Recipe: roasted beet salad

Fresh spring beets are a delicacy. We grow multiple heirloom varieties with different colors, which offer many possibilities for good, simple meals. American cooking tends to reduce beets to an overcooked purple pulp, which is a real shame. I think beets are best lightly cooked, or even better roasted, which brings out their sweetness and flavor. Here’s an easy way to use a bundle of fresh heirloom beets from the market; remember to save the greens for cooking or making broth.

Preheat your oven to 350F. Peel the beets and slice cross-ways into thin circles, maybe 1/4′ thick. You want them solid, but not chunky. Evenness will help them roast correctly together. Toss the beets in a bowl with some olive oil, black pepper, salt, and a bit of apple cider vinegar. When the oven is ready, spread the beets on a baking sheet and drizzle the rest of the oil over them. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until they are partially tender but still solid (NOT mushy).

Prepare a simple salad base of fresh lettuce, maybe some nuts and raisins, and top with the roasted beets. A bit of feta cheese goes very nicely on this as well. A simple oil and vinegar dressing works well, so you don’t overwhelm the natural flavors of the beets.

Simple, but delicious for a light spring meal or side.

Market plans, 6/13

We’ve been waiting for our beets to develop for a while now, and finally the first batch will be ready for market. It seems like it’s taken forever, but checking last year’s records we didn’t start selling them until about this time, so I guess it fits.

We grow a variety of heirloom beets, which don’t get as large as commercial hybrid beets, but make up for it with really nice flavor and sweetness. Plus, with heirlooms, we can provide a range of colors and shapes that make for interesting dishes.

Above, you see three varieties pseudo-artistically arranged on our cutting board. The bullseye variety (Chioggia) is extremely pretty, though the pattern fades as they cook. You can preserve it partially by not overcooking. The others are two different varieties of red beets; Cylindra forms a long, tubular beet which slices nicely into lots of equal discs, while Bull’s Blood is just your nice deep red round beet. Not pictured are Golden and Red Ace. UPDATE: Joanna reminds me that Red Ace is a hybrid we planted as a test comparison to the heirlooms. I ought to know better.

Our beets are best shredded raw for salads, or gently roasted with olive oil as a side or salad topping. Don’t forget to use the greens, which are very tasty sauteed or added to soups. Our price certainly assumes that the fresh, tasty greens are half the value of the product.

Bundles of scallions, both red and white
Herbs, including tarragon, dill, mint, lemon balm, and more
Snap and snow peas by the pint
Garlic scapes (there are some still forming that hadn’t appeared last week)
Saute mix (this mix of beet greens, kale, tat soi, mustard, and pea shoots just keeps going)

Head lettuce is probably finished. Our last bed has started going to seed; it got off to a rough start and the consistent warm weather is too much for it. At least the geese and goats like it.


Kohlrabi will likely be the next interesting item coming up

Attending a listening session on NAIS

On Tuesday, we travelled to Jefferson City, MO to attend a USDA public hearing on the proposed National Animal Identification System. To put it as briefly as possible, NAIS would establish a Federal registry of farms and farm animals, implemented through electronic tags attached to each animal (whether poultry, swine, hooved, etc.), and requiring farmers to report all births, deaths, and movements of such animals. There are few exceptions.

I don’t want to go any deeper into NAIS policy in this post beyond stating that I think it’s an incredibly foolish, ineffective, offensive, and economically dangerous policy. If you’re interested in more than that, Google will lead you to a massive amount of pro and con writing about this very controversial issue. It’s worth noting that there is lots of misinformation out there, so anyone interested should peruse the USDA’s official NAIS site as a balance. There’s enough there to frighten any local foods advocate even without reading from the opposition. I just want to describe our experience in attempting to take part in this “listening session”, one of several USDA has scheduled around the country to collect public comment.

We had heard about this session through various grapevines and online reports, and determined that it was worth our while to go. It was quite hard to find specific information about the program on the USDA’s NAIS website, which has all sorts of pro-NAIS information but doesn’t exactly welcome opponents. The best we could find was a statement that the session would run from 9am to 4pm, during which the public could show up and make statements for the record. So we figured we’d get some other things done, then head down midday to allow plenty of time to stand in line.

We arrived at the conference center around 11:30, and immediately ran into folks we knew. “Are you here to comment?” we were asked. Yep. “Well, better hurry inside, the comment period only runs until noon.” So we hustled in to find out that public comments were scheduled for 9-12, with an hour and a half lunch break followed by a few hours of “breakout sessions” designed to facilitate discussions on appropriate implementation of NAIS. Then we were told that due to the overwhelming response and crowd, they were extending the comment period to 1pm. So I asked for a lottery ticket (they were drawing speakers from the crowd by lottery number) and headed inside.

The setup was a large ballroom, packed to the gills with people, most in overall, ballcaps, dresses, and otherwise clearly rural attire. There was a podium at the front, with a line of stony-faced USDA officials sitting facing it (in front of the crowd). The mood was restive and angry, with anti-NAIS shirts and signs common. You could almost feel the crackling energy. Speaker after speaker strode to the microphone to angrily, wistfully, and/or thoroughly denounce the USDA, and the Federal government. They argued the potential for NAIS to ruin small family farms in favor of industrial agriculture, that it was a huge overreach of Federal power into citizen’s rights, that it wouldn’t work as a disease prevention program, and that the technology wouldn’t even work effectively. I certainly don’t see how a government that can’t even track illegal immigrants or manage defense contracting expects to effectively track every farm animal in the country. Even in the 90 minutes I was there, I heard speakers from around Missouri and several neighboring states, and the AP reported that at least five states were represented.

I eagerly waited for my number to be called; most speakers were middle-aged and older, with lifetimes in agriculture, and I wanted a chance to speak as a young entreprenurial farmer who chose this life and this business. When 1:00 came, my number was one of many tickets left to be drawn, but the comment period was shut down (I went up and looked to see how many were left, and whether my matching number was even there; it was). I told the moderator how displeased we were to not have had proper information about the format of the event; we would have shown up sooner if we’d known how it was set up. She gave me a glazed-look “I’m so sorry you didn’t get to speak” and walked away. Several other attendees overheard and told me that the USDA folks had done a terrible job of moderating the morning, allowing multiple people to ramble on well past their alloted 3 minutes each, despite multiple protests from the crowd.

And in fairness, there was a lot of rambling, and a lot of off-topic ranting. Something like this draws opponents from a wide political spectrum, and there were some pretty fringe comments going around. I don’t think these off-topic comments helped the rational case against NAIS any, and I hope the USDA can filter the relevent anger from the latent vitriol. But the core message I took away from this was that a huge crowd of grassroots farmers, of all types and from multiple states, had taken the time from their farms and driven to central Missouri to express their fear and disgust about what the USDA is trying to do. It was a powerful experience, and I hope similar patterns will emerge at every one of these hearings (I suspect they will).

We didn’t stay for the afternoon sessions, as they were described as focusing on how to implement NAIS, and I have no input on that. I do not think it can be implemented practically or ethically, and will not cooperate in attempting to sugarcoat it. We’ll submit our comments online to USDA, and will post them here.

Thought that story might be of interest to some folks.

Recipe: garlic scape pesto

There are lots of ways to use this fresh market product, usually available around early-mid June, but this is one of our favorites. It’s easy, unique, and a real seasonal treat. The result is a thick garlic-flavored paste that can be spread on crackers and bread, or used on pasta. There are lots of recipes out there, which I’ve perused and distilled into this common version that can be used in any amount.

Combine chopped garlic scapes, olive oil, and grated hard cheese in a 2:1:1 ratio. For reference, one of our standard bundles of six good-sized scapes will chop into 1/2-3/4 cup. This is enough for one meal, as the result is reasonably strong and you don’t need a lot. If you make more, it freezes well. In any case, throw all these items into a blender until you get a nice paste. Add some lemon juice, salt, and/or nuts as desired, and you’re done.

This can be used as-is, or combined with other items to make a nicer sauce. In the example below, I added fresh chopped snap peas and some rehydrated dried red peppers from last summer, plus some extra grated Walloon cheese from Goatsbeard Farm. Quick, easy meal.

Selling & tasting lettuce

Testing the quality of produce we sell is always an interesting challenge. In some cases, like peas or cherry tomatoes, it’s easy. But we’ve always found lettuce a tougher item to judge. Often, our taste buds consider what we harvest to be a bit strong or bitter, but find that chilling sweetens the flavor. Also, taste buds are so subjective that what’s strong to us may be excellent to others.

Another difficult factor with lettuce is the wide variety of ways in which people use it. Someone who puts our lettuce in a salad covered with strongly flavored vegetables and ranch dressing is going to have a different experience than someone who eats it straight with a light drizzle of oil and vinegar (as we do). So do we aim our product solely at the oil & vinegar folks, discarding stronger-tasting product that would be fine in a heavy salad or sandwich, or do we not worry too much about it and risk selling something that’s too strong for pickier customers?
The final problem here is waste. We’ve had a significant amount of lettuce that we just didn’t think passed our taste threshold, and that was fed to the chickens. But it probably could have been sold to folks who were going to thoroughly combine it with other items; it was fresh and crispy and otherwise perfectly good. If I could know who it was going to, I’d be more likely to sell it. But I’d hate to sell a stronger head to someone who would take it home, eat it straight, and hate it.
So far, I’ve had many customers return week after week to buy the same lettuces, praising their quality and taste, so we must be doing something right. But like any business person, we often wonder who might have bought something once and never came back because they didn’t like it. And we’d love to sell more lettuce to those who would enjoy it.
So my question to our readership is, (1) what do you look for in fresh market lettuce, whether from us or others, and (2) how do you handle a market product that isn’t what you wanted?

Weekly farm life

Now that market sales are ongoing (we’ve been at market about two months), our lives have settled into a form of weekly routine. I thought it might be interesting for customers and readers to consider what that routine looks like. Our week really centers around the Saturday farmers market, so that you could consider a new week to begin on Sunday, but often that day still ties back into the day before, so I’ll start here with Monday.

Every day I get up between 6 and 6:30, this time of year relying on just the sun. I tend to wake up naturally earlier than Joanna, who is always up by 7. One of us gets dressed and goes down to deal with morning animal chores, which include opening the goose & chicken sheds, refilling water and hay, and most mornings doing the milking. We’ll also usually open the gates to the nearest grazing paddock. Whoever isn’t handling the animals tends to make breakfast, usually a rotation between homemade granola, yogurt, eggs, oatmeal, scones, cornbread, and so on. I make a point of finding time to read multiple sources of online news and check email; staying educated and aware is something I take very seriously (we also get over ten magazines that we read at meals, bed, snatches of time).
We usually eat lunch around noon, and are working toward shifting to a summer meal schedule in which lunch is the main meal followed by a rest, to avoid the hottest part of the day. This allows us to have a quick meal of leftovers for dinner, so that we can maximize use of the cooler evening hours. During any given day we’ll be coming back to the house every few hours for water, snacks, tools, or whatever, and take a lot of mini-breaks to balance the long workday.
Evening chores including feeding grain, checking hay and water, and locking animals away for the night. Chickens go into their shed, mother geese and goslings go into theirs, and we usually lock the kids away in a separate compartment for the night to allow Garlic to accumulate milk for morning. Milking once a day eases the burden on us, and provides fresh milk while allowing the kids to nurse during the day. We try to shower and be in bed by 9:30 with sleep by 10. Both of us do far better with a full night of sleep.
Since late winter, I’ve been working one day a week at Goatsbeard Farm, the excellent dairy & cheesemaker about 11 miles west of us. We’ve had a good relationship with them for a while now; our goats came from there and we’ve bred with their buck. I wanted to gain more experience with commercial-scale dairying, goat management, and cheese making, and it’s helpful for them to have reliable workers. Any steady paycheck is nice these days as well. So every Monday morning I head over there by 8, and come home in the afternoon whenever they’re done with me. Meanwhile Joanna tends to use Mondays to really focus on produce tasks and organization, since she’s the primary architect of our plantings. Having me gone means she can devote all her attention to her primary interests, tasks, and planning.
These days are generally open for whatever needs to be done, including planting, weeding, infrastructure projects, moving the goats, and so on. This time of year, harvest is becoming a daily task for fast-ripening items like peas, and later for green beans, cherry tomatoes, and okra. Weather plays a large role in determining the daily work, as the temperature, wind, rain, and soil conditions really dictate what we can and should do. We’ll often end up planning a few days in advance based on the weather forecast, trying to maximize our efficiency with comfort. For example, we’ll try to reserve physical tasks for mornings or cloudy days, while targeting easier tasks for afternoons or hot days. There are always indoor tasks, like updating our records, office/business needs, cooking & preserving, and so on that we try to reserve for rainy or hot days.
This is our main harvest day for market, as we prefer our products to be as fresh as possible. We’ll usually start first thing in the morning, with a steady progression of harvesting product, washing, sorting, bundling, & packing it, then storing it in refrigerators. So far we’ve generally been finishing this around midday or early afternoon, after which I’ll pack the truck with all the non-produce market items (tents, tables, scale, etc) and try to have everything ready for Saturday morning. Most weeks we wash the truck out on Thursday, one of the many, many practices we keep records for as part of maintaining our organic certification. Whatever time is left on Friday when everything’s ready for market goes into the general labor pool of tasks.
I get up at 5 on Saturdays, which gives me enough time to load all the produce into the truck and eat a quick breakfast while skimming news. I leave by 6 in order to get to market by 6:30, and setting up the stand usually takes me until at least 7:30. Sales start at 8, and I’ll start packing up around noon. Right after market I go to bank to deposit the day’s take, and then do whatever errands we need around Columbia, including small grocery runs for things like butter and juice. I get home any time between 1 and 4, depending on errands, usually fully exhausted. The rest of the day and evening I tend to lie around; for some reason selling at market thoroughly drains me of energy.
Saturdays for Joanna follow a similar pattern to Mondays; a day in which she can focus on her primary interests and projects. Whenever I get home, we tend to take the rest of the afternoon/evening off, relaxing with magazines, watching a movie, taking a walk, or whatever.
Sunday tends to follow the same pattern as mid-week, a general work day that can be dedicated to whatever needs doing. I tend to still be moving slowly in the morning, so we often make a nicer breakfast and get off to a late start. Otherwise it functions as a kind of transition between weeks, as we unload and clean the truck and market containers (if we didn’t do it Saturday) while getting started on the next round of work.
Serving on two boards (CFM and SF&C) means that I generally have multiple evening meetings per month, as well as a fair amount of email and/or computer work to take care of, as I maintain both organization’s websites. I really don’t like being gone in the evenings, as I get home late and take a long time to settle down, but that’s the nature of the commitment. I fit the office work in wherever I can, often in snippets of time while I’m resting between outside chores.
Probably the largest chunk of non-farm time we spend relates to cooking. We don’t cut corners in our cooking; food is just too important to us. So I estimate we spend several hours a day preparing daily meals from scratch, plus the time we put in preserving food nearly year-round, making basics like bread, yogurt, and cheese, butchering meat for fresh consumption or storage, and so on. It sounds like a lot, but is still less time than the average American family spends watching TV, and is far more rewarding while saving us a lot of money.
Rarely do we take full days off; about once a month we’ll pick a day to stop everything and go do something fun, usually exploring some part of mid-Missouri by back road, foot, and/or canoe. We try to take shorter breaks here and there, like a few hours to fish in an evening or a half-day trip somewhere combined with farm needs like an auction or purchasing trip. We have far more flexibility in our daily schedule than most careers, such that we can take an hour or an afternoon here and there as needed to rest or recuperate, and that makes up for the otherwise 24/7 nature of the work.
And, of course, there’s writing this blog. I’ve developed a system that works pretty well for me, in which I sit down over the weekend (usually Sunday evening) and write up a series of posts that are pre-cued for the following week, a process which usually doesn’t take more than an hour. I don’t view this blog as a instant news source, just a steady diet of information, ideas, and updates that can be written ahead of time in most cases. I’ll often pre-stage ideas as saved outlines, then fill them out days to weeks later when I have a chance. Then on Thursday evening I’ll find a few minutes to write up the Market Plans post for Friday morning, which I’d like customers to start using for pre-market information. I’m consider shifting this to Thursday morning to give folks more heads-up on product, but I like being able to make last-minute decisions about what’s ready to harvest.
So that’s our weekly life in (somewhat) brief. It’s a busy and tiring schedule, as are all small businesses, but with all the benefits of independence and variety that make self-employment.

First farm tour announcement

Our first farm tour of 2009 will take place on Sunday, June 14. This event is intended primarily for customers, as we feel strongly about folks having the opportunity to see where and how their food is grown. Toward that end, we’ve been collecting emails and contact information at our market stand since April, and last week sent out the first notice to the 40 or so folks who have expressed interest so far. We’re limiting the size of the tour, but slots are still available, so ask at the market tomorrow if you’re interested.

Initial announcement below:

Dear customers and neighbors of Chert Hollow Farm,
We will be holding our first farm tour of 2009 on Sunday, June 14 at 3pm. We will explore the farm while discussing our growing and management practices as an integrated organic farm, including our fields, fruit plantings, forests, and animals. We expect to finish by 5pm. There is no cost, and children of all ages are welcome. Please be aware that the tour will involved walking through a variety of terrains and conditions, including field, pasture, forest, and more. Those with mobility concerns may contact us directly about options.

The farm is about 12 miles north of Columbia, roughly 15-20 minutes drive. Due to limited parking space and desired tour size, as well as respect for our neighbors, we can only receive ten vehicles for a tour. These slots will be filled on a first-response basis. Please keep in mind that our entry road is steep, somewhat rough gravel. SUVS or higher-wheelbase vehicles are better, though our 1993 Honda Accord makes it through just fine with some attention. I will grade the road as well as I can for whatever conditions exist, but very nice cars with low wheelbases are your own risk.

Given our vehicle constraints, we encourage those signing up to consider carpooling with others who wish to attend. If you are one of the first ten, and would be willing to offer a ride to others, please provide your rough location and contact info and we will try to match you with others in your area. When the visitor list is settled, we will send those folks directions.

If you can’t make this event, we expect to do more throughout the year, so don’t despair. If you haven’t done so, please visit our website for a preview of the farm:

Market plans, 6/6/09

Saturday’s market will be the last chance at our garlic scapes this year. They flew off the table last week. We’ll also have the same varieties of fresh lettuce in various sizes.

New this week will be snap and snow peas, though not a large amount.

Done for the season are radishes and our saute mix. This latter was very popular as a test product and we’ll do a lot more this fall.

Coming soon will be mixed heirloom beets, kohlrabi, scallions, and more.

Seasonal Asian dishes

Spring is a good time for Asian cooking, with so many fresh greens, herbs, and more available. The meal below was thrown together experimentally, drawing upon my Filipino background, general Asian cooking experience, and loose consultation of a few cookbooks. It came out very nicely and was a great way to finish a long, hard day working in the field. While there are many non-farm ingredients used in any Asian meals we make, the menu is still rooted in the fresh produce of the season and could easily be replicated from our farm stand. What follows isn’t exactly a recipe, since I was making it up as I went along and don’t have exact amounts, but it’s a good guideline for anyone to follow in creating their own version. There are almost infinite ways you could vary the basic concepts here.


This was based on two quarts of beet green broth, though any broth made by simmering fresh greens would work. Once simmering, I added a large handful of mint and lemon balm leaves, along with chopped chives & cilantro, ground dried hot peppers, a dab of fish sauce, and a cup of leftover adobo sauce from another meal (this last is a staple of Filipino cooking, made in our household by combining garlic, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peppercorns, and bay leaves). I let this simmer for a long time to blend the flavors, then strained out the leaves. A few minutes before serving, I added a half-can of coconut milk and a few cups of chopped bok choi, and let it cook just long enough to soften the vegetables. The result was a light but rich soup with a nice blend of flavors.

These were a bit riskier, but came out good enough. I’d started dried black bean simmering hours before, and around dinnertime I moved on to the rest. I chopped and sauteed some garlic scapes in sesame oil, along with minced hot peppers and grated ginger. When these were lightly cooked, I added a half-can coconut milk, 1/4 cup brown sugar, and a cup of adobo sauce (see Soup, above) and let things simmer on low a bit longer. Then I added the drained black beans and some chopped rapini and mustard greens, mixed everything together, and let it all simmer on low to blend. The coconut milk ended up being a bit strong; I should have used half the amount, but otherwise it produced a nicely flavored dish with a good balance of heat and flavor.

I served these with a big bowl of freshly-picked snap peas, which complemented the main dishes really well. Each of the other dishes were rich and spicy, so after every few bites we would grab a few peas, whose fresh, sweet flavor really balanced the rest of the meal. It was a perfect touch

I had baked a strawberry-rhubarb pie as well, and reserved about 1.5 cups of juice from the sugared fruit. I mixed this with about 3 cups of orange juice and 1 cup of yogurt before chilling, to make a nice sweet fruity lassi kind of thing. This also balanced the rich, spicy main dishes perfectly.

Not very photogenic overall, but quite enjoyable.

New goslings

Our two geese have been sitting on nests for a while now, and we were starting to wonder if the eggs were fertile. Then we went down Saturday afternoon and found two newly hatched goslings stumbling about. There are still more eggs left, and we’re not sure how many will hatch, but two is a good start. As with all babies, they’re adorable.