finding balance: wild cultivations

backberries, hemlock, weeds, farmthistle blooms, weeds, farm, thistlesamaranth, weeds, farmbindweed, morning glory, weeds, farmdock, weeds, farmlamb's quarter, weeds, edible weeds, farmThis week, in the back of my mushy brain, hot from long hours in warm weather weeding, weeding, weeding, this was my recurring thought, “why not go into the edible/medicinal weed business????”

I mean, seriously, these plants GROW! They clearly are the top in their class and need no help from us to flourish.

And not only are they really the best at growing vigorously, they are the best at harnessing nutrients and making them available to us. That whole thing about the narrowing of our food system to those forty or so vegetables you will find at our market booth or at the supermarket brings with it a two-fold problem, the first being this limited variety of foods we now eat.  But the other, more serious problem is that in the process of really cultivating these certain crops from spindly, wild, weeds into the nice, big, tasty vegetables we eat today, we lost, in comparison, the amount of nutrition we get from doing the right thing and eating all of our veggies.

I, for one, don’t get too hung up on this.  The fact is, we are where we are in history, and we can’t go back, we can only go forward.  That is what we try to do here on the farm.  And I also know from our own experience that not all of the wild edibles we have played around with eating can qualify as much more than survival food.  They just aren’t that exciting.  Still, I appreciate the wisdom of “weeds”, and have come to love and use many of them for both their taste and their nutritive/healing properties.  That strong, earthy taste you get from nettles and lamb’s quarters (bottom photo) is the taste, literally, of earth.  Those plants are just made of minerals.

And much like the vegetables we grow, which I see as both the best tasting foods for our plates and as important elements of our heath and well-being (hello my delicious daily vitamins!), some weeds are like this times one hundred.

Take the weeds I put in a jar of vinegar many weeks ago, to have on hand as a potent calcium supplement.  Most of these things I was weeding out of my landscape beds already, like yellow dock, plantain, red clover, dandelion, and burdock.  Others were from my herb garden, all of them planted last fall, so just itching to be put to use–Japanese mugwort, comfrey, wormwood.  I threw in some raspberry leaf.  I was given the idea by a friend, and it seemed like such a good use for these plentiful plants.

What ended up as a surprise, though, was that this vinegar, which I made to use medicinally ended up tasting amazing.  It is absolutely delicious.   We use it to make all of our salad dressings now.  Who knew, right?!

So as I weeded the seemingly monstrous invasion of some kind of amaranth in a section of one our fields this week, my joke was that the weed business was, truly, the business to be in.  And joke, though it was, we are almost ready to harvest one of the only other wild edibles besides nettles that we bring to market next week, its relative, lamb’s quarters.  It is, right now, a love/hate relationship.

Still, this subject has always fascinated me.  One of our goals on this farm is to nourish our land so that it can produce the most nourishing food possible.  But that the wild edible plants–the weeds–will always have be more nourishing fascinates me.  It also, thankfully, gives me a chance to pause and appreciate that in this somewhat constant glitch in of our system, the weeds, I can see the amazing beauty and design that is the natural world.  It reminds me that we, as land stewards and sustainable farmers, can utilize and mimic it, even if it is something we can’t fully recreate.

Because, in the end, we weeded like crazy this week.  We have our own agenda, and as pretty as those bindweed flowers are, that we have let them bloom is not great.  That they are climbing up our sweet, modern apple trees is not great.  They are not welcome here, on this farm.  At least in our fields.

And the agricultural mind has to feel this way, has to do this, even if we, on this farm, aim more for balance than anything.   The shifting and shaping of things towards our will is a part of farming.  We are amplifying what we what from any given piece of land, in terms of yield, by a lot.  We are doing the dictating.

So, some weeds, yes, we will take and use.  This is an area that I really do want to learn as much as I can about.  But, good lord, some of these weeds, though I appreciate them for their tenacity, their demise is the first thing I think about when I wake up.  There is much weeding to be done, always, at this time of year.  We have to work more than it seems like we have time to right now to get where we need to be.

But soon, the tiny plants we’ve put in the ground will be the vigorously growing ones, blooming.  And then, producing, wildly!  That they need a little help from us now is just part of the bargain we’ve struck with them.  The agreement of cultivation.  Of growing food.  And this has its own sense of beauty and design, even if its one best kept to by some really hard work on our part.  We keep our end of the bargain sewed to the seams of our dirty pants, our well worn, tired, and exhausted bodies, and our scratched and soar hands.  It evens out in the end, and I think this approach is a good balance for our times.  It’s our kind of growing wild.

Food for thought

A neighbor brought this over for us this week, and I couldn’t help sharing.

I especially like numbers 1-4. Five and six seem like tenets everyone pretty much holds dear, right?  And no one wants to waste food.

But I like that the US Food Administration is promoting these two things when it comes to the nation and food:  thoughtfulness and local buying (not sure when the “and Drug” was added but found this interesting as well and will have to do some research when I am not buried in children with colds, holidays, birthdays, and spring farm work).

Supermarkets and fast food make it so easy to not have to think about what’s for dinner.  And even those of us who give a lot of our attention to what we eat and where it comes from have those nights when we hit dinner-time wishing we didn’t have to think about it (Don’t we?  At least I still do on “those” nights).  My point being, the allure of easy and mind-less is there even for the diligent.

I feel the burden of all the thought I put into how we eat every time I go to the grocery store.  Local, Organic, non-GMO, non-processed…and for us gluten and dairy and soy free…and meat we really only want to get at farmer’s market or from our farm–it isn’t easy to make these choices today simply because they are not the choices everyone is making.

Not the majority of consumers.  Not the supermarkets or fast food chains (even though the marketing is there).  And not the US Food and Drug administration.

If they were, our food culture would look much different.  And easy and thoughtful would coincide beautifully with one another.

Free trade, globalism, commodities, and large-scale meat production are where most of our federal government’s food policy energy goes.  A lot of things have changed in the last 100 or so years apparently.

But there is hope.  And I do hope that we all can be a part of bringing some things on that list back to the front of people’s minds when they are thinking about what to eat.

Food.  Buy it with thought.  Cook it with care. 

Buy local.

(And in my opinion and that of the 1917 US Food Administration, you should also consider using less wheat and unethically raised meat).

At Market this Week: Nettles!

There are a few items we choose to bring to market that we wild harvest from our property because they are delicious(most importantly) , super nutritious (like out of this world nutritious), and also (very kindly) fill seasonal growing gaps for us.  We do “cultivate” these wildings, clearing the areas where they grow or maintaining stands of them specifically for harvest, and we are always thankful to have such an abundance of them when we do.  In the early spring, when our over wintered vegetables are well harvested and new plantings are young, we are blessed with fresh growing nettles, perfect for nettle pesto and just in time to start getting the farmer’s body ready to battle pollen season.  In the summer, we harvest lamb’s quarters, a non-bitter tasting green that thrives in warm weather when our spinach has called it quits until fall and the kale has reached its height of “summer” flavor (not at all as sweet as in the colder months).

We never harvest a ton of these, but they are always a hit.  Some people already know how good they are for you and appreciate the chance to eat these nutritional powerhouses.  Other customers love their taste and will request them again and again.  We enjoy them in their season, and making nettle pesto is something we do every year.  It was the first recipe we tried the first time we ate nettles, back in the wilds of Colorado, with the encouragement of an old friend who not only gave us a taste for wild harvested weeds and king boletes, but also inadvertantly planted the seeds of our future–he had just returned to Colorado from the Pacific Northwest where he was working on a farm and we had many lively conversations with him about farming and this neck of the woods.

I was hesitant then, but the pesto was delicious and didn’t sting a bit.  We love it so much that we rarely make anything else with our nettles, aside from drying them for  tea.  But they really can  be used like any other cooking green, braised and finished with a bit of lemon juice or rice wine vinegar, or added to soups or sauteed and tossed with pasta.  But this is important–they must be cooked!  Between the soaking and washing we give them, and some cooking, even a light steaming, they will be sting free; but handling them out of the bag from our market stand with your hands will give you small stings.  We just dump them from the bag into the pan and steam them until they wilt, then cool them and proceed to make our pesto.  This blanching preserves their nice bright green color too.

We have always been fascinated by the high levels of nutrients in wild plants, so much higher than those cultivated by humans, even plants cultivated with as much love and care and attention to soil health as we give our plants.  This is one of the reasons we really attempt to mimic nature as much as is possible, keeping it as our growing model in as is applicable to our very human endeavor.  Nettles are really high in many minerals, including iron, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, and nettles are often used to help with anemia.  I personally use them as a general blood builder and as a concentrated source of minerals during pregnancy and while nursing (though please speak with your health care provider before using if you are pregnant or nursing!) and for the kids.  They help lesson your bodies immune response to allergens, and the farmer uses them in the early spring to help prevent or lessen his immune response to pollens later in the season.

This nettle season, encouraged by a friend and our own gut feeling, we are going to try to eat nettles even more than we normally do.  They are recommended to help protect the body from radiation, and just in case we are coming into contact with more unfriendly radiation than we want, we will be trying out some different ways to cook nettles this year. Either way, we feel extra thankful to have such an abundance of this healthful and tasty green this spring.  Head out to the woods and wild forage some for yourself if you are feeling adventurous, or if you want to keep it simple, stop by our market booth at The Market this month and grab a bag.  Either way, enjoy the tastes of spring both wild and tame!

Staying Healthy

I spent most of this week on the farm tending to fevers and sore heads, throats, and tummies. As terrible as that sounds, the farmer was better by day 3, the kids each after 1 or 2 days. We made lots of chicken soup from Kookoolan Farms’ birds with lots of veggies to make a rich, healthy, and healing broth. We sipped tea with some of the elderberry syrup we made at summer’s end for just such occasions, and we took hot baths and rested. In the end, we were happy that it was over quickly and that it wasn’t too bad.

We tend to look to food for our vitamins and minerals and medicines, and I feel blessed to be able to continue to eat fresh, nutritious vegetables through the fall and winter, times when our bodies are called on to fight off the colds and flus that come during this time of year. All growing vegetables and fruits begin to lose nutritive value once they have been picked, and they also will not reach their maximum nutritive value if they are picked under ripe to make it through shipping and handling to stores far and wide. And although each season offers its own set of repeating foods, we hope that with your CSA share you notice a rainbow of colors, from dark leafy greens to bright orange carrots and squash, with red, cream, purple, and white roots. All of these provide a well balanced supply of various vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. There are, no doubt, always many pieces to the pictures of our health, and colds and flus are hard to avoid, but I hope that you are staying well and enjoying the bit of natural medicine the healthy and tasty produce we share together provides!

Looking forward

Greens, greens, greens!! There are a lot of greens in your share today, in true spring veggie style. Everything we are harvesting right now until the first spring planted radishes are ready (next week?!?) was planted last year in July, August, and September!! This is very exciting to us, to even have so much fresh food to eat in this season. Still, as we actually plan for next winter/early spring harvests at the beginning of the year rather than committing to growing year round in the middle of summer like we did last year, we are happy to be able to plan for potatoes and celery root for these harvests next year when they need to be planted rather than way past too late. With a grain restricted diet, we miss starchy root veggies to round out our meals. Still, on the menu last week with the veggies that your share included we had so many great and filling and more than sustaining farm meals. Goat and barley soup with leek tops, salad mix with nettle pesto, vinaigrette, and chopped hazelnuts, braised rack of goat and sauteed rapini, pizzas with nettle pesto and sheep’s feta and with olive oil, caramelized leeks, rapini, and Parmesan, coconut red beans and rice with baby perpetual spinach, oil and vinegar, and feta, falafel and chard cakes, rice noodles with kale, locally fished tuna, and buttery leeks. Spring eating is great, and now that we are harvesting again, and we are on the road to new crops, our own veggie intake gets to go up as we no longer have to wait to pick at the greens we have been wanting to grow more. Greens upon greens on our table, yeah!

But the season will move on, and we have to grow different greens and some not at all in the heat of summer, so we enjoy their sweetness and abundance now! Some of you have asked about what will be coming through the summer so that you can plan your own growing spaces, so this is one thing to consider. We don’t tend to harvest kale, arugula, or mustard and Asian greens in the summer, although you will have them through June, but we will continue to harvest chards and lamb’s quarters in the greens department. Traditionally, we have given out salad mix, which goes through minor transformations through the seasons, every week. We aren’t planning on doing this for 2009 even though our salad mixes have been called the best by many of you (thank you!). We do plan on giving out more heads of different, beautiful varieties of lettuce, and one or the other for each week is the goal. If you are a big salad eating family, please talk with us about adding a bag of salad mix to your regular share. By doing it just for those who have come to really want this every week, we can save some harvest time (our salad mix is very labor intensive). We are growing a lot and multiple varieties of these crops: beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions, beans, winter squash, tomatoes, and peppers. We are growing the same delicious Italian zucchini we did last year along with a Lebanese variety, some heirloom crooknecks and patty pan summer squashes, and will have loads of these and straight slicing Marketmore cucumbers. The spring will bring radishes and snow and snap peas. We will have pickling cucumbers and canning tomatoes available for u-pick, half price for CSA members. You can also pick cherry tomatoes and a bouquet of cut flowers near the house at your veggie pick up on us, our way to show our appreciation for your support and to make the drive (on top of the veggies) worth the while!

We are going to try to grow small watermelons and muskmelons in a hot spot on the farm with a constant supply of safe greywater in an attempt to get a harvest at least for the family, perhaps to share with members if they would like, but not to sell. Melons like it hot, and they like a lot of water, and to this point we haven’t had any ripe ones in Oregon, but we know it is possible, so we are working on it! Our apple trees may produce this year, but whether it will exceed family needs and suitable for the CSA or only be enough for a market crop has yet to be seen. Our first planting will be three years old, our second, just two, some only one year old, so yields will still be small. That is it on the fruit front for now, our kids will likely eat all the strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries we get this year!

Our whole eggplant planting failed in the greenhouse this year, so we are purchasing just 50 organic eggplant starts from a Beaverton farm this year. Eggplant isn’t a heavy producer here in Oregon, so this will likely only translate to one or two weeks of eggplant harvests for the CSA. If you love eggplant, this would be a good one to put in your home garden. We also will not be growing any sweet corn for fresh eating. This could be the subject of a whole other newsletter since we have many things factoring into this decision. We grow only open-pollinated varieties, and this in and of itself makes fresh corn difficult. OP sweet corn is perfect for harvesting in about a one day window and then good for eating in about a one day window. This is hard for scheduled harvesting and weekly boxes. We also have a neighbor who grows genetically modified corn, so we have been unsure about growing open- pollinated corn for fear of cross-pollination. Now we have gotten variety and plant dates from our neighbor, selected a corn variety that will pollinate within the safe 3 week distance from the GM corn, but it will be for drying, and we will be using a lot of this for supplemental chicken and pig feed. However, we will also batch grind some for cornmeal and polenta for our family, and maybe for the winter CSA! We know that sweet corn is good, but it is also water intensive, space intensive, and poor on the nutritional scale, so this is where we are going with corn. We always buy or receive a few meals worth from other local farmers, and encourage you to enjoy this summer treat from Farmer’s Market or from you own garden! We are growing some Cannellini beans this year too, for fresh shelling and dry beans!

Of course, it is hard for us to know what this will translate to given our last two years…we have had problems with certain crops each year. Yet, there are a lot of things that make us feel more confident that all of these crops will be on our tables in abundance. We have learned so, so, so much in the last two years. So much of when we were just large scale home gardeners hasn’t translated, but we feel like we are learning a lot of what will make us great market gardeners. We now see that as we work to build and build healthy soil and bio-diversity to ultimately deal with pest pressure and plant health, we have to use things like row covers, trap crops, and nettle brew in the foliar sprayer pro-actively to fight pests, and that we have to add to the soil organic fertilizing amendments (compost, granular, and fish emulsion for the greenhouse and transplants). These are intermediate ways to help with the problems, not long term solutions nor our long term goals. Still, we love carrots just as much as all of you (who doesn’t!) and we want at least most of what we plant to be beautiful and harvestable. So this year, we feel like the crops we say and plan to have, we will, and that is a good place to be this year!