Monday, December 29, 2008

Mediterranean Climate

Here in California, we live in what is commonly called a Mediterranean climate. It is also known as the dry summer subtropical climate, but Mediterranean is shorter and more evocative. What this all means is that we have dry, warm summers and cool, wet winters. Our hillsides turn golden brown in the summer and lush green in the winter. Wendy MaHarry refers to the summer hills "like lions lying down" and that is a perfect description.

Now, however, we are getting into the wet season and the hills are turning green. The cattle grazing on the hillsides look muddy but fat and everything seems to be flourishing. How odd, then, that the majority of our trees have no leaves or fruit. We have some citrus trees that are dark green with eye-popping colors of orbs hanging on and our silvery olive trees still have their lovely soft leaves. But our stone fruit trees are brown-- stick-like --dormant. This morning coming to the farm, there were wisps of ground fog between the dormant trees, creating an eerie look.

Now, however, the sun is out and it is cool. No sign of rain....or spooks.

Oil painting"Clouds Over Diablo" byEunice Kritscher featured atWalnut Creek's Valley Art Gallery

Monday, December 22, 2008

Compassion and Sustainability

Sustainability is a tricky thing.

In agriculture, it is often easier to be environmentally sound than it is to be either economically viable or socially just. Someone, somewhere inevitably gets the short end of the sustainability stick.

Today, at the end of a tumultuous year with family-centered holidays fast approaching, I want to talk about sustainability and compassion. Compassion is what it takes to make an endeavor fully sustainable.

Economic disparity leads to dissatisfaction. The gap between the rich and poor continues to grow globally and locally. This lack of fairness is not sustainable because it is not just. Want leads to instability and dissent. Free markets do not ensure social justice: it seems the wealth just never trickles down quite far enough. As individuals we need to accept the responsibility for creating social justice in our small ways. Through compassion, we can move toward becoming a more sustainable society. We all need to try to understand the plight of farmers who are struggling to be economically viable and farm workers who deserve social justice.

When I hear a relatively wealthy person complain about the high cost of spinach, for example, I ask them how long it would take them to plant, nurture, grow, harvest, pack and transport that spinach. The inputs are huge for a pound of spinach and the rewards to the farmer are small. The rewards to the farm worker who actually does most of the back breaking labor are even smaller.

So, how much is a pound of spinach worth? Is it worth ensuring that we will have farmers growing spinach in the future? If so, then we need to purchase our food with the compassion that comes from knowing who is growing it for us. We need to be willing to seek food grown with the concept of social justice embedded with each seed. The choice will help to make our food system sustainable.

Monday, December 15, 2008

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago. -- Christina Rossetti
I love this poem! It is often sung at this time of year as the days lengthen and our world responds to the rhythms of the solar system. Brrrr!

We're tilting farther from the sun with each day. Can you feel it? This tilting results in short days and long winter nights. The winter solstice itself is the day we are tilted the farthest from the sun in the northern hemisphere, our shortest day. This year, the solstice occurs on December 22nd. In England, this day is referred to as midwinter. As in the Christina Rossetti poem above, it is often bleak, windy and cold.

Significantly, it is also one of two "turning points" of the year. The day has historically symbolized the promise of the return of the sun and the lengthening of days. It is celebrated with lights and greenery.

While living in England for several years, I realized the importance of this reassurance. It seemed sometimes that the sun would never return. When darkness fell at 3 in the afternoon amid cloudy drizzle, it was easy to forget the long sunny midsummer nights and the glorious promise of spring, ablaze with flowers. I'd trim the holly hedge between my garden and the neighbor's and bring in bouquets and branches covered in red berries. Celebrating with lights blazing and living greenery brought into the house really lifted my heart.

The ancient Romans used holly to honor the god of agriculture. At this time of year, they would carry branches in processions, give holly wreaths as gifts of good will and decorate their homes with cuttings. Why celebrate the god of agriculture during the cold and dark? Because, they viewed this shortest day as the pivotal point in the year when days start lengthening and the promise of next year's planting and harvest should be celebrated. When viewed from this perspective, maybe midwinter isn't quite so bleak.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chill Hours and Darkness

I was thinking of chill hours and darkness on my way into the farm this morning. As I passed the frosty hillsides embracing Marsh Creek, I wondered if the trees on the hillsides need chill hours like our stone fruits do. I notice the elderberries blooming at the same time every year and think about the amazing mechanisms engineered into plants to assure their survival.

Chill hours and darkness affect humans and plants in some ways very similarly. When it gets cold and dark, I want to hole up in my warm house and reduce my activity. Plants respond in much the same way. They withdraw the sugars from the tips of their branches and get prepared for a state of extended dormancy. As darkness increases, hormones in plants signal "sleepy time!" This leads to a drop in photosynthetic activity. Leaves fall and sugars and proteins concentrate in cell protoplasm creating a sort of anti-freeze within the plant.

Chill hours actually work on the other end of the seasonal cycle, triggering bloom time. If a tree doesn't receive the chill hours it needs to break dormancy, it may bloom haphazardly, resulting in the possibility of its missing prime pollination time and having low fruit set. I don't know much about it, but I do know that when the cold weather comes, stone and pome fruit farmers revel in the cold, thinking of the good it does their trees. We all count the hours of chill knowing that they make for better production and healthier trees.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bagna Cauda Pasta Recipe

In honor of the arrival of the 2008 Frog Hollow Farm Extra-Virgin Organic Olive Oil, here's a delicious spin on bagna cauda, the Italian garlic-and-anchovy dip from Piedmont. Since this calls for a lot of oil, you might want to use your Frog Hollow olive oil for the bagna cauda, and an everyday olive oil for frying the eggs just before serving.

This recipe comes from A Twist of the Wrist by Nancy Silverton. Thanks to Luisa Weiss of Wednesday Chef for bringing it to our attention.

Egg Pappardelle With Bagna Cauda, Wilted Radicchio and an Olive-Oil-Fried Egg
Serves 4

For the pappardelle and bagna cauda:
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
15 anchovy fillets
8 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
12 radicchio leaves, torn into small pieces
Grated zest and juice of half a lemon
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
8 to 12 ounces egg pappardelle

For finishing the dish:
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 large eggs
Parmesan cheese
1 heaping tablespoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. To make the bagna cauda, place a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, anchovies and garlic and cook, breaking up the anchovies with a fork and stirring constantly, until the anchovies dissolve and the garlic is soft and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, stir in the parsley, radicchio and lemon zest and juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Prepare the pasta by bringing a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add enough kosher salt until the water tastes salty and return to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.

3. To finish the dish, heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat until the oil is almost smoking, about 2 minutes. Break 1 egg into a small bowl and pour into the skillet. When it just begins to set around the edges, break the second egg into the bowl and pour into the skillet. (By waiting a moment before adding the next egg, the eggs won’t stick together.) Repeat with the remaining 2 eggs. Cook until the edges are golden, the whites are set and the yolks are still runny.

4. Use tongs to lift the pasta out of the water and transfer it quickly, while it’s dripping with water, to the skillet with the bagna cauda. Place the skillet over high heat. Toss the pasta to combine the ingredients and cook for 1 to 2 minutes more.

5. Using tongs, divide the pasta among 4 plates, twisting it into mounds. Grate a generous layer of cheese over each. Place an egg over the cheese. Sprinkle the parsley over the pasta and serve with more grated cheese and pepper.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Winter Pears: History and Hope

I was just reading a story about pear mania in the Fruit Hunters. Just like the Dutch craze for tulips, there was a New World equivalent with regard to pears. There were pear parties in the mid-1800's and rampant speculation in what we would now call pear futures. According to the authors, juicy pears became all the rage in Massachusetts in the years between 1825-1875. Members of high society hosted pear tasting parties and investors threw capital into speculative orchards, most of them unsuccessful. According to P.T. Quinn (1869, Pear Culture for Profit), "There has been more money lost than made, for I could enumerate five persons who have utterly failed to every one who has made pear culture profitable." Would-be millionaires entered into fierce competition for the newest pear varieties and the idea of getting rich planting and growing pears led "legions of American amateurs to experiment with their own varieties." (The Fruit Hunters, Adam Leith Gollner and Adam Gollner, p.255)

I leave the tale of pear mania behind with some hope for today. Life went on, pears grew as did hope. The ruin of investors in pears was not quite a crisis by our present standards. As Tom Stevens of the Daily Telegraph said in his article October 8, 2008, the word "crisis" comes from the Greek for "turning point." (Hope will only emerge when we're utterly submerged in bad news, 10/8/08) In the ancient language of flowers, pears symbolize comfort and affection. I find a lot of comfort in the winter, eating delicious, juicy pears, seeing them in crates with all their lovely colors. Knowing that I am eating the best fruits of a long history of pear breeding.

When pears are given as gifts, the sender is asking for a sign of hope. Hope is something that we adults often have a short supply of. When things are going badly, we tend to lose hope. Maybe at this time of financial worry and this season of generosity we all need to give the gift of pears and hope.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Garbage to Gold

Our CSA newsletter gets down and dirty this week, looking to see what happens to your fruit after you're done with the good parts. The inspiration for this essay came from one of Farmer Al's customers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, who pointed out that all the food scraps collected at the Ferry Building were composted at Jepson Prairie Organics in Vacaville.

As it turns out, one of Frog Hollow's biggest compost suppliers is Jepson Prairie. Every week, according to their website, some 5000 tons of food scraps from Bay Area homes and businesses are trucked out to their site in Vacaville for composting. As a subsidiary of Norcal Waste Systems, Jepson gets all the orange peels, old lettuce, leftover spaghetti and half-eaten burritos that the Bay Area tosses into its green-waste recycling bins. This admittedly stinky but valuable sludge gets minced on-site, since the smaller the pieces, the faster they decompose.

This makes up what home composters know as "greens"--the soft, leafy, juicy stuff that's high in nitrogen and breaks down quickly. What a good compost pile needs is a balance of "browns", too--drier, harder materials, like straw, wood chips, and dry leaves, that are high in carbon and slower to break down. So, Jepson Prairie mixes in yard & tree trimmings from Vacaville and Dixon to get the proper ratio of brown (carbonaceous) and green (nitrogenous) materials.

Then, the mix goes into self-contained plastic pods known as "Ag Bags," which are threaded with aeration pipes. The mixture starts breaking down and in the process heats up to temperatures sufficient to kill pathogens, undesirable bacteria, and weed seeds. After 2 months in the "Ag Bags," the mixture goes outside, piled in long, tall windrows. These windrows are mechanically turned numerous times during the next 30 days to keep oxygen moving throughout the pile. After 30 days, the black-brown, crumbly, and nearly odorless mixture is screened to sift out any oversized pieces. Once it's been sifted into a uniform mix, it's ready to go out to the farm.

Just like the city that feeds it, much of the value of Jepson Prairie's compost comes from the diversity of its sources--everything from coffee grounds and pomegranate rinds to pad Thai and persimmon peels.

So, toss an apple core into your green recycling bin and it can end up right back in the orchard, in the form of lush, microbe-rich compost that enriches the soil and feeds the trees.

And speaking of green garbage at the Ferry Building, Gov. Schwarznegger just gave the marketplace a 2008 Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award. Check it out in the Chronicle's City Insider column, which mentions the building's composting program as a way of "closing the loop" between urban-edge farmers and city consumers.

In case you were wondering, no, you can't buy Jepson Prairie's compost for your backyard. As a wholesale operation, they sell only to farms, nurseries, wineries, and other businesses with commercial resale licenses, not to private individuals. If you'd like to learn more about backyard composting, check out these classes from San Francisco's Garden for the Environment.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Winter Even Comes to California

The past 2 days at the farm have been shrouded in fog: the kind of fog often called "tule" fog in the Great Valley. It seems to be localized so that within 15 minutes drive, or less, it is sunny and clear and cool like Indian summer. But here, we are hunkered down working in the orchard, kitchen and offices.

It's a welcome respite to go into the kitchen at this time of year. The smells are heavenly. There is activity beyond imagination with pears being poached and canned, pastries being created, cookies and granola being baked and a multitude of packages being put into beautiful boxes for the holidays and sent to all corners of the country. It's wonderful for me to imagine faces of recipients when they open their little boxes of Brentwood sunshine in the midst of a snowy day.

I love the way the cookies look that are baked in our kitchen. These are definitely not mass produced, machine- made cookies. Only their taste exceeds their wonderful aroma. One cold day last week, Jose brought me a freshly baked peanut butter and jam sandwich cookie: warm from the oven with the jam oozy and delicious. I'd been dying to try one, since they sounded so yummy. I was not disappointed.

Life on the farm is great, even on cold foggy days!
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