they buy from and their practices. According to a large sign in one store, they are even running a certified organic research farm to help develop and explore agricultural methods suited to regional growing conditions, in order to help support and develop their supplying farmers’ skills and move them towards more sustainable practices. Ball’s in your court, Hy-Vee.

Now, many aspects of NY agriculture are still struggling, as a series of articles in the Rochester paper made clear. Their dairy farmers are feeling the same extraordinary pinch as others, and a very wet year has destroyed many crops, including the very common potatoes. The same issues that bedevil farmers everywhere hurt there too. But I couldn’t help but feel that here was a vision of a better way to balance all kinds of farming, and I got the sense that the NY government, though incredibly dysfunctional in many ways, has done a good job of working to support and promote its farms. I’d love to see Missouri re-diversify in the way that NY has, balancing its vast duocultures of corn and soybeans with all the other food crops that are perfectly growable here if the economic, cultural, and governmental factors favored such a shift.

In the interest of honesty, it’s worth noting that I grew up in western NY farm country, so am perhaps not quite entirely impartial. And these are pretty broad conclusions to draw from a couple days of visiting after many years away. But this is what I was thinking on the way home, so there it is. Make of it what you will.

Agriculture stories from NY state

I spent part of last week on a quick visit to western New York, visiting my mother & brother to celebrate their retirement and high school graduation, respectively. Joanna worked hard to keep things under control on her own while I was gone, and we’re both grateful for the current cool weather so we can catch up on weeding and other chores.

While there, I was able to visit several farmers markets and travel around some. This week’s blog will be dedicated to some of the interesting things I learned, saw, and heard while there, including:

– observations from markets in Brighton, NY and Ithaca, NY, and on the diverse and (relative to MO) robust nature of western NY local agriculture.
– discussion of a NY program that dedicates funds to specific checks that low-income folks can use to directly purchase fresh produce solely from farmers markets.
– some hair-raising stories overheard from an Iowa chicken CAFO employee on the train back home.

Meanwhile, back on the farm, we’ll be catching up with the weeds, starting our planting of fall produce, doing a lot of manual harvesting of fresh beans and edamame, and working out the best management strategies for our fast-growing young chicks and turkeys. Look for edamame at market next week, and at Main Squeeze and Sycamore, both of whom have expressed interest in sourcing it from us.

Market plans, July 18

Looking back at our market stand last year, it’s interesting to compare the annual differences. We’ve certainly grown, as July 20th 2008 was our first market stand for over a month, whereas this year we’ve finally been able to maintain a good stand every week since the spring. We started selling cured garlic that day, as compared to a week earlier this year. Cucumbers and beans are earlier this year, but tomatoes are way behind. Edamame is way ahead, as we started selling it last year in late August, but this year the first varieties should be ready next week.

Part of last week’s market stand: NEW THIS WEEK:
More varieties of cured garlic. We grew 12 this year, and will be selling 8 of them. This week there will be at least four varieties available, most likely German Extra Hardy, Bogatyr, Georgian Crystal, and Chet’s Italian Red. The others were harvested later and are finishing curing. We’ll also likely have some new cucumbers.

Amaranth greens, onions, herbs (including basil), green beans, fennel, potatoes, and more.

We’re going to hold off on selling baby squash for a bit; it’s not that lucrative and zucchini are something we put up a lot of for winter. We also don’t plant much of it, as organic zucchini is problematic and it’s just not worth using lots of space for. So we’re going to focus on making our freezer quota of zucchini soup and shredded zucchini for a while, and maybe bring more to market if the plants are still going strong later in the summer. Kohlrabi are also done; we did one test bed this year and liked the tender ones we got, but many didn’t bulb at all and overall the crop was a failure.

Fresh edamame! These are so close this week, but the pods just aren’t fleshed out enough for harvesting. They’ll definitely be available next week; given the customer reaction last year, we can’t wait to start selling these this year.

Market plans, July 11

This week, as we often do, we try to find the balance between selling product and keeping it for ourselves. Potatoes and garlic are a great example of this, as we could certainly sell everything we grow, but feel strongly about feeding ourselves year-round and so withhold a significant quantity for winter storage. So the market quantity is always smaller than what it could be, but we prefer that to purchasing shipped-in produce all winter.

The first harvests of green beans and potatoes will be available. The beans are Fin de Bagnol, a fantastic French bean with memorable flavor and texture. Many customers adored these last year and have been asking about them. This week will be the first small harvest, probably just a few pints; the core of production will be over the next few weeks. Potatoes this week will be fresh Yukon Golds; big, beautiful yellow potatoes and very tasty. We only grew one 40′ row of these this year, so they’ll be a one-time product at market. There are three more varieties of potatoes maturing soon.

Cured garlic heads will make their first appearance, most likely German Extra Hardy and Chet’s Italian Red. These were the first out of the ground, so will be the first cured available. Over the next few weeks, the rest will finish and we’ll round out our display of multiple garlic options.

More amaranth greens, which sold out fast last week. We really like these as a summer cooking green, and are looking forward to the first customer reviews. Also more scallions and multiple kinds of onions. Small amounts of fennel, kohlrabi, and baby squash will be present, along with multiple fresh herbs.

Fresh garlic, as all heads have been harvested and are curing.

Edamame, tomatillos, more potato varieties, and cucumbers.

Food ideas for early July

Here are more enjoyable meals we’ve had recently, rooted in our farm’s products and other local food sources. As early summer items start to come on, we’re truly enjoying the ability to make diverse meals from truly fresh ingredients. One of the nice things about running a farm is that you get to eat all the seconds, produce that isn’t quite perfect enough for market but is plenty edible. So we end up with meals like these:

First, we have the vegan feast:

A vegan friend stayed with us for a few days last week, and we had a great time eating lots of meals fully sourced in some newly-available products like potatoes, green beans, and amaranth greens. Above, you see: Herbed new potatoes. Freshly dug Yukon golds, cubed and boiled, with olive oil, dill, and parsley. Sauteed amaranth greens. We like these as a summer green, cooked just like any other (collards, kale, etc.). Here they’ve been sauteed with chopped fresh garlic and tomato vinegar. Fennel & friends salad. Lots of fresh veggies chopped and tossed with a simple vinegar dressing. Fennel, baby zucchini, string beans, sweet onions, and more. This was a great meal, almost entirely made from items harvested just before preparation, with lots of different flavors and textures to enjoy.

Next we have a nice combination of potatoes and garlic:


At upper right is a nice “potato cake” Joanna tried from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Basically another form of potato pancakes (which we often make), this involved thinly sliced fresh potatoes, sweet onions, basil, cheese, and salt. It didn’t hold together like the recipe suggested, but it made an excellent hash. At bottom is a roasted fresh garlic bulb with a fresh flatbread to spread it on. This particular variety was Russian Giant, which we’re not selling. It roasted wonderfully into a smooth, buttery spread with a really mild flavor (a bit too mild for me, though tasty). There’s nothing like the flavor of roasted garlic.
And finally the fish chowder:
Made from a family recipe (my stepfather is an avid fisherman), this was based on a fat fish from Troutdale Farm. I started a roux of butter and flour, then sauteed some sweet onions. To this I added chopped potatoes and fresh shelled peas, and just enough water to cover. All this was boiled until tender, then I added the flaked fish along with salt and pepper. Finally I added fresh goat’s milk and the roux, and slowly simmered into a thick, delicious chowder. All the produce was ours, the fish, milk, and flour local, leaving just the butter as non-local. This was really, really tasty.

Food safety and liability

During my recent TV interview on food safety legislation, a new angle on the whole food safety regulation hit me, which the reporter found so interesting that she set the camera back up and filmed me talking about it (though they didn’t end up using it). Right now, it costs us lots of money annually to have farm liability insurance, including product liability, which we feel we need to avoid losing everything to a frivolous lawsuit or an innocent mistake. Yet the government is working to set up massive new regulations that would tightly define how we’re allowed to produce “safe” food. So let’s think about this: if I follow all these new FDA regulations, clearly that implies the food I’m producing is safe, right? If it doesn’t, the law isn’t worth crap. So if I’m following the regulations that are forced on me, I shouldn’t have to ALSO carry expensive liability insurance, because the government’s new regulations are supposed to define and enforce what safe food production is.

I might be more inclined to play along with these new rules if they come with a guarantee that the government will make me immune to liability as long as I follow the rules. As it is, though, we’re going to get hit from both directions. We’ll be shut down if we DON’T jump through all the government hoops defining “safe” food, but none of those rules actually carry any legal protection or meaning when it comes to our liability. So we’ll lose money complying with all this crap AND lose money paying for expensive liability insurance.

Also, most of the proposed rules are based on process, not product. They don’t define what safe food is, they define how safe food should be produced. They say “do this, that, and this, and the food will be safe” but don’t actually define what the end result should be. In other words, in theory they can set a safe allowable level for, say, E coli. If that level can be met, who cares HOW it’s met? Maybe Dole and I will find different paths to that safe level that work well for each of us. But right now, the legislation assumes that if Dole and I both follow the same strict production method, that will make the food safe. It’s silly.

The real kicker here is that liability insurance is a joke; no agent will ever inspect our farm to see if we’re actually clean or not. Our rates are completely unrelated to how we farm; it’s just a formula somewhere. The company has no idea what we do or how we do it, and has no method for judging the actual risk or quality of our operation. But if we don’t pay their magic number, arrived at who knows how, we are completely open to losing everything through either one mistake or one misunderstanding.

The whole system is a joke, or would be if it didn’t have such real implications for real small businesses and real food supplies.

Farm update, early July

As summer arrives, our attention is shifting to the main field, where beans, corn, okra, potatoes, sorghum, tomatillos, and more are coming on strong. Above, you see a healthy set of edamame plants, already setting their pods. We’ve been harvesting the first potatoes and green beans for ourselves, and enjoying them immensely. Look for both at market next Saturday.

The market garden is in transition, with virtually all the spring crops out and summer items getting started. Tomatoes, peppers, green beans, sweet potatoes, squash, and cucumbers are all growing, but not yet ready for harvests. We always get a late start on these items because of the cooler conditions in our valley, and this year were set back even more by some trouble with our indoor starts. In some cases, too, transplanting/seeding summer items in the garden is delayed by waiting for spring crops to finish. This was especially true for our beet beds, which took forever to mature, delaying the tomato transplants that were intended to follow. Right now the market garden looks strangely barren, with so many beds in transition, and with all the garlic beds temporarily empty now that we’ve finished the garlic harvest.

There are many updates for the animals as well. We finally got around to a long-intended project, moving the goat’s paddocks and hoophouse up onto a brushy ridge over our vegetable field. They’re now in heaven with lots of fresh browse to eat; we’ll be rotating their area every 3-4 weeks through the summer to keep providing fresh food and to help manage worms.

We’ve added four young ducks, intending two for summer meat and two for future eggs and more ducks. One Ameracauna hen is sitting on five eggs, which are due to hatch sometime next week. We also got our summer shipment of chicks and turkeys in, adding another 25 birds to the rotation. Below are the turkey poults:

And here are the chicks:

These are all from Sandhill Preservation Center, a fantastic small family outfit in Iowa that specializes in preserving rare heritage breeds. In this batch, we have more Black Ameracaunas to match our existing flocks, plus two varieties of Rhode Island Reds. Last year, we felt our one RIR rooster was the best tasting of any breed, and they’re supposed to be decent layers as well, so we ordered more. These are straight-run, meaning mixed genders, which we like because the young roosters become our winter meat supply and we can keep the hens for laying. We’ll be writing more about these later, including our new trial methods of brooding chicks on a more natural diet than processed chicken feed.

Other projects have including running a temporary water line to the main field in anticipation of normal drier summer conditions, and another up to the goat’s new paddock. We’re still finishing the fencing on the main field, including stringing electric wire along the top now that the corn is beginning to form tassels and raccoon season can’t be far away.

And, of course, lots of weeding, hoeing, bad-bug-squishing, and all the other day-to-day tasks it takes to keep this place running. The weather has been really cooperative, with rain timed once or twice a week and recent temperatures quite enjoyable. So far it’s really been an excellent growing season for us, and we’re looking forward to delving into the heart of our market season with the full garlic, edamame, potatoes, and more.

Market plans, July 4

We are very much entering our transitional period from spring produce to summer produce. Most spring items like beets, radishes, lettuce, peas, and greens are finished, but core summer items like beans, tomatoes, okra, and more are not yet ready. So the next market or two will be smaller than usual for us, but what we have will still be fresh and worthwhile.

We may have some amaranth leaves, which have a really nice flavor when cooked and make a great mid-summer source of greens. Fennel bulbs and kohlrabi will also make their first appearance.

Fresh garlic heads, sweet onions, scallions, young summer squash, a variety of fresh herbs, and more.

Beets are gone. We harvested all our remaining beets last week due to heat. I brought them all to market in coolers, not expecting to sell them all, but intending bring the remainder back and store the roots for sale the following week. That didn’t happen, as beets of all types were so popular that we sold our entire remaining stock by the end of market. Clearly we need to plant more beets this fall/next spring. So sorry to those hoping for more; I wasn’t expecting such good sales!

COMING SOON: Green beans are close. The earliest Fin de Bagnol green beans are ready, though we won’t have marketable quantities until next week. These are the best-tasting beans we’ve ever found, and customers last year agreed. The first edamame pods are forming. We dug the earliest potatoes for ourselves this week, so those are coming soon. Cured head garlic should be available within the next few weeks.