Tag Archives: PEAS Farm

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Strawberry Fields Forever

This week we’re featuring a guest blog by Seth Swanson, who has a background in horticulture and agronomy and is the Horticulture Extension Agent with Missoula County Extension. Seth works with producers, nurseries, landowners, and community members to strengthen and improve local agriculture and plant production.  This is achieved through technical assistance and educational opportunities for commercial producers and hobbyists, as well as a variety of on-farm research. MSU Extension improves the lives of Montana citizens by providing unbiased research-based education and information that integrates learning, discovery and engagement to strengthen the social, economic and environmental well-being of individuals, families, and communities. The Extension Service provides coordination, educational outreach and training using current research-based information and resources to address the needs of the public in the areas of weed & pest management, horticulture/agriculture, youth development, family and consumer sciences, and nutrition.  The Extension’s Horticulture and Plant Clinic programs are great resources and offer help with plant care and pest management issues. Bring in samples of bugs, plants, disease problems and they will identify and give information on how to control them. They also answer questions on landscaping, gardening, soils, and related areas.


Winter is approaching Western Montana, and though the intensity may be relatively mild (for Montana), the duration can make for a challenging environment.  Yes, many of us live in this region so that we can take advantage of the seasonal outdoor opportunities, but as March comes around winter’s grasp often takes its toll.  One factor in particular that makes the winter season seem so long is not the ubiquitous gray sky, the shortened day lengths, or the perpetual ice on the trails; it is the lack of fresh local produce.  How we long for the first bits of green or small flowers that emerge from our gardens, or for the seemingly exponential weekly growth and additions of fresh goods at the farmers markets’ and grocery stores.  Once June comes, we are treated with the jewels of the summer; the strawberry.

Strawberries are indeed a symbol of summer, and are embedded in the memories of nearly everyone taking them back to u-pick farms, fresh pickings from the garden, and the cherished preserves that help ward off summer withdrawals through the long winter.  When we actually take the time to think about where our strawberries come from, it may be difficult to nail down a source.  You may have a small collection of plants in the backyard garden, or you may be lucky enough to live in a town that has a u-pick strawberry farm.  Generally speaking, Montana does not have much for strawberry production, just 13 acres for the entire state in 2012 according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.  It is not because our state is too cold to grow strawberries; Minnesota in comparison, has nearly 600 acres of strawberries in production (USDA NASS, 2012 Census of Agriculture).

Anybody who has grown strawberries in their backyard knows that despite their dainty white flowers and ruby gems, these plants can be a mess to deal with. Weeding is a bare, pest and diseases management can be a never-ending battle, and spring and fall maintenance is a hassle.  Think of the labor required to expand your ten foot garden bed of strawberries to an entire acre or ten acres!  What makes strawberries more of a challenging crop is that contrary to the efforts required for maintaining the crop, there is a small window of consolidated harvest for June-bearing plants, and smaller yields over a longer season for ever-bearing varieties.  Yet, there is a huge market opportunity for Montana producers to integrate strawberries into their existing production systems.

In 2015, with the support of funds from the Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, Missoula County Extension began working with producers in Western Montana, including the PEAS farm, to initiate a three-year study to investigate alternative strawberry production strategies.  In particular, we are evaluating the efficacy of annual strawberry production in high tunnels.  High tunnels are the unheated hoophouses that are employed by many small producers in our region to stretch the short growing season out on both ends.  Strawberries are perennials that are typically productive up to three to five years, but if we treat them as an annual crop we can eliminate much of the maintenance required.  Treating this crop as an annual will also allow the producer to grow the plants entirely during the productive state, and open up planting space for alternative crops once the strawberries have been removed.

Planting at the PEAS Farm.
Planting at the PEAS Farm.

So here is how it works…  Typically June-bearing strawberries are grown as a matted row system where a single row of plants is lined out in the middle of a two foot (or wider bed).  The plants are planted in the spring, and the entire first year is dedicated to establishing the beds through the stolons (runners) and no fruit is harvested.  This requires a significant amount of maintenance with no return until the second season when the plants bear fruit for a small window in early summer.  Contrary to the conventional matted-row system, the plants in the annual system will be planted in the late summer/early fall at a much higher density.  The plants will then produce fruit the following spring and the plants will be immediately removed.  Once the plants are removed, the production bed can be used for an alternative crop, thus maximizing the return on the available planting space.  Additionally, the integration of hoophouses for the annual system will likely result in an earlier harvest. Preliminary results indicate that annual high tunnel production of strawberries begins five to six weeks prior to the perennial matted row system outdoors.  That means fresh strawberries by the first week of May.

Fall high tunnel planting at the PEAS Farm.
Fall high tunnel planting at the PEAS Farm.
Early Berries3
Early berries!

This production strategy could allow for producers in our region with existing infrastructure, to add a high value crop to their production system without sacrificing the production of other crops, and to make use of the shoulder season maximizing the productivity of their high tunnels.  And more importantly (perhaps selfishly), more strawberries produced locally means more tasty gems at the grocery store for us all to consume.


 

We’ve Got the Beet (Recipe)

Dave enjoying a burger at the Farm PartyWe’ve gotten a lot of requests around here for the Farm Party recipes. And what I think that really means is GIVE US THE BEET RECIPE! It is clear from this photo that a Farm Party dinner makes a guy happy. I posted the Kamut® recipe a few weeks ago, another favorite at the party. Now, let me give you the beet.

I will also tell you the story of how our beet salad came to be.

First we got a group of about six or seven EVST Grad and undergrad students and two Youth Harvest teens who have spent their summer up at the PEAS Farm. These folks have seeded, planted, harvested and weeded and weeded (and did I mention weeding?) to bring food to the Missoula Food Bank, their faithful CSA members, and all of our Mobile Market patrons at (mostly) senior affordable housing around town. Farm Party is a way for these students to team up and show the community what they’ve been up to. It’s a proud moment.

Tuesday before the party, the interns and Youth Harvesters harvested the beets and onions (and many other ingredients). Wednesday, the Farm to School staffers whisked the beets and onions to the Missoula County Public School’s Central Kitchen, where they have fancy machines like the robot coupe that chop and slice the veggies REALLY FAST.

Then, to the UM Catering kitchen, where they are roasted in the oven to perfection.

Then, to the First Presbyterian Church commercial kitchen where they are cooled overnight (because you don’t want to melt the cheese) lovingly combined by the PEAS Farm students and Youth Harvest teens the morning of the Farm Party with a simple dressing and delicious Lifeline Farms Feta-U-Beta.

FarmParty_2014_Will Klaczynski (14)
The beet salad in action at the Farm Party!

So, without further ado, here’s the recipe!

Farm Party Beet Salad

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 4 medium sized beets (should be around 1.5 lbs or 4 cups cubed beets)
  • 1/2 a medium Walla Walla onion
  • 1/4 cup safflower oil (or any oil you enjoy, at home I would use olive, but Safflower is definitely more local, if more refined)
  • 4 oz feta (we used Feta-U-Beta from Lifeline Farms to keep it local and organic — whoop whoop!)
  • Salt to taste

How to

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Wash the beets and remove tops if still attached (and feel free to use for another dish!). Peel and chop beets into bite sized pieces. Chop coarsely, about the same size as the beets.

Place beets and onions on a large cooking sheet (or two, best not to crowd the veggies). Cook until fork tender, approximately 20 – 30 minutes.

Let the beets and onions cool enough so that they won’t melt the cheese when you toss it all together.

While the beets are cooling, combine the crumbled cheese, safflower oil, and salt.

Once cooled, combine all ingredients together and serve!

 

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The Chicory Project

This week, we have a bonus post from guest writer Ari LeVaux, writer of Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Flash in the Pan also regularly appears in The Atlantic.com, Alternet, Slate, Civil Eats, and other online publications. Ari lives in Montana and New Mexico.  

Taste chicory at the PEAS Farm with ARI LeVaux!

Ari will be offering tastings and recipes for chicory during PEAS Farm CSA pickup, Thursday 6/30 and Tuesday 7/5 between 4:30 – 6:30 pm. Anyone is welcome to join in the fun!

Here’s Ari. . .

chicory at the PEAS Farm, photo by Ari LeVaux
Chicory at the PEAS Farm, photo by Ari LeVaux

At an airport salad bar in Rome, recently, I filled a plate with leaves. It was a basic cafeteria salad bar, one that in the U.S. would probably be dominated by a large bin of iceberg lettuce laced with carrot shavings. But instead of lettuce, the leaves were chopped escarole and radicchio. Dressed with oil and vinegar, they were crisp and watery. And they were bitter, a taste I have been coming to appreciate.

By this point in my travels I was well aware that the Italians are ahead of the curve when it comes to eating chicory, the family of bitter-leafed plants that also includes endive and dandelion. At various stores and markets along the way, I had picked up several seed packets of different chicories, like the stately, thick-stemmed Catalogna that looks like a dandelion on steroids, or the Rossa di Treviso, a leafy radicchio shaped more like romaine than the typical tight radicchio head. These and several other equally interesting varieties would become the basis, when I returned home, of the chicory project.

The chicory project, which also includes Italian chicories ordered from GourmetSeeds.com, is now fully underway at an area farm. We are investigating which varieties do well in our climate, while playing with different ways of serving it that might appeal to the locals.

This last part is kind of a tall order, as we are programmed to reject bitterness from an early age. Newborns will scowl at the taste, and for good reason: most toxic substances are bitter. Our default status, thus, is to avoid them all until we learn otherwise. Like, say, when we learn about beer, or mixed drinks that contain bitters. Or coffee. Or chocolate. Or something charred on the grill.

The American palate is catching on to the dark flavor of bitter. Dark chocolate is increasingly popular. Dark roasted coffee is all the rage. But how dark is too dark? Everyone has their own comfort zone. I personally think dark roasted coffee tastes burnt, and so I always order the lightest roast. Similarly, I don’t like my food blackened on the grill.

Many bitter flavors from plants come from the presence of glucosinolates, and other plant defense compounds, that are toxic to insects and worms and other hungry critters. But at the levels we humans consume, these molecules are not dangerous, and are showing promise in actually preventing a variety of diseases.

Meanwhile, fiber. One hundred grams of escarole only contains 17 calories, but has nearly 10 percent of your daily fiber requirement. The bitter leaves tend to be stacked with other nutrients as well, like folate, and various antioxidants, and readily accessible forms of minerals.

There are ways to remove, hide and blend away the bitterness of chicory. You can soak the leaves in ice water, balance the bitterness with fruit or a sweet dressing, or combine it with other bitter foods, like mustard, to create a smooth continuum of bitter flavors. You can braise chicory leaves in butter or melt the stems into a fatty sauce.  But the best way to deal with these and other bitter foods is to embrace them, head on, and celebrate them for what they are.

I don’t know anyone with more of a chicory habit than my wife. And those tight burgundy radicchio heads, dreadlocked frisse and grand Batavian leafed escarole aren’t cheap. Which, admittedly, is a big part of my interest in the chicory project.

Like the Italians, she equates a strong bouquet of bitterness with complex flavor, while mild lettuces no longer hold her interest. She has two primary ways of using chicory. They are both exceedingly simple, and instructive to those bitter-curious who may be interested in embarking on this path.

One method is to use leaves like tongs, to grab and encase food en-route to one’s mouth. The food that is grabbed could be anything. A bit of crumbled hamburger patty, some onions, tomato and mustard, and a radicchio burger bite is ready to go down the hatch. A leaf-grab of ratatouille, or a bitter leaf-bite of some other salad. Some people bring their own plates to potluck dinners. My baby, she brings heads of radicchio.

The other way she eats chicory is via what I call the “chip and salsa” technique. She makes a salad dressing of two parts olive oil to one part vinegar, with the vinegar portion split equally between cider vinegar, balsamic and white balsamic. Then she adds soy sauce to taste.

She then dips prepped leaves into the dressing like a chip into salsa, and chomps them down. How the leaves are prepped depends on the type of chicory, her mood, and how much time she has. The only requirement is that they be cleaned.

Freshly gathered dandelion greens are eaten whole, two or three at a time, and folded in half, with the fold dunked in the dressing. This shape holds the dressing for the potentially messy journey to your mouth. With radicchio, my wife will sometimes cut the head into wedges, which also hold dressing very well too, having oozed between the leafy layers.

One enjoyable combination of both of these methods is to wrap a thick chunk of bacon or other meat in the leaf, and then dip in dressing.

If she has the time, my chicarista’s all-time favorite way of eating chicory is in a big salad tossed with this dressing:

In a blender (or other processor) whizz ½ cup olive oil with a few cloves of garlic, and ¼ teaspoon salt. When smooth, blend in the juice and some zest of a lemon or lime and a tablespoon of white vinegar. Adjust salt and vinegar to taste.

There are all kinds of interesting recipes out there for braised radicchio, wilted escarole, endive torte, and many others.  Enthusiasts of cooked chicory praise how it mellows the flavor, and how it adds to sauces. But after adapting my palate to the crisp texture of the raw stuff, I have no interest in soggy chicory. And I don’t want to mellow the flavor anyway, because I’m into bitter. I’ve acquired the taste, and I can go there by myself without training wheels. I’m a chicory grown up.