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Category Archives: Cultivating the Soul

Because when we grow a garden, we are believing in the future.

Can we really Grow local food in North Dakota?

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I have been working with Local Foods for over three years now. I take every chance I can to engage consumers, support producers, and collaborate with leaders to build a local foods economy in North Dakota. It is something I believe in. By growing local food, we build community. We develop relationships. We teach our children. We appreciate the moment. We look toward the future.

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I cherish the opportunity to grow my own vegetables.

I love being able to sell jams and jellies.

I am proud to raise chickens and ducks in my backyard.

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My food choices don’t stop there.

I know I cannot do it all on my own.  I purchase produce at the farmers market. I get milk through a cow share and then I buy extra cream at the store.

I regularly shop at the grocery store. And at least once a month I go to a large supermarket… I might even go to Wal-Mart.

I dine-out on occasion.

As independent as I try to be, I know I am connected to many kinds of agriculture.

I nurture that connection each time I eat.

My food choices create a demand for locally produced food. It would be great to see more Farmers Markets. I want to see more of it on the grocery store shelf. I would love to know more of it reaches the plates of children in schools or patients in hospitals.

I know I am not alone. The demand for REAL food is growing.

And so is the supply. Local food producers are busy right now, working on their small business plans for 2014.

They consider installing another greenhouse for season extension. They research seed varieties. They explore market opportunities. They might consider selling shares through community support agriculture (CSA). They might be thinking about ways to connect with nearby schools or institutions. Local food producers are trying to meet demand.

But, there is a gap. Why is it so difficult for consumers to access local food?

This isn’t necessarily a problem of supply and demand. It is an issue of logistics.

These logistics include how products are prepared, packaged, and distributed to the consumers.

This short video does a great job of explaining how we can overcome barriers in logistics.

But how could a food hub like Red Tomato work in North Dakota? How could producers benefit from aggregating their products and to be distributed on a larger scale? Could we really get our locally produced foods into schools, restaurants, and grocery stores?

Well, there are some who are giving thought to this dilemma.

FARRMS and Common Enterprise Development Corporation (CEDC) are working together on a producer/farmer survey exploring the feasibility of light processing, food hubs, farmer alliances or similar tools to increase the amount of fresh produce grown and eaten locally.

The executive director of FARRMS released this press release last week requesting input from small farmers and producers in North Dakota.

North Dakota farmers and growers sought for FARRMS Survey

Feasibility study being conducted to determine next steps in scaling up local in North Dakota

By Sue B. Balcom, FARRMS

If you are a farmer or are considering diversifying your farm or may be launching a new farm business, we can help you grow. FARRMS and Common Enterprise Development Corporation (CEDC) are working together on a producer/farmer survey exploring the feasibility of light processing, food hubs, farmer alliances or similar tools to increase the amount of fresh produce grown and eaten locally. Planning includes an economic development summit in early 2015 to discuss potential projects with economic developers.

We are seeking people who would like to become a vegetable farmer, increase farm enterprises or diversify their farm to include new and innovative businesses to complete the short survey. This data will reveal the potential economic impact of enhanced light processing, aggregation and distribution of local food in North Dakota. It will help define current opportunities, challenges and barriers in local food production and distribution, as well as determine producer interest in scaling up business strategies to meet the demand for local foods. Business planning will be made available to any farmer interested in the project after the survey closes.

An invitation has been sent to existing farmers in the state, however all farmers are encouraged to complete the survey at www.farrms.org even if they did not receive a personal invitation. This information is vital to scaling up local economies in our rural communities, in particular the western and northern areas of the state. The Summit on Local Economies (SOLE) is being planned for early 2015 and will reveal plans for next steps in scaling up local in North Dakota. Many other opportunities become available to farm enterprises through FARRMS and its partners ongoing work building local food systems.

Please help your farmers grow with FARRMS and its partners. If you have any questions, or would like more information please contact Sue B. Balcom at 701-527-5169 or 486-3569 or email sbalcom@farrms.org.

Together we can grow farmers. FARRMS is a nonprofit working with farmers located in Medina, ND.

So what do you think? Can we grow local food in North Dakota?

If you are a farmer or producer, please take just a few minutes to take the survey. Let FARRMS know your needs. Share your challenges and successes and help determine how we can best scale up local foods.

Take the Survey Now

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RBOGproducersurvey

Lettuce, Think About It

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Lettuce, Think About It

Last night I sat down to write a blog post. I started with lettuce in mind and instead ended up writing about how much I love North Dakota winters. I’m not crazy, really. I’ve just been working with a lot of really great people lately. You see, I’ve been working with the local foods people.

When I work with folks who grow vegetables or raise pastured livestock, I find myself empowered. There is just something that is catching.

Albeit, my passions include food and nature, but there is more to it than that. These small producers are like poetry in motion. They are the change they want to see in the world.

Food people are good people. And the more I experience their unwavering optimism and unrivaled tenacity, the more I am in awe.

I secretly (or maybe openly) want to be like them. In ways, maybe I already am. Maybe that is why I feel their optimism the way I do.

So maybe it makes sense that I sit down to write about growing food and end up writing about what a wonderful place I have come to call home, even if it is crazy cold.

Here in North Dakota we just broke through a viscous cold snap, delivered straight from the arctic tundra.

It’s the first week in January. And what is my Facebook feed buzzing about? Discussions of seeds, garden planning, greenhouses, and new opportunities.

It makes me know that life is good. Truly.

It lets me know that all things are possible.

It gives me courage. When I purchase lettuce from the store that is less than mediocre, I know there is something I can do.

I can grow!

I can grow lettuce!

You see, this is really the point that I come full circle.

I grew up watching my grandparents garden, but did not have much practical know-how when I began gardening. I had a bit of a rocky start.

I planted my first garden in the summer of 2008, but I was no longer living in the Midwest. I was on the high plains of Wyoming, at an altitude of 7,165 feet. The summer was short. The air was dry. The nights were chilly.

I started out by planting snow peas, radishes, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, spinach, kohlrabi, and lettuce.

The dog ate 75% of the peas. The radishes were woody. Early in September the frost came and we enjoyed a harvest dinner of fried green tomatoes and sauteed baby squash. The eggplants were infested with aphids (I shudder, just thinking about that experience). The spinach went to seed by early July.  And it turned out that I really don’t care from kohlrabi.

That pretty much leaves the lettuce. Oh, my sweet precious lettuce!

I planted at least twelve different varieties in a partially shady area next to the neighbor’s garage. I grew green leaf, red leaf, some varieties were pale green and others were purple. Some had leaves shaped like oaks. They were anything but plain old lettuce. They were beautiful.

We harvested frequently and planted new seeds often. I’d go out at dusk to water and sing to them. (Okay, I didn’t quite have the courage to sing… I hummed to them.) I cried the night we got hit with a hailstorm. And I had a full blown anxiety attack when a crew repaired the neighbor’s garage roof. I picked shingles and roofing nails out of my lettuce garden for months to come.

While I melted down, the lettuce rebounded.

They certainly provided us with a summer of delicious salads. But there was something more to it.

They gave me hope. They assured me that I could grow something. They brought me joy. Pure and simple. I loved seeing them.

And somehow I forgot that?

I did not grow lettuce last year. I don’t know why.

I made room for spinach and kale and chard, but I neglected my wonderful old standby.

Then one chilly North Dakota evening, I curled up on the couch with a blanket and some of my favorite light reading material: the seed catalogs.

My absolute favorite to look at is the Seed Savers Exchange. Catalog_FREE_2014_1This catalog offers heirloom varieties of seeds. As they were passed down from generation to generation, the seeds became attached to family stories. There are unique varieties of tomatoes, squash, peppers, onions, potatoes, and even lettuce.

So I was browsing through the catalog, trying to be quite sensible about what the garden might look like this year. Then, I came to lettuce.

Aunt Mae's Bibb Lettuce

Aunt Mae’s Bibb Lettuce

I was physically stunned. I ooh-ed and aah-ed over the variety.

Rossa di Trento

Rossa di Trento

I adored the colors and imagined the textures.

Pablo, oh, Pablo

Pablo, oh, Pablo

I tried to regain my composure.

Yugoslavian Red

Yugoslavian Red

How could we ever eat all the lettuce I wanted to grow?

Forellenschluss

Forellenschluss

Maybe I need a support group or something…

Baquieu

Baquieu

Obsessed Gardeners Anonymous?

Wait, maybe I do have a support group…

Something clicked. In October I began taking a class called Farm Beginning through FARRMS. A non-profit within the state that “Grows Farmers,” so to speak. 

In the class, we learn about holistic management, food safety, and business planning. We learn how to pull our crazy ideas together and get moving on our dreams.

So maybe I don’t need professional help regarding my obsession with lettuce.

Winter Density Lettuce

Winter Density Lettuce

What I need is a business plan and a greenhouse!

I’m going to grow lettuce! We don’t have to eat it all ourselves!

I could sell it at the farmers market. I could supply a local restaurant.

Maybe I could even sell it to the grocery store and solve the problem of less than mediocre lettuce in the winter once and for all!

Coming to Fruition

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The world is full of coulds, woulds, and shoulds. Some of which exist in truly meaningful ways.

But many of them:

Oh, I really should…

If I just could…

I really would…

They only seem to perpetuate invisible barriers.

Who says I should?

Who says I can’t?

Then why don’t I?

Who says I can't climb a tree?

Who says I can’t climb a tree?

We all have dreams, and there is no good reason these dreams cannot be part of our reality. No matter how big or small. No matter how silly or strange.

You want to do something?

Then why don’t you?

I know it is not that easy. In fact, just a month ago I felt trapped by my own invisible barriers.

Terribly trapped in a silly conundrum.

I wanted to pick fruit, but yet everything seemed to stop me.

Chokecherries grow on small to medium sized trees, often found on the edges of wooded areas or standing alone in the open. Their tart fruits have a single small pit and make you pucker at the first taste.

Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) grow on small to medium sized trees, often found on the edges of wooded areas or standing alone in the open.

The fruit beckons from a far.

It is wild.

Yet that is not what stops me.

I know it well. Its name: common, genus, and species.

Leaf patterns and ecology.

Even uses and recipes.

What stops me is fear.

Fear that regulations might state that I cannot pick there.

Fear that those trees might belong to someone else.

Fear that I might be confronted with threatening words and gestures.

Fear that someone might come with questions,

Whatcha gonna do with them?”

“Um, eat them kind sir….” (please don’t eat me!!)

“Howsya know them berries ain’t gonna kill ya?”

“Er, I study these plants, you see, ma’am. I’ve even taught about them.  Plus I always double check my identifications.”

“Why go to all that trouble, when you can just buy some fruit at the store?”

“Well you see, I can’t buy these in the store. And I really like them.  I think they might be better than anything you can buy in the store.”

“Why don’t you just give me MY berries, and we won’t have us any trouble…”

“Am I getting mugged? For wild fruits?”

“Why don’t you just get the hell out of here…”

“Is that a shotgun? Oh shit…”

These delusions seem to quickly escalate out of control. They became paralyzing. Keeping me from doing what I wanted.

But because it was something I wanted to do, somehow in my mind, it must be wrong.

I created a barrier, to keep me from doing what I really, truly wanted.

That barrier was fear.

The day I overcame that fear, I was with my husband, out alone for a North Dakota drive. We were stopping along little lakes, thinking about future places for family camping and seeking out a nice little fishing hole for the afternoon.

First, I saw a chokecherry tree, then about three more.

Beautiful and bountiful.

I discretely picked some and put them in an empty water bottle.

Then I saw some rosehips, and always having wanted to make rosehip jelly, I collected another pint or so of them.

I felt so sneaky and cautious. I was on high alert.

Certainly, I was doing something wrong.

All the while, Hubby was getting out his rod and tackle box and began searching the shoreline for a good place to test the waters.

“Rachel, you had better come see this!” He hollered.

I was convinced he had found a sign that stated the area was a protected nature preserve, and that anyone found disturbing any animals, plants, or rocks would be fined $10,000 and spend up to a year in jail.

My heart sank.

Walking toward him, holding my breath, I failed to see what he wanted me to see.

Black Currants.

All along the shoreline.

Bushes loaded with the earthy, rich sweetness of black currants.

I must have been dumbstruck, because he had to urge me on,

“We have some plastic bags in the car. You should go get some.”

Excuses ran through my head.

Someone must have planted these here.

No, someone’s grandpa planted them here 120 years ago.

I’m sure of it.

Heck, the lake is probably even named after him.

BUT WAIT- BLACK CURRANTS.

I looked again, thick along the shoreline, into the trees.

And on and on.

I looked for evidence to show they had been picked before (and by extension, it would be okay for me to pick some too.)

Indeed. Some branches and clusters showed signs of picking.

And since I didn’t think there were many bears around that had been gorging themselves on currants, I took a gamble that humans had indeed been picking these currants.

I would not be thrown in jail if I picked these fruits.

On I went down the shore. Bag in hand. Ready to work.

Picking currants is not easy work. The fruits are barely noticeable from overhead, as they cluster beneath the leaves.

Black Currants

Black Currants (Ribes americanum) thrive along
stream banks, in moist ravines, wet meadows, floodplains, and woodland edges.

Two hours of bending, sitting, kneeling, and gently pulling the leaves back yielded just over a quart of berries and a criticism came to mind,

“That’s an awful lot of work for just a couple berries.” 

I silenced the critic within by popping a few more fruits into my mouth.

I was overcoming that barrier.

Even the point that a truck came down the dirt road, I resisted the urge to jump into the bushes to hide.

I acted as though I paid no mind.

But I was focused on my breathing, so to not have a full blown anxiety attack.

I destroyed the barrier.

I no longer had to dance around with the shoulds, coulds, and woulds.

“I would love to collect wild fruit to make jelly, someday.”

“I know I could identify them, afterall, I taught ethnobotany for two years.”

“I should just get enough courage to go do it.”

“Or maybe I shouldn’t bother.”

No more.

I tapped into my strengths and knowledge.

I found a resource and harvested it.

I overcame the barrier. And opened a door.

I found a truer, happier version of myself.

I ventured into new possibilities.

Soon I saw opportunities all around.

In campgrounds, parks, fairgrounds, vacant properties, and along the roadside.

Suddenly the world offered a bounty of crabapples, chokecherries, Chokecherries

rosehips, currants, wild plums, buffalo berries, American cranberries,High Bush Cranberries and wild grapes.

Wild Grapes

Even cultivars of raspberries, apples, grapes, and plums came our way.

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The world is full of possibilities. What a valuable lesson and sweet reminder. A bounty that will last far into the future.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

– Paulo Coelho

All things are possible, with tomatoes

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Some days are better than others. But any day with tomatoes can be a good day. Because when it comes to tomatoes, all things are possible.

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

Photo by Sarah Smith Warren

With or without tomatoes, one thing remains certain each day, that there is something for us to learn.

The day my boys and I went out to the garden to bring in summer’s first big haul of tomatoes, we learned just how heavy a tub of produce can weigh. Good thing there was three of us.

(This was the small tub.)

photoMy oldest son learned that he was not going to be rewarded for picking the green tomatoes.

I learned that grilled green tomatoes are equally divine as their fried counterparts.

Later that night, as a family, we had the opportunity to truly witness the fruits of of labor. Six varieties of tomatoes had yielded nothing short of a bounty and in just a few days of steady summer heat. Our counter tops were full and we were blessed with tomatoes.

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

Tomatoes from our garden this summer!

We had a plan, sort of, to savor every ounce of homegrown goodness.

Cherry tomatoes were for fresh eating. They sat in a bowl. Ready for snacking. They went fast. Even though my youngest son preferred the mellow and sweeter flavor of yellow pear tomatoes. To his despair, those have another purpose.

Yellow Pear Tomatoes

We grow the profusely abundant yellow pear tomato with one purpose in mind, to make yellow-tomato basil jam. Yes. Jam. It is sweet and savory and delivers a strong essence of summer. We first came upon this recipe in the wonderful cookbook Preserving the Harvest.  Last year, I learned that it is best to prepare this divine preserve in small batches. The two hour cook time for a double batch simply does not work. This year I learned that using Greek Basil takes the jam to a whole new level of delight. While the recipe is time consuming it is not difficult. The hardest part is waiting to enjoy this. But it is the darkest days of winter that benefit most from a little sunshine in a jar.

Next on our priority list was to use the very very ripe tomatoes as soon as possible. I paired the tomatoes with garlic, onions, kale, and a pinch of red pepper and served it over grits for dinner. I am, at heart, a girl of the southern states. Grits are a part of that, but the dynamic flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes cooked down to a sauce and topped with crispy kale leaves… ooh goodness. I felt like I was home.

Along side of the dinner preparations was another preservation project for late summer months: tomato juice. I cut and cored my tomatoes, put them in a pot with a little onion, salt, and celery and mash and boil, mash and boil until it is all a pretty red mash of savory goodness. Then I add a handful of parsley for an extra boost and let simmer for a bit.

Tomato juice in the process

Tomato juice in the process

Typically I prefer to use the yellow lemon boy tomatoes for this juice recipe. But it is a good way to use up lots of well ripened tomatoes up quickly, so this was a bit of a mix. I then strain the juice through a sieve and bring to a simmer again. The tomato juice can then be frozen for later use, cooled and enjoyed, or if I plan on preserving it in a water bath canner, I test the pH and add lemon juice to ensure the juice is acidic enough for safe canning.

In less than 24 hours we had taken care of at least half of the tomatoes. But there were still more. We needed to act fast, or the invasion of fruit flies would begin. But the next day would be a new day. image

As we started our new day, I was thinking about tomatoes and teaching. After all, we had begun our first official week of homeschooling. It hit me then- Tomatoes can be a teaching resource!

I led my first grader through the process of sorting the tomatoes. We talked about plant varieties and characteristics. We distinguished Cherokee Purple from Black Krim based on the fruit shape. We distinguished Champion from Better Boy based on color variation. Thus leaving the Lemon Boys as the last option for those left behind through process of elimination.

We began counting our categories, using a simple spreadsheet to track our data.Tomato Spreadsheet

And then weighed the total of each variety. We even got to venture into decimals. The boy clearly got it when he said, “So 6.25 pounds of tomatoes is a lot like $6.25, right?” Right on my boy, right on! If tomatoes were currency, we may be rich.

When it was all said and done, we were able to determine which tomatoes we had the most of by number and weight. And even toyed with the idea of averages. On average, the Champion tomato weighed the most, followed closely by Better Boys and Black Krim. Cherokee Purples came in close behind. The lemon boys had by far the lowest average weight per tomato.

We had good fun, and I gained confidence in my homeschooling abilities.

We sliced two tomatoes and shared them for a snack when we were done. Because what fun is tomato math without taste testing.

The next day, we tackled another priority on our list– salsa making. Twelve pounds of tomatoes went into the salsa. DSCF4440

Along with peppers, onions, corn, white wine vinegar, coriander, salt, and cilantro. Oh how I love the cilantro!

imageWhen the salsa was done, I was astonished by the flavor the variety of tomatoes contributed. But I was so sad to see how pale the salsa was. Sure I used yellow tomatoes, orange peppers, and sweet corn, but the finished product was so less than vibrant. Then it hit me… I had forgotten one ingredient I had added to last year’s recipe: paprika. Paprika makes the salsa red. Well, this year, we’ll just have to learn how to love a flavor loaded, color muted salsa.

Finally, our tomato harvest became manageable. We prepared what was left for dinner, returning to our love of tomatoes and basil. Because some pairing never grow old.

DSCF4470Tomato salad with basil along with grilled eggplant, chicken artichoke sausage, and garden fresh kale, topped with balsamic vinegar. (Not pictured: fresh mozzarella cheese.)

This cycle will continue for the next few weeks as tomatoes ripen. This weekend we will likely prepare another batch of jam and some yellow tomato juice. We’ll likely try something new like homemade ketchup and eventually we will begin canning crushed tomatoes for winter spaghetti dinners. Along the way, we will have some fun. Enjoy the bliss of summer’s end. And learn something new, everyday.