From the Farmer

Week 3 – 5/28/2013

In Your Share

Week three, and we’re still waiting for strawberries.  We’re seeing red, which is good, and you may see some sneak into your boxes.  But they’re not on the official list just yet.

What is on the list this week: baby leeks, spinach and broccoli.  And bok choi.  In case you haven’t seen it before, bok choi is a green in the kale family.  Wait, you’ve seen it before?  It’s been in your share already?  And you still haven’t cooked the first two yet?  Well you need a go-to bok choi plan.  I chop it up and cook it with pretty much whatever I’m cooking for dinner – a stir fry, especially, say to put on the side of rice and baked chicken.  But a Bok Choi Secret is the juicer.  I know juicers who will juice anything, and know a whole other set of people who will make a smoothie out of anything (for some reason these two groups don’t cross over much – are you one?).  Bok choi is great for this – blend/juice it, add apple and other sweet things, and serve.  Use a few stalks per serving.

Why all the bok choi?  We usually alternate it with other brassicas (think: kohlrabi) and these are on their way.  We grow bok choi because it tastes great, it’s versatile, and it likes to grow here in the spring.  That last point is somewhat important, because growing the right things at the right time is what makes seasonal, ecological farming work.

There is more in your share than bok choi.  Broccoli waits for no harvest list, so Saturday shares got it this past weekend in their Week 2 share.  Surprise.  Baby leeks are a favorite – don’t do anything to them except drizzle olive oil on top and put them in the oven for a few minutes.  Spinach, spinach is good for you and it is loving the weather now.  Enjoy it while it’s here, like many things spring it won’t last long. 

Holes and the Nature of Food

The bok choi reminds me of another thing that makes seasonal, ecological truck farming work: an understanding that there are sometimes imperfections in the food we harvest.  There may be small holes in the outer leaves of this week’s bok choi.  Let me assure you that it is good bok choi!  Every farm struggles with how to approach imperfections – spray to keep pests away from crops?  Or harvest and share?  Do we abandon a crop because it is not perfect? 

There are many things that can affect the appearance of a fruit or vegetable, and agricultural pests are one of them.  One famous designer puts a pest problem this way: “it’s not that you have a slug problem, it’s that you don’t have enough ducks.”  He says this with a thick Tasmanian accent, which makes it an even better point.  But we don’t have ducks cruising our fields to eat the slugs, so our options are beer traps (which we dislike because it means sharing the beer) and finely ground diatom skeletons, which can kill some useful insects.  Both meet with only moderate success in a cool, wet year like this.

I’m in tension about imperfections.  On one hand, we want you to receive perfect produce – nary a hole or gnarl to see.  On the other hand, I’m reluctant to use a chemical control, and more so to throw something away.  An organic or ecological farmer’s intention is to use culture to prevent crop damage, but if a torn leaf needs to be discarded then there would be moments when, without intervention, part or all of a crop is lost.  Nearly half of all the world’s harvest doesn’t make it to a supermarket shelf or an eater’s mouth – lost to disease, insect, weed, or other spoils.  That’s how much food can be lost to make the marketable product – nearly half!  Suddenly the lure of insecticides is understandable – though we are reminded that in the last eighty years the percent of crops lost has risen slightly while the use of these chemicals has risen tremendously.  It’s not clear that this approach works.

A third consideration is the nature of food itself.  We do an extraordinary thing when we eat: we fill ourselves with sunlight.  Once or twice removed, yes; sunlight is harvested and converted into energy by plants, and maybe again by plant-eating animals.  Agricultural is a biological process, not an industrial one.  And we are all engaged in it: as Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act.”  We don’t pour our vegetables into forms or casts – in the biological world, a tomato may grow gnarly, a leaf may be shared by an insect, and one carrot may grow around another – these are all biological responses to unique moments and places.  In the industrial system, these would be part of the half that gets lost.  In the agrarian agriculture, they may have a place at the table.  Should we desire a perfect looking vegetable?  That standardization takes the place of relationship; those rows of same round of tomatoes in the grocery store evolved because us eaters were further and further away from their production and are more likely to buy something that looks “right.”  Better to know your food before it knows your mouth.  Like your friends, the better you know something the more accepting you are of it.

The question then becomes, for the farmer, do we put it in the box?  Somewhere between the biological process, my own feelings about vegetable shapes and sizes, and striving to exceed customer expectation, I am acutely aware of how much food we have available and what is ripening soon.  Do we skip the bok choi because we don’t have 100% perfect leaves?  Truly, a leaf with a hole in it can still be an excellent leaf, still taste great, be full of nutrition, and complete an omelet.  Do we want to compost this or do we add as much to your shares as we can?  Harvest is a bit of a balancing act between what we expect a veggie to look like, what many do look like, and how much we want to compost to reconcile the difference.  In the end, we have a relationship unlike most farmers and eaters, and this becomes a conversation between all of us.

That's it for now. Have a good week and be great,

Mike

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