Charles is 95 Years Young–A Life Well Lived

“You know, I’m going to be 85 next month.” I shot Charles Sleicher an astonished look. Surprisedly and with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “Wait, no, I’m going to be 95 next month!” This is the Charles I know–the man that thinks he’s younger than he is. What keeps a 95-year old man so young? Curiosity and inquisitiveness are key.  

Curiosity Pulls a Life Forward

I met Charles more than 20 years ago at a local framing shop. His wildlife photography from travels in East Africa, Ecuador, the United States, and beyond was being showcased to a wine sipping, hors d’oeuvre eating crowd.

The next time I crossed paths with Charles, he was carrying a piping hot homemade pie to our block’s Neighbors Night Out potluck and picnic. It was brimming with freshly picked peaches from his backyard tree. I was pleased and intrigued to learn that Charles lived at the opposite end of my block. He left with an empty pie plate. His pie was that good.  

Charles and Kathryn on safari

Each year at the block party, I learned more about Charles. He had a long and distinguished career as a University of Washington chemical engineering professor including a stint as the department head. In the early 1970’s, Charles his wife and two children spent a year-long research sabbatical in Nairobi, Kenya beginning his love of East Africa. Every weekend his family clambered into the car to explore and photograph the Serengeti Plains stretching across southwest Kenya into north-central Tanzania. The Plains are miles upon miles of swaying grasses punctuated with knobby hills and meandering waterways nourishing over two million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelles in their annual migration. Lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, warthogs, hippos, plenty of lesser-known animals, and more than 500 different bird species inhabit the vibrant, pulsating Serengeti ecosystem.

Five years after meeting, I spearheaded, with Charles as an active accomplice, the Washington Voter Registration Project, an all-volunteer, passion-driven effort to register voters after our country’s disastrous foray into the Iraq War. Over the year prior to the 2004 election, a small core of stalwart individuals eventually blossomed into 80 volunteers registering over 2,000 voters in the Puget Sound region. We targeted movie lines, festivals, food bank patrons, and any place we thought progressive, potential voters could be found. The list serve, the precursor to today’s social media, was our platform to coordinate volunteers, locales, and dates. Communicating via the list serve, Charles spent many days finding a willing partner to join him to sign up unregistered voters.   

Charles’ house became command central for our monthly organizational meetings, too. Unbeknownst to him, imagine his elation when a roomful of volunteers surprised him with a candle-laden birthday cake on his 80th birthday!

Sunrise from Ndute, Tanzania

Ten years ago Charles moved from the neighborhood to a vibrant downtown senior living community. Since moving into his new abode, continuing to be led by his curiosity and zest for life, Charles has organized multiple 12-passenger, 12-day Tanzanian safaris exploring the wildlife ecosystems in three of Tanzania’s national parks and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. I’ve joined the nonagenarian Charles on two trips! Before signing up for the trip, he exclaimed, “I make the safari lodge accommodation reservations based on the quality of the food and wine.” Not surprisingly, each lodge has steller cuisine satisfying the discerning palate. Waking up before dawn, traversing the Serengeti to search for the elusive leopard, and sharing good food and wine together after a day’s excursion is an opportune time to learn more about one’s fellow travelers. Three-quarters of Charles’ long and interesting life was before I knew him!  Of course, new stories were revealed.

Why Drink Good Wine?

Sipping wine at his photography show or picking the best South African wine for dinner on a Tanzanian safari dinner is quintessential Charles. As photography occupies his retirement, winemaking absorbed his mid-life passion. More than that, Charles is an entrepreneur, too! He is creative, imaginative, and has a thirst to thrive!

I sat down with Charles over coffee to learn his winemaking story and Associated Vintners, Washington State’s first, fine wine incorporated winery. (Perhaps we should have been drinking wine rather than coffee, but it was 10 a.m.)

In 1950, when Charles was in graduate school at MIT, he garnered an internship at the French Petroleum Institute. As is the French way, his fellow workmates always drank a glass of wine with their leisurely lunch. Charles was intrigued and happily joined them in the lunchtime wine ritual.

Returning stateside to complete a PhD at the University of Michigan, he continued the good food and wine practice. Every Wednesday evening he prepared a gourmet meal paired with wine for fellow grad students. Finding locally grown and produced wine was a bit challenging in Michigan, but was accomplished. Charles asked one of the two Michigan vintners, “What is the difference between your Chablis and Riesling?”

“The spelling.”

Charles knew better wine! Blessed with a $600 G.I. World War II insurance payment and a developing wine palate, he and his grad school buddies pooled their money to purchase $1,800 of wine. The cache included reds and whites mostly from the Continent, a few Californian bottles, and a 1945 Chateau Margaux at a whopping cost of $7, expensive by 1950 standards. Because it was illegal to sell wine across state or national borders without excessive fees and a special license, a road trip ensued from Michigan through Canada to Watertown, New York to retrieve a wine shipment from the New York City based, Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits. (Remember this is long before the internet!) The return trip home followed Lake Erie’s southern shore to ensure the cache was not confiscated on the Canadian border upon re-entry into the United States.  

Searching for food to titillate the palate with complimentary wine to enhance the food eating experience became a hobby. Charles read Angelo Pellegrini’s 1948 prose entitled, The Unprejudiced Palate. Angelo had emigrated from Italy as a nine year old and ultimately became a University of Washington English professor specializing in Shakespeare. In his book, Angelo reminisces on the good food life, the joy of fresh, local ingredients, and of course, exceptional Italian wine. He harps on the rock hard peaches and partially ripe strawberries being sold at premium prices at U.S. grocery stores hundreds of miles from the farm. (Shipping unripe fruit long distances has been written about for more than 70 years!) And Angelo expounds on the intricacies of making wine.

Lo and behold, Charles shows up as a newly minted chemical engineering professor in August 1960 at the University of Washington. Was it predestined? Perhaps.

Not wasting any time, Charles contacted Angelo and asked, “Do you need any help making wine in your kitchen?”

Angelo replied, “How about tonight?”

Angelo had just picked up a load of grapes that Louis Martini (a famous Californian winemaker) had shipped on “the California grape train” to Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. It needed to be pressed immediately. One month later, Charles was pressing his own grapes in his own kitchen.

Associated Vintners classic wine label

Meanwhile beginning in the mid-1950’s, Lloyd Woodburne, a UW’s Arts and Sciences professor had been experimenting with wine production. By 1960 Lloyd had assembled a cadre of kitchen winemakers who all thrived on curiosity and discovery. Five were UW professors, several were downtown businessmen, one a child allergy specialist, and of course, a Boeing engineer. With Lloyd the other professors were: Charles Sleicher, the chemical engineer, Phil Church, the head of the meteorology department, Don Bevan of the fisheries department, and Cornelius Peck of UW Law. The multi-disciplinary team with a myriad of complementary skills and unending inquisitiveness for wine and business was a winning combination! One witty journalist quipped,” Among them they have enough PhDs to launch a mini-university.”1

Forming a company rather than staying in the kitchens, allowed the winemaking operation to be centralized, licensed, and to grow. By 1962, the 10 winemakers, turned investors, had each contributed a minimum of $5,000 towards the formation of Associated Vintners. Phil Church, meteorologist and former Eastern Washingtonian having worked on the Hanford Bomb Project during WWII, understood the prevailing Columbia River Basin weather patterns. He sought and found optimal farmground to practically match the latitude and sun hours of the best French wine growing regions. Associated Vintners purchased five acres of south-facing agricultural land on Harrison Hill near Sunnyside, Washington and planted six European grape varietals. The farm operation was tended by a local eastern Washington farmer, since the AV team all had day jobs and none were farmers.

Associated Vintners logo

Several years later, all the vines froze to the ground in a harsh winter. This delayed the first picking by several more years. With excited anticipation the first commercially viable harvest in 1967 bore bushels of Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling and Gewürztraminer grapes. Grapes were shipped to the 40 foot by 40 foot Kirkland winery and warehouse to arrive Friday night with crushing to commence Saturday morning. The first crops of juice were fermented, bottled, and stored until ready for release. In 1969, AV’s first client, QFC at University Village, purchased the entire white wine release of Johannisberg Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Delivering all 60 cases via a circuitous route was necessary to avoid any steep uphill climbs in the classically underpowered Volkswagen bus. AV’s entire white wine production run sold out within a week. The reds were just as popular when released in 1970.

Eventually, no longer being a startup, outside money came into the company with new investors. In 1979 the only U.S. based Master of Wine, David Lake, joined the team. The company name was changed to Columbia Winery, tying the name to the land. Eventually, Columbia Winery was sold to Gallo.

After participating in a winery start-up, selling wildlife photography, and organizing international travel groups, I asked Charles, “What is still on your bucket list?”

He quickly replied, “To read. I formed a new group called the ‘Secular Humanist Forum.’ We meet once a month. I’ll be speaking on Charles Darwin next month. I did go to the Galapagos in the mid-1990’s and shot 150 rolls of film, most with my 1000 mm lens.”

Today I smile and toast Charles on his 95th birthday. Why drink good wine? It correlates with longevity! Charles is 95 years young. Staying curious, eating local, healthy good food, and drinking exceptional wines are the key to a long, rewarding, remarkable life. I’m learning from the 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. 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! 

1 Irvine, Ronald with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project, Washington State’s Winemaking History, 1997. 

 

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Birthdays and Bread

Kathryn Gardow and Ellen Gray at The Bread Lab and King Arthur Flour Baking School

June 3rd, the expiration date on the Pepperidge Farm white, rectangular, pre-sliced, loaf of bread on the top shelf at the Washington State University’s (“WSU”) Bread Lab near Mt. Vernon, Washington. It’s my birthday dinner, two days before the bread’s expiration date. I am savoring a 4-course meal with 80 other attendees supporting the Mt. Vernon High School’s (no- cuts) Girls Tennis Team. What do the Bread Lab and girls tennis have in common with each other? My long-time friend Ellen Gray, former Executive Director extraordinaire for a non-profit that advocated for sustainable food and farming in Washington, organized a dinner at The Bread Lab while raising funds for a sport she loves and the girls’ team she coaches. It all makes sense! An amazing woman brings two of her loves together to support both! Girls tennis and a delicious meal at The Bread Lab and hence, supporting sustainable food and farming.

Dr. Steve Jones, Director of the WSU Bread Lab and Professor in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department, is WSU’s fifth wheat breeder in 125 years of breeding this ubiquitous crop. Steve, a no-nonsense type of guy, says it like it is. He introduced our Bread Lab tour asking the 50 or so guests, “How often do you eat food that is non- food?”

Granted most of us in the room are conscious of where our food comes from, what our food is and try to eat real food. Too often we could be considered “foodies” or “food snobs” or “food elitists”! Yes, those words are often said with a sneer or a sense of a “know it all ism.” I just want to know where my food comes from and how it gets to my table. If that makes me a foodie, so be it.

Making Good Food Choices

What do I think about when I make my food decisions? Where is it grown? Is it grown in the United States, Mexico, Canada, China or elsewhere in the world? You may ask, “Why is it important?” The simple answer is every country does not have the same standards for quantity and quality of artificial, chemical-based pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use. With industrial, big agricultural operations, chemical inputs to feed the good plants and kill weeds and bugs are usually used. Some of the chemicals have been outlawed in the U.S. but are still used elsewhere in the world. There are just too many unanswered and un-researched questions on the impacts of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers on the human body for my comfort.

Monsanto’s RoundUp, a widely and commonly used herbicide, has been banned, its use restricted or considered for restriction in more than 20 countries around the world. (Monsanto has been purchased by Bayer.) Glyphosate, the key ingredient in RoundUp, has been linked to cancer. Remember how long it took to really know that cigarette smoking caused cancer? It took more than 30 years for the known effects of smoking to affect change. In the end television, radio, and print advertisements were restricted, no smoking campaigns were led, warning statements were placed on cigarette packaging and eventually the number of smokers decreased. Just as with cigarettes, the links between RoundUp and cancer are real. I’m not willing to wait 30 years for the science and public policy to catch up to what is already known.

Once I know where my food is grown, I want to know how my food is grown? Is it certified organic? Is it a non-GMO (genetically modified organism)? Is it grown hydroponically? Once it is picked or slaughtered, how is it processed? Is it processed with lots of salt, sugar or corn syrup, or artificial flavors and colors?

Local Roots CSA pickup site

If possible, food grown by a farmer I know is my first preference. Shopping at the farmers’ market makes that easy. Often the farmer is the salesperson! Another option is every Tuesday during the growing season, Local Roots my weekly Community Supported Agriculture (“CSA”) farmer, delivers a box of freshly-picked produce to my neighborhood pickup spot. A five-minute walk to the farmer’s Mom’s house to retrieve my box of fresh greens, radishes, kale, carrots, and kohlrabi or other assortment of fresh veggies depending on what the farmer’s picked that week. Local Roots makes it easy to eat organically without a side of pesticides and herbicides.

What if I didn’t have a local farmers’ market or CSA, what other ways can you eat better and more safely? The best reference to know which foods are the cleanest and which are the most pesticide laden is the Environmental Working Group’s (“EWG”) Dirty Dozen and Clean 15. EWG’s Dirty Dozen are the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue found in its testing. Strawberries have been at the top of the Dirty Dozen list ever since I started paying attention. Spinach and kale are now in the number two and three position with the most pesticide residue. (I guess it means people are eating more kale!)  Since purchasing organically is not feasible for many because of cost constraints or availability, the EWG’s Clean 15 is a reliable information source for those fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue. The cleanest are avocados, sweet corn, and pineapple, all produce you peel or strip off the outside skin. Check out the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists to get the best information on what foods are the dirtiest and cleanest with respect to artificial chemical residue.

The Bread Lab Seed Library

The Bread Lab is doing phenomenal work with farmers, processors, academics, chefs, non-profits, business start-ups, and bread eaters to bring back lost wheat varieties and strains. Western Washington was once a bread basket of the west before wheat became commoditized and optimized for industrial scale agriculture and grown more in eastern Washington. The resurgence in profitable and great tasting wheat products in lower Skagit River valley about one hour north of Seattle is heartwarming and exhilarating. In The Bread Lab library, there are so many jars filled with a multitude of wheat seed varieties. Wheat, until recently, has been a low value crop in the Skagit rotated between higher value crops to rejuvenate and revitalize the soil so it become more friable and nutrient laden. Now these specialty wheat varieties are showing up as milled flours at Cairnspring Mills, in breads at the Breadfarm in Edison, in beer at Pike Brewing Company at Pike Place Market, in pastries and treats at Damsel and Hopper in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, and at distilleries found on the Seattle Trail Map of the Washington Distillers Guild. Skagit wheats are showing up in so many places and taste great! I had a great Manhattan made with Copperworks whiskey made on Alaskan Way in Seattle!  

Back to the White Bread

Steve asked us to look closer at the Pepperidge Farm loaf. It’s still squishy. That’s the sign of a refined wheat loaf more commonly known as white bread. It means it’s not whole wheat or multi-grain. The loaf hadn’t dried out and hardened, which typically happens when artisan bread isn’t used quickly enough. That is when chefs make croutons! And the loaf was still totally white, meaning it hasn’t molded and turned green or purple or blue. It’s good that a loaf of bread has two more days of shelf life and is still saleable and edible. However, upon closer look, the expiration date was actually June 3, 2018. The bread’s shelf life expired 363 days before my birthday. Wow! And it’s still soft and still white! Now that is cause for concern! What is in it that still makes it appear edible? I don’t think I want to know.

I’ll stick with eating genuine, bona fide, real food! Thanks to Ellen and Steve and the rest of the team for creating a meal at The Bread Lab that was memorable, tasted good and was real food, not non-food and celebrated my birthday, too!

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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The Unstable Pyramid of Needs

What are the “must-haves” in life versus the “want-to-haves?” What are the most basic needs? “Must-haves” are something critical for survival. Without them, life would cease. Food and drinking water are “must-haves.” With no food or water, nothing else matters. Life isn’t even possible. Granted there are a few other things such as clothing and shelter that are almost as necessary, but don’t reach the “must-haves” category. Without food and potable water, survival chances are nil.

Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, first published in the 1940’s, illustrates five steps of transformation beginning with the foundational layer being the “must-haves.” The needs of the triangle hierarchy increase four additional levels with the pinnacle being much more ethereal. Originally the theory intended completion of each step individually on the Hierarchy of Needs before moving to the next level. It is now generally accepted that a human may be at different levels of needs in varying aspects of one’s life.

The first layer of the Hierarchy of Needs are the most important basic human needs, the physiological essentials of food, drinking water, and shelter. These requirements for human existence are the foundational layer or perhaps the primal layer. The second tier of safety and security is important to developing a healthy, engaged, and functioning adult. Granted, a human can exist without safety and security, but will not likely function as well within societal expectations and norms. The first two layers could be consider the most basic needs. The third tier is psychological needs of emotional and well-being, encompassing relations and friendship. Knowing one belongs and dwells in community is important to one’s happiness. Ascending the hierarchy, the fourth step is a sense of esteem, respect, and admiration. The fifth tier, which is also the pinnacle of Maslow’s theory, is self-actualization or reaching one’s highest potential.

Moving up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs each tier is more enlightened, aspirational and comforting. Being a college educated white woman with advantage, I’ve seen Maslow’s tiered steps of needs as an objective or something to attain. Throughout my life, I’ve set a goal or intention on something to achieve and I’ve succeeded. Reaching goals and pinnacles are just part of my DNA. I graduated cum laude with civil engineering degree from a school that only six years before had started admitting women. As a mountaineer or more aptly a “peak-bagger,” I have climbed over 100 different Washington state mountain peaks. But now, the Hierarchy of Needs seems less stable and perhaps more uncertain now than it did earlier in my life.

Hierarchy of Needs with WiFi

When I googled Hierarchy of Needs, I gasped to see where popular culture has taken Maslow’s triangle. WiFi is now considered a foundational need below and supporting the physiological essentials of drinking water and food! WiFi, the ability to connect to anybody and everything worldwide and beyond, has become the most fundamental need! What are we becoming? A slave to our personal electronic device? Attached at birth from never missing the Tweet, the Snap, the Book or maybe even the beat of news? Are we so disconnected from our most primal needs of food and water, that we can’t fathom they could ever be threatened? Granted I’ve seen enough adults and teenagers panic when arriving at a remote mountain cabin in the Cascade Mountains or tent camp on the Serengeti Plain when there is no WiFi access. Has there ever been a consideration that lack of food or water would be even more devastating?

The plight of our basic human needs is ever more pressing. With the help of longevity, I am now an elder and an influencer–not an influencer of Instagram fame–but one with wisdom. In my lifetime, short by geological standards, still too young for Medicare but old enough for senior discounts, the disregard for our most basic needs of food and water is literally killing us. I see the urgency and the potential fragility of our destiny.

The Pyramid of Needs

The Pyramid of Needs

Rearranging the two lowest tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and adding a dose of engineering pragmatism, I created The Pyramid of Needs which are tangible services and goods that build a civilized, stable society. Food and drinking water are the most important needs in our lives. If we don’t have food and potable water, we don’t have human life or for that matter any life at all. Water is the most basic building block of life and is the foundational need. Freshwater is only 2.5% of the earth’s total water supply! Less than 1% of the total freshwater is available and accessible to drink, flush a toilet, take a shower, or water crops. (Some folks say we shouldn’t even be flushing toilets with potable water. We need more compost toilets or gray water systems!) The rest of the non-saline freshwater is frozen in glaciers and snowfields.

Making it more personal, the human body is about 60% water with our muscles being about 80% water and our bones just over a 30% water. Water nourishes our cells, carries nutrients through the body, flushes out toxins, keeps our joints moving and is the “shock absorber for our brain and spinal cord.” Without water, we would very uncomfortable within a short 24 hours and dead in a couple days. Water is essential to our well-being.

While not quite as critical as water, food as the second tier in the Pyramid of Needs is almost just as important to one’s well-being. Living on water alone is impossible, as we are reliant on food, too, but we can live longer without food. Mahatma Gandhi, a leader who advocated for India’s independence using non-violent means, survived three weeks with no food and only sips of water to sustain his body. Hence, food and water are the basic building blocks of life and the first two layers of The Pyramid of Needs.

Shelter and transportation, as third and fourth tier requirements, are still basic needs in today’s economy, but still less essential than food and water. Shelter is necessary to keep us warm, dry, fed, and cleansed. Transportation, whether by foot, bike, bus, rail, car, boat, or air, is vital to create a thriving economy. Putting WiFi and the personal cellular computer device at the pyramid’s apex, just makes sense, as they are needed the least for one’s well-being. Yes, it is a huge disadvantage to potential employment opportunities and even happiness in the United States to live without a personal mobile computing device. However, it is doable to live without it!

So why does our U.S. culture focus so much of our finances and attention on WiFi and the newest cellular product? Why is scant attention directed to where our food comes from food or the cleanliness of the water we put in our bodies? The best cellphone, car or perhaps the most expensive handbag or sneaker seem so much more important than quality food and water. The body that lives with each one of us 24-hours every day of every week and every year, our most sacred temple, needs fresh, clean, healthy food and water to survive and thrive!

Instead, U.S. culture fills our body with junk food and sugary drinks while simultaneously taking a robust healthy food and water supply for granted. We swiftly dismiss our most basic needs, when our food and water systems genuinely need our attention and focus to ensure the long term viability of these systems. Instead of a robust, secure, and healthy drinking water and food systems, I see fragility. Hence, my hierarchy is aptly called The Unstable Pyramid of Needs.

The Unstable Pyramid of Needs

The Unstable Pyramid of Needs

Trust and confidence that the United States has the most reliable, clean, safest water systems in the world is expected. However, our drinking water systems are fragile and unstable as depicted by the holes in the foundational tier of The Unstable Pyramid of Needs. It is a house of cards ready and waiting to fail. The Flint, Michigan water supply fiasco is emblematic of this fragility. To reduce costs, because of the City of Flint’s financial hardship, the drinking water supply source was switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to a cheaper but more corrosive supply the Flint River. The Flint River water supply serving the City caused lead corrosion from the aging water pipe infrastructure. Consequently, between 6,000 to 12,000 Flint’s children were exposed to high levels of lead which can cause long term developmental delays and learning disabilities. Children never recover from lead poisoning! Hazards of lead poisoning in young children has been known for more than 50 years, triggering regulation and elimination of lead in paint and children’s toys. This Flint crisis is just one example why the American Society of Civil Engineer’s Drinking Water Report Card, gave a “D” letter grade for below average conditions of the United States’ drinking water systems. Our country’s drinking water systems are vulnerable and need attention and investment to maintain high quality, reliable potable water!

A New Development on the Edge of a Former Orange Grove

The second tier on The Unstable Pyramid of Needs is our food supply. Elimination of farmlands and replacement with housing, roads and warehouses is all too common. We sacrifice food growing lands for soccer fields and parks, too! Farmland, once lost, does not return to food production. Between 1992 and 2012, in a short 20 years, about 31 million acres of farmland, about the size of Mississippi, was lost to real estate development in the United States per the American Farmland Trust. About 10 million of the 31 million acres lost were considered premier agricultural lands with the best soils, weather, and growing conditions for food production. This is equivalent of losing 175 acres per hour or 9 acres per minute. According to the same source, 91% of the fruit trees, tree nuts, and berries are in the path of development in the counties and metropolitan areas most threatened by suburbanization and urbanization. Think orange groves in Florida. In 2015, 50,000 acres of farmland were lost in Florida alone! The food tier, too, is fragile, riddled with holes and unstable.

Our food and drinking water resources are being ignored and being taken for granted. They are “must-haves” for our survival and well-being. We must not short-shrift these important needs. When farmland is proposed for conversion to non-food production uses or drinking water supplies are threatened or budgeting decisions are being made on how to spend public dollars, it is imperative to prioritize our food and water supply infrastructure.

The Unstable Needs Pyramid are tangible needs one can hold, touch, feel and use. The bottom two layers are our most basic needs: water and food. Investment and political will-power is needed to enhance and protect our country’s food supply and water infrastructure. Our lives depend on it. Really.

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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So you wanna be a farmer?

Have you ever thought how a farmer decides what to grow? My guess is probably not. So many of us never think where our food comes from, so why would we spend any time asking this question. Wondering where our food comes from is a long standing blind spot in our United States culture. We just expect food to show up. As with any business, a farmer has to make a decision on how to run the business and therefore, on what to grow.

Round Barn in Eastern Washington

So, how do farmers decide what to grow? A successful farmer is a multi-faceted business person.  A farmer must know how and where to grow food, how to market the food directly to consumers and institutions or through wholesalers, how to be a bookkeeper (or hire one), to understand land use regulations and water law, how to make sure the food raised is safe from harmful pathogens, and so many more skills and talents that a non-farmer cannot even begin to fathom. Farming can be the ultimate entrepreneurial success story or nightmare, depending on the outcome.

Have you Ever Thought of Being a Farmer?

I grow food. Thirty square feet of garden area in two raised beds on the south and west side of my 5,000 square foot city lot. Rhubarb, green beans, arugula, garlic, a few trellised cucumber plants, a zucchini plant or two, and of course, several types of tomatoes are my main crops. Three hedge-like blueberry bushes, one 8-foot tall Italian prune plum tree, and a pot of basil complete my yard’s agricultural abundance. Not being dependent on my farming acumen is key for my survival. I just get to enjoy whatever I grow. There is no fretting on whether it grows! Tomato and basil bruschetta from my yard is yummy. Bruschetta with red cherry, yellow grape, and green zebra tomatoes mixed together–oh my! Tantalizing my senses with awesome food flavors!

Even with these awesome food flavors, I will never be a farmer–someone who has to make a living from farming. Thankfully, there are men and women who want to farm! So, how does a farmer decide what to grow?

The Commodity Farmer

There are so many different kinds of farmers–farmers that grow commodity crops for corporations, farmers that sell at farmers markets, farmers that sell to packing houses, juicers, or canners, farmers that sell on-site, grain farmers, meat farmers, egg farmers, dairy farmers, grape farmers, wool farmers, and more. There are so many different types of farmers, because there are so many different types of food and food products! There is no one size fits all farmer!

Old Fashioned Round Barn in New York

To keep it simple, perhaps there are two umbrella categories of farmers: the inertia farmer and the entrepreneurial diversified farmer. Inertia farming is the way it’s been done for the past 50 years. Farmers were lulled into inertia farming as the profession was made easier during the 1950’s to 60’s with the Green Revolution by adoption of new technologies in agriculture. Hybridized high-yielding crop varieties, mechanized irrigation, and the creation of fruits and vegetables for long distance refrigerated truck transport rather than taste became the norm. Packaged, processed, predictable food products became the standard. The benefit, guaranteed and commoditized markets for farmers to sell their products to the corporation often through a middleman. It made farming easier as the farmer had guaranteed purchasers and could concentrate on just food growing.

Even so as it became easier, it also became harder because power was taken away from the farmer. Running a farm business became a lot more difficult as corporate behemoths began dictating pricing, pitting one farmer against another to lower commodity prices and consequently farmer livelihoods. This is not the farm story we are taught as children. Urbanites never think about commodity farming as it is not the bucolic farming of childhood story books! It’s important to know that large scale, multi-acreage, single crop commodity farming is the main farm paradigm in this country.

The commodity farmer grows the crop that is always grown. If corn is grown, you are a corn farmer. If soybeans are grown, you are a soybean farmer. There is no variety or change, maybe some rotation between two or three crops, but not anymore diversification.

The Entrepreneurial Diversified Farmer

The entrepreneurial diversified farmer has been the typical farmer since the dawn of the agricultural revolution about 12,000 years ago. This farmer would experiment and expand or change the produce grown or animals husbanded based on rainfall, soil type, seed robustness, taste, pests, plant diseases, and a myriad of other reasons. With 12,000 years of farming experience we now know that if we grow the same product in the same soil all the time, that eventually the soil gets tired because all of the soil’s nutrients have been expended. Further, if you never rotate crops, the bad bugs learn where you grow your carrots and set up house. Commodity farmers address these issues with artificial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Organic farmers know a different way. According to Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Product in Sequim, Washington, “I rotate where I grow my carrots every year and they are never in the same dirt for seven years.” If you have never had Nash’s carrots, give them a try. They are off the charts sweet, crispy, and delicious.

Stokesberry Sustainable Farm moving the chicken tractor

For eons, the diversified farmer was the only type of farmer. Now it is the exception. Many diversified farmers grow produce and fruits and combine their farm business with raising animals whether chickens, pigs, cows, or goats. Chickens are easy to add to a produce farm, as the chickens can be housed in chicken tractors, two foot high structures with ample space to move around and peck for seeds or bugs. The structure and chickens are moved as needed to fresh ground. The chickens leave almost, clean bare ground behind has they move along but it is filled with nutrients from their eating and excrement activity. The chicken tractor can be slid between produce rows or placed on fallow ground all while recycling the nutrients of the circle of life of agriculture.

Not being a farmer, but a gardener, my draw to agriculture is strong even though my ancestors were coppersmiths, ship captains, engineers, house painters, bankers, and ministers. There is not one farmer in my known familial history. Even so, the desire to grow food and to eat good, locally- grown, in-season food is visceral from my ancestral heritage. As a child, my Dad helped cultivate my own 5-foot square vegetable garden with green beans, tomatoes and zucchini. June-bearing strawberry picking with my Grandpa and then jam making with my Grandma are memorable. June-bearing strawberries are so much sweeter than the more common ever-bearing berries. Picking lush high bush blueberries in the soggy mosquito infested wetlands was a yearly excursion with my Opa and Oma.

Purchasing food whether at a restaurant, store or farmers market, I do ponder where the food comes from. Eating ethically produced, pesticide free, and organically grown is the best for my health and the planet.

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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Terroir and the Family Farm

Spring grass was just poking its head through the crusty soil at Pure Eire Dairy when we visited earlier this year. Jill Smith, dairywoman extraordinaire, was expecting our visit at her family farm near Othello, Washington. My fellow adventurer Robbie and I had spent several days in eastern Washington exploring the hidden gems where Seattleites don’t often venture.

Monteillet Formagerie

Dayton’s “Jolly” Green Giant

Our travel day had started with breakfast crafted with our own ingenuity from the farm fresh eggs, a slab of bacon, specially prepared sausages, crusty heirloom grain bread, and purple potatoes deposited by our hosts at Monteillet Formagerie located just outside of Dayton, Washington. Two glorious days had been spent exploring the former home of the greatest asparagus production region in Washington State supported by the “Jolly” Green Giant until all its operations, food processing jobs, and asparagus farmer livelihoods were shipped to South America about a decade ago. The Giant, etched into the landscape, still peers down from its hill-top perch as a reminder of the town’s former claim to fame.

When making our reservations at Monteillet Formagerie, we knew they specialized in goat and sheep cheeses sold at specialty shops and farmers’ markets in the region. Imagine our surprise to have a fully stocked refrigerator and cabinet of local, in-season artisan foods to nourish our travel-worn bodies. We are blessed in the Pacific Northwest with an almost never-ending supply of foods throughout the year, enabling one to eat easily with the seasons. Even so, with the intercontinental flow of fresh food products, we added grapefruit and kale from the local IGA just to get all the food groups in our meal.

On to Big Farm Country

The Farmer

Leaving Dayton, the drive across our vast state took us through the rolling hills of wheat country, by the stoic grain elevator on the bluff above Pataha Creek, through the tiny town of Starbuck (with no Starbucks), over the stellar Snake River, to the land of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. The Grand Coulee Dam on the mighty Columbia, a public works project of Roosevelt Administration in the 1930’s, electrified and irrigated significant portions of Eastern Washington changing the landscape forever. Central Washington’s deep, fertile, loess soils benefited the then nascent now robust agricultural economy with significant help from a consistent, reliable water supply.

Pure Eire Dairy, located outside of Othello, Washington, is in the middle of big farm country in the heart of the Columbia Irrigation Project. Dairying is a small part of the agricultural economy of Adams County, the home of Pure Eire, with only seven dairy farms according to the 2012 USDA Agricultural Census. Even so, milk and milk products are the No. 2 commodity with $1.1 billion in Washington sales in 2012 with many other counties being big players in the commodity. Milk is only behind the celebrated Washington State apple in agricultural sales. Even though small, Pure Eire is raising the bar and setting a new standard for what discerning consumers can expect in their milk products.

Pure Eire Dairy

Sadly the dairy industry’s product, milk, is a commodity where the typical farmer is in a race to produce quantity over quality. Dairy farms have grown bigger and bigger, while many smaller farms have gone out of business. Thankfully, there are exceptions such as Pure Eire Dairy that have innovated a niche business that serves a unique market making exceptional products! Pure Eire has gone beyond the industry standard of Organic Valley Cooperative. Organic milk standards prohibit hormone use to stimulate milk production, limits antibiotic use only for animal illness, and sets standards for pasturing and outdoor access, while providing third-party verification that standards are met. Pure Eire has exceeded these standards by feeding their Jersey herd only grass–the food that cows are designed to eat.

Pure Eire Dairy Cow

Visiting in March, the cows were just beginning the first foray into the spring sprouting fields. During the winter months the herd is fed harvested hay from the previous season. Cows are designed by nature to eat grasses and hay as their ruminant digestive system ferments the food producing multiple benefits to them and us as milk drinkers. Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) a beneficial fatty acid and a vital energy source for the cow as well as amino acids, B vitamins and vitamin K are also produced benefiting us.

Pure Eire is so committed to a healthy herd and superior milk products that they are Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project verified, and Animal Welfare Approved. These certifying organizations along with the care of the Smiths ensure a healthy herd from the milking females to the newborn calves, thereby ensuring the finest milk products for human consumption.

Wowed by their milk products, I am thankful PCC Community Markets, my local food cooperative, has an exclusive agreement with Pure Eire to produce their private label thick Greek yogurt. Yum! My favorite–the peach.

Gratefully, farmers are reconnecting with the eating public whether through farmers’ markets or grocery stores to provide us with the best possible food choices. Next time you taste a locally grown product, whether a Pure Eire yogurt or farmers’ market cheese, see if you can taste its terroir–its taste based on its special place. It’s authentic.

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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Do Organics Get the Respect They Deserve?

“I get no respect!” Are organics the Rodney Dangerfield of food? Organics should be celebrated and touted as the best food for all. Instead organics are like Rodney Dangerfield, the iconic stand-up comedian, who never got the recognition he deserved until he played the self-deprecating respect card.  Do organic foods and growing methods get the respect they deserve?

Organic Growing System

Nash’s Best Carrots

The organic food growing system has been around for eternity. It builds the coveted nutrient-rich, dark brown, friable, moist, growing medium in which food is grown. Organic farming is the art of yearly rotating crops from one field to the next, so the bad bugs don’t have the opportunity to destroy a harvest by becoming fruitful and multiplying. Rotating different crops in sequential years from one field to the next is not only good for pest management, but also it also increases soil fertility and crop yields.  

Composting on-farm crop wastes recycles and returns beneficial organisms and humus back to the soil to replenish and nourish the ground for every years’ crops. Resting and rejuvenating the soil for a season with a nitrogen fixing (often low monetary but high soil and ultimately food nutrient value) cover crop replenishes and rejuvenates the soil. Companion planting, another method to ward off bad bug invasions, increases pollination possibilities, and creates habitat for beneficial bugs. [My own experiment with companion planting is growing bush beans with tomatoes in a large pot on my deck. Planting garlic with bush beans is a big companion planting “no-no.”] With all these benefits of the organic growing system, why is organic production only four percent of the total U.S. food sales?

Farmers have been growing organically since the beginning of farming. With the advent of chemical farming after World War II and the dependency on single crop farms managed with synthetically made fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, our agricultural system is vastly changed from its original agrarian roots. 

Our Current Food System

Top Ingredient Corn Munchies

Before the post World War II Green Revolution, organic farming was the tried, true and only way to grow food. The Green Revolution transformed everything. Its noble goal was to feed the world and it excelled at that objective. It succeeded in reducing worldwide hunger, but at what cost? The Green Revolution fostered an industrial food system that is still the predominant food growing, processing, and delivery structure to this day. Crop conformity with hybridized seeds benefiting from extensive irrigation systems and the application of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to increase yields is the dominant agricultural paradigm. Agricultural scientists developed seeds that took some of the uncertainty out of food growing. Farmers were given guidelines, instructions, and research from the Land Grant Universities on when to apply synthetic chemicals to the fields or crops throughout the year to boost yields. Granted, the farmer still had to worry about too much or not enough rain, too much or not enough heat and a myriad of other concerns. Even so, by making each type of crop a commodity–more similar than dissimilar so that a crop such as corn could be generic and interchangeable–eaters lost variety, flavor, health benefits, and a relationship with their farmer and where the food came from. Of course, the big food processors and grocery chains favored the industrialized system with uniform, predictable crops as it made it easy to purchase and create food products that could be sold to the masses.  

The outcome of this agricultural system is that mainstream, conventional food stores’ products now offer multiple concoctions of products with corn, soybeans and wheat–the top three agricultural revenue generators and crops that cover our farmland in the United States.

Organics Market Share

Those that either demanded or mourned the loss of quality, healthy, and tasty foods of days gone by, worked to develop a nationwide organic standard. The National Organic Program was established in 1990 with its rules enacted in 2002. Since the organic rules were published, nationwide organic food consumption has increased by double digits each year which sounds impressive. What is unimpressive is that organic sales are only four percent of the total U.S. food sales. In any other industry, a four percent market share after 16 years is considered paltry.

So, why don’t organics get the respect they deserve? My quest is to find out. I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

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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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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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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Our Vulnerable Food System

Our food system–the system of growing, harvesting, distributing, and selling food–is fragile! To most, it looks in good health. Stop in any grocery store, stroll through Pike Place Market, visit your local farmers market or drive through a McDonald’s and there is plenty of food! From an eater’s perspective, there is no problem. There seems to be enough food, just that perhaps there is a distribution or cost problem because the poor can’t afford or get enough.

Puyallup Bottomlands Farmland

Puyallup Bottomlands Farmland

The food system is vital to our well-being, but goes largely unnoticed because it seems to be working. Our food system is like an onion, though as there are many layers and it is not pleasant to examine the layers as it is uncomfortable or bring tears to our eyes. Peeling back the food system layers, our eyes start to water and focus becomes blurred when realizing how complex and confusing it really is. Similar to slicing and sautéing an onion quickly, it’s much easier to avoid examining the layers of the food system.

This blog will look briefly at elements of the food system and where it is fragile. Realize that 500-page books, year-long college classes, multiple non-profit’s missions, and countless articles have all focused on the system’s frailness, so this is only touches lightly on the topic. Even so, positive changes are happening and we are getting the opportunity to eat more healthfully because more attention is being paid to what we eat and how it is grown. Despite this, there is still much work to be done to build a food system that serves all participants from farm-laborers, to farmers, to food preparers and eaters.

Where do we begin?

Mass produced food is cheap. Most eaters consume cheap food, because deals abound at Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Olive Garden, you name the fast-food chain. Two for the price of one. Buy one (calorie, fat and sugar laden food item), get one free. The mass marketed “drive-thru and go” and nationwide family-diner food providers buy their wares from huge multi-national corporations (think Kraft, ConAgra, just to name a few), that produce oodles of calories. The healthier fruits and vegetables that the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) recommends that we eat often do not show up on the menu or are loaded with croutons, bacon bits, cheese, and dressing defeating the purpose of eating them. Granted there are food chains such as Chipotle that are breaking this traditional mold, but they have had problems scaling their healthy fast-food business model.

The CDC’s recommendations are directly in conflict with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (“USDA”) heavy subsidization (with our tax dollars) of commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soy through Congress’ authorization of Farm Bill every five years. The commoditized, subsidized products feed our nation’s cattle, swine, and chicken supply, producing cheap meat products. The healthy diet recommendation that half our plate be filled with fruits and vegetables gets minimal tax dollar support and are consequently significantly more expensive. Hence, the uniformed eater, which too many of us are, chows down on low quality, cheap food. It tastes good or at least tastes the same all the time! It’s portable. It’s quick. It’s inexpensive. It fills us up! The consequences: obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

To add more fodder to a broken food system, the food growing profession doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Think of the average farm worker. An immigrant (often in this country illegally), earning a very low wage in the heat, rain, mud, and cold to plant, till, prune, and harvest food. Cheap food does not support these minimum wage workers.

Proposed State Route 167 in the Puyallup Valley

Proposed State Route 167 in the Puyallup Valley

Furthermore, farmland, especially when located in proximity to thriving metropolitan areas, is threatened daily for conversion to housing developments and retail shopping malls. Developers aren’t the only threat to farmland. When a State or Federal transportation department looks for a new highway route or overpass, farmland is the cheapest ground around. We have a great example about one-half hour south of Seattle. The completion of Washington State Route 167 from Interstate 5 to downtown Puyallup will be built on some of western Washington’s best farmland–the Puyallup River bottomlands. The proposed highway location is shown on the adjacent map in orange, while some of the farm properties are outlined in bright green. Last legislative session, the Washington State elected officials brokered a deal to fund the highway construction. Funding for building this section of highway has languished in the legislative process for almost 20 years. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) already owns much of the future highway right-of-way and leases the property to local farmers, so soon this farmland that currently grows some of the best iceberg lettuce, celery, and berries will be lost to pavement.

Environmental regulations threaten farmland, too. The Skagit River delta, one hour north of Seattle, was modified with dikes and drainage infrastructure a century ago to create one of the most prolific farming regions in the world. Now Skagit farmland is threatened not so much by housing developments, but by the desire (and legal obligation through the Endangered Species Act) to enhance and protect threatened wild salmon runs. Dikes could be removed but acres of farmland would be lost.

What to do?

These are just a few of the vulnerabilities in our food system. I purchase as much food as possible that is sustainably grown, preferably from a farmer I know. My actions help to create a more robust food system.

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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