28 December 2013

Cooking with Greens

Our daughter Jennifer cooked dinner last night. Wow!  It was wonderful!  She made steak with mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe.  OK, sounds pretty average right?  Well, I had always cooked broccoli rabe just by sautéing with garlic and olive oil.  With Jennifer's simple addition of onions, it was amazing...very flavorful and sweet! 

Greens are so easy to prepare, yet we have a fair number of customers at the farmers' markets that don't know what to do with them.  They can all pretty much be sautéed with garlic and oil....we're Italian, so we cook most things with those two ingredients ;-). First, you'll want to rinse the dirt off the greens and drain them or pat dry with a paper towel.  Remove the heavier stems.  Jennifer chopped the leaves of the broccoli rabe (or rapini, as some call it) before cooking, but you can leave them whole too.  Some greens like collards and kale can easily be stripped from the stems by running your thumb and forefinger down the entire length of the stem, thereby stripping the leaves off as you go.

I never knew how to prepare collard greens until I asked one of my customers.  She told me to cook up some bacon or smoked meat in a pan, remove the meat and set aside, then sauté the collards and garlic in the same drippings that the meat left behind.  Cook until tender, then add the meat, chopped, back into the pan with the greens.  Add a little hot pepper flake and your done.  It was delicious.  I have also added them to soups and stews as well as stir fry recipes when I didn't have bok choi on hand.  Brassicas, or things like kale, cabbage, broccoli, collards, etc...also known as cruciferous vegetables, get sweeter once they've gone through a frost in the late fall.  The collards can easily be cooked without the bacon or meat and be just as delicious. 

At the farmers' markets, you can find baby mixed greens for cooking, or individual varieties, more mature, bunched.  All are great additions to daily meals and high in vitamins and calcium.  I hope this little read has helped you in your cooking repertoire and given you some ideas for your daily meals.  Enjoy!

17 June 2013

Excessive Rain and Farming

Rain, rain, go away…..so the nursery rhyme goes.  As goes our thoughts this rainy, wet spring.  While rain is important for all kinds of things from our gardens and farms to ecosystems to hydro-electric power to drinking water, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Last year we were praying for rain for crops as the drought pressed on and temperatures soared into the 90’s in July and August.  This year we are praying the rain stops, at least for a while.  We began the month of June at a deficit of 2+ inches of rain, and now, just a few weeks later we are at a surplus of over 3 inches.
Constant rain provides optimal conditions for fungal growth on plants and crops this time of year and into the summer.  In a previous article last year, we talked about solanaceous diseases (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant) such as blight and Septoria, vine crop (cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, etc.) diseases such as downy and powdery mildew, and cole crop (cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale) diseases such as Alternaria and downy mildew.  For more info on these diseases, please visit our farm’s blog, http://gardenspotlight.blogspot.com/2011/08/solanaceous-diseseases.html.
Excessive rain also keeps farmers from getting into their fields to weed, plant new crops and mow hay.  It also affects the number of degree days.  Degree days are a measurement of the heating and cooling of the earth.  They are used to determine when to plant crops.  Sunshine is necessary for proper plant growth and health.   Plants rely on the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide (carbon and oxygen) and water (hydrogen and oxygen) into food.   This process is known as photosynthesis.   A lack of sun delays plant growth and flowering. 
Excessive rain soaks the soil and when the soil stays wet for too long of a period, plant roots starve for oxygen and eventually rot.  In the local corn fields, where there are low spots, you can see corn plants that have yellowed due to the excessive rain remaining in the soil for too long a period. 
Too much rain also depletes the soil of nutrients and if you notice a lack of flavor in your favorite in-season fruits and veggies, it’s probably due to the excessive rainfall we’ve had as the plants are lacking the essential nutrients for proper growth and development.  Please see our page on soil fertility for a more in-depth look at how nutrients and sunshine all work together  here:  http://gardenspotlight.blogspot.com/2011/04/soil-fertility.html .
So the weather affects things in so many ways.  It seems in farming lately we are dealing with extremes as far as weather is concerned.  Some farmers would rather have more rain than a lack of; others would rather have less rain in order to be able to irrigate and have more control over the application of nutrients added to their crops.  It looks like finally this week, we will have more sunshine than rain.  I hope it stays that way.  Here’s to a successful farming and gardening season to you all!  See you at the farmers’ markets.

02 April 2013

Family Farms vs. Corporate Concentration

We've seen the movies on public television about factory farming.  Maybe we've gone to a showing of a local film about farming, but do we really know what's happening with the backbone of agriculture?  How do our smaller family farms stack up against those giant corporations and what is "corporate concentration?"

Simply put, corporate concentration is the amount of control that a few large corporations have over the food sector in our country.  As a matter of fact, corporate concentration in United States agriculture is quite high, affecting everything from how farmers grow our food to how its marketed to the consumer.  This trend has forced many families off their farms and even out of the farming business. 

What does this mean for you, the consumer?  It leads to higher food prices and less choice at the market.  USDA data shows that the cost of food to the consumer has risen steadily over the past twenty years. 

What does it mean for the farmer?  A farmers' profit margin is already slim; about break even or many times below a break even value.  The farmer is squeezed on both ends; first by the corporate sales giants who sell farmers equipment, machinery, seed and fertilizer; charging the farmers exorbitant prices and then on the sales end from large corporate buyers forcing them to take less money for a crop the farmer needs to sell.  

I can't tell you how many times we have faced these situations.  It is not uncommon in the produce business to have a crop shipped to the broker on an open invoice that left the packing house in beautiful condition, to only be told by the broker that only a portion of the crop was sold effectively only paying the farmer for x number of bushels, when they actually produced and shipped more than that.  And who laid out the expense for those crops?  The farmers of course.  The broker holds no responsibility other than to sell the crop and profit.  Many times the missing bushels are sold out the back door, or not sold at all and dumped for whatever reason.  On top of not getting paid for those bushels of produce, the farmer has to pay commission, shipping, handling and dumping fees on the total load. I do have to say that not all brokers are like this, but it is difficult to find a good one.

We've even had the opportunity to be in a broker's office and have a large supermarket chain call the broker and tell them that if they want to continue to do business, they'll strike specific invoices off the supermarket's bill, just so they can promote whatever special event it was for on the backs of the growers and that smaller local broker. 

More info on this can be found at Farm Aid's website....yup...the organization founded by Willie Nelson and friends.

The produce business is tough.  Thanks to the local food movement, more and more smaller farmers are selling directly to consumers.  This is such a great opportunity for not only the farmers, but also for the community to learn about how their food is grown and where it comes from.  We are seeing more and more food in this country being imported from other countries.  While it's nice to have typically "out of season" produce whenever we want it, we have to remember that pesticides and the like that have been banned for use here in the U.S. are still used in other some other countries.  Yes, you've heard me say it plenty of times.  Those banned chemicals can end up back here in the U.S. in or on that imported food.

So please, support local businesses by supporting your local family farms.  Find farmers you can buy direct from either by attending farmers’ markets, purchasing a CSA share, or by visiting the farm itself.  There are winter farmers’ markets as well.  Visit your state's  Ag & Markets website for a listing of markets or just search "local farmers' markets."   You'll be healthier for it too!

04 March 2013

Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus

Extension offices and state universities are warning growers of the dangers this year of Impatiens Necrotic Spot Virus (INSV) and thusly a lack of availability of Impatiens this growing season.  INSV is closely related to the Tomato Spotted wilt Virus (TSWV) and was once called I-strain and L-strain of TSWV. 
INSV causes a wide variety of symptoms including wilting, stem death, stunting, etches of ring spots on the leaves and sunken spots on the leaves as well as other symptoms.  The virus has the ability to “compartmentalize” itself so that it affects only one area of the plant.  Regardless of the situation, all affected plants should be destroyed immediately as there is no cure for this virus.  Other plants affected by this virus are gloxinia, cineraria, chrysanthemums (all of which you will see now for the Easter season), begonias, tomatoes, other vegetables and grasses.  There have even been reports of the virus showing up in specimens of salvia. 
Other than the propagation of infected plants, the virus is only known so far to be spread by thrips, which are tiny insects only about 1/5” long and may be seen as “animated” lines running along veins on the undersides of plant leaves.  Signs of thrip damage may be brown or mottled silver wilted leaves and the damage is more easily seen than the thrips themselves.  Other damage includes folding of the leaves, leaf roll, leaf blisters, discoloration of petals and scarring of flowers.
What can you do as a home gardener?  Inspect all plants prior to purchase for any signs of disease.  If you are not sure, ask the grower to look at it with you.  Once you are satisfied with the plants you are purchasing, be sure to feed and water your plants regularly to keep them healthy.  A healthy plant is less prone to disease.   Dried out, wilted plants, since they are under stress, are more prone to infection and attack by thrips.  Remove any faded or dead blooms right away as well as dying foliage.  You should also keep your garden and yard free of weeds.  Thrips thrive in weedy locations and both the larvae and adults feed on flowers leaves, twigs or buds.  They affect many plants, not just impatiens. 
Thrips, though they have wings, are not very good fliers.  However, they can readily be spread over long distances by floating with the wind or being transported by other infested plants.  After a storm has passed, it is probably a good idea to inspect your garden for evidence of thrips or other insects that may have been brought in by the storm.  If you suspect an infection, contact your local extension office for advice.  If pesticides are recommended, do not rely on them solely to treat your problem.  Good cultural habits must also be used.  The best practice is to keep your area clean and the plants healthy, because unless you can use a systemic pesticide (thrips burrow and hide), you may not be able to effectively treat the plants.   
For more complete information and photos on thrips and their control, please visit the UC Davis website.

28 February 2013

Stanford University Study

After reading the editor’s article from a recently published issue of The Columbia Insider regarding organic vs. conventional foods, I decided to research the recent study published by Stanford University last September which reported that there are no significant differences in nutrition between organically and conventionally raised produce.  This has been a very heated topic as I see and hear from many of my patrons at the local farmers’ markets what their beliefs are.  Some consumers are open minded and willing to learn the differences and what each farmers’ growing practices are while others only care about organic food and will not even entertain what a "non-organic" or conventional farmer has to say.  One customer last fall shouted at me that the Stanford study had been refuted and quickly walked away without letting me speak.  She must have read the article atThe Huffington Post.   I could dissect both articles, but that is beyond the scope of this commentary today.
I think that one of the widest misconceptions is that organic farmers use no fertilizers, pesticides or sprays of any kind, and I also think that many consumers feel that if it is more expensive, the quality must be higher.  Both of those ideas are just that; misconceptions.  There is a “National List” of materials that are acceptable to use for all farmers and this list does include organic farming allowances.  All farmers face many challenges.  It really is a labor of love.  The biggest point in the article I wrote back in 2011 is that it is important for all consumers to be educated and know where their food comes from.   Consumers should get to know their local farmers by attending farmers’ markets and local food festivals whenever possible. 
Running Creek Farm’s produce is not organic.  We are, however, very careful about how we farm as we live off the land ourselves.  My husband has thrown salesmen off our farm because they insisted we use systemic pesticides or GMO (genetically modified) seed, which we absolutely refuse to do.  We take good care of our water sources, farmland and crops.  We rotate our crops, plant cover crops, use organic matter, cultivate the soil and add elements as needed for proper nutrition.  A healthy plant not only provides better nutritional content for the consumer, but also remains more resistant to disease and pests and provides a higher yield.  Occasionally we do have to spray crops, but it is kept to a minimum and we use only topical (non-systemic) products that photo-degrade as they dry.  This means that the plant cannot take the material up through the root system and send it out into the fruit or leaves.  We are also very careful not to spray when the honeybees are active as they play a huge role in the pollination of many of our crops. 
So farming is a symbiotic relationship of nature’s creatures, and we have to nurture that relationship.  Go ahead and read all the articles I’ve referred to, then draw your own conclusions after getting to know your local farmers. 
As for the many challenges farmers face, I think this video sums it up well.  You may remember it as a Super Bowl commercial, but Paul Harvey originally wrote this for the Future Farmers of America back in 1978. “So God Made a Farmer“ . 

24 February 2013

Container Gardens for Indoor and Out

We have been covering recently about how to develop indoor gardens for your homes.  In the greenhouse for spring sales, we plant and grow many different mixed containers.   Many times I just create as I go, placing whatever suits my mood at the time.  We sell a lot of ready-made containers, but we also have a lot of gardeners coming in to purchase plants for containers they wish to design themselves.  I am asked all the time which plants work well together, how should the containers be planted or what do I think looks good together? 
 It is easy to be overwhelmed when you visit your local garden center or greenhouse, so it helps to have some idea of what size planter you need, what colors you need and whether you are placing the container in a sunny location or shade.  Take a look at your home or wherever you are placing your container gardens.   In front of a larger home you can probably use a larger planter.  Take note of where the sun is at different times.  These tips can work for you indoors as well.  I mentioned in a recent article about placing groupings of plants together to provide a focal point in a room or to bring symmetry to a design or theme.  
I sometimes try to stick to a color scheme if I am doing containers for a particular holiday.  For instance, on Independence Day I may try to stick to a red, white and blue theme.  Sometimes I will plant variations of one color in a container garden, such as different shades of yellow or red.   It is also fun to create containers with many different colors.  Spring will be here soon, but if you would like some spring flowers now, you could force some bulbs indoors, such as Paperwhites (narcissus), crocus and hyacinth. 
I generally will take a taller plant and use it as a focal point either at the back of the container or in the center.  I will then take medium height plants, either flowering, foliage or a combination of the two, and plant them in front of or around the taller plant.  Lastly, I will take “spiller” plants, (plants that trail or cascade) and plant them around the edges of the container.   It’s OK to mix the bulbs in with other types of plants so long as their moisture requirements are similar, just keep in mind that bulbs generally do not stay in flower for very long. 
Some tips: 
      Before planting, try different arrangements outside of the pot to see which looks best. 
      Outdoors, don’t be afraid to mix annuals with perennials in the same planter.  It will extend the   
           life of your container garden. 
      By mixing in foliage plants, it will break things up a bit and keep the container garden looking
           fresh while the other plants are going in and out of flower.
      Add some slow release fertilizer to your planting medium or use a liquid fertilizer when you  
           water.  Plants need to eat, just like people.   House plants may have different fertilizer
           requirements than annuals and perennials since they are indoors and it is “off” season.    
 Don’t be afraid to experiment and most importantly, have fun!


05 February 2013

Veterans and Gardening

“Reggie Mourning wears a Marine Corps sweatshirt and two 9-millimeter pistol rounds on a chain around his neck. There’s an M14 round hanging from his keychain. His tour of duty with a mortar unit in Vietnam was long in the past, but never really ended.
After coming home, he worked for years as a trucker with the jagged rhythms of the war zone wired into his brain — sometimes barreling cross-country, drunk and stoned, with only his dog as a companion. In 2007, sick, exhausted, on his way to becoming homeless, he made it to the substance abuse program at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Newark. “(New York Times, November 30, 2009)

So what does this have to do with gardening?  Plenty!  Gardening is therapeutic for many, military or not.  It’s a chance to play in the dirt, get back to basics and just…be.  Not only that, but I would guess that for veterans, it provides familiarity.  The familiarity provided by taking care of  the plants as they did their comrades in war - unconditionally; performing their duties no matter what because lives depend on them and then sharing the benefits of a job well done.

Reggie was one of the lucky ones from the military who got to experience the joys of gardening first hand.  Veterans Affairs had undergone a change in an effort to offer a more holistic approach to some of their treatments.  They had partnered with an organization called Planetree, a non-profit group offering a patient-centered holistic approach to health services.  Out of this effort and a series of events came the center’s vegetable gardening program and the process of learning that by growing food for one another, they could learn other things, like how to heal from the wounds of war. 

That first year, even with size limitations, they dug 20’x50’ plots in between the medical center’s buildings and grew and harvested over 1000 pounds of produce.  They shared it with other patients and also used it at their “Foxhole Café” within the medical center. 

For many veterans, gardening was less about growing food and more about learning about themselves.  So many veterans come home and have difficulty re-integrating themselves into their former lives after such traumatic action overseas.  “With two protracted wars at a time when military suicides are at record levels, with psychic and physical damage on a scale threatening to swamp the veterans’ system, an urban garden at one medical center gets you only so far. Mr. Mourning shudders at today’s multiple tours of duty and thinks veterans desperately need a job corps for training and finding work.”

So gardening is just a small part here, but it’s one that can help make a difference.  Get involved.  If you know someone who needs help, get started digging….perhaps a community garden is a great way to go, or just a small garden at home.  You’ll be surprised at how many lives you can affect by just trying to help one.  Research your local resources and get your friends together to help out.  Our military friends have done so much for us.  They have sacrificed their lives for our freedom.  Be sure to thank them and let them know you care. 

From our home to yours, thank you for your service.  We owe our lives to you.  May God bless you.

To read the article from The New York Times in its entirety, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/nyregion/30towns.html




02 February 2013

Cozy Indoor Gardens

Creating a cozy indoor garden for your home is easier than you think.  All it takes is a little ambition and creativity.  You’ll need to keep in mind the climatic area of the room you are working with.  How much light does it have?  How much heat is available?  These are things that will affect the selection of plants for that particular area. 
A southern exposure window gives the best light, without it being too hot.  If your room is very hot and dry, then you may want to add a source of humidity, such as a humidifier or simply place shallow pans of water with pebbles under the plants.  As the water evaporates, it will add the necessary humidity into the air surrounding the plants.  The latter is also very decorative and gives you a chance to play with colors, shapes and groupings of plants.  If your room does not have enough light, there are lights made specifically for plants that you can purchase. You should be able to find these at your local garden center.
It’s a new year again….many people take this time to re-group and re-organize.  If that’s what you’re thinking, why not paint the room you are using for your plants as well?  A fresh coat of paint will always change up a room and make it new again.  It will provide you with a new palate to work with.  Light, neutral or pastel colors on the wall make a nice contrast to the green leaves and colorful blooms of the plants.  Be creative here; maybe paint or nail a small lattice to the wall.  This is your chance to bring the outdoors in.    And there are so many interesting colors, shapes and sizes of pots.  You can even find pots that attach directly to the wall.  They can be grouped together, like photographs.  This might inspire you to keep similar plants together, or give vine-like plants a place to stretch out. 
 Don’t forget to place trays under the plants on the floor.  You’ll need to protect the flooring from water stains if you have wood or linoleum floors.  Add some up-lighting for accents, a reading lamp and a chair or two to curl up in with a good book and maybe a small side table to perch a cup of coffee or hot cocoa on.  Placing some type of small water feature in the room adds to the feeling of relaxation as well.
If you have tall plants, such as a Ficus tree, place it in the corner and maybe add some white lights to it for a soothing accent. Add some herbs to the mix for double duty with culinary purposes as well as fragrance and texture in the room. 
There are so many ways you can dress up a room to make it cozy and warm for the long winter months.  Inspiration comes from many places and in many shapes and forms.  Create the room of your dreams and keep dreaming; Spring will be here before we know it!



30 January 2013

Greens and Beans

I just wanted to share a quick recipe; super simple and super delicious and back to an older, simpler way of life. 

Greens and Beans:

Here I used home grown rapini (broccoli rabe) that we are growing this winter in our greenhouse, but  you can use any green you like.  Kale, mustard greens, beet greens, turnip greens; they all work well here.  I just sort and wash the greens (about a pound) in cool water and shake any excess water from the leaves.  I toss them in a large saute pan and drizzle them with olive oil.  I add pressed and also chopped garlic and saute until greens are tender and then I add in my beans.  I used a can of chick peas here, but you can use cannellini beans, navy beans or something similar here.  And that is it!  Absolutely delicious and quite filling. 

Hearty appetite!
 Greens and Beans