Hey folks, we are taking a break…

So, 2016 was a tough year for anyone growing anything, here in the Valley, but that’s not why we’re pausing.

Very early in the spring of last year Dave and I knew that our hearts were not ‘in it’ like usual. Things were feeling sort of tedious, boring. A big reason for that is how we are doing just about all we can handle on the farm. As many pigs as we can handle, as many chickens as we and the land can manage, a garden that we just can’t seem to keep under control even in a ‘good’ year. I’ve wanted to include cover crops in our garden rotation for a few years and just couldn’t get started. We have high hopes for pruning and trellising tomatoes EVERY year and fail every year. There are just so many things we would like to improve or spend more time on. Taking a year off was something we both had in mind very early in the 2016 growing season.

Dave is just plain tired of all the work and how hard it is to spend even a weekend away in the summer months. I keep citing our Mission, Vision and Values. These have been very valuable as we make this decision and many other decisions on the farm/in our lives.

One of the values that we listed as important to us was ‘quality’. Looking at the quality of our lives, we felt lacking. We were not able to go on many adventures with our daughter, we were tired and we felt that we had no opportunity to improve the quality of our products or processes because we were constantly ‘putting out the next fire.’

So there was the ‘honesty’ we listed in our values!

We still plan to be active growers, just on a smaller scale, to feed ourselves. I’ll still be active with the Grafton Farmer’s Market and with the Master Gardener program, hopefully working with youth as they garden for market as well as in the Model Pollinator Garden.

We will re-assess in 2018 and may be back in the local foods marketplace in the future, but right now we need to take a step back to reign in the farm and focus on family. Thank you so much for your support and interest in what we do! I will do my best to stay somewhat active on the blog with any activity that may be interesting to you.

Square Peg Pollinator Garden: Part 2

So, for anyone in the area, you already know this was a pretty terrible growing season. It warmed up early this spring, but was rather dry. My carrots and onions took over a month to germinate, usually it takes about two weeks. And I was watering them! The Farmer’s Almanac is generally right-on with their regional predictions, they predicted a hot and dry summer. So we saved about 300 gallons of rain water. We have not yet touched it, because in early-May it rained, and rained and rained. Just now, in mid-August, we are getting some relief. We have had so much rain that combines harvesting wheat this week, are routinely getting stuck in wet spots in the fields. Near our farm, entire fields of potatoes are rotten in the ground. It’s been a rough season and progress on our Pollinator Garden (PG) shows. We are harvesting crops and many of the plants in the PG are looking good, but much is languishing.

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This was a regular sight in many gardens and fields, in the area, into July.

Because the PG has become a passion for me, I plugged along the best I could with planting. I have some big bare spots in the new garden set aside for pollinator plants, but ended up expanding my idea of a PG to the ornamental and herb garden near the house too! I’m actually very glad that I took the Master Gardener course, it gave me some direction of how to fill up my ornamental bed. In the past 5 years I’ve only planted a handful of species, because I didn’t really know what I wanted. I would pick up a plant I liked one at a time and put them in. I had no real plan, so this is great! So, my PG went from a few hundred square feet to about 700 square feet.

For more resources about Pollinator Gardens or native plants, see the resources listed at the end of this post!

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Side note: the mulch in this bed has truly made it low-maintenance. Besides a few places where a chicken wandered in and moved the mulch around, no annual weeds sprouted and I’ve only had to manage the few tree sprouts from flying seeds and the burdock and quack-grass that are prolific on this 5 acres. More on mulching in future posts!

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, the PG on farm is the second that I am involved in. The first is a garden in Leistikow Memorial Park in Grafton, ND that was funded by the MG program and planted, designed and cared for by Grafton-area Master Gardener Interns with some help from the Grafton Garden Club and the Parks and Rec staff. This cause has become such a focus for me, because with all the crazy and reckless things going on in the world today, this is something that I enjoy (growing plants) that can make a difference for other living things that can be so easily harmed without us realizing it.

Bees are responsible for about 75% of food crops around the world. Needless to say, pollinators are important. Many folks have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in honeybee hives and the plight of the Monarch butterflies. Less known is that our native pollinators, like bumblebees, mason bees and other butterfly species are also experiencing decline. There are many factors at play: diminishing habitat with the proliferation of lawns and wildflower-free spaces, increased use of insecticides that harm those that we don’t intend to harm and loss of native flowers that are more nutritious for the native pollinators that have evolved along side them. Many of our native pollinators, especially native bees, are much more effective at pollinating than managed honeybees so are a very important resource. And who wouldn’t love to see more butterflies around the garden, Monarch or otherwise? So here I am, sharing my PG and, hopefully, inspiring you to do what you can to support these wonderful creatures.

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Our gardens are a Master Gardener Certified Pollinator Garden. Through the MG program, gardens in the area that meet requirements can be certified. Here‘s a link to more info on certifying your garden! To be considered pollinator habitat by this program, a garden does need to meet some requirements. A certain number of plants must be chosen in each season, by bloom time. This ensures that pollinators will have a source of nectar and pollen all through the growing season. Early spring blooms and flowers that bloom in late fall are especially important for Bumblebee Queens as they come out of, or prepare for hibernation. A majority of the species planted should be native plants which often serve as host plants for butterfly larvae as well as providing good quality nectar. A water source must be provided: a nearby pond or stream, birdbath (water changed regularly to keep mosquitoes from breeding) or butterfly puddler. Bees and butterflies need safe places to overwinter: bee houses, leaving leaf litter, bare ground, waiting to cut back perennials and ornamental grasses till spring and leaving some dead-fall or standing dead wood are all options. A participant would also pledge to use pesticides wisely: not spraying blooming plants and using methods other than insecticides when possible. Many of these were easy to meet on the farm, we have a puddler (just a pie tin dug into the ground and filled with sand and rocks) when it isn’t raining I come by with a watering can, but haven’t seen anyone visiting yet. We have plenty of standing dead and dead-fall in the back woods and I will also be leaving my perennials up through winter for something interesting to look at and for the birds.

Here’s a list of the perennials I have added (so far) that provide pollinator services:

Spring blooming: Shooting Star, Prairie Smoke, Columbine, Wild Lupine

June flowering: Golden Alexanders, Butterfly Milkweed, False Indigo

Summer blooming: Rose Milkweed, Black-eyed Susan, Prairie Blazing Star, Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Purpurea), Bee Balm, White Swan Echinacea, Shasta Daisy

Fall flowering: Stiff Goldenrod, Autumn Joy Sedum, Emperor’s Wave Sedum, New England Aster

Annuals: Alyssum, Cosmos, Lantana, Marigold

Herbs: Basil, Borage, Chives, Lavender, Comfrey, Oregano, Calendula

Grasses: Little Bluestem, Sweetgrass (hierochloe odorata)

I really have had no love for ornamental grasses in landscaping in the past. However, the more I learn about prairies ( did you know that prairies are now considered the most endangered ecosystem? Over 80% of North Dakota’s native prairie grasslands are gone) the more I appreciate seeing some native grasses in a landscape design. I still don’t enjoy seeing them included as much as some designers use them, but I’ve come to appreciate the way that a few sporadic ornamental grasses can give a garden a sense of place here in the prairie lands.

I’ve had a great time watching these plants grow and watch all the different pollinators that are visiting the garden. Some of the plants, just as those in the vegetable garden, are turning yellow from too much rain. The roots are suffocating. Luckily I started many of these from seeds, so, if I loose them I will try again next season. The ones who have fared worst are the False Indigo (Baptista) and the Lupine (not one I expected to make it in our heavy clay.) Some, like the smallest Coneflower seedlings and my Calendula were eaten. I expect the culprit was a gopher, but a live trap baited with Calendula resulted in no catch, so I will never be sure. Next year, when many of these plants have filled out, I will be sure to post more photos.

There are too many pollinator friendly annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees for me to list here. Please check the resource list below for more information.

As part of my MG commitment, I do intend to spread the word about Pollinator Gardens through classes and informational booths in the area. If you have interest in a guided tour of our Master Gardener Model Pollinator Garden here in Walsh County, please let me know!

UPDATE: Though I do have some regional nurseries listed here, please check your local greenhouses and garden centers. Native plants and pollinator friendly plants are a trend that is catching on around the country. We found a good portion of our native plants at garden centers in Grafton and Grand Forks. The more unusual selections, or plant cultivars we selected specifically for our Model Pollinator Garden were sourced from the nurseries listed below.

Certified Pollinator Garden Resources from NDSU Extension

Heather Holm: Providing sustainable residential landscape designs utilizing regional native plants. Specializing in pollinator gardens. I was able to hear her speak at the MG conference this summer, she’s written a great book on Native Pollinators.

Prairie Moon Nursery Native plant nursery and information

Prairie Nursery Native plant nursery and pre-planned gardens.

Morning Sky Greenery Native plant nursery and information

If you are on Pinterest and want some ideas for pollinator and other wildlife-friendly garden ideas, follow my Pollinator board.

 

Square Peg’s Pollinator Garden-Part 1

This is a two-part post on the development of our pollinator garden here on the farm. Much prep work has been done and now we just wait for plants and ‘proper’ planting time here in Zone 4a.

Like any good pollinator-conscious farmer or gardener, I make it a point to have a variety of flowers around that will feed the bees and butterflies. This year I’m going to take it to the next level and start a pollinator garden. It includes many native plants that are very nutritious for pollinators along with annuals, herbs and a few fun accents.

This winter a friend and I took the Master Gardener course offered through NDSU Extension. What a great program! I would highly recommend it for anyone with a love of plants. To be called a Master Gardener, one must complete the course and 48 hours of volunteer work over a 2 year period. There is an option to just take the course but it is pricier. This course really got me motivated for new projects around the farm, this pollinator garden being one.

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This spring, when the snow melted off, I picked a site for the new garden that was previously very shady so nothing much had been growing there last season. Dave had taken out some existing shrubs and trees and it should be a great mix of sun and shade-there’s another first, this will be my first foray into gardening in a shady area. This area was dry enough in March to be tilled, so the ground was worked and tarps used to cover to suppress weeds.

This area will get a thorough mulching, maybe bordering on Lasagna Garden style. The last thing I need is more space that needs to be weeded! The first layer I put down was partially composted chicken manure/bedding. We use ‘deep bedding’ in our winter coop, adding fall leaves, straw and wood chips throughout the winter to absorb the nitrogen from the manure and give the chickens something to peck through to find seeds and bugs. This mixture of high-carbon material and manure starts to compost right under the chickens providing a bit of heat from the floor of the coop. Coming straight from the coop, this partially composted mixture will serve as an initial mulch layer and a soil amendment and will be topped with clean straw, hay or other clean mulch. This was put down in early April and continued composting on the garden site, under tarps.

Please note: this is NOT the way we add compost to a garden which will produce edibles. In that case the manure would be put into the compost pile to breakdown fully. This garden will have a few herb plants, but it is not meant to produce food crops.

As it’s a bit early calendar-wise, in our neck of the woods, I’m waiting to see many of the plants on my pollinator plan. Some are still growing in the hoop house on farm and some just haven’t shown up from the native plant nursery where I placed my order or in the local greenhouses. I ordered quite a few seeds for natives from Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, MN and had a great experience with them. I have some native plants coming from Morning Sky Greenery in Morris, MN and just haven’t received them yet. But it’s May, in North Dakota. I need not be in such a hurry.

Here’s a short list of some of the plants that will inhabit this garden, many are native to our area and so provide good nutrition for our native pollinators.

  • Wild lupine
  • Rudbeckia (Black Eyed Susan)
  • Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)
  • Prairie Smoke
  • New England Aster
  • Royal Catchfly
  • Goldenrod
  • Golden Alexanders
  • False Indigo (Baptista)
  • Autumn Joy Sedum
  • Wild Columbine
  • Chives
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Trout Lily
  • Dutchman’s Breeches

This is a partial list, Part 2 of our pollinator project will contain a full list and photos of some of these great plants! Happy Spring!

 

 

Why care about local food?

With so much going on in our world today, why-o-why would anyone choose to spend their time on and put so much energy toward ‘local, sustainable food’? With only so many hours in a day each of us have to choose where to direct our efforts and food, local-food in particular , is where I choose to spend the most of my effort.

Food is Fundamental

Food is important for a lot of reasons. Without food, you won’t have energy to put toward any cause. Food is absolutely fundamental to life and to the way our bodies perform. As I explain to our three year old, food is the fuel that our bodies use to grow, learn, play and work. Quite literally, we are what we eat. Our bodies break down our meals and use the bits and pieces to build and repair the cells in our body. Affordable, nutritious food is essential to our well-being.

The food we choose to buy influences the way our natural resources are used. Clean air and water and healthy soils are things that every living thing needs. What we put into our air, water and soils depend, in part, on how our food is grown.

For many, food also has a spiritual aspect. For me, connecting with the cycle of the seasons while growing fruit and vegetables and raising livestock is very satisfying and sometimes feels almost magical to watch. I think most can relate to the connection that we feel when preparing or enjoying a meal with friends and loved ones. Case in point, the need for certain foods at certain celebrations: what’s a birthday without cake or Thanksgiving without turkey and green bean casserole?

Fresh is best

There are so many aspects of eating local that are important.  According to a survey the Grafton Farmer’s Market conducted in 2013, the number one reason that customers of that market shopped for local food was because the freshness of the offerings!

CSA Week 10 | Square Peg Food Farm

A few of our farm’s fresh offerings during the market and CSA season.

The tomato is a pretty iconic fresh vegetable and a great example. When you eat a tomato from the store or many restaurants in our area it’s a pretty sure bet that it’s a variety that has been bred to ship well. These tomatoes need to be harvested by machine packed into tractor trailers shipped hundreds or thousands of miles and sit on grocery store shelves for days until we are ready to buy them.  On the other hand, when you grow your own tomatoes or buy those raised close-by, varieties can be chosen that taste great and have better nutrition like the Indigo Rose or Green Zebra. When you buy produce locally, it’s possible to get vegetables and fruit picked at peak ripeness. This is important for getting the best tasting and most nutritious produce.

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A colorful fresh salsa featuring red, yellow and green tomatoes.

In addition, local produce has fewer miles to travel and can get to customers sooner after being picked. A study out of the University of California-Davis showed that there are many factors that affect the amount of nutrients in produce including how plants are grown, how produce is harvested, temperature and duration of storage and how it is processed or not. In general, when produce is picked ripe and eaten as soon as possible in a raw state, we can obtain the most nutrients from our food.

Know your farmer, support your local economy.

Choosing local food is a great way to support local families and individuals in your community and in turn, build the local economy. When you are able to buy directly from the grower, the grower keeps a large percentage of the food dollar. According to the USDA only about 15 cents of each dollar we spend on food actually goes to the farmer or rancher, 80 cents of every dollar we spend on food goes to processing, marketing, shipping and retailing! National Farmers Union has some great info on this. The idea is that if you spend your money with a local business or individual, some or all of that money will get recirculated  in your community.

Choosing local food, especially food that you buy directly from the grower, also gives you a chance to get to know another member of your community. You can find out what some of their challenges are or the reasons that they farm the way they do. You’re able to ask questions about how the food was grown. Is the beef grass-fed? Do they use organic methods in the garden? Why or why not? This can be very eye opening if you are removed from the process. Many consumers know the buzz-words like ‘free-range’ when talking about chickens, but might be surprised to find out my poultry are not ‘free-range’ and why that method doesn’t work for us. We might also find out that this term means different things to the grower and the consumer. Buying direct from a grower can also introduce folks to new foods and how to use them. If I had a nickle for every time someone said they didn’t know what the eggplant on my farmers market table was, or said they didn’t know what to do with one of THOSE…

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Dave ready for the start of market.

Another bonus of buying local food, especially direct from the grower, is getting that connection to the land and the food. There might be a lot of reasons people feel disconnect from the land: no time to spend on a garden or lack of ability to take care of a yard or garden. Knowing the people that grow the food you eat is a great way to get connected and have a chance to hear the story of the food you eat and even see for yourself where and how it’s grown.

Local Food=Food Security

The University of Missouri-Columbia published a study  that found local food to be ‘key to providing long-term food security for communities.’ Community Supported Agriculture programs, farmers markets and local gardens are all great ways to provide fresh, nutrient dense food to people who may otherwise have limited access because of income or distance to grocery stores. Many farmers markets and some CSAs are now accepting SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) making fresh, local produce more available to low-income households. The Hunger Free ND Garden Project is one way the Department of Agriculture here in ND is partnering with other groups and individuals to help supply fresh fruit and vegetables to food pantries in the state.

When I think of the words ‘food security’ I take this topic in a slightly different direction. It makes me a little bit nervous to think of the centralized control of our food system in America. We hear of food recalls that sometimes affect hundreds of people in many different areas of the country because one farm supplies produce to a dozen different states. Major droughts in California affect food prices for the entire country. And, as my mother likes to point out, if terrorists wanted to poison our food supply or if a major event took down shipping infrastructure, large areas of the country could easily be affected because so much of our food is produced in such small areas of the country. For example, the USDA states that 2% of farms raise 40% of all livestock in the US and 85% of hogs are raised on farms with more than 2,000 pigs. Contrast this with small farms located in every region of the country supplying food to families in their area, lots of backyard gardens filled with fresh produce and many pantries and root cellars and freezers full of locally grown food and locally raised meat for winter. It’s not realistic to say everyone will eat this way or that a change in this direction will happen quickly, but it could certainly mitigate some of the problems with this sort of centralization of the food supply. With more regional food systems many people would be close enough to see or even participate in the growing of their own food, ensuring it meets their safety standards. Additionally,  major crisis like floods, droughts and trouble with infrastructure would affect fewer consumers.

Eating seasonally, a challenge and triumph.

One of my favorite things about eating locally is also one of the things that can be hardest for consumers to get used to. Eating seasonally can be a real challenge if you are used to getting any food item any time you want it. If one chooses to eat locally, there will be no fresh tomatoes in February. There are, however, dried tomatoes and homemade canned or frozen tomato sauces and salsas. I find eating seasonally can be very interesting and anticipatory. We look forward to eating that first ripe summer tomato with fresh basil or just as it is while we stand right there in the garden! Fall means more pork in the freezer, just as our supply is dwindling. Spring means fresh greens, which we crave. I find it very rewarding to change what I eat with the seasons and go through the work of putting up food for the winter, be it canning tomatoes, jams and pickles or drying herbs or curing and storing spaghetti squash. Looking at our full pantry and freezer at the end of the growing season makes me feel accomplished and secure.

Eating locally and seasonally is a real challenge. Our family made the change over the course of 10 years or so. We went from growing none of our food and buying mostly processed junk from the store to shopping the local farmers market and cooking some meals from scratch. Later on we got a garden plot and started growing a bit on our own and now we grow a large percentage of our own meat and vegetables, I’d estimate 90% or more. We are by no means eating only local food. I shop our local grocery store for most of our dairy products and almost all of our staples like pasta and flour. I certainly see the merits of shipping some of our foodstuffs, especially spices and occasional treats like citrus, avocados and the like, but it seems to me the logistics of keeping our food systems more local and regional make the most sense.

Making a commitment to local food is all about small steps like resisting the grocery store tomato in January. That’s an easy place to start since they taste terrible anyway. Maybe you could grow a tomato or pepper plant in a big pot on your patio . Or make it your goal to shop the farmers market once a week while it’s open. You can even find some locally grown items in your grocery store. In our own supermarket, you can find seasonal produce like melons, tomatoes and squash and a few things that you may not have even thought of as locally grown like beet sugar, flour and flax seeds!

What are your reasons for choosing local food?

 

 

CSA Week 3

Many more vegetables in the share this week! We have broccoli, cauliflower, a pound of peas, a lovely little bunch of green onions and 2 small zucchini.

CSA Week 3 | Square Peg Food Farm

So far as we can tell, peas are going strong, there will be more. We’ll have a break from broccoli and cauliflower till the next batch matures, though cabbage will probably be in shares next week. This is only the first thinning of green onions, and we all know how the zucchini grow! Expect green beans in the next week or two. We have had ONE ripening tomato, though it had blossom end rot and we won’t even enjoy it. I don’t think it will be long for tomatoes.

CSA Weeks 1 & 2

As is usual, things were a bit crazy this spring and during our first drop week. So, I wasn’t able to get a photo of last weeks share. Week 1 included a pint of dill pickles, a small bunch of kale, lettuce, broccoli and members choice on a few herb and vegetable plants that I started but simply won’t be able to fit into the garden.

CSA Week 2 | Square Peg Food Farm

Week 2 is here and so are peas! Each share receives one and a half pounds, also kale, lettuce, pineapple sage and a jar of roasted garlic marinara sauce, my favorite pasta sauce recipe yet.

This is only the second picking of peas, so we’ve just been eating them fresh, but they would be lovely in a light creamy pasta dish. Kale has been sauteed and mixed in with scrambled eggs and I would recommend this Pineapple Sage Iced Tea.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day weekend. Take some time to reflect on the meaning behind this holiday (hint: it’s not just about the fireworks!)

6 Reasons to Shop the Farmers Market Instead of the Grocery Store

I love Pinterest, don’t you? I was browsing Pinterest this morning, even though I had plenty else to do. It was windy, OK?!

Any-hoo, I came across a blog post entitled “6 Reasons to Shop the Grocery Store Instead of the Farmers Market.’ As a farmers market vendor and a committed organizer of the Grafton Farmer’s Market, that title got me curious and pretty riled up! I stewed over it most of the afternoon and finally had to go back to the article and comment. I’ll share my musings with you all, it’s worthwhile to read the original blog post, linked above, as the ‘reasons’ I give are taken directly from the post. Who knows, maybe you’ll feel much like the author.

My heart sank when I saw this post in my Pinterest feed. Then I started to feel a bit angry. Then, I decided that I couldn’t let this go with out a comment. I am a vendor at our local farmers market and I am one of the organizers. We spend much time and effort to try to convince people to patronize their local markets. This is an up-hill battle for us, because shopping at the grocery store is the default choice. We are even working toward accepting SNAP benefits (formerly Food Stamps) and credit and debit cards at our market, to make it easier for folks to access local, fresh food. That is why it kills me to see a blog title like this.

Maybe the author’s family owns a grocery store that is seeing sales drop, maybe you had a bad experience with your local farmers market or maybe a bad experience with a local farmer. I really don’t know why you decided to write this piece. Perhaps you wanted others who choose to spend their time and money somewhere other than the farmers market to feel better, to feel that they are not the only ones who might be feeling a bit guilty about the choice. Of course everyone is free to choose not to shop at the farmers market for whatever reason. But for the most part, no one needs a reason to NOT shop the farmers market. People like myself are going out of our way to get people to the markets. Why? Well here are some good reasons:

Square Peg Food Farm | Grafton Farmers Market

It’s convenient. No, actually it isn’t convenient and most who shop at the market have to go to another store to pick up ‘the rest’ of their groceries. But it isn’t just about convenience. It’s also about community. What better place to meet like-minded folks. Our market strives to have activities to give families a reason to hang around or to make the market a destination. We also strive to have a variety of vendors from vegetables, baked goods, handmade soaps, herbs, baby gift items and cut flowers. If I (and several of our other vendors who are moms) can get ourselves, our wares and our infants and toddlers to the market every week, those that make local foods and goods a priority certainly can too! It’s a family affair and I have made many good friends through planning and vending at the market over the past 3 years.

Variety. This is another tough one, as you can find more different fruits and vegetables at the grocery store than the market. Again, if you are committed to making local, fresh food a priority, this is not an issue. We eat out of our market garden all year, canning and freezing for winter. We only buy things like oranges and avocados as treats through the year, mostly when they are inexpensive and in season. We grow about 18 different kinds of vegetables in our market garden. That doesn’t included different varieties of things like tomatoes and peppers. We also have a few fruits available to us and lots of herbs. And that’s here in Northern North Dakota. I’m not saying it’s wrong to expect to be able to buy oranges. I’m just saying that there is probably a good variety at your local farmers market, it’s just seasonal.

Square Peg Food Farm | Grafton Farmers Market

Price. This varies by area. At our market, most vendors grow organically but do not certify their operations. That keeps cost down. Most vendors keep prices of their vegetables and baked goods at or near grocery store prices because we know that price is a factor for a lot of consumers. Sometimes this isn’t possible, as in the case of canned goods and some homemade body care items (we have no economies of scale to take advantage of.) With exceptions I have found that you get what you pay for and even if you pay a bit more at the farmers market, you often get more bang for you buck as the produce is fresher and therefore has retained more nutrients and often tastes better. Another way of saving money at the market is to talk to the farmers. I have made deals with customers who were willing to take larger quantities of things like tomatoes and green beans to freeze or can at home.

Coupons. I don’t think I have ever seen a coupon for fresh vegetables. Maybe this is regional or done at some of the bigger grocery chains?

Sales and markdowns. Aren’t we just splitting hairs now? Along with coupons this has to do with price. Again, when you talk to farmers you can (sometimes) get discounts especially buying large quantities.

One stop shopping. Again, covered under convenience. I know in the fast paced world we worship convenience. Can’t we stop and smell the carrots once in a while!

Square Peg Food Farm | Grafton Farmers Market

Of course we will all need to make the choices that make the most sense in our particular situations, but please consider supporting local land control under your local farmers and small business owners in your community by shopping your local farmers market.

So tell me, what are some of the reasons that you do or do not shop at your local farmers market. How can we, as vendors and market organizers, convince more consumers to spend their dollars locally at farmers markets?

Egg Labels Decoded

I recently had a new customer call about eggs. He had heard good things about ours and wanted more information. One of the questions he asked was: Are they brown eggs? The answer is yes, but you might be surprised that the color of eggs has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of the egg. Nutritional quality has everything to do with diet and exercise. We are sure to give our birds lots of green matter and access to the outdoors where they forage for all manner of good quality protein.

 

Brown eggs | Square Peg Food Farm

First, you may be wondering what the real difference is between white and brown eggs. The only difference is the breed of chicken that lays the egg. We currently have Rhode Island Red and Barred Rock hens. We’ve chosen them based on egg color, just because we think the brown eggs are very beautiful. We’ve also chosen them because they are breeds that are known to do well in cold climates like ours.  It would be really neat to get the Ameraucana that lays green and blue tinted eggs.

Barred Rock and one Rhode Island Red hens enjoying a sunny winter day.

Barred Rock and one Rhode Island Red hens enjoying a sunny winter day.

Along with dispelling the ‘brown is better’ myth. Let’s explore some of the other buzzwords and labels you might find on eggs at the store, on the farm or at the farmer’s market.

Unspecified (most grocery store eggs)

These come from hens confined to battery cages. Multiple hens in small wire cages with no room to spread their wings, walk, dust-bathe, perch or nest. All of which are natural behaviors of birds. Fed a conventional diet that usually includes some kind of meat by-product.

Cage-free or free run

This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.  from the USDA

Notice this label has nothing to say about feed, access to the outdoors and does not limit the number of birds per square foot of the building or room. This is not much better than any conventional egg.

Natural

As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs. -USDA

So this label, essentially, means nothing when talking about eggs. It sounds nice, though.

Pastured-raised

There is no federal definition for this term, at this time. When the weather allows all of our animals are on rotational pasture, including the laying hens. It’s important to note that pasture can be managed well or poorly. To know whether eggs labeled as pasture-raised are what you think they are, requires a tour of the farm, either in person or virtually.

Organic

Hens are fed a certified organic diet that is vegetarian and free of GMO ingredients . They are cage-free and have access to the outdoors, though the word access can mean a doggie door size opening that they may never use.

Vegetarian

Hens are fed a diet free of animal by-products. This seems like a promising claim, but fails to take into account the fact that chickens are omnivores. They are scavengers by nature and will and should eat all sorts of bugs, worms and other ‘non-vegetarian’ protein sources. It’s actually very important for our hens to get meat and fat scraps (non-poultry, of course) during the winter months when they can’t catch their own protein.

No antibiotics/No hormones

It’s a great thing to look for animals raised without antibiotics. The sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics is  a contributing factor to antibiotic resistant bacteria strains that can and do sometimes infect humans. The no hormones claim, on the other hand is just fluff that sounds good. Hormones and steroids haven’t ever been approved for use in poultry, pork or goat.

Certified Humane

These hens can be raised indoors or out, cage-free. The number of birds per square foot is regulated so that they have room enough to nest, perch and dust-bathe. Antibiotics and hormones are not allowed, but beak trimming is.

Animal Welfare Approved

This label is limited to family farms. This is a very complex set of regulations and I would say that if you see this, you’ve found a pretty good product. Hens must have continual access to pasture and to shelter, beaks are not trimmed, antibiotics are not allowed. The feed must be vegetarian, but of course they can make up the protein on pasture.

Food Alliance Certified

Hens are un-caged and stocking density is specified. They have access to the outdoors. No sub thereaputic antibiotics are allowed, beak trimming is allowed. Feed is vegetarian. Hens are able to express natural behaviors like perching.

Omega-3 enriched

The hens were fed some type of high omega-3 feed supplement like flax meal or fish meal.

United Egg Producers Certified

This label really doesn’t mean a whole lot. Beaks can be trimmed, birds can be caged or cage-free but access to the outdoors is not required. The space allocated to each hen in cages must be at least 67 inches. That’s about the space taken up by a sheet of paper, so they don’t have space to stretch their wings, cannot nest, perch or dust-bathe. Cage-free hens are allowed nest space, an area to scratch and dust-bathe and perches. The space required, per bird, is minimal. Nesting areas are not required to have any sort of nesting material, astro turf or rubber mats are recommended, though not required, wire floors are allowed but ‘should be avoided’.

There you have it, the most common claims you might encounter when purchasing eggs. We have looked into a few of these labels. Food Alliance Certified and Animal Welfare Approved being the most attractive. Considering the added paperwork, and the access of our customers to our facilities, we aren’t perusing any of these at this time. If we sold our products on a larger scale we might consider it, but as we market our eggs now, any customer is welcome on the farm to see what we do and lives close enough to do so. Seeing the animals first hand and knowing your farmer is the best way to ensure you are supporting practices that you can feel good about.

How we do it at Square Peg Food Farm

No beak trimming

No cages

Outdoor access (that is used) about 80-90% of the year. This winter has been tough for the hens, most days they had no desire to head outside, but when they do, they have at it!

Chicken 'range' in winter | Square Peg Food Farm

 

24 hour access to clean food and water

Access to rotational grazed pasture until the snow makes it impossible. The hens only stay in one spot for a few days to a week at a time so they can move away from manure and toward fresh grass and bugs and such. We even keep some greens in their diet during the winter months. It’s why (along with natural light) our hens egg yolks are such a rich orange color.

Hens enjoying some sprouted oats in their winter coop

Hens enjoying some sprouted oats in their winter coop

No hormones or antibiotics. We would treat sick birds if the need arose, adhering to any withdrawal periods necessary for consumer safety.

Birds have year round access to perches, nest boxes and ample room to get a good dust bath.

We use fence (electrified in the spring/summer/fall) to keep the birds from truly ‘free-ranging’, keeping them safe(er) from predators and keeping the pasture and wooded areas fresh until they get to it.

Pastured Hens | Square Peg Food Farm

Some of these photos are from our last flock of chickens, so not all are Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rocks. They are all breeds that lay brown eggs though. Click here for other posts on pastured poultry. I see that I need to do a specific post on our pastured hen program! Look forward to that, in the near future. If you have questions about how we raise our animals, please ask!

Lavender Chardonnay Jelly

 

 

 

 

 

Canning jars, especially full of garden bounty, fill my heart with joy!

Canning jars, especially full of garden bounty, fill my heart with joy!

When I started finding recipes for herb jellies, I decided to give it a go. What else, besides drying and storing, was I going to do with all the herbs from the garden? When it came to an herb like lavender, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the jelly. I had to try it anyway. Once I had made the first batch of this Lavender Chardonnay Jelly, I made one or two more. Some went into the last CSA share of 2014, some went into bags and baskets as part of our holiday gift giving, and plenty stayed in the pantry for later use right here at home on toast. My Lavender Pinot Grigio Jelly even won a blue ribbon at the Walsh County Fair!

This recipe can be personalized very easily by making substitutions of the herbs, liquid and acid used. I also made versions using rosemary infused orange juice and rosemary infused cranberry juice. These ended up being more appropriate for glazes or toppings for roasted meat. The cranberry-rosemary is great on pork!

There’s plenty of information out there on canning, so I won’t get to specific on tools and method, just the recipe and basic steps. If you’re new to canning and jelly making try the National Center for Home Food Preservation and the Ball Canning website.

 

Making Lavender Chardonnay Jelly | Square Peg Food Farm

 

 

Here’s what you need:

2 1/2 cups Chardonnay or water, fruit juice, vinegar or other wines

1 1/2 cups fresh lavender – I included the flowers stems and leaves. Other choices might include rosemary, thyme, basil, lemon verbena, mint, lemon balm, pineapple sage or any combination that tickles your taste buds (if using dried herbs you can use much less, probably 1/2 cup or so)

3 1/2 cups sugar

2 Tablespoons lemon juice or vinegar (white wine, apple cider, rice wine or other)

3 ounces liquid pectin (dry powdered pectin will not give the same results)

4-8 oz jars with bands and lids or about 8-4 oz jars ( I like to have an extra 4 oz jar or 2 ready, just in case of overage)

In addition to the usual jelly making tools, a wire mesh strainer and/or cheesecloth is necessary for straining the steeped herbs.

First, wash and dry your herbs. Roughly chop, then place herbs in a large saucepan and crush them with a wooden spoon or bottom of a heavy glass to help release the oils. Add your liquid of choice and bring to a simmer for a few moments. Remove from heat and let steep, covered for 15 to 20 minutes. At this point it should be cool enough to transfer to the fridge. Store here for a few hours to overnight. ( I have read that the cool steeping period in addition to the warm steeping, will give a better transfer of flavor than just using one or the other method.)

Once steeped, test the flavor. If it’s too strong you can add more liquid, if too weak you can warm and steep a bit longer or add more herbs and steep again.

Lavender Chardonnay Jelly | Square Peg Food Farm

 

Strain the mixture, through a wire mesh strainer or colander with cheesecloth or a coffee filter fitted inside. Measure 2 cups of this liquid into a saucepan. Add your acid of choice (if not using vinegar as a steeping liquid) and the sugar and bring to a boil. When the boil cannot be stirred down, remove the pan from heat and add pectin. Return this mixture to a hard boil that can’t be stirred down and continue for 1 minute. Remove from heat and skim off any foam, pour the jelly into hot and sterilized jars. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. (Adjust for altitude, if necessary.)

 

There are endless combinations of herbs and liquids you can use to make this recipe suit you. Don’t be afraid to experiment with spices, as well. The combination in this recipe is a great pick-me-up flavor for a dreary winter’s day!

 

Last CSA drop of the year. Week 15

Hogs in the Garden | Square Peg Food Farm

The pigs are in the garden. That’s a pretty good indicator of the growing season being over. The last thing to be picked was our dry beans, on Saturday. Sunday was just breezy enough to make winnowing the beans possible without a fan. I’ve been plenty busy in the kitchen getting the last of the canning done, green tomatoes and jellies. I’ll do my best to get some of the really yummy recipes that I’ve been using up on the blog as things continue to slow down into fall and winter.

Enjoying some of the immature pumpkins that didn't make it out of the garden before frost.

Enjoying some of the immature pumpkins that didn’t make it out of the garden before frost.

This was the ‘last hurrah’ CSA drop. Each share took home two spaghetti squash and 2 pumpkins. This year’s varieties were ‘Crown‘ which is the smaller grey-green pumpkin. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks quite good!  It’s supposed to be a great eating squash and a great keeper too. A friend has compared one of her favorites, the Hubbard squash with our other pick the ‘Cinderella’  or ‘Rouge vif d’Etampespumpkin and said that the Cinderella is a winner.

Crown Pumpkin, Spaghetti Squash, Cinderella Pumpkin

Crown Pumpkin, Spaghetti Squash, Cinderella Pumpkin

Both pumpkin varieties should be quite good roasted and seasoned just as you’d use an acorn or buttercup squash. Of course with the large Cinderella you could probably make several pies, breads and batches of cookies as well!

Calypso beans | Square Peg Food Farm

Dry beans were also in the share, this year we grew ‘Calypso‘. Also, two onions, carrots, green tomatoes and herbs (rosemary, parsley and thyme.) To finish the season with a bang, we also sent some really tasty canned goods: Green Tomato Salsa Verde, Lavender Chardonnay (or Pinot Grigio) Jelly and either a Rosemary Orange or Rosemary Cranberry Glaze/Sauce that is great on meat. I tried the Rosemary Orange on toast, but it was a bit of a stretch for me.

Canning jars, especially full of garden bounty, fill my heart with joy!

Canning jars, especially full of garden bounty, fill my heart with joy!

 That does it for this season. Though it was a somewhat challenging year in the garden, I think we sent some pretty good things home with our shareholders. I even have a new favorite green bean variety! There are always lessons, thanks for hanging on with us this season.

 

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