Meeting our New Ag Community

One of the main reasons that we moved from California to Maryland was land access. After a decade of farming in California, I could not get secure long term land access on leased land. The prospect of purchasing farmland in the Bay Area of California was just not a sustainable business option for us.

 

After extensive research we decided that the Eastern Shore of Maryland could provide us with what California could not; affordable cost of living, and support to establish and grow an agricultural business.

 

Since arriving in “the land of pleasant living” we have definitely experienced the affordable cost of living. Here you don’t need three jobs to survive; a person can actually live on wages from one full time job. We are still looking for farmland (if you have any leads let me know)! But what has surprised me the most is how welcoming and supportive the agricultural community has been.

 

From local food non-profits, to government agricultural resources, to individuals; everyone I have reached out to has taken the time to offer advice, information and guidance, to me a stranger in these parts. I have been amazed at how many people have taken time out of their busy schedules to meet with me over a cup of coffee so I could pick their brains on starting a farm here.

 

I’m impressed with the University of Maryland Extension’s programing. Recently I attended their Food for Profit entrepreneurship training program. This day-long training went through the ins and outs of starting a food business, legal regulations, food safety, labeling, and more. They did a great job of breaking down the complex paperwork involved in bringing a food product to market. It gave me the motivation to actually want to create a value-added farm product.

I have also found there to be a ton of agricultural conferences, summits, and seminars within a two hour drive of where I live. Just last week I spent the day at the Delmarva Soil Summit put on by Future Harvest an awesome non-profit providing loads of educational programing for farmers. This summit covered not only the importance of soil health but how to improve your soil and how to monitor its health. What impressed me more than the great information and resources I was gaining that day, was the diversity of the attendees. In their first ever Soil Summit they had brought together large commodity growers, direct market farmers, students, service providers, and even home gardeners.

There is still lots I need to do before I start farming again next year, but the community support I have received thus far is incredibly encouraging and reinforces the excitement that we have in making the Eastern Shore of Maryland our home.

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Recipes for September

It’s that time of great agricultural abundance, autumn. A time when I normally have loads of pumpkins, winter squash, and I’m still eating my own farm grown tomatoes. But not this year. Since I’m on a sabbatical from farming, I have to shop for vegetables like most people. In search of the freshest seasonal produce I head to the nearest farmers’ market, which happens to be the Easton Farmers Market, an easy walk from my apartment.

Fall is such a fun time to visit the market with warm weather produce still coming in strong and cooler season delights starting to roll in. You can find almost anything you want at a September market. I grabbed some cherry tomatoes, habaneros, okra, kale, sweet potatoes, summer squash and a cucumber.

With the arrival of fall we have started to have some cooler weather … well, cool enough that I actually felt like using my oven. So with my farmers’ market bounty I whipped up a tasty side dish, Autumn Veggie Cobbler (recipe below), to go with dinner.

Even though I don’t have a farm this year, I’m still enjoying some fruits of my labor … well previous labor. Chilly weather starts me craving hearty dishes filled with the dried beans and corn that I stored from 2017. So I whipped up some black-eyed peas (recipe below) to go along with my farmers’ market findings.

 

Autumn Veggie Cobbler
Serves 4

1 TBS sunflower oil
1 cup yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 celery stalk, diced (including leaves)
4 cups sweet potatoes, peeled, cubed
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 cup okra, sliced
2 large kale leaves, chopped
1 cup of cherry tomatoes, chopped (or 1 medium tomato)
½ habanero, seeds removed, minced (or ½ tsp chili flakes)
1 ½ cups vegetable stock

In a large skillet heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, and celery; sauteing for 2 minutes or until the onions begin to brown. Stir in sweet potatoes, salt, and black pepper. After about 5 minutes or once the potatoes start to sweat add okra and kale. Cook for another 5 minutes stir occasionally so the vegetables do not stick.  Then stir in tomatoes, habanero, and stock. Bring everything to a rapid boil, then take off the heat and pour into a 8×8 baking pan and set aside.

Make drop biscuits* in a medium mixing bowl, start by combining dry ingredients

1 ¾ all-purpose flour
¾ tsp salt
1 tsp cream of tartar

Then cut in ⅓ cup of butter. Once the mixture resemble peas, stir in ¾ cup of milk and ½ cup of La Croix (yup I used lime La Croix cause it’s what I had, but you could also just use plain club soda). Be mindful not to over mix, a lumpy batter is okay. Using a large spoon, drop spoonfuls of biscuit batter right on top of your vegetable mixture until you have used up all the batter.

Then bake uncovered in a preheated 450 degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until the biscuits are fully cooked and slightly brown on top.

*Full disclosure: I intended to make baking powder biscuits but found my cupboard lacked baking powder and baking soda pretty late into making the recipe. So I improvised with cream of tartar and a can of La Croix.

Simple Black-Eyed Peas
Serves 4

2 cups dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed
1 TBS sunflower oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
5 cups water
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
⅛ tsp chili powder
1 TBS mild hot sauce
½ tsp black pepper
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges

In a large pot heat oil over med-high heat. Then saute onion, celery, and garlic for about 5 minutes or until onions begin to brown. Next add water, black-eyed peas, tomato, oregano, salt, chili powder, hot sauce, and black pepper mixing until well combined. Cover slightly and simmer until black-eyed peas are completely tender about 1 ½ hours, adding more water if necessary to keep black-eyed peas covered.

Serve over rice and squeeze a wedge of lime over top each bowl.

 

Another Season is Done

Now that it’s the end of the season it seems like eons ago that I was getting the field ready for the beginning of the growing season. Even though it was just 10 months ago that I was starting tomato seeds in the greenhouse and about 7 months ago that I was planting popcorn kernels in the field. Now everything has been mowed down or has been killed by the frost.

Tomato field past its prime

The growing season is always a whirlwind but it still has an undeniable rhyme. With the arrival of spring the daylight grows, egging you on to become more active and get outside to work. The heat of summer pushes everything to grow big and lush including your energy level. Fall shows up colorful but exhausted, encouraging you to slow down. Then winter with its cold short days shoos you inside to stay cozy and inspires you to reflect. Even though I may fight these seasonal urges at first, I quickly give in because it is exactly what my body is demanding my mind to do.

Popcorn field through the seasons

So as winter approaches, it’s officially 10 days away, I have started to review the growing season, celebrating my achievements and figuring out how to better address the challenges.

Don’t Forget About the Drip Tape

The final harvest from the farm happened weeks ago but there is still work to be done out there. Before the field can be put to bed for the season, the irrigation must be removed. All the drip tape that runs the length of every bed must be picked up. After providing crops with months and month of water the drip tape is now pretty much covered in weeds.

So for me, drip tape removal involves a lot of pulling and dragging, not my favorite activity, but it’s gotta be done. If you leave the drip irrigation in the field over winter it will disappear, until you go to mow or rototill and then it gets stuck in all your equipment.

Drip tape ready to be recycled

Unfortunately removing drip tape is a much slower task than it is to install it in the spring. So between the rainy days, the labor involved in removing irrigation, and my love for procrastinating tasks I dislike; it may be sometime before the field gets cleaned up this season.

Commemorating the Season

Thursday was a day filled with food, family, and friends. For me, Thanksgiving has always been a celebration of food.

During the days leading up to the big feast I search for all the ingredients both in my field, at neighboring farms, local grocery stores, and the farmers market. Every time I thought I had everything I needed I realized something was missing, so back to the store I went. With a kitchen stuffed with seasonal ingredients plus some avocados for a little guacamole, we were ready. We spent all Thursday preparing food for the big feast. It was all hands on deck with everyone lending their various skills to help make a delicious meal.

It is a family tradition to start the day with mimosas, ceviche, and guacamole.

As a farmer I look at Thanksgiving as a commemoration of the year’s bounty both in food and in friendship. Sitting together at a long table passing bowls and platters overflowing with deliciousness, we reminisce about the last time we all got together as a family. Chatter quickly fills the room that is already bursting with delectable food, amusing people, and love.

My dad and I at the pre-Thanksgiving farmers market

Poppin’ Popcorn

After a long wait you can now get your hands on some tasty certified organic Quarter Acre Farm heirloom popcorn.

I sold out of the 2016 harvest of heirloom popcorn months ago and just like my customers when I sell out of popcorn I too have no popcorn in the my own house. So I have been waiting and watching the popcorn like a hawk since I planted it back in May. Once planted popcorn takes about 100 days to reach maturity. Then it has to dry on the stalk until the husk turns brown. After it is harvested I begin to shuck it as I wait for it to dry even more. Popcorn won’t POP if there is too much moisture in the kernel. I test random kernels by trying to pop them on the stove top. Once I get constant pops, it’s time to shell the kernels off the cob.

Well I shelled the popcorn this week and have been busy bagging up the beautiful kernels for market. Heirloom popcorn has a delicious flavor some say it’s a bit nutty or buttery but its scrumptious taste, makes all other popcorn just seem bland. This year I have Pennsylvania Dutch Butter which is a pale yellow and pops yellow and Dakota Black whose kernels are a mahogany color and pops white plus a new variety Smoke Signals which is multi-colored and pops a creamy white. Now that my house is fully stocked with popcorn I have been eating a bowl every night.

If you can’t make it to the market the popcorn is available for sale on etsy,
shipping anywhere within the Untied States.

I Like Pumpkins Too

As a farmer your main focus tends to be getting your product out of the field and into the hands of your customers.

I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve come home from a long day of harvesting and delivering produce to find my kitchen, severely lacking vegetables. Or after a busy morning selling produce at the farmers’ market (surrounded by fellow rock star farmers and amazing food vendors) only to realize I forgot to buy a single item off my grocery list. Like many farmers I find the access to fresh local produce to be an awesome job benefit, if I can remember to access it.

When I do bring produce home to eat, it tends to be “seconds”; fruit that is misshapen, leaves that bugs have chewed on, and other aspects that generally make the items undesirable for market. Your farm business mentality is to sell everything that is sellable. Well, this fall I spotted two beautiful blue pumpkins in the field that I immediately knew I wanted all for myself. As I watched them grow I kept feeling a pang of guilt that I would not market these beauts. But by the time they were ready to harvest, all my guilt had washed away. As I hauled them into my truck I was beaming with pride knowing I had the perfect place for them by my doorstep.

Fall Abundance

I have been harvesting bushels and bushels of pumpkins and gourds. At the farmers’ market you will see the tables in my booth overflowing with these classic autumn symbols.

But what you won’t see much of is winter squash. I was only able to have a modest harvest because I let the weeds take over those rows in the field. The winter squash plants were too small and the weeds grew too tall blocking the sunlight. On the farm you have to prioritize tasks and when the winter squash needed to be weeded the cherry tomatoes needed to be harvested and taken to market, it was a tough decision but those sweet tomatoes won. So the winter squash was on its own to fend off the weeds.

In other farm news, I have finally gotten all the popcorn harvested and now I’m busy shucking it all. With a half an acre worth of popcorn shucking takes many hours. Since I’m pretty obsessed with heirloom corn, removing each husk is like unwrapping a gift, it’s a surprise to see what colorful pattern the kernels will be in. I hope to have it shelled and ready for market by early November.

Smoke Signals popcorn

Resiliency

The smoke has started to clear here in Wine Country. My home and farm were not damaged by the wildfires but that seems, to just be by luck or a random change in wind. These wildfires have been devastating, I know many people who lost their home or business and sometimes both. As I talk to friends or strangers in the parking lot the stories we share are similar; waking up in the middle of the night to fire reports, sights of glowing mountain tops, buildings reduce to ash, and the anxiety of waiting to hear more news.

The threat of fire loomed for so many days, I like many was glued to every screen watching the news, listening to the radio, and scrolling through social media to figure out where the fire was and where it might be going.  I felt lucky to have time to pack up things before we evacuated.  

As a farmer, I have always been humbled by nature, knowing full well that I am not the one in control. But the strength and speed of these wildfires were unbelievable, many people had no warning.

We may not be able to control nature but we can control how we react as humans. Giving back is a great reaction, this of course can involve donating to a nonprofit* but even just being kind to another human being is generosity. So remember be patience with one another, call your loved ones, take time to talk to your neighbor, smile and acknowledge a stranger. We are each a tiny piece of this larger community we call home.

*If you’d like to make a monetary donation check out these organizations:

  • Just and Resilient Futures Fund resources from this fund will be provided to victims of fires, especially those suffering losses not covered by insurance or traditional relief services, and to support initiatives that build more just, healthy, and resilient communities and that better prepare us for future catastrophe. With immediate focus on relief funds for those fire victims who were already living on the margins.
  • Redwood Credit Union is accepting financial donations to assist fire victims and aid relief efforts. 100% of your tax-deductible donations will go directly to support those affected.
  • La Luz Center has the mission to be a catalyst for change in Sonoma Valley through health, education and financial security. During this time of devastation and crisis they are focusing on the following services: ‘disaster unemployment assistance’ as well as ‘individual assistance disaster relief funds’ application assistance, rental assistance referrals, and job placement referrals. They are also providing hot meals and basic need items for families that have been displaced, are without electricity, or need a safe day space.

Still Picking

October is here and I’m still harvesting tomatoes. The heirloom tomato plants are just barely hanging on having never really recovered from the intense heat wave from weeks ago.

But the cherry tomato plants are happy and healthy with fresh green growth and loads of fruit. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but I look at the cheerful cherry tomato plants and think aren’t you guys tired, aren’t you ready to stop producing and go to sleep for the winter?

Well I’m obviously projecting my feelings onto vibrant tomato plants. I have been steadily picking cherry tomatoes since June and it’s been a great tomato season for me but I’m totally ready for it to end. The production on the cherry tomato plants has slowed down a bit and the fruit is much smaller than it once was, which means it takes more time to fill up the pint baskets. But since there is ripe tomatoes in the field and customers still buying them, I will keep harvesting, until the plants are finished for the season. I’m just counting the days.