Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fruit tree ground preparation

Mulched fruit trees for the winter.
We have been nursery-ing 9 fruit trees since the spring: 3 apple, 2 pear, 2 cherry, 2 peach. They have been living in our fruit + herb garden, fenced in from predators. A few weeks ago, I cut their roots (by sticking a long, straight shovel in the ground) at about a 1 foot radius, which will make it easier to transplant them next spring.

Four future tree sites.
We've selected strategic spots for fruit trees - on slopes, north-facing, full sun, good drainage - and have finally prepped the land: we removed the sod of a 5 foot diameter circle, sprinkled on lime and a "fall fruit tree mix" which contains lots of essential minerals and nutrients, added 5 cu-ft of compost and topped with another 5 cu-ft of wood chips. Over the winter these organic materials will decompose and stimulate micro-organism activity. Come spring, we will transplant out our soon-to-be 3-year-old fruit trees... the start of our orchard and another step to a fully ecological farm.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The family farm

I think there are a few important dimensions for determining what constitutes a farm in this country: ownership, size/scale, practice+products, customer base and mission. I'll first take on ownership...

* * * * * * * * * * 

The USDA defines a family farm as "any farm organized as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or family corporation." Over 90% of farms in this country are owned and operated by individuals or families. About 7% are owned by partnerships and only about 2% are run as corporations (but 90% of these are family owned). This came as a surprise to me, as I have heard more and more about the corporatization of agriculture and loss of farming as an institution in recent years.

So I think my misconceptions must arise from size of these operations, because "family farm" does not always mean small and "corporate farm" does not necessarily refer to a large-scale operation. In fact, many of the country's largest farms are family owned. Another misconception stems from the output of farms: while non-family farms account for only 2% of farms, they account for about 14% of agricultural sales.

The family farm, therefore, refers to a heterogeneous group: the idyllic rural homestead, the capitalist farmer who manages hundreds of acres of commodity mono-crops, the struggling farmer who takes annual losses and is in serious debt, the nth generation farmer who is keeping ancestral heritage alive, the farmer who manages a team of hired workers and sees a comfortable profit from sales without having to rely on off-farm income, and others.

But this heterogeneous group has declined drastically over the past half century: today there are approximately 2.2 million farms in the U.S., down from 7 million in 1950. A recent report claims that every week over 300 farmers leave their land. The combination of centralization of farms (i.e., existing in-debt farms being bought by bigger farms, keeping the operation and acreage in business, but centralizing the operational power into fewer hands) and loss in acreage dedicated to farmland (i.e., a loss of about 1 million acres of farmland annually in the past several decades) has contributed to this overall decline.

There must be some good news, some way to preserve this American tradition. I suppose the movement in food culture (toward organic, local, health-consciousness) and the refreshing interest in the "young" (meaning new) farmer movement can help revitalize a shrinking occupation, lifestyle, pastime, ancestral heritage, whichever you decide to call it.

But given these statistics, there is more to consider than ownership if we want to save our food system. More on these other dimensions to come...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Recipe with Chinese cabbage

Quick kimchi

Ingredients: Chinese cabbage, salt (about 2 Tbsp salt per head of cabbage), ginger, garlic, sugar, Korean pepper paste (use red pepper flakes if you don't have this paste), soy sauce, scallions

Preparing: Wash and dry Chinese cabbage leaves (we leave them uncut). In a large pot or bucket lay one layer of leaves down, sprinkle with salt, and continue to alter leaves/salt layers. Leave in cool place overnight. The next day, rinse cabbage leaves several times in water to remove salt. Make dressing: In a blender or food processor add peeled ginger, garlic cloves, sugar, pepper paste, soy sauce (in 2:4:3:2:4 Tbsp. ratio) and blend/chop. Roughly chop scallions by hand. Combine cabbage, dressing and scallions. Divide into sterilized jars and keep in refrigerator (will keep for 3 months).

Note: 12 heads of Chinese cabbage with 2 cups of salt made 5 quarts of kimchi.

Eating: Great side dish to any Asian-influenced meal, a super snack, and a good friend even puts it on his morning oatmeal.

Dish history: We planted a lot of Chinese cabbage this season in order to make kimchi. Next year I hope we make the real version, buried in the ground for months to ferment. But this quick version is tasty and easy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thankful harvest

Thanksgiving harvest

'Tis the season to be thankful, and we certainly are. Thanks to all of our family, friends and neighbors who have helped us get this farm off the ground. Thanks to the land for letting us work with it and for helping us achieve our harvests. Thanks to all that have inspired us, humbled us, taught us and supported us. Thanks for the time to live the life we want to lead.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Secret Farm Bill

One positive thing that has come out of the inept super committee negotiations is the inability for the so-called "Secret Farm Bill" to pass.

The four senators who were drafting this secret legislation were aiming at $23 billion in cuts, with around $14 billion coming from commodity subsidies, $6 billion from conservation programs, and $3 billion from nutrition programs like food stamps. To put this in perspective, about $60 billion is spent annually on Farm Bill expenditures: 67% of that is spent on food and nutrition programs (i.e., Food Stamps, WIC, national school lunch and breakfast programs, food bank programs, farmers market programs, among others), 15% is spent on commodity subsidies, 8% is spent on conservation programs and the remaining 10% is spent on various other programs, like research, forestry, energy, commodities futures, etc. This spending breakdown is a fact I think few people are aware of - that the nation's Farm Bill really operates like a Food and Nutrition Bill.

Normally, the Farm Bill is up for negotiation and renewal every 5 years, and the problem with the possible passing of the secret version was that all of the hard work advocacy groups have put into drafting innovative, progressive programs to implement in the 2012 version (e.g., the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, and numerous land conservation programs) would be put on hold for another 5 years without even being heard by our fully-elected legislature.

So, a small victory at the expense of an embarrassing display of partisan politics.

Final bed prep

We have put the finishing touches on our new plot. We dug rows to create raised beds, limed them, and have topped them with lots of chopped leaves and some of the hay/sheep manure mix. Wood chips are down in the paths to try to prevent too much erosion during the spring thaw. This new patch of tilled land has almost doubled our growing space - we've added 30 beds at 100 sq-ft each. Thanks to all who helped. Looking forward to planting next season.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How farming can prevent Alzheimer's

There is no methodological merit to this claim, just a hunch from a public health specialist and farmer.

First, some science... Our brains develop through various activities and as a result of various factors, such as nutrition. A large part of brain development happens in utero and during early childhood, but it doesn't stop as we age. What we do as older children, teenagers and adults continues to play a role in the development of our brain. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, a condition of the adult brain marked by damaged brain cells or damaged connections between brain cells. Recent statistics indicate that 1 in 8 adults over the age of 65 have Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is now the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. and there are currently no cures or methods of prevention advocated by the medical community, nor consensus on what causes this deterioration in cells and brain functioning.

But this medical community is working hard to understand exactly what is going on inside our heads. Some neuroscientists have turned to physical activity as a potential mechanism to slow damage to the brain, improve memory and executive functioning, and stimulate nerve growth. While most studies to date have been performed on mice and among older adults without Alzheimer's, some scientists are logically extending their findings to hypothesize that participating in aerobic physical activity might delay functional decline and improve brain functioning, even among people with Alzheimer's.

Now, my layperson hypothesis... This nation has seen a decline in farming, manufacturing and other physically-active occupations - slowly, since the days of the Industrial Revolution, and more rapidly over the last 30 years with the rise in information technology and the service sector of the economy. These more recent changes have also been coupled with more sedentary approaches to life and leisure - such as driving, TV-watching, internet-surfing or video game-playing - with less time for said leisure as more households rely on two or more income-earners. And more and more of the world population is living longer, which means we're using our brains longer and are reaching ages where brain-related conditions will surface among a growing proportion of the aging population (simply because the aging population continues to grow).

What if the rise in Alzheimer's and other brain functioning conditions is related to our societal shift to less physically active lives? If so, then increasing physical activity might improve brain development and prevent these debilitating and fatal conditions.

So adding a healthy dose of activity to our working (and leisure) lives might do more than strengthen our heart and prevent overweight/obesity. Why not farm (or garden) as work or leisure? Not only will it keep that brain developing, it will supply us with nutritious foods to feed brains in even earlier stages of development.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Chicken run

Our chicken run in the red pine field is nearly complete. After a group of friends and family helped clear the brush during our October-fiesta weekend, and Nick took over the rest of the tough work of clean-up and mowing, it looks fantastic. There are plenty of little trees to hide under and lots of grassy spots to forage through.

Next up: a chicken coop, our top priority winter project.
... and after.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Holy leaves

Piles of leaves... and more to come.
 Boy, do we have an amazing connection. Our friend works at a local landscaping company and he has hooked us up with truckloads of chopped leaves. This organic matter that would have otherwise been driven to a municipal waste site in Westchester County is now decomposing in our fields, on our vegetable beds, and in huge compost piles.

Dumping truck

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The metabolic rift

I was introduced to the concept of the metabolic rift in a public health class titled "Urban Space + Health," where we read a piece by Jason Moore titled "Environmental crises and the metabolic rift in world-historical perspective."  Since then, Jason and I have used the concept to describe what motivates a lot of what we are trying to accomplish with our Longhaul project.

The metabolic rift is explicitly referring to ecological disruption as a result of capitalism, drawn from Karl Marx's theories on the relationship between humans and nature. In agricultural terms, it refers to soil degradation and the loss of soil fertility that has resulted from years of capitalist agricultural practices which take plant and animal products and resources from land (typically from "the country") without replacing it, instead exporting it to other land (typically "the city") for human consumption. The imbalance in the nutrient and ecological cycle caused by this rift is contributing to the crisis in sustainability we face today.

I think making the connection between tree, natural fuels, plant and animal resources being taken away from their sources to be used and never returned by the urbanizing, globalizing human population is not hard to do. We also think of the metabolic rift in terms of family and community: how our young and old are increasingly being taken care of by sourced-out entities, rather than by inter-generational extended families or community members. We also think about it when we collect organic matter from our neighbors and local businesses, turning their nutritious waste into locally-made compost that will feed the soil, rather than letting it end up in landfills.

So with our Longhaul project, which includes the ecologically sustainable farm, community connections, living closer to family, and in the coming years, a multi-generational educational space, we are attempting to heal the rift.

Recipe with broccoli rabe

Broccoli rabe and pea spread

Ingredients: broccoli rabe, fresh peas, garlic, olive oil, s+p, bread or crackers

Preparing: Par-boil some broccoli rabe and fresh peas until just tender. Puree these vegetables with a clove of garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. It should be a spreadable consistency - more like a hummus than like a pesto.

Eating: Spread this bright green spread on your favorite bruschetta bread. You could garnish with a small sliver of roasted red pepper.

Dish history: Had this recently at a friend's cocktail party.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Food pricing + health

I recently participated on a panel at Hunter College's School of Public Health to discuss food pricing and obesity. I was up there as a farmer, but also brought my public health experience to the table. Others on the panel included the UN Food Rapporteur; someone from the NYC Mayor's Office on food programs; advocates from NYC's Food Bank, an environmental justice group and an organization that brings farmer's markets to low-income communities; and a financial analyst specializing in commodities futures. We had a very interesting discussion that touched on injustices in food access, rising food prices and the connection with revolution and citizen unrest, the federal Farm Bill, conventional vs organic food production, and links between food pricing and health.

I received comments afterward saying they were so happy to have a producer on the panel who sees the links between injustice, food pricing and health, because so often the producers are pegged as the bad guys - stirring up an image of a wealthy farmer on a tractor, sitting on hundreds of acres of land, producing corn, soybean, wheat or cotton only to receive subsidies from the federal government. The reality is, only a small fraction of farms are responsible for the majority of our food production. Overall, 91 percent of farms in the U.S. are considered "small family farms" (with sales - not profits - of less than $250k per year), and those farms produce just 27 percent of U.S. agricultural output. The remaining 9 percent or so are huge operations which dominate the production and distribution of food and commodities in this society, operating on U.S.-beloved principles of economies of scale and deregulation.

But I think small-scale producers like us are on the rise. The growing new farmers movement is committed to natural or organic practices and is politically active in re-negotiating the federal Farm Bill (up for renewal in 2012), raising awareness on commodity pricing and the use of commodities to produce fuel and food products, advocating for local policies to conserve farmland and link farmers to affordable land, and changing how people eat by offering fresh and local produce at farmer's markets and other food stores across the nation. And most local farmers I know believe that everyone should have access to affordable, healthy food, and institute programs, such as a sliding-scale CSA shares or accepting Food Stamps at farmer's markets, in order to ensure equitable access.

While food pricing is still beholden to the market, and, yes, organic still tends to cost more than non-organic (due to many reasons related to labor, land use and farming practices), the price differentials are closing. As our culture of food shifts away from food products (e.g., anything produced with high fructose corn syrup, comes wrapped up in a package, has ingredients listed that you can't pronounce) and begins to recognize the health benefits of fresh, pesticide-free whole or natural foods, our food purchasing practices will shift the market. And our unrealistic expectations for cheap food may begin to come out of the clouds and back down to soil-level.

We're all part of the movement, whether as conscious consumers or conscious producers.

Recipe with celery

Lemony creamed celery and Brussels sprouts (Gourmet 1990)

Ingredients: celery, Brussels sprouts, butter, celery or fennel seeds (optional), milk, flour, lemon zest, lemon juice, s+p

Preparing: Cut celery ribs into 1/2-inch pieces. Blanch B. sprouts until just tender. Cook celery in butter for a few minutes, then add some celery or fennel seeds and 2-3 Tbsp. of flour. Stir well with whisk, then slowly pour in about 1 cup of milk, whisking constantly until sauce thickens like a roux to your desired consistency. Add zest and juice from 1 lemon (or more, to taste), s+p and the B. sprouts. Cook until just heated through. [Note: Could substitute leeks for B. sprouts. Just saute chopped leeks with the celery.]

Eating: Good side dish with roasted chicken... or even Thanksgiving turkey.

Dish history: Made this for the first time many years ago in Brooklyn, and now that we've had a frost (or really, a foot of snow) to sweeten our celery and there's a few B. sprouts sprouting, we couldn't resist.

Preserving: Refrigerator pickles

Not everyone has time to process jars of pickles, so you can cheat a bit so long as there's space in your refrigerator.

Fill a mason jar with some extra veggies - green beans, radish, red onion (sliced), cauliflower, carrot sticks - and spices - bay leaf, coriander seeds, peppercorns, red hot pepper flakes, cloves. We add 1 fresh shiso leaf to the jar (our secret ingredient), and you could also add fresh dill or thyme.

Boil vinegar and water (1:1 ratio) with a handful of salt and a few tablespoons of sugar. Pour the boiled pickle mixture into the jars and seal them. Once cool, stick them in the fridge. They'll keep for months and are a perfect treat with cocktails.