Friday, December 30, 2011

Know Your Farmer: Locavore or Globavore?

I love eating. I think a lot about where my food comes from and the farmers who produce it.  

My family predominantly lives on food we grow ourselves or which is grown locally by our neighbors. Our kids raise 4H hogs and one always goes to the freezer each year once the county fair is over. Our other main source of protein is venison, hunted on our own property. I was taught canning and freezing by my mom, and so I continue the tradition of “putting up” food when it is in season for use in our menus in the off season. I buy local peaches, strawberries, blueberries and other produce to can or freeze and use to make yummy dishes all year long. In this sense, I am very much a “locavore”.

The “buy local” movement has a lot of momentum and has done great things for local farm economies, not to mention the health benefits of eating food produced in season and from within your own community.

But as I sit here in New England, nearly 400 miles from “home”,  visiting my family for the holidays, and thinking of all the farmers I know around this globe, I’ve decided there are merits to being both a locavore AND a globavore.

I love being a globavore mainly because we know so many farmers in so many countries around this world. My family hosted International 4-H Youth Exchangees (IFYE’s) and young farmers for nearly 30 years. These young farmers and IFYE’s came from over 20 different countries making our connection to “Knowing Your Farmer” very meaningful and personal. In turn, members of our family have been able to travel to visit and spend time with several of these farm families on their farms in foreign lands.  “Know Your Farmer” takes a whole new definition when you’ve lived and worked with farm families around this globe.

I LOVE New England maple syrup, made by my dear friends who still tap trees and boil sap the old fashioned way. I think of them every time I use their syrup on my pancakes or French toast.

A couple of New England ice cream and cheese processors are my favorite brands because I know dairy farmers in the New England area whose milk is in the product.
Our Maryland neighbors milk cows for the Maryland-Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative. Supporting those brands the buy from the cooperative helps our neighbors.

I love pickles. I think of my cucumber-growing, fellow Eastern Shore woman-farmer Hannah who grows for a local pickle company every time I eat pickles.

I can’t count on my fingers and toes the number of friends I have who are poultry farmers. I know how much they care for their chickens and know I am getting a quality product supporting a fellow farmer when I buy the brands for whom they grow chickens.

When our freezer runs low on our own meat, I look for certain brands pork. My friend Jen is a hog farmer. I’ve been to her farm. I know how she operates and look for the brand that buys her hogs.

Distant Schmidt cousins who immigrated from Germany to Chile when our branch of Schmidt’s immigrated to America, are one of the largest table grape growers in that country. I think of them every time I buy Thompson seedless from Chile at my local supermarket. A relative grew those grapes.

We have dear friends who farm paprika peppers in South Africa. I think of them and remember my time in South Africa every time I use paprika as a seasoning.

I was fortunate to travel to Vietnam in January of 2011. I think of the rice and tilapia farmers I met when I consume either of those food items and hope they are doing well. While I don’t “know” them well, a face-to-face meeting with a farmer makes you have a better connection to how your food is produced, regardless of location.

That trip highlighted how food is globally interconnected and how important U.S. agriculture is to so many people outside our borders. Visiting Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Taiwan, I understood the importance of U.S. farm exports to feed people in countries with too little land mass to feed their own population. U.S. farmers support so many people beyond our own farm-gates, supporting globavores by choice and necessity.

On the flip side, the majority of what we grow on our family farm stays within 100 miles of our farm, a well used “rule of thumb” for defining “local” by many who have hitched their wagon to the local food movement. From our farm in MD, 100 miles reaches to PA, NJ, VA, WV, DE and DC. Whether its tomatoes to a cannery, fresh market green beans to a distributor, grapes to a winery, corn to a grain elevator, or soybeans to a tofu-maker, much of what we grow stays “local”. Our family farm supports many other local businesses both as a buyer of items we need to operate our farm, or as a seller of raw food or feed items to another family-owned local business. The fabric of the rural economy is very much a “locavore” economy, not only of food, but of products and services to and from family farms.

Locavore or Globavore, food is about relationships.  “Local” to me can be grown thousands of miles from me, but grown by a friend or distant relative. Knowing your farmer isn’t about distance, it’s about relationships. Consumers can connect their relationship to food by patronizing farmers markets, CSA’s, farm stands, creameries, or wineries, and by looking for local products in the grocery. But don’t lose sight of the fact that my friend Hannah may have grown those pickles you’re crunching, my friend Jen may have raised that bacon you had for breakfast or that my tomatoes may be in the spaghetti sauce you had for dinner last night. Just because our faces are not on the product, or you didn’t buy it direct from one of us, doesn’t mean that item wasn’t grown by a family farmer whose main interest in producing a safe and healthy food for your consumption.

Have a safe and blessed New Year!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Christmas Rant

Merry Christmas to one and all!
I received a gift today that I thought was worth sharing with fellow farmers who follow this blog. Enjoy!

I am a Maryland Farmer.
I am not Old MacDonald,
and I am not a factory farmer.
I love the Chesapeake Bay,
And protecting our land, air and water are part of every decision I make.
I believe in producing safe food.
And more of it,
On less land.
So your family and mine can enjoy the best the world can offer.
When you sit down to eat,
think of me.
I am a Maryland Farmer.

Thanks to the Maryland Soybean Board for producing this message. U.S. Farmer friends, feel free to interchange your watershed and state!
Blessings to one and all this holiday season!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Hay is for Horses, Straw is for ....??

Ok, so this blog isn’t exactly a human “foodie” but rather an animal “foodie” article.  But it IS a frequently asked question on the farm… one I got the other day so I figured it would make for a good blog –

What is the difference between hay and straw?

The simple answer – Hay is for eating and straw is for sleeping. Hay is a type of fodder or feed-stuff for livestock (horses, cows, sheep, goats, etc…). Straw is mainly used for bedding though it can also be used as mulch. It is edible, but not very tasty and not very nutritious either.

Where does it come from?
Hay comes from either grasses or legumes or can be a mixture of the two. Grass hay in our region is typically Timothy or Orchard grass. Some people think growing hay is just letting a field grow up whatever is there and then baling it. On the contrary, hay fields just like pasture, are seeded specifically to grow a “crop” of hay used to feed livestock. Legumes are another nutritious source of food for livestock. Legumes grown for hay are typically alfalfa and clover. Hay made from legumes is higher in calories, protein, Vitamin A and Calcium and so is more often used in animals with higher energy needs such as dairy cows that produce milk, mares that are nursing, or race horses. Grass hay tends to be lower in calories and protein and is good for general feeding of mature livestock or animals that don’t have higher protein or energy needs (like our overweight Belgian horse Lily who is on a weight reduction diet!) So while I’m not a clinical dietitian working in a hospital anymore, I still put to good use my knowledge of nutrition and apply it to our animals! Just like we humans, all livestock need well balanced, nutritious diets in order to be healthy and productive. Hay is a main source of nutrition during the winter months when pasture is unavailable or as in Lily’s case, when pasture is too rich for their waist-lines and they are “dieting”!

Straw is the stem of the plant left over from the harvest of what we call “small grains” – wheat, barley, rye, oats, etc… The combine cuts the grain-head off the stalk and “threshes” (old time term for removes) the seeds from the head of the plant. The seeds go into a storage bin on the combine which when full are transfered to a grain cart or tractor trailer truck. The combine discards the stalks out the back of the machine into nice rows. A tractor and baler then come along those rows and compact and tie the stalks into bales of straw and bales are stored in barns for use as bedding or mulch.

On our farm, we actually stopped making straw several years ago, mainly because we expanded to more than 250 acres of hay production which made storage in the barns pretty tight. Instead of baling straw, our combine is set so that it chops up the stalk as it goes through the machine and spreads it out the back rather than laying it down in a nice row. This adds organic matter to the soil which helps the field stay healthy, helps decrease erosion, and improves the soil for the next crop to be planted.

Straw is a one time annual event baled after harvesting wheat, barley or another small grain. Depending on weather, hay can be baled multiple times throughout the growing season. These increments are called “cuttings”, so if you called our farm for hay, we’d tell you what type of hay we had and which cutting it came from… but currently, we’re sold out! The nutritional value, texture, and overall quality of the hay varies from cutting to cutting.

If you’ve ever heard the saying “Make hay while the sun shines”, it’s because the quality of the hay crop is entirely at the mercy of Mother Nature. It takes 3-5 days to bring in a cutting of hay, assuming sunny days. The process of making hay includes mowing it down and letting it begin to dry, then tedding (fluffing) it so that it gets good air flow and dries properly, then raking it so its ready to be baled. Hay too high in moisture can heat up internally and combust causing a horrible barn fire.

The final question we get sometimes is why are some bales square and others round? We have both types of balers and use them for different purposes. Like I said in a previous blog, it’s all about “market, market, market”. Farmers make the type of hay they have a market for. We have a strong market for small, square bales used by local vets, racetracks, and folks in the region with a few horses or other livestock. If we have hay in the field that gets rained on before we can bale it, we may round bale it. Round bales are useful for farmers with larger numbers of animals to feed who can place a round bale, which weighs more than 1000 pounds, in a field and the livestock have free-choice to graze on it as they want. Small squares are nice for animals, like our Lily, who need smaller portions to control their calorie intake.

I found a really good webpage from another Maryland farmer called “Hey! What’s Hay?” It has some nice pictures that show the difference between hay and straw, the types of equipment used to harvest them both.

Hay and straw production are both critical to the health and well-being of livestock on the farm, something all farmers take seriously.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Many Faces of Soy

You’d think as a Dietitian, I would start this blog by writing about all the wonderful health benefits of soy, of which there are many…. But that’s not the focus of this blog. This blog is to describe to you the versatility of soy from a farmer’s perspective and what goes into getting soy from the field to the table.

On our farm, we grow 3 “types” of soy: seed-grade soy, feed-grade soy, and food-grade soy.

First, a few definitions:

Seed-grade soy: Seed-grade soybeans are grown by farmers to be planted the following growing season. Essentially, these are soybeans grown simply to be producers of seed and not converted into any type of animal or human product. They must meet purity standards for being true to their specific variety of soybeans.

Feed-grade soy: The primary use of these soybeans is as animal feed. Feed-grade soybeans make up the bulk of the soybean production in the USA. While they still must meet certain quality standards, they do not have to meet any purity standards regarding the type of variety of soybean. The nutritional analysis of this type of soybean is usually 36% protein which when fed to livestock meets part of their daily nutritional requirements for protein. Livestock diets must be well balanced for those animals to be healthy, productive and provide us with quality cuts of meat.

Food-grade soy: These soybeans are used in the production of soy foods such as tofu, soy-milk, sprouts and other soy-based foods. The nutritional analysis of food-grade soybeans is generally higher in protein than that of feed-grade soybeans. Food-grade soybeans range between 42-45% protein. A higher level of protein in the soybean helps make a better soy food product.

The development of each of these types of soybeans is market-driven, created by demand for the particular characteristics of soybean needed in each respective industry.

Both seed- and food-grade soybeans are grown for bonus pay or what we farmers call a premium. We get a higher price per bushel when we sell seed- or food-grade soybeans than what feed-grade soybeans are selling for at the local grain elevator. The reason for this is because these soybeans require something called “Identity Preservation” or IP. Using IP means that farmers ensure the purity of each variety of soybean. There is no blending of soybeans from other varieties and “contamination” between varieties will result in that batch being rejected. This means we clean out our planters, combines, trucks, grain carts, and grain bins to be sure that there is no “contaminating” soybeans left behind from the previous use of that equipment. If you do not like detailed housekeeping, then you would not like to be a grower of seed- or food-grade soybeans. Vacuuming a combine is not fun or easy.

Soybeans are vigorously tested to ensure that the identity is preserved or that they are in fact are the specific soybeans of a specific variety that was planted in a specific field. We keep detailed records about which varieties are planted where and which tanks they go into, always cleaning out the equipment before changing over to the next variety. We frequently grow 3-5 different varieties of soybeans, so the combine, trucks, and bins get cleaned multiple times throughout harvest season!

So why would a farmer grown one or another…? Well like the old saying “location, location, location”, farmer’s say “market, market, market”. Is there a local market for the crop, and if so, how does that crop fit into your farm’s business plan?

My farm’s plan is to add value to each acre we grow, so we look for opportunities to grow crops at premium prices. Because we live in the Mid-Atlantic region, we are 1 ½ hours from Washington DC, Baltimore, or Philadelphia, and 3 hours from New York City. Because of our diverse urban neighbors, we have a strong outlet for food-grade soybeans through predominantly Asian soy-food processors. Our “tofu beans” go through stringent quality testing be sure they have sufficient protein, that their identify is “preserved” and meet those required purity standards, that the soybeans are uniform in color and size, and that they are at the correct moisture level so that they don’t mold while sitting in bags waiting to be processed into soy-foods. Through a local farmer’s cooperative, we haul pallets of 60 pound bags of tofu beans to these cities where our buyers who are small mom and pop tofu and soy food makers turn them into food items on the grocery store shelves.

As a farmer, I wanted to share this story with you so you can gain an appreciation for the fact that there are many different types of soybeans, they are not all created equal. As a consumer I think you should know the extent to which we farmers go to ensure the identity and the quality of soybeans used in our food supply.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Meet the Foodie Farmer

It has been a goal of mine for some time to be an “Ag-vocate”, someone who advocates for agriculture. Farmers are after all, only 1% of the US population. Gone are the days when folks had some level of family connection to the land and the family farm. As a result, fewer and fewer people can relate to how their food gets from the field to their fork. My goal is to help consumers re-establish that connection, or perhaps if you cannot even remember a generation of your family ever farming for a living, establishing that connection to food for the first time.

I just returned from a two day conference for Executive Women in Agriculture. Being in a room of 120 farm women has inspired me to launch this blog. These women are farm operators, not farm wives, or in some cases such as mine, are both. The point being that women who farm professionally are on the rise either as sole proprietors or as equal partners in the family business. These farm women as communicators can go a long ways to Agvocating for their farming operations. It was an inspiring event!

From my perspective, I left a 10 year clinical practice as a Registered Dietitian in order to attend graduate school and start a family… not necessarily in that order. As a result, I got drawn into working on the farm between semesters, when the kids were at school and whenever the guys were short-handed and needed me to drive a piece of equipment. Soon it became a passion of mine and I integrated myself into the family business full-time. I could connect my training as a dietitian to the direct production of food from the land. Food is a cycle from production to consumption, from field to fork, from farm to table. I’ve had people ask me why I threw away all those years of training as a dietitian. My response – I do practice “applied nutrition” every day by growing your food. I still am a Registered Dietitian practicing quite literally in the "field" of food production. Thus I am a “Foodie Farmer”. I eat, live and breathe food production.

Farming is both an art and a science. A farmer is a scientist in the field of soils, weeds, crops, and livestock. Farming is being a health care professional - a diagnostician, pathologist, microbiologist, pharmacist, nutritionist, nurse, and physician of the soils and crops or animals and therefore your food.  I did not want to return to my “career” because it would interfere with my love of farming. I also became more connected with food as a farmer than I ever did as a dietitian. The farmer is the front end of nutrition – the variety, the production, the quality, and the sustainability, all elements that get food from field to fork. If that does not define a “foodie”, then I do not know what does.

Thus “The Foodie Farmer” evolved and what I hope will become an interesting blog for consumers who want to connect to their food. My intent is to give you ‘the day in the life’ of how we farmers are producing your food - planting food, growing food, harvesting food, storing food, shipping food.  I’ll discuss the nutritional value of how we are producing food, highlight the conservation methods that are used in food production, as well as techniques and technology that improve the soil and therefore the food coming from that soil.

My farm is a highly diversified farm. We have 2000 acres on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Yes, there are farms in Maryland!  That will be the topic of another blog. We grow corn, feed- seed- & food-grade soybeans (another blog topic), wheat, barley, hay, tomatoes, green beans, and wine grapes on this land. I have dear friends who are hog, cattle, poultry, dairy, cucumber, spinach, peas, apples, blueberry, peach, cherry, and watermelon producers. My goal is to find as many different food items that my friends and I grow and show you how that food goes from field to fork.

I’m excited to share with you my life as a “foodie” farmer!