When I installed a greenhouse five years ago, for the first time I had to ability to start a large number of plants early. I was so excited I started everything early in the greenhouse with the idea that it is always best to get a head start on the natural limits of cold weather and soil temperature. I've learned that this isn't true for every plant in the garden. Even if you don't have a greenhouse you will soon be faced with store shelves and farmers' market tables loaded with lush green plant starts that are hard to resist. The immediate satisfaction of a real plant is certainly more fun to buy than a pack of seeds but like most things in life, delayed gratification is one of the key lessons of gardening.
There are a couple things that are helpful to know when buying plant starts. Biggers is not always better. There is not a big advantage to buying a two-foot-tall tomato plant that is already flowering vs. the less expensive eight-inch start. In my experience the smaller plant usually catches up to the big one when they are planted in the garden and they end up bearing the same amount of fruit with similar timing. The problem with the large plants that sometimes already have tomatoes on them is that once they are out of the climate-controlled environment of the greenhouse and in the cool soil of early summer they slow down and their growth stalls out. When the temperatures heat up they get going again but by that time the other smaller plant has caught up with the bigger plant and it's a wash.
Another good example of this is pumpkin plants. I have always worked with the assumption that the best way to grow giant pumpkins is to start the seeds really early. It made intuitive sense to me that the earlier I started the seeds the bigger the pumpkins will get, but it turns out this isn't true. I spoke with the winner of the giant pumpkin contest at last summer's Spokane County Fair and asked him about his timing for starting seeds. He explained that he starts the seeds at the beginning of April and plants them in the garden at the beginning of May under plastic. I don't know the science behind it but in retrospect I understand why this works. I've learned that once squash plants start growing they like to keep growing and don't respond well to having their growth disrupted by transplanting or the shock of moving from the friendly confines of the greenhouse as a large plant to outside in the garden. When I have started squash plants really early and planted them as large plants they tend to sit in the garden for a long time without growing. When the plants are smaller they tend to make that transition more smoothly.
One other consideration when buying plant starts is the issue of sustainability. Bigger plants means that more energy has gone into defying the local climate. In the past I've noticed that Home Depot is packed with plants from Texas. Smaller plants grown locally are generally more sustainable. Farmers' Markets are the best place to buy starts. The big plants are also expensive to buy.
While you don't necessarily need giant plants to grow a successful harvest of vegetables there are certain plants that are best planted in the garden as small plants instead of seeds.
Marigolds (these are great companion plants for a vegetable garden and I always start some early but also direct seed them)
Summer squash, like zucchini, and cucumbers can be successfully planted as seeds but I have problems with birds that love to nip at the young plants. They leave the bigger ones alone so, if I have time, I plant these as starts. If I don't get around to starting them early I plant the seeds in the garden but plant twice as many seeds as I need, anticipating that the birds will kill many of them. The one advantage of starting squash plants from seed in the garden is that they don't like to have their roots disturbed so this method avoids the shock of transplanting them. Take note that it's beneficial to loosen the roots of most transplants before putting them in the garden, but squash plants are the big exception to the rule. I always plant winter squash as plants because they usually take around 100 days to mature and I like to get a little head start.
Plants that are best planted as seeds in the garden:
Corn (don't bother growing in a backyard garden)
Carrots, Beets, Parsnips, and other roots crops
Lettuce & other greens
Cucumbers (if birds aren't an issue)
Sunflowers (I start these a couple weeks early but it's not really necessary)
Potatoes (buy seed potatoes and plant directly in the garden)
I know I'm forgetting some so let me know if you've got a question about a plant not mentioned.
New Nordic Pantry
Chefs are hopping on the Noma-inspired New-Nordic-Cuisine train and are reaching for these ingredients: sea buckthorn (a tart orange berry), wood sorrel (a plant with heart-shaped leaves), bark flour (made from real trees), and evergreens (such as Douglas fir). To wit: a recent Douglas fir eau-de-vie sighting on the menu at GT Fish & Oyster in Chicago.
Trend #4: Increased emphasis on the “Farm to Fork” journey
Shoppers have become increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from, which is why 2012 will bring an added emphasis to a different kind of food celebrity – the farmer. Last year we saw sales flourish among grocery retailers who jumped on the movement among consumers to “buy local.” In this age of transparency, interest in the farm to fork journey has grown considerably, inspired in part by food safety scares and more importantly a desire to know how the food we are serving our families is being produced.
This year, we’re seeing more farmers get in on the action. A growing number of farmers are leading the conversation by using blogs and social media sites to bring the story of the American farmer to consumers. According to the American Farm Bureau’s 2010 Young Farmers and Ranchers Survey, nearly 99% of farmers and ranchers aged 18 to 35 have access to and use the Internet, and nearly three-quarters of those surveyed have a Facebook page. Additionally, 10% use Twitter and 12% post YouTube videos. In fact, 77% of those surveyed view this type of communication as an important part of their jobs as farmers and ranchers. In September of this year, the United States Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) launched an annual $11 million program designed to open the dialogue with consumers. Expect to see more advertising and television programs starring these real food experts (versus actors pretending to know their food).
And according the big New York J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency this will be the year of food-waste consciousness. From their 2012 things to watch for slide show here is one of their meta trends:
Food as the new Eco-issue: The environmental impact of our food choices will become a bigger concern, driving greater brand and consumer awareness and action around Curbing Food Waste.
World Trade Organization Tells U.S. Consumers They Aren't Allowed to Know Food's Country of Origin
A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:
Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.
The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."
This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.
I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See ). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities.
Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing.
Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":
...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.
Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.
Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans.
I have an op-ed that will appear in tomorrow's Seattle Times titled, How the local food movement is helping solve the problem of world hunger. It was intended to be provocative so I expect/hope it will provoke some passionate responses from a variety of people in the food conversation. The gist of my argument is that it's inaccurate to say the local food movement is harming the world's vulnerable and hungry. (This seems to be the critique du jour of the locavore trend.) In fact, I argue, it is helping and holds great potential to address the issue of world hunger.
It was hard to say all I wanted to say on the issue in 650 words or less so consider the following post as an extended-cut version of the op-ed, with more focus on the unfairness of the emerging critique of all things locavore. It is an edited (less sarcastic) version of what I posted earlier in the week.
The local & sustainable food movement has been THE food phenomenon of recent years so it's not surprising that it has provoked a sizable backlash in defense of industrial food. What is surprising is the recent consensus among some that the local food movement is bad for poor people.
Charles Kenny got the ball rolling in last month's Foreign Policy Magazine. He calls the local and organic food movements "misguided, parochial Luddism" and is aghast that federal funds go to support farmers' markets. He writes:
...these First-World food fetishes are positively terrible for the world's poorest people. If you want to do the right thing, give up on locavorism and organics über alles and become a globally conscious grocery buyer. This should be the age of the "cosmovore" -- cosmopolitan consumers of the world's food.
The best way to help poor people eat well is to make healthy food cost less. But the more agricultural land we divert into lower-efficiency organic production, the higher the price of all food will climb.
Sometimes thinking small and local — without an eye to the systemic and political — paves the way toward rollbacks of progressive policies that really work. Sometimes “The Man” can do a great deal of good, for example,when funding programs that add incentive dollars to SNAP benefits at farmers markets.
There are now 300 million Americans or so, and less space. If the barons of agriculture hadn’t engineered the monstrous phalanxes of corn that everyone is so aghast at, food would be more expensive, and a lot of poor people would be dying from starvation instead of courting diabetes.
Instead of actually engaging legitimate questions about the sustainability and health of the current industrial system, the new tactic is akin to picketing the local food co-op with signs that read: "CSA Subscribers Are Hurting Poor People."
The big picture here is that it's time for Congress to write the next Farm Bill and many people are concerned with the way that local and sustainable food activists are going to shape the debate. Kenny acknowledges that the current Farm Bill only designates 0.00025 percent of its funds for farmers' markets, but he is obviously concerned that they will have a greater influence on the next version.
These latest criticisms are an evolution of the core argument in defense of industrial food over the last fifty years: There are billions of people in the world, and we can't feed them without intensive industrial agriculture. So the industrialists have for years promoted themselves as heroes of the poor, and given that logic, it's not surprising that those who oppose or question them are being characterized as enemies of the poor.
The truth of food, agriculture, and world poverty is more complicated than any of us probably want to admit. The champions of organic and sustainable agriculture are loathe to acknowledge that Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution have actually been instrumental in saving lives and feeding millions of hungry and vulnerable people around the world. And the industrial food complex is hesitant to acknowledge that its subsidies and intensive farming methods have destroyed land and markets, and as a result have trapped millions of people in poverty and made them dependent on handouts. For example, it may look like we are the models of compassion for shipping food aid to places like Haiti, but our cheap, heavily subsidized grains undercut local farmers' efforts to grow crops and sell them.
To his credit Ozersky hints at this complicated picture:
I’m not saying that our industrial system is ideal, nor even sane, but to conflate industrial with bad is to suggest that we should all just go back to the land. Which, of course, can never happen.
OK, I'll agree to not conflate industrial with bad if you'll agree not to suggest those that aspire toward an alternative are enemies of the poor.
Time to Sign Up for a Winter CSA with Rocky Ridge Ranch
Gary and So Angell from Rocky Ridge Ranch are offering a 20-week winter CSA starting the first week of November and going up to Christmas. After a break it starts back up the first week of March and goes through the end of May. You can sign up for a produce & eggs program ($35/week) or a variety meats program ($65/week). Email Gary at info (at) rockyridgeranchspokane (dot) com for more info or call . They will deliver weekly at Millwood on Wednesdays and at South Perry on Thursdays. Gary about how the winter CSA growing season works.
I feature Gary and So in the book and highly recommend their program. You may have come across products from Rocky Ridge Ranch at Sante' restaurant and the Rocket Market.
Picture: So Angell tending to lettuce in the middle of winter last year.
Portable raised bed farm made from milk crates takes root in New York
An enterprising restaurant in New York has developed a farm to table garden on the dormant construction lot next to their location. According to a Fast Company article, "The farm now contains 7,400 milk crates and over 100 types of plants. Riverpark currently gets about 25% of its produce from the farm, but expects to get more soon."
It's a ingenious design created out of the necessity of not being able to dump large amounts of garden soil on the temporary site they had secured.
Ortuzar and Zurofsky presented their quandary to ORE Design and Technology Group, which proposed the milk crate idea: Staple a piece of landscaper fabric (a material that allows air and water to pass through) to each milk crate, and fill it with soil.
There is now truly no excuse for not growing some of your own food. All you need is a milk crate, a piece of landscape fabric, and a litle dirt. I love it. Now all we need is a design for a milk crate chicken coop.
Community Gardens Sprouting on Rooftops in Hong Kong
CNN has the story of a growing, but still small urban farming movement in Hong Kong.
For just $15 per month, Lam rents out toolbox-sized planter boxes to businessmen, elderly couples and families alike, and even runs horticulture classes. He uses imported soil from Germany to fill his planters and lets the humid, subtropical climate do the rest.
Fifteen dollars a month seems pretty steep but Hong Kong does have some of the highest property values in the world.
I thought this comment regarding resistance to gardening was interesting:
Outside of convincing politicians, Chau said Hong Kongers themselves have historically been resistant to the idea of farming as a suitable pastime.
"It is the lowest of our traditional caste system. In traditional Chinese culture, if you're good at nothing else, you work on the farm," Chau said. "Also, Hong Kong is a very money-minded place... land is also very expensive in Hong Kong, so people don't spend time worrying about growing their own food."
America has its own version of this caste system story. The consensus opinion on the growth of the US economy is that advances in farming freed people up from working on the farm so they could apply themselves to other more GDP-enhancing activities. This chart tells the story of the movement out of farm work in the U.S.:
China has its own version of this chart but relative to the American move away from the farm they are in 1850. This chart compares farm employment stats around the world and puts China at 47% in 1999.
In countries that have moved dramatically away from the farm there are efforts in place to reconnect with land and food. My sense is that this, in large part, is what drives the local food movement, the interest in farmers' markets, CSAs, and rooftop gardens - even in Hong Kong. It's a kind of farming-deficit disorder. It may be awhile before perceptions in China change around farming but they are already shifting dramatically in North America.
Debates Around Portland Oregon's Public Market Helpful to Spokane's Public Market Effort
Neighborhood farmers' markets are popping up across America. According to the USDA, there has been a 250% growth in the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. (1,755 in 1994 to a total of 6,132 in 2010). The growing popularity of farmers' markets is leading many cities to try and reestablish permanent public markets like the Pike Place Market in Seattle. After a ten year effort, locavore-passionate Portland is close to opening one of the most high profile market initiatives in the country. Their proposed is stirring up a debate that is helpful for other cities like Spokane as we look to the opening of our own public market on June 2.
The Oregonian reported this week that while most growers and advocates for local food support the market, there are some reservations and questions.
So what do local farmers and their backers at these markets have to say about a permanent public market? Is it a competitor, business booster, or something in between? That depends on whom you ask, but most seem to support the idea — with caveats.
The two main caveats mentioned in the Oregonian article have to do with the feasability of the business model and the what I'll call the "Pike-Place-Market-Envy Problem."
First, the business model:
Farmers market manager Eamon Molloy wonders whether a permanent market that’s costly to build will ultimately serve local farmers and food artisans’ needs. “I’m concerned that we’re going to build a shrine to food rather than a place where customers can go to buy it,” says Molloy, who runs the Hillsdale and Lloyd farmers markets. “People don’t make a ton of money at this. Food is by nature a low-margin business.
Second the Pike-Place problem:
Trevor Baird of Baird Family Orchards agrees, saying the regulars who buy his Dayton-grown peaches week in and week out will always be there. A public market along the lines of Pike Place Market in Seattle offers something altogether different. “I love Pike Place (Market) for the spectacle of it,” says Baird. “I’m not going to get strawberries there. The vendors there are wholesalers — they’ve got some nice produce, but they’re not farmers and they don’t pretend to be.”
Not all the vendors at Pike Place are "high stallers" as farmers' market purists call them, but in order to fill the shelves of a year-round market with the tourist cache' of Pike Place, many of the fruits and vegetables on offer at the Seattle market are imports from far-off places. Florida oranges and bananas from South America mingle with Washington grown items.
This is a very different approach from a neighborhood farmers' market. According to the rules of the Washington State Farmers' Market Association, markets like the one in Millwood that I help run cannot sell bananas and California strawberries. Everything must be from the region and while there are allowances for some wholesale selling, there are strict limits, and farmers impose a lot of pressure on market managers to keep wholesale product from competing with their direct-from-the-farm product.
A permanent public market with high overhead costs will have a difficult time in Spokane if they limit the produce and fruit to only what the regional climate has to offer. Its offerings will likely mirror what Full-Circle farm is doing with their fruit and veggie boxes. A mix of unique local offerings and wholesale goods that are similar to what is available in a grocery store. While Pike Place Market can maintain its aura even as they sell wholesale stuff, it remains to be seen whether something like the Spokane Public Market or the Portland market, for that matter, can pull that off. Others have tried and are trying with mixed results.
The folks in Portland are hoping for a hybrid model.
According to the James Beard Public Market website, the goal is a market with the “vitality” ofPike Place or Granville Island Market, but with “the primary focus on connecting local growers and food producers to local customers.”
Pike Place Market is a cultural and economic icon that is the envy of cities across America. Probably every city that looks to start a public market uses Pike Place as a reference point, but I cringe when I hear someone say that the new public market on Second and Browne will "one day rival the Pike Place Market." Spokane's psyche is scarred from years of finding itself on the short end of comparisons to Seattle, so in my opinion we are really setting ourselves up for problems when we build that into the vision for the new Market.
This story reported by GOOD about the other Portland's foray into Pike Place Market envy should serve as a cautionary tale:
After a visit to the bustling Pike Place Market in Seattle, a financial adviser for philanthropist Betty Noyce (the late, ex-wife of the Intel microchip founder) suggested that she fund a new public market in Portland, Maine, in order to revitalize the downtown. Noyce went on to finance the $9.4 million Portland Public Market, which opened in 1999 with 23 food vendors. Over the next seven years, farmers lodged complaints about poor access, the market struggled with a high vendor turnover rate, and two high-end restaurants there failed. In 2006, the market closed, after Noyce's foundation reported annual losses of about $1 million.
Several vendors launched a subsequent campaign to "Save the Market" and a year later, a new, slightly renamed, Portland Public Market House-a smaller, unsubsidized building filled with four permanent vendors (three of whom own the building) and a community kitchen-opened on a square adjacent to the city's once-a-week outdoor farmers' market.
I am hoping for the success of the new market. It would be a great addition to the local food scene, and best of all it would be a boon to the local farmers I know and support. It won't be a Pike Place Market, but hopefully it will be a unique and wonderful expression of the Inland Northwest's farms and food. The site currently shows the market opening this Thursday, June 2.