Ballpark edamame

We all know fresh edamame are a tasty snack, but this weekend we took that to a new level. As my main birthday present, we took Sunday off and went to an afternoon baseball game in Kansas City (I prefer the city, the stadium, and the team to their counterparts in St Louis). Being ourselves, we had no interest in ballpark food and brought our own. Fresh pitas with farm lettuce, cukes, tomatoes, aged raw-milk cheddar… I’m pretty sure we were the only fans there eating homemade cheese. Oh, and the edamame.

Peanuts and ball games go great together; the salty shelling snack balances the beer perfectly and keeps the hands busy. But I’m not about to pay overblown peanut prices, so we boiled up a large batch of fresh edamame before we left, figuring they’d make a great substitute. We were right. Here’s me displaying our gallon bag of farm-fresh goodies:

As we sat in our $13 seats, alternating between Boulevard Wheat and shelling edamame, watching a very enjoyable 2-1 win, I think we got a pretty good value out of the day. And if this fall’s peanut harvest goes well (we have several rows planted), maybe we’ll set aside a very special batch for this time next year. In the meantime, I can attest that our edamame travel well and complement baseball nicely.

A visit to Stoney Acres sheep dairy

On the way home from a recent quick trip to visit Joanna’s parents in Arkansas, we fulfilled a long-time wish by arranging to visit Stoney Acres sheep dairy. Founded 13 years ago deep in the Missouri Ozarks, it was the first sheep dairy in the state, blazing a number of trails for small direct-market dairies to follow.
image linked from Stoney Acres website
Rick was pleased to have visitors and spent over an hour showing us around and answering questions. Their operation is simple and efficient; milking around 50 ewes who are kept on rotated pasture. The photo above shows their entire dairy infrastructure; the gambrel-roofed left side of the barn houses a small milking parlor that holds six ewes at a time, while the simple right side houses their cheese room, aging coolers, washing stations, and sales table.
It was fascinating to see a truly compact and efficient setup like this in which they have found many effective, legal shortcuts and cost-saving measures to keep things simple. They milk into metal cans, but freeze the milk so they don’t need a bulk tank (thus saving expense and cleaning needs). Both goat and sheep milk freeze well, and can be used after thawing for cheese-making. Their cheese-making area is a single stainless-steel table with associated sink, on which they make a few wheels of small-batch cheeses at a time. All the cheese is aged raw-milk, saving the need for a pasteurizer (another source of expense and cleaning needs). A restaurant-style steel cooler ages and stores the raw cheese, which by FDA rules is legal to sell after 60 days. On the other side of the room, a simple water heater and sink take care of sanitary needs. And that’s all they need.
Rick gave us a history of the dairy, which includes lots of conversations with the state dairy authorities to educate and convince them of his methods. This was the first sheep dairy in the state, and required some work to even be approved. Practices like freezing the milk needed work, too, as no one here had heard of that despite it being common practice elsewhere. Regardless, it was his opinion that the authorities had been and were pleasant to work with, and he didn’t find the regulations, testing, or other requirements particularly onerous.
He did have some funny/disturbing stories to tell about Federal authorities, including the Homeland Security folks who showed up and insisted on taking 200lb of cheese for contamination testing (apparently worried about bioterrorism). When he protested that this was more than his entire stock on hand, they eventually agreed to only take 75lb. Even though they paid for the cheese, this still wiped out his inventory and kept him from making sales and deliveries for a while. I don’t think he ever got an answer from their tests.
Another interesting and useful aspect of the visit related to their pastures. When the dairy was first established, much of the land now in pasture was abandoned and grown up in cedars (an extremely familiar concept to us). As we’re doing now, he simply got to work clearing the cedars, cutting the stumps off at the ground, and letting the remnant seed bank take over. Now, over a decade later, he has wide-ranging, beautiful pastures of mixed grasses. It was a great look into the future for us, as this is exactly what we’re working to achieve here.
We picked his brain about all sorts of sheep-dairy-related points, as this is something we very much want to expand into someday. There are many cheeses that can only be made authentically with sheep’s milk, including some like feta that need to be mixed with other milk (like goat, in feta’s case). We want to keep both sheep and goats down the road, having started with goats primarily because we had a friendly nearby goat dairy to learn from. If we’d settled near Stoney Acres, we’d have gone the other direction. As it was, we had to resist the urge to buy a few sheep he had for sale and stuff them into the trunk for the ride home.
As regards the cheese, he didn’t have much stock left as they were in the process of lambing and hadn’t made cheese for a while. However, we were able to sample small amounts of feta, gouda, lambert (a mild aged cheese, their base standard), and something called nibblers, which was lambert seasoned with some form of purchased garlic/Italian dressing. The nibblers weren’t our style, but we liked the basic lambert a lot. Rick noted that they had started out making sharper and stronger cheeses, but no one in their area liked or bought them, so they transitioned to milder cheeses (nibblers are their best seller). Today they sell in stores from Arkansas and southern Missouri, direct off the farm, and online.
This was a fascinating, educational, and entertaining visit. They’re off the beaten path, but are very happy to host visitors any time of year. Anyone passing through their area (Competition, MO, southeast of Lebanon) would do well to arrange a tour and buy some cheese. Rick is very friendly, loves to talk and tell stories, and seems to relish company on his otherwise fairly isolated farm. Our deep thanks for his hospitality and willingness to share ideas and experiences.

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.

My first grocery store (in years)

I recently had occasion to do something I haven’t done in many years; rely on a regular grocery store for my food. It was an eye-opening experience, and gave me some insight into the challenges faced by those who advocate for local and/or organic food, or even an increase in home cooking.

In December, I travelled to North Carolina to spend 10 days or so caring for my ailing grandparents as part of a family rotation among myself and my aunts & uncles (I’m the oldest of my generation). Among other things, this involved preparing all meals, which I was naturally happy to do. It did of course involve the use of a grocery store, which I haven’t done at any meaningful scale for years. Those who read our What We Eat series know that our year-round food is largely farm-grown and preserved, with most of the rest purchased in bulk or sourced from small local stores (such as our winter milk supply). We make quick trips to “normal” groceries for some toiletries or occasional items like orange juice or lemons, but that’s about it.

The NC store in question was a relatively upscale one, about equivalent to Hy-Vee in Columbia. The produce section had wide selections of organic fruit and produce, locally bottled milk was available, as was free-range chicken and so on. I decided that this was an opportunity to experiment with comparing quality and prices of conventional vs. organic items, something I would otherwise have no reason to do.

What I found was rather disturbing, though not terribly surprising. None of the organic produce I bought was at all distinguishable from the non-organic, and much of it was worse. The organic grapes went moldy within several days, the shrink-wrapped lettuce started growing brown almost as soon as it was opened, and the garlic was dull and rubbery. Not that the non-organic stuff was stellar either, but it generally seemed fresher and longer-lasting. Everything was, of course, sourced from California or equally distant lands and I had no information regarding its date of harvest, shipment, packaging, or arrival on shelf to guide me as to its potential quality and freshness.

I bought all sorts of out-of-season stuff; tomatoes, melons, etc. Regardless of organic status, it was all pretty bland. The main difference in the organic produce was its non-existant shelf life. I was able to make plenty of scratch cooked, healthy, varied meals, but none of them tasted remotely like they do with fresh farm produce or even our (fresh-) frozen or canned goods in the winter.

The “free-range organic” whole chicken I bought was flabby, watery, and fairly tasteless. So much water ran out of it during roasting that I had to bail out the shallow pan. I had no interest in buying a medication-laced conventional chicken for comparison, but it couldn’t have been much worse. Compared to the solid, properly moist, richly flavored meat we get from our own chickens (or from Pierpont Farms in the past), it was crap. And thus way overpriced.

So here are some observations/conclusions from this experience:

1) I’m not surprised more people don’t cook from scratch. When the ingredients at the store aren’t very good or very fresh, the food either doesn’t taste very good or needs the additive of lots of salt or flavorings. At that point, maybe you’re better off just purchasing the processed/pre-made stuff and saving the effort of recreating it at greater expense. Because neither of the grandparents eat much, I was effectively cooking the same amount of food as for two, and I spent an astounding amount of money just producing basic, healthy meals with no snacks or unnecessary luxury items, and relying on lots of items they already had. If that’s what it costs to cook healthily from a grocery store (I was making things like pasta, salads, fish, soups, etc.) no wonder Americans are obese and reliant on cheap processed food.

2) I’m not surprised organics can be a tough sell. I suspect that the low quality of the organic produce in this case was not due to its organic-ness per se, but to the fact that it probably doesn’t sell as well or as quickly as the regular stuff, and so sits on the shelf longer. This is especially true in the current economic climate; folks who are cutting back are certainly going to trim the more expensive organic stuff when its actual quality and taste are no different. Vague food ethics rightly take a back seat to imminent pocketbooks in such times. So in a store like this, which is trying to push organics, you get grapes sitting on the shelf for far longer than conventional grapes, and of course turn out to be worse. This is especially true when you have no idea how old the produce it because there are no labels of such. Thus customers who do try them conclude, naturally, that organics are a crock and a scam. It’s a vicious cycle.

3) This explains part of the continued perception of farmers markets as “expensive” or “elitist” in some circles. If you haven’t actually bought produce from a producer-only market, you probably haven’t had the experience of opening up your fridge two weeks later to find that lettuce from the market still looking perfectly fresh and still tasting better. I got multiple comments from customers last year that my greens lasted three weeks or more after purchase, and I’m hardly alone in that. But if your experience of “alternative” produce is high-mileage, long-shelf-sitting organic that isn’t worth the price, no wonder you see farmers markets as potentially the same.

Keep in mind that this is based on one store. Maybe Hy-Vee or other stores do a better job of turning over the product (though consider the potential food waste in such a system). But, to me, this was pretty eye-opening experience as to the challenges facing cooks, eaters, and shoppers in our standard food system. It made me happier than ever with our own choices, and truly grateful to return to the farm and go back to eating traditional, farm-raised food about which I knew everything.