Farming Garden Local Food

Work, Kitchen, Garden

Peach Crisp at the Orchard

The text message came while I worked at the home, farm and auto supply store. I saw it on my afternoon break.

“If you want to start tomatoes there is a crate on the packing shed floor you could pick up on way home from work,” Farmer Kate texted. “I’m not home but if you need help finding them let me know.”

We barter my labor canning for her tomatoes. Ready or not, the next aspect of the local food season begins with its quick-paced rush to beat spoilage.

When I picked up the tomatoes there was also a crate of bell pepper seconds unclaimed by CSA members. A farm worker offered them and I put the crate in the back of my Subaru.

On the way hope I spotted the librarian leaving the library for her car and swung by to offer some peppers. My sister in law was at our house when I arrived home. I offered her some too. They are so sweet — unlike what’s available at the grocery store. A gift to be shared.

The garden is coming in with more apples than can be picked before they drop. Pears are almost ready, there are tomatoes, celery, hot peppers, basil and more waiting to be harvested and processed. There will be more cucumbers for pickling. Sweet corn will run another week or two at the roadside stand and we want to put some up. Every night after work and most mornings before, I’m in the garden harvesting or in the kitchen making dishes and preserving the harvest. Right now tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn and apples are in the house waiting to be processed. It’s a mad rush.

It’s also a good life. Staying busy with useful work blocks out negativity from other sectors of society. It’s cultured and produces the tangible benefits of relationships, knowledge and good food for our table and those with whom we share.

For the rest of August and September, it’s work, kitchen, garden for me.


Planting Tomatoes

Garden Pallets

It took most of the day to plant the fourth plot in five varieties of tomatoes.

Using two pallets from Kate’s farm I sorted the metal stakes by size then pitchforked the grass clippings that have been on the plot since last fall.

There were numerous worms and grubs under the matted grass — a sign of  soil fertility.

Once the surface was cleared, I spaded the entire plot and applied about 30 pounds of composted chicken manure. I broke up the clods of dirt with a hoe, then used a garden rake to till the soil further. I resist using a mechanical tiller, partly to disturb the soil as little as possible, and partly because the expense is more than we can afford. I took several water breaks to stay hydrated.

Tomato Diagram

Once the ground was broken and tilled, I measured. I grew eight varieties of tomato seedlings: Italian, German Pink, Amish Paste, Brandywine and Supersteak are slicers. Black Cherry, Gold Nugget and Saladette are cherry tomatoes. This plot is for the five slicers with the three cherry tomato plants going somewhere else. I’ll use these tomatoes fresh in the kitchen with canning tomatoes coming from my barter agreement with local farms.

I dunked each seedling in a water bath immediately before planting. I dug a deep hole with a trowel and broke up the soil by hand as finely as I could to cover them. I doused each planting with water so they wouldn’t crisp in the sunlight and 80-degree ambient temperature. I re-applied the mulch and caged them. It took 15 stakes to cage 25 plants. The planting is done.

When the sun comes up I’ll check to make sure every plant survived. If some didn’t there are plenty of extra seedlings in reserve.

Tomatoes are a highlight of our summer garden. Taking a full day to plant them is okay, and the precautions against failure are many. Over the years I’ve become a better tomato grower but everything is conditional — on weather, on soil fertility, and on gardening culture. Fingers crossed, this should be a good year.

Garden Home Life Local Food Writing

Saturday at Home

Baked Carnival Squash

After a Saint Patrick’s Day meetup with friends in Iowa City I drove home, parked my car in the garage and haven’t moved it since.

It was too cold for outside work on Saturday so I stayed in, did laundry, cleaned the bird feeder, wrote, read, and cooked dinner of bean soup, Carnival squash and applesauce cake.

The ambient temperature is expected to rise to almost 60 degrees, so I’m planning to work outside after a shift of soil blocking at a community supported agriculture farm.

I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History in its entirety this weekend. Her combination of background information with personal stories of field trips is eminently readable. I can’t remember a day so absorbed in a book since leaving transportation. The main takeaway is how uncertain scientists are about changes in earth history over the long term and the consequences of our lifestyle.

Japanese Beetles

The broader meaning of words like “Anthropocene” is not settled, nor agreed. What I know after this immersion, and after reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Haran, I am ready to move forward with something other than narratives of how homo sapiens swarmed over the planet like Japanese beetles.

I buy more bird feed since working at the home, farm and auto supply store. Counting whole kernel corn, I have five different varieties in the garage. Each type attracts a different bird and we enjoy watching them through the French door off the dining area. Some days I feel like picking up a 20-pound bag on sale, and do. I went overboard with 50-pound bags of whole corn and millet, although sparrows seem to really like the millet. There is no science to my purchases.

Bartering is making this year’s garden planning a lot different. Part of the barter system is trading labor for a spring and fall share. Each side of the deal can be defined monetarily. I get a credit of $13 per hour for labor which is applied to retail price of the shares. I use greenhouse space and materials to germinate seeds and care for seedlings until planting in my garden. I will also acquire onion sets and seed garlic through the farms. Where there is a clear financial value, the barter system is simple and easy. This part of the exchange translates into things we can use in our garden or kitchen.

The exchange for specific produce is more complicated.

Canned Tomatoes

Tomatoes are a large part of summer. Last year I planted them in three different garden plots. This year I’ll decrease my plantings to what we’ll use fresh and rely on the farms for canning tomatoes. In 2013 the farmer provided crates of tomatoes which I canned. We split the canned goods 50-50 that year. That was a bit disadvantageous to me considering the amount of work. We haven’t finalized the split, but both farms I work on produce many more tomatoes than needed for their members. One farmer wants lots of canned tomatoes. Something can be worked out.

Bell peppers were a garden failure last year and for many previous years. I’m eliminating them completely. The farms produce bell peppers with a high frequency of imperfect fruit. I plan to trade labor for these seconds and get all of my bell peppers from them. In addition to fresh eating, I seed and freeze them to use throughout the year. We did a 50-50 split on these in 2013, however, this year I’m considering a straight trade of labor hours against a to be determined cost per crate.

There are a number of items we don’t use much in our kitchen but are abundant on the farms. I don’t plan to grow any kohlrabi or cabbage. Should be no problem getting what we need without occupying space in our garden. I’ll barter for some additional broccoli for freezing.

Likewise, I don’t plan to grow lettuce outside my small plot of Belgian lettuce. In between the spring and fall shares that’s coming from bartering.

Summer squash is abundant and available from the farms as are many kinds of greens: collards, chard and “braising greens.” I will grow my own kale and spinach, and everything else will be bartered from the farms.

Eggplant? If Johnny’s Selected Seeds proofs and sends Black Beauty seeds I’ll plant them along with Fairy Tale eggplant. The former can be sliced thick, baked and frozen. The latter are good for the kitchen while in season. There is always an abundance of eggplant at the farms.

Yesterday was the last winter Saturday of staying indoors. Going into the planting season it will also be my day off from the home, farm and auto supply store and the farms. Yesterday was a good day, made better by a feeling of accomplishment. As humans we sometimes need that.

Garden Local Food

Garden Plot Six 2016

First Tomatoes Ripening
First Tomatoes Ripening

Garden plot six was five varieties of tomatoes — Italian, Amish Paste, Beefsteak, Rose and Kanner Hoell.

It was an abundant crop — about 200 pounds harvested — but most of the crop went bad on the vine due to an inability to spend time harvesting.

The culprit was a busy work schedule that included four jobs during the prime tomato month of August.

Heavy rain produced large sized fruit. When rain was imminent I hurried to harvest — preventing tomatoes from bursting. I didn’t always make it in time.

Lesson learned and applied this year was to give the plants space between them to breathe. So too it is with us. We need freedom from being cloistered to thrive.

Plans for this commodity plot are up in the air until I take a pencil to the 2017 garden plan. Wherever I plant tomatoes, I will give them even more room between plants. In 2016 this paid dividends that made up for my lack of care.

Environment Work Life

Hay Feeder Rings

Photo Credit - Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment
Hay Feeder Ring Photo Credit – Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment

Something is wrong when the garden produces tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in Iowa the fourth week in October.

I’ll dice tomatoes for breakfast tacos later this week, Bangkok peppers are in the dehydrator, and cucumbers and jalapeno peppers in the icebox waiting to be used. There is chard and kale, oregano and chives. Those leafy green vegetables usually survive until November, but tomatoes and cucumbers?

Call it what you want but something is happening and we know exactly what it is.

I spent most of Friday working with hay feeder rings.

After re-resurfacing the outside lot where farm equipment is displayed at the home, farm and auto supply store, I assembled and re-merchandised the stock of feeder rings.

I don’t know if it was a day’s work, but spent a day doing it, working slowly and as safely as possible. I was tired after the shift with a hankering to leave everything and head west to work on a ranch — day dreams of a low-wage worker.

The garage was cluttered after a summer of intermittent work.

I checked off each item on the to-do list on my handheld device before heading to the orchard for a shift. I disassembled the grass catcher and stored it; re-mixed bird seed and filled the feeder; checked the air pressure on our auto tires; brought in salt and paper products from the car; stored 40 pounds of coarse salt in tubs for winter ice melting; cleared a work space on the bench; and swept the entire floor. It took about two hours. I wanted more, but time ran out.

Yesterday’s political events had me thinking of Gettysburg, Penn. My parents, brother and sister went there before Dad died. I remember reading President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on a placard near where he read it himself. With deep roots in rural Virginia, and ancestors fighting on both sides of the Civil War, it was a seminal experience for me. It began the process of turning me from being a descendant of southerners enamored of romantic notions about plantation life to being an American eschewing the peculiar institution and those who stood for it. To my mother’s probable dismay, I brought home a Confederate flag and hung it in my bedroom. Visiting Gettysburg helped me understand the reality of the Civil War and those who fought and lived through it. I was coming of age.

My parents pointed out the house and farm where Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower lived after his presidency. Eisenhower hosted world leaders there, including Nikita Khrushchev, Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill. He also raised Angus cattle. We thought favorably of Eisenhower even if he was a Republican. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II he was a well known part of our culture. Seeing his farm enabled us to touch reality in his celebrity.

My life is here in Big Grove. I’m not heading west to work on a ranch. I don’t display the Confederate battle flag or think about it much any more. I will re-read the Gettysburg Address as I did this morning and wonder how my ancestors got along with each other after fighting in the Civil War. Perhaps there are lessons for the United States in 2016. I’m certain there are.

Cooking Local Food

Red Bell Pepper Soup

Red Bell Pepper Soup
Red Bell Pepper Soup

The abundance of tomatoes, bell peppers and onions is leading to a pot of soup featuring those ingredients.

There is no recipe — I used ingredients already in the ice box. I cut up a bag of onion seconds and sauteed them in extra virgin olive oil until translucent; poured in a quart and a half of diced tomatoes (drained); and added a scant pint of the pulp of red peppers cooked and separated with a food mill, also drained. I seasoned with salt and that’s it.

The mixture is simmering in my Dutch oven on medium heat. Once it is thoroughly cooked, I’ll take the stick blender to it and taste. After that, who knows?

The adventure is in the doing and learning. Because of the uniqueness of this season, the dish is hardly replicable.

Local Food

In An Iowa Kitchen

A Gardener's Breakfast
A Gardener’s Breakfast

The local food movement relies more on kitchens than grocery stores; more on gardens than commercial growers.

While use of locally sourced food by many restaurants has changed to include more of it, a local foods movement cannot be sustained by the hodge-podge of farmers, growers and entrepreneurs who sell locally produced food to restaurants, or for that matter, to grocery stores.

The problems include scalability and sustainability.

We are living in a time where demand for local food exceeds supply. Scaling up to meet demand requires a capital investment most small farmers can’t make. Sustainability relies on creating value along with the food in a way that cooks can afford it and farmers can make a reasonable return on their investment.

Someone recently asked if the area was becoming saturated with Community Supported Agriculture projects and if that’s why some are having trouble growing membership. An answer lies elsewhere. The market for local fresh food has grown so big corporations noticed.

Companies like Hy-Vee, have tapped into the fresh food market by increasing their number of suppliers and offering fresh and local food alongside wares from large commercial growers. They are sucking up market share like a vacuum cleaner as their business model is designed to do – putting pressure on small and mid-sized growers.

Corporate involvement in the local food market is a two edged sword. Growers can sell their best wares to companies like Hy-Vee and get a reasonable return. At the same time reliance on companies rather than CSA members can distract a farmer from his or her core business.

A solution? CSAs should stick to their knitting by getting payment up front and sharing the harvest with members… all of it. It may be tempting to sell some on the side to restaurants and grocery stores, but the further away from the model they get, instead of doing one thing well, everything they do can suffer. In addition, the market share they help corporations grow may be detracting from their core business.

There is nothing wrong with a farmer growing organic greens for restaurant salads and stir fries. In the end, each farmer must make ends meet, and operating a farm —even a small one — is an expensive operation with tight margins. My point is to focus on one thing and do it well.

It is one thing for a farmer to disassemble a barn and use the materials to create raised beds for a ten-person CSA. It is quite another to support a couple hundred families with the variety of produce the market demands. If you ask a hundred CSA members, as I have, why they belong, answers are all over the map. Some want assurance of a grower who uses organic methods to produce food. Some want variety unavailable at Aldi’s or Fareway. Others want to create a cooking experience with young children as part of their education. Most want to feel good about what they are doing with their lives.

One hopes we are beyond the discussion of “food miles” and on to the core value of the nascent local food economy: know the face of the farmer. It’s corollary is know how your food is grown. Try as they might with life-size cutouts of farmers in their stores, corporations have a hard time doing that. Their customers are too diverse, and they have to cater to everyone in the community. If a person combines these two ideas, knowing how our food is produced and creating demand for local, fresh food the local food movement has a chance.

A very few people strive to source every food ingredient locally. It is not with them the future of local food lies. The future of local food is within the potential of every Iowa kitchen.

To sustain the local foods movement requires consideration of what it means to belong to a CSA or buy from a farmers market. Can that fit into culinary habits in a way that is not an encumbrance to what most perceive as very busy lives?

Can kitchen cooks grow some of their own produce? Probably yes, even if it means only a large flower pot with some cherry tomatoes or an herb jar on a window ledge. Even these small things may be a step too far for some.

The trend in food includes extensive prep work done by machines and large companies. Heat and serve has become a by-line for many available grocery items. Along with taking the kitchen work out of meals, risks of contamination have been created and along with it the need for recalls from large processors whose products get contaminated by E. coli and listeria.

In a consumer society it will always be tough for small-scale producers to survive and thrive. That’s why I say the future of the local food movement rests in Iowa kitchens where cooks can use less processed foods and more fresh — secured by buying local and growing their own.

It’s work many can’t do because of choices made about careers and family. What may be the saving grace of the local food movement is the idea of taking control of our kitchens, in part by living and eating local as much as we can.

Home Life

Late Fall Reflections

Sliced Tomato, Salt, Pepper and Feta Cheese
Sliced Tomato, Salt, Pepper and Feta Cheese

Leaves are beginning to fall from the Green Ash trees. Those on the two early apple trees have been down more than a week. The garden is producing and likely will until the hard frost comes in mid-October.

This time, more than any in the year, is for work at home.

Today’s to-do list includes harvesting tomatoes and peppers, canning, and cooking gumbo. I prepared a lunch of sliced tomato, salt, pepper and feta cheese using blemished fruit. It’s a simple and satisfying repast.

For so many years, work was elsewhere. While downsizing I found a three-ring binder with papers from expense reports dated 1992. I was managing trucking terminals in Schererville and Richmond, Indiana, and starting recruiting operations in West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Missouri. I would wake up on an airplane unsure of where I was, or where I was going. It was a busy time and there was little left for family. They were days of intangible hope for a future that included success. I don’t know what that means any more.

President Obama stopped at the Iowa State Library in Des Moines yesterday. The stop wasn’t on his formal agenda, but while there he submitted to an interview by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer prize-winning author who lives in Johnson County. Obama reads Robinson and listed Gilead as one of his favorite books. It is pretty neat that one of our own has this kind of relationship with the president. Obama quoted from the book in his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in Charleston last July.

I’ve been trying to read Gilead without success. Starting it three times over the last three weeks, I don’t get it. Maybe eventually I will. It’s one of the must read books produced by an author affiliated with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where many less acclaimed books than Robinson’s have been produced. Maybe the time is not right. Maybe the president’s visit will encourage me to give it another try.

It’s two months to the 21st Conference of the Parties, or COP 21, in a suburb of Paris. Iowa environmental groups are wrangling for a unifying Iowa event just prior to the first day of the conference, Nov. 30. It seems a bit late to be planning as leaves fall, the harvest comes in, and we turn our attention to the work necessary to sustain ourselves. It’s important the parties reach an enforceable agreement. It won’t be the end of the world if they don’t. Or maybe it will.

Local Food

Harvest Days

Daily Tomato Harvest
Friday’s Brandywine, Rose and Beefsteak Tomato Harvest

Each day for the last two weeks I picked an apple and tasted it. The crop of Red Delicious is abundant and I want to make sure when the majority is harvested they are at the peak of sweet crispness. We’re almost there.

The pear harvest was limited to what could be reached. The tree grew well above the house leaving some ripe pears beyond the reach of even my long picking pole. We have enough to eat fresh and some leftover for apple-pear sauce.

Tomatoes are coming in faster than they can be eaten fresh. The plan is to can smaller ones whole and the slicers diced. There should be plenty of jars to fill the pantry shelves. The by-products of juice and ground bits and pieces will make soup or chili, although there is a limit to how much can be canned and used over the next year.

The bell pepper plants are flowering again and celery continues to grow. The main job of deconstructing the garden in preparation for winter will soon begin.

But for now, it’s time to pick and preserve as much of the harvest as we can.

Garden Local Food

Taking A Break – Harvest

Testing the Red Delicious Apples
Testing the Red Delicious Apples

You’d think I had never been through an abundant harvest before. Bushels of fruit, tomatoes aplenty, and more kale than my regulars can eat in a year. Everywhere fresh produce is abundant as Iowa produced one of the best growing seasons ever for small-scale gardeners.

Most of yesterday’s outdoors time was spent picking pears and tomatoes. There are three crates full of apples and pears in the kitchen ready for processing, along with a counter full of tomatoes. The pressure is on to preserve some of this food for winter and beyond.

The branches on the Red Delicious apple tree are bending with the weight of the fruit. They are not sweet enough to pick, but when they are, there will be bushels more than can be used. People don’t generally like to receive home apples as gifts, but I plan to try to give some away.

The last of the basil made pasta sauce for an Italian spaghetti dinner. I used all of the small-sized tomatoes and it didn’t make a dent in the supply.

I ate several pears that were getting soft in the middle, scooping out the softness with a spoon. There is a short season for pears, and last year produced enough pear butter to last another year. Looking for a recipe for pear-apple-rhubarb sauce for canning, or maybe I will just mix them together and see what happens.

Days without need to leave the property are rare, but much appreciated. They provide time for a life as we choose to live it. Having the luxury of a family home, reasonably far from neighborhood noise, and large enough to create a generous space is just that — luxury.

Harvest days make one appreciate what we have, with hope to sustain our lives another season in Big Grove.