Monthly Archives: February 2016

Paper or Plastic – How Storage Affects the Ripeness of your Produce

iStock_000010853661_Medium (1)

You know how it is. The air is chilly, the room is still dark, you can hear some very cold precipitation coming down outside, and you have the funny feeling your alarm isn’t supposed to be going off at the moment. Some days it just takes longer to get out of bed and ready for action. Sometimes produce reacts the same way. Obviously, this is in a metaphorical way, since last I heard, science has plants leaning toward Motzart and away from Metalica, but not actually having feelings. It did get me thinking how, while in the heat of the summer, storing food the last longer is great; however, sometimes what you really want to know is how to get things to ripen faster.

I was going to bring you a quick and dirty list of ripening techniques by food item, much like the one for storage tips, like popping the little nub off the top of an avocado so it ripens faster. As it turns out, many techniques are surprisingly similar in nature. For example here’s technique A for ripening tomatoes:
• Remove all stems, etc… from tomatoes
• Gently wash tomatoes and let them air dry
• Place a ripe banana in a brown paper bag
• Place appropriate quantity of tomatoes in bag with banana
• Place in a warm, semi-humid place
• Wait

I’ll get into the science behind it in a minute, but first let’s check out technique B:
• Remove all stems, etc… from tomatoes
• Gently wash tomatoes and let them air dry
• Punch air circulation holes in plastic grocery bag
• Place a ripe banana in plastic grocery bag
• Place appropriate quantity of tomatoes in bag with banana
• Place in a warm, semi-humid place
• Wait

There are some variations that use a jar (don’t squish the tomatoes) or cardboard box (no banana unless you want that many tomatoes ripe at once); but as you can see, the methodology is pretty similar here. Warm. Dark. Ripe banana.

The funny thing is, some instructions for ripening bananas suggest you include a ripe tomato or apple in the warm, dark container of choice. It’s also a bit funny that this article is right after Valentine’s Day, because a lot of the induced ripening process involves chemistry and hormones. It starts with ethylene. The colorless, flammable hydrocarbon with the sweet, musky smell. Its worldwide production exceeds that of any other organic compound, frequently used in the making of polyethylene. But for plants, it’s a hormone.

Guiding both the opening of flowers and the shedding of leaves, ethylene also stimulates the ripening process. Whether you choose a container that’s more box-like or bag-like in form, either way you’re essentially creating a gas chamber of ethylene for your produce that saturates it in the ripening stimulant. As to why the inclusion of a foreign fruit or vegetable into the ripening process, I have to guess since it doesn’t matter what produce the ethylene originates from. I imagine it’s because the originators of the tips worked under the assumption that if one is trying to ripen said food article, one doesn’t have any of said food article that’s already ripe.

But supposing one doesn’t have any ripe produce on hand at all (or one needs to make banana bread even sooner than these methods allow), I have a solution. Here’s two techniques for ripening bananas even faster than the ethylene method.

Method A – Oven
• Heat oven to 300°
• Place unpeeled bananas on baking sheet
• Bake at 300° for 30-50 minutes, checking frequently
• Bananas are done when skin is shiny and black (for ripening bananas to banana bread ripeness)

Method B – Microwave
• Place banana in microwave
• Heat for 30 seconds
• Allow to cool before checking for desired softness
• Repeat as necessary (around 30-120 seconds total)

Now, I know I said a solution if you don’t have any ripe produce and are in the market for something besides banana bread. It goes something like this:
• Have/obtain a banana and a microwave
• Follow the microwave method for banana ripening explained above
• Place tomatoes, other bananas, apples, or whatever produce you intend to ripen in your brown paper bag, cardboard box of choice.
• Place turbo-ripened banana in aforementioned container with soon to be ripened produce
• Wait, checking periodically so produce doesn’t exceed intended ripeness. Time will vary, but most estimates show 12-48 hours.

You may have heard a variation on the bag or box technique before, and as a result, you may be feeling that I basically told you to microwave a banana. That’s not really true. I told you to microwave a banana in the name of science. With the exception of the high speed techniques for bananas, the formula is pretty standard. It’s all chemistry and hormones, which I refuse to complicate because I’ve been forced to watch rom coms before, and I’ve seen how that turns out. Really, there’s just one thing to remember. Always keep an eye on things you’re ripening with accelerated techniques. You don’t have to be a helicopter, but check periodically and take out any produce that’s ripe or overripe. See, ethylene not only ripens produce, it keeps ripening it until taken out of the equation. At the risk certainty of sounding cliché, one bad banana can spoil the whole bunch.

Growing Up Indoors – The Current Face of Urban Farming

iStock_000045748810_Medium

Let’s talk about urban farming. Many of us have heard about urban farming in the sense of rooftop or community gardens on the one hand, or tasted the results when enjoying lettuce from L.L. Urban or Coastal Plains Produce. Recently I learned that urban farming, also called vertical farming, is being done on a massive scale in locations around the globe. And while urban farming still includes personal and small to medium scale farms and projects, it now includes monoliths like Sky Greens in Singapore, a four story transparent building that rotates all four stories of plants by the windows using a giant pulley system. The even the US is home to large scale urban farming, like the 90,000 sq. ft. facility in Chicago. Described as looking like a Cosco put with plants instead of breakfast cereal, the facility houses pallets of hydroponically grown plants stacked six deep from floor to ceiling and lit by LED lights so the plants can grow 24/7 in a climate controlled environment. The downside: that’s a lot of lights.

Which brings me to a key point in the urban farming issue: not everyone whole-heartedly approves. There seems to be as many issues in discussion about large scale urban farming as there are varieties of urban farms. While issues of the environmental impact and efficiency are a big part of the discussion (and we’ll get to that), but one of the first issues I came across was light. Those in favor of urban farming either go to the sun or electricity for their light. With natural light comes a substantial reduction in required power, while using LEDs allows for 24/7 growth. Those opposed to the idea argue that natural lit urban farming can’t produce enough to serve as a substantial supplement to traditional farming because of having well-lit space, arguing that windows don’t provide enough light for the plants.

But the issue of light is just a subset of the larger efficiency and environmental issue. Proponents of using LEDs in indoor farming have stated that, while a large amount of energy is used, the big reduction in carbon footprint miles makes up for that. Others argue that it is still terribly inefficient, and if we produced the entire US vegetable crop using indoor urban farming, it would take half the power we produce in the US and create 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions yearly. Those in favor argue that green energy could be used, while the opponents say that green energy would still be wasted when it could have been used to replace the energy we use in other ways. For example, one expert argued that to use solar power, there’s a sizable loss of energy at each stage of conversion, when in the end, the energy is turned back into light that the plants could have used for free if they were outside.

Another argument in favor is the water efficiency of hydroponic systems, which be collecting and reusing water, are 97% more water efficient than other growing methods. There are hydroponic/aquaponic systems that use the fish water to fertilize the plants, and once the plants have filtered the water, return it to the fish. Some of the systems are virtually energy neutral, which means that almost as many calories are harvested as are used to grow the food.
The final of the environmental aspects I want to consider today is not directly food related at all. Instead, it focuses on using land freed up by urban farming to begin reforestation. One proponent argues that vertical farming is 10 more efficient than traditional methods, and if cities would grow 10% of the food they need via urban farming, 340,000 square miles of land could be reforested. Others argue that the 10x efficiency is not to be believed, and a better solution would be to quit using feedlots for meat production and reforesting the land formerly used to grow the massive amount of corn and soy needed to power the feedlots. The same individual argued that ‘factory farming’ plants is no more environmentally sound than factory farming meat.

In the end, it seems that urban farming is still in too amorphous a state to easily nail down as a positive thing for the population and environment or not, but it’s a subject to keep watching. To me, it seems to be an issue of adaption. People see a need or opportunity and try to use it to aid in our survival. The reason urban farms are so varied is because I imagine no one method will work in every place. It reminds me of when I talked to Jedd Koehn for my article on Coastal Plains Produce. He started with a new location and a desire to get to spend more time with his family, so he took his farming knowledge and adapted his growing methods to fit his needs, which is how he got into hydroponics. I talked to him for a local perspective on large scale and indoor urban farming. He said that there are lots of variables to consider, and location makes a difference even with indoor farming, because of issues like humidity affecting the systems. He also said it can depend on the crop grown, as the system would work better for, say, tomatoes versus some other plants. (Turns out, it takes around half the energy used by an average American refrigerator in a year to produce 2.25 lbs. fleshy foods like corn, but the turnaround is much better on plants like greens where most of it can be consumed). Whether indoor urban farming will work on a large enough scale to sustain a population is yet to be seen, but Jedd that it works for him and his family, and I’d say that’s a pretty good start. As advancements are made, we’ll see how the fate of large scale urban farming turns out. Until then, keep your eyes open. What looks like a warehouse may actually be a farm.

Stick Boy Dough and the Pizza beneath the Toppings

Pizza cooking ingredients

I don’t know if you to try to turn work into a game as a kid, but I did, and well, still do actually. Though at times, they’ve become a bit more contemplative in nature. One of my hunger-induced amusements centers around Stick Boy’s frozen pizza dough. If I see a customer has ordered pizza dough while I’m packing their box, sometimes I ponder what kind of pizza they’ll make based on the contents of the box. Do I ever get it right? I have no way of knowing, but probably never.

It did get me contemplating the nature of pizza, though. You can put anything on a pizza. You can even turn other foods like hamburgers into pizza. No matter what you put on it, a pizza will still be a pizza. When I’ve talked to people about whether they prefer pizza chain A, B, C, or none of the above, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard toppings be the answer. True, toppings are important, but I decided to check out some regional styles to look deeper into pizza’s other defining characteristics.

The first stop is New York style pizza. Most of us have at least heard of it being somehow different from other pizza, and even as a kid I knew it had something to do with folding it to eat it because of a Pizza Hut commercial I saw. My concept of it has fleshed out since then, but I wanted it boiled down to something more definable. New York pizza starts with a hand tossed crust, then a light to medium layer of sauce, followed by the toppings. The pizza is usually sold in large, flexible slices and frequently enjoyed by the slice as a snack or meal on the go. Since the norm is an 18” pizza cut into eight slices, so with a bit of 2πr and some division, we have slices that are roughly 7×9 triangles. With the size and thinness of the slices, it’s no surprise that people often fold to eat it; anything else might be unwieldy.

Chicago style is defined by its deep dish nature. Cooked in a deep pan, Chicago pizza exchanges width for depth. Assembling the pizza starts with a well-oiled pan to give the crust it’s fried texture. Next goes the dough. Despite the thickness of the pizza as a whole, the crust is actually only a medium thickness. After the crust, things start to take a different order than one’s typical pizza. The depth of Chicago style pizza necessitates a longer cooking time, a problem that would normally result in burning. The solution – the pizza is layered cheese (usually sliced mozzarella), then toppings, and finally the sauce on top, which is chunky and more akin to crushed tomatoes than a tomato puree. Even if one’s still holding out for toppings being the defining element of pizza, Chicago style pizza shows that pizza can be delicious no matter what order you pile on the ingredients.

Popular in New England, Greek pizza can be found topped with feta and olives, but is equally Greek (in pizza terms) even when topped with Canadian bacon or barbeque chicken. The name comes from the Greek immigrants who ran the pizzerias where this style pizza could be found. Greek pizza is cooked in a heavily oiled pan, both thinner and oilier than that of the Chicago style. This results in a chewy, puffy, oily crust that is somewhat reminiscent of focaccia bread. The sauce leans more toward paste than crushed tomatoes, resulting in a thick, tangy sauce with the taste of oregano. Anything on top of the sauce is pretty much up to you.

The last up in today’s pizza exploration is Sicilian style pizza. Popular across Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregano, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and amongst Papa Spud’s employees who work on Mondays, Sicilian pizza builds on a thick, square crust. In the US, Sicilian pizza is adapted from the Italian sfinciuni, a rectangular pizza that uses more cheese, sauce, and dough than the more common Neapolitan pizza. Sicilian style pizza in the US has a crunchy base, airy interior, and dough over an inch thick.

As I started on this informational pizza exploration, I wasn’t exactly sure where I’d end up. I don’t know where this imaginary pizza journey has taken you, but I’ve arrived back at the beginning. At the foundation, the crust, the dough. For a long time, I thought it was all about what you put on the pizza, but now I see that what you build a pizza on is just as important. If like me, you want to explore new possibilities the next time you make pizza and you start from Stick Boy’s pizza dough, you’re in luck. Since it’s still a ball of dough, it’s not predefined and still full of potential. Sure, you can’t change the make-up of the dough, but the rest is up to you. Hand tossed or pan, thick or thin, puffy or crispy are just some of the options waiting to be explored. Sure, with every kitchen experiment there’s potential for a flop, but you could find yourself discovering North Carolina’s own style of pizza.

Keeping the Off-Season on Schedule – How the Farmers at Down2Earth Stay Warm by Staying Busy

12115924_1027313183988125_4177787097798854514_n

Remember being a kid having a great time during summer or winter break? And then somewhere deep inside you wish there was an occupation with built in extended vacations like that? There’s pro sports – but then there’s practice. There’s lifeguarding – and also indoors pools. What about farming? You only work when the plants grow, right? Heh, no. Honestly, I knew farmers had to stay busy during the rest of the year too, but until I talked to the people of Down2Earth Farms, I had no idea just how busy the off-season could be.

To have everything ready by April 1st, the People at Down2Earth have to complete a variety of objectives that I would roughly categorize as farming, caring for the land, planning, and putting the plan into action. Yes, the first category is farming. I know it’s January and technically any work pertaining to farming could be called farming, but Down2Earth still has plants growing and being harvested in their high tunnels and a few covered places in the field. In addition, seeding for the greenhouses begins in January. With seeding, tending, and harvesting still going on in January, ‘on-season’ work continues even in the ‘off-season.’

The second major component of off-season work is caring for the land, which includes both essentially putting the land away for winter as well as prepping it for spring. A key part of closing up the land for the season involves planting a cover crop. Ideally, the cover crop will not only protect the land from erosion and the like, but also be beneficial to the next crop in some way. To prepare the land for the coming season, the farmers already shape it into beds, best done before the earth gets too wet. Additionally, the green houses have to be prepared for spring in January as well. Like other aspects of farming, caring for the land in the offseason revolves around a lot of careful planning.

Which brings me to the very important third component – planning. But while back in the day people used to plan for winter, Down2Earth plans for spring. On the one hand, planning for the season involves determining what tasks have to be done by when and scheduling them accordingly. Getting the beds made before the ground gets wet, seeding in time for the plants to be ready to harvest when they need to be, having the greenhouses ready, and a myriad of other things. However, one of the most complicated and important tasks is ordering seeds. Ordering seeds actually involves a lot of variables, and the final seed purchase involves research, honing in on a few plants they enjoy growing, meeting with customers, determining a demand base among customers, determining quantities for each plant, evaluating the economics of each plant, and even accounting for time and the desired color of the crop. If that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s a catch. If the seeds aren’t ordered early enough in January, they’ll be on back order, throwing off all of the careful planning.

Finally, there’s putting the plans into action, or what I like to call, everything else. The category includes continuing research, catching up on projects, starting new projects, doing equipment maintenance, working on infrastructure, and everything else that has to be done to be ready by April 1st or didn’t get finished throughout the year. After talking to Cecelia Redding of Down2Earth, I’m beginning to think the offseason is as busy as the rest of the year. In fact, last Wednesday involved fixing the weeding equipment, having a meeting with Papa Spud’s that last a couple hours, doing an interview with me, and what I can only imagine was several other tasks. So, yes, offseason is really a misnomer. It’s really more of a differently-busy season. Thankfully though, in amongst the planning, the farmers of Down2Earth do get a little time to rest. But next time you’re enjoying some delicious produce, remember that a whole year of work went into growing it, no matter what season you actually eat it.

How Joyce Farms Got Naked

Background-300x201

Before you stop reading or hide this article from your kids, I want you to know that this kind of naked is family friendly. While I have respect for Burroughs as a writer, thankfully, Joyce Farms naked chicken is about as far as one can get from Naked Lunch – wholesome, straightforward, not dosed with foreign substances (true, but also another Naked Lunch joke), and something you’ll be glad to see your children ingesting.

Joyce Farms started back in 1962, but back then, it was called Joyce Foods. It was started by Alvin Joyce as a poultry wholesaler dealing with mom and pop type grocery stores. He was joined in the endeavor by his son Ron Joyce only nine years later. In 2010, it became a third generation farm when Stuart Joyce joined the ranks. If you’re wondering why this timeline is all about when various generations joined the farm, it’s all about Joyce Farms philosophy. They want to bring the best tasting chicken possible to the table, and they believe that comes from the best chickens raised by family farms who give the animals superb care. At Joyce farms, they know the heart of their business is their farmers, and the animals the soul.

Though it’s different than a typical definition of soul care, Joyce Farms takes great care of their ‘soul.’ As they say, “Happy, healthy animals produce the best meat.” And for the best meat, Joyce starts with the best breeds. To find the best breeds, they looked far and wide. As the business grew, so did their travels, and the people of Joyce Farms realized something: Americans were missing out when it comes to chicken. They felt that typical, US commercial stock was unsatisfactory, so they brought home old world breeds (like their increasingly well-known poulet rouge) and old school techniques.

When I say old school, I mean traditional, not conventional. Joyce Farms’ focus is on the comfort and health of their animals, and that involves several things. For starters, that means low stress environments with plenty of space. They get to move freely, spending life either free range or free roaming, and are free to seek shelter in climate-controlled barns to protect them from rain, snow, heat, and cold if they so choose. When they are indoors, they’re still free to roam, and are actually allotted twice the square footage of most ‘organic’ requirements. The chickens are allowed to what they want, and if they partake of the feed provided, you can count on it being germ free without antibiotics since they food is heated to kill any possible bacteria. In fact, no hormones, antibiotics, growth stimulators, or animal products are ever added to the chickens or their food. For the best for the chickens (and their final consumer), Joyce Farms allows their chickens to grow to maturity naturally and in comfort. Add to this humane care fitting to the highest standards and sustainable practices, and you’ve got a solid formula for the health and happiness of the chickens, and of the consumer, too (as far as eating chicken is involved). As they say, “everything we do, we do for the animals.”

And that’s the essence of what Joyce Farms does. OK, cool, so where’s the naked part come in. Easy. I’ve seen sweaters on dog’s and such, but as far as I know, chickens are always naked. OK, so maybe that has literally nothing to do with it. It’s really because Joyce Farms keeps their chicken as au naturel as it gets. At Joyce Farms, they don’t put anything unnatural, and the chickens aren’t put in little boxes or anywhere else they didn’t put themselves. Joyce Farms believes this is just part of the formula for great chicken, and I think they’re right. If you’ve tried it, you know what I’m talking about, and if not, there’s only one way to find out. To assist you in such an endeavor, here’s a great recipe from Papa Spud’s:

Philosophy and the Art of Steak: How Smithview Farm’s Philosophy of Farming Brings You Great Beef

smithview 1

Today I learned that not all beef is equal. Well, I already knew that, but it turns out that seemingly equivalent beef is not so equal either. While “pasture raised” and “grass fed” may sound like roughly the same situation for the cows, but the end of the process leaves them worlds apart. Pasture raised cows begin their process in the field, but are purchased and fattened up with grain at fattening farms. Grass fed cows are finished with grass and no gluten related products, taking longer, but assuring a healthier life for the cows and a healthier end product. Jim Smith of Smithview Farm sees a big difference, which is why Smithview Farm produces only 100% grassfed, gluten free Angus beef that’s certified by the American Grassfed Association .

The farm has been in Smith’s family since the ‘50s, and until a few years ago his father grew tobacco and raised cows. Jim grew up on the farm, later leaving to go to college and join the dental industry in Charlotte. After he retired, he and his wife decided to return to the farm, but with something healthier in mind. After extensive research, the Smiths of Smithview Farm decided to the grassfed market.
Jim Smith’s philosophy of farming affects not only what they produce, but what they do and how they do it. Roughly summed up, that philosophy revolves around purity, process, and peace of mind. Purity refers to what goes into the cows as much as the end product. Smithview cows are finished on alfalfa, keeping them purely grassfed and gluten free. Even their drinking water is 100% well water to protect the cows from bacteria in ponds or streams. Providing the cows with unadulterated grass and water ensures that Smithview cows are not given any gluten-related feeds, growth-promoting hormones, animal byproducts, or unnecessary antibiotics.

Jim Smith says that if you’re in the cow business, you’re in the grass business. As such, Smithview Farm is committed to sustainable farming practices all the way down to the literal roots. If any fertilizer needs to be used for the grass, organic chicken manure is used. They also make sure there are both warm season and cool season grasses, to ensure the cows have enough to forage 24/7. The cows are never put into pens or a lot, and the slower grassfed finishing process provides a healthier outcome for both the cow and the consumer.

I asked Jim about his favorite part of farming, and he said it was working with the cows every day and the peace of mind that comes with it. Walking beside them, tending to their needs and ensuring that they are well cared for. Smithview Farm’s philosophy and practices can provide the consumer with peace of mind as well, meaning you can trust that your meal came from happy, healthy cows, leaving you with a healthy, delicious, and hopefully happy meal.