Friday, August 28, 2015

Home field advantage

  " Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

                                               Oscar Wilde

  The big Plymouth pulled over on to the gravel shoulder beside where I was selling sweet corn off the back of a pickup truck. It was a hot, steamy day in late August with not a whisper of a breeze.

  " How much is your corn?", the woman asked.
  " Sixty five cents a dozen. It's Seneca Chief and it was just picked this morning", I said, brightly.
  " It's fifty cents a dozen in Windsor" she replied, unimpressed. Emphasis on the "fifty".

   Windsor; 240 miles to the southwest from where we were; in the heart of corn-growing country.

  " That would be the place to buy it then", I answered, helpfully.

  She pinned the accelerator, putting up a rooster-tail of gravel and dust that enveloped my truck and I, as she fishtailed back into traffic.

  Sigh. Another satisfied customer.

  Local food was a tough sell in 1975. Price was the number one concern of most shoppers; the cheaper, the better. The whole notion of local food actually tasting better or being more nutritious was appreciated by few consumers.

  Whole Foods wouldn't have had a snowball's chance in 1975 in our area. Knob Hill Farms ( a deep discount chain) was king.

  So why is it a lot easier for me to sell that fresh corn today?

  A better informed  population, with its increased interest in health and well-being has really propelled the local food movement to the fore. They get the fact that fresh food is more tasty and nutritious than produce that has traveled further to get to their supermarket shelf than they did on their last vacation.

  This is where smaller growers, like myself, enjoy a distinct advantage. A local chain advertises "if it was any fresher, it would still be in the field." Well, as a matter of fact, it probably is still in our field, and will be until a few hours (or minutes, even) before it is sold.

  We are far more nimble at managing our fresh inventory because we can delay our harvest until the last possible moment to ensure peak ripeness, flavour and nutrition.

  There is an ever increasing body of scientific evidence that directly links the freshness of certain vegetables  to their health benefits. While a potato can be stored for several months without compromising its nutritional benefit, broccoli begins to lose its cancer-fighting compounds within 24 hours of harvest.

  The book "Eating on the Wild Side" by Jo Robinson discusses many different fruits and vegetables through this lens.

   For the ultimate fresh local food experience, why not try picking some of the many different vegetables at our farm yourself. We are sure that once you have tasted the difference, you will be back for more!

  Outstanding in his field,


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Whatever happened to real carrots?

"Sowe carrets in your gardens, and humbly praise God for them, as for a singular and great blessing"
                                                   Richard Gardiner  1599

  So what was the best carrot that you ever tasted?

 Most people I ask remember it as that one they pulled out of the garden themselves, wiped on their sleeve and popped into their mouth. There it was: earthy, crisp and sweetly delicious.

  So why do so many carrots taste so "meh" these days?   It's a very good question.

  The first issue to address is the varieties of carrots grown today:

 For a large scale carrot grower, the goal is to harvest and store the maximum tonnage that can be coaxed out of his land. Obviously the money for commercial seed houses and plant breeders is to address the needs of these high volume producers, which is only fair.

   Commercial seed catalog carrot descriptions will include "good interior color", "strong tops", "good shipper", "good storeability"or "excellent yields". Flavor and sweetness are mentioned, but they are secondary concerns for most large commercial growers.

  The appearance of "baby carrots" several years ago was a canary in a coal mine about the disappearing taste. It was a tacit admission by the industry that, okay, our cello-pack carrots have no flavor, but how about these cute baby carrots with bunnies on the package!

  Then the truth came out that these were merely large carrots that had been mechanically shaped to resemble baby carrots. It was all an elaborate ruse.

  So, what about bunched carrots, sold with the tops on?

  California accounts for about 80% of the bunched market every year, due to their year-round growing season. Ask any farm market operator what the sweetest carrot type is, and they will tell you: Nantes, which is the only type that we grow.

 California doesn't grow Nantes carrots for bunching; preferring long, thin types to the generally shorter and less uniform Nantes varieties.

  The second contributing factor to the sweetness of carrots is the soil in which they are grown.

  Most commercial carrot growing areas have sand or muck soils to aid with seedling emergence and the development of long straight roots. Clay soils are anathema to commercial growers, tricky to work with and difficult to harvest from due to their "sticky" quality.

  Those of you familiar with wine may have heard the word "terroir",which, although it literally means soil, actually refers to the specificity of a place. This includes the soil, rainfall, climate, etc.  Bordeaux and Burgundy are well known examples of wine regions where the superior flavor is inextricably linked to their terroir.

  I don't think that it's much of a stretch to apply the word to vegetables as well. We find that the more complex that we can make our soil's biology ahead of carrots, the better they taste.

  This means using cover crops and growing diverse species of green manures to incorporate into our clay loam soils. A clay fraction in soil seems to confer a better taste to vegetables for reasons that are not fully understood, but may be due to its ability to hang onto more minerals such as Magnesium and Potassium.

  A less subjective and more quantifiable method that we employ is to measure the degrees of Brix or sugar, found in our carrots.  Vegetable farmers have stolen the idea from those savvy wine growers again, who have measured Brix readings for years to help determine the optimum timing for harvest.

 We may have readings of 9 early in the summer, climbing to 12 with the cooler weather of fall, which, again helps make sweeter carrots.

  Obviously, I have simplified the whole issue, but you now have enough information to make you dangerous at any discussion involving the taste of carrots.

  We have been digging some great tasting carrots lately, with brix readings of about 12; unusually high for this time of year. Stop by and catch them while you can!


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What are those red striped beans?

" I did not read books the first summer. I hoed beans."
          Henry David Thoreau       Walden Pond

We grow acres of snap beans every year, both green and yellow. We pick them every morning from late July until frost, weather permitting.

  Snap bean varieties grown for shipping are specifically bred to have added fiber to help them withstand the rigors of being loaded on and off trucks on their way to the supermarket. We have all tasted those beans. I'm sure that is why they used to be called "string" beans.

  The bean varieties we grow are bred to have less fiber, making them much more tender. We stagger our plantings over the course of the season to give us a steady supply of young, tender beans.

  Weather clearly sets the agenda, but 2014, with its cool, wet growing season was about as close to perfect a bean growing season as one could ask for. The quality and flavor were both excellent. Our 2015 beans have been great as well thus far.

  Most people are familiar with how to handle a green bean in the kitchen, but the appearance of those plump beans with their gorgeous splashes of pink, red and white marks the reappearance in our market of that perennial question:

  "What are those red striped beans and what do I do with them?"

  Romano beans is what we call them here in Ontario. They are also known as French Horticultural, Borlotti or Cranberry beans depending on where you hail from. Our West Indian customers call them, simply, "peas" which created some confusion on my part in the early years of my farming career, but we're all on the same page now.

  Unlike a snap bean, Romano beans are left on the plant to mature until the beans inside the pod are swollen. The beans are harvested at this point and  easily shelled, yielding strikingly colored white beans with deep red specks. The outer pods are discarded.

  These beans are now cooked, which will cause the color to fade to a uniform beige color. The flavor is wonderfully unique; a nutty,earthy, somewhat sweet taste with a creamy, substantial texture. The taste is nothing like a lima bean, which was a very pleasant surprise to me.

  The easiest way to use them is to add them as the last ingredient to chili, soups or stews. They only need about 35 minutes; if cooked much longer they will split and then start to break down.

  Or, you can boil them on their own. Cover them with two inches of water or stock and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium low and cook them uncovered for about 35 minutes or until tender. Drain, toss with some olive oil , lemon juice, salt , pepper and some minced fresh parsley and you have a delicious warm salad.

  Another one of the really great things about Romano beans is the ease of preserving them. No need to blanch them, we just lay the shelled beans in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze them until they're solid. We then transfer them to plastic airtight bags. Because they're individually frozen, it is easy to take out a little or a lot, as required.

  We are all looking for healthy sources of protein these days, and these beans fit the bill. A one cup serving has 16.5 grams of protein along with 17.7 grams of dietary fiber. Added to that are their substantial quantities of potassium, copper, iron and calcium. We're talking about a nutritional powerhouse!

  So, why not take some time to spread your culinary wings if you have been a stranger to Romano beans until now. We'll have them available from early August to late September.




Tuesday, August 4, 2015


"Peaches and Cream! My husband and I don't eat genetically modified food; where's the yellow corn?"
Customer in our market, August 2014.

I grew my first crop of sweet corn in 1972; a variety called "Golden Bantam", that had been around since 1903.

Discovered by a farmer in Massachusetts, it was the first yellow sweet corn variety that bridged the gap between feed corn for animals and something that would be enjoyed by people.

Golden Bantam was (and is; it's still available from some seed suppliers) an open pollinated variety, meaning that it reproduces true from seed year after year.

Although many of our older customers suggest that Golden Bantam was the best sweet corn ever, I would suggest that their misty water-colored memories are flawed. The variety has neither the tenderness nor the sweetness of modern day sweet corn offerings. It displays a chewiness and flavour that was enjoyed by many back in the day, but again, doesn't compare favorably to present day hybrids.

So what is a hybrid ?

In its simplest form, a hybrid is developed by crossing two parents with individual desired qualities to create a new variety with both of the desired characteristics present.

When a female horse is crossed with a male donkey, a mule is created, combining the hardiness of a donkey with the size and strength of a horse.

Similarly, when when sweet corn breeders wanted increased tenderness and sweetness, they crossed two sweet corn parents with these qualities present. When a yellow variety and a white variety of sweet corn are crossed with each other, a bicolor variety may very well be the result (Peaches and Cream is but one of many bicolor varieties).

This is a gross over-simplification, and yet this is textbook classical plant or animal breeding. It has gone on for centuries; however the hybrid concept really came to the fore in the 1930's, especially in field corn breeding.

This is where the confusion creeps in for a lot of people, who figure that any new, improved variety has been genetically modified.

Genetic modification involves insertion or deletion of genes in a lab between organisms that could be conventionally bred in the field. The reason this is done is to create resistance to certain herbicides or insect pests. Field corn, soybeans and cotton are the most widely grown G.M. crops. They are often referred to as "Frankenfoods" for obvious reasons.

As most of you know, the practice is highly controversial. Europe has an outright ban on all G.M. crops. A large part of the problem, as myself and many other farmers see it, is that consumers were never made aware of the benefits of G.M. crops before they were introduced. Many highly toxic pesticides that were widely used by most farmers are no longer needed, due to the introduction of rootworm resistant field corn, for instance.

That said, rest assured that we grow absolutely no genetically modified vegetables on our farm.
There is a G.M. sweet corn that is resistant to corn earworms, but we don't grow it. There are also G.M. tomatoes and peppers; again, we don't grow them.

Any new variety of vegetable that we grow has been created the old-fashioned way: through classical plant breeding, because that is what you want and that is what we would prefer to grow.

Un-modified near Markham,