Monday, June 17, 2013

CSA, Week 6, The Culture of Agriculture

Wendell Berry speaks of farming systems as the type of symbiotic relationships that our greater society should model our culture around.  Let’s take a look at the farming system at Elmwood Stock Farm and discover just how correct he is.  Native habitats, whether rain forest or prairie, are teaming with thousands of species of plant and animal life, flourishing in a symbiotic relationship.  Although this coexistence of shared resources is stable, it will never achieve a state of equilibrium.  As weather patterns and solar energy input constantly modify the availability of those resources, the intricate inter-relationships ebb and flow in a predictable manner.  At Elmwood Stock Farm, our job is to manage these relationships while asking the system to provide us a certain crop at a certain point in time.

We balance our ecosystem by rotating plant and animal nutrients around the farm that builds fertility faster than the food crops can harvest them.  This also maintains the all-important balance of micro-organisms discussed in earlier postings.   So, looking at the farm, each field has a productive capacity based on slope, soil type, and accessibility of water.  We have developed a management system to utilize each in its own way to be productive while benefiting from some other aspect of the operation, hence the symbiosis.

By describing the field history of a single crop field you should get a sense of how this works.  Randomly we can start with planting alfalfa in our crop field.  Alfalfa is a legume, which means a rhizobia bacterium attaches itself to the roots for life support.  It also fixes nitrogen from the air, releasing it to the host plant and the soil around it.  Alfalfa has a strong taproot that burrows several feet deep into the soil that physically breaks up the soil, opening pores for air, water, and the soil food web to expand.  This plant also harvests minerals and nutrients from deep in the soil with the help of mycorrhizal fungi.  We bale the hay for three or four years while this soil building is happening.  The following winter, we unroll the hay bales in that same field for the cattle to consume and deposit their manure in the field, adding nutrients back into the system.  When spring arrives, we plow under the roots and top growth, so the microbes can decompose them, which converts them into a plant-available form.  This is the area we would plant heavy feeding crops like tomato, potato, cucurbits, peppers, and sweet corn. 

Following one of these food crops, we will lightly till the soil and plant a cover crop, which are fast growing cold weather tolerant crops like wheat and vetch (vetch is also a legume).  During winter, the actively growing roots maintain the food source for all the soil microbes and fungi, albeit slowed down in the cold environment.  These plants are easily tilled in, to release their nutrients in spring for fast-growing short season crops like lettuce, greens, and broccoli.  When such crops are harvested, other short season crops can follow.  These double-cropped food crops (double crop means two crops in same year) may be harvested until frost or after, which is too late for another cover crop to be planted.  Therefore, the following spring, peas and beans are a great option here, as they are leguminous, “making” their own nitrogen.  After the beans are harvested, sweet potato or winter squash can follow.  When they come off, it is time to seed alfalfa and begin anew. 

The focus seems to be on nutrient and nitrogen cycling.  This system does optimize nutrients and builds soil.  However, the equally significant aspects relate to managing insect populations and plant pathogens.  This rotational system seems to keep beneficial insect habitat abundant, while keeping plant pests from establishing themselves in wait for the next crop of choice.  Plant pathogens have little opportunity to gain reproductive momentum in the ever-changing environment that is super charged with beneficial bacteria and fungi.

The culture of agriculture is indeed based on sound biological principles, realistic production goals, and symbiotic relationships. Like Wendell said, it does sound like a pretty nice place to live.

In Your Share

Fresh Asparagus

Broccoli – organic

Kohlrabi - organic

Red Leaf and/or Green Lettuce – organic

Spinach - organic

Sugar Snap Peas - organic

Red Beets - organic

Collard Greens – organic

Recipes to Enjoy

Greens with Parmesan and Garlic
3 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 scallions, sliced
12 oz greens, thinly sliced, tough stalks removed (this recipe is great with turnip, collard, kale, and mustard)
¼ C water
2/3 C Parmesan water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Shavings of Parmesan cheese, to garnish

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and stir-fry the garlic and scallion for 2 minutes.  Add the turnip greens and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes, so that the greens are coated in oil.  Add the water.

Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer, stirring frequently, until the greens are tender.  Bring the liquid to a bowl again, allow the excess to evaporate, then stir in the Parmesan and seasonings.  Serve at once with extra shavings of cheese.

Peas with Lettuce and Onion, serves 4-6, the long-enjoyed recipe traditionally uses English shell-out peas, but we’ve found that sugar snap peas are just as tasty.  Break the end of the peapod and pull away any strings.  Break the pod into a couple of bite-size pieces before adding the whole thing to the pan.

1 T butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
small lettuce head, halved and sliced into thin strips (use equal part lettuce to the amount of peas you have)
2 C sugar snap peas
3 T water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and cook over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes, until just softened.  Add the pea pieces and stir constantly for 2-3 minutes until crisp-tender (al dente).  Season lightly with salt and pepper, then add lettuce.  Stir quickly until just wilted.  Toss lightly and serve at once.

Broccoli and Spinach Soup, adapted from a Martha Rose Shulman recipe
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 stalks celery, diced
2 to 4 garlic cloves, to taste, minced
2 lb broccoli, chopped; stems, if using, peeled and diced
6 oz potato, peeled and diced, or ½ C medium grain rice
2 quarts water or vegetable stock
herb bouquet made with a bay leaf, a Parmesan rind, and a couple of sprigs each thyme and parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 
1 ½ oz spinach leaves (about 1 C tightly packed) 

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion and celery. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Do not allow these ingredients to brown. Add a generous pinch of salt to prevent this from happening (the salt draws out liquid from the vegetables). Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until the garlic smells fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Add the broccoli, potatoes or rice, water or stock, herb bouquet, and salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Remove the herb bouquet. Stir in the spinach and let sit for a minute off the heat. Add freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust salt. 

Using a hand blender, or in batches in a regular blender, purée the soup. If using a regular blender fill only half way and cover the top with a towel pulled down tight, rather than airtight with the lid, because hot soup will jump and push the top off if the blender is closed airtight. Return to the pot and heat through, stirring. Adjust seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Serve, topping each bowl with garnishes of your choice.  Serves 6.
Optional garnishes: chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, tarragon, chives; drizzle of olive oil;  swirl of crème fraiche or plain yogurt; a sprinkle of freshly grated Parmesan.

Linguine with Roasted Chicken, Greens, Dried Fruit and Nuts adapted from a New York Times recipe, use whatever greens you have on hand in this pasta, and you can substitute different nuts or seeds for the texture.  This week’s Elmwood chicken share will work well in this recipe.  Serves about 6.

1 whole chicken (you can also use bone-in chicken thighs)
1 bunch leafy greens, such as chard, collards or kale
1 lb linguine (or other such as spaghetti or fettuccine)
1 small onion sliced
½ C currants or raisins or dried cranberries
2/3 C toasted pine nuts or pumpkin seeds
2 T chopped fresh rosemary
3 T chopped fresh parsley (for garnish)
Roast a chicken according to your favorite method.

When the chicken comes out of the oven, remove the chicken to a cutting board and let it rest for 20 minutes.  When the chicken has rested, pull the meat off the bones and break it into bite-sized pieces. Chop some of the crispy chicken skin if desired; set the meat and skin aside.

Cook the linguine, drain it and set it aside, reserving about a cup of the pasta cooking water.

Set the roasting pan (with the drippings and fat that accumulated when you roasted the chicken) back on the stove, over two burners if necessary. In the roasting pan over medium-high heat, add the onion and sauté until softened. Add the chopped greens and dried fruit, and sauté until the greens are wilted but still bright green. Add the pieces of roasted chicken and skin (if using) as well as the chopped rosemary. Add the pasta, tossing it around to coat it with the chicken juices and fat (add a little of the reserved pasta cooking water if it looks like it needs to be moistened). Finally, toss in the toasted nuts and fresh parsley for garnish.