Tanzanian Coffee Experience–Yum!

Mt. Meru at almost 15,000 feet, the fifth highest mountain in Africa, capped in wispy clouds, towers over the Tanzanian village at the end of the paved road at the entrance to Arusha National Park. Meru’s taller and more well-known “mountain cousin”, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the African continent, bursts from the African plain only 216 miles as the crow flies east of Mt. Meru.

We stationed ourselves at Meru View Lodge, just one-half mile south of the Arusha National Park entrance to rest and recuperate in late January after a 24-hour travel day and 11-hour time zone difference from our Seattle home. Not wanting to miss any opportunity to learn more about Tanzania, I signed up for a walking tour with Abraham Mkope of Riziki Tours for a coffee tasting, Tanzanian lunch, and a walk in a neighboring forest preserve established to protect the local water supply. Trained as a civil engineer and being a lover of land and how it is used, curiosity drives me to experience how different cultures and countries build their communities. Touring the village at the end of the paved section of Momela Road opened my eyes to how differently people can live across the continents.

Leaving the Meru View Lodge with Abraham, we literally jumped across a two foot deep by 2-1/2 foot wide storm drainage swale lined with cemented in paving stones. Thankfully, January and February are typically drier months in Tanzania with the “long rains” or the rainy season beginning in March and lasting until May or June every year. With no rain in sight, these storm drains appeared excessively large, so I could only imagine the rushing water in the wet season. There must be a reason there is so much drainage capacity!

A Farm near Arusha, Tanzania

On an early Sunday morning, when many Tanzanians are in church, Abraham and I sauntered on the dusty dirt pathway adjacent to the paved road for a few minutes until crossing the weekend-quiet two-lane road. Our jaunt into the neighborhood on a rutted dirt road quickly changed to a dirt path. Sometimes we were caverned between concrete block walls and other times, surrounded by small farms, homes, and views of the countryside. In the hour walk to our destination, the terrain varied regularly between dirt roadway to narrow dirt pathways depending on the jigs and jags in our journey. Occasionally a motor cycle would scoot past, but mostly we walked alone in peace. Even the children were at church! Different land uses abounded. Small farms were tucked between homes, little wood and mud homes stood next to newer, larger half-finished brick homes. Occasionally we passed a completed home with a metal roof slathered with a white finishing material to conceal the brick building materials and a car parked out front. From a Seattle strict zoning code perspective, no sense of a land use plan was evident other than that there were no cul-de-sacs and always a path to follow. Some homes were only half finished and even looked forgotten or abandoned with a full grown banana tree in the foyer. Abraham said, “Villagers build their homes bit by bit as they earn extra money. Bank loans and mortgages are rare because reliable family income is not common.”

Small Farms in the Mt. Meru Region

Ripening Coffee Berries

Small farms, really almost large country garden plots, farmed by the neighboring homeowner dotted the landscape. Most families grow corn, more commonly known as maize, bananas and perhaps, Arabica coffee. Maize and bananas are the Meru region’s major crops as they are easy to grow and sell in local markets. Banana roots spread so easily, likely similar to the America’s raspberry bushes, and new banana trees just show up, hence the banana tree growing in the middle of an unfinished house. Despite being challenging to grow and sell, Arabica coffee is still an important export crop for the 400,000 family farmers that grow it. Tanzania is the 3rd largest coffee producer in Africa, but far below Brazil and Vietnam as the world’s biggest coffee producers. The Meru/Kiliminjaro region has the ideal Arabica coffee growing conditions between 4,500 and 6,000 feet above sea level with the rich volcanic soils. Despite this, Tanzanian coffee production has been significantly challenged by pests, climate change induced erratic weather conditions and just getting the crop to market. 

After weaving our way between houses and farm plots, we arrived at our coffee stop where Sonia was waiting for us outside her parents’ home. The small, adobe finished home was compact and stout with the television dish on top. The home could have been easily found in an older American neighborhood! Sonia did not speak English, so Abraham led me through the 30-foot square family farm plot. Even though most of the ripe red beans had been harvested, there was still one stray white coffee flower and several handfuls of ripening berries on the bushes. The entire farm was protected from the equatorial sun with a smattering of banana trees and several taller trees providing shade for the coffee.

Producing a great cup of coffee takes time. After pollination, coffee berries grow into an oval shape about ½ inch in their longest dimension on chest high bushes. The berries start their life green and turn red when they are ready to be harvested by hand between July and December. All berries are air dried by Mother Nature on drying trays and rotated and turned to remove the fleshy portion of the bean leaving a thin almost fascia-like fibrous tissue covering on each bean. Each berry contains two beans unless there is only one bean, which happens only about 10% of the time, creating an extra special peaberry coffee and a premium price.

Grinding Coffee

Back in Sonia’s front yard, she brought out a couple cups of dried beans that still had the second covering or thin shell on them. Our first task was to remove the second shell. The beans were dropped into a huge mortar, an 8-inch diameter hollowed-out tree that stood about hip height. A 3-inch wide piece of aluminum flashing was secured to keep the “tree mortar” from splitting. The pestle was almost four feet tall and rounded on the bottom and made from another tree piece. Sonia pounded the beans loosening and shedding the second cover from the coffee bean. As the guest, I milled the beans for a few minutes until the pestle weight exhausted my arms! 

The beans were dumped from the mortar and spread out on a woven platter. Abraham shook the platter lightly allowing the fibrous flakes to drift away with the breeze. Meanwhile Sonia started a small fire with dried twigs and branches. Perched on top of the flames was a small cast iron vessel into which she dropped the freshly cleaned beans. Stirring the beans regularly to prevent burning allowed the waft of freshly roasted beans to permeate the air.

Abraham Mkope removing the second shell from the bean.

Next step was putting the freshly roasted beans back into the mortar. The same pestle was used to grind the beans. We sang, “Saga, Saga–Saga” (Grinding, Grinding–Grinding) as the rhythmic song to ease the pain and monotony of a very physical method of coffee grinding! The ground coffee was sifted to separate the fine ground from the medium ground allowing an extra chance to grind all the coffee to a fine texture!

Now, the coffee is ground and the water is boiling. The grounds and the water are mixed to infuse flavor and caffeine. Sonia knew the optimal time to brew and poured it into my mug. I was offered sugar and put in a pinch since no milk available, to ward off any anticipated bitterness I was expecting. Wow! Was I amazed! No bitterness. My second cup was sugar free. The complexity of the flavor was stupendous!

Making a great cup of coffee took about 30 minutes. It is not a process for the caffeine craving morning wake-up routine but rather for enjoying a special time with good friends and family. No wonder my Ethiopian friend once said, “Being invited for coffee you know you are a true friend. Being invited for tea, not necessarily so.”  

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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Why I Support Small Family Farms

Farming seems so idyllic. Old McDonald, the proverbial song, is my first recollection of the quintessential farming dream. A happy song with joyful animals. Seared in my memory are daytrips to my Grandmother’s house to find the choicest Halloween pumpkin; the tallest, greenest, Christmas tree, or to pick the most succulent, prized bucket of strawberries.

My Grandparents’ Farm

My grandparents are now long gone, but their idyllic 90-acre farm still straddles the Niagara Escarpment–the geological formation that created Niagara Falls. Half the farm, on the downhill side of the Escarpment, has poor drainage but is classified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “prime farmland, if drained”. The uphill side, also “prime farmland,” is much drier and home to the house, barn, and garage. The wooded, steep Escarpment separating the two farming areas shelters an old quarry that was excavated beginning in the 1830’s to build the main house. As a kid, the nooks and crannies and hiding places of the huge barn, the big house, and acres and acres of land were the things that make childhood memories special.

Several miles west of my grandparents’ place, on the edge of the Escarpment, was their Christian country church. The wood-framed, two story white church with a squat steeple stood at a crossroads in the middle of farm country. There was and still is no 7-11 or gas station next door. From its perch on the Escarpment, congregants could take in the view of the flatlands to the north–all farmland. The church was a haven and a mainstay for the farming community drawing churchgoers from miles around for a weekly day of rest.

Family photo at Grandma’s memorial service

Grandma was a church regular. She was pragmatically spiritual and very community-minded. She definitely lived the mantra of how she could contribute to make people’s lives better, not just her own or her family’s, but the greater good. When we visited, our Sunday School ritual was being read a Bible verse with an accompanying lesson on being good, accepting and helping others, and finding love in our hearts. Of course there was always cutting and pasting to keep us kids occupied, too! Grandma often taught the adult class, which unfortunately, I never attended. Even so our many conversations delved into the realm of pragmatic spirituality.

Grandpa was an aeronautical engineer, entering the profession in its burgeoning days as a young techie in the 1930’s when the creative opportunities in the nascent industry were boundless. Being on the forefront of a brand new industry energized him. It tapped his creative and problem solving genes. He was a classic introvert, needing acres of space to recharge daily. He owned a tractor to mow the large acreage lawn sparsely dotted with fruit and nut trees. A hobby apiary was tucked behind the barn on the edge of the Escarpment. Grandpa would don his white uniform and bee hat regularly to tend his hives. We were never asked to help tend the bees.

The majority of Grandpa’s farmable ground was leased to a hay and corn farmer. Crops were rotated between the different fields. Since the land was Grandpa’s refuge, any crops that required daily tending by a tenant farmer were not grown. The energy to interact with other people was saved for Grandpa’s day job as an airplane wing engineer.  

As with my grandparents, the neighbors and fellow churchgoers all had a relationship to the land. One memory really stands out.

The Small Family Farmer in the ’60’s

Grandma’s House & Grandpa’s Barn

The Nelsons were fellow churchgoers–a family of six, two parents and four children–just like my family. Our whole family was invited to their house for lunch after church. The Nelsons were small-scale dairy farmers with maybe a 30 to 50-head herd. Honestly, I don’t really remember the exact herd size, but the feeling of their house, the farm, and size of the operation is vivid. I know it was not a large farm. The standard clapboard house at one time blue had faded to a blue-gray and was flaking. The inside was minimally furnished with old furniture but comfortable. The property was dank and muddy and the barn looked dilapidated. As with many farmers then and now, the Nelsons were dependent on selling their product to a wholesaler at a set price. There was no ability to negotiate a higher price to cover costs, upgrade equipment, or maintain a reasonable standard of living. Even so, I do remember family being cheerful and welcoming. Still, even as a nine years old, I knew the Nelsons were poor.

In the late 1960’s our family was living frugally as my Dad was a full-time mechanical engineering PhD student. My mom stayed home with four kids. I was oldest and my only brother a toddler. My small wardrobe was mostly hand-me-downs from my younger sister, as she was already bigger than I, and a special dress sewn by Grandma. After me, the hand-me-downs were given to the Nelson girls as my youngest sister was five years younger than I. There was no reason to keep used clothing for five years until my sister grew into them. At that young age, I just knew we would never be as poor as the Nelsons. I lived in a family of possibility and opportunity. Every year my great-grandparents and later my grandparents sent birthday and holiday checks, to be put dutifully in the bank for my college education. I was expected to go to college, as both my parents and my Mom’s parents had. I knew I had options and the possibility of being comfortable and always having enough.

Supporting Small Family Farmers

Selecting the Christmas Tree

How do these memories fit into my life now? In my political, food and farming, and justice work, I often think of the Nelsons. They were living their lives like many ordinary families. Striving to raise good, healthy children, endeavoring to make a living and working with the land and their other children–the cows. These are the basic human attributes that sustain and enhance life. Raising food and nurturing children. Remembering the Nelsons, I can’t help but see the stark disparities in life, lives, and livelihoods, that unfortunately continue to this day.

As I prepare my holiday meals, I am very intentional on sourcing as many ingredients as possible from local farmers to fill my table and my holiday home. I know that every dollar I spend directly with a local farmer, generates the highest value for that farmer. The food tastes the best, is clean with no worries of pathogens or errant E.coli, and keeps local lands in agriculture. The Nelsons never could sell directly to the consumer. It just wasn’t an option to sell milk and milk products in a farmstand on the side of the road or at a farmers’ market. Even now it is difficult to get locally sourced dairy products, but there are options such as Pure Eire Dairy, Grace Harbor Dairy, and Ellenos, all Washington based businesses and found at PCC Community Markets, Metropolitan Markets, and other stores that stock locally grown and processed agricultural products. I am blessed to know how important my food choices and Christmas tree decisions are to the local economy and happy to support the families that grow and nurture these products.

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!

Note: The Grandma’s House & Grandpa’s Barn photo was taken by Donna Quinn and used by Gardow Consulting with permission. 

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Chestnut Bonanza!

During the early days of autumn, for about three weeks, chestnut trees bear their fruit. Every October walking through Laurelhurst Park, I see about a half-dozen Asian-American elders standing below the majestic chestnut trees–waiting. It never appears to be the same elders, but there are usually about 6 and never more than 10. Some come alone. Others come in twos.  Each carry a plastic sack or basket to carry their bounty.

Majestic Chestnut Tree

One gentleman is framed in the sunshine with his head tilted back scanning the treetop–waiting. Two women, one my age and the other surprisingly much younger bat a wiffle ball with plastic racquets filling the time with friendly competition–waiting. Each day the chestnut foragers wander between the two clumps of about ten nut producing trees, waiting for the rewards to drop. Below each trees’ huge dripline, the lawn is littered with empty burrs, the sheath that encapsulates anywhere from one to seven chestnuts. In all the years I’ve walked the park during harvest, I had never seen anyone get a burr. I figured they must or they wouldn’t come. But, why don’t I ever see burrs falling?

Chestnut History

Harvested Chestnuts

Across the United States at the turn of the 20th century American chestnut trees were prolific.  In 1904 a blight, most likely triggered by the import of an Asian chestnut variety, quickly began the demise of four billion trees. The loss of the trees was horrific, as the wood was used for everything from furniture to railroad ties and of course, the nuts for sustenance. In earlier times, chestnuts were an important food that often substituted for potatoes in the American diet. Now, it is mostly a culturally significant holiday treat roasted by a Uwajimaya grocery store vendor and sung about in a Christmas carol. There have been efforts to cross the Chinese and American chestnut to create a resilient American breed but alas, it has not happened.

Sleuthing Seattle tree databases and lore, I couldn’t find out what type of chestnut tree live in Laurelhurst Park. These trees don’t warrant the Google reference of Queen Anne Hill’s majestic rows of edible chestnut producing  trees nor the University of Washington’s sorority row inedible horse chestnut tree canopy.

My Chestnut Reward

Chestnut Foraging

On my last sunny day park walk, imagine my surprise when  a chestnut burr literally dropped in front of me. The bright green burr practically sparkled in the autumn sun. I grabbed it with my naked hand and was surprised by the prickly intensity of the quill-like surface. I tucked the burr gently under my arm protected by the polar fleece of my jacket, wondering what I would do with this treasure. I had no idea how to open it. Fortunately, there were still a couple elders waiting for chestnuts to drop. I showed my burr to an older woman. Her eyes glistened with excitement.  I asked her how to open it. Rather than giving me verbal instructions, she put my precious burr under her foot. She squished it and rolled it back and forth until two chestnuts emerged. I held them briefly- their shiny smooth surface cradled in my hand. I had no idea what to do with two nuts!  I gave them to her. She dropped them in her plastic tote. She left with a satisfied grin on her face.

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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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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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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