Friday, June 29, 2012

Brine And Brine Again

I have a problem, and that problem is too much produce.

See, I live by myself, and at the farmers market I always shop with my heart more than my head. I'll be going along, when all of a sudden, "Ooooh, kohlrabi! OH and basil! And sorrel! I MUST HAVE IT ALL."

And then some well-meaning fellow farmer will come along and offer me a bag full of produce, which of course I will take, conveniently forgetting the square footage of my mini fridge (tiny), not to mention the capacity of my stomach (even smaller).

At any rate, when I just can't find time in the day to fix everything I've got, I turn to the ancient methods of food preservation for help. You know, canning. Brining. Fermenting. And so forth.

Yesterday, on a whim, I pickled a quart of string beans that were starting to look a little sad. I didn't have any dill, so I used some fennel stalks, tossing in some bay leaves and a clove of fresh garlic for good measure.

I haven't tried them yet - I'm giving them a few days to cure - but I'm excited.

Anyone else out there have some ideas for interesting pickles? Or other summer time preserving ideas? My ears are open.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Farmers Market Secrets

While I'm sure many of you, faithful readers, are likewise faithful farmers market attendees, there may be a few things that you did not know about these markets. I'm talking about fundamental economic underpinnings here, people. More specifically, these are rules that anyone who works at a farmers market does - or should - know.

Rule # 1: The Last Item Never Sells

If 19 of your 20 pints of strawberries sold in the first half hour of market, that last little pint will sit there, forlorn and alone and depressed, until the end of time. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it's true. One might assume that, if there is only one left, the product must be delicious and deserving of purchase... but apparently consumers have a deep-seated aversion to taking the last of anything. Whether that is due to the fact that our mothers admonished us for taking the last piece of cake throughout childhood, or because we assume there must be something wrong with the last piece, I don't know, but whatever it is must be deeply rooted in our subconscious.

In fact, this rule is so true that I know farmers who purposefully pack far more product than they can sell, just so they can keep a fully stocked display. It looks nice, and apparently that appeals in some meaningful way to our psyches.

Rule #2: Customers Never Read Signs

You might think that you're saving yourself a little work by putting up signs describing products, their uses, even their prices... but I am here to tell you that you are WRONG. Customers do not - repeat, do not - read signs.

I tested this theory last week. At the dairy, we make a product called quark - it's a traditional German cheese made from yogurt, and it says so on the handy-dandy little sign that we put next to it. Well, darned if everyone doesn't ask the same thing: "What is quark?" So I posted the sign directly above the sample of the quark. You know, where you absolutely cannot miss it if you try.

By my estimate, I received exactly the same number of "What is quark?" inquiries that I would have otherwise, minus one lady who smacked her husband and pointed at the sign when he asked. Thank you, anonymous lady. You are amazing.

Rule #3: Actually, People Are Just Not Very Observant In General

Lest anyone think I am hating on people who attend farmers markets, let me just say that I am as guilty of this as anybody. A few weeks ago, I went to see a movie*, and could not find napkins for the life of me. Finally I asked the girl who had just sold me popcorn. Turns out they were mounted on the wall, exactly at eye level, right above the counter where I had been looking. I hang my head in shame.

That being said, there's a big difference between not being able to find napkins, and sticking your finger in the yogurt sample that it sitting out so people can help themselves, because you apparently did not notice that there was no lid. Which not one, but four - four - people did on my watch. And that is just sad.

This all being said, I should say that farmers markets are one of my favorite parts of farm life. I love getting to know the regulars and the fellow farmers, I love all the delicious produce that I get to trade for behind the scenes, and I love belonging to and participating in a community that cares about where its food originates.

*The Avengers. It was awesome.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Farmer and the Farmerette

On Tuesday, Clear Spring Creamery played host to a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) workshop. And I was on the itinerary. According to the schedule, I was slated to discuss my "personal journey" as an intern at 3:15.

I was not expecting much, to be honest. I thought I would tell everyone what I studied in college (theatre and drama), mention how I became interested in sustainable agriculture (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver) and explain my future plans (Food Studies MA at Chatham University). There would be two or three stilted questions, and that would be that.

Instead, I became embroiled in an hour-long discussion, in which I eventually realized that I was being treated the mouthpiece of an entire generation of young farmers - the so-called "Generation Organic".

The discussion as a whole was quite interesting, and certainly thought provoking - one moment in particular, at least for me. During a discussion about the FFA (Future Farmers of America), I commented that my mom was a national officer in the FHA (Future Homemakers of America), "...before girls were allowed to be farmers," I ended snidely.

A local extension agent cut me short. "Abigail Adams was a farmer," he said. "So was Martha Washington."

I understand his point. Of course women have farmed throughout history, and continue to farm today. But frankly, the view of farming at present- especially conventional farming - is that of an overall-wearing, grass-chewing, tractor-driving boys club.

This predominantly male farmer stereotype has some statistics backing it up. According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average percentage of female principal farm operators is a mere 14%, increasing  to 22% when you look only at organic farms.

But change is in the air, according to the same 2007 Census: from 2002 to 2007, the number of women as operators has jumped 19%, and as principal farm operators 29%. This is significantly higher than the growth of farmers overall, which was a measly 7% in comparison.

Clearly, the tide is turning, and it is turning more quickly in the world of "alternative" agriculture, such as organic and biodynamic farming. I'm looking forward to reading the results of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, to see how the trend is looking.

As a parting gift, I feel I should mention that my blog comes up when one Googles "sexy girl on tractor," just in case anyone was curious just what, exactly, the role of lady farmers is... or should be.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ferdinand the Bull(s)

A couple weeks ago, we welcomed some additions to the farm. Blog, meet Ferdinand the Bull (Part I).

Actually, there are three bulls, and while none of them actually have names, I have a dismaying tendency to name everything I come across. Sylvester the Toyota Echo. Sneaky the Cow. Trevor the Laptop. And Ferdinand the Bull, Parts I, II, and III.

The bulls are actually all just a year old, and when they arrived, they were virgins. (Not the case anymore.) The way I understand it, bulls tend to become more aggressive as they get older, but are still pretty tractable and nice when they're young.

I don't know if it's the breed (Jersey) or just because they're still young, but the Ferdinands look pretty similar to the cows. They're all de-horned, aren't any bigger than the cows, and (at least to my untrained eye) don't look as though they're built differently.

They do, however, have wrinklier foreheads. And testicles.

At any rate, the Ferdinands will be around for another month or three, before being sold off to another farmer to perform the same services.

Three bulls. Fifty-five cows. The Ferdinands sure do have it tough.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Raw Milk: Healthy or Hopeless?

As some of my intrepid readers will recall, a few weeks ago I went to visit a raw milk dairy in Pennsylvania, The Family Cow. It was quite interesting, to say the least, and I was impressed enough with their safety procedures that I purchased a half gallon of milk to try on my own.

One of the bits of the tour that most struck me was how fervently Roderick, the fifth generation farmer who gave me the tour, believes in the curative powers of raw milk. Indeed, this is something that has grabbed my attention whenever I have come across raw milk drinkers - they believe in the healthfulness, and indeed, in the "superfood" stature of raw milk, with a fervor bordering on religious faith.

But me, I am a skeptic in almost all things, and I was determined to find out what, if any, scientific basis these health claims have.

To that end, I picked up a little pamphlet at The Family Cow on the benefits of, as it proclaims, "Fresh Unprocessed RAW MILK - A Nutrient-Rich Whole Food," in the hopes that it would give me a bit of insight.

Based on the research of a dentist named Weston A. Price in the 1930's, the brochure's central thesis is as follows: "Mammalian raw milk is a complex, bioactive substance of time-tested ancestral origin, where all parts work together to create a nourishing and protective food." The chief argument here is that raw milk contains enzymes and micro-organisms that are destroyed during pasteurization, making milk more difficult to digest and removing all the health benefits they provide.

At first glance, the brochure has all the earmarks of a legitimate publication. It has prominent quotations from doctors and professors on the cover, and cites studies and books, including pictures from Dr. Price's 1939 tome Nutrition and Degeneration, which is essentially the Bible of the raw milk movement. "1939?" you might be thinking. "Isn't that kind of a long time ago?" Indeed it is. And as I look more closely at the quotations on the front cover, I see that they date from 1928 and 1929, respectively. The points are not stacking up in favor of the raw milk folks.

But let's move on to what health benefits, exactly, raw milk is supposed to provide. The brochure provides an exhaustive list, which leaves no stone unturned. Raw milk, it says, treats high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, heart failure, infection, urinary tract infections, prostate gland swelling, psoriasis, toxic thyroid disease, gastric ulcers, Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, pulmonary tuberculosis, edema, stiff joints, muscular dystrophy, and worms, and prevents dental decay. In fact, in one case of raw milk therapy that they cite, raw milk was successful in treating a "large group of patients for which no specific disease could be found."

And let's not forget the various anecdotal evidence I have heard from drinkers of raw milk, including my tour guide at The Family Cow, who claimed that drinking raw milk prevented colds, staved off allergies, boosts general immunity, and in the case of one farm worker who receives dialysis, even helps with kidney problems.

All that, eh? At this point, I begin thinking rather uncharitably of snake oil salesmen.

I'm not trying to argue that raw milk has no benefits whatsoever, but I am inclined to continue to view these health claims with further skepticism until  I can delve into some research a tad bit more recent than 1939.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Unforeseen Complications

I've been in the camper now for three months, and really like it for the most part. It's wonderful to have my own space, not to mention my own kitchen. But there is a side effect - when you use an RV-style toilet* for that length of time, it starts to smell.

After some asking around, I found out that you are apparently supposed to use a toilet treatment in camper-style commodes that breaks down and deodorizes the "contents". But where to find this magical elixir? The RV section at Walmart, I'm told.

So off to Walmart I went.

I'm not normally a Walmart shopper, but I figured I would find what I needed in the Automotive area, which happens to be pretty spacious and full of aisles. I wandered around for a few minutes, but I didn't find anything helpfully labeled "RV Section," so I decided to ask for help.

I found a friendly looking man wearing a Walmart vest, and the following conversation ensued.

Me: Excuse me, sir, I'm looking for the RV section. See, I've been living in a camper for the last few months and the toilet has started smelling a bit, and someone told me I could find stuff to put in it here at the RV section...
Friendly Man: RV section? Dunno if we have one of those.
Me: Well, I was told you did...
Friendly Man: Hold on, let me ask. Pulls out walkie talkie. Hey, Dave?
Dave: Over walkie talkie. Yeah?
Friendly Man: I've got a girl here who says her RV toilet smells. Do we have an RV section?
Dave: Her what smells?
Friendly Man: Her toilet smells.
Dave: What?
Friendly Man: Her toilet.
Dave: Hold on, I'll be right there. Appears. Ok, I'm sorry. What were you saying? I couldn't hear.
Friendly Man: This girls says she's living in an RV and the toilet smells. Do we have an RV section or something?
Dave: Yeah, we have an RV section, it's right here. See, we even have different scents.
Me: Faintly. Thank you. Grabs citrus scented RV toilet treatment and runs away, blushing furiously.

*Picture a holding tank that gets emptied every two weeks. Frankly, I'm a little incredulous that it took this long to start emitting unpleasant odors.