Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cooking with Dandelion

Our CSA box this week contains dandelion. We know this is going to catch some people off guard, but we promise that we thought long and hard about including it. If you taste the raw leaves alone, you'll find that they're bitter, even too strong for some people. But don't worry -- there are many ways to use this green.

In fact, we have been selling more and more dandelion over the past two years. Many customers with Eastern European and Mediterranean roots buy dandelion from us, recalling that this early bitter green was a staple of their spring and early-summer meals.

Barb, our resident herbalist on the farm, notes that Dandelion (and other bitter greens) detoxify the liver, which in turn boosts the immune system. Indeed, the detoxifying function of the greens is just what the body craves after a winter of eating a diet lower in fresh fruit and vegetables and higher in fats and meat.

The variety of dandelion we grow is a cultivated variety from Italy that has a red rib down the middle and is tenderer than the wild dandelion you will generally find in your yard. But feel free to use wild dandelion. Just make sure you know the source (i.e. it hasn't been sprayed by gardeners or dogs).

If you receive our CSA box, you'll note that there are other greens in the box this week: Romaine Lettuce, Spinach, Kale, Parsley and Beet Greens. All of these together with the Dandelion will make an excellent fresh salad or a nice mix of braised or steamed greens.

Dandelion also makes a nice addition to Caesar Salad with the Romaine Lettuce, particularly with the addition of bacon (bacon and dandelion are a nice balance of flavors). Feta is another strong flavor that balances bitter greens nicely and can be added to this or other salad mixes. offers a few ideas for dandelion, including this salad of Dandelion, Pear, Blue Cheese and Walnuts. Notice that the pear, blue cheese and walnuts are all stronger flavors that make for a robust salad. also suggests a Black Pepper Greens recipe that will help to use a good amount of greens in any meal.

Finally, we always ask our market customers how they prepare their dandelion greens. Almost always, their response is the same: Steam the greens lightly, add olive oil or a bit of melted butter and toss with some balsamic vinegar. It's a simple side dish and complements dishes of stronger flavor, such as red meat.

So, here's to experimenting in the kitchen. Have fun and feel free to share your dandelion recipes in the comments section below.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Organic Pesticides

There is a new fruit fly in the Pacific Northwest that is causing berry producers someLink stress. Rather than being attracted to rotting produce, as with most fruit flies, the Spotted Wing Drosophila Fruit Fly lays its eggs in immature soft-skinned fruit. The eggs then hatch in maturing fruit, resulting in larvae in the mature fruit. Obviously, this has an impact on the marketability of the fruit.

Agriculture Canada is monitoring fields across the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan for this new fly. They have found some in our field. They are recommending that organic farmers use a biological insecticide produced by Dow AgroSciences called Entrust. Biological insecticides in some formulations are allowed in organic production because they are comprised of naturally-occurring bacteria which are cultivated for agricultural application. Pests ingest and are killed by this bacteria.

These products, nonetheless, can pose hazards, even when applied according to directions. The problem with Entrust is summarized best by the product's own label:
"This product is highly toxic to bees exposed to direct treatment, drift or residues on blooming plants. Do not apply this product or allow it to drift to blooming plants if bees are visiting the treatment area. This product is harmful to parasitoids and predatory mites and slightly harmful to foliage-dwelling predators. Care should be taken when using this product in an integrated pest management program where users are relying on the presence of beneficial arthropods.
"This product is highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates. Do not contaminate aquatic habitats, such as lakes, rivers, sloughs, ponds, coulees, prairie potholes, creeks, marshes, streams, reservoirs, and wetlands, when cleaning and rinsing spray equipment or containers.
"This product contains an active ingredient and aromatic petroleum distillates which are toxic to aquatic organisms."
Farmers are also being advised to remove wild berries from around their fields such as Salmon Berries, Thimble Berries and Blackberries.

How either of these solutions fits the notion of "organic" agriculture is beyond me.

There is increasing resentment toward organic growers in the agricultural community because many conventional farmers think it is the fault of organic growers that this fruit fly is spreading. We don't generally spray pesticides, so we must be the ones at fault.

In reality, the fact that berries have become the only show in town over the past 20 years is really what should be examined. Mono-cropping is a sure-fire way to cultivate new diseases and pests and allow for their rapid spread. To this point, chemical companies have tried to provide a technological "fix" to these problems. If you enter an agricultural supply store in Abbotsford, you only need to look at the weekly list of sprays and chemical fertilizers listed for berry crops to understand the formulaic nature of this industrialized system of agriculture.

The challenge to farmers and consumers is whether or not we can cultivate a sustainable food system that relies on more than berries to pay farmers and feed the public at large. Supporting small, diversified, organic farms is the solution, not the problem in such a scenario. I only hope that governments realize this before they further recommend the destruction of natural habitat and the application of pesticides that poison our bees, native insects and aquatic life.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fun things to do with Strawberries

Having a birthday during strawberry season is a treat . . . a cake of tradition (three years running) comes from the River Cafe Green cookbook. This photo is from two years ago when there were just barely strawberries in time (notice how pale they are).

Another strawberry season treat is sliced strawberries with Red Wine Sorbet. Who would have thought that Merlot and an ice cream maker would be such a good combination?

Strawberry Fetish

Strawberries are so much easier to enjoy when they haven't been sprayed with toxic chemicals -- even more so when you're the one in the fields with them. Buying organic isn't just good for you, it's better for the people growing your food. Thanks to our fabulous customers!

Kale Chip Recipe . . . and other ideas

Our Community Supported Agriculture subscribers find a regular supply of greens in their boxes. Our market customers also find kale at our stand on a consistent basis. Figuring out what to do with Kale is a challenge for some.

Last year one of our most devoted CSA subscribers, Karen, sent us the following recipe for Kale Chips. Jeremy served them for lunch today and it reminded me that I owe our CSA members a recipe or two.

Kale Chips

This works best with Black or Curly Kale.

Clean and spin dry kale.

Remove spines and chop into smaller bits with fingers, moisten with a teaspoon or two of olive (or preferred) oil. Do not over oil! Some people also add a touch of balsamic vinegar.

Spread onto baking sheet and cook at 375 degrees F for 10 to 12 minutes, turning about halfway through cooking process. They are not as nice if they brown.

Remove from oven and add salt.

Some prefer them still a bit moist, others prefer them crispy. Insist kids leave some for you!

Other idea for Kale and Swiss Chard
And here are some other ideas for using Kale and Swiss Chard (staple foods for locavores in the Lower Mainland):

Steamed or Braised: Chop and steam your greens and serve as a side dish with some balsamic vinegar. Alternatively, chop and braise the greens with onions, green onions, garlic and/or garlic scapes.

Fitattas: Eggs and greens are fantastic. Chop and sauté your kale and chard along with other goodies (feta, onions, sundried tomatoes, garlic scapes, etc.) in a cast-iron or other oven-safe frying pan. Add well-beaten eggs and put in pre-heated oven (350 degrees F) until cooked through to the centre, about 20 minutes.

Save for the winter: If you can't make your way through all of the greens now, chop and steam them (you can use beet tops, spinach, kale and/or chard). Once cooled, squeeze into balls and freeze. Then add to soups, stews and chili through the winter when greens are in shorter supply.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Here we are in mid-June and some days it's hard to know if summer is going to arrive. The season has been off to a crazy start as far as weather is concerned, and weather pretty much determines everything else around here. Many farmers I've spoken to have been having a rough time these past few weeks. Some new farmers have mentioned that if they were farming for the first time this season they might already be thinking of quiting.

Our farm hasn't been an exception. We've already marked the end of our rhubarb crop, which was only a fraction of what it has been in past years. Everything else has been slow growing. We've lost some crops to pests or inability to properly weed amidst the wet, much soil. After doing farmers markets since the beginning of May, we're only barely starting to break even at each of them.

Last week ended up being particularly bad in my books. While cultivating in the field I lost a tractor part in the bed. In fact, the part fell off and then got cultivated into the bed. I had to track down a metal detector (luckily a friend working on the farm brought one the next day) and eventually found the part. The following day the chain broke on our compost spreader. It was an easy fix, but took time nonetheless. All this after not having had any break downs yet this year.

The weather, of course, puts everyone in a sour mood. Day after day of cold and rain makes it hard to keep spirits up. Even though it's allowed us to get particularly organized in the office and the barn, it's still been a bit much for everyone. We'd all rather be in the fields every day at this point and providing a full-to-the-brim market stand to our customers.

By the end of last week I was making plans for how we might adjust our crop plans in the event that things didn't get better. What could we do for winter crops that might help to mitigate the losses from the summer? What are sure-fire crops that we could still get into the ground and have in storage?

Even now that it has dried up we're learning the impact of the past months' weather. Some potatoes have blight. Some crops are getting lost amidst the weeds because we haven't been able to get into certain beds to hoe with the moisture.

Amidst all of this there are still a number of things that are going well. Some of the strawberries have managed to hang on through the moisture and we had a good pick on Saturday for our Sunday markets. The spinach has been loving the cool and rainy weather, providing a bumper crop that we haven't had in years. The kale and cabbages are doing very well and we have many, many heads of lettuce maturing.

It has been an excellent year for cover cropping. With the moisture, we've been able to get cover crops seeded in many parts of the fields. Some have already been turned in and re-seeded, others will go in over the next few days. This goes a long way toward maintaining and enhancing the soil.

When we have had a nice day here or there the results are dramatic. The following morning plants have visibly changed overnight -- they're taller, greener and fuller. That's always an incredible sight to see.

The first CSA boxes of the season are packed in the cooler and ready to go into Vancouver tomorrow morning. along with a shipment of lettuce to a local distributor. Hopefully Solstice brings a change in the weather next week.

And we still have fun at the markets, whether we're losing money or not. Last week at the Langley market the children from Glorious Organics made sun placards and marched through the market calling for some rays. It worked.

It's amazing what a little sun can do.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Books of Interest for Co-operative Farmers

In case you're interested in co-operative farming and looking for some summer reading, here are a couple of books I would recommend.

First is Everett Baker's Saskatchewan: Portraits of an Era (2007, Fitzhenry and Whiteside). This is a collection of Everet Baker's photography that documented the birth and growth of Saskatchewan's Co-operative movement in the 1950s.

Part of the growth of the co-operative movement was the establishment of co-operative farms. The co-operative farms were established by the CCF government of the day in order to provide land to WWII veterans returning from war. The only remaining farm from the era is Matador Farm.

Baker's photography provides an insight into a period of the province's history during which rural life was vibrant and modernizing quickly. The photos show both the work life of the farms as well as the social events, many of which were part of other co-operative-related events and celebrations.

Of relevance to today's co-operative farms is the reasons for which the farms were established and for their eventual demise. The farms thrived because individuals were looking to farm. They declined when the young men married and were able to find land of their own. The primary function of the farms was to enable farming; when this function was no longer necessary, the farms began to close.

For anyone interested in further reading on the co-operative farm movement in Saskatchewan and Matador Farm, in particular, an article from the University of Saskatchewan's Co-op Studies program provides further insight.

The second book I am recommending is I Am Hutterite by Mary-Ann Kirkby (2007, Polkadot Press).
Kirkby's book is a compassionate account of her family's life at and eventual departure from the Fairholme Hutterite Colony in Manitoba. Her story provides a glimpse into a way of life that remains a mystery to most of us, despite the presence and proximity of many Hutterite colonies to prairie dwellers.

Of importance to those with an interest in co-operative farming, Kirkby demonstrates the challenges and benefits of community within the context of farm life. Despite the hierarchical and patriarchal structure of the colony and her family's difficulties within the community, Kirkby retains a strong connection with her Hutterite community. Compared against the co-operative farms of Saskatchewan, Kirkby's description of the Hutterite Colony shows a place where the community is as important as the farming itself.

If you have any summer reading suggestions, related to agriculture or not, feel free to suggest them in the comment section or e-mail me directly.