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Archive for the ‘farmers’ markets’ Category

I was making some buckwheat crepes to wrap around some mushroom stroganoff the other night. I made it with soured cream from my raw milk share, as suggested a while back – it wasn’t a hit with John, but I liked it a lot. I had just purchased eggs from the food co-op, not the eggs I normally get but those from another farm nearby (they were on sale and I was curious). I cracked three eggs into the buckwheat flour, and here’s what I got:

Five yolks! The next day I cracked open three more when I was making pasta for some delicious delicious lasagna. Double yolks again! I know I have some readers with ducks/chickens/other fowl. Is this uncommon? Why on earth are there so many double yolks in my eggs? I’m not complaining, just curious.

I’ve not been posting much because, sadly, my MSU boss informed me that no information from the farmers’ market vendor study should be made public. Damn. It’s been going wonderfully, I’ve seen 5 farms so far, and it’s all so exciting – I wish I could share it with you, but as Jim told me, it would be a breach of the confidentiality agreement our farmers have signed. It makes sense, but I’m sad. I do, however, feel comfortable talking briefly about my own impressions of the farms in general.

The only farm I’ve ever worked on, and the only farm I’ve had any really close contact with, was the Flying J farm in Johnstown, Ohio. It was only in its fifth year, begun by a retired evangelical christian aviation professor. He wasn’t in it for the money – he was already quite well off. He let me take care of market sales, and never asked how we did. I can’t imagine he brought in much income, if our market sales were any judge. He wasn’t lazy really, but there was just too much farm for one man of advanced years to handle on his own.

The misconceptions that this experience gave me about farming are quickly unraveling. Farming is fucking hard work. These families push themselves and their budgets to the limit, struggling to keep their operations alive. Even the most commercially successful farms I’ve visited have reinvested all their income into the business, because their business is their life. I’m amazed and humbled by how hard they work to provide me with the food that I so often take for granted. I’m also impressed by how much some of them rely on farmers’ markets, and how skilled most of them are at marketing themselves and their produce. This is an incredible learning experience for me.

In other news, John wanted me to write briefly about his bike. We actually met because of bikes: he had an adorable 1959 Schwinn Tiger. I complimented him on it, and offered to help him fix it up (I’d been learning some basic bike repair that summer in a volunteer bike garage). The rest is history, but we’ve continued learning to repair and restore bikes ever since. He found a beautiful (but abused) old blue Raleigh Sportif for sale a block from our house last summer for $10. Last week he decided he was going to transform it into a tougher, more militant, less baby-blue vehicle, and he’s been working on it incessantly since then. It’s done now – he stripped it, repainted it red and black, removed the derailleur (but not the freewheel – we’re not that hardcore), chopped down the handlebars, and pieced it all back together. It looks incredibly tough, rides like a dream, and I’m impossibly proud of him. I’ve always been the one doing the bulk of the real repairs, and he’s handled the artistic details. This time though, he took it upon himself to learn the real mechanics required to build a bike from nothing, and I hardly helped at all.

When he asked me to write about the bike, I told him, “No, this is a food blog.” But I thought about it for a minute, and realized that bikes belong here too. This project is inspiring me to work more on another bike I have, to fit it with a basket so that I can take it to the farmers’ market and the garden without burning fossil fuels. We’ll ride our beautiful, tough bikes to Old Town and eat amazing brunches at Golden Harvest (a fantastic diner that has a list on its menu of all the local farms and businesses from which they buy their ingredients), building an appetite as we go. So much of my interest in food systems is centered around sustainability, and I love bikes for the same reason. Eating local food, like abandoning motorized vehicles, is a way of creating a closed-loop system, taking away no more than what we’re put ting in. Goes to show me that everything, yes, everything, comes back to food.

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Three years ago today, John found a scrawny young cat running around behind the now-defunct Temple Club. He took her home and the rest is history. He figures she was about a year old at the time, so we’ll call this her fourth birthday. Happy birthday, Pickles. Enjoy your tuna.

I’m back tonight from my very first farm visit. It was really, really, really fun. My boss Jim and I drove an hour south to Ceresco, home of Cinzori Farm. We spent a couple of hours talking with Anthony (son) and Don (father) Cinzori, walking around their enormous enormous farm and talking about the farm history and their current marketing strategy. Don is a first generation farmer, formerly a tool and die maker for Ford in Detroit. When his youngest daughter was a year old, he decided to give up on the auto industry before it gave up on Michigan, and he bought 260 acres just outside of Battle Creek. He started off raising livestock: mainly hogs and cattle (not organic or anything like it). When his five kids grew older and left for college, he decided vegetables would require less labor, and by the mid-’80s he had moved entirely to organic vegetable production. Of his five children, all of whom graduated from Michigan State, only Anthony has stayed to work on the farm. Now, of their 260 acres, less than half is cultivated with certified organic vegetables and organic cover crops (clover and oats), while the other half has been planted with native hardwoods to promote local conservation efforts. They were keeping bees until this past year, when all but two of their twenty-plus hives died out, probably related to this.

I really enjoyed meeting with the Cinzori’s, and I was struck by how hard their job really is. They run a very successful operation, with a large following in some of Michigan’s best farmers’ markets and strong ties with Whole Foods.  But they are also astonishingly busy, all the time. Even this early in the season, they’re already at their largest market, selling plants (they do a large part of their business in organic transplants). In the midst of this cold snap, I figured they’d be taking it easy, but they were hard at work in their hoop houses, getting ready to move cabbages into the fields next week. Sometimes I think I’d like to have a farm. Seeing them, how completely absorbed they are in their land and their business, I feel like I wouldn’t be up to the task. I’m certainly glad they are, though, and I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about going to their markets later in the season and buying some of their produce.

At the end of the week I’ll be visiting two more farms just south of Lansing, and this time I’ll have pictures.  I realized about 5 minutes before leaving today that my camera battery was dead, and I wasn’t able to find the charger in time. Typical.

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I was temporarily distracted from the writing of this thrilling post, but the house is now empty, the dishes are done, the cats are healthy, and I have time at last to type. As was the case last year, “working” the conference mostly meant sitting at a booth for a couple of hours to make Barb happy, then running off to eat good food and sit in on workshops I wasn’t invited to attend. I can’t say I have a problem with that.

I sold more tote bags for the C.S. Mott Group (designed by a company called, aptly enough, Eat Local Food), bought one for myself, along with some whole what pastry flour from Westwind Milling (not much of a link, sorry) and some garlic from Owosso Organics. I then ran off to eat a tasty brunch, the highlight of which looked something like this:

It was a salad made with all local ingredients, save for the marinade and dressing: tofu, black beans, baby greens and various sprouts, on a crispy wafer of bread. The tofu was marinaded in something that involved sesame oil and spiciness, and the dressing was gingery, with mustard and horseradish in there somewhere. It was incredible. I basically skipped the rest of the options and ate three salads instead. Apparently, the recipe will be made available sometime next week, and you can bet I’ll be making it at least once a week.

I went to two workshops. The first was called “A Day in the Life of an Organic Farmer.” The speakers were Lee and Laurie Arboreal of Eater’s Guild Farm in Bangor, near Kalamazoo. They are the super-cute couple I sat with for dinner the previous night. They have a 30-acre farm where they grow veg for a year-round CSA, and sell greens to Organic Valley and Whole Foods on the side. As an interesting aside, we talked over dinner about John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods) and his proposed moves toward supporting local farms. It turns out these efforts are indeed trickling down to the Arboreals, who say it’s getting easier now that in the past to get their produce into Whole Foods stores, and that they’ll soon be applying for funding from Whole Foods to start converting some of their mechanical equipment to biodiesel.

The workshop they hosted didn’t offer much of anything new: they gave an introduction of organic standards and “beyond organic” concepts that I already knew plenty about. But I don’t know many farmers, and it was nice to see faces attached to these practices I hear so much about. I’ll admit (and I know that this is bad of me), but I was a little turned off by the hippie-talk in the presentation. I’ve been known to eat my fair share of granola, but I just can’t swallow the idea of plants absorbing the “good vibes” we put into the earth. Nope. But they absolutely have their hearts in the right place, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the both of them.

The other session was on community food systems development, and it was wonderful. There was a panel of four representatives from different community food organizations from around Michigan, one of whom was my friend and former roommate Julia, from the Allen Neighborhood Center down the street from me.  There was also another woman, Katie, from the Northwest Initiative Food Systems Project (also in Lansing, not quite so near me). I liked what the other panelists had to say just fine, but Julia and Katie were wonderful. The Northwest Initiative is a very small, poorly funded non-profit serving a very poor segment of the city. Their food systems project is creating elementary school garden projects, taking farmers’ markets to senior centers in town, and forming partnerships with convenience stores int he poorest parts of town to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables where otherwise there would be none. It’s horrifying to think that there are large parts of my city where the only accessible grocery store is not a grocer at all, but a gas station. But there it is, and grocers seem reluctant to move into these neighborhoods, so the Northwest Initiative is helping to make these convenience stores better, healthier places to buy food. While talking about the school garden project the Northwest Initiative had started at an impoverished elementary school, Katie said there were children in the class she was working with who literally could not identify a raw tomato. It’s heartbreaking stuff, but she’s doing extraordinary work.

Closer to home, Julia talked about the Allen Neighborhood Center’s food systems work. There are three tiers serving this low income neighborhood: the first is the breadbasket program, providing free bread and produce to community members on a weekly basis. Second is the farmers’ market (where I shop in the summers), which has started accepting food stamps. Third is a large hoop house currently under construction in a neighborhood park: it’s designated for use by community members, and part of it is reserved for classes, teaching kids in the neighborhood how to grow and market their own produce. The idea is that almost everyone in the neighborhood needs food, and while the ANC would like to eventually see everyone growing their own, that’s not a reasonable entry point for most people. So they start with the breadbasket, and move people on up through these tiers, teaching them about nutrition on the way. It’s interesting work, and after the workshop I offered my volunteer services to Julia for whenever they need help. What interested me most about Julia’s talk was her take on the farmers’ market. She said the hardest part about keeping it going was providing the  right mix of vendors for the community. A lot of people who come to the market are (as she put it) “white women in cars” who want local organic food. So there are a lot of organic vendors. But most of the neighborhood walks or bikes in, and they don’t have money for organic food. Or rather, they do, but if they have limited funds, they will try to get the most for their money. And that means conventional produce. So many of the vendors at the Allen Market are not organic, and they’re cheaper. I’d never seen that divide before, as a shopper. I knew that some of the vendors weren’t organic, but I didn’t understand the sharp divide between the shoppers who can afford to buy organic produce, and those who can’t. And while I understand the argument that our food is too cheap, and doesn’t take into account the social and environmental externalities incurred by their production methods, I’m starting to see what it means to be really broke, to know that the money in your pocket has to last you all week, and to put your children’s stomachs before your politics.

I don’t have much money these days: more than when I was a student, certainly, but not by much.  John is making enough for us to live pretty comfortably (quite comfortably, in my opinion), but because of the alarmingly low numbers on my bank statement, I make a point of eating as frugally as I can. And sometimes, that does mean eschewing organics, for better or for worse. How do people feel about this? It’s something that’s been ringing around in my head all week, and I need other opinions.

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On Tofurky

In response to my last post, Poet With a Day Job noted that the phenomenon of “real” food masquerading as “fake” food (itself masquesrading as “real” food) is akin to Tofurky. As a vegetarian, this is one of the most common questions I end up fielding over the dinner table: “Why do you guys eat fake meat? Aren’t you trying to avoid the stuff?” It’s a great question, and I’m guilty of faking it from time to time myself.

I used to eat a lot of processed fake meat (Morningstar, Boca, even Tofurky once), but now that I’m mostly off of processed foods, I don’t really touch the stuff. I don’t touch the stuff because it’s unhealthy and I don’t nkow where it comes from. But I still fake it, eating “real” fake meat that I’ve made myself, rather than “fake” fake meat, which has tons of sodium and preservatives and came out of a box. I make seitan, tempeh bacon, and tempeh sausage, as well as using TVP on occasion (processed, beacuse it’s defatted, but not quite so icky, as it’s only got one ingredient). These are, without a doubt, imitation products. So, where fauxstess cupcakes are “real,” natural food imitating super-processed “fake” food, I eat some ethical foods that are pretending to be (what I consider) unethical foods. And they don’t even taste all that great – I just miss the flavors and textures of death, I guess. They are still natural and heathy, but yes, I’ve been caught in my own web of complaining. Let the stone-throwing commence.

In other news, I talked to one of my (MSU) employers about my interest in somehow combining my interests in libraries and information management with my love of food systems work. She got pretty excited, and came up with a million reasons why farmers (and people working to help farmers) are desperately in need of people who know how to synthesize and organize information, and how to create large-scale information networks. Details forthcoming. Maybe I’m not at a crossroads after all.

In other other news, I’ve plotted out a map of all the farms I’ll be visiting in the next month or so for this farmers’ market vendor study. There are 18 of them right now, though a few might be dropping out. I didn’t realize it until I starte putting pushpins on the map, but there seem to be pretty large concentrations of farms around the Saginaw Bay area (lower thumb, for those with a limited sense of Michigan geography) and the Leelenau Peninsula/Traverse Bay area (top joints of the pinky and ring finger), so I might be able to consolidate this into just a few trips if I’m lucky. Expect reports on how much I love farms in the weeks ahead.

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Seeds!

seeds from Seed Savers

I just got my seeds in the mail yesterday from Seed Savers. You have no idea how excited I am. I’m splitting some of them with my mom, who has a plot in a community garden on the other side of town. Since she has space and I do not, we’ll be starting transplants at her place. Here’s what I have for now:

Spinach – Monnopa

Melon – Collective Farm Woman

Brussels Sprouts – Long Island Improved

Carrots – St Valery

Beans – Tiger’s Eye and Cherokee Trail of Tears

Kale – Lacinato

Squash – Potimarron

Tomatoes – Italian Heirloom and Crncovic Yugoslavian

Eggplant – Listada de Gandia

Sweet Peppers – Chervena Chushka

And that’s all for now. I’ve also ordered seed potatoes (German Butterball), and I’ll be getting seeds for collards and onions elsewhere. I will probably pick up a hot pepper transplant at the market when it opens. We don’t go through many hot peppers, so there’s not much point in paying for lots of seeds. I’m particularly excited about the beans. I’ve never grown beans for drying before, and I’m pretty excited to try them out.

This year’s garden is going to be all about storage. I want to be able to eat tomatoes I picked in the dead of winter next year. All the varieties I’ve chosen (well, most of them) were picked for their storage properties, whether those be cold storage, freezing or canning. I’m also thinking about getting a CSA share at Titus Farms to supplement my garden. They’re not 100% organic, but they’re low- to no-input, very nearby, and the farm is aparenlty in the process of being passed on from Paul and Rose Titus to their daughter, a recent graduate of MSU (just like me). I’ll be meeting Paul and Rose tomorrow. I’m helping to facilitate a meeting of about 10 small farmers from Southern Michigan (including Titus Farm), getting down to the nitty-gritty details of the farmers’ market study I’ll be helping out with. It should be tons of fun. And if I end up getting a CSA share, it will be nice to have more intimate knowledge of the farm I’m supporting.

In other news, I finally got around to baking everyone’s favorite bread. This no-knead business is a miracle, and this is hands down the best loaf I’ve ever pulled out of an oven. The big, irregular holes are all kinds of fun, and the crust is just the right consistency, well worth chewing on, but with no danger of breaking any teeth. I borrowed the overnproof pot from my mom (I heard a rumor that you can get away with just a baking stone, but I don’t have one of those either), and now I think I need to buckle down and buy one. And now, just to whet your appetite, the innards:

no-knead bread crumb

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From now until August (when I’ll probably have to quit since I’ll hopefully have a library job by then, school will be starting, and I’ll be pretty busy getting married) I’ll be working on a SARE grant project, performing case studies of Michigan farmers’ market vendors and thieir market strategies. The plan is to come out with a series of brochures and pamphlets and the like, advertising the economic advantages of selling in farmers’ markets. I’ll be interviewing 20 farmers in Michigan and following up with them weekly to see how their market season is going. It will be so fun I can hardly stand to think about it.

I’m planning an introductory meeting on Monday with about 12 farmers from the lower part of the state. I’ll write later about how that goes, but for now I want to share something that reminded me of why I love farmers so much. I was calling all the market vendors about this meeting, and told one woman where it would be held. It’s going to be in my building on MSU’s campus, on a floor filled with theory-head academics (not stuffy academics, but academics none the less). She said, “Well, I can come, but can I bring my dog?”

Yes. Please, please bring your dog.

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