Today we’re going to break it down. We’re going to talk about the heart of this blog, what drives it, what feeds my cooking obsession. I’ve talked about CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) here and there on this blog, but today we’re digging more in depth and getting to know the farm and folks behind the meat of this veg head! We’re going to celebrate veggies like it’s nobody’s business! And then hope it becomes everybody’s business!
Some people aren’t sure of where to start when it comes to farmers markets, CSAs, talking to farmers, and asking questions. You may hear a term or see an unfamiliar veggie at the market and wonder what the heck it is, but you’re too intimidated or insecure to ask. I’ve been there, no doubt. But as I’ve been a member of a CSA for the past few years now I’ve picked up a thing or two…and asked a ton of questions! My wonderful CSA, Laughing Stalk Farmstead, hosted a farm tour last weekend, so let me show ya around and share some info and tips!
Laughing Stalk Farmstead is a two-person-run organic farm here in southeast Missouri. They grow a diverse assortment of vegetables, fruit, and herbs with a focus on sustainability, quality, and community. Owners Emily Scifers and Ross Peterson strongly encourage interaction with and among their members and are always happy to share their knowledge and talk about their farming practices.
One of the most important parts of farming is the soil. It’s the home to the plant roots; it’s what helps nourish and feed the crop. Organic growers work very hard to condition the soil so it’s in tip-top shape to produce the best-tasting, most nutritious veggies possible. One way to do this is by planting cover crop. Cover crops help control soil erosion and help boost biodiversity and nutrients in the soil, particularly nitrogen, a vital plant nutrient. A variety of plants (clover, legumes/beans, winter wheat, winter rye, forage radish, and vetch) are planted, grown, then “turned over” (incorporated) back into the soil. Those plants break down, releasing nitrogen into the soil as well as creating an environment for microorganisms. In the picture below, the green rows on the left are cover crops.
My family and I got to walk all around the farm and even pick some produce. My son, Giovanni, found a teeny tiny baby watermelon.
Then a great big one! He’s going for it! Stay tuned, later this week I’ll show you what I did with it!
One of the veggies Laughing Stalk Farmstead is known for is their outstanding, custom gourmet lettuce mix. It consists of parris island romaine, green oak leaf, red romaine, red sails and red oak leaf lettuces. The delicate leaves are a perfect companion for the simplest of dressings: lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s a study in the art of simple, edible beauty.
Green beans! You can see some of the drip irrigation hoses in the background. Drip irrigation (watering at the base of the plant) as opposed to overhead irrigation (watering from above the plant) is a more efficient way to get water to the roots of the plant. It also keeps the leaves from getting wet, which could lead to fungus and other diseases.
I spy some green bell peppers!
And there’s a red one! Emily told me about this super cool trick for freezing peppers in bags without a vacuum sealer, check it out!
Spinach leaves are working their way up! Spinach is a very common vegetable that farmers will overwinter. Overwintering, a term you may hear at farmers markets, is when a crop is carried through or grown during the winter and then harvested in the spring, or sometimes throughout the winter, too. Until a couple years ago, I had no idea this was even possible. I just thought that once winter came all the veggies left in the ground died and that was it until you could plant in the spring. Nope, not true.
Overwintering is a huge benefit for farmers in that it drastically reduces insects and nearly eliminates the need for weed control. It’s also a big bonus for the person eating the veg because the cold temperatures boost and sweeten the flavor and produce more nutrient-dense vegetables. Other veggies that are typically overwintered are carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, kale, swiss chard, arugula, onions, and leeks. So keep in mind that you may be able to get fresh, local produce year-round; ask at your local farmers market or check with CSAs in your area.
Oh kale yeah!
Red arrow radishes. See those pretty leaves? You can make pesto with them!
Farmer Emily just pulled up a black spanish radish! That’s the perfect size to make radish chips with…putting that on my to-make list!
Here are some butternut squash curing in the greenhouse. Curing is the process that winter storage crops such as winter squash, sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, onions, and garlic go through to strengthen their exterior and seal everything in. It allows for the outer layer to seal and protect the inside, which allows for a longer storage life. This is why you can store winter squash or sweet potatoes for many many months. So, if your farmers market doesn’t run through the winter, be sure to stock up on these storage veggies…then you’ll have local produce all through winter!
How can you become a better educated food buyer? I asked Emily and Ross what they recommended for some key questions to ask when at a farmers market or when looking to join a CSA:
1.) When was the produce harvested? You want the freshest produce possible (except for things that are overwintered or require curing), so knowing when they were picked is important. Emily and Ross harvest the morning of their CSA delivery day and the day before their Saturday morning farmers market. The fresher the produce is, the longer it will last once it gets to you!
2.) Do you grow organic, or how frequently do you use chemicals? This matters to some people and to others it doesn’t. If this is important to you then it’s an important question to ask. Some people may feel a little awkward asking this, so one way to ease into the question is to approach it like this: “I know bugs have been an issue this year, have you had to spray much?” Some farmers may have crops they didn’t have to spray at all, while others they had to spray more heavily.
3.) Do you grow all the vegetables yourself? This is a big one for me. Until a few years ago I assumed every produce vendor at a farmers market or roadside stand grew themselves what they were selling. That’s not the case at all. Some farmers markets allow “reselling” which means the vendor could have bought the produce from a grower many states away. That definitely takes the “local” out of buying local!
4.) Ask specific information about a particular vegetable: what can I do with this, how long will it keep, how does it taste? This will not only give you information about the veggie, but also gives you an idea of what the farmer’s like or how much they know about their product. I always feel more comfortable buying from a person who cares about what they do…you’ll get better quality and can build a relationship with the person that grows your food!
Sayin “Hey” to my CSA!…and a great big THANK YOU!