December 6, 2013

Christmas in the Chicken Coop

Molting chicken

The Ashland Food Cooperative (or “the Coop”, either as two syllables or one) is just about the most wonderful place a person could spend their working day. My co-workers are intelligent, caring human beings who take pride in their work. Our customers are kind, gracious and possess some degree of knowledge about where their food really comes from. Sure, there’s the occasional roll-your-eyes moment – like the mom who video conferences with her toddler to ask him which brand of gummy fruits he prefers, or the bearded woman who talked to me for thirty minutes, first about ghee and finally about why sex should wait until marriage, gay or straight – but I really appreciate how most people take the time to think about their options when it comes to things like pizza sauce, coconut oil, or yogurt.
Or eggs. Anytime it’s my turn to stock the egg cooler, I prepare myself for a deluge of first-world problems. Do brown and white eggs taste different? Which is better, cage-free or humanely raised? If it says they’re soy-free, does that mean they’re non-GMO? Then there’s my favorite: Where are all the local eggs?
With my farming background, I thought I knew everything there was to know about chicken eggs, but I was wrong. Curious customers had me on Google every night with ovum-related quandaries. Turns out cage-free is not as idyllic as we would imagine, and organic is the only way to know with certainty that GMOs have not made their way inside those fragile shells.
But I did know this before I got the job: All eggs taste the same, no matter the color. Also, under natural circumstances, chickens take a few weeks off in the fall to molt, or grow in a new set of feathers. Like most living things – from apple trees to human beings – they don’t see it necessary to work 365 days out of the year. Responding to changes in daylight and temperature in the late fall to early winter, they take a break. Egg production drops or disappears for two to four months.
In the old days, when farmers kept chickens outdoors, people simply didn’t eat many eggs during molting season. They became a luxury item that only the rich could afford. Mixed with plenty of rum and milk, eggs became the ultimate special holiday beverage – eggnog. In spring, we ate lots of eggs to celebrate the fact that they were once again abundant.
Today, of course, we have technological “solutions” to the egg supply “problem”. Kept indoors in huge poultry barns, chickens’ natural clocks are confused by artificial lights. Farmers can force the molt to happen whenever it’s convenient for them, so they stagger molting to ensure that the entire flock doesn’t stop producing at the same time. They also keep the molting period short – a month or two at the max.
So that’s why “Where are the local eggs?” is my favorite question of the season. We do carry local eggs, from “Poe”tential Farms, located in the Poe Valley near Klamath Falls, Oregon. They keep their chickens outdoors on pasture, and they don’t force molts. Their eggs are fresh, organic and reasonably priced. They’re also a seasonal product – like pumpkins, watermelons, and eggnog-flavored ice cream. When the Christmas music starts playing softly over the Coop speakers, the local eggs take a hike.
Nobody wants to hear my long-winded explanation at the store, so I just say “Sorry, we’re out of stock right now.” Usually, that’s enough to satisfy a customer, but last week a woman huffed and asked, “What, are the chickens just not laying eggs?”
Um, yep. Your natural, happy-to-be-chickens are doing what natural, happy chickens do this time of year. Sorry, that means that you either have to buy the not-so-natural eggs we have available, or go without.

Chickens may be directly related to the dinosaur, but I’m starting to believe they’re more evolved than us. Sure, we have vacation days and sick leave, but taking a break isn’t actually built into our biological cycles. A chicken’s job is to lay an egg every day, sure. (Amazing fact: A hen is actually born with every egg she will ever lay already lined up inside her reproductive tract, ready to grow, calcify, and make its way toward an omelet or a meringue cookie.) But their bodies, somewhere along the evolutionary line, said – you know, I’m not going to commit to this incredibly physically demanding act every day out of the year. Human ladies, imagine if WE dropped an egg every twenty four hours. The world would be madness.
But at the Co-op, the evidence shows that most of the women – and men, but let’s face it, women do a lot more grocery shopping – are already teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown. Maybe we should take a cue from chickens and spend a good quarter of the year changing our wardrobe and preparing for what’s ahead. Then when we encounter a situation where we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we could just scratch our nails in the dirt, shake our feathers, and strut away.

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December 1, 2013

Buying the Farm

My windowsill garden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve wanted to have my own farm since I was a little girl. I planted a peach pit in our back yard near a big Doug fir and dug it up nearly every day to see if it was turning into a tree yet. I baked my own bread and painted my face with blackberry juice.
I didn’t really know about farms then, or where my food came from, really, but eventually I would figure it out. Where I started was with an insatiable love of the outdoors, of things that grow. Although I had no idea what was actually edible out there – and neither did my city-born parents – I pretended it all was anyway. When I grew up to learn that humans were expected to spend most of their lives indoors, I followed along with the plan briefly but soon found myself joyously yanking weeds in the mud of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.

I’m 27 years old now. Recently, I received an email from a young woman named Erin. She’s about to graduate from engineering school and was seeking advice on entering the field of sustainable agriculture. She felt that she could make a positive contribution.
I sent a couple of links to apprenticeship programs but she pressed for more information: What path had I taken, she wanted to know. What mistakes had I made, and what experiences were invaluable?
I think what she really wanted to know was, is this really possible? Can an idealistic young person really go into the crusty world of tractors, almanacs, fruit fly breeding cycles, pressure canning, agricultural zoning rules and Carharts and make it as sexy as designing green buildings or a more fuel-efficient car?
There is a huge chasm in agriculture today, but maybe it’s always been there. It’s the difference between our romantic view of cuddling baby lambs, and hosting potlucks in our rustic farmhouses and the reality of growing enough food for the planet’s 7.5 billion people and making it as cheap as possible. Today, the romantic view of farm life has grown to include an expectation that changing the way we grow, distribute and consume food can actually save the planet. So, can it?

I have to admit that I lied a bit in my responses to Erin. I didn’t tell her that no farmer I’ve ever met has actually recommended that I follow in their footsteps, go into debt for a large piece of land, and spend the rest of my life tied down to it. I didn’t tell her that most of the early 20-somethings I met just out of college who, like me, worked a variety of low-paying but highly satisfying farm-related jobs, are now settling down to earn real money and buy their food from the grocery store like everyone else. I failed to mention how incredibly thankless it is to be a farmer, that no matter how much people in your community seem to embrace the idea of buying locally and building regional food security, you will still meet people at the farmer’s market who will fail to understand why your apples are more expensive than those at Safeway. That’s when you smile and try to be nice, and you don’t try to explain that the old expression “he bought the farm” means he died, because when you try to live off the land that’s the only way you do live.

I left these things out because I still believe that the baby goats are worth it, and that, as Alice Waters said, we really do vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what we eat. Maybe this is why there are still farmers in the world, why there continue to be young farmers even though the average age of a farmer in America is now upwards of 60 years old. The trend of college grads going back to the land may have hit its peak at the height of the recession in 2009, when I graduated from college, but there are still Erins out there, and there are still people like me and Hannah, who just can’t seem to settle for a nine-to-five job under the protective roof of a building in town. There’s a smidgen of boldness and a bit of stupidity there, too – no matter how many farmers we’ve met who barely scrape by, we seem to think we can do better. Maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.

Now that we’ve settled in Southern Oregon, we’re taking a look around, feeling the soil and watching the weather. We have friends who want to invest here, too, noting the influx of Californians and the popularity of local vineyards. Land isn’t cheap, but it is only getting more expensive. The farmer’s market is a busy place here. Perhaps there’s room for one more pair of crazy young people with a table full of the ripened labors of their love. Once we get it going, I fantasize, we’ll let the local college know that we’re seeking interns. We won’t pay much, but they’ll never be the same once they go for a walk through the fields in the early morning, taste the first ripe tomato of summer, and see a baby goat take its first shaky steps into life.

November 17, 2013

Roasted Eggplant Cashew Butter

A little bit dangerous. That’s how all good recipes should be.

It starts with cashew butter. You know, like peanut butter, but with cashews, a nut which happens to come from a deadly fruit. But more on that later.

When I’m feeling ambitious I use my cuisinart food processor to make my own nut butter. The process itself is not difficult, but may cause hearing loss. When I think of the horrendous noise created in the first five seconds of grinding nuts,  I usually find myself at the bulk section of the co-op, using their machines to quietly place whatever quantity of peanut or almond butter I desire into my very own jar.

However, my partner Hannah and I just moved into a new apartment in Ashland, and the previous tenant (who we kind of knew) happened to leave some food items behind for us. The jar of kombucha I swiftly passed on to a more appreciative owner – I once consumed a bad kombucha and I don’t care to recount the experience, thank you.

The giant bag of cashews in the freezer was a happier discovery. First, I made a nice batch of cashew butter using just the cashews and a little salt. Like I said, easy in the cuisinart – just plug your ears until the ground nuts slowly begin to release their oils and turn into a paste. The longer you let it run, the creamier it becomes.

Hannah and I have a rule in the house – if someone cooks, the other person has to do the dishes. Exceptions are my special cooking projects, which have been known to dirty every dish in the kitchen without producing anything edible – like when I try to make bread.

Unfortunately, my dear sweetheart doesn’t have a particular fondness for cashews, buttered or not. Since the food processor is notoriously time-consuming and annoying to wash, I knew I had to make something more exciting in it to be able to convince Hannah to wash it for me.

Enter the eggplant. When the late-summer abundance of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes hits, and the daytime temperatures start dropping, I love tossing everything in olive oil and roasting it in the oven. Roasting is to vegetables what grinding in the food processor is to nuts!

This recipe happened when I threw roasted eggplant and some other veggies in with a new batch of cashew butter to make a sweet, spicy, creamy and delicious spread. Although the recipe is not exact, I have attempted to record what I did!

Roasted Eggplant Cashew Butter

for roasting:
1 eggplant
1 sweet pepper
1 spicy pepper
1 bulb garlic
olive oil

for the butter part:
1/2 c cashews1/2 to 1 lemon, juiced
1 T Spike (seasoning available at health food stores, or salt)
1 T cumin
3 branches of fresh oregano
1/2 bunch of parsley

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Halve the eggplant and rub with olive oil. Place cut side down in a baking sheet or pan. Leave the peppers whole, rub with olive oil and add them to the pan. Remove the outer skin of the garlic bulb and chop off the very tips of the cloves. Roast the whole garlic bulbs in the pan or them wrap in foil.
Throw the roasting pan in the oven. Turn the peppers when blackened on the top side. Once all the skin is black, the cooled peppers can be easily skinned. Roast the eggplant until the insides are very soft – at least 20 minutes. The garlic will be ready after about 30 minutes.

When cooled, remove the skin and the seeds from the peppers. Remove the top from the eggplant. Squeeze the uncut end of the garlic to release the roasted garlic “meat”. Set the roasted veggies aside.

Put the cashews in the food processor and let ‘er rip. When the butter is creamy, stop. Add the lemon juice, Spike, herbs and cumin. Add the roasted vegetables.

Enjoy on crackers, as a sandwich spread, as a pasta sauce or by itself.

Cashew tree picture from somewhere on the internet

Cashew fruits on a cashew tree. The nuts are in the cashew-shaped appendage below the red fruits.

Sidebar: Cashews are a pretty weird nut. They grow on trees like walnuts or almonds, but the tree is actually considered a fruit tree. It grows in the tropics only – which is why all the cashews you can buy at the grocery store come from Brazil, India, Africa or Southeast Asia.

The stem of the cashew fruit grows to be larger than the fruit itself, and is actually edible. People in the tropics grow them for this part of the fruit and leave the nut part alone. In fact, they avoid it at all costs. Why?
The cashew-shaped fruit, which contains the seed which is the cashew nut we eat, is filled with a caustic liquid that can actually burn holes in your skin and – if you manage to eat it – your gut. Workers have to wear goggles, protective gloves and clothing to harvest the fruit and roast it, which must be done outdoors because the smoke created is also damaging to the lungs.
I can see why Hannah doesn’t like them. She did, however, love the eggplant-cashew butter. And the food processor was washed without protest.

September 16, 2012

Food Cycles Bicycle Tour: Literally, a revolution.

Hello, blog readers.

Since 2007, you’ve been reading on this blog about how backwards, out of control, inside-out, unsustainable, inequitable and outrageous our global food system has become.

This platform has been my way of speaking up, of questioning the accepted truths about where our food comes from and where it goes, and of sharing my personal experiences on the ground, first in India and now around North America.

At one point, I described the mission of this blog “to be a quiet voice in the corner for more sensible food policy and to endorse the consumption of edible flowers”.

Sure, quiet has its place. For the past two years, my partner Hannah and I have been quietly working our service-industry jobs while also quietly working at NettleEdge Farm. We’ve been quietly talking to people about why they should ride their bikes more and depend on their cars less; quietly, we’ve been advocating for sustainable communities and an end to consumerism. And we’ve been quietly outraged that America just hasn’t been listening to us.

We will be quiet no more. We are going to speak louder, yell if we have to, gain some attention, and start spreading what we’ve learned here in Eugene, Oregon to the rest of the country. And we’re going to get there on our bicycles.

Here’s the plan: We leave in December 2012 from the Oregon coast. We’ll travel five months, across the southern half of the US, and arrive in Boston, Massachusetts. From there, we’ll take the train back home. We’ll carry only what fits in the two bags on the back of our bikes. Using the WWOOF program, we’ll stay at farms along the way, where we can work for the good, organic food that will power us across the continent. These farms will be our mileposts, from the cranberry bogs of the Oregon coast to the plantations of the South. Along the way, we’ll write and blog about our experience, we’ll talk to people from all walks of life, and do what we can to draw attention to this small act of defiance.

What can you do? Follow our blog, foodcyclesbiketour.blogspot.com, and share it with your friends. Become a food cycler by reducing your weight on the global energy system – bike more, buy locally, and challenge yourself to source as much food as possible from your own backyard.

This new project will be my focus for the next eight months or so, and I probably won’t be posting here on my Tuulips blog. I do anticipate doing a lot of writing from the road, however. You can find it all at the Food Cycles Blog.

Over the years, I’ve put in many hours researching and writing posts to share here on my personal blog. The idea has been to provide an alternative to shallow food writing as well as guilt-driven, finger-pointing environmental journalism.

If you’ve enjoyed my efforts and my style and ever felt like you should be doing something to support my writing, now’s your chance. This trip will provide more fodder for blog posts than I’ll ever catch up on, but I’ll try. To make it possible, Hannah and I have launched a fundraising campaign for Food Cycles on Indiegogo. If you prefer, you can also contact us to contribute directly. Either way, you’ll be helping us get on the road and spread the good news: That good food doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to obtain. That we don’t have to rely on a global system on the verge of collapse to sustain ourselves. That our sun provides all the energy we need to grow our food and power ourselves, to wherever we want to go.

Thank you for your ongoing support! I look forward to entertaining you with tales from the (bike) saddle.

Tuula

PS Please help us spread the word! Forward this blog post to your own circles. You can also “like” us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FoodCyclesBikeTour

Or follow me on Twitter: @TuulaRebhahn

August 2, 2012

Homestyle Gringa Tamales!

On August 13th, River Road Community Organization, of which I am a part, is hosting a Tamale Fiesta (follow that link for details). The idea is to bring neighbors together and improve our culinary skills by learning and teaching how to make tamales.

I volunteered to help organize the event, and I thought it appropriate to try to make some tamales at home before lending my skills (or lack thereof) to others.

The internet abounds with recipes, so I’ll just share my photos from last night’s experience.

To set the scene: My domestic partner was working late, my kitchen was already 85 degrees, not even the cat would hang out with me, but I did have some beer in the fridge and a some speakers through which to pump Pandora’s Reggaeton mix.

In my possession: A bag of masa harina (the corn flour which constitutes the tamale dough), a tub of lard (the other main ingredient in tamale dough), various cheeses, various garden veggies, and some dried California chilis (chilis pasilla) which my recipe strictly instructed only to handle with gloves.

Not in my possession: gloves.

One hour later:

Prepped tamale ingredients, from left to right: cottage cheese; chopped summer squash, tomato, cilantro, onion and garlic; prunes; masa harina dough; chili sauce; grated cheese; corn husks for wrapping.

Don’t worry, dismantling the chilis and cooking them into sauce didn’t cause my fingers to bleed or anything like that. The sauce actually wasn’t spicy at all. The recipe said just to boil them in hot water awhile and puree. I “gringa-ed” up this boring sauce with some spike, cumin, Tapatio sauce and cilantro. Much better!

Most tamales are made with meat. I’m not a vegetarian but I am a poor-atarian, so I used some veggies I picked up at the farm the day before.

To fill a tamale, all you do is put some masa harina dough down on the corn husk like you’re making a sushi roll. Then you put your other fillings on top, but not too much or you’ll never get the thing shut.

All wrapped up in their little husks. Aren’t they cute?

In my pressure cooker with a rack underneath them, they steamed for an hour. They expanded a little while cooking, but held together pretty well anyway.

Just before they went in my stomach: Tamales with chili/sour cream sauce, home made refried beans and Spanish rice.

The veggies cooked perfectly inside the tamales (the slice of squash in this pic is an escapee). The two cheeses were great together, all cooked into the masa harina dough.

Sweating from steam and improvised Salsa dancing, I sat down to a delicious and satisfying meal. This camera phone picture even speeded the arrival of my dinner partner (and a couple of co-workers). Just in time to wash the enormous pile of dishes.

The end.

 

July 30, 2012

Lacto-Fermented Salsa: Culture for your tomatoes

Here’s one of life’s sad ironies: The rich cultural heritage we inherit from our parents often doesn’t jive with our personal tastes. I’m thinking, of course, mainly of food.
My mom is German, and as a kid I ate a lot of sauerkraut, bratwurst and marzipan, mostly because I didn’t know better.
As an adult, I’ve tried giving the cuisine of my ancestors another chance, but it hasn’t stuck. I may nibble on a bratwurst or marzipan log now and again, but it’s my revulsion to sauerkraut that I know really makes my grandma turn in her grave. The thought of cabbage shredded and pickled, with that crunchy-flaccid texture and mouth-puckering flavor doesn’t just repulse me, it makes me wish I was adopted.
Interesting, because sauerkraut is made using the same basic process as cheese, bread, beer and other foods I know I cannot live without: fermentation. I present to you these Fun Fermentation Facts:

  • Fermentation is the oldest form of food preservation. It’s been around for 10,000 years – since the Stone Age!
  • Fermentation always involves a “culture”, or bacteria that consumes the sugars available in the food being preserved and produces carbon dioxide and sour lactic acid.
  • Coffee and cocoa (chocolate) beans undergo a fermentation process that eats away the slimy layer around the beans before they are roasted. Thank the bacteria for your daily fix!
  • In the Middle Ages in Europe, water was unsafe to drink so most people drank wine or beer. When fermentation occurs, “good” (non-toxic and often beneficial) bacteria win over “bad” bacteria that cause disease.
  • Fermentation is central to many ancient and modern cultures, and these foods are often considered delicacies. The Chinese prize duck eggs that are salted and flavored before being coated in mud and left to ferment for at least a month.

Ok, I take back the thing about wishing I was adopted. Chinese kids have it way worse.
Anyway, I know I may never find my roots in fermented cabbage, but there is another form of fermented vegetable (okay, fruits) that makes my stomach weep tears of joy. I give you…

Lacto-Fermented Salsa.

There are at least three ways of making salsa, that unbeatable combination of tomatoes, onions, peppers and cilantro, each with its own “consume-by” date.

  • Fresh salsa keeps for a few days in the refrigerator.
  • Canned salsa, either store-bought or home made, can last indefinitely on the shelf, but often tastes as much like the fresh version as cherry pie filling tastes like real cherries. Plus, canning your own salsa is steamy, hard work to do in the summertime.
  • Fermentation provides the best of both worlds, preserving salsa in the refrigerator or root cellar for up to six months, long enough for your tomato plants to turn into compost.

This salsa is made using the usual ingredients, with the addition of lactobacillus culture, easy to find in the air or in a carton of yogurt.
An honesty-the-best-policy note: Like most fermented foods, fermented salsa is an acquired taste (although acquirement can happen within seconds), and depending on the stage of fermentation, eating it may feel like chugging a just-opened can of soda. The sour flavor comes from the lactic acid created by the bacteria, who are also responsible for the carbon dioxide bubbles. Personally, I love this fizzy salsa, and even find it addictive. Kids do, too (I discovered the recipe while working at a gardening summer camp).

You’ll need one quart-sized canning jar, clean but not sterilized, and:
4 medium tomatoes, diced
1 onion, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped chili pepper, hot or mild
½ cup chopped bell pepper (optional)
3-6 (or more!) cloves garlic, peeled and minced (optional)
½ c chopped cilantro
1 t dried oregano, or 1 T fresh
juice of 2 lemons
1 T sea salt
4 T whey*, or extra tablespoon salt if whey is not available**
1/4 cup filtered water (unless your tomatoes are really juicy)

  1. Once you have all that stuff:
  2. Combine all ingredients and place in the quart-sized jar.
  3. Press down lightly with a spoon, adding more water if necessary to cover the vegetables. The top of the salsa mixture should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar.
  4. Cover tightly and keep in an undisturbed place in the kitchen. Fermentation time will depend on the room temperature. After two days, you should start to see bubbles, although it may take up to four in cooler climates. Bubbles indicate fermentation is occurring, and the salsa is ready to be eaten or stored in the refrigerator, where fermentation will continue at a much slower rate. Some prefer to leave the salsa out a bit longer to increase bubbly goodness.
  5. Enjoy with tortilla chips!

*Whey is the source of lactobacillus culture. It is simply the liquid that can be found in any yogurt that contains live cultures, such as Nancy’s (use the plain variety). For extra points, use whey from your own yogurt!
**If you can’t find whey, not to worry, lactobacillus cultures will find you. The added tablespoon salt preserves the salsa until wild lactobacillus already present in your salsa is able to multiply and create some fermentation action. However, this method will make your salsa extra salty.

A final note on mold: I know someone will one day successfully sue me for saying this, but it’s not really that scary. If mold grows on your salsa, either before or after you refrigerate it, simply scrape it off and discard. Add more water to ensure that your salsa is covered to prevent mold.

My tomatoes aren’t ripe yet, but when they are, I’ll be dicing and fermenting and waiting for those magical bubbles to appear. As for the cabbage, I’ll take it raw, thank you.

April 3, 2012

Going Nuts: Restoring a Community Food Source

A desire to beautify our open spaces, restore a community-managed resource and secure a uniquely local food supply brought at least 30 volunteers to the hazelnut grove off River Road this Saturday, March 31.

Volunteers cut blackberries and grass from around the hazelnut trees.

It’s been a rough spring, both for Eugenians and for the trees we treasure. A freak snowstorm felled branches around the city and dampened our spirits in advance of a solid two weeks of rain. But Saturday, like a lottery ball with our number on it tumbling down the chute, the sun beat the odds and managed to send down a few warming rays that kept the rain at bay for the afternoon.  I like to think the volunteers would have shown up anyway, but they were especially energetic with the unexpected Vitamin D boost.

Lorna and Oliver from the City of Eugene provided tools – loppers, saws, rakes – and refreshments – coffee, tea, lemonade, Newman’s cookies – to make the job easy. Neighborhood permaculture guru Jan Spencer and a few other well-connected folks brought the man- and woman-power. Some worked in teams, pulling down blackberry vines from top while cutting down tall grass in the middle and digging up invasive root systems from the base of the trees. Unlike some invasive-plant eradication projects I’ve undertaken (as an Oregonian, I have taken a personal oath to destroy unwanted blackberries wherever they may lurk), this one had a distinct and attainable finish. Once we remove all the vines of blackberry and English ivy that are strangling the trees in the grove, we can keep them out with regular pruning and care for the trees themselves.

How does one care for a hazelnut tree? They really don’t require much attention for the bounty they can provide. The trees in this grove will need a healthy initial investment of “sweat equity” to produce a good crop of nuts next fall. Linda Perrine, who grows organic hazelnuts at her Honor Earth Farm and volunteered her expertise in this project, told us that hazelnut trees run on an 18-month cycle. They flower in February (one of the reasons they thrive in our temperate climate), and those flowers don’t grow into nuts until the next summer. That means if we prune and fertilize now, next spring’s flowers will see the benefit, and we’ll have an improved crop of nuts that fall.

The good news is that these 100 or so trees have been producing nuts with little or no human assistance each year for the past 25-30 years, according to Linda’s estimation of the age of the grove. Since the grove is on city land, next to the bike path that runs along the Willamette River, anyone is welcome to harvest the nuts, and they do. Thanks to nature’s aggressive reproductive strategies, the trees are at least producing something, even though they haven’t been cared for since the last work party five years ago.

This fall, I was the lucky recipient of some of those hazelnuts. A friend said she’d picked them up along the bike path, and I didn’t ask for their credentials. If I had, I would have learned about the grove sooner.

The bowl of unshelled hazelnuts (which some people call filberts) has been sitting on my table for the past six months, refilled regularly from our stash. The nut bowl has been a source of nourishment at those moments of hunger but no culinary inspiration or motivation. Hazelnuts are sweet, meaty and satisfyingly crunchy, not to mention a great source of protein. Cracking them with the elegant silver nutcracker is a way to keep our hands busy when we sit around the table in the evening, talking and drinking wine. It’s a source of entertainment when our kitten, Silvia, reaches across the table, hooks a nut out of the bowl with her paw, and careens after it as it flies across the room.

Being new to the neighborhood, I knew we had a depressing deficit of grocery stores, but I never imagined the hazelnut grove where my friend had found these cat toys/treats was so close to home. Turns out I bike by it every week on the way to my goat-milking job, but the city’s only public hazelnut farm was hiding itself amongst a tangle of grass and blackberries. I finally put two and two together when I met Jan Spencer at a neighborhood meeting. We connected about our aspirations for food security in the region, and he told me about the work party happening at the grove.
Pruning just happens to be one of my favorite things to do, and of course I wanted to cultivate this great source of protein as a food source for myself and my neighbors, so there I was this Saturday. After meeting Lorna and some of the crew, I picked a tree and set to work. I lopped. I hacked. I sawed. I yanked blackberry vines like bull whips from tall branches. I did the elbow-crawl through the exposed dirt to follow endless root systems. I met some more neighbors. We received a light sprinkling of rain like a blessing of holy water and then a bit more sunshine. I went home with twigs in my hair and a smile on my face.
About two-thirds of the trees in the grove were released from the under (and over) growth by the end of the day. Before we packed it up, Linda showed us how to prune a tree, picking one to serve as a model for the next work party. We removed about a dozen thin shoots (which she called “suckers”) to leave behind only four straight, strong and healthy trunks. This will put all the tree’s energy into producing nuts on those branches, producing a higher quality and even more bountiful harvest from the next set of flowers.
Pruned hazelnut tree.

Next time, the volunteers hope to finish cleaning up around the trees and work on pruning them. Some of the old trees still have the rotted-out skeleton of the original trunk standing in the middle of the sideshoots. When you cut away enough of those shoots and blackberries to reach the center, you get the satisfying experience of pushing it over. It feels like a food desert falling away, and a multitude of nutritious, home-grown options sprouting up in its place.

To see the rest of Jan’s photos and learn about Suburban Permaculture, go to http://www.suburbanpermaculture.org/

March 2, 2012

Kale & Roasted Potato Salad: Seasonable Satisfaction

Kale Some of us here in the abundant Pacific Northwest attempt to eat locally year-round. A friend from California recently scoffed at this notion. “Kale and potato” diet, she called it, due to the difficulty of finding much else that is local during the long span of winter months.

A recent surge in demand for local produce has enabled many farmers to offer much more than kale and potatoes year round. Still, if you’re on a budget and not a good food horder (in other words, you didn’t spend half your summer sweating over the stove to preserve the bounty), there are a few weeks when the local diet is limited to those hardy winter greens and the tubers that hide out in warm soil.

This is by no means a punishment. Kale and potatoes happen to be culinary compliments any way you slice ‘em – roasted, mashed, cooked in a soup or grated into pancakes. With a little creativity, there is no end to the possibilities, and before you know it, it’s April and you’re feasting on baby asparagus and homegrown arugula.

This is a variation of German potato salad as my mother taught me. Its fans are many and rabid, forcing me to publish the recipe to quiet their clamoring. Roasting the potatoes brings out their fullest flavor, and the yams add unexpected sweetness. It’s the raw kale, of course, that really gives this dish substance and a satisfying chewiness.

Kale and Roasted Potato Salad
serves 8-10

1 T stoneground mustard
¼ c mayo
¼ c sour cream
3 T sugar
1 T capers
juice of half a lemon
Spike or salt
pepper, to taste
red pepper flakes, to taste

6 small Yukon Gold potatoes
2 medium yams
1-2 cups kale, chopped to ¼-inch pieces
1/2  c parsley, chopped finely
1 yellow, orange or red bell pepper, diced
¼ c minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 pickles, finely chopped

Roast the potatoes and yams at 400 F for 30-45 minutes, until soft. Allow 15 minutes to cool, then dice.

Meanwhile, combine the first nine ingredients for the dressing. In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients with the potatoes and yams. Toss with dressing and serve. Better when refrigerated and served the next day, just be sure to bring to room temperature before serving.

February 16, 2012

Redefining Convenience at the Organic Corner Market

The Organic Corner Market on River RoadDown the street from my house, next to the auto body shop and across the road from what my neighbor coyly refers to as the “naughty bookstore” is a small corner market. Now, you may be envisioning a 7-11 or similar joint, a reliable place to find chips, candy, cheap beer, and maybe a jug of milk, but this is a different sort of bodega.

My neighborhood lies between the center and the outskirts of Eugene – sort of a petticoat layer. It’s cut off from the center of town by the railroad tracks and bisected by the busy commercial corridor of River Road, which eventually leads you out of the city and into picturesque farmland where goats may roam. If it weren’t for our corner store, it could probably be called a food desert, especially for the many in the neighborhood who don’t drive.

In this very mixed residential zone, where one neighbor is building his own greenhouse and another distributes literature on the Second Coming, a run to corner market will not yield any kind of processed foods, unless you count locally milled flour. The friendly green building only offers fresh, antioxidant-loaded treats – all locally grown. That’s because this market is supplied by a handful of local food producers, chiefly Sweet Leaf Farm’s Penny Tyrell.

Fresh produce is the ultimate snack food, meal food, and survival food, and it seems that people in my neighborhood agree. Here, Penny literally found a niche in the market to peddle everything from pumpkins to flowers. The Organic Corner Market, as it’s officially known, has also become something of a community gathering spot, a place to carve pumpkins and run into your neighbor when fetching a last-minute item for dinner.

Detroit Fresh Healthy Bodega

Detroit Fresh - Urban convenience store offering fresh produce

While Penny has been building her market in my neighborhood, a Healthy Corner Market movement has been gaining speed across North America. Convenience store owners are tapping into the new market of health-conscious shoppers by offering fresh produce alongside Doritos and Pepsi. It’s hard to tell how many stores are doing it, but the industry is definitely catching on, with a little help from community grants and government programs like WIC, which offers food assistance to low-income mothers.

In Eugene, one organization, the Lane Coalition for Healthy Active Youth, convinced a branch of the local convenience store chain Dari Mart to park a produce truck with fresh veggies in front of one of its stores once a week all summer long. Customers lined up around the corner. Another mini martoff the freeway has been offering fresh, local and organic versions of the typical truck-stop options, to go with its plant-based ethanol and bio-diesel fuel.

The Organic Corner Market isn’t associated with the Healthy Corner Market initiative or any traditional convenience store, but seems to be approaching the quick-stop retail model from the opposite direction. Starting with fresh fruits and vegetables, it grew to offer a selection of locally produced foods like tuna, grain products and bread, plus flowers, seeds, and seedlings. It’s more than a farm stand, but not a place to find condoms and cigarettes, either.

The Organic Corner Market in February

The Organic Corner Market in February

I got hooked on the Corner Market this summer when I first moved to the neighborhood. Having the best quality organic produce a two minutes’ walk from my kitchen was a luxury I’d never experienced before, and I dreaded the onset of winter more than usual. When October rolled around, I casually asked the guy behind the counter when the market would close for the season. With kind matter-of-factness, he informed me, “We don’t really close.”

“What?” I said. “How will you keep this up?” I indicated the bins of fresh salad greens, ripe tomatoes, crisp apples and bright flowers.
He just smiled mysteriously. “We’ll be closed for the holidays, but we plan to open back up in January.”

Honestly, I didn’t really believe him. Come December, the market looked as deserted as my garden beds. I settled myself in for a long winter of trekking downtown or up River Road to the chain supermarket for groceries.

I wasn’t giving local farmers enough credit. In mid-January, I spotted the Corner Market’s colorfully hand-painted sandwich board sign out by the road. I went in immediately, not sure what to expect. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the garage-like structure, I started seeing food, and a decent amount of it. Greens, leeks, carrots, squash, garlic, potatoes, and the locally milled grains they started carrying this summer. Penny was behind the counter.
“This your first week back?” I asked.
“Nope. Third.”
“Wow,” was all I could say. Then I started picking out some thick, gorgeous leeks to take home.

I came back the next week to chat with Penny more (they’re just open on Wednesdays for now, more days as the season progresses). Penny sorts winter squash as I chat with her. Very moldy ones go in a box for compost. Slightly moldy in a different box for the cook at the local Mission, who is a big fan of her produce.
“Last summer, he took an entire box of wilted basil, pureed it, and put it in his freezer,” she says. “I asked him if he could use any more; he said he’d take all I’ve got.”

That’s the general neighborhood attitude toward the market, now in its fourth year. The fact that they’re out here in the middle of winter selling whatever they can grow speaks both to the strength of the local market and Penny’s dedication to her customers.

“I live here. I’m into it.” In fact, Penny lives right around the corner from the Market. Her 40-acre farm is a few miles up River Road. Although Sweet Leaf Farm sells produce at several farmers’ markets in the region, she has an obvious preference for selling at the Corner Market.

It all started, she tells me, with pumpkins.

Organic Corner Market pumpkins

Organic Corner Market pumpkins. It takes a neighborhood to carve an army of disembodied gourd-heads.

Pumpkins are a challenge for truck farmers like Penny. They’re big, difficult to move, and people don’t pay a lot of money for them. But Penny’s a pumpkin fan, especially when it comes to carving them. One day in the fall of 2008, she pulled a truck full of pumpkins into the empty parking lot across from the adult shop, and people began buying them. The owners of the lot eventually allowed her to store some produce on site, which eliminated the hassle of moving the heavy squash to and fro. Penny decided to move in for good.

“The people who run the adult shop were my first customers,” Penny says with a smile. She traded with other neighbors for most of the work on her building. The window installer, the concrete pourer, the painter – they all got fresh produce, and she now has an eye-catching green building that has become a local landmark.

On a summer evening, it’s easy to find friends and neighbors shopping at the Corner Market, and she stays open late around Halloween for people to stop by and carve a pumpkin, building the massive display in the parking lot.

Penny’s plans include building a stage in the lot for summer concerts and to and expand her selection to better cater to “produce emergencies”.
“What’s that?” I ask, envisioning a soup flood or carrot in the eye.
“You know, when you run out of garlic or something.”

Regional suppliers are ready to meet the demand for fresh food, emergency or otherwise. Already, Penny offers tuna from a fish processor on the Oregon coast, seeds from Peace Seeds, grains from Camas Country Mill, and specialty produce from various growers. The bread is made at Sweetwater Farm and has been such a big hit that I’ve never seen it on the shelf – it sells out within the hour.

Supply has been matching demand. Penny doesn’t do any marketing because word of mouth is enough.
“The people that want it, know about it,” she says with a smile. “The people who stumble upon it, love it.”

About two miles up River Road, Dari Mart sells malt liquor at $1.39 per 22 oz bottle, and though they do stock local milk (not hard to do in Oregon), produce hasn’t yet made it onto the shelves. On the Healthy Corner Market website, convenience store owners in several case studies cited customer demand as a key reason they began stocking fresh produce. In an urban – or suburban – food desert, even a few apples or salad greens can make a big difference to those with limited shopping options. For me, it’s great comfort to know I’ll never be out of garlic as long as Penny and her fellow growers are down the street.

January 27, 2012

Can’t Buy Me Local: Worktrading for a food revolution

Back in 2006, Michael Pollan wrote a little book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma and a movement was born. Everyone wanted to eat local and organic food, and those who could afford it, did. In the past few years, farmers’ markets have taken off, kids started to dream about being farmers when they grew up, and a certain segment of the populace bought “Eat Local” tote bags and started shelling out $5 for a bunch of carrots.

On the backs of that movement rode the do-it-yourself locavores, the victory gardeners, the Michelle Obama crowd of herb pots and backyard chickens. Meanwhile, the trust fund kids started taking unpaid positions on farms on their summer breaks, reveling in fresh air, barn dances, and home made sauerkraut. Then most of them graduated, realized that there’s still no money in farming despite our nationwide romanticism for the lifestyle, and found jobs as fry cooks.

I’ll admit to being privileged enough to have spent time in both groups. Then I graduated, and after working a few seasonal jobs, was thankful to find regular work as an institutional cook. I’m very glad I have a job, but being part-time excludes me from the $5 carrot group these days. I’ve always rented and move too often to have a very productive garden. Luckily, I landed on a viable scheme to eat well without paying for it, and get my farming kicks in, too. Since, in the past three years, both the tote-baggers and college grads are finding the locavore dream more and more difficult to carry out, it may be a scheme to consider.

This Thursday found me, like most Thursdays do, squeezing the goats out at NettleEdge Farm. Since last spring, I’ve been coming to this sprawling homestead about once a week to do a few hours of work in exchange for goat milk, eggs, veggies, seeds and whatever else comes out of the earth or animals.

The farm is kept by Rachel and Keith Debuse, their son Keagan, and resident garlic expert George with help from a few others. Located just north of town in that nether region between suburb and country – an estate home on one lot, a Christmas tree farm on the next – the place is chaotic but comfortable. Decades of accumulated farm equipment, inherited from Keith’s family, rusts in nests of blackberry vines. Compost heaps dot the farmyard, protected from the destructive claws of chickens with makeshift fences held together with baling twine. Goats destroy everything, so their sheds are practically coming apart at the seams despite constant repair.

In other words, it’s a paradise, greener and quieter than the busy street I live on. Dogs and poultry run free. Nobody cares where you throw your apple core or park your wheelbarrow. And there’s nothing more beautiful than the family’s army-feeding garden and trees laden with pears, figs, plums and nuts from summer through fall.

My Thursday morning routine at NettlEdge is simple and rejuvenating – clean up after the goats, feed ‘em, milk ‘em, scratch ‘em behind the ears, find more food for them to eat. In the summer, it’s sweet-smelling grass that we cut by hand from the field, or blackberry vines, a goat delicacy. In the winter, it’s chopped up squash, garlic tops, cabbage greens, and hay, all grown on site. (In addition to goat food, the farm produces an excellent garlic crop, which they sell at the Kiva market in Eugene.)

What’s in it for me? I can never decide if the sanity or the sustenance is more valuable. I frequently bike the six miles to the farm along the Willamette River, my head full of worries and confusion on the way there, singing a song and plotting an elaborate lunch for myself on the way back. Although the goat-caretaking routine is easy on the surface, every day I learn something new about their diet and personalities under the watchful eye of Rachel, the unequivocal Goat Mistress.

Of course, there are more tangible forms of payment involved, and it’s a good thing, too. Even though I’m always glad when I get there, it would be hard a lot of days for me to drag myself out of bed and out into the rain without that literal carrot dangling in front of my nose. Instead of a taxed-to-death pay check, I participate in a form of bartering known as a worktrade – trading work for farm product.

At first, Rachel and I were fairly exacting when we measured out my time for her goods. Raw, fresh, organic goat milk goes for about $15/gallon in these parts. It was mine for an hour and half’s work. Another half hour, a carton of eggs. Etcetera. After we got to know each other, however, the employer/employee dynamic slowly shifted toward that between trusted friends, and the things we offer each other have become more elemental than work and food.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to come up with this scheme. Bartering (the exchange of a good or service for another good or service) predates currency; it probably even predates language and culture. A few hundred years ago, taxes were paid in sheaves of wheat; a hundred years ago, doctors and accountants would accept a few chickens or a share of a pig in exchange for their services. Those people were probably smarter than us. Every time a tangible good or service is converted to cash, some of its intrinsic value is lost, pocketed by the trader. Cash traded for goods also drops a bit of that value. Sure, cash is more convenient. But convenience is a luxury that fewer people can afford these days.

Food, especially good food, is expensive. It’s expensive because a whole lot of time and energy go into producing it. Right now in this country, unemployment hovers around 9% of the population (nationally, it’s 8%).  In other words, 9% of the population, and probably more, has an excess of energy and time. Granted, a good chunk of those people, for one reason or another, don’t have the capacity to convert that time and energy into work, but if you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you do. I’m also guessing that most of the farmers in your area are starving for time and energy. You can put it together from here.

There are plenty of reasons to worktrade, and the more I do it, the more I find. First off, thanks to the connective power of the internet, good arrangements are easier to locate. I found Rachael and her goats by posting an ad on craigslist one day, lonesome for the goats I left behind at my first farming job. I posted my request to worktrade for milk in the “barter” section, and a friend of Rachel’s spotted it and emailed me. After interviewing each other, we went to work, and we haven’t looked back.

After spending some time trading this way, I began to see the act of the barter unfolding constantly around me – needs and wants implicitly stated and filled. The goats, in exchange for food, shelter and backscratches, give us milk, meat and manure, which is traded in on the field for vegetables, which in turn shared amongst the human and non-human herds on the premises. Plants need the opportunity to propagate themselves; we want their seeds, fruits, leaves and roots. When I first began worktrading, replacing cash with other items of value felt strange to me. Now it’s the social construction of money that seems unnatural.

Bartering is the only economic exchange that enables both parties involved to feel like they’re getting a good deal. It’s not always practical, but when it is, it’s possible to trade one good for another and for both of you to walk away better for the exchange. When cash is involved, intrinsic value is lost. The value of money itself is completely reliant on your ability to get a good deal on something else. Standard retail markup is 60%.

So for the individual with a wealth of time and talent but few “job” opportunities, what options exist to begin converting that energy into sustenance?

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a loose organization of farmers and farm workers around the world. WWOOFers receive housing and/or food at farms in exchange for a few hours’ work per day. Farms are listed online, but you must first pay a membership fee to see what sites are available in your area. It’s usually used by people traveling through, not locals in search of an ongoing worktrade relationship.

I worked under a similar program in British Columbia the summer after graduating college. At Collins Farm, I worked for food, housing, and education – a crash-course in organic farming and making a small family farm survive. Here in Eugene, I’ve worktraded for workshops, rent, and art, doing everything from painting walls to writing. A local organization called Emerald Valley Time Exchange helps people connect to others for trading services (you mow my lawn, I’ll walk your dog). I’ve never used it, but it sounds like a good resource.

It’s not just here in progressivesville that worktrading is accepted practice. The site BarterQuest allows you to trade your skills for items, or items for items, or skills for skills. I couldn’t find any farmers on there, and most people seem to do things remotely (across the US), but it could be a good model for a more local resource. I just joined BarterQuest, and will post if anything exciting happens.

Recently, I brought my friend Cynthia with me on a Thursday morning. A “recovering” vegan, she tried her first sip of real milk and swooned. We spent the trip back to town brainstorming ways to help her find a similar worktrade arrangement. Like me, she works part time, and she isn’t already part of the farming community. She doesn’t have farming experience, but is willing to learn.

What resources exist for people like Cynthia? Unfortunately, there’s no one stop shop, and maybe there should be. An online resource that connects farmers to people willing to commit themselves to a steady worktrade, for free, could do a lot to empower disadvantaged people in our community and relieve the food insecurity that faces a third of the population here (according to Food for Lane County). Farmers would benefit from having one or two committed laborers who are invested in the land for reasons beyond dollar bills or this year’s trend in summer jobs.

A wider adoption of farming worktrades could be an effective way to buck agrobusiness and make real food part of our lives again. Working for food does have its limitations, for individuals and for businesses, but long before the word “locavore” was invented, everyone was one. In times of economic instability, barter was trusted over the going currency. What do we have to lose?

Had a great experience WWOOFing or worktrading for food or anything else? Want to launch a foodtrade site? Let me know via the comments section or email. Thanks!

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