Thursday, August 25, 2011

From Farm To Table: A Local Tour

It has been a very Farm To Table week here in Virginia.

Herb garden at the Clifton Inn
For the uninitiated, Farm To Table is a local food movement that aims to get food from small farms onto the tables of local consumers through their homes, their schools, and their restaurants.

Probably the most famous example I can think of offhand is Chez Panisse, a restaurant in Berkley, CA that was started in 1971 by Alice Waters.* The notion of a restaurant where all the food was grown locally and organically was pretty radical at that time, but the movement has been slowly and steadily gaining ground and has enjoyed a pretty significant upsurge in the last decade or so.

Last week, the Madison County Farmers Market put on a "farm to table dinner" to benefit the market. Farmers from the market - including us - donated food for a practically 100% local meal. The dinner was held at Prince Michel Winery, who (predictably) provided the wine. Brian, Autumn and I volunteered as servers, along with several other local farmers who work the market.

Then the very next morning, I drove down to Charlottesville to visit the Clifton Inn, a B&B slash restaurant. One of the chefs there buys produce from us occasionally, and had offered to give me a tour of the grounds and the gardens, where he grows some of the produce the kitchen uses. So I went. And he did.

Although the garden was a little smaller than I was imagining, it's exactly the sort of thing I love to see a place like that doing - growing their own food, and sourcing some of their produce locally. A lot of people - everyone from individual consumers to school cafeterias to restaurants - are intimidated when they hear about places like Chez Panisse, who grow and/or buy all of their food locally. But it's okay to start small - growing a squash plant in your back yard, potting a few herbs in the windowsill, visiting the local farmers market and buying a few things a week. I recently read about a school district in Virginia that has the goal of buying 8% of their food locally this year, and gradually increasing that amount to 25% over the next two years. That sounds a lot more feasible than attempting to immediately grow 75% of your own food.

Another bit of Farm to Table news from this week has been the initiation of the newest AmeriCorps program, known as FoodCorps. This inaugural program aims to work with schools to educate youth about nutrition and food, build and tend school gardens, and get more fresh, local produce into school cafeterias.

Ah, if only I were younger and had fewer years of AmeriCorps under my belt.

*Incidentally, Alice Waters was just interviewed on Fresh Air to celebrate 40 years of her career in the local food movement.

Friday, August 19, 2011

An Ode To My Boots

My parents gave me these boots for Christmas, and they are the best damn thing that has ever happened to me.

Thanks to these bad boys, I can tromp through anything with ease. Mud, morning dew, tall grass, chicken poop, donkey poop, sheep poop, cow poop... all are treated with the same vast, rubbery, knee-high indifference.

I love the plopping sound they make on my shins. I love the way my pants look tucked into their capacious tops. And I especially love that they cover up my atrocious sock tan with no one the wiser.

Thank you, boots, from the bottom of my heart (and my sole).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Introducing Fiona the Dexter Cow

Allow me to introduce the newest member of Brightwood Vineyard and Farm. Blog, please meet Fiona the Cow.

Her name is Fiona, and she's a Dexter cow. Dexters are a heritage breed of dairy cow from Ireland. They're quite a bit smaller than regular cows, and come in black and brown.

Fiona's still skittish and shy. Susan and Dean just picked her up yesterday, so it will probably be a little while before she's feeling comfortable enough to let us approach her.

She's next to the donkeys, where she is already a source of endless curiosity and amusement.

The Real Cost of Cheap Food

A couple weeks ago, a man who was coming to stay at the cottage with his family asked me, "So why is organic food so much more expensive than regular food?"

I have a hard time trying to decide what I found more jaw-dropping: the incredible scope of the question, or the sheer ignorance of someone coming to stay at our "green B&B".*

After a few seconds of furious thought, I was able to organize my brain somewhat and manage an explanation that didn't make me sound like a complete idiot. But afterwards, I started to think about the encounter. Is it really such a fantastic question? Many people just think of organic food as the "expensive" alternative. If you only compare grocery store prices, then yes, it is. But a lot more goes into it than that. For every "cheap" food item you buy, there are invisible costs somewhere that you are encouraging - costs that are taken out on you, your community, and every tax-payer in the country.

(WARNING: This is a long rant post.)


When you buy a cheeseburger from your favorite fast food place, it probably seems like a good deal. Four bucks for a sandwich, side and drink? Sign me up.

But the hidden costs with cheap food are considerable. The "obesity epidemic" sweeping America is proof of that. One in three adults in the US is considered obese. The number of obese children has tripled since 1980, with 17% of children under the age of 20 considered obese today.

Noticeably, there are considerable racial, ethnic and income-related disparities in obesity. Obesity rates tend to be much higher in low-income neighborhoods. Hispanic children are far more likely than non-Hispanic children to be obese, and African Americans have the highest rates of adult obesity.

But what is the actual cost, in dollars? In 2008, medical costs resulting from obesity were estimated at $147 billion.** Also consider that conditions relating to obesity include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer. That doesn't include what the costs of lost productivity were in that year, or how much of that cost forwarded to the public as part of their tax money.


I think everyone got tired of hearing about environmental problems after the Exxon-Valdez Oil Spill, but when the Australian government reports that the Great Barrier Reef is being significantly damaged due to agricultural chemicals, we have a problem.

Conventional agricultural practices result in a variety of long-term environmental problems. Tillage often subjects the land to severe erosion, for example. To wit - a 1950's topsoil survey of Virginia listed what is now Brightwood Vineyard and Farm as having six feet of topsoil. When Dean and Susan moved here ten years ago, the farm had two. And it takes a thousand years to build a foot of soil.

Then there's pest and weed management, which is what everyone thinks about when the question of environmental impact arises. While Monsanto might be engineering corn that can withstand application of Roundup, anyone who uses a product like that isn't thinking a few steps down the line. The GMO corn might be okay, but all the beneficial microbes in the soil are wiped out. Application of fungicides and pesticides do the same, killing everything in its path, and making the soil anaerobic and completely unfit for use for the next ten years. Runoff of these chemicals then has the predicted effect - tainting water sources, killing wildlife and native plants, and so on.

To counter the complete decimation of their soil, conventional farmers use NPK fertilizers that add "the big three" back into the soil - Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium. Other than the ridiculously over-simplified idea that these three nutrients are all crops need to be healthy (and we wonder why produce today has 40% fewer vitamins and minerals than produce from the 1940s, as Michael Pollan courteously explained in In Defense of Food), the application of fertilizer also has consequences for the surrounding environment.

Example: when I was in high school, back in good ol' Indiana, one summer something interesting happened. The run-off of fertilizers from lawns caused severe algae bloom in the Eagle Creek Reservoir, which happens to also be the primary water source for miles around. The algae killed off all the fish, and made the water taste like the inside of a toilet. The county then had to spend taxpayer money to mitigate the problem by getting rid of the algae and restocking the entire lake with fish.

Human Rights

Think about the rice selection at your local grocery store. At the low end of the selection, you have family-size bags of store-brand rice for maybe $2 or $3. At the other end of the scale are small one-pound bags of "specialty" rice - Arborio, perhaps, or wild rice mixes - at $6 or $7 each.

If you're like most people, you probably go for the $2 bag. It's the better deal, yes? But how is such a large amount so cheap?

The answer is most likely that it's taken out of the wages of the workers who cultivate it. Most large farms pay their workers a pittance - not even a living wage. This has been considered a problem in California for years - anyone who remembers the United Farm Workers strikes in the 1980's, led by Cesar Chavez, has an idea what I'm talking about. Our country, especially the agri-business, has a long and illustrious history of importing illegal workers who will work for a fraction of what American citizens would consider appropriate.***

Something like rice isn't usually grown in the US, though. It's grown instead in countries like India, China, South Korea. Not only do workers there have to contend with low pay, but the working conditions are often atrocious. A lot of pesticides that chemical companies like Monsanto and DOW spent years and millions of dollars developing are no longer legal in the United States; these chemicals are now sold to countries where they aren't illegal, creating hazardous working conditions for agricultural workers there.

The bottom line is if you are buying cheap food, then something is wrong. There is no such thing as "cheap food". With organic food purchased at a local farmer's market, you know that your money is going directly to the farmer, that no chemicals were used in the making of your produce, and that it is the healthy choice.

For a much less righteously angry and considerably shorter post on the topic of the externalized costs of cheap food, check out this post on Marion Nestle's blog.

*Lest I sound like a pretentious ass, let me explain that after observing five months worth of visitors, I can safely say that most of them are familiar with (and often eat lots of) organic food.
**Stats can be found at the CDC website.
***The question of illegal immigration is a large and unwieldy one - for a look at this practice, I suggest checking out the documentary Food, Inc.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Eggplant Galore

As mentioned in my last post, the Nightshade family is coming in droves right now. That means we have eggplant, and lots of it.

I'm sure many of you have met some of my eggplant friends already. But in any case, here's a little picture tour of our 90 foot eggplant row.

Rosa Bianca
Imperial Black Beauty
Listada di Galidia
Eggplant has been interesting to cook with, and I've had some definite failures that landed me in Mush City. But there were two notable successes recently. The first was Seared Eggplant "Steaks", which I served with a reduced elderflower wine sauce with garlic and parsley. Not as weird as it sounds, I promise.

The other was Eggplant Parmesan:

Not the best picture (forgot to get one before everyone dug in), but whatevs. The weird green things on top are fresh basil leaves. Next time, I'll probably put them on about five minutes before serving so they won't look so decrepit... they did taste very nice and aromatic and basil-y, however. So I'm not too concerned about it.

Incidentally, I made the eggplant parm with fresh tomatoes ALL from our farm. The basil's ours too. I used a mixture of eggplant - a little of everything except the Berenjenas, which I hear are better for stir-fry. The Imperial Black Beauty in particular baked well, and was incredibly sweet and delicious. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Disgusting Farm Experience #126: Blossom End Rot

It's Nightshade time. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants... they're everywhere. Escape is impossible. Assuming you would want to, that is.

We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 tomato plants, which is actually a slightly conservative estimate on my part. I've literally dreamed about harvesting tomatoes, more than once.
Tomatoes have plenty of problems. Just about everyone's heard about tomato blight, for example, which caused all those problems in 2009 when plant distributor Bonnie Plants sold thousands of infected plants through Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot and K-Mart.

I never heard about blossom end rot before this year, though.

Caused by a lack of calcium in the soil, blossom end rot starts as a tiny brown spot at the blossom end of the tomato. As the tomato grows, it expands to rot away the whole fruit if you let it.

The way we try to prevent this extremely disgusting problem is by spraying the plants with a calcium solution, using our highly fashionable backpack sprayer.

By spraying the calcium as a foliar feed, the plant takes it in and then distributes it to the soil - good news for future plants, since the soil here has an acidity problem.

It does, however, make the skins of the tomato a little tough. Well, a lot tough, actually. We've been aiming for a weekly spray, which - let's be honest here - doesn't always happen.

Even with blossom end rot, we have more tomatoes than anyone knows what to do with. Good thing the chickens like them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Passing of a Friend

Charlie, one of the guard dogs, died very suddenly last night. Brian and Autumn were about ten minutes away from the animal hospital in Charlottesville when he passed away.

Although we didn't know it until talking to the veterinarian, Charlie had canine bloat, a very serious and often fatal problem that usually occurs in deep chested dogs, which Charlie was. Basically, the dog's stomach twists downward, which makes the dog unable to vomit or get rid of anything in its stomach. Gasses build up, and within a few hours the dog dies.

We first noticed something was wrong at noon, when we were heading into lunch. Charlie had jumped the fence and was panting pretty hard. Other than the panting, he seemed fine, so we took him back to his area.

That evening as Brian was doing wrap-up, he noticed that Charlie was gone. When we found him, his mouth was dirty, his tummy distended and hard, and he was still panting a lot. He wouldn't eat or drink anything. We thought he'd probably just eaten something bad, but decided to take him to the vet anyways. Brian and Autumn drove him, since I was getting up at 4 for the Charlottesville Farmers Market.

Charlie died on the way to the vet's office. Even if he'd gotten there before he died, there wasn't anything the vet could have done by that point. We need to keep an eye on Ben, Charlie's brother - apparently canine bloat is hereditary. Susan is thinking about having a preventative surgery done where they would tie down Ben's stomach so it couldn't twist - a fairly common procedure, it seems.

Bye, Charlie. You're a good pal.