Saturday, July 18, 2015

Farm Bulletin: Trust Is the Glue

“Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships,” Stephen R. Covey wrote. True in business, it's also true in life. This week, contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm elucidates the importance of longterm, stable relationships between the farmer and his local grocers.

We will return to the Hillsdale Farmers' Market with a full cargo of Chesters, along with Triple crowns. If you all run out of fruit midweek, Food Front and most New Seasons stores carry our berries. We harvest about 900 full 12-pint flats of berries a week during the peak of our blackberry season. Of those we sell only 100 at market, the balance finds it way to these grocery stores. We have a very good relationship with the buyers, Josh Alsberg at Food Front and Jeff Fairchild at New Seasons, and their staff. It meant a lot to us that both Josh and Jeff took the time attend our Ramble last year.

Food Front Cooperative Grocery.

About ten years ago, a national chain opened a store in Portland and contacted us about supplying berries. They bought a lot and were happy with our quality. The problem is that they rotated staff all over the country, making it impossible to establish a longterm working relationship with a produce manager. When each new harvest started, we found ourselves at the courtship stage again. The new person was from Palo Alto, Austin or Miami and knew nothing about the local produce. It didn't seem to matter that the chain sent a fancy photographer from Los Angeles to photograph us. For all we know, the fancy photographer photo still hangs in the store. The final straw was when they went extremely bureaucratic with respect to ordering and receiving. A very officious letter with lots of attachments explained all of the ways they didn't have to pay us if we strayed from the rules. Threatening farmers with nonpayment puts a deep and irreversible crimp in the relationship.

New Seasons Market.

The pleasure of working with Josh and Jeff is that we have known their staff for years. And when New Seasons opens a new store, it is always a seasoned staff member who takes the lead. We are not actually dealing with a new store, just a familiar face in a new setting. We know staff by name and it is always one of us who makes the delivery. This detailed approach means the store can eliminate wasted berries. If they feel they are a bit long on berries, they can email or call us and we adjust the orders. A fair measure of our time is spent convincing stores that running out of Chesters is okay.

This week we will have lots of berries, some purslane and amaranth, frikeh, herbs, shallots and garlics. We will leave the preserves at the farm in order to fit all the berries in the van. If you want to make your own preserves, this early season fruit is the best choice. All of our preserves are made from the first harvest, which means we never need to add pectin. There is enough in the fruit to get a good set. Adding pectin diminishes the flavor.


Tracy Thomas said...

I love your contributions from Anthony Boutard/Ayers Creek Farm. I remember reading one of these articles a few years ago about freezing berries, and there being no need to wash and dry them in a single layer prior to freezing. Before reading that article, intimidated by the effort of the wash/single layer dry thing, I hadn't frozen many berries. Now, I make sure to buy berries from farmers who don't spray, freeze away, and enjoy all winter!

So, now my question. The sentence about not needing to use pectin when making preserves from early season fruit is intriguing. Can you explain why this would be true? And, is it true for all sorts of berries vs just Chester blackberries?

Kathleen Bauer said...

Tracy, I asked Anthony for his input, and he wrote:

I have addressed it a few times in my posts. It is true for all fruits, even zucchini and cucumbers. Simple matter of resource allocation. The first at the table get the best of the repast.

- Anthony

From Dancing with Mother Nature:

During the ripening season for each fruit, berry quality changes. The early fruit have a higher natural pectin level and acidity, making better preserves than later fruit. We make our preserves from the first run, and they do not need added pectin. As the season progresses, the pectins and acidity drops, and for cooking the berries have less oomph. However, for fresh eating, the later berries will be sweeter and just as flavorful in the mouth. In preparing preserves, it helps to macerate the fruit in the sugar overnight and heat it up the next day.

From Preserving the Best of Summer:

Preserve production is when we reprise our summer, the good moments and the disappointments. All of the fruit we use, with the exception of lemons, comes from the farm. Many farmers contemplate preserve production as a way to capitalize on surpluses and low grade fruit, throw some sugar and pectin into a big pot and you have something to sell. Extension people call it "value-added." As we warn other farmers, the notion that making preserves is "value-added" is simply poppycock. We must purchase the jars, organic sugar, organic lemons and pay for the use of Sweet Creek's kitchen and staff. We have added an investment and value is added only if and when you sell the preserves for a profit, so there is no sense poking some low grade fruit in glass.

We started making preserves from the opposite end of the harvest. The very first berries to ripen in the field are the highest quality fruit. They set up well without any added pectin and the flavor is brightest due to their higher acidity. For us, taking the better part of the day to deliver ten flats of berries is a waste of time and fuel. So early in the morning, we bring in a few flats each day and freeze the berries. We never crush them; they are packed into buckets whole when frozen. This gentle treatment preserves the aromatics and acidity of the fruit, as many of you know because you handle our berries the same way.

Our preserves are very farmer-ish, just one type of fruit and no secret ingredients or surprising combinations. The preserves are cooked in 2-1/2 gallon steam jacket pots, so the cooking surface is a gentle 270°F (132°C). We cook about a gallon at a time. Paul Fuller has three 275-gallon pots, but at that volume, you have to add pectin in order for the fruit to gel. Several years ago, Carol's brother, Bill, visited the farm and walked us through a series of very carefully documented variations. Tasting the various versions, it was clear to us that adding pectin robbed a vital part of the fruit's spirit, inconvenient and indisputable. Sweet Creek has just two of these small pots, but Paul is two more so we can increase production next year. There is no other co-packer in Oregon that would put up with our fussy demands, so as long as Paul and Judy own Sweet Creek welcome us back, we will make preserves.

Tracy Thomas said...

Thanks for providing the great detail!