Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sounds of the Country

                Ah, the sounds of the country. Ain’t nothing like it. The peaceful, serene…
                I seem to have awoken from a daydream, I guess. I’ll begin anew. Ah, the sounds of the country…
                Well, I have to pause here as well. If what is being termed “country” is a residentially enclosed parcel of land merely five miles removed from the county seat of a county that neighbors the major metropolitan center of the state, all the while being only a few miles removed, or to put it differently, to lie directly beneath the landing airspace of incoming jets and other aircraft to the local airport only a few miles away, can be considered “country”, than Nev-R-Dun Farm is guilty as charged! And while I would normally apologize for such an elongated sentence as the one above, I do not, because the changes in at least the words significantly override the redundancy of the “sounds of the country” to be described below.
                To begin, there are two parcels of land that will be the basis of this entry. The first is the aforementioned main parcel, that of Nev-R-Dun Farm itself. The second is a parcel of rented ground a few miles away in an area known as Silver Run. This second parcel was rented to expand our farming venture, but alas, did not turn out as planned… and for more than a couple of reasons, only a few of which will be touched on here. The main issue is probably my bad luck when it comes to rented land. Yet again, time and effort was invested in a parcel that ended up being sold to an outside source… in this case, one of the sound makers! It seems appropriate to start here.
                Silver Run, for the most part is a less than a mile run of land along MD97 north of the city of Westminster as it runs northwest towards Pennsylvania, and eventually, Gettysburg of Civil War fame. It is very small. “If you blink you will miss it” is an appropriate cliché. Anyhow, we rented a parcel of land directly behind some of the houses along MD97 and beside an old and long unused factory lot with a number of buildings on it. I will repeat that the factory buildings had been unused for a long time. I cannot even remember how long. Has it been ten years? Maybe that is an exaggeration, albeit an unintentional one, since I truly do not remember. Anyway, it was a long time.
                So, we tilled up some land, put up a deer fence, etc., all the while enjoying the peaceful calm surroundings. To be sure, MD97 was only a couple of hundred feet away, but the residential houses blocked the traffic noise fairly well. One was left to listen to the birds in the neighboring trees…
                That did not last long. A couple of months later, a company moved into the neighboring factory lot and set up a salvage yard! The peaceful country sounds went from “tweet, tweet, tweet” to “CRASH!... beep…beep…beep…SLAM!...beep…beep…beep…’Okay, brother drive up on the scale”… beep…beep…beep…” And that ruckus went on all day! Actually, it stopped around 5pm, but still, it sure felt like all day. Even when the din had dissipated, it still seemed to wring in your ears, or at least your memory. Ah, the sounds of the country…
                Luckily for me, I had grown quite accustomed to some of those sounds, namely large diesel machinery. (The “beep…beep…beep…” is the sound those vehicles make when moving in reverse, but of course you knew that. It appears I have digressed…) Over on the main parcel, the actual address of Nev-R-Dun Farm, the season started out normally. One learns to block out the air travel, of which there really is not a whole lot. Plane engine sounds are a little like television ads, annoying, but ultimately harmless. So the robins made their appearance, as did the cardinals, and eventually the catbirds, and of course the mockingbirds, you can’t forget the mocking birds… “RUMBLE…beep…beep…beep…”
                What the…? Loud diesel engine sounds intruded the airspace… from the neighbor’s property!  A large backhoe, along with a couple of other vehicles began excavating something. Ugh, I thought, there goes the peacefulness! And all day long, I got to listen to quite a symphony… of that large backhoe scraping the ground… then the “beep…beep…beep…” of reverse… then the dumping of the bucket…and other sounds from vehicles that could not be seen… Somehow it felt as though my occupation had changed from organic farmer to industrial construction worker! And it went on all day long! Okay, they actually stopped a little before 5pm. But then one of the neighbors got home and decided to do some work with the backhoe as well… Good grief! Give it a rest already!
                Somehow, by the time I arrived at the farm the next day, the sounds of those blasted vehicles had been forgotten, only to be refreshed instantly by that constant commotion. I remember wondering at that point, just how long was their job going to last? I thought in terms of money, as in, how long could they afford to pay one or two or three men to operate those machines eight hours a day. Actually afford is probably not the proper term. How long would they be willing to pay…?
                The answer: months. Whatever they were doing, it was of GREAT importance. And it did not even stop on the weekends. Every… EVERY day the sounds of those accursed machines flooded the valley. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Watching paint dry, or ice melt, all the while having someone scratch their nails on a chalk board… it was something like that… for months on end…
                To explain a little more on the torture those noises truly were, the vicinity of their origin was near the back side of the Nev-R-Dun Farm property, which means the back porch area… where the salad is washed. I have mentioned a number of times how dreadful the salad washing procedure can be, especially in November, when it tends to be quite cold. The process requires the sorting of lettuce leaves in water bins, which can take 5 or 6 hours to accomplish. In November… well, I mentioned that before, your hands get quite numb. But to sort the salad with that constant ruckus! To pause again, the multitude of hours of the, normally, peaceful sounds of nature drunk in while washing the lettuce is quite soothing, and it allows for me to ruminate on a myriad of things, for example, what do I write next for Tales of Idyllia, or how am I ever going to pay the mortgage? However, when an orchestra of heavy machinery permeates the area, peaceful is anything but the definition.
                Eventually, after months, sometime in the fall, the heavy machinery went away. One morning, I started to harvest some crops when I stopped, looked around, and realized those blasted unnatural sounds of the country had vanished. And they had completely! Soon another orchestra could be heard, the native birds were no longer over powered by the angry boom box of diesel engines! At last… at long last, the peaceful serenity had returned. The evil beasts had departed for ever… I hope…

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tomato Sauce Lipstick

                Over this past year, I have learned an extraordinary amount of facts about the food we consume that, despite an inherent pessimism over the value of super-processed foods, GMOs, etc., I would never have guessed that some experiences with food that I had considered “natural” to the eating process, simply put… ARE NOT. With that, I shall digress…
                Today’s topic deals with… pasta with tomato sauce! Oh how I love pasta with tomato sauce! Oh how I have always loved pasta with tomato sauce! This combination may very well be THE most impressive invention in the history of our species! Indeed, it is the essence of what separates us from the other animals! What creativity, what inventiveness... led from the corn of a grass plant ground to a powder, mixed with an egg from one of those annoying clucking chickens to be cut into all kinds of shapes, then dipped into boiling water to form what we call… PASTA! And then… and then… add smashed, delicious vine fruits, known as tomatoes and you have… PASTA WITH TOMATO SAUCE! Delicious! And our… European, most specifically Italian, ancestors have enjoyed this combination for centuries. Who am I not to follow suit? In fact, I have a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce heating in the oven as I write this!
                One should not overlook the genius behind such a creation. That delectable culinary combination is, and I am certain it has for… hundreds of years, been simply inspirational! To be sure, to our current mind’s eye, it is taken for granted. It is an assumed treat, if you will. But I am certain, that in the past, truly creative and inventive minds sat before a delicious plate of pasta and tomato sauce and experienced the horizon’s explosion as the result of the very first bite. Well, at least for me it is not hard to imagine. I mean, come on! Spaghetti and meatballs! Lasagna! Who would not be inspired…? Okay, okay, I shall move on.
                I will pause here to remind the reader that this is, in fact, a “Tale of Idyllia”, which translates into, ultimately a tale of woe in some form or fashion. Yes, even pasta with tomato sauce does not travel through human history unsullied. Not only are we humans genius enough to invent pasta with tomato sauce… we are also genius enough to destroy it. But I will get back to that… First, let me check the bowl in the oven…
                Ah, pasta and tomato sauce. The pasta was made with “unbleached” flour and eggs that came from R&R Farm’s pasture raised chickens and cut and cooked as fettuccini noodles. The tomato sauce originated as San Marzano paste tomatoes, THE BEST paste tomato I have ever tasted, then baked to tighten the flavor and mixed into sauce with salt and pepper… and of course, German White garlic. Magnifico! Mm-mm fantastic!
                And then there are the meatballs… starting with organic grass fed ground beef, rolled together with more egg and homemade bread crumbs… Outstanding! The aroma alone is almost unbearable… almost, because the realization that that delectable combination will soon be residing in my belly… my well satisfied belly is simply satiation pro res!
                Now, I write post-prandial delight. The homemade pasta and tomato sauce has been savored and devoured accordingly. And here is where the title to this entry makes its appearance. Completely satiated, a napkin was grasped and my lips were wiped. Every time that sequence occurs after having such a homemade pasta and tomato sauce meal, the napkin is pulled away from my lips… and despite the multitude of times this has occurred, I am still amazed that the napkin is free from what I have deemed tomato sauce lipstick!
                Admittedly, this seems like quite a trifling issue. Nonetheless, it has only been recently, that is, since I have made the concentrated effort to only eat the natural organic produce that I grow. (The issue of why it has taken me so long to accomplish this will take too long to describe here…) All of my memories of eating pasta with tomato sauce, whether at home, or at a restaurant, etc., end with wiping tomato sauce lipstick off with a napkin. That has not been experienced in almost a year! And this is where the pause comes, that pause, that deliberation on why that is the case… Could it be… that there is yet more unnatural, and unlabled, ingredients in the tomato sauce in which I had so recently indulged?
                But before I jump to a conclusion before the facts, let’s check out one particular sauce’s ingredients. The company will go unnamed, but the same ingredients will be found on other brand’s ingredient lists as well. This tomato sauce is, of course, “All Natural”, a claim that means absolutely nothing in today’s supermarket aisles. The “All Natural” ingredients are… tomato puree, diced tomatoes, corn syrup, vegetable oil and spices. Wow. That does not sound all that different from the homemade tomato sauce I just ate.
                Here I am going to take an abrupt turn. As I have researched what is actually used in the processing of these ingredients, I have not gotten far. The problem is that companies are not required to name certain gelling agents for example used in the processing. Until this is required by law, discovering what the hidden ingredients are is like searching for that proverbial needle in a hay stack, only when you eat those hidden ingredients, that needle is going to stick you with every bite.
                So I will go back to the list of ingredients to see if there is an ingredient there that could be causing the tomato sauce lipstick. The ingredients in my homemade tomato sauce are… fresh, local, organic, …ripe!, heirloom tomatoes pureed, maybe some fresh, local, organic onion, fresh, local, organic garlic, (unless that falls under spices), a little organic olive oil and organic spices ((oregano, etc.( fresh and local was dropped because it does not fit for salt)). And here there is a noticeable ingredient difference, which actually reflects the inferior nature of factory processed food, such as tomato sauce. And I am not referring to organic at this point.
                The main ingredient difference is the corn syrup in the store bought tomato sauce. Corn syrup, yes, that could be the culprit behind the tomato sauce lipstick. Nonetheless, why corn syrup? Why to sweeten that dull tomato flavor up, of course! Precisely here is where the greatest difference between fresh, local, organic and factory processed. Tomatoes present a great example.
                I first encountered this over a decade ago, when I was still woefully naïve of factory farming. I grew some heirloom tomatoes and instantly fell in love with the flavor. Somewhere through the years, I came upon a very old Italian cook book, wherein the recipes called for seemingly everything to be made from scratch. With great anticipation, I embarked to duplicate a tomato sauce recipe. In the old Italian book’s recipe, it called for sugar…
                Why on earth would you want to add sugar to a sauce made with delicious heirloom tomatoes? I discovered that answer over the years. It seems the very old Italian cookbook did not predate the factory “canning” of tomatoes, which was developed sometime in the late 1800s. Until that time, heirloom tomatoes were much more popular, in fact grew in many people’s yards from the country to the city.
                The factory “canning” of tomatoes changed all of this. Now, heaps and heaps of tomatoes were needed to be processed in a fast industrialize-sized fashion. Fresh heirloom tomatoes would not do. By the time those delectable, and extremely delicate, tomatoes would make it to the processing plant, they would be bruised and rotten. And this is what changed tomatoes from being vine-ripened and delicious to the hard, flavorless, meaty tomatoes found on supermarket shelves. Tomatoes were now grown for completely new qualities; uniformity, shipability, which means stackability, and for a one time harvest, instead of a lesser quantity producing for a longer time. One of the main qualities lost during this process was… taste! Even by the time the very old Italian cook book had been printed, canned tomatoes had long been the norm. The result? That bland sauce needed to be livened up! And what better ingredient to add than sugar?
                So, back to the corn syrup. Why corn syrup? Something needs to be added to those bland tomatoes.  In regards to my own homemade tomato sauce, I would never imagine destroying the natural flavor of those delicious heirloom tomatoes with… sugar. It would simply kill the flavor! And that is the difference between factory processed tomato sauce and homemade fresh, local, organic, ripe! , heirloom tomato sauce. That is, without knowing exactly what is in the factory processed tomato sauce…

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

                On Monday, October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall sometime in the evening, and ravaged and raged for many hours over night. As a result, a torrent of eight inches of rain fell amidst the constant pummeling of high velocity wind gusts. The farm was devastated. Trellises were toppled, row covers ripped apart and fertile organic farm soil became a swamp. And thus the story is repeated…
                Last year, on August 27, 2011, Hurricane Irene visited the farm and left it without power for five days. Then, on September 5, 2011, Tropical Storm Lee visited… alright… devastated the farm pouring 11.5 inches of rain over the course of five days. That was a two week span of time I am certain I will never forget.
                When Hurricane Sandy approached, I was not all that worried about a power outage, but said nothing regarding it. The memory of Hurricane Irene’s winds still lingered in my mind, which to me meant that most of the limbs and trees that were prone to falling fell last year. Again, I did not want to jinx the situation so I said nothing. As a result, we did not lose power, which was actually a great relief.
                What struck me as most important about Hurricane Sandy was the amount of rainfall we would receive. The predictions had our area receiving anywhere from 3-4 inches to 12 plus. The memory that most hurt from last year was the flooding following Tropical Storm Lee. Oh how I hoped the predictions were wrong! Alas, they were not!

Eight inches fell on the farm leaving a flooded mess. For two consecutive years, our area has been wind-beaten and deluged by hurricanes and a tropical storm. What are the odds? Actually I know that answer. It has never happened before. And with the size and scope of Hurricane Sandy, along with the destruction as a result, these “new” events are becoming quite alarming!
Early on in my farming career, I noticed how few farmers grew into the fall, as in, specifically targeted the fall for growing. Most farmers ended their season with summer and waited for the next year. Instead of that approach, an entire other grow season is available in the fall. All one has to do is some more seeding and cultivating for the most part, and peas, spinach and lettuce will return during the cooler months. And I found that the work required was less than in the spring or summer because most of the pests, including the weeds, die back during the colder months. So, for years, I have enjoyed the pleasant cooler months for the fall harvest.
That was over ten years ago, however, and as of recent, in particular, the last two years, the fall has been a very difficult season in which to grow. Up until now, I had not mentioned the six inches of snow that fell on October 29 of last year, an unprecedented amount for that early in the fall. As a result of these weather extremes that are becoming all too common, I have had to readdress my approach to fall farming. It simply is not what it used to be.
And this leads me to the larger point, those dreaded terms, “global warming” and “climate change”. While I consider my approach to farming “scientific”, I am not a scientist who has researched into the reality of “global warming” and “climate change”. What I do know is that weather event after weather event has become vastly more extreme of recent years than anything recorded in our past. There is a current “belief” that these environmental changes are unproven, false, etc., and yet the great, great majority of scientists who actually study the field state that the evidence is clear, due to human excessive release of carbon into the air, the average temperature on the earth is rising. The result of the rising temperature, along with the melting ice caps, etc. is that the weather systems are increasing in strength.
Again, I personally have no proof of “global warming” and “climate change” other than witnessing/experiencing the current stream of weather extremes. And my intention is not to stage an argument on something so important to the future of all life on the planet. No, I will leave that aside.
Actually, I have digressed from my intention, which was to reveal how “global warming” and “climate change” will greatly affect a farmer’s ability to, well, farm in the… actually… today! Farming, to a degree is becoming more and more like a crap shoot rather than the meticulously planned growing cycle it actually is, for me at least. The problem is that a farmer cannot plan on a hurricane, since it is not known in advance. In the past when such large storms happened every twenty years or so, the farmers “took their chances” for a good year, realizing that sometimes a year will be struck with a hurricane, etc. If such extreme weather continues then farmers will be relegated to gambling.
Each crop requires expenses from seeds to labor and tools and irrigation and much, much more. When events such as hurricanes, tropical storms and unseasonable snow storms fall upon the farm, they do not do so without incurring damage, which translates somewhere down the line into money loss. If extreme weather is no longer something that happens every twenty years or so, but can happen back to back, there will be little difference between farming and gambling. Oh, except that if one actually wins at gambling often big stakes are the result. In farming it is a pittance.
In my years farming, I have witnessed quite a few local farms attempt to farm organically, and the great majority have failed. The importance of eating organic food seems to have grown exponentially, but actually only the awareness has. IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN IMPORTANT TO EAT ORGANIC FOOD! With the new frequency of extreme weather events it is going to become more and more difficult to provide the fresh, local organic produce desired. And that is a frustrating fact.
But all is not lost. There are ways to get around most of the weather extremes, albeit they are costly. Such things as greenhouses can protect against these fierce storms. There are ways to further secure crops in the fields… even against snow. Again, it all comes down to costs, which does not clear the way for cheap fresh, local organic produce anytime soon. Nonetheless, we will keep trying.