Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cake and Kohlrabi

Does anyone eat broccoli anymore?  Or grow cabbage for slaw, or Brussels sprouts?  (OK, so I'm not that worried about the consumption of Brussels sprouts.....not my fave in the vegetable category.)  The reason I ask?  Because flat after flat of perfectly lovely cole crops are growing in the greenhouse, not being hauled from Hurst Greenery to garden centers or grocery stores.
Late Flat Dutch Cabbage heads
 Nope, we've mostly had requests for Late Flat Dutch cabbage...and kohlrabi.  Not kidding!!  Kohlrabi!  Last summer, Millie tried repeatedly to interest anyone dropping by in the kohlrabi she had picked from her garden. No takers.  They may be delicious...someone told me kohlrabi can be used like a potato, but what I've read puts its taste somewhere between cabbage and broccoli stems.  Another source says it is sweet like an apple and yet another puts it on the vegetable spectrum between radishes and young turnips.  My interpretation of all these opinions?  One of two outcomes: 1) Kohlrabi has no taste and therefore is chopped up into chunks and used as a generic "mixed vegetable"whenever a mixed vegetable is called for, or 2) Kohlrabi is NEVER eaten, but grown as a curiosity by gardeners who just like something different in the row.  I do know that most of the orders for kohlrabi come from eastern Nebraska. Perhaps there is a great local kohlrabi cuisine in the ethnic heritage of our neighbors to the west.
Here's a Kohlrabi
At any rate, Charlie came up this afternoon for garden plants and carried off not just broccoli, but also cabbage and cauliflower for their garden.  He told me Thursday that the ground was hard, hard, hard, but he's hoping for some measurable rain Sunday night or Monday to help settle his new transplants.  When I drove home around suppertime, he and Millie were headed out to spend the evening in the garden.

He's not alone in wishing for rain even as the planters roll. Earlier this week, the air was thick and the sunsets wreathed in smoke.  Aaron and Gabe manned their machines to mow around the greenhouses, Gabe in his bucket hat, Aaron on the zero turn John Deere.  Both boys wore masks, but that did nothing to slow the accumulation of dust and grit in their ears. Aaron has mowed what passes for our lawn only twice this dry spring.  He's good enough at math to figure out what consequences a dry summer will have on the sum of his summer income.

Blake has spent an agony of mental anguish on our inability to grow grass over the years.  Neither weed, nor feed, nor benign neglect ( we are really good at that!) seems to make one iota of difference. The curse is unbroken in 2016.  Aaron looks more like Pigpen following an afternoon of mowing at Spruce.

 There's nothing like an outing to the theater after a busy week of work.  The Liberty Theater boasted full houses for both Friday and Saturday for a showcase of energetic and exuberant dance on the stage, applause and smiles and laughter and encouragement for the homegrown talent from the audience.  So many proud picture taking parents and grandparents!  I love being part of the crowd at the kids' events, watching them learn to practice and memorize, developing skill and judgment and confidence and grace whether the arena is sports or dance or a spelling bee or Battle of the Books.

Blake and I enjoyed a delicious and civilized meal on Ann and Matt's patio this Sunday evening: steak and seasoned potatoes and pasta salad with angel food cake and strawberries for dessert.

Speaking of cake, Thursday is Blake's birthday! Even though he's going to be out of town that day, the crew at the greenhouse has generously offered to celebrate with him in absentia ..with his birthday present from his mother, Millie's exquisite angel food cake! Blake does not appreciate our thoughtfulness nor trust our intentions and has already acted to protect his interest by scheduling a different delivery date for the cake..

..when he will be around to get the first piece.....

So wish Blake a happy birthday if you see him this week....

...and come out and buy some broccoli....

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Poison, Poems and Prairies

 He's young and slender and dressed all in black.  We're sitting in the 'green room' backstage at the Gem Theater at 18th and Vine in the historic Jazz District of Kansas City.  "This is Alex", the woman with the headset tells us, "And he's going to recite a poem." I don't remember the title of Alex's poem, but it was appropriate to the event being a lusciously descriptive list of the good things cooking in a traditional Southern kitchen.  He exhibits a cultivated intensity, attaching gravity to beans and collards.  We are taking food seriously too, having got to the theater early so Blake can do a sound check; this poem and a couple of chunks of cheese are as close as we are likely to come to supper until this NPR event, Going There, How We Eat, is over and we are invited for a glass of wine and some "curated" food at a reception across the street.

This isn't our first rodeo. The occasion is part of a live-event series for National Public Radio hosted by the weekend host of All Things Considered, Michel Martin. Kansas City is a logical locus for the  focus for this show: “How We Eat” will include both live discussions and a virtual panel of Twitter contributors.  It has been our experience that an invitation to represent the "conventional farmer" viewpoint on a "diverse" agricultural panel is a chance to be the "skunk in the garden party", as Blake represents himself to moderator Michel Martin.  The diverse part is readily apparent in the green room.  Here's the "tomato whisperer", who grows heirloom tomatoes and hosts tomato tastings.  There's a young entrepreneur who went back to her cooking roots after the 2008-9 bust left her jobless. The MacArthur grant genius and grand old man of perennial prairie grasses, Wes Jackson, sits down with us two unrepentant growers of annual crops to talk about the Fall.  No, not Adam and Eve.  The Fall, according to Mr. Jackson, is when one of our hungry ancestors scratched down to bare earth.  From that, 'twas but a wide and slippery slope to the cultivation of  wheat and corn and rice, crops that require the hand of man to plant, to harvest, to thrive, crops that turned humanity not into farmers...but "weeders" in Mr. Jackson's parlance. "I don't know why farmers don't like me,"he says. Yeah.  Perhaps it’s because you consider agriculture a 10,000 year old mistake leading to “soil loss and degradation, ecosystem destruction and high energy use”, while farmers like us tend to believe we marshal limited resources in an economical fashion, utilizing brains and technology to grow maximum food and fiber with minimum “unnatural’ inputs. Blake and I are not unfamiliar with his lifework and enjoy the chance to respectfully spar with someone famous in his field, even though I cannot help but think of the Wizard of Oz as we talk about being  “imprisoned by our technology.”  If there had been a genetic shortcut to a perennial grain, would Mr. Jackson have made that deal with the technological Devil?

 One of the other panelists describes herself as the "farm steward" of the  acreage where she "forages" for sustainably produced fruit, vegetables, herbs and other edibles to sell to her customers.  Nothing value laden in that description, right?  While she insists her intent is not to be confrontational, her description of pesticide use is difficult to construe as anything but antagonistic no matter how mild her manner.  Question: "As I understand it, you're critical of conventional farming. You are all organic...." Answer: "...it's just very practical.  If I just say it out loud that we dump poison on our food or use poison to protect our food...." This is a person familiar with chemicals, with modern medicine. Yet she sees no incongruity between confidence in the science of today's medicine and fear of today's technologies in agriculture.  Growing organic and eating organic is certainly a choice. But it is not necessarily better for the land, the farmer, or the people eating any more than relying on homemade herbal poultices is a better remedy for my headache than a chemical medicine like ibuprofen.

No wonder a self proclaimed conventional farmer using every conceivable tool, genetic, mechanical, cloud based, can feel like he's being picked on.  Blake, the poster child for our version of family farming, takes advantage of every inconsistency in the arguments of the anti technology advocates to defend and promote two fundamental ideas:  1) that the ultimate goal is to feed people and take care of the land, and 2) that there will be a farmer willing to produce whatever the market wishes as long as there is freedom to do so.  This is a conciliatory gesture that most of this audience in Kansas City can rally to: that growing food and buying food and eating food for every budget, taste, and philosophy is far too big a challenge for but one set of rules.

 Michel Martin, the host, steers the group by asking questions that cut through cliche in a way that is pithy and not judgmental.  For instance, a question for Blake: "Why (would) you even feel the need to say you're unapologetic about it (being a conventional farmer)....you know, large-scale farming is in part one of the reasons why this country has been the best-fed nation in the history of the world". For Wes Jackson ringing the doomsday bell about  the outlook for an agriculture based on conventional crops: "How many years do we have left?"  About organic food: "How much would it take to switch to organic?" And I cannot imagine an audience anywhere but in the Midwest approving the notion that folks ought to know what their slaughtered beef looks like.  

 In the end, we skipped the line for the curated food across the road in the Jazz Museum, opting instead for a couple of sandwiches at the Love's Truck Stop just south of St. Joseph.  The wind whipped up a cloud of gravel dust ahead of a squall line visible north on I-29.  There were three cars at the gas pumps and two tables of huddled diners inside. Were the sandwiches we ate in the car at 11 pm as delicious as the tasty greens in Kansas City?


I remembered how one of the panelists complained that "food was just fuel...it allows us to keep working.  We don't think of it as history or culture."  But that is exactly the strength and glory of our food system: It is big enough to do both jobs and carry them off well.  Some of us farmers grow cash crops to feed the makings of a chicken sandwich at a truck stop at midnight.  And some of us grow the chef's herbs for a meal savored and celebrated and memorized.

And a very few, like Alex, call it poetry.....

To hear part of the discussion, listen here:

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Is the Spring Coming? Come to Open House and See!

“Is the spring coming?" he said. "What is it like?"...
"It is the sun shining on the rain and the rain falling on the sunshine...”
When I do not think my own words sufficiently artful in pinpointing the feelings or painting the picture I desire, I do not shy away from adopting some from writers of a more poetic bent. I look up quotes...sometimes to reinforce a phrase half remembered, sometimes to express an essence I can’t quite reach.  What is spring?  It is yin and yang, the turmoil of the winds rushing now north with warmth and moisture, now howling south with the sleet and chill from lands where spring has not yet ventured.
“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.”
In greenhouse world, spring work has been plodding along for months on the more or less predictable schedule we set out when the plant orders came in: sorting a load of plugs, filling flats with potting mix, matching the cuttings to the customer, counting, always counting. To describe this process as ‘joyful enthusiasm’ is indeed to imbue our daily tasks with both more orderliness and nonchalance than is detectable in anyone’s attitude!  We have productive days and frustrating days, but one week before the equivalent of Hurst Greenery’s Opening Day, the greenhouses are splitting at the seams with a patchwork of texture and color.  We humans may be weary, but the burgeoning of spring will not be denied.
There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring.”
Even a mild winter in this hard hearted  Continental climate brings weeks of drear and dark and whining winds. The first hint of warming sun melting a heavy frost changes the scent of the land perceptibly.  The first rain releases the soil from bondage and pockmarks the most compacted winter walkway with the castings of awakening earthworms.
“It always amazes me to look at the little, wrinkled brown seeds and think of the rainbows in 'em," said Captain Jim. "When I ponder on them seeds I don't find it nowise hard to believe that we've got souls that'll live in other worlds. You couldn't hardly believe there was life in them tiny things, some no bigger than grains of dust, let alone colour and scent, if you hadn't seen the miracle, could you?”
“He smelled cold water and cold intrepid green. Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the smell of cold, raw green.”
“The point is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing.”
Ah! Now we come to the crux of the matter.  Indeed!  The pleasures of visiting our greenhouse this weekend for the annual Open House are available to everyone and are free, free, free!  Come see what we’ve been planting, watering, and caring for since February!  We have potted up almost 7000 planters, a total we cannot even believe. We are fitting each additional flat in jigsaw piece by piece. The earliest tomatoes are just about ready for those who feel lucky.  By Saturday, the greenhouses will be full to overflowing, not an unusual situation for early April, so, bring your camera, your phone...and kids, too.
Whatever the weather on Saturday, we  promise spring inside….

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”