Guest Essay: Farmers Rally at Nation's Capitol for Climate Resilience

Michael Guebert (the tall guy on the left, above), who with his wife Linda owns Terra Farma, a multi-species sustainable farm in Corbett, Oregon, went to Washington, DC, last week to lobby Oregon's congressional delegation and participate in a rally called "Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience." Guebert is a full-time farmer, an elected member of the Board of Directors at the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (EMSWCD)a farm mentor for the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) and an advocate for better state and national policies regarding agriculture. Here is his report:

Let’s start with a simple one-question quiz: Can you name the #1 export from American soil in terms of tons per acre? 

You might guess corn, soy, beef, wheat or a myriad of other products, but, in fact, the number one export from American soil is just that—topsoil. Across the nation, our farmland loses an average of over five tons of topsoil per acre every year, and with that, carbon that has been sequestered for generations is lost to the atmosphere and its potential to store carbon in the future could be permanently compromised. The impact from soil disturbance and erosion is a significantly under-reported driver of climate change, but also represents an opportunity. Our ecological systems are resilient, to a point, but the time to act is now, before we meet the proverbial point of no return.

Farmers from across the country rallied over climate issues.

So, in that spirit of resilience, on March 7th and 8th a broad coalition of farmers from across the country converged on Washington, DC, for the “Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience” and I was honored to be selected to attend. After last year’s Farm Aid concert, board members Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, and Margo Price came up with an idea to recreate the famous tractorcade of 1979 when thousands of farmers from across the country drove their tractors to the nation's capital in the hopes of bringing change to agricultural policy. 

In 2023, clogging the streets with farm equipment would be impractical, so Farm Aid worked with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to bring together all their affiliates and the farmers they work with for a rally and meetings with their senators and representatives. I applied for one of the handful of slots and found out last month that I was selected, and I was so excited for the opportunity, as well as my first-ever trip to Washington, DC.  


Can you name the #1 export from American soil in terms of tons per acre?


This year is particularly critical because the farm bill is reauthorized every five years. A new farm bill will be passed before the end of this year, so dozens of similar groups from around the country brought hundreds of farmers to lobby for a farm bill that would reallocate money that is currently going to destructive industrial agricultural practices to instead go to policies that prioritize family farms, climate-friendly practices, and producers that have been socially or economically excluded from previous farm bill benefits.  

In 1979 this tractor drove from Texas to DC to attend the rally.

The events began with a rally just east of the White House at Freedom Plaza where we listened to a speech by one of the organizers of that original tractorcade. (He even brought the tractor he drove here from Texas in 1979!) We also heard many touching stories of the struggles faced by so many in our farm community, like Marielena Vega, a farm worker in Idaho who described the plight of her family and community in the face of low pay, substandard living and working conditions, lack of health care and zero paid leave of any kind. Farm workers have almost always been excluded from policy considerations; it’s time for that to change. 

Interspersed with speeches and the moderation of Ray Jeffers, a Black farmer turned newly elected member of the North Carolina legislature, the rally was highlighted by a video link of Willie Nelson and an in-person performance from John Mellencamp. We then took to the streets and, with a police escort, marched the mile-plus to the capital, ending at the front steps of the Supreme Court.


Farm workers have almost always been excluded from policy considerations;
it’s time for that to change.


After training by NSAC on how to conduct our scheduled meetings with our congresspeople, we had the remainder of the evening to strategize and refine our message. While I was the only FACT representative from Oregon, I was able to meet up with two other Oregon farmers, Bashira Muhammad of Zoom Out! Mycology in Springfield and Willow from Valhalla Serenity Homestead near Klamath Falls. They were part of a small contingent from the Black farmers of Oregon (and Washington), but since they didn’t have a chance to get any meetings scheduled, I invited them to join me in my meetings in the offices of Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, and Earl Blumenauer.  

"Support farmers. Save farms, save communities, save families."

In each of the 30-minute meetings we introduced ourselves, reassuring them that we were actual farmers—they seemed to genuinely appreciate seeing actual constituents compared to the typical lobbyists they see day in and day out. We moved on to discuss the challenges farmers face from a changing climate, wildfires, competition from unsustainable industrial ag, and policies that leave out funding for smaller farms like ours.

They seemed especially concerned when I described how we had to give up selling raw milk at Terra Farma because drought, due in part to climate change, has caused the price we pay for hay to double in less than two years. Plus the fact that we had our liability insurance cancelled because we sold raw milk (which is completely legal for us to sell).

Then we moved on to our specific asks: The overarching priority from NSAC is the Agricultural Resilience Act, which focuses on farmer-led climate solutions, racial justice, and communities, not corporations. Two priorities from FACT were the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, which would provide funding to support pasture-based systems like those we use at our farm, and the Strengthening Local Processing Act, to address the critical need for animal processing for independent small farms.


I planted the seed for support for a crazy idea that I have:
that Oregon should have its own farm bill.


I also added some of my personal priorities to support the work I do at EMSWCD, like increased funding for easements to protect farmland and dollars to support more urban agriculture. Finally, I planted the seed for support for a crazy idea that I have: that Oregon should have its own farm bill, and the federal farm bill should have funding for any state that wants to create something that is more specific to that state’s needs.  

Meeting and networking with other concerned farmers.

Fortunately, my job in these meetings was easy, as we are incredibly lucky to have the delegation we do here in Oregon; all three of them “get it” and, in fact, they brought up questions about some of the above-mentioned priorities even before I did. I left each of the meetings feeling very positive, though tempering my expectations because I know the reality of federal policy is that change is often incremental and slow. Some of the things we are asking for might not see progress until the next farm bill or two to be fully implemented—but if we don’t ask, the answer will always be no.  

I closed each of the meetings with a sentiment I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: Farming is a public service. But, unlike many other public servants who have job security, a middle-class paycheck, health care, paid vacation and paid sick leave; farmers have none of these things. Additionally, they are burdened with locating and maintaining land that is increasingly out of financial reach for most new farmers. So, even though we are an essential part of every human’s existence, we are burdened with all the risk of providing that sustenance.  

Please join me in the effort to not only help climate-friendly agriculture survive, but to thrive. Not everyone is able to go to DC or the state capital to meet with their elected officials, but emails and phone calls are effective. More importantly, though, supporting farms that are employing these practices can do more than just keep a local business afloat. Their success will inspire others to follow in their footsteps, and building this movement from the ground up will undoubtedly affect future policy.

UPDATE: Yesterday the president released his proposal for ag spending for fiscal year 24, and while it increases discretionary funding for the USDA and the Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program mentioned above, the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative that I wrote about in my story had its funding go from $14 million to zero. This underscores the need for lawmakers to hear from their constituents about the importance of this initiative and to push for a funding level of $50 million per year. Read the NSAC press release. 

All photos courtesy Michael Guebert.

Guest Essay: What Do You Do with a Medlar?

I've been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—local writer and editor Jonathan Kauffman's occasional newsletter, A Place Is a Gift, for awhile now. It's about, as he puts it, "cooking the neighborhood (and giving it away)." But it's also about becoming intimately acquainted with, and becoming a part of, the place you live. As such, it's more than appropriate to share here.


The mystery of an unphotogenic, labor-intensive fruit.


This year, I planned to ignore medlars.

Two summers ago, I was having drinks with friends—one of those pandemic gatherings where everyone sat six feet apart and pretended we weren't freaked out—when Koto mentioned that she had a medlar tree in her backyard orchard.

Harvesting medlars (and quince).

I had never tasted a medlar before. I had never seen a medlar before. All I knew of medlars was a word in one of the choruses from Amahl and the Night Visitors, the Giancarlo Menotti opera I starred in as a boy soprano: “Olives and quinces, apples and raisins, nutmeg and myrtle, medlars and chestnuts. This is all we shepherds can offer you.”

I begged her to let me try a few fruits when they ripened, and that winter, Koto graciously remembered. She delivered several pounds of hard brown fruit to me with the instruction that I should let them blett, or soften, like persimmons. The ovoid fruits, with their gaping blossom ends, sat in my basement for a month while I looked up things to make with them. No one, it seemed, could share a recipe without describing medlars with a smirk. In Kate Lebo's marvelous lexicon, The Book of Difficult Fruit, for example, she describes a medlar as:

A shriveled, rose-hip-like bulb about the size of a fig, called in Shakespeare's time "open-arse" because its calyx looks (sort of) like the pucker of an anus. ... That medlars are not ripe until they rot—a process called bletting—contributes to their assness, I guess.

Medlars in situ.

After a month with no bletting to speak of, Koto told me that the December frosts had softened the remaining fruit on her medlar tree. This second batch of medlars were so squishy that, when I pressed a finger into them, a brown, grainy muck erupted.

Its sweetness was a subtle as its scent, and the seeds were too big to make the thought of eating a raw medlar appealing. So I followed a well-known food blogger's recipe for medlar jelly, mashing and cooking the fruits until they fell apart, then passing the pulp through a food mill to remove skins and seeds. It became clear why the blogger hadn't documented the process in photos. The assiest of fruit produces a scatological-looking pulp.

After I hung the pulp in a cheesecloth bag overnight, then collected the viscous, honey-like liquid that dripped out, I began to catch hold of the medlar's elusive aroma. The juice smelled as if someone had cooked apples and oats together with fresh sawdust. I wasn't sure I loved it, but I didn't mind it. I added the appropriate amounts of sugar, lemon, and tart green apple and cooked the jelly.

It refused to set.

Still from Country Life Vlog.

After two rounds of cooking, I shoved my jars of medlar syrup to the back of the fridge, and figured my curiosity was satisfied. This summer, though, I binge-watched YouTube videos of a cook in rural Azerbaijan [called Country Life Vlog]. Aziza, who layers printed fabrics like a Gen Z influencer, silently cooks massive amounts of food outdoors. (According to an English-language Azeri news site, the filmmaker is her son, a chef in his own right.) In one of the videos, Aziza and her husband build a brick fire pit in order to cook a vat of medlars down into a garlicky sauce, which they serve with beef ribs and hand-made noodles. (The video's long, so start watching at 11:30.)

I wanted to know how that tastes, I thought, then texted the video's URL to Koto. Come December, she texted me back: I don’t have time to process my medlars this year, but they're all bletting on the tree. Take them all.

It was an amazing gift, so of course I took her up on it. The fruit was so soft that if I jiggled a limb, medlars would fall off and hit the ground with a splat. It me took two afternoons to puree the 15 pounds of fruit I gleaned. The yield: two gallons of murky brown sludge.

In the process of cooking all that fruit, breathing in its steam, tasting little spoonfuls, the medlar burrowed into my head. The aroma remained subtle, but it permeated our house for a week, and I could pick it out from all the other smells floating around our house. I began to enjoy it.

It made me think of how my love for people and things—foods, music, cities—is often encased in my intimate knowledge of them. How familiarity is not the same as love, but it traces love's shape.

When people ask me whether I love it here in Portland, I can only say that I love my house, and my friends, and the landscape, and perhaps my neighborhood, which Christian and I have taken hundreds of walks around. In the late-2000s I lived in Seattle for three and a half years, exploring the area as a restaurant critic. By the time I moved away I could get from Federal Way to Kirkland and tell you six great places to eat in White Center. After the same amount of time in Portland—or as we like to say, eight months plus a pandemic—the city still feels like a preliminary sketch. A place that everyone else but me remembers. A community still locked behind its masks.

This winter, however, I'm finally driving around town without turning on Google Maps. Not just to regular destinations like the farmers' market or the barber. When I head out, I know that if I get lost, I can keep driving until something looks familiar—which is more and more of the city. It is a relief. A promise of a deeper kind of love.

As for the medlar purée, some is buried in the freezer, for the day when I feel ambitious enough to make beef ribs with medlar sauce. I attempted the jelly again, combining the strained juice with last year's syrup and a lot more pectin. I ended up with four jars whose contents jiggle when I shake them.

The leftover pulp became medlar cheese. I added heaps of sugar, plus vanilla, allspice, and cloves, then cooked the fruit puree until my spoon could barely move through the mass. According to the online recipes I followed, this was supposed to set up into a shiny, membrillo-like block, but mine didn't do that. So I canned small jars of what I’m calling spiced medlar butter, which I sometimes spread on toast. It is delicious. To be honest, so are most things flavored with sugar, vanilla, allspice, and cloves. Behind their easy charm, though, I can sense medlar's own true flavor. I plan to finish writing this sentence, walk to the refrigerator, and taste it again.

Spoonful by spoonful, I will figure out how to love this fruit.

Subscribe to A Place is a Gift. All photos courtesy Jonathan Kauffman.

Guest Essay: Ode to a Strainer

My friend Hank Shaw, a Northern California writer, author and blogger at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, describes himself this way: "I write. I fish. I dig earth, gather things from the wild, raise plants, live for food and hunt anything that tastes good." Doing that requires a few basic tools, one of which he wrote about recently on his new venture with his partner, journalist and photographer Holly Heyser, a collection of wide-ranging essays called To The Bone.


This simple tool makes my food better almost every day.


I get asked about the secret to my cooking all the time. There are a lot of reasons why my food tastes the way it does, some of them learned from long decades of experience. But there’s one you can pick up tomorrow and vastly improve your own performance in the kitchen: a fine-meshed strainer.

Or better yet, several.

Sieving and straining food elevates the end product by removing lumps, debris, impurities or indigestible bits. And if you don’t think this matters, here’s a case study.

Straining water off freshly made acorn flour.

Years ago, my co-worker Laura decided she wanted to make soup for her family. I can’t remember if it was based on one of my recipes or not, but regardless, she’s not a hunter so it was store-bought products.

She liked the soup, but her family did not, derisively calling it “debris soup” because in the bottoms of their bowls lurked a witch’s brew of bone bits, clotted blood, stem fragments and other things too horrible to mention. The broth tasted chalky and sour to them.

Turns out Laura never strained her broth. What went into the pot stayed there, and while this is often perfectly fine, it sure isn’t when you want to make a broth that then becomes a soup.

Another case: Years ago, when I learned how to make a proper salsa, and I am talking a smooth Mexican salsa, not pico de gallo, the ladies who taught me made sure I knew to push the blended salsa through a strainer (top photo).

Why? Because if I didn’t, I and everyone else who ate that salsa would pay for it in the morning. Turns out the skins and seeds of chiles are not digestible. (And in fact the seeds of certain chiles need to pass through the digestive tract of animals, notably birds, before they can even germinate!) If you’ve ever had the “ring of fire” in the morning, blame the skins and seeds.

And blame cooks who failed to strain their salsas.

I use my strainers almost every day.

One day I am rendering fat. Straining separates the clean fat from the asiento, the “seat” of fine fatty bits that is so wonderful on a tortilla. That strained fat is purer, and lasts longer because there’s no debris in it to attract mold.

Another day I am making a syrup out of something like chokecherries or prickly pears or gooseberries. If you want the most flavor, you need to initially make these syrups with the whole fruit, pits, seeds and skins and all. But even whizzing it in a fancy Vitamix blender won’t totally remove them from the finished product.

So you need to strain. Otherwise, you get a layer of sediment at the bottom of your syrup, which not only makes it ugly, but makes it taste weird. You don’t want floaters on your pancakes.

Sauces are the same. Running a gravy or a pan sauce through a strainer elevates it, makes it prettier and cleaner-tasting.

Nowhere is this more true than in broths and stocks.

I strain these several times, the last time through a paper towel set inside the strainer. This, plus the fact that I never let a broth boil—boiling will emulsify fat or calcium particles in the liquid, turning the broth cloudy—which results in an almost consommé-like broth without the fancy raft and re-cook.

Even where there’s no liquid involved, I love my strainers.

When I grind chiles for pepper powder I use a strainer. Ditto for when I make acorn flour or masa harina or porcini powder.

You may ask which strainers I prefer, and while I have no brand recommendations, I will tell you that they should be sturdy, because you will forcefully push things through them from time to time. And they should be of different sizes. You can always make do with a larger one, but having a large and a small strainer makes life better; many companies make nesting sets of three.

You also want your strainers to have two handles, long on one side, C-shaped on the other. Why? This allows you to set the strainer over a bowl or pot, so you can do your thing. The ancient, one-handled strainers are irritating.

A cheffy chinois is nice, but not totally needed, nor is the even cheffier tamis, which is a drum sieve. I find them hard to clean, and I’ve never had a tamis that I haven’t blown out the bottom of.

Strainers make everything better. We used them many times a day in the restaurants I worked in, and they are an easy way to improve your own cooking at home.

Guest Essay: Where is GTF?

This essay by Patrick Merscher, Assistant Manager at the Hillsdale Farmers'‚Äč Market in Portland, was published in the market's newsletter when Gathering Together Farm was not able to attend the market due to flooding from a January storm. The farm, located on the banks of the Marys River in Philomath, and its neighbors are still feeling the effects of that storm, and April’s heavy dose of rain, hail and snow hasn’t helped. Merscher's essay explains what such heavy flooding means for farmers and crops.

Around the New Year, you may remember the Pacific Northwest receiving a heavy amount of precipitation in a relatively short amount of time, which is not unusual for the area, although these events are increasing in frequency and intensity. You may also recall the news stories about flooding all around the region, especially in low-lying areas like the Willamette Valley, and about the effects it had on the many farmers that call these places home.

One of the market’s largest vendors, Gathering Together Farm (GTF), was heavily impacted by the floods, and they spent months away from the market. Every week shoppers would ask, “Where is Gathering Together? The flood was weeks ago—why aren’t they back?” These are brilliant questions, and one of our roles at the market is to act as a conduit between our local community and local farmers. So, here are some insights on what happens when a farm floods, and why it takes so long for them to return— and no, it’s not just because absence makes the heart grow fonder, although we certainly missed them.

Slow Winter Growth: The fresh winter vegetables you find at market (think radicchio, cauliflower, leeks, etc.) are actually started in late summer and early fall. Before winter starts, plants need to be about three-quarters mature in order to survive the cold temperatures. Growth during the wintertime is exceptionally slow here in the Northwest because of cold weather, short days and low-intensity sunlight. Plants are more holding in the field than they are growing. When a flood damages these winter crops, they actually have a lot of growth to catch up on and less-than-ideal conditions to do it in.

Oxygen Depletion: Plants respire just like humans. Standing water smothers the plant’s breathing pores (called stomates) essentially suffocating the plant. The extent of damage done by oxygen depletion is made worse by warmer waters (a symptom of climate change), stagnant water, younger plants, and the amount of time plants stay submerged.

Nitrogen Loss: Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for healthy plant growth and the health of the plant’s immune system. Forms of nitrogen that can be taken up by plants are also very water soluble, so much of the nitrogen can run off the field as flood waters recede. Anaerobic conditions (i.e. a lack of oxygen) also promote certain microbes that consume the nitrogen for their growth. Lack of nitrogen further slows plant recovery, reduces yields, and increases plant disease. Nitrogen can be replaced, but options are limited on certified organic farms like GTF. Often these organic sources of nitrogen require a mineralization process done in the soil to become available for plants, so it’s not a quick fix. Winter conditions also slow the mineralization process. The farm is also concerned about costs of production like fertilizer and labor, both on the farm and to work the market.

Erosion: Flooding not only removes soil nutrients, but it can physically remove organic matter or even the soil itself. The organic matter is responsible for holding onto nutrients and serving as a substrate that plants can root into. Sand, gravel and rocks can also be moved during flooding, physically damaging the plants. Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farms and farmers spend years developing it. This cannot be easily replaced.

Weed and Disease Growth: Floodwaters bring in weed seeds and plant pathogens. Since crops are damaged, weeds have an easier time growing and competing for sunlight and soil nutrients. Damaged crop plants are virtually sitting ducks for plant pathogens like fungi that love damp, cool conditions and can outgrow the plants easily. Of course, manual or mechanical weed control is the first line of defense on organic farms like GTF, but digging, tilling or otherwise working waterlogged soil, even just walking on it, destroys the structure of the soil and can cause compaction. This will have longterm effects that could be seen for years to come because, again, soil health is something farmers spend years building, but nature can take it away in an instant.

While none of this is pleasant to talk or think about, hopefully you have a better understanding of the plight our local farmers are facing. When one of them experiences a catastrophe like this, please be patient as the farm and the workers recover. They may not be able to come to the market for a few weeks, but your patience is one way you can support them and the market.

Read a profile of founder John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm. Top photo of January's flooding at GTF from their Instagram account.

Guest Essay: How To Harvest Wild Onions

Now that spring is on the way, it's time to get out in our fields and forests and bring home some wild goodness. My friend, author Hank Shaw, is an authority on hunting, foraging and cooking all manner of wild things—his four books on those topics are considered definitive guides—and his post on harvesting wild onions is particularly pertinent to this season.

Ramps, wild onions, wild garlic. These are some of our best wild foods come springtime.

Ramps.

More than 100 species of wild alliums call North America home—allium being the genus covering both onions and garlic—but it is the Eastern ramp, Allium tricoccum, that has been all the rage among chefs in recent years. They’ve become so popular I even see chefs here in California using them with abandon; no native ramp grows within 2,000 miles of San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Locavore issues aside, perhaps the trendiest thing about ramps right now is to bemoan their overharvest.

Is this happening? Certainly, in some places. I’ve seen some startling before and after photos. But most professional foragers I know harvest the same patches of ramps every year — and some of these folks have been picking for 30 years. They know, as well as any good farmer, that you don’t eat your seed corn. The sustainability of any bulb, corm, root or rhizome harvest all hinges on how you pick the plant.

Here’s how you do it.

First and foremost, you must find your onions. Ramps are showy onions with large, wide leaves. They’re pretty easy to spot, especially in Eastern woodlands, where they can literally carpet the forest floor for acres. Most wild onions are not so easily located, although one, the invasive three-cornered leek of California and Oregon, A. triquetrum, is almost as gaudy as the ramp.

hank_shaw_onions2.jpg
Wild onions in situ.

There’s an onion for pretty much every environment, from deserts to forests to streamsides to lawns to high above the treeline in Alpine meadows. My favorite is the dusky onion, A. campanulatum, which is common in the mountains from California to British Columbia.

Onions, being bulb plants, send up grasslike shoots first. This can be as early as January in the Bay Area for the three-cornered leek, to mid-July for Alpine onions. Onions, in general, like to live in large troops: It’s weird to find just one onion.

hank_shaw_onions3.jpg
A patch of wild onions.

A great many onions have a rosy blush to the base of their stems. But not all. Your nose is your best tool when trying to figure out if that grassy shoot you are looking at is an onion. Anything that looks like an onion that also smells like an onion is an onion. Lots of bulbs, some of them poisonous, can look like an onion, but none will also smell like one, too.

Once you’ve found your onions, look at the patch. Are there only a few onions there? Or does the patch have hundreds or even thousands of plants? If there are only a few, consider moving on. I like to pick patches with at least 100 plants, and preferably patches even larger than that. Regardless, follow these rules when you do decide to pick:

  • Pick only the largest individuals. See the photo on the left above? There are a dozen little onions in that image, and only the largest one is worth picking.
  • Stick and move. Pick that large one and move on. Look for another large one. By doing this, you will scatter your picking activity and leave the patch thinned, without large holes in it.
  • Take only 10 to 20 percent of any given patch. And that 20 percent number is only really for private ground or ground you have a very good idea that no one else knows about. Think about it: If I collect 10 percent of an onion patch, then you come along and take 10 percent, then two other people come… well, we’ve screwed that patch, haven’t we?
  • If you really need some wild onions, but the patch is pretty small, pick one large green leaf from each plant. That’s what I do with my Chinese garlic chives at home and they never appear to really notice it. It’s a good way to get that flavor you crave without digging up the whole plant.

Read the rest of Hank's post to get more suggestions on harvesting these wild bulbs, plus recipes for home use, including pickling!

Wild onion photos by Hank Shaw. Check out Hank's books here.