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Farmstead Favorites: Exploring the Flavors of Your CSA Haul

June 27, 2024

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Farmstead Favorites: Exploring the Flavors of Your CSA Haul

Heirloom Hustle: Savoring the Secrets of Homegrown Tomatoes

My friend Morgan had Chris and me over for dinner last night, and she put in a special request that we bring over some heirloom tomatoes. I was happy to oblige – we have plenty of them at the moment, and we are excited to share them with our friends and family. I brought over several varieties, and we taste-tested at least three, all of which were juicy, dense, and sweet. Morg asked, “Why do heirlooms taste so much better?” and I thought y’all might have the same question, so here’s my answer in several parts.

Let’s start by discussing just what the heck makes a tomato (or any other vegetable, for that matter) an heirloom. Do any of you have an old piece of jewelry or antique passed down through your family? When I turned 15, my aunt Jennifer gave me a little gold ring that she had received on her 15th birthday from my great-grandmother Mutzi. In turn, Mutzi had received the ring on her 15th birthday from her father. That’s an heirloom – something that has been passed down over the years through the generations of a family.

Now, let’s shift the gears and talk about heirloom vegetables. In the days before seed catalogs, folks would save seeds from the myriad vegetables they were growing for fresh eating and preserving, and plant those saved seeds in subsequent years. In fact, a family could save the seed from their best, most flavorful, most vigorous, and healthiest plants, and by doing that every year, improve their vegetables’ taste, texture, and production at that specific location.

Let’s fast forward to what agriculture looks like today. We now live in a world where vegetable production has converted from diverse backyard gardens to large-scale monocultures, meaning vast acreages of one crop, often picked by a machine instead of by a human hand. We also live in a world where we seldom walk out the back door, pick our vegetables, and eat them immediately. Instead, we go to the grocery store and buy vegetables that were picked at an unknown date, packed, and shipped some unknown number of miles away.

For a vegetable to be successful in today’s agricultural world, it must maximize production per acre, be easy to pick by a machine, be easily washed and packed, resist bruising during shipping, sit stably on a shelf for an untold amount of time, and be uniform in color, shape, and size so it displays nicely. And last for weeks in your refrigerator’s vegetable drawer. So instead of seed that has been saved by families for flavor, ripeness, and vigor in a specific location, we now eat vegetables from seeds that were saved for uniformity, hardness for shipping purposes, and shelf stability. Note that I did not include flavor in that list.

To achieve these modern goals, people have done crazy things to seeds, including inserting genetic material from other life forms into the DNA of vegetables, making them genetically modified organisms or GMOs. Most vegetables develop flavor as they approach ripeness, and this is especially the case with tomatoes. Ever eat one of those hard, white-in-the-center tomatoes from the grocery store in January? They have absolutely no flavor because they were picked under-ripe to keep them hard for shipping.

A tomato that is allowed to ripen on the vine has time to develop sugars, which cause the tomato to be soft to the touch, juicy when cut, fragrant, and sweet. The sugars also cause the tomato to rapidly decay and soften if you don’t eat them shortly after they are picked. A soft, sugary tomato does NOT travel well, and it certainly doesn’t travel well over thousands of miles. Really, the only way to get your hands on one of these babies is to grow them and pick them yourself or to buy them from someone growing them nearby.

This is where your friendly small-scale farmer comes into play. Small-scale farmers can pick tomatoes by hand, noting which are at their peak of ripeness, handle them gently, and deliver them to a market or to your doorstep in a short amount of time. Small-scale farmers can peddle even the ugliest of tomatoes, including cracked and crazy-looking tomatoes as heirlooms often are, because they can talk with their customer one-on-one, describe the flavor, describe their growing practices, let you smell, touch, and even taste-test the vegetables. Farmers that grow for wholesale simply can’t do this.

Homegrown Homesteading: Preserving the Flavors of the Farmstead

While I do have my great-grandma’s heirloom ring, I don’t have any heirloom seeds that were passed down in my family. Luckily, there are a lot of small-scale growers out there dutifully saving seeds from old heirloom varieties and sharing them with other farmers. This year, I ordered most of my seeds from Fedco, a seed co-op based in Maine, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is a network of growers that specialize in varieties that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern US. Through the hard work of these growers, many heirloom varieties live on and are available for growers like me, new farmers just getting started, and in need of delicious, locally-adapted varieties to grow for their friends, family, and neighbors.

I spend a lot of time sharing news about the farm and the farming process, but I haven’t been too good about sharing homesteading stories. Part of the reason I decided to become a farmer and live on my farm is that I like growing and preserving my own food – mainly because I love to eat and eat well. When I first moved onto the farm this winter, I decided to try tapping some of the maple trees on the property to make my own maple syrup. I ended up tapping three trees and got enough syrup to keep my pancakes topped throughout the year, with a few jars of syrup to spare to give as gifts to my family.

Currently, the veggies and fruit are rolling in, and it seems like I can’t find enough spare time to do all the canning I’d like. Plus, my gas stove heats the kitchen up so much that I’ve convinced myself I’ll do all my pickling and canning when the fall comes, and I can use the extra heat in the kitchen. For now, most of the food preservation I have been doing involves drying herbs. I can deal with the heat that the dehydrator puts off, plus I’ve been passively drying a bunch of herbs by hanging them upside down from a curtain rod in the kitchen. Any extra bunches of basil, tulsi, and coriander that I bring home from the market go right up on the drying rod until they are crispy dry, then I strip the leaves or seeds off the bunches and store them in a dry mason jar. It makes me excited for spices and tea this winter when my garden is under lots of snow.

Mustard Magic: Cultivating a Homemade Condiment

Earlier this week, I harvested a crop of mustard seeds from the garden. In April, I planted white mustard (Sinapis alba), which is used to make the table mustard we’re all used to eating. Your basic mustard comes from grinding down the seeds of this plant and adding it to water, vinegar, or other liquids and spices. For example, dijon mustard typically includes white wine as one of the liquids. Additionally, the super yellow color we normally associate with mustard comes from the addition of turmeric, although I’m sure a lot of cheap store-bought mustard just uses food dyes these days.

You can also use seeds from other mustard plants to make different kinds of mustard. In the past, I have grown brown mustard (Brassica juncea) and used it to make spicy brown mustard. After the initial April planting of white mustard, the plants grew quite quickly and were in full flower by the end of May. And boy, did the bugs love those flowers – it was a veritable bug orgy down there in the mustard patch! Slowly, the flowers turned into green seed pods that plumped up and filled with green seeds. Then, the seed pods began to dry up, turn brown, and the seeds inside turned from green to tan-yellow.

A few days ago, while the weather was dry, I decided that the majority of the mustard plants were dry enough, and that I should harvest them before they shattered, which happens when the plant gets so dry that the pods burst open and spew their seeds all over the ground. To harvest the seed, I cut down handfuls of the plants and shook them into a large, clean garbage can, causing the seed pods to shatter and release their seeds. This process is called threshing. It took me 2 hours to thresh 250 square feet of densely growing mustard. A mechanical harvester would be a whole lot quicker, but I don’t have a mechanical harvester, and I enjoy spending time in the garden doing repetitive work – it lets me relax, listen to the birds, and let my thoughts wander.

At the end of the two hours, I had a can of mustard seeds and shattered seed pods, and I left the remains of the mustard plants, or straw, behind to compost back into the soil. When I finished the threshing process, I brought my garbage can of seeds and pods to my kitchen and sifted it all through a strainer to separate out the seeds from the pods. There is still a little bit of chaff or non-seed material in with the seeds, so on the next low-humidity day, I will take them outside with a fan and pour the seeds into a bucket in front of the fan to let the lightweight chaff blow off.

All in all, I will have around 4 lbs of mustard seed, which I will use to make mustard, spice up dishes, and to make my new favorite condiment, pickled mustard seed or mustard caviar. It’s a whole lot more work than buying mustard at the store, but at the end of the day, I love that my mustard will be homegrown, and the mustard patch was a huge benefit to the garden. It provided habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects during the flowering stage, its straw will help feed the soil, and because it was such a dense stand of tall plant material, it helped to keep weeds from sprouting underneath. Also, recent research has shown that growing mustard as a cover crop helps to fend off some of the pest insects and nematodes that live in the soil. All of that is wonderful, but honestly, I’m most excited about tasting my homemade mustard because, like I said, I love to eat.

Farm FAQs: From the Farmer’s Mouth

This past week, while I was out of town for wedding festivities, I caught up with a bunch of old friends. They had lots of questions about my farm, so I thought that this might be a great opportunity to answer those questions for a broader audience. Let’s call it a little Dark Wood Farm FAQ.

How’s the farming going? It’s going well. It’s a lot of hard work, it keeps me busy, and I’m not getting a lot of sleep at the moment, but I fully expect to make up some of that sleep this winter. I really like being my own boss and being outside every day. I feel really strong and healthy, and I’m learning so much about growing vegetables through trial and error.

What’s your favorite part of farming so far? I love cooking food that I grew myself, and I love sharing my vegetables with family and friends. Cooking is a joy for me, and using such fresh, wholesome ingredients makes a huge difference in the quality of my meals. My family and friends are trying all kinds of new veggies out of my garden and eating more fresh produce than normal, which really makes me happy. I also love talking to people at the farmers market, sharing recipes, and explaining what to do with all the odd vegetables I grow.

What are you going to do this winter? Hopefully, I will get some much-needed rest and do some traveling, but I’ll probably have to pick up a holiday job to make a little extra money. I will also have lots to keep me busy – planning next year’s crops, ordering seeds, cleaning and fixing equipment, and building new gadgets and infrastructure to make farm work easier.

Are you making any money? Talking about money is awkward, especially when you’re starting a new business, but I think it’s important to talk about it so that consumers are aware of how hard farmers work and how little they get paid. I’m sure we all wish food was free, but we live in a world where most people don’t grow their own food, so the people that do grow food need to be compensated for the hard work they do to keep everyone fed with nutritious, safe, and delicious food.

Yes, I am making money at the farmers markets, but I don’t know yet if I’ll recover all my expenses this year. At the beginning of the year, I bought a bunch of equipment and supplies to get me started, plus I always have my monthly rent and utility bills for the farm. It would be amazing if I could make everything back this year and have a little left over to pay myself, but most new businesses don’t make money in their first year because of all the upfront equipment costs. I’ll be able to answer this question a little better at the end of the year. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of vegetables to sell, and I am selling them, but I don’t expect to get rich this year or any other year for that matter. Farming is not a lucrative business, but most farmers don’t farm because they’re hoping to strike it rich.

Do you own the farm? No, I am leasing the farm this year. The farm belongs to the Mays family, whom I have known for almost 15 years. They are leasing me the land where I grow the vegetables, plus a trailer on the property where I live. I also get to use the tractor and farm implements, and I can harvest from the existing apple trees, blackberry bushes, and strawberry and asparagus patches.

I hope to have my own farm one day, but leasing is the best option for me as a first-time farmer. Without the burden of a mortgage, I can figure out if I will be able to farm full-time without another income source, if there’s a market for the kinds of vegetables I want to grow, and if I am capable of growing said vegetables in Northern Kentucky’s soils and climate. I learned most of my farming skills in Washington and California, both of which have very different growing conditions than here. It is also extremely helpful to have some existing equipment on hand because it has aided in keeping my first-year costs down while I figure out how to run my farming business.

How big is the farm? The entire farm is roughly 35 acres, most of which is hilly and wooded. The parcel where I grow everything is just under 2 acres. Some of that 2 acres is taken up with grassy headlands, trees along the edges, my greenhouse, and a blackberry patch, so the actual area that I am tilling to grow annual vegetables is 1 acre.

Is your family glad to have you home? That’s a question best answered by my family, but I am pretty sure they are happy to have me home. I have been away from Kentucky for 10 years, and while it feels like a big change to come home, it also doesn’t. My family and friends have been so wonderfully supportive that it has been pretty easy to pick up where I left off. Sure, I miss my friends in Seattle, but I also miss my friends from New York and friends that are now scattered all over the country. I wish I could scoop them all up and bring them to my farm so we can all live together, but that’s not very realistic. Luckily, with the support of my friends and family here in Kentucky, I was able to take a little vacation to the West Coast for a wedding in mid-July when the farm was in full swing. I hope I will always be able to take trips like that, and I feel pretty blessed to have friends waiting with open arms wherever I go.

Weed Wisdom: Nurturing the Garden’s Helpers

This past week on the farm, a major crop of weeds sprouted following two days of heavy rain. Our onions and celery seemed to be engulfed in them overnight. Last Monday, Chris spent half the day clearing out around the onions, and on Wednesday, my parents and our friends Tina and Donna helped to save the celery. These crops, in particular, have a hard time out-competing their weed neighbors. They are skinny and tall and don’t send out a lot of horizontal leaves that would shade out their competitors, so they require repeated weeding to ensure they receive sufficient light and water instead of their free-ranging weed neighbors.

Whenever I think of weeds, I think of a story that my friend Rachel told me once. She had a plot in a community garden in Nashville and spent a lot of time at her plot pulling weeds. One Sunday, Rachel and her husband were in church, and the preacher was talking about weeding as a metaphor for simplifying your life – how plants require water and light and can miss out on those things if they are cluttered by weeds. Suddenly, Rachel’s husband turned to her and said, “Oh, now I get why you spend so much time weeding in the garden.” He thought she was just doing it to keep the garden looking neat and tidy, not realizing how weeding helps your vegetables get all the light and water they require.

On the other hand, weeds can actually serve a purpose in your garden. Whenever you have bare soil, weeds are sure to pop up within a few days. Their seeds are ubiquitous in the environment – they float in on the air, are carried into or buried in the garden by animals, and are dropped from parent plants around the edges of your garden. They can live for years in the soil, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate. You don’t have to do anything, and they just grow up on their own. That can be nice sometimes. Without the root

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