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Updated by the FRESHFARM Markets staff on a regular basis, FRESH Picked gives you a ‘behind the scenes’ look at our markets, programs, farmers and producers and more. Communications Director Danielle Tergis is the editor.
WINTER FARMING AT TREE AND LEAF FARM
Let me start out by saying I am a California girl. Everything I learned about agriculture was in the setting of a grower’s paradise – mild summers and winters that rarely drop below freezing. I grew up thinking that winter farming was only a West Coast possibility. I’m not really sure what I thought most farmers did during winter on the East Coast – I suppose I thought they stayed inside to plan for the spring while the land lay fallow, resting. I really couldn’t imagine that anything nourishing could grow in the earth’s freezing soil, which this winter, has so often been covered in snow.
With this mentality, I went out to visit one of our farmers, Zach Lester, from Tree and Leaf Farm. For those of you that don’t know Zach from our Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Market, he’s the kind of farmer that always teaches you something new about the produce you pick out at market. Visiting Zach at his farm was no less of a learning experience than shopping at his market stand.
As I drove up to Tree and Leaf Farm on Friday morning, I was careful to turn into the driveway slowly. It had snowed about eight inches the night before and the roads were still a little icy. I pulled on my boots and walked down the road to meet Zach. Talking, we walked past the first set of many tunnels scattered across his fields. These tunnels, Zach explained, were the smallest of the tunnels he employs. They were four feet wide and made by Zach himself with repurposed rebar bent into half-moon shapes. An opaque plastic was stretched across the top of them and buried where they meet the ground. Zach told me how these little tunnels took their inspiration from an old technique in France in which glass bells, or cloches, were placed overtop plants to protect them from the cold. You could then prop up the glass bells with a stick, or in his case, lift up the plastic walls to ventilate the plants. These rows of low tunnels were currently empty, solarizing, he told me. The sun would heat up the soil killing off any bad pathogens and the warmth would help to more readily break down organic material, filling the soil with nutrients. Zach is planning to build more of these low tunnels with a zero interest KIVA loan he is working to get. The smaller tunnels are easier to move, which he said is important for healthy soil rotation, and even better, they are easy to take care of, so he can focus on his crops instead of infrastructure maintenance.
The next tunnels that we walked to are a little bigger, six feet across and just tall enough to stand in at the very center. They are built like their smaller cousins, but these have an intricate weaving of ropes tying them down for stability. Inside are two rows of plants, mixed lettuce on the left and carrots on the right. Zach pulls a few slender carrots up as he tells me that this variety of winter carrot is like gold, other spring and fall carrots really don’t compare, but he still grows them for the demand. As we step into the tunnels I am immediately blown away by how warm it is inside. I couldn’t tell you what temperature it actually was, but I swear it felt like 80 degrees. I ask Zach how he heats the tunnels to which he simply answers, “the sun”. He goes on to tell me that for him, using fossil fuels just doesn’t make sense, from a philosophical and monetary standpoint. As we walked down to the end of the row where two of his staff members in t-shirts were harvesting greens, I could actually see the humidity rising up from the soil. I had left DC, I had left the East Coast, and I had left winter.
As I reluctantly leave the tunnel, Zach tells me how he worries about his soil getting flooded as the snow melts and how he had already lost three to four weeks of greens and 4,000 full grown heads of cabbage to this winter cold. I ask if the snow is the issue and he explains to me that the snow is actually insulating–the issue is when it repeatedly freezes causing the cells of plants to rupture and literally explode. Zach shows me inside his last set of tunnels, his high tunnels, which stand about as tall as a small barn, with three or four rows of crops inside. He shows me the garlic he is growing for a friend. Zach has pretty much stopped growing garlic to sell at farmers markets because it seems like he can never make a profit. We both muse over how garlic can be so cheap to buy in stores, but so expensive to grow. He tells me he is planting tomatoes in this high tunnel next week and I realize just how amazing these tunnels truly are. It’s the dead of winter, literally a foot of snow on the ground, but these sun-warmed paradises mean that Zach can not only bring winter roots and greens to market, but that he can also bring tomatoes to market in the spring before the majority of other farmers can – a precious leg up on the competition. Zach reflects that he thinks part of the reason that he loves farming in winter so much is because he actually hates winter. I totally understand the charm – the tunnels get you outside and keep you warm and active, all things I struggle with during the winter.
As we head back toward the house, Zach points to the snow covered fields, mentioning that he has a lot planted out there too. Now I’m really confused, planted under a foot of snow? He tells me that it’s all well insulated underneath a layer of plastic, beneath all that snow, keeping the soil from freezing. I figure he must be using the snow like a refrigerator for storage, but again, he says no. He tells me that what is planted out there is still growing, that if we walked out there and dug down into the snow and lifted up that black plastic, we would be able to dig up a turnip. At this point, I am baffled. I understand the idea of the tunnels and how you can create an environment that is more hospitable to growing tender plants, but I really can’t fathom how anything can grow outside, under a foot of snow, beneath a sheet of plastic. Zach laughs, walks me out through the field, gets down on his knees and begins digging in the snow. At this point, I am as mesmerized as a child watching a magician pull a rabbit from a hat. Zach plunges his hand under the snow, beneath the layer of plastic and miraculously pulls up a bunch of beautiful turnips. He hands them to me like a prize and I can hardly believe that these gorgeous turnips with their bright green tops and their roots picturesquely covered in soil were grown in what I originally thought of as a barren landscape.
As we walk back to the house to meet with his wife Georgia O’Neal, we laugh about how farming in winter is kind of like any other extreme activity. People don’t realize how hard it is – he was up every two hours last night to brush the snow off the top of his tunnels. He and Georgia tell me about how in the early days of their farm, they used to sleep out in the tunnels between the rows of crops on really stormy nights to make sure their tunnels didn’t collapse under the weight of the snow. And it’s not just growing the produce that’s hard in the winter. You have to keep it from freezing when you store it, you have to have a truck that is insulated enough to get it to market, and then once you get it to market, you have to keep all that produce that you painstakingly kept warm in the fields from freezing before the customer buys it. That’s why winter produce is a little more expensive, a ‘suffering tax’ he calls it. We laugh that there should be a Deadliest Catch or Ice Road Truckers show for winter farmers. Sitting inside with our tea, Zach and Georgia smile — farming in winter they tell me, really is an entirely different ball game.
Written by FRESHFARM Market Manager Genna Lipari.
AN UNFORGETTABLE TRIP TO PASA
This past weekend I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the 23rd annual Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture conference (PASA). The theme of PASAs Farming for the Future Conference was “Letting Nature Lead”. After installing a new car battery, running out of gas on the side of Route 70, two episodes of This American Life and a 4 hour drive, team FRESHFARM Markets (Co-Executive Directors Ann Yonkers & Bernie Prince, Market Managers Genna Lipari, Lindsay Wallace and me) arrived to our destination in State College, PA safe, sound and ready to learn. We bumped into many FRESHFARM Markets’ farmers at check in, some of whom were able to attend the conference on scholarships funded by our Jean Wallace Douglas Farmer Fund. That first evening in State College we picked up our workshop registrations, scoped out the exposition areas, selected which workshops we wanted to attend over the next two days, and heard Ben Wenk of Three Springs Fruit Farm rock it out onstage with his band Chuck Darwin and the Knuckle Draggers. We were excited for what was to come and PASA did not disappoint.
The next morning when we arrived at the conference, the floor was packed with attendees. We held court at our FRESHFARM Markets’ booth and then parted ways to attend workshops about GAP certification, urban farming, foraging, the Food Safety Modernization Act, marketing, accepting SNAP benefits at market, and the Farm Bill which coincidentally was being signed that very day. The keynote speaker for the first day was Daphne Miller, doctor, professor and author of Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health And Healing. Dr. Miller gave an amazing speech describing the farm as a vitamin, the farm as immune support, the farm as community medicine, the farm as a model for cancer care, and the farm as a model for stress management. She also explained to us the link that she has discovered though her work and research between microbes in soil and the microbes in our bodies, which can make us healthier and more well nourished people. Dr. Miller’s presentation was fascinating and it really expounded on the conference’s theme: “Letting Nature Lead.”.
On day two of PASA we were up bright and early, stocking up on books, seeds and PASA swag to wear to market before the next series of workshops began. We attended workshops about our micro-biome, co-marketing strategies and merchandising at market. We took copious notes, picked up some audio CD’s of our favorite workshops and headed over to hear the day’s keynote speaker, Miguel Altieri, professor of agroecology at UC Berkeley. He gave an incredibly eye-opening speech about the state of sustainable agriculture in South America, giving us an idea of the “PASAbilities” we can reach in our country. He talked about the Via Campesina or the Peasants Way movement, which advocates family-farm based sustainable agriculture and the concept of food sovereignty — the right of the people to define their own food systems rather than multi-national corporations. Food sovereignty as a movement is relatively new but it has thousands of years of sustainable and sound agricultural and biodiverse methods backing it up. His speech also coincided with the theme of the conference. Professor Altieri emphasized to us very strong social movements such as Via Campesina are advancing not just the concept, but the practice of food sovereignty on small farms around the globe.
Social movements have pushed countries in Latin America to enact important laws. For example, last year in Brazil the President singed into action the National Law of Agroecology and Organic Farming. In this law Brazilian government guarantees to buy 30 percent of the production from small farmers in Brazil every year which in turn goes to social markets such as hospitals, schools and jails. Can you imagine if our new Farm Bill contained legislation like that?!
In two days PASA informed, inspired and motivated me and my fellow Market Managers. If you ever thought that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the world’s growing population then Professor Miguel Altieri’s speech put that idea to rest. His examples of how growing food with nature instead of against it is the best way to feed the hungry people of the world while respecting the resources on our fragile planet. Dr. Daphne Miller’s speech taught me that dirt is not a four letter word — it’s one of the most important resources for continued life on Earth. She also inspired me to make better choices that support the sustainable food movement in our community. It’s an honor to be a part of FRESHFARM Markets, having the opportunity to work with farmers who are putting these ideas into practice, and constantly striving to make their work economically viable. I look forward to brining my new knowledge to our farmers markets in the market season ahead and I can’t wait to attend the next PASA Conference! If you are interested in checking out the speeches that we purchased on CD at PASA please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Market Manager and E-News Writer Nikki Warner.
A WINTER FUELED BY OPTIMISM AT THE FARM AT OUR HOUSE
Winter is in some ways one of the most exciting times of the farming year. Our farm is more or less asleep, weed seeds and pests dormant under the snow, and the blank slate of a new season lies ahead. We can feel optimistic about the possibilities. In the downtime, I devour books on market farming, plan our crop rotation, and order seeds that promise to be better than varieties we’ve tried before. Best of all, thanks to FRESHFARM Markets and the Jean Wallace Douglas Farmer Fund, I get to attend farming conferences, which are the greatest resource that we have during this season of planning and budgeting. Conferences are such a rich learning environment, and I try to sponge up as much information as I can from hundreds of experienced farmers with centuries of combined knowledge.
This year, I’m very grateful to the Farmer Fund for allowing me to attend two farm conferences. Recently, I attended the Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture conference (Future Harvest-CASA) and the Virginia Association of Biological Farming (VABF) Conference. The Future Harvest-CASA conference feels like a kind of family reunion because it draws MD/VA/DC-area farmers who I’ve met in other contexts. I’ve toured some of their farms, volunteered with them, and followed their seasons through Facebook. The conference was such a treat. The workshops were great. Best of all, I got to fire off dozens of questions about equipment choices, giving me a good idea of what to prioritize for purchasing this season. I was also able to get new ideas about the multiple ways in which we might use new and existing equipment.
I don’t know if it will always feel this way, but at this early stage in my farming life and my third year as Farm Manager at The Farm at Our House, I feel a tremendous opportunity for improvement with each new season, to grow more produce, better and more efficiently, to get better at feeding the soil, our pollinators, and our customers. I love that farming starts over again each year, making it possible for us to avoid pitfalls of the past and build on what we learn each season. Thanks to the farm conferences and the support of a generous local farmer network, our farming decisions can be enriched by their collective knowledge and insight.
We are grateful to be a part of the FRESHFARM Markets network. FRESHFARM Markets is a true champion of local foods and family farmers in the DC region. They do so much to nourish the local farm community. Offering scholarship funding for conferences is just one small part of that, but it is nonetheless very significant to the health and success of our little farm.
~ Michelle Nowak, Farm Manager at The Farm at Our House
The Farm at Our House is a certified organic produce farm with a flock of free-range laying hens. Our farm, an LLC, grows on 5 acres owned by Our House, a nonprofit residential job training center for at-risk teenage boys. Our farm’s mission is to grow and sell a variety of nutritious, delicious, organic produce; and to provide the young men of Our House with a work opportunity that stimulates learning, growth, and responsibility. For more on the farm, go to their website.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO HEAR MORE ABOUT?
As we kick-off the New Year, we want to hear from you. What would you like to read and hear more about on our blog, freshpicked? When we launched the blog in late 2012, our goal was to tell the untold stories behind bringing fresh, local and healthy food to the Washington, DC region. It was important to us to highlight the farmers and artisanal producers you see at market every week and the product they sell, which is at the core of what we do. We also wanted to share more about our innovative programs and those who support the critical work we do from the chefs and volunteers to the shoppers, sponsors and our community partners.
But enough about us! What do you want to know more about in 2014? We’d love to hear from you at freshpicked (at) freshfarmmarkets.org. Looking forward to hearing from you!
Happy New Year!
FRESHFARM MARKETS PRESENTS GIFT BASKETS!
This holiday season we have made it easy for you to give the gift of local and artisanal food and specialty items from the FRESHFARM family of farmers and producers. We’ve got small and large pre-packed market baskets available in addition to customized baskets including local maple syrup from S&S Maple Camp, Bresola from Cured DC, Thai chili spears from Gordy’s pickle jar and more!
Small Baskets: $38 will be filled with seven items including a small jar of Toigo honey, a bar of Harmony Creek soap, a three-pack of bison trail sticks from Cibola Farm, a small jar of baklava toppers from Baklava Couture, a pair of tapered beeswax candles from Banner Bee, a jar of Atwater’s jam, and a package of dried apples from Three Springs Fruit Farm.
Large Baskets: $68 will be packed with 10 items, everything in the small basket (with larger jars of honey, baklava toppers and candles) plus a bottle of salad dressing from Endless Summer Harvest, one cob of fresh popping corn from Quaker Valley Orchard and a small bag of dried oyster mushrooms from North Cove.
The Washington Post calls our baskets a “a gift to suit all tastes” and WTOP says they are the “gift of the areas flavors”. Pick up your gift basket at our Downtown Silver Spring and Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Markets this weekend! You can also order your basket online by visiting this website. Custom baskets start at $12.50 + the cost of each additional item you choose. Place your order now while supplies last!