Rhubarb-the quintessential spring food

With anticipation I await rhubarb’s full bouquet–deep green dinner-plate sized leaves atop fibrous stalks ranging in color from bright chartreuse green to brilliant pink–spreading close to a yard across. Its arrival is evidence that spring is here. Even before there are blossoms on my plum tree, rhubarb is ready for its first harvest.

My taste buds no longer crave the Pacific Northwest’s locally-grown winter food staples. The autumn allure of potatoes, curly kale, Tuscan Kale, cabbage, and Brussels Sprouts is gone. Locally-grown butternut squash is a distant memory. Acorn squash is still readily available from a local farmer, but it’s just not exciting. Candidly by March, the locally grown food choices have just become downright boring! I’ll admit, summer grown foods are my favorite. With rhubarb’s early spring arrival, I know summer is not far behind.

Robust Rhubarb Plant

Rhubarb is an odd vegetable. It was never prepared in my family–not by my mother or grandmothers. Rhubarb season showed up every spring on an A-frame sidewalk sign outside a local restaurant, “Come in for a fresh baked slice of strawberry rhubarb pie.” As quickly as it arrived, rhubarb was gone. Fresh asparagus quickly emerged as the “go to” spring vegetable and then the gallop-paced influx and subsequent reign of summer’s abundance commenced–strawberries, apricots, lettuces, corn, peaches, and more. I was flummoxed the first time I saw rhubarb stalks for sale at the farmers market in August. It just seemed bizarre. Isn’t rhubarb simply an early spring phenomenon? I needed to know more.

What is Rhubarb?

Ready to Use Rhubarb Stalks

Rhubarb is a vegetable! It grows from a rhizome–a bulb that sends roots and shoots out from a central node. If you buy fresh ginger root (to grate into your favorite Asian dish), it, too, is a rhizome. With rhubarb, however, only the stalk is edible. Depending on the variety and whether the vegetable is hot-house or field raised, the rhubarb stalks vary in color from a soft red blush for the entire stem or transition in color from a deep red to a chartreuse green. All stalks are topped with a deep spinach-green colored dinner-plate sized leaf. Beginning as nubs poking out of the ground in early March, by mid-April, the plant is eventually two feet tall and four feet in diameter!

The leaves, no matter how beautiful, are poisonous with oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is found in small, harmless quantities in broccoli, chives, grapefruit, and rhubarb stalks giving these foods a sharp, sometimes sour taste. It takes about 11 pounds of rhubarb leaves for a lethal dose. Even so, it’s not recommended to ingest any amount of rhubarb leaves as the digestive system would be extremely uncomfortable and gout or kidney stones could be an unwanted outcome.

Growing Rhubarb

Rhubarb Shoots and Stalks

Five years ago, I planted one rhubarb rhizome in my raised bed. Living in Seattle, where the winters are dark and it rains all the time, I needed an early season reminder that summer was on its way. It’s easy to grow. My garden reference says, “plant in an open-sunny position in deep, fertile, well-drained soil.” Pick the stalks until mid-summer. Later in the season, they become fibrous and sometimes soft, depending on how much they have been watered. Remove all the leaves and stalks in the fall. Mulch before winter with a bag of well-rotted composted garden soil or manure. After several growing seasons, when the stalks get too skinny, divide and replant using the healthy, outer, younger rhizomes. (Dividing and replanting is on my to-do list this fall.) When harvesting, pull the stalk at ground level to limit any chance of disease infestation. Use stalks, as needed, to create sauces, chutneys, infused beverages and more. It meets my criteria for gardening with ease! I get to create scrumptious unique food flavors at the dinner table, too!

In 2010, Washington led the country with 275 acres of rhubarb production. Michigan and Oregon weren’t too far behind with 200 acres apiece. According to one source, there are less than 1,000 acres of commercial production across the entire United States with some commercial production in California, too! Considering that there are about 7,000 acres of eggplant–another distinctive vegetable–rhubarb lacks the respect it deserves! With seven times more eggplant acreage, rhubarb merits a resurgence! The Pacific Northwest’s maritime climate with acidic, volcanic soils and ceaseless winter rains grow the best rhubarb! Sumner, Washington, 30 minutes southeast of Seattle is even the Rhubarb Pie Capital of the World!

My favorite rhubarb recipes are Rhubarb Chutney from Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling, Cooking Light’s Rhubarb Liqueur, and Stewed Rhubarb from The Organic Cook’s Bible. Our baked chicken fingers get a dollop of rhubarb chutney through winter’s dark days, bringing a little bit of spring sunshine into the meal.  

Every spring, I watch my rhubarb unfurl. With each passing day the deep green leaves on crimson stems push higher into the air. I know summer is on its way!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Taste Wheat: Cereal Box Bakery

Imagine every Wednesday, before the sun rises, a bag of baked goods is delivered to your front doorstep. With anticipation you open the front door to retrieve  the large bag with a box and several smaller bags filled with delectable flavors. You first look for the breakfast treat: pastries, muffins, scones, or bagels. Taking your first bite, you are transported to a memorable bakery while savoring the flavors in your own breakfast nook. This is no ordinary delivery. Instead it’s the best baked products from the finest flavored, heritage wheat cultivars available. The baked goods are only offered by Cereal Box Bakery and can be delivered to your door, too. You explore the rest of the delivery:  sourdough, sandwich bread, granola, emmer farro pasta, baguettes, rosemary crackers, graham crackers or cookies. With each delivery I am impressed.

Apple Tart

Cereal Box Bakery Classic Apple Tart

When I was a young kid, my Dad would sneak out early Sunday morning to bring home a box of freshly baked pastries and donuts to the delight of me and my siblings. Now every week, I await my Cereal Box Bakery arrival with the same anticipation. Rob Salvino of Cereal Box Bakery set out a year ago to “make baked goods fun again.” He crafts a bag with different selections every week. Rather than the sugar and white flour bomb of my childhood, I relish the baked goods as they are filled with stone-ground wheat, which have the germ and the bran retained, and thus a more robust flavor. I know it is way better for my body over the roller-milled, carbohydrate-rush, commercially grown, all-white flour. Added benefits are supporting our local Washington agricultural community, keeping heritage wheat varieties in production, fostering a neighborhood business, and it tastes good, too.  

In September, my bag featured a miniature luscious, flaky crusted tart with apples from Tonnemaker Hill Farm in Royal City. Just before Thanksgiving, the treat was a mini-pumpkin pie. Valentine’s Day, a Panettone, the Italian sweet bread usually associated with Christmas, arrived with chocolate nubs, dried cherries, and an essence of citrus. This week I’m awaiting cranberry scones with Sonora wheat and dried Starvation Alley cranberries harvested last fall in Long Beach, Washington.

Cereal Box Bakery Sourdough

Cereal Box Bakery Sourdough

I always get Rob’s favorite bread–sourdough–in my delivery rather than the sandwich loaf option. The sourdough bread flavors are perfect because he uses various stone-ground heritage wheat varieties, such as Sonora Gold and Turkey Red from Palouse Colony Farm. Heritage wheat varieties are similar to heirloom tomatoes, in that they were commercially grown before the 1950’s but aren’t typically grown today. Now, they are found on smaller specialty farms serving markets where customers care about flavor, growing conditions and maintaining a robust stock of wheat varieties. According to Wayne Carpenter of Skagit Valley Malting, another specialty grain user for malted beverages, there are more than 20,000 wheat varieties. Even with the abundance of varieties only a few hundred acres of the specialty wheats are grown in Washington.

Large farms grow varieties that have high yields and are simple to sell to bakers and retailers because the wheat has known and expected baking characteristics. As a casual baker, I only recently learned that all flour is not the same. Depending on the amount of protein in a milled wheat, it may rise a lot or a little in a baked product. Customers expect a certain amount of loft in their bread, only so many holes, and a consistent product. This often prevents bakers (even home bakers) from experimenting with new wheat varieties as they don’t know whether the end product will meet their own specifications and more importantly, be acceptable to their customers. 

The Wheats

Palouse Colony Farm is located in eastern Washington in what is commonly called The Palouse, an area of gentle rolling hills formed over thousands of years by windblown silts. It is a fertile region where  dryland or non-irrigated wheat is grown and is definitely the bread basket of Washington. Dick and Don Scheuerman, owners of Palouse Colony Farm grow specialty landrace and heritage grains. Landrace grains “were originally raised by settlers in colonial America and the pioneers of the Pacific Northwest” and are non-hybridized strains, meaning they are not crossbred with other grains to create a new variety. Heritage/Heirloom grains are hybridized but no longer widely grown.

Wheat Varieties at the Munich Botanical Garden

Sonora Gold is the first wheat planted in the Americas having been brought by the Spaniards to Mexico in the 1600s. Transported up the west coast by Spanish missionaries, Sonora wheat filled California Central Valley with close to three million production acres by the 1880s. It was the wheat variety used to make large flour tortillas, a mainstay of Californian/Hispanic meals. Sonora is drought tolerant, disease resistant, early maturing, and has a good yield. With the advent of modern wheat varieties, now grown predominantly in the plains states, California wheat production plummeted with commercial production of Sonora ending in the 1970’s.

Turkey Red wheat arrived in the United States from Crimea (formerly part of the Ukraine and now part of Russia) via Mennonite farmers fleeing Tsarist persecution in the early 1870s. It was planted for 70 years as the dominant hard red winter wheat in Kansas until the mid-1940’s when it was replaced by modern higher-yield varieties. It is not commercially grown now, but is instead a heritage breed savored for its complex, rich flavor and excellent baking quality.

Rob also sources emmer farro wheat and einkorn wheat from Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop, Washington and other flours from Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill to bake and prepare his products. Purchasing a weekly share from Cereal Box Bakery supports a small business and benefits the farmer with up to “seven times the price received  in mainstream (food supply) chains,” according to a June 2010 Economic Research Report.* Whole grain wheat flour is also exceedingly nutritious with high protein and fiber levels, as well as it tastes good, too!  Get ready to have your taste buds tantalized with new flavors of hearty and luscious baked goods from Cereal Box Bakery to start your day.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

* King, Robert P., Michael S. Hand, Gigi DiGiacomo, Kate Clancy, Miguel I. Gomez, Shermain D. Hardesty, Larry Lev, and Edward W. McLaughlin. Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains, ERR-99, U.S. Dept. of Agr., Econ. Res. Serv. June 2010.

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Elk Run: Golf Course to Farm

In the 1990’s the rage in real estate development was both stand alone and master planned community golf course construction. The Golf Club at Newcastle repurposed an old construction landfill with 36 links, a stunning club house, and outstanding views to Puget Sound and beyond. A Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course was built at Snoqualmie Ridge a new plateau neighborhood on former Weyerhaeuser timber lands above downtown Snoqualmie, WA. Now almost built-out, Snoqualmie Ridge is a mixed-use community with new a public school, a commercial downtown, housing for a variety of ages and incomes, a business park, and the golf course as its featured recreational opportunity. Trilogy at Redmond Ridge converted former timberlands to a golf course and residential development serving a 55+ senior community. As a Professional Civil Engineer, during this golf link construction surge, I reviewed engineering design drawings, Integrated Pest Management Plans, environmental documents, and wrote discretionary land use permits for these three King County golf courses.

Trilogy at Redmond Ridge Golf Course

Golf courses as a recreational amenity were a profitable and desirable solution to keep open space and add real estate value. At its peak, real estate developers were rewarded a ten to 25% premium for new homes built next to the golf green compared to homes off links (Ed McMahon, Senior Fellow, Urban Land Institute). Homeowners coveted the views and green space. Golfing was in its prime! I was riding the wave in my consulting business with the developers to build courses for what seemed like an ever-expanding golf population.

Now 25 years later, golf’s popularity has changed dramatically. By 2013, there were 72 public and private golf courses in the Seattle metropolitan area (Golf Link, 2013). For the decade preceding 2013, for every new course being opened, ten courses were closed. (National Golf Foundation, 2013). At the same time as the number of golf courses has decreased there is an ever-shrinking pool of golfers. Sixty-one percent (61%) of the golf players, defined as someone that only plays one round of links in a 12-month period, are 50 years and older. Only 17% of the golfers are under 40 years old. (October 2016, Golf Player Demographic Statistics–Statistics Brain) Golfing is on a downward trend. Granted 29 million golf players is still a large demographic, but with only five million Millennials—those born between 1980 and 2000—playing golf, the decrease in the number of golfers is dramatic.

Even so, golf course master planned communities still provide an emotional and community need for its residents–a place for connection, commonality, and shared activity. Neighbors have common interests and can spend leisure time playing golf. No one knows this more than my 77-year old Californian aunt and uncle. They absolutely fit the key golfer demographic and play golf two or three times a week, live next to a golf green, and are thoroughly enjoying retirement. It’s their social life and keeps them young—walking the course and swinging the club!

So, if Millennials don’t play golf, what drives them? In a 2013 Aetna, What’s Your Healthy Survey, 24% of the Millennials have a daily commitment to eating and exercising right when compared to only 12% of the Boomer generation. An infographic prepared by Goldman Sachs, surmised that the Millennials “are dedicated to wellness, devoting time and money to exercising and eating right.” Am I born in the wrong generation? As a Baby Boomer, I have a daily commitment to eating well, exercising regularly and I don’t play golf! So, what is an alternative land use that still provides community and open space?  

What’s is a golf course owner to do?

At the time, I was permitting new golf courses, the 18-hole Elk Run Golf Course, owned by Covington Golf, Inc. in Maple Valley, WA was constructed.  Nine holes were built on land leased from King County and nine holes wound their way through the master-planned community. For over 20 years, the golf culture created community and neighborliness. Then as with everything in life, things changed. The Tahoma School District secured Elk Run’s leased nine holes for the site of their new public high school, now scheduled to open in Fall 2017. As owners, Covington Golf, Inc. decided a nine-hole course would not thrive and the last club was swung at Elk Run in 2014.

2016 Garlic Crop at Elk Run Farm

After searching for a new use for their golf course land, the Elk Run owners partnered with the South King County Food Coalition (“SKCFC”) to build a farm to grow produce for local food banks! For clients served by the SKCFC’s 12-member coalition, often freshly-grown, healthy produce is rare. Many food banks lack fresh fruits and vegetables for their clientele, as canned and processed foods and grains are much easier to collect, store, and distribute. Despite King County’s riches, 12.4% of the county’s population live below the poverty level (Employment Security Department). Of the 38 cities in King County, eleven of the cities with the lowest annual incomes are in South King County. The Maple Valley Food Bank, one of the South King County Food Coalition’s (“SKCFC”) 12-members, served 5,356 different individuals and 901,375 pounds of food in 2014-2015. There is an obvious need for fresh produce production for food banks in South King County. SKCFC agreed to sponsor the Elk Run Farm project as a concrete way to educate, nourish, and provide locally-grown produce to this important group of eaters.

Elk Run Farmer—Maria Anderson

Elk Run Farmer Maria Anderson

Maria Anderson came to farming out of a passion for good health which she only began to realize as a young adult. As a 21-year old when she started cooking for herself, she recognized her passion for good food. Through her 20’s, Maria’s understanding of the United States’ food system continued to expand with the ultimate recognition that American society is totally disconnected with where its food comes from. Humans have a regular, daily requirement to eat food. Most in our country (unless they are food insecure) have de facto unlimited food choices. Unfinished restaurant meals are scraped into the garbage or taken home in a little white container for the next day’s meal. Grocery stores are chock full of eating choices whether in the deli, produce section or interior, processed food aisles. For most, food is always there. There is no reason to know, understand or think about how it gets to our mouths.

For Maria, her thoughts on how much food, in what locale, at what scale and where it should be grown continued to pester her. This curiosity about food drove her to intern on several Western Washington farms. Should our country really have more than one-half of its fruits and vegetables grown in California? Could localized vegetable production be expanded locally during a region’s peak growing season? Should food waste have a second purpose rather than the garbage can? Could food scraps be used to feed chickens or pigs or create compost? Are certain crops well-suited for large scale agriculture? Maria keeps developing her answers to these important questions not only by reading and studying, but also by living the life of a farmer.  

Beginning in 2016, Maria, a Millennial, is Elk Run Farm’s farmer growing organic vegetables on the one-acre former grassy field adjacent to the old club house beginning in 2016. Initial funding came via a three-year grant from the Partners to Improve Community Health (“PICH”) through the Center for Disease Control. With any new venture and especially farming, there are numerous start-up costs including equipment, secure storage facilities, irrigation infrastructure, and seed costs. Now in 2017, excitement continues to accelerate for the Elk Run Farm project as funding is secure from the South King County Rotary Clubs, The Bullitt Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the King Conservation District’s Food Systems grant program.

Elk Run Farm Expansion Area?

Goals for this growing season include harvesting 10,000 pounds of produce from the one-acre farm. Yes, it is a small amount compared to the need, but a critical start to feeding an important community. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant will cover one 5,000 square foot bed (about the same size as a typical City of Seattle single family building lot). Equal sized beds of summer squash, brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), legumes (peas and beans), and garlic are expected. One 5,000 square foot bed will be planted in cover crops to nourish the soil and provide forage for bees. The remaining 10,000 square feet will grow lettuce greens and root crops like carrots and radishes.

Maria is optimistic and excited about the future. With a new high school opening right next to door, there are opportunities to teach horticultural classes for young people just steps away. The Urban Agricultural program at Des Moines-based Highline College is expected to assist with farm activities. The neighboring community with former golf course frontage, could be enticed to participate in farming education and eating! The opportunities are endless.

As golf’s popularity continues to wane, are there other chances to convert former golf course grounds to farming? If so, open space is saved and food is grown! We all eat at least three times a day, so it is possible! Is growing food where people live a sustainable new trend, to create more community and build well-being? Could there even be a price premium to live next to the farm or in a farm community? As Millennials form families and hip Baby Boomers age and each is looking for community, will on-site farms be the draw to re-ignite the master planned community?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

 

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Artisanal Ingenuity–Tieton Farm & Creamery

Being an infrastructure nerd, I remember public works catastrophes. Ten years ago the City of Tieton, Washington‘s water system failed. Multiple water lines broke throughout the city. The State of Washington funded emergency repairs. The calamity was my first introduction to Tieton. Last summer, University of Washington held an alumni event in Tieton. Despite not going, I was intrigued and I still didn’t know where Tieton was. Last month, I bought delectable soft cheeses at the University District Farmers Market from Ruth and Lori Babcock, owners of Tieton Farm and Creamery. My curiosity was piqued.  A Tieton trip was destined.

Tieton Farm & Creamery on a winter’s day

On a brisk December morning, after a significant Cascade Mountain snowfall, fellow adventure seeker Robbie and I ventured from the maritime Puget Sound to the frigid Washington interior. I-90 was still slick, but blue sky sucker holes lured us eastward. A Seattle ritual is an April trip to Yakima County to explore wineries and to climb treeless hillsides to be rewarded with commanding Mt. Rainier views, all while soaking in as much sunshine as possible.  A winter visit is only for the hardy and properly clothed. We were prepared. Excitement around our adventure heightened as we climbed Naches-Tieton Road, 850 feet above the Yakima River Valley farms, to the Tieton Basin plateau.    

The slow steady ascent on the sweeping road, hugging the slope’s rise, we finally entered through the final notch to the Tieton plateau. As a child, I was mesmerized by ever expanding vistas. Being on the brink of a slope and above a valley let me savor, even if for a brief moment, the views of what appears to be endless landscapes. A sense of calm, peace, and wonder pervades. There is a feeling smallness and at the same time immensity. A sense of awareness and possibility of something new, something exciting. My curiosity to explore was awakened again.

The plateau was bathed in mid-afternoon subdued light as we were only two weeks from the winter solstice.  Mere inches of snow covered windswept farmland. We arrived at our destination, Tieton Farm & Creamery at 2:30 in the afternoon, just in time to help Ruth with the farm animals’ afternoon meal.

Ruth & Lori

Ruth grew up in Wenatchee in the heart of apple growing country, having worked summers picking fruit. After college, she landed in Seattle in the financial accounting software business, which demanded a lot of sitting time in front of a computer. Lori worked at the same company and had a passion for cooking. Ruth and Lori connected in the late 1990’s and dreamed about their future together.

I met Lori about the same time, when we served as Trustees together on the PCC Natural Markets Board. PCC Natural Markets is the nation’s largest natural foods grocery cooperative, founded in 1953, now with 12 stores throughout the Puget Sound region. PCC is more than just grocery store, as it sells high quality and sustainably grown food, some grown and produced by small independent farmers, such as Lori’s cheeses. Lori and I had forged a connection around the board table in our efforts to support the environment and ensure healthy, organic food without the additives, pesticides and fungicides for Puget Sound eaters.  

Our time on the farm

Our farm chores took about one and a half glorious cold hours on the 20-acre property. The property, a former orchard, had been scourged by fire and in 2009 was a canvas ready to be painted by a new farmer. They got to work and now have 56 goats, 70 sheep, two pigs, a few cows and a steer, a couple of horses, and a flock of fowl including geese, turkeys, ducks, and chickens. All had to be fed and given water.

We met the goats first: Sonnet, Black Pearl, Rheba, and more. All named for their temperament–living in a large, new, open-ended hoop barn, since the older barn had been destroyed by an electrical fire the previous year. Eastern Washingtonians must always be vigilant around fire as their land is susceptible to summer and early fall fire threats, because it is so dry with only nine inches of yearly rainfall. The 2015 wildfire season was the worst in Washington’s history with 1,600 square miles burned (almost the same size as Pierce County’s land area)!

Patiently waiting goats

The goats with expecting looks on their faces waited patiently, as we filled the troughs. All 56 goats lined-up along the trough, as orderly kindergartens do before heading to the lunchroom. In December, all the animals are in their dry period or non-lactating cycle, when they stop producing milk prior to the next birthing and milking season. This cycle is totally normal and likely unbeknownst to the common eater, including me! Not having milking responsibilities consuming six hours daily created a perfect time for our visit. During peak season, with 90 animals to milk, farm days are long with endless farm duties of  feeding, cleaning, milking, rotating fencing, and irrigating. Thankfully, there are plenty of daylight hours. In the milking season, electric fencing is rotated every three days to ensure fresh forage for the animals and to limit manure build-up in the fields. Monthly fence rotations are only needed in the winter, as the animals are farmer fed.  

Robbie Petting the Pigs

Next stop–the pigs–which are raised for pasture-raised pork products. Grain was scooped from a large barrel and sprinkled on the ground. We called for the pigs, but no pigs. Finally, the pigs braved the cold and moseyed out of their hovel for affection first and dinner second. Each animal grouping has their own fenced area and a water trough.  With frigid temperatures, most troughs have a small electric heater element to ensure water and not ice is available to drink. The pigs used to confiscate their heater for hut warmth. Those pesky pigs outsmart the farmer! Now hot water is carried to the pig’s water bowl to ensure winter liquid refreshment!

Farmer Ruth Poised to Feed the Sheep

The cows and sheep are fed organic hay, purchased for winter feedings. With herd mentality, the sheep watched and followed our every move, as we peeled off “flakes” or about a three-inch thick square section of hay bale to toss into the pen. A five sheep group ate three flakes of hay. Two tips for hay heaving, never aim for a manure pile and always use a side arm throw rather than over head toss. Being dressed in grass flecks confirmed I was a novice thrower. 

All the fowl are cooped together with both inside and outside space. Grain was sprinkled in a make-shift snow trough. The chickens immediately started eating while the turkeys and geese took their time preening themselves before deciding it was time to eat. In each animals’ pen, we refilled the drinking trough with a garden hose. The hose was quickly drained by lifting the hose from one end to the other to ensure an empty hose. Frozen cracked hoses are useless. 

Cheese-making

Lori makes the finest artisanal cheeses–the soft cheeses Bianca, Sonnet, Black Pearl, and Rheba are named after the goats–using pasteurized milk as required by law. The hard cheeses, Venus and Calypso are made using unpasteurized raw milk. My favorite is Rheba, as it has a Camembert consistency with sharp overtones. But, why do the soft cheeses need to be pasteurized?

Pasteurization was a technology breakthrough in the mid-19th century by Louis Pasteur’s to heat liquids to kill bacteria, whether wanted or unwanted. Cheese can be made with raw milk, provided it is aged more than 60 days. Raw milk aficionados contend there are beneficial microbes that not only add superior flavor and complexity to cheese, but perhaps may even help humans with more robust belly flora. Harmful bacteria, such as listeria, can harbor in milk products when animals are kept in dirty, confinement conditions and the udders are not properly cleaned and treated, prior to milking. The 60-day aging rule was established in 1949 as the minimum cutoff date when the acids and salts in the cheese making process would destroy any harmful bacteria in raw milk. Visiting the farm, and observing the intensity, dedication, and attentiveness that Ruth has for the animals’ health and well-being brings utter (or is it “udder”) confidence in the cheese products that Lori creates.  

The life of a farmer varies in pace from winter to summer, and in the different cycles of the animals. With attentiveness, knowledge, and love, Ruth ensures happy and healthy animals to produce the finest milk, cheese, and meat products. As with Ruth, Lori’s cheeses vary with the seasons. The artisanal ingenuity is evident in the rhythm and care of the farm and the flavor of the cheese. Now visiting Tieton is a “must-do” on an April jaunt for sunshine and perhaps for the Mighty Tieton spring open house! 

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Is Flooding Good for Farmland?

As with most any topic, the best answer is, “It depends.” Flooding can be beneficial and also devastating. Throughout history and up to today, food is often grown on lands adjacent to the mightiest rivers, think the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Ganges, and Mississippi Rivers and on floodplains of the smallest creeks. Why grow food in the floodplains? It’s the soil and the water.

In early times, human and animal labor and the powerful force of gravity were the only tools for farmers to mold, shape, and sculpt the landscape to ensure the best possible growing ground. Mother Nature would provide the rains eroding the uplands just enough to loosen the sediments and soil minerals. The drainage ways, creeks, and streams would funnel fast moving sediment-laden waters rapidly downstream to the rivers’ flatlands. Gravity performed its job in the river deltas and floodplains, quickly slowing the waters, the water spreading out to the edges of the valley, dropping the nutrient-laden soils, and hence, building farmland.

2006 Flood at Full Circle Farm, Carnation (Photo courtesy of Stewardship Partners)

2006 Flood at Full Circle Farm, Carnation (Photo courtesy of Stewardship Partners)

The Nooksack, Skagit, Stillaguamish, Snoqualmie/Snohomish, Green and Puyallup Rivers are western Washington’s mightiest rivers. Each is fed from the snow slopes and nooks and crannies of the Cascade Mountain range filled by the incessant winter storms off the Pacific Ocean. As the Cascade creeks and streams release the water, it tumbles, jostles, tears, erodes, and carries new soils to feed the mighty rivers with depositions to build and augment the prime food growing lands on deltas and floodplains. Of course, not all viable farmland is found only on floodplains, as orchards, wheat and corn fields, and many row-crop truck farms are found on uplands. The upland farms, however, are more dependent on the vagaries of nature’s rainfall or man’s intentional irrigation systems than the farms located in the floodplains. More importantly uplands are much more expensive just because the land doesn’t flood! Many farmers can’t even begin to afford the cost of flood-free farm ground. 

As farming cultures advanced through the eons and became more mechanized with tractors and machinery, the farmers, often times with the governments’ help and financing, moved dirt and brought in construction materials to modify and change the forces of nature and to  control the rivers. Organizations such as diking districts, cities, county governments, and the Army Corps of Engineers built dikes, levees, seawalls, dams, and irrigation channels to control, direct, and channelize the water.

Bucolic Summer Days in the Skagit with Mt. Baker Looming in the Distance

Bucolic Summer Days in the Skagit with Mt. Baker Looming in the Distance

The Skagit River about one-hour north of Seattle, is a prime example of many of these man-made modifications. Highly fertile and productive farmland was always located at the edge of the Salish Sea in what was originally the Skagit River’s delta. The delta is now modified by levees, dikes, drainage channels, and floodgates–to protect and manage some of the most fertile and productive farmland in the world. About 35 miles upstream as the crow flies from the Skagit delta are two Puget Sound Energy dams, designed to generate hydroelectric power and to control and regulate flood flows. With warm, tropical, moisture-laden clouds pummeling the Cascade Mountains western slopes in what is classically known as a Pineapple Express during the rainy season, all of these manmade structures have modified and controlled the tempests of nature–both the influx of saltwater tides and the devastating floods from excessive rains or rapid snowmelts. In its original condition the Skagit was home and habitat for significant record salmon runs. Today the salmon runs are still the envy of many other watersheds, but are less than when the river was in an unadulterated state. Now, the land in the Skagit watershed grows potatoes, berries, row crops, dairy, tulips and seed crops—including being home to 95% of the beet crop in the world, carries significant salmon runs, and is home to more than 110,000 people. The people in Skagit County have created a structure through the Farm, Fish, and Flood Initiative to debate, analyze and evaluate these competing environment, farming and built communities issues. All of these issues are tough and not easy to resolve, as they are all important and impact many livelihoods.

The State of Washington also evaluates impacts from flood events. According to the 2013 Washington State Enhanced Hazard Mitigation Plan, the lower Skagit around Mt. Vernon is one of the highest risk areas for flooding. As said in the same document, despite the fact that the environment–farmland, habitat, and undeveloped lands–are impacted by flooding, it does not merit the same attention that people, developed property and the economy receives from the effects of flood events. Still farmers often do take the brunt of flooding, as it is land that is readily available to accommodate flood waters. Floods are inevitable, but the question still remains, is flooding good for farmland?

Flooding and Farmers

Katahdin Sheep at Ninety FarmsNever tell Farmer Linda Neunzig, that flooding is good for farmers. Linda farms 50 acres adjacent to the Stillaguamish River, just west of the City of Arlington, WA, at Ninety Farms. She  raises Katahdin lambs for export around the world as breeding stock and to be sold to local high-end restaurants such as terra plata in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. For Linda, her farm, being located on the inside of one of the “Stilli’s” many oxbows, can have devastating flood effects from which there is lots of cleanup and economic loss. “The economic impact from cleaning up the river carried debris, replacing the lost and damaged crops, and removing the excessive silt deposits can be a severe economic and time impact on any farmer, including myself,” says Linda. With each upcoming winter flood season, Linda has to always be prepared to load her 125 breeding ewes into a truck to get them to higher ground,  out of the way of potentially ravaging flood. After any impactful storm, it’s also absolutely necessary to remove debris that has been carried downstream by the flood. Any thick layers of sediment on the fields is either tilled back into the ground or overseeded to ensure that spring grasses can grow again. Flooding for Linda is not an economic or farm benefit.

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Local Roots Farm, a local truck farm, grows multiple row crops including cabbage, rutabaga, tomatoes, kales, beans, and more in the Snoqualmie Valley near Duvall, WA. They sell their product through their thriving Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) business and sell to local restaurants and at several local farmers markets, too. Flooding is not as significant an issue for Siri Erickson-Brown, Local Roots Farm owner and farmer. Specifically, Siri says, “Our farm is located on a reach of the Snoqualmie River which does not have highly erosive flows, but rather the river deposits just the right amount of silt and sediments during the winter months to augment our farm’s soil rather than impact it negatively.” Further, Siri explains, “Being in the Snoqualmie River’s floodplain allows us to have minimal irrigation concerns through the dry summer months. The soils hold the moisture well, allowing us to grow a wide variety of crops.” Siri does however, agree that the flood impacts on the local roads can be terrible. Flooding closes bridges, diverts traffic, and can cause significant cleanup costs and time for many people.

Floods are a constant concern during Western Washington’s rainy season and are often not beneficial to a farmer. Depending on the intensity of a storm–how much water is held in the clouds, the existing snowpack in the mountains, and the ambient air temperatures in both the lowlands and in the mountains, flood impacts to farmland can vary greatly. It’s important to remember that just because the urban legends says that floods benefit farmland, it’s best to ask the farmer. The farmer knows what’s best for their farm.

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, farmland conservation, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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Rescue California from Drought? Re-Localize the Food System

As parents conversed over coffee and donuts early Saturday morning excitedly anticipating the outcome of sorority rush week, I chatted with a Dad about his daughter leaving sunny southern California to come north to the University of Washington. Of course, we started talking about how much it rains in Seattle. It’s just that west coast thing. Southern Californians can’t imagine how Seattleites can bear the endless rain. Of course, I had to perpetuate the rain myth.

The Dad exclaimed, “I like seeing green (trees, bushes, and grass) and know I will enjoy visiting Seattle, since I live in the land of endless drought. I must say that Governor Brown’s executive order last year that cut our water use by 25%, while agriculture (the State’s largest water user) had no restrictions was unbelievable.” Jokingly, he said, “Maybe we’ll be importing water from Seattle soon.”

“Perhaps, by re-localizing the food system, California water can stay in California and not be exported (in its agricultural products) around the country and the world,” I suggested. “Maybe we should get back to eating seasonally and locally, eating what grows where we live when it is available?”

Strawberries:  A Summer Fruit

Lucious StrawberriesWhen the sun and heat amped up in Connecticut in mid-June, giant signs with only one strawberry on it announced the start of the U-Pick summer fruit season at the family farms around town. Knowing that just picked strawberries were the best, my Dad would coerce my siblings and I to venture out early Saturday morning to pick the brightest, reddest, and biggest berries possible. I quickly learned the art of picking–one for the mouth, one for the basket. I knew the proprietor would not be weighing my on-farm consumption, so I could indulge in my favorite fruit–what I learned later was the June-bearing strawberry, a variety that bears fruit for a short three week window every June.

Sometime 20 or 30 years ago, I don’t know exactly when, strawberries started showing up in grocery stores in February way before I expected them. Of course, my mouth salivated for the luscious, sweet, flavor of my childhood. Alas, the berries were never as tasty or juicy as I remembered. February berries are an ever-bearing strawberry and are never local in my northern locale, as it is still cold, dark, and rainy. The ever-bearing strawberry produces multiple crops over a growing season no matter where they are grown. In the winter, they are shipped in a clear clamshell box from a warmer climate to allure the northern shopper with the anticipation of summer flavor. Even though the mid-winter berries are bright red and large, the flavor always seems somewhat dry and slightly woody despite being 92% water, which is the highest water content of any fruit. Ever-bearing strawberries can be delicious and sweet, as the freshly-picked flat I bought yesterday at the Lake City Farmers Market from Hayton Farm Berries grown one-hour north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley.

The majority of Californian strawberries, supplemented with berries from Florida and Mexico, are travel-ready and ever-bearing to be shipped everywhere to the east coast, Seattle, Chicago, China, you name it. The berries have been bred to withstand long-distance travel, arriving at their final retail location looking pretty, but not necessarily tasting good.

U.S. Strawberry Production MapWhat’s astonishing is that only five counties, four in California and one in Florida account for over 75% of the nation’s strawberry acreage, all destined for clear clamshell boxes found in grocery stores year-round. From March to December, strawberries grow just an hour south of Silicon Valley–the high tech center of California–in Santa Cruz county and the Salinas Valley. Winter strawberries grow an hour and a half north of downtown Los Angeles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and near Plant City east of Tampa, Florida. Looking at nationwide strawberry production, it’s startling, but perhaps not unexpected, that California grows 61 percent of US commercial strawberry production with Florida being a distant second with only 17 percent of the crop. Sadly, our taste buds are accustomed to the travel-ready clamshell box strawberries, so much so that even my own daughter doesn’t like the local June-bearing berry.

California Drought and Strawberries

Location of California Strawberry Production & DroughtOur federal government monitors, analyzes, and issues weekly nationwide drought maps. Since water is life, the drought forecast is critical to understanding the irrigation capacity and hence, the potential shock and disruption to our nation’s food supply from the effects of drought. The September 20, 2016 map demonstrates that the extreme (red) and exceptional (burgundy red) drought conditions, the most severe drought categories on the map, are centered directly over California strawberry acreage. Granted this map is depicting a single point in time during the driest time of year, but even so, California’s precious water generated from snowmelt and groundwater sources is irrigating the nation and world’s strawberries!

The future effects of continuous southern California sun on strawberry yields is not certain, but interestingly from 2013 to 2015 about 10% of strawberry acreage was eliminated from production in part due to the drought. There just wasn’t enough irrigation water to feed the thirsty crop. The California drought is not expected to end anytime soon, as there is still a significant water shortfall to replenish to serve people, fish and streams, and agriculture. Whether the lack of irrigation water will impact strawberry production more is totally unknown. Looking at U.S. Drought Monitor, anybody can monitor the weekly fluctuations in precipitation which impact the drought conditions on agriculture and water supplies.

Which brings me back to the Orange County Dad. He agreed, “Eating locally grown foods tastes better! Maybe if the rest of the country grew their own food, it could help the California drought? California agriculture would have to get smaller though and that would be a hard sell. There could be more water for the cities, too.”

Something to ponder. Would re-localizing our food system help the California drought?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world with good food!

 

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My Backyard Harvest

My yard is brimming with food now always arriving in the hot, sultry, dog days of summer. I plant only what I can grow, nurture and produce successfully. I don’t want failure. Gardening takes a lot of persistent, dedicated, focused work. Preparing the soil, pulling weeds, watering regularly and picking the produce. But, it’s worth it, because the food just tastes so good. I’ve been growing food for more than 40 years starting in my parents Connecticut backyard.

Blue Lake Pole Beans

Blue Lake Pole Beans

My first crop green bush beans was successful enough that I plant beans every year. It’s probably because I am spoiled by the immediate palate pleasure of my homegrown veggie rather than the days old, dull, drab, and sometimes even tasteless store bought version. (Fresh green beans at Thanksgiving are always disappointing!) I now plant pole beans, rather than bush beans, since they produce for several weeks ensuring a steady supply of the crisp, succulent, slightly sweet, but also savory slender shot of yum!

Moving to Massachusetts just out of college, I grew the standard east coast hot summer vegetables, tomatoes, cucumbers, and of course, green beans. The entire eastern seaboard is characterized by hot days with high humidity and occasional thunderstorms, driven by the warm, humid Gulf of Mexico air and high pressure systems in the Atlantic Ocean. New England is tempered from the most intense weather by the more northerly latitude sun angle, but still the summers are usually hot and humid enough to grow luscious fruits and vegetables.

Changed Coasts

In 1985, I moved west across the 100th meridian or longitude line, where the climate changes from humid conditions to a semi-arid/arid climate, which roughly follows the western edge of the plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakotas and actually forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma. Most of the west generally has hot, dry summers with an occasional, rather rare flash-flood thunderstorms. In recent years, the west’s winters have been dry with infrequent storms, hence the incessant California drought.

I landed in one of the two thin slivers of the west coast’s unique growing climates. The Californian Mediterranean coast is hot and dry similar to the rest of the west, but gets moderated by the Pacific Ocean bringing in the moist oceanic air, but never freezing temperatures. The Pacific Northwest’s maritime climate in Seattle is home to warm, dry summer days and cool summer nights. Winters are a different story, hence, “It rains all the time!” Being so far north the angle of the sun is shallow and our winters are punctuated by dark and dreary days and continuous rains. (Okay, maybe I exaggerate the continuous rains, but that’s what we want you to believe.) The benefit is the wet days fill the Cascade Mountains, just a one-hour drive east of Seattle, with snow, thereby replenishing and storing our summer water supply.

Cherry Tomatoes

Cherry Tomatoes

With a brand new growing climate, I had to learn again how to grow great food! Seattle’s maritime growing climate is like a symphony, with the temperature modulations ebbing, flowing and moderating as each season progresses with fewer extremes and changing over a period of days rather than hours. My east coast sensibilities had been used to the mid-May growing season being like the 4th of July fireworks–coming fast and furious with a quick rise from cool spring temperatures to scorching, humid days. To grow food in the Seattle it’s still an educated guess to predict when the spring rains and cool temperatures will stop, or whether our summer will be bone dry and require endless irrigation. Or will we have the year of the “green tomato” with summer daytime temperatures never exceeding 70 degrees?

Italian Prune Plums

Italian Prune Plums

Thankfully, this summer’s weather has been cooperative and my garden is plentiful. Green pole beans and tomatoes are paired with zucchini, basil, thyme and parsley. I grow garlic and lots of it–both hardneck and softneck varieties. It’s easy. Plant in October, cut the scapes in May for stir fry dishes and harvest in June, repeat. My sole Italian prune plum tree bore 180 pounds of fruit. Bags of cut-up plums fill my freezer, Zwetchendatschi–my grandmother’s Bavarian plum cake recipe–is always a treat, honey-syrup canned plums fill my cupboards and I gave 15 pounds of plums each to two of my favorite local food establishments–Sand Point Grill and Cereal Box Bakery. Four blueberry bushes, close to barren this year, an established rhubarb plant, and a vigorous, logarithmically, increasingly producing Interlaken white seedless table grape round out my garden.

What’s Next?

Seedless Interlaken Grapes Drying

Seedless Interlaken Grapes Drying

Growing my own food makes me happy, tastes good and keeps me engaged with nature. As much as possible, I purchase the rest of my food from local farmers at Farmer’s Markets, PCC Natural Markets and Metropolitan Market. Even so, I’m starting to think when can I slow down? Forty year of gardening is getting close to enough and I’m interested in letting someone else grow my food. Where can I live so I can get produce as fresh as what I can grow?

Thankfully, a new type of food-growing residential developments called agri-hoods are just beginning to sprout across the nation. In Washington state, Elk Run Farm and Skokomish Farms are two such communities where a farm is integrated into the development. Elk Run Farm replaced a section of an abandoned golf course with a 4-1/2 acre farm, while Skokomish Farms has a large farm serving 20 homesites on 750 acres. When will the next community builder (aka developer) create an agri-hood for those who crave it?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

 

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Savoring Summer Produce

I am a “fruit-aholic”. I love fruit. Even as a kid, I craved fruit– especially the summer fruits–strawberries, blueberries, peaches, plums. The juiciness, the flavors, the short summer season so taste boredom never arrived–all reasons summer fruits satisfied immensely. As an adult, I still love fruit, but now I find sweetness in vegetables–carrots, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. It’s the natural sweetness that I long for.

Looks can be deceiving though. I’ve been snookered into buying a pint of the biggest, plumpest blueberries with a deep blue sheen–and they taste like wood or what I at least imagine wood tastes like. So, what is it that makes a piece of produce just taste so good?

Is it Just Memories that Taste Good?

Luscious Bluberries

Luscious Bluberries

I looked back at my childhood, to gather data from my memories. As a kid, Grandpa Peters–the quiet, introverted engineer–drove me to a neighbor’s strawberry fields to pick a flat. Sweat dripping from my face in the sweltering sun, I bent over a row of plants lifting the leaves to find a treasure of red berries. Instinctively, I wanted to pick the biggest berries, but knew that the smaller ones also packed a punch of sweetness. Picking berries with a tinge of green was however, totally unacceptable, as they were bitter. To reward myself for my effort, it was one in the mouth, one in the basket, one in the mouth, one… It’s lucky the neighbor didn’t weigh me before I started picking and I wasn’t making a living picking berries.

Fresh red strawberries, no more than a few seconds old are divine. But, even after bringing them back to Grandpa and Grandma’s house, they were still marvelous, perhaps with just a little whipped cream. Did picking my own berries make them test better?

Grandma Peters–the joyful, loving, teaching, and extroverted grandma–and I picked wild black caps (black raspberries) on the edge of untended forest at the top of the ‘back 40’ slope in the heat of the summer. Following the jam recipe on the back of the liquid CERTO pack, we crushed the berries, mixed in the liquid pectin, and added the prescribed amount of sugar. The statement, “DO NOT REDUCE THE SUGAR IN THE RECIPE SINCE THAT WILL RESULT IN SET FAILURES,” scared me into obeying every word in the directions. Boiling the fragrant black mass as the recipe demanded for “exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly” was critical before ladling the preserves into jars ensuring success. The final step, to prepare the jam for extended storage, meant pouring 3/8″ of freshly melted preserving wax on top of the jelled preserves. Two-piece vacuum caps and lids, now standard for protecting and preserving jam, didn’t exist 50 years ago.

Opening a jar of black cap jam in the middle of the winter and spreading it on toast, brought the waft and taste of summer to my senses. Did using the freshest berries make it taste better?

Oma and Opa Gardow jointly owned “the Farm” with other German immigrant families about an hour’s drive outside of Buffalo, New York. Down the steep hillside, from the horse stables that had been converted into tiny weekend getaway cottages, were wild giant high bush blueberry plants. Being a kid, I could only pick from the lowest branches and looked up at what seemed like bushes as tall as the cottages. Dressed with long sleeves, pants, and boots, mosquitoes and flies buzzed around my head, as my feet sunk into the mud. I hated the bugs, as I was and still am a mosquito attractor. Again, the berries were luscious, sweet, and juicy. Oma was an excellent cook and preparer of meals and used the berries to make a pie. Was picking the berries with my own hands the secret for flavor?

With all that I learned from my grandparents, to this day, I still make jam, (chutneys, relishes, salsas, and pickled vegetables) and follow every direction as it is exactly written. Using only the freshest ingredients from the farmers’ market, my CSA box, or my garden, I savor the sweetest tastes of summer opening every jar I canned during the darkest days of winter. What is it that makes my canned food taste so good?

The Secret Ingredient

My own labor growing, picking, or selecting the freshest ingredients are definitely factors that make my food taste better. But, is there something else? Reading Dan Barber, chef extraordinaire and author of The Third Plate, I learned the secret ingredient. “When we taste something truly delicious, something that is persistent, it most likely originated from well-mineralized, biologically rich soils.”

Summer Radishes and Carrots

Summer Radishes and Carrots

At the base of the wild black cap brambles at the forest edge, the ground was strewn with old leaves and layers of humus. The blueberry bushes sucked the water and minerals from the soggy soils to produce the most succulent berries. Fifty years ago, strawberry fields were family run and managed the old-fashioned way for the best flavor rather than optimized for travel, color, and profit. The most extraordinary tasting food comes from the best soils. It’s the dirt that matters. As Dan Barber says, “the more minerals available for the plant to synthesize, the more opportunity for better flavor.”

Try it yourself. Buy a box of berries or bunch of carrots from a mainstream grocery store and the same from a local, organic farmer. Do a blind taste test. Savor the flavor. Which tastes best?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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We All Eat: ULI Food Forum

From the Greatest Generation to Generation Z and the Baby Boomers and Millenials in between, we are all connected by one simple necessity–We All Eat! Some of us are Feeders–just putting food in our mouths to combat hunger, some of us are Eaters–being deliberate about what we eat, perhaps watching calories and sugar and fat quantities, and some of us are Diners or possibly Foodies –searching for the freshest, most sustainably grown ingredients at a farmers market  and frequenting the Farm to Table restaurants. Then some of us are gluten-free, lactose intolerant, watching our weight or bulking on protein. However, in the end, no matter our food persuasion, we all must eat to survive. Food is grown on land, in water, and in pots and trays. Without food, we have no live(s)-lihoods!

Entering the Stone Barns Conference Center

Entering the Stone Barns Conference Center

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), a worldwide organization of real estate professionals has recognized that the link between food and built environment is weak and sees the importance of strengthening it. Rather than building golf course master planned communities, suburban mass-market malls, or ensuring that the rent-reliable bank is located on a prime urban corner, authentic food-focused real estate projects are sprouting up across the nation creating excitement and fun. With this increased attention to integrate good food into development projects, ULI recently hosted two Food & Real Estate Forums to begin to decipher, understand, and share information on what it takes to generate successful food-focused real estate projects.  The day before the typical conference proceedings of presentations, panels, and discussions, the Food Forum attendees got educated, built community and had fun with activities at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Tarrytown, New York.

The Stone Barns Center is located one hour north of New York City in the Hudson River Valley on 80 acres of former dairy property originally owned and developed by the Rockefeller family in the 1930’s. The surrounding countryside is vistas of rolling hills, fields and forests with large homesteads despite being minutes away from the tentacles of the nation’s interstate highway system. This was a perfect locale for professionals steeped in the culture of the urban environment to explore the sustainable food system’s teachings at Stone Barns.

So, what happens when 70 real estate professionals are given a task? It gets done. Give them a challenge? It’s a competition.

The Coop Hoops

Stone Barn Laying Hen

Stone Barn Laying Hen

Slogging in big rubber boots and bundled with a tightly wound scarves in 50° rain, we left Stone Barns’ warm conference space to trudge across the chilly farm. First stop–the hen house. With umbrellas raised, we peered into a large permanent hoop house as laying hens scurried across straw covered floors stopping at grain feeders to peck for their meal. These laying hens, female chickens that produce eggs, are raised with plenty of indoor space and with much coveted outdoor space nestled between an adjoining hoop house. Outside the hens scrounge for bugs to augment their diets. Nesting boxes line the outside edges wall of each hoop house. In winter months about 400 birds are kept, while the summer flock increases to about 1,300 layers. Egg production is significantly reduced in the winter, not only because of the smaller flock, but also because chickens lay up to a 33% fewer eggs just because of the colder, darker days.

Adjacent to the hen house is the chicken coop, another large permanent hoop structure. It is set up differently than the hen house, as it is designed to grow broiler or meat birds. Inside, the coop is divided by wire mesh fencing  to create separate living areas for different aged broods of Cornish Cross and Freedom Rangers meat birds, which are both conventionally raised chickens rather than heritage breeds. Conventionally raised birds are ready for eating when they are four months old, while heritage breeds, those that our forefathers grew, need seven months to grow to maturity. Obviously, chickens that live longer need more feed and are therefore more expensive. All the chicks begin their life at a Pennsylvanian hatchery and are shipped via post as day old fledglings to Stone Barns. The baby chicks bunch together beneath a heat lamp trying to stay warm and only venturing out of their brood to visit the grain feeder.  Once the chicks are between three to six weeks old depending on the outdoor temperature, the heat lamp is removed. Eventually the chickens are put out to pasture in a rotational grazing sequence with other animals to complete their growth before harvesting them.

The Greenhouse

From the drizzly cold, we were led into the steamy, hot 22,000 square foot greenhouse, where Farmer Jason, taught us about his operation. Besides growing food for Chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hills at Stone Barns Restaurant, the greenhouse farmers breed plant varieties and experiment with seeds. During our early May visit, about half of the greenhouse was sown in oats and clover as rotational crops to return nutrients and health back to the soil. A quarter of the greenhouse ground was tilled, raked, and ready for planting, while the remaining ground was planted in radishes, lettuces, and other greens.

Real Estate Professionals Planting Basil

Real Estate Professionals Planting Basil

In one row, a curly-leaf lettuce variety was tightly tied with rubber bands to prevent sunlight from hitting the inner leaves thereby producing pale green leaves for a future specialty salad. I have eaten white rather than green asparagus during Spargelzeit (asparagus time) in Germany.  Farmer Jason said, “Reducing or eliminating the sunlight to vegetables is a specialized technique that isn’t used that often because it is so labor intensive.” He went on to explain that the German’s have perfected Bleichspargel or bleached asparagus, by continually mounding soil around the sprouting vegetable, preventing any sunlight from tingeing the spears green. Farmer Jason alleged, “Preventing vegetables from getting sunlight produces a milder and perhaps more tender vegetable.” We didn’t get to taste test the bleached lettuce, but I’m curious. Maybe I’ll need to try technique in my own garden.  Despite the cold, dreary day, Farmer Jason knew that summer was right around the corner and he had ready hands available for a springtime planting. Crouching down on either side of a two-foot wide planting bed, we planted 50 feet of Italian basil starts. Ungloved fingers dug a small hole to drop and tamp each sprouted herb into the dirt.

The Kitchen

Next stop the kitchen. Shedding wet coats and donning white aprons, then the hand washing station, which is absolutely necessary after digging in the dirt. Once reassembled with clean hands, Chef Adam, holding a bright red globe radish by its leaves, introduced our cooking challenge. “I’ll divide you into three groups of eight people. Your task, in 15 minutes, is to create a dish using all of this vegetable. Your dish will be evaluated on flavor, presentation, and creative use of your radish–the whole radish, not just the red part. Points will be lost for any waste.” Behind him was a table full of ingredients to use in our dish plus knives, plates, a blender, broiler, other equipment, and a prep station for each team.

The 15 Minute Salad

The 15 Minute Salad

Our team–defacto strangers up until now– huddled in our prep area to plan our dish. Moments later, Bry and Bill foraged at the ingredient table, knowing whatever they picked had to be used in whole or it would be classified as waste. I shredded red, purple and white radishes and chopped radish leaves to beautify, flavor, and top the salad. Another teammate grilled prosciutto and wrapped it around individual green asparagus spears to top thin slices of toasted baguette, while others mixed salad greens and artfully arranged edible flowers. Kristina gathered all the leftover radish parts–leaves and roots, added fennel tops and walnuts into a blender. As the blender whirred, she drizzled olive oil, added garlic, salt and pepper and who knows what else to create an outstanding green dressing. Chef Adam gave us a two minute warning. John, the father of a professional chef, grabbed the camera to record our effort, as we feverishly assembled and decorated the plate and poured on the dressing. With a sigh of relief, our only waste was excess dressing, which we intended to “bottle and sell.”

Three exquisitely arranged dishes all with the lowly spring radish as its signature vegetable adorned the judge’s table. Chef Adam sang praise for the teamwork he had seen, as each cohort team had taken a couple precious minutes at the competition start to huddle and strategize. In the end, our dish didn’t win, but it sure tasted  marvelous–just enough bitterness, sweetness, saltiness, and sharpness. I think it needed just a bit more of our “for sale” dressing to make it sing!

Creating Community

At the cocktail hour, dinner, and the next day sessions there were new connections and common interests, as we had created community with a shared food making experience. It takes me back to the days when I was a kid baking Christmas cookies with my Oma or picking blackberries on the “back 40” and making jam with my Grandma.  Picking produce or preparing a meal with family, friends and even business colleagues is a great way to learn, grow, and have fun together! It gets us out of our heads and into our bellies, building friendships, relationships, and memories.

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Food Dollar Math: Who Benefits from Your Food Dollars

Western Washington along the Interstate 5 corridor are some of the world’s most prolific farmlands. Puget Sound is blessed with a maritime climate with warm summers, cool winters, and mountain snowpacks that provide ample irrigation water  through most of the growing season thus generating hefty harvests.

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley

Tilled Acres In the Orting Valley, Pierce County

Despite an optimal growing climate farmers gross revenues are between 4¢ and 7¢ per square foot according to the 2012 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Census. Whatcom County on the Canadian border has the highest agricultural revenue at 7¢ a square foot. Snohomish County, just north of Seattle and Boeing’s home with the world’s largest manufacturing building, has the lowest agricultural revenue at 4¢ per square foot. These numbers also compete with downtown Seattle Class A office space leasing at $30 per square foot. Just a basic home selling for $100 per square foot out competes the arable land value, too. Despite agricultural lands being intrinsically valuable for our health and well-being–we all do eat–the economic value of the land that grows food cannot begin to compete with development. Looking at the huge chasm between development and farm land values is one way to begin to understand  why our country is losing 50 acres of farm and ranch land to development per hour, according to the American Farmland Trust. Farmland valuation versus development values is one gauge, but purchasing food is another measure to understanding why we lose farmland.

Do you know how much of each dollar you spend on food goes back to the farmer? Only 3.5¢ for every dollar spent goes back to the farmer, when eating out, whether at a restaurant or fast food joint. This number is astonishing, but not surprising when looked at more carefully. Farming is not known as a lucrative business. A farmer is better compensated with food prepared at home and gets 16¢ of every dollar spent. The USDA, through the  Economic Research Services division have analyzed these numbers in their Food Dollar Series (2014).

At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

2014 At Home Food Dollar

Where does our “at home food dollar” go? Almost one-quarter or 24¢ of it is spent on food processing, which is the creation of products from the raw materials. We all eat food that has been processed. Processed food staples are bread, noodles, yogurt, cheese, crackers, meats, and multiple forms of tomato products. Some products such as tomato paste have been processed a little bit, while others such as bread combine multiple ingredients. Processed foods in a grocery store, show up in the middle aisles, the freezer  section, or the deli. They are in cans, boxes, bags, and jars. There are infinite opportunities to satisfy hunger with processed food! Whether the food is over-salted, has too much fat, sugar, or artificial color is another matter. I use a combination of minimally processed foods like tomato sauce and paste, and dried herbs with fresh ingredients like onions and garlic mixed in a crock-pot, to make a home cooked meal of spaghetti and meat sauce. It’s easy! The packaging of the processed food is small and only adds about 3¢ to the cost of at home food costs.

Once the food is out of the ground, processed and ready to travel to a store, this is bulk of the costs for the “at home food dollar”. Many people are involved in the effort of getting the food to us. Truckers transport food across the county or the country, wholesalers–also known as the middleman– buy raw and prepared products and sell it to retailers, grocers purchase, stock and sell food, and baggers carefully pack bags. All of these trades and more add incremental costs to food, so that in the traditional grocery store model close to half of the “at home food dollar” or 42% is spent on getting food from the farmer to you.

About 15¢ of the “at home food dollar” is spent on all the support services for the food industry around growing, processing, and selling food.  The on farm inputs are called “agribusiness” and cost just over 3¢. Inputs include seed, fertilizer, farm machinery and all that is needed to grow food. Energy is almost 6¢ of the “at home food dollar” equation and covers the cost of getting the oil, gas, and coal to power the food industry. Advertising, legal services, accounting, financing and insurance are the remaining 6¢ of the “at home food dollar”.

As a consumers we are inundated with advertising on television, web pages, billboards, mailboxes, on the radio, and in magazines and newspapers. As a result of these advertisements, one would think that advertising would be a much larger slice of the food dollar, but in reality, it is just a few cents of the “at home food dollar”. Even so, it is incredible to think with the value of the total U.S. food industry at $835 billion (USDA, 2014), that the advertising slice of the “at home food dollar” is about $21 billion. These numbers put some context into the enormity of the United States food system. It’s because we all eat!

Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

2014 Eating Out Food Dollar

Eating food away from home supports farmers less. With almost three-quarters of the “eating out food dollar” spent on foodservice, there is not much less for anybody else including farmers. Restaurants, bars, clubs, fast-food joints and all the other venues where we buy prepared foods eat up 72¢ of the “eating out food dollar.” Food processing, packaging, wholesaling, energy, financing and insurance, advertising, and the other category including agribusiness, legal and accounting, are all a nickel or less of the “eating out food dollar”, as shown on the adjacent dollar. Farmers get a mere 3.5¢ back for every dollar spent eating out. That’s not much.

Making money as a farmer is tough. A farmer earning 3.5¢ on the “eating out food dollar” or 16¢ on the “at home food dollar,” cannot begin to earn enough money to compete with developer looking for a place to put new homes. With the average age of farmers being 59 years old and nearing retirement, it makes farmland even more vulnerable to being sold for houses.

Food Dollar Math Benefiting the Farmer

So many kinds of beets at Nash's Organic Produce stand

Beets at Nash’s Organic Produce Stand

Shopping at farmers’ markets is a great way for money spent on food to go directly to farmer and not to any middleman or retailer. Once a farmer’s fixed costs for seeds, fertilizers, insurance, table space at the market, labor, licenses, and transportation are covered, any revenue is his. Purchase a seasonal food delivery subscription directly from the farmer through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A CSA subscriber is typically asked to pay a deposit for the subscription before the season starts allowing the farmer to cover his costs for seed, fertilizer, irrigation tape, labor, and other supplies before the first CSA box is delivered. Puget Sound Fresh is a great beginning resource for the CSA search.  Stop by a farm stand on the way home to support your favorite farmer. An eastern Washington farming family has just opened the Tonnemaker Woodinville Farm Stand on 14 acres. They’ll be growing western Washington produce on-site and mixing it up with their outstanding selection of eastern Washington crops like peppers, apples, pears, melons, and more! Washington grows great food and we ought to do our best to support the farmers that grow it!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food!

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