Archive for the 'Farm Visits' Category

Metonymical Barns

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

I was browsing through the Sunday Times today and I came a cross this fascinating examination of the disappearance of the barns that used to serve the small farms.  As the farms are snatched up by agribusiness, the barns get in the way.  They’re purposefully eradicated, or neglected until they crumble.

This is a deft use of metonymy, the rhetorical construct whereby an issue is illuminated by a symbolic examination of a related object, and Monica Davey uses it to great effect in this piece.  By tugging at the loose threads of the crumbling barn, she reveals the crumbling status of the agrarian class and the concentration of resources into the hands of the few and the wealthy, whom, it seems, often place higher priority on their potential gain than they do on families: as Davey writes, “Some here tell of people who call the widows of farmers who have died days or hours earlier, hoping to secure land.”

The conglomeration of our food production leads to reduced quality because the larger volume leads to decreased attention on the details; reduced options because the big guys are going to tend toward mono-cropping; increased reliance on chemical additives because farming untold acreage of a single crop reduces soil quality and is often only viable through production of a modern, spray-resistant hybrid varietal; and reduced security because the land that used to support several families now is tended by a relatively small number of individuals and their “air-conditioned, G.P.S.-equipped combines and tractors.”

Every time you shop for produce and wind up with pretty peaches that taste as fake and plastic as they look; sculptured tomatoes that have white interiors that taste like rice cakes (and are almost as hard); eat a sweet that gets is flavor from high fructose corn syrup… think of the barns, think of the families, think of hte lifestyle that’s being eradicated with the quality of your options—and make an effort to go to the farmers’ markets, to the roadside stands, to the orchards in your area and buy your food from the families who are still farming so that they can still farm in the years to come.

Or else, the barns may continue to dwindle and die.

If it’s Legal, Is it Still Moonshine?

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

There’s a certain mystique (at least in my mind) about the production of spirits. When it comes to homemade, I haven’t yet even dabbled in wine or beer. In this venue, I appreciate the efforts of others. I have no deign of trying to replicate the results. I’ve visited several wineries and nodded appreciatively at aging tanks; at breweries I have gazed at networks of tanks connected by pipes and valves, following their path through the assistance of diagrams. I haven’t really felt like I’ve left those places with an understanding of how they have worked, yet I’ve wanted to someday try my hand at making my own, perhaps.

Whiskey, on the other hand, is something that I’ve never pondered making on my own. The act of distillation adds a level of complexity that I don’t want to try on my own. Somehow, though, seeing a working small-time still (even if not at work when I saw it) condenses in my mind how spirits are made in a way I hadn’t grasped before. Then again, the tour guide probably has at least as much of a role in that understanding as anything else.

Last week, I visited Belmont Farm Distillery in Culpepper, Virginia, and received a whirlwind of a tour from its very hands-on, quick speaking proprietor, Chuck Miller, who provides many such walk-throughs at his “living museum.”

His operations should by no means be assumed to be the only working still in the hills of central Virginia. His work draws heavily on the history of moonshining in the area, and Miller even touts his product as “legal moonshine,” operating with “the blessing of the Commonwealth of Virginia because we pay them taxes.”

Truth be told, the still also has to comply to other regulations in order to maintain that blessing: the product reaches fruition at a natural strength of 150 proof, but Miller must dilute it to 100 proof in order to comply with the law. Even so, despite having produced spirits for sale since 1988, it’s only since 2006 that Mr. Miller has been able to make sales of his product on his farm—the first time since George Washington that anyone’s been legally able to do so in Virginia, as Mr. Miller points out more than once.


Garden Dreams

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

I should’ve had my camera with me on Saturday when I went to visit Garden Dreams in Wilkinsburg, because it was tough to believe the thriving garden that was hidden there. Fortunately, Google Maps has streetview for Pittsburgh, so you can get a glimpse of a preview for yourself until such time as I can get back out there and take a couple of photos.

An old Victorian house sits at the corner of Center and Holland. Anyone looking at it can tell that it used to be quite stately; it’s plain to see by the many boarded windows that the building has known better times. The yard behind it is another matter altogether. I’d not hesitate to gamble that it has never known such care and cultivation as it knows now: kale, tomatoes, leeks, fennel, peppers, and more…. and that’s just what they’re growing in their small ‘farm.’ On top of that, there are plants aplenty for the home gardener to purchase and transplant—and expert advice to go with it.

When Aurora and I were buying our tomatoes (two plants that we chose from 80+ varieties in their catalog), we were advised not to be afraid to plant them deeply. We hadn’t even known that most gardeners plant their young plants up to their first set of branches, but the helpful attendant (who recounted his winter spending 80 hours a week caring for seedlings in the basement to get ready for the summer) advised us that if we cared to, we could go even deeper. “When we plant, we use a post hole digger and put them down to about here,” he said, gesturing towards a spot just a few inches below the plant’s top. “They’ll grow roots the whole way down the stem and it gives them a much sturdier base.”

Pittsburgh continues to astound me with the breadth of resources available here—every time I think I have a good handle in what the city has to offer, I discover something ‘new.’ If you’ve been accustomed to getting your plants from the big box retailer, swing by Garden Dreams and experience what a wide selection, knowledgeable help, and attentive customer service are like. Anyone who’s been buying their plants from outside the Co-Op (as Aurora and I have done) should visit to find out where those plants actually come from. Anyone interested in finding out the best way to care for their tomato plants might stop in periodically over the summer and keep track of their experiment in progress: three rows of tomatoes to be staked three different ways: with stakes, with cages, and with a bamboo cone. Really, it’s a great resource for anyone who wants to garden better.

Garden Dreams is located at 810-812 Holland Street in Wilkinsburg; and can be reached by phone at 412-638-3333.

Pastured Pork from Wil-Den Family Farms

Friday, April 25th, 2008

As you approach Wil-Den Family Farms on Sandy Lake Road in Mercer County, PA, you’re immersed in the pastoral landscape of what most people think of when they think of farms: generous doses of green pasture, dotted by grazing cattle (you may even be lucky enough to spot a bison), dotted by the occasional silo and barn.

Turn the corner onto Limber Road, and you’re suddenly confronted by signs of the changes that have transformed similar landscapes across the nation over the course of the past sixty years: “Lot for Sale!” / “Sold!”

When I arrive at the farm, I mention to Denise Brownlee (the -Den half of Wil-Den; her husband, William, is the Wil-) that I noticed they’d be getting some new neighbors. “Well,” she replied, “Those lots have been for sale for a few years and no one has started building yet.” And when they do? “At least we were here first,” she says. “Plus, because our sows are in pasture, they don’t really let off a smell like the big operations do.”

It was through the big operations that the Brownlees got their start with pork. “Bill used to manage a 1000-sow operation in Lebanon County,” Denise tells me. “Nowadays, that would be considered a fairly small operation, but it was pretty big back then.” Rather than make a career of managing confined pork, Bill decided to strike out on his own.


Apple Varieties I’ve Had This Year

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

We’re getting to the end of local apple season.  Most orchards still have some available, so stock up now to help get you through the winter.  If you find yourself inundated with apples, a pot of applesauce is a great way to use up many at one blow.  This year has been a good one for me in terms of scouting out varieties of apples.  It started out poorly–I didn’t get to the orchard in July or August and as a result missed both the Lodii (the best applesauce apple I’ve yet found) and Rambo (the second best; early apples tend to make great sauce).  I’ve made up for lost time, though, thanks to my new job as a demonstration chef that has allowed me to travel the Pennsylvania countryside.  I’m documenting the apples I’ve used this year to perhaps inspire you to get out to an orchard and try a variety you’ve never had before, and also to inspire me next year to try an even wider selection.

  • Lodii–Two grew on my Lodii tree.  I used them, but only for a tart; not for sauce. 
  • Macintosh–par for the course, widely available, but still a good apple
  • 20-ounce Pippin–large, green, somewhat tart though also soft in texture.  Not a good eating apple but great for cooking, especially pies
  • Cortland–very white flesh, somewhat soft in texture, but makes great pies.  matches well with Pippins
  • Northern Spy–I wish I’d gotten a bag of these, too; but the place where I got the cortland and Pippins only took cash and I had to choose two of the three to buy.  I sampled it but have noi recommendations on its use.  I list it mainly because it’s on my priority list for a larger quantity next year.
  • Red Delicious–among my least favorite apples.  Mushy and mediovcre, but it comes in my CSA box.  Honestly, I wish the farm had a wider variety of tough to find apples rather than locally grown versions of supermarket favorites like this one and
  • Golden Delicious–OK to eat but better for cooking with
  • Golden Supreme–Better for eatingthan golden delicious by far.  Similar in appearance, though the Supreme tends to have a bit of a pink blush to it when it gets fully ripe
  • Unknown–By far my favorite CSA apple was a pinkish apple.  The farmer doesn’t know its variety because the trees were labeled as Golden Supreme when he received them.  Crisp and sweet, I wish I knew what it was called.   
  • Stayman Winesap–purchased from a roadside stand featuring an honor box, this batch was a little bit wormy, but the variety is very tasty and cooks well.  If you do wind up with wormy apples, don’t discard the whole apples.  It’s easy to cut around the worms/ worm damage to use the portion of the apple that is unharmed.  Really, the presence of the worms indicated to me that these were likely the only apples (including organic) that I ate that weren’t dosed with large amounts of pesticide.  And, yes, organic produce is treated with pesticides, just not synthetically created chemicals.  Naturally ocurring doesn’t necessarily mean healthful, though–for instance, one of organic apples’ most common pesticides is copper sulfate, which is rather noxious and definitely poisonous (that’s why it kills insects).

The apple I seek and have sought for years is the Gravenstein, the juice of which is available from whole foods, though I’ve never found the apples themselves.  If you have apple tales of your own or know about where to get Gravenstein Apples, let me know!