Saturday, April 21, 2018

Earth Day, 2018: Celebrate with the Bees!

What better way to celebrate Earth Day than with a tale of the simple joy brought to people by bees? The following essay  by Mace Vaughan, who co-directs the Xerces Society's Pollinator Conservation Program, was published here in 2015, and is just as relevant today as it was then.

In the summer of 2009, my family and I moved into a house across from the Sabin Elementary School in northeast Portland, Oregon. Our daughter started kindergarten at the school that fall. Sporadically, as other school parents learned of my work in pollinator conservation, they would ask me if I’d ever seen the “tickle bees.” I would respond with a polite “no,” unsure what they meant. Still, as the question continued to come up through the December holidays and into the late, wet winter, my curiosity grew. Everyone seemed to know about the tickle bees.

And then St. Patrick’s Day arrived. The sun shone and it was warm for a March afternoon. I sat in our dining room, working from home and enjoying the sounds of kids playing in the schoolyard across the street from our house. Every so often I would sneak a peek across the street to see if our daughter was running around, and that was when I spotted a boy, all alone, kneeling on the ground as he tried to catch something. He grabbed and lunged, attempting to seize it from the air. In that moment, it all came clear to me.

I waited until the kids had cleared out of the field, closed my computer, and walked across the street. And there, to my amazement, were the tickle bees of Sabin Elementary. Not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of gentle, ground-nesting bees were emerging all across the two-acre field. I was standing in a giant aggregation of mining bees, which turned out to be at least two species of the genus Andrena—christened the “tickle bees” by the students of Sabin.

For the next two months I watched as more and more bees emerged from the ground. Scattered across baseball diamonds, the bare dirt under park benches, and all across the soccer pitch were mounds of soil the bees had excavated from underground. They seemed to deepen their tunnels mostly at night; walking across the grounds in the morning you would see freshly dug dirt hiding the holes underneath. By the afternoon, the dirt was pushed aside as the females emerged to fly to the flowering maple trees, dandelions, and cherry and plum trees around the neighborhood. On an especially warm day, you couldn’t run across the field without bumping into these amazing insects.

As someone who has worked hard to convince people worldwide that insects are not a bunch of biting, stinging, crop-killing animals, but rather the drivers of healthy ecosystems, I was touched by the reception these bees received. For the two months the bees were active, parents and students regularly approached me with questions. I helped dozens of people discover what, for them, was a whole new world of ephemeral bees, with their golden stores of food and developing brood buried below soccer and kickball games.

Tickle bees are not unusual or uncommon. Every spring we receive calls at the office starting in early March from people wondering about the bees that are showing up in their lawns, whether they are safe, or just wanting to know what they are. Across the rest of the country, as spring comes on after this harsh winter, look for holes in the ground and bees flying. If you want to find your own tickle bees, go out on a warm spring day and watch sunny, south-facing slopes around your neighborhood. You might find your own aggregation of mining bees.

As for Sabin, five years later the tickle bees are going strong. As kids get older, they may lose interest. But each spring, a new group of kindergartners gets to meet the tickle bees and share something unique that their older classmates have cherished for years.

Watch an interview with Mace talking about the tickle bees of Sabin School.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Farm Bulletin: Owlets Growing Up

An update on the great horned owl family at Ayers Creek Farm from contributor Anthony Boutard reveals the function of their striking facial disk in helping to locate prey.

Here are the young owls at day 73 minus (top photo; click for larger version). Notably, the adults are raising three young, so they are hunting over many long hours, leaving the young unguarded. You can see the difference in size reflecting the different ages of the birds.

They are developing their immature plumage, including that which defines their facial disk. The disk is important to the owls’ hearing, channelling and amplifying even the softest rustle made by their prey as it moves in the undergrowth and leaf litter. The ears are at the edge of the disk, in line with the eyes. Unlike the barn owl which mostly hunts on the wing over open ground, great horned owls employ a perch-and-pounce method. They will sit perfectly still on a branch, hunched over, “watching” the ground with their ears. The owl has the element of surprise as its prey can’t see the bird, and the soft plumage of the owl means it pounces without a sound.

Great horned owls are by nature nocturnal hunters, but when raising young they are hunting even when roosting during the day to avoid garnering the attention of crows and other noisy objectors to their presence. Late in the afternoon last week, [Carol's sister] Sylvia asked to see the young. I was a bit tired and grumpy, and opined sourly that she would see nothing so late in the day. As we looked at the snag trying to pick out the young, both adults returned to the redoubt with prey at the same time. So much for a promised dull moment.

Read the first owl post of 2018. Read more and see Anthony's fantastic photos from previous years.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Farm Life: Spring Tinged with Hope, Sadness

I don't know about you, but in spring my social media feeds are full of babies…tiny goats scampering after their mothers, calves with melting brown eyes, lambs a mere few minutes old wobbling to their feet. For farmers it means long nights with no sleep, searching in the dark for mothers that may have strayed to an isolated corner of a field to give birth and bottle-feeding any babies rejected by their mothers, at the same time as rejoicing at the new life they bring to the farm. The following is by Kate McLean of Longest Acres Farm in central Vermont, whose Instagram post (top photo) stopped me in my tracks with its heartbreaking clarity and simultaneous sense of anguish and hope. Farmers like this who care so deeply for their animals are why I love what I do.

I lost my favorite ewe Saturday morning. Just cold and dead with no hint of explanation. She left two little daughters; Fiona and Fanny. I wished I had known she would die that night.

I wished I had been able to thank her for her six years of service to the farm. For her eight lambs. But more, I’m grateful I didn’t find her dying. I know that’s spineless. But I hate finding dying animals. Then the farmer is always torn in calculation: What can I do? What could a vet do? What would a vet cost? How much is this animal worth in $? How much is this animal worth to my heart? Can the farm shoulder this expense? It’s an abjectly shitty calculation and I hate making it.

So I’m always grateful when the animal spares me the anguish (again, I know, spineless). I’m always grateful when an animal is allowed the dignity of a quiet death in the middle of the night without the indignation of my intrusion, of my calculations. We had a funeral pyre for her that afternoon (as there ain’t much burying in frozen April ground such as this). We will honor her memory by taking damn good care of the lambs she left us, who are now bleating for their next bottle, so I must be off.

Posted with permission from Longest Acres Farm.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Spring Lamb Means Get Out the Braising Pot!

We had a writer friend from San Francisco visiting for the weekend, and while we'd made plans to go out for dinner Saturday night—note of thanks to Nancy and Randy at Bar Avignon for a fabulous evening—his flight wasn't getting in until late Friday evening, so I volunteered (make that begged) to make dinner that night. Fortunately for us he's an ominivore, so my suggestion of braised lamb shanks was more than acceptable.

Jeff makes a new friend in Oregon.

The original version of this braised dish was created for a big ol' lamb shoulder by my friend Michel, but there was no reason it couldn't be adapted for lamb shanks, too. It's been known among our circle for being the lamb recipe that converts lamb-haters to lamb-lovers—you know who you are, so don't make me name names—and I've heard reliable reports that it's successfully converted others to the ranks of the lamb-loving, as well.

The lamb itself makes a difference, of course, the fresher and more local the better, and there are several farms in the area that raised sheep on pasture, which are your best bets for good meat of any kind. (See the Oregon Pasture Network Product Guide to find a farmer near you.) But it's my belief that the unusual combination of spices like cardamom and cumin and poblano and red peppers takes it to another level entirely. The lamb can definitely stand up to the strong flavors they impart, and the aroma while its cooking is intoxicating, whetting everyone's appetites in advance of the meal.

Fall-off-the-bone tender, I've served it with polenta made from the coarsely ground Amish Butter corn from Ayers Creek Farm, but this time I decided to try pairing it with the farm's parched green wheat (formerly known as frikeh) simmered until it was tender then sautéed with onions, garlic and carrots. Turned out to be a great idea, since the smoky flavor of the grain complemented the lamb and spices perfectly.

Leftovers are rare, but if that should occur I can highly recommend shredding any remaining meat, adding a cup or two of roasted tomatoes and serving over pasta as a lamb ragu. And a reminder: I always love to hear back from you if you make this dish, especially if you have tweaks to make it better, so please leave feedback in the comments below. Enjoy!

Braised Lamb Shanks with Cardamom and Peppers

This lamb recipe is terrific braised and served the same day, but for a real treat make it a day ahead and put it in the refrigerator overnight. Holding it for a day gives the flavors a chance to meld deliciously, and it's easy to remove the bones and solidified fat before reheating.

4-lbs. lamb shanks (or shoulder roast)
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 c. chopped onion
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
2 pasilla, ancho or poblano pepper, coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp. cardamom pods, crushed, using only the small seeds inside
2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/4 c. dried currants, coarsely chopped
1 c. chicken stock
2 c. roasted tomatoes (approx. one 15-oz. can)
Zest of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Salt and pepper shanks and set aside.

Heat oil in large braising pot or Dutch overn. Add garlic and onion and sauté until tender. Add peppers and sauté until softened. Add cumin and cardamom seeds to the vegetables and sauté briefly. Add canned tomatoes, stock and currants and stir to combine. Place the shanks in a single layer in the pot, if possible, so they are mostly covered. Cover braising pot and place in middle of preheated oven. Braise for at least 3 hours.

Remove lamb from pot and separate the meat from the bones (bones can be discarded or, preferably, composted). Cover and hold in deep, pre-warmed serving platter or bowl. Skim fat from liquid in pan and bring to boil to reduce slightly. Season to taste with additional salt, if needed, and pour over lamb. Sprinkle with lemon zest and serve.

Find more of Michel's outstanding recipes, including her crab cakes, cherry corn salsa and Napa cabbage slaw.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

In Season: Tender Young Things

I noticed it a few weeks ago. Little yellow buds had appeard on the forsythia outside my kitchen window, one of the first signs that spring was, indeed, on its way. So I quickly made an appointment to sit down with veggie guy Josh Alsberg at Rubinette Produce to get the skinny on what farmers would be bringing in from their fields.

He led off with a recitation of a prodigious list of brassica inflorescences—sometimes labeled raab, rapini and rabe—that would be trooping through his doors and appearing on farmers' market tables around the area: kale, collard, chard, cabbage, bok choy, spigarello, turnip and brussels sprouts, among others. He noted that these tender green flowering shoots get their sweet flavor from the sugars that the plants pump out to ward off damage from frosty temperatures in early spring, protecting the seeds that will develop after the buds flower.

We agreed that the best way to prepare these shoots is to simply sauté them in olive oil and a showering of salt just before serving, though adding a couple of cloves of garlic or bacon wouldn't be a bad idea. But they're also appropriate when combined in stir fries, soups, stews, pastas, grains and beans.

"Spring bulby things" was the next category, which included spring radishes and early turnips like the Japanese Hakurei variety. He recommends consuming the radishes raw with unsalted butter, but both the radishes and turnips can be sautéed or roasted, as well. Alsberg didn't have to add an admonishment to use the greens from both, since I'm dedicated to sautéeing the tender greens from the turnips or making pesto from the tiny radish greens.

A pro tip if you're picking up radishes and turnips from a supermarket—which might be bringing them in from a faraway conventional farm—is to smell them first, he said. If they smell chemical-ly or off, "don't eat 'em," adding it's best to "follow your nose" when it comes to fresh vegetables.

Alsberg's also getting spring onions and garlic from local foraging companies, and emphasizes it's appropriate to use the whole plant after trimming off the roots, and that they're best added at the end of cooking to preserve their fresh, delicate taste. Washington asparagus is starting to appear, though you'll have to get to the farmers' market early (which counts me out) to get the small amounts coming in from Oregon growers. The season for Oregon asparagus won't really get going until later this month and into May.

Salad greens like arugula and watercress are beginning to flood in from the fields as the weather warms and should be around for the rest of the spring months. Alsberg encourages buying watercress in bunches rather than bags, since most of the bagged version are "upland cress," which is a different genus. Black Locust Farm in Boring, Oregon, part of the Headwaters Farm incubator project, is growing a Persian, or crinkled, variety that Alsberg is excited about.

Mustards, including mizuna, and mache are appearing, as is baby spinach. The babies will soon be followed by adult bunches in a matter of weeks, which you always want to buy from organic growers, since a recent report found "conventionally grown spinach has more pesticide residues by weight than all other produce tested."

Alsberg effuses over the "luxurious, beany flavor" of fava shoots (above, right), so you may have to fight him off at the farmers' market when he's there, as well as pea shoots, which he describes as the essence of spring with their "mellow, green, pea flavor." Look for lettuces to start coming in from local farms in late April and May.

And what about local strawberries, you might ask? They'll be dribbling in from hoop houses starting in mid-April, with the full-on flood starting around Mother's Day in mid-May.

As regards strawberry varieties, his advice on our precious Hood strawberries, known for their delicate and perishable natures, is to "take the whole pint and shove them in your face, stems and all."  Albions are wonderful for slicing into salads and fresh with desserts; Seascapes, not quite as sweet as Albions or Hoods but full-flavored and robust, are good for cooking; and Shuksan, which are touted as combining the best of Hoods and Seascapes, are excellent for both cooking and eating out of hand.

Pro tip: In his humble opinion, the best strawberries come from Deep Roots Farm between Corvallis and Albany. "Everybody should always be buying their berries from Deep Roots." So there you go. Happy spring!

Monday, April 09, 2018

On-Farm Seed Production, Part Three: 'Astiana' Sauce Tomato

When I would go to the farmers' market or the grocery store, I browsed the vegetables on offer to find the one that I deemed worthy to take home to my table. I never wondered how it got there—I assumed the farmer planted seeds from a previous crop (or a seed packet) and the vegetable would grow reliably as it had in previous seasons. It never occurred to me that what I was looking at was the result of deliberate choices on the part of the farmer (or seed breeder) over many years. The following is the third part of an article that contributor Anthony Boutard wrote for Acres USA magazine outlining that patient process. (Read previous posts here.)

We did not sell tomatoes for years, avoiding the frenzied and irrational hustle to produce the first tomatoes in the market. We shun hoop-house culture and we were happy to avoid all the precious heirloom hype. That said, we grew up on home-canned tomato sauce and missed growing a high-quality sauce tomato. The varieties sold as ‘San Marzano,’ ‘Roma’ and ‘Amish Paste’ are poorly adapted to our latitude and the cool nights that attend the maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest.

Ten years ago, we purchased a few tomatoes labeled as local in Asti, a town in the Italian Piedmont that is close to the latitude of our farm. It was mid-October and we saw similar tomatoes in gardens throughout the area. The tomatoes were large at the base and tapered to a narrow top. They were pleated and distinctly green-shouldered. The seed cavities, or locules, were dry and had very few seeds. The skin was thick and the flesh highly acidic. Raw, the tomato was flat and uninteresting. When cooked the flavor opened up and was so outstanding, we reserved the 15 seeds they yielded and brought them home with us. Over time, we adapted this representative of a northern sauce tomato landrace to our farm and customers.

The characteristics described above were all important to the quality of the tomato. The large fruit with its hollow cavities meant that it held the field heat accumulated during the day well into our cool nights, extending its ripening hours. The green shoulders are an ancestral trait associated with heightened flavor. The tomato’s lycopene and pectin are concentrated in the skin and the adjacent tissue adhering to it, thus the pleated skin increases the amount of flavorful skin relative to a smooth tomato of the same dimensions. Pectin provides “mouth feel” and softens the acids present in the fruit, but generally get short shrift when we discuss tomato quality. For a sauce tomato, ample acidity is important for flavor and canning.

Our selection protocol for the tomato is based on the cooked flavor. For a given vine, if the first one or two fruits fully meet our visual criteria, we harvest and cook them. If the cooked tomato meets our standards for flavor, the seeds are reserved.

We harvest and sell the tomatoes over a six-week period, starting around Labor Day. Consequently, we select for late fruiting plants, not just early ones. However, we are careful to use only the first ones that ripen on a given plant. Tomatoes are typically self-pollinating, but as the season progresses they will shift to outcrossing, perhaps due to the depletion of trace minerals within the root zone. From our observations, tomato fruits that display a sharp increase in seeds are likely outcrossing. The shift from self-pollination to cross-pollination in response to the depletion of copper and boron has been documented in wheat and barley. Even where the outcrossing occurs within the same variety, the genetic reshuffling will produce unpredictable offspring.

When growing both a crop for sale and producing seeds for self-pollinating crops, it is tempting to sell the best at market, and harvest seed later assuming that self-pollination is a fixed characteristic. My advice is, don’t. Select for seed first and harvest crops later. If you want to produce seed for snap beans, mark the seed plants and do not touch them until the seed is ripe. If seed production is a lower priority, don’t bother trying.

Ten years after purchasing those tomatoes in Asti, sauce tomatoes are another signature crop for our farm. We now sell them as ‘Astianas’, a nod to the market where we encountered them. We sell them in bulk lugs specifically for sauce. Because they ripen during the cool days as autumn hastens, people are more willing to spend the time in the kitchen.

Read the other posts in the series.

Top photo by Anthony Boutard.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Lost Valley Defaults on Loans, Cows Will Be Sold

A recent report in the East Oregonian newspaper indicated that Rabobank, a Dutch agricultural lender, reported that Greg te Velde, owner of Lost Valley Farm, had defaulted on part of $60 million in loans for the Boardman dairy and two other dairies te Velde owns in California. "John Top, owner of Toppenish Livestock, said they will begin preparing next week for the auction, which is scheduled for April 27," the article stated. "However, according to a preliminary injunction filed in Morrow County, te Velde has not given the auctioneer permission to enter the dairy."

Today (Thursday, 4/5/17) I was able to reach Cody Buckendorf, Operations Manager at Toppenish Livestock, who said that that the auction company had been given access to the property and an on-site auction was going ahead on Friday, April 27th. He said that their first day on the property to process cows prior to auction was yesterday, (Wednesday, April 5), and that the bank was estimating there would be as many as 19,000 cows auctioned. When questioned about the conditions he observed at the dairy, he said that, contrary to the photos taken by the inspector that led to its shutdown (photo, above), "it was one of the cleanest dairies I've seen."

Reached by phone, Andrea Cantu-Schomus, Director of Communications for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), said that within days of te Velde agreeing to a stipulated judgement by Multnomah County Circuit Judge Stephen Bushong that the dairy limit wastewater production to 65,000 gallons a day and ensure its manure lagoons have enough capacity to handle water from storms, the problems documented by ODA inspectors "had been rectified."

She added that as long as Lost Valley is running a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) under Oregon Administrative Rules, the ODA will be enforcing the CAFO permit and following the guidelines of the stipulated judgement, which includes weekly inspections by ODA inspectors.

Read my coverage of the problems at Lost Valley Farm that led to the auction. My article Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities reports on the issues mega-dairies pose to Oregon's air, water, environment and communities. You can also find out Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese and read other coverage about factory farms in Oregon. Photo obtained via a public records request by Friends of Family Farmers.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Farm Bulletin: The Owls of Ayers Creek Farm

Contributor Anthony Boutard has written often over the years about the owls that inhabit the land that he and Carol tend in the Wapato Valley just west of Portland. Valued residents, these nocturnal predators serve to exercise some population control over the various mice, voles and other creatures that love the crops from this acreage as much as its human fans.

Twenty years ago, when we settled on the farm, there was a great horned owl that we would flush from time to time. As we got to know the place, we would watch the young on an old Douglas fir snag. Owls do not build a nest, but find a suitable location where they can lay an egg. As that snag disintegrated, the owl moved to an old red-tailed hawk nest high in a living fir. That nest was occupied for several years until a wind storm knocked the top out of another fir, and they took over that redoubt. I cannot say for certain that the pair of owls we see today are the same as those we saw 20 years ago, but they can lead long lives if they can find a secure place to live. Spooky the Owl at the Boston Museum of Science lived to 38, allowing me to bring Caroline to see the same bird I had marveled at when I was a child.

Fortuitously, in her new nest location we could observe her from our bedroom. As the owls prepare to raise a clutch they become vocally amorous, indicating that the female is going to settle on the nest. This year, she started brooding in the early morning hours of the 4th of February. The laying of the second egg was unobserved, but probably happened about ten days later. The female will sit on the nest continuously for nearly two months keeping the eggs, and later the chicks, warm. The male will provide her food during her brooding.

Last year, the owls raised a brood, but the chicks never made it to fledging. I am not sure what happened, but it is a wonder any owlet survives as they leap from the nest while unable to fly. If they land to close to the ground or are too exposed, they are a fine morsel for a variety of predators and scavengers. A few years ago, the owls raised three chicks, but the third was developmentally challenged. It was never able to fly properly but lived well into the following spring. I suspect it met its demise at the talons of a migrating Coopers hawk or goshawk.

I have been watching to see when the chicks would show themselves. That happened on Thursday. The chicks were just big enough and the weather mild enough, that the owl could take a much needed stretch atop the snag. For a couple more weeks, that is as far as she will venture from the chicks. Today, I had a moment to set up the camera. Here is a photo of the two chicks and the female.

Read Anthony's posts, accompanied by his wonderful photographs, about previous broods of the farm's great horned owls.

Photo by Anthony Boutard.