Follow Your Food: Marching Into Spring

So far the month of March has been true to form, snow rain; sun and clouds. The climate is telling farmers it is time to begin thinking about a new planting season. Now that there are warmer days afoot, and frost more infrequent, greenhouse conditions are warming to where they can provide a stable enough environment for an spring transplanting of greens. Many to all of the new seedlings entering the ground now began 4-6 weeks ago when they were seeded into germination trays, away from the colder depths of winter. Indoor winter seeding gives farmers a chance to control environmental and soil conditions more acutely when plants are at their most vulnerable stages, pre-germination and early emergence. A critical variable is soil temperature. For example, Red Russian kale is suggested to be planted in soil that is maintained at around 75 degrees until germination, at which point soil should be kept at a consistent temp around 60. While the ambient temperature is rising closer to that, there is still the threat of a cold frosty night outside. In order to ensure that 75 degree soil temperature for Russian Kale, Sarahlee from Rainshadow has her seedlings protected under controlled cover. While the seeds begin their biotic life cycle, work is to be done preparing their field bed in the greenhouse. Farmers harvest what they need from the existing winter crop for sale, but most everything else is either plowed into the ground for decomposition into organic soil carbon or fed to the animals. Then a new layer of compost is mixed in for a boost of soil biology, mineral nutrients and more organic matter. After some time the growing trays begin to show green with little kale radicles poking through the soil surface. Shortly after, the starter house is rich with healthy looking seedlings that are ready for the soil.

When the seedlings are substantial enough to move, they are transplanted by hand, one by one, hundreds at a time, into their new field bed. Most of the greens planted now will be ready for harvest in about 4 to 5 weeks time, right when many producers on this side of the mountains are starting up tractors and preparing outdoor field rows. At this point, there will be some earlier planted greens ready for consumption in just a few weeks from today. Until then, there is a growing bounty in the ground. At the time of harvest Rainshadow Organics will be pulling out various types of chard, kale, radishes, beets, and a variety of carrots. Jack from Story Hill farm is will have multiple varieties of crisp, full lettuce heads, beets spinach and cool season herbs. Chris from Juniper Jungle will be ready for market with spring greens in hand, and crop of grains planted in his fields to try something new.  Everywhere,from all of the farms around here, the spring harvest should be rich with local produce from farmers who have put months of hard work into creating healthy food and healthy land.



Follow Your Food: Kale Sprouts


March has a hard time deciding whether it should hold onto winter or embrace the warm glow of spring. All of us in Bend have been caught in the middle of that conflict; snow storms one day, sunny and 50 the next. Yet in all this ambient fluctuation, the biological clock in plants is saying “time to grow”. As this month has set in, farmers are beginning to see their rows turn varying shades of green. We consumers see the same effect on out dinner plates and in meal planning. Just this week Groundwork Organics was able to deliver some beautifully tender kale sprouts, a harbinger of the season to come. This transitional period is a unique time, and the crops that emerge, like kale sprouts, are only available for a short time before plants want to take off. This particular seasonal rarity is a unique hybrid between two brassica cultivars: Red Russian kale and brussel sprouts. Brussel sprouts are a cultivated variety of Brassica oleracea, selected and bred for large axillary bud growth; the sprout we eat. Kale is cut from the same cloth, but for a different purpose; a B. oleracea bred for its large edible leaves. Since the two are of the same species, their genetics can be hybridized through cross breeding. The result is a plant with the growth habit of brussel sprouts, but with little red streaked rosettes of kale leaves instead of round buds. It is a beautiful plant, with a  unique flavor that combines the best of both varieties.

As more greens emerge from the fields, so shifts our cooking from hearty roots, to fresh salads on warm days or roasted greens for colder ones. Since those pages in cook books might not be earmarked yet, I have a  good one to start out with:

Balsamic Roasted Kale Sprouts with Parmesan Shards





Follow Your Food: Rainshadow Organics


Ecologists and environmental economists have identified diversified local agriculture as a critical piece to cutting humanity’s carbon footprint and as a potential avenue for rebuilding ecosystems that have been damaged by anthropogenic activities. The high desert biosphere here in Central Oregon is perhaps fantastic for pursuing out outdoors passions, but it is a difficult environment to be a farmer. The high desert ecology is described as a zone 6a by the USDA, meaning that during  an average year temperatures dip as low as -5 Fahrenheit, and is qualified as a semi-arid desert due to only 10-15 inches of annual rainfall. Due to variable monthly temperature,  and long cold fall and spring conditions, the growing season here is very short. The annual growing season in the high desert ranges from 80-90 days; compare this to the long growing season of the productive zone 8 Willamette Valley, where  farmers grow outdoors 150-180 days a year. Crops on this side of the valley also do not have the benefit of deep sedimentary soil from ancient glacial movement. Since this region was largely formed by ancient volcanic activity, most of the soil is a shallow development of residual ash. This ashy sediment is sandy, which leaches water like a sieve, and is remarkably low in organic matter and microbiological activity. The confluence of these environmental factors make for hard conditions to cultivate oft needy food crops.

It may seem like this is a rather negative way to look at the landscape here, its not, the high desert is beautiful in so many unique ways and is an important habitat for abundant wildlife. My goal, instead; is  to lay out the canvas and paint a picture of just how much hard work and thought goes into growing local food in Deschutes county. But people do it, and do it well.

Sarahlee Lawrence from Rainshadow Organics  has been doing it for a number of years up in Terrebonne, and put strident effort into extending her growing season beyond 90 days. They are now beginning to prepare for their spring season by transplanting  tender seedlings into greenhouse rows, but this is not the beginning of a new year. The operation never stopped. This year they need to make room for the new seedlings because the ground is covered in an explosion leafy kale, collards, arugula and smatterings of asian greens. All of this produce was  planted back in the fall for the Rainshadow winter CSA, and has been protected from the harsh elements all winter; that is no accident. Everything is designed to create a favorable microclimate that makes up for the environmental shortcomings. Lets begin with her crop selection, which includes winter hardy brassicas like kale and asian greens, whose plant physiology has adapted to tolerate frosts (and actually becomes sweeter). Next comes the ashy soil, which has been amended with rich a horse and chicken manure compost, and used to build a deep organic root bed. Then the cold, but variable ambiance, which is better controlled with a full coverage greenhouse dome to provide thermal insulation, solar radiation, wind protection and retain moisture. Those crops that tend to be a bit more sensitive are covered with a light cloth row cover, which acts as a bit of a redundancy to the greenhouse enclosure. Since Terrebonne is close to the leeward steps of the Cascades, their farm is frequently hammered by a barrage of howling wintry winds. In response, Sarahlee has positioned her greenhouses behind a hedgerow of thick juniper trees, which act as a windbreak to protect both crops and greenhouse plastic from driving gusts of the prevailing wind. And the work has paid off. The rows have stayed green and healthy all winter, and now, into the spring.

All of this design, and hard work throughout the extended season has allowed for green dinner plates at home or in restaurants downtown. That is why this week we are teaming up with Jackson’s Corner to highlight just where all of their food does come from. “Local” is an important term because we can duck under the plastic and see how things work, to know what it takes to grow food that might otherwise be taken for granted.


Follow Your Food: Mycological Products

There is a entire biotic world separate from both the plant and animal kingdoms. Fungi represent the 3rd Eukaryotic kingdom, eukaryotic describing organisms with complex cell structure. There is enormous diversity among fungi. There are estimated to be up to 5 million species, only 5% of which have been formally identified. Individual fungus range from single celled yeasts to complex mycelium  networks that blanket miles of earth under our forests. To most people mushrooms and other fungi appear biologically similar to plants; however, the 3rd kingdom is more akin to animals. Unlike plants, who can create their own food from the atmosphere, fungi are heterotrophs, meaning they require external sources of carbon to digest for sustenance. As plants or animals die in the wild, their body begins to decompose. Fungal digestion is the principal element of decomposition, and their waste is what builds organic matter in soil. This is actually stable soil carbon, which is required to move nutrients into plants. In effect, fungi are the drivers of nutrient cycling in nature, turning what has died into food for life.

I could go on and on about the relationship between fungi and plants, things like mycorrhizal fungi symbiosis or mycelium mats in forest soil. For the sake of brevity I wont, but I urge you to look it up independently. It is a fascinating biotic world, ubiquitous among most global ecosystems, and often symbiotic with both natural and anthropogenic plant environments. We do also eat fungi, and they are delicious! Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of dense macrofungi network, grown to produce spores and spread growth. Our eating mushrooms takes a lot of knowledge. As I stated before, this is a very diverse kingdom, and many are toxic for  human consumption. Fortunately we have partners that take care of that knowledge for us so that we can enjoy the rich flavor of sauteed mushrooms. Mycological Products has established itself in 1995 as the mushroom connection for this central corridor of Oregon. They they have set their goals to providing a central market for passionate foragers in the region. And their operation is not just focused on wild foraged mushrooms, but also naturally harvested greens like stinging nettles or miners lettuce. The mere fact that they offer these products feeds into their mission to educate people on the benefit of fungal organisms in our ecosystems. However, not all of the mushrooms we eat comes from the woods; what isn’t wild harvested is cultured by farmer, and those farmers need a market. Mycological is the connection there as well, bringing in the weekly bounty of portabella, shitakke and crimini goodness.

A more reciprocal food system is a science long sought after by agronomists and farmers alike. Many growers have found their way to sustainability, and I am sure that many will tell you that the key ingredient is this the construction of this obscure network of fungal life. Mushrooms are a critical element in nature to propagate the growth of this subterranean world, but they are also a staple in human health and well being. Having a partner like Mycological products is so important to our personal sustainable health, but also the health of this regional ecosystem.