Friday, January 27, 2012

Mom - Why Is My Fry Green?

So the other night, we are eating at a restaurant after my son’s basketball game. (His team didn’t win, but thanks for wondering.) In the midst of enjoying our meal, my 12-year old daughter picks up a waffle fry and asks “Mom, why is my fry green?” Being the good mom that I am,  I respond “That is a GREAT blog topic!”. Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly the answer she was looking for. She rolled her eyes and said “Fine as long as you give me credit for the idea, but really, why is my fry green?”

Green areas on potatoes are caused by exposure to light. As a root crop, grown properly, potatoes do not see the light of day until harvest. Under the cover of soil, they have no green color whatsoever.

The green color in any vegetable is called chlorophyll. It is a really important part of helping the plant take in the sunlight and convert it into energy so that the plant grows at a healthy rate and produces a healthy vegetable for us to eat.

However, if potatoes are grown with exposure to sunlight, the area exposed begins to develop chlorophyll in the skin tissue. Of course we know that potatoes are not supposed to be green, but it’s not the chlorophyll that is the problem. A potato’s exposure to light also causes these areas to become bitter which is a result of too much “Glycoalkaloids” accumulating in the same area as the chlorophyll. (Hang in there with me, I’m not going to get too science-y).

Glycoalkaloids are natural compounds that contribute to the flavor of vegetables, but in high concentrations, can be bitter. If too much of these compounds are eaten, they can have some not so pleasant side-effects, such as nausea and diarrhea. (uugghh) So it’s a legitimate fact  not to eat green potatoes. Small amounts are not a problem, but the general advice is to cut out the green portion of potato and discard or compost it.

Potatoes can also become green tinged after harvest while at the grocery store, exposed to continuous lighting which contributes to the changes in color. It can also happen at your home. Anytime the potatoes are exposed to too much light. The “greening” of  potatoes happens more quickly at temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and generally does not happen at less than 40 degrees. A good reason to store your potatoes in a cool, dark place. That’s why a lot of old farm houses still have “root cellars”, an old fashioned form of cold storage.

Other Random Potato Facts:

So what other funky facts can I tell you about potatoes?

If you’ve ever cut into a potato that is hollow, it has what is called “Hollow Heart”. This results from some sort of environmental stress, usually an extreme heat fluctuation during the early growing season when the potato is most fragile.  

Brown center is another condition consumers may find when cutting up a potato. This can also be caused by heat stress but also by dry soil conditions or not enough nutrients available for the plant to keep the potato from being stressed. Neither one of these conditions is a result of disease, but due to stress the plant may have undergone during a critical stage of the growing season.

Growing Potatoes:

If you’re a backyard gardener and want to grow potatoes, you should have a plot large enough to rotate to a different location each year. Divide your space into quarters and don’t go back to the same section for 4 years. This is due to the soil diseases that potatoes are susceptible. Don’t plant tomatoes, legumes, or strawberries after potatoes as these crops are susceptible to the same soilborne diseases. Planting them in the same location year after year builds up those diseases. We used to grow potatoes, and now we grow Roma tomatoes and strictly follow a 4-year crop rotation so that the crop stays healthy and the soil replenishes itself. Crop rotation is always advisable for both farmers and gardeners and is considered a best management practice. Your garden plot should also be well-drained. Potatoes do not like standing in water

Potatoes prefer a soil pH of 5.2 to 5.5. Check your pH soil fertility before planting and incorporate any amendments into the plot before planting. Backyard growers typically over-fertilize potatoes resulting in large vine growth but poor potato production. If you use manure, make sure it is composted manure.  

Potato Nutrition:

Potatoes can be part of a nutritious diet for consumers. Potatoes are high in potassium and a good source of Vitamin C and fiber. Potatoes themselves are not fattening. They have no fat or cholesterol. How WE prepare them and of course our portion size can make them fattening.

The popular notion that the majority of nutrients in a potato are found in the skins is false. Nutrients are found throughout the entire potatoe. 

I know this is way more than you wanted to know about potatoes… but some curious mind, like your 12-year old daughter, might ask and so now you know!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Egg Freshness? Read the Carton!

I grew up in Western Massachusetts and have a distinct memory of an egg advertisement whose "jingle" always sang “brown eggs are local eggs, and local eggs are fresh.”  Now, you probably know that the color of the egg shell is entirely dependent on the breed of hen and not the location where the eggs were laid. But have you ever wondered when you’re shopping for eggs just how fresh those eggs are at the grocery store? Today, you will learn how to find out! For this blog, you either need to grab an empty egg carton or read post this in your kitchen! J Today, we are going to learn about the freshness of your eggs, using the information that can be found on the egg carton. I’m not talking about the nutrition label but am talking about the printed codes on the end of your egg carton. Short of buying your eggs directly from a farmer, you will never know the exact date the eggs at the grocery store were laid, but you can come pretty close by reading the packing code on an egg carton.

All egg cartons have a printed code on the short side of the carton that reflects a “Julian Date”. The Julian calendar is a numerical calendar numbering the days of the year in sequence from 1 to 365. So January 1st is always day 1 and December 31st is day 365, except in the instance of leap years, like 2012, there are 366 days. January is easy because today, January 20th, is always day 20 on the Julian calendar. It’s when you get into the middle of August that you start to lose count. Google “Julian calendar 2012” and you can easily print out a PDF file to make it easier if you are really into this assignment!

So look at your egg carton. What number do you see? Mine says 315, which means the eggs were packed on November 11, 2011. Then there is a number preceded by a “P”. This is the assigned USDA plant number of the egg packing plant where the eggs were packed. After that you will probably see a “use by” date. Hang on - We’ll get to that one later.

OK, so you’ve found the Julian date on your egg carton. Although there is no way to know for sure, it’s likely that the eggs in that carton were either laid the day before it was packed or the day of the actual packing. So the eggs in my carton were probably laid on November 10th or possibly November 11th.  How do I know this? Once upon a time, I worked for the “Maryland Ag in the Classroom”, a program that trains teachers to incorporate agriculture into their classrooms, and went on a field trip with a bunch of teachers to an egg packing plant. We watched as area farmers delivered eggs to the plant and then followed those eggs through the washing process, to candling, to grading & sizing, and finally to packing. It was a fascinating process and reassured me that when I am at the grocery store, each and every egg has been inspected and I am buying quality eggs. It also taught me how to determine the freshness of my eggs using the Julian date.

Now you’re asking yourself under your breath – “It’s January and she has eggs from November in her refrigerator?” YIKES! My goodness NO! I buy eggs from a friend whose son has a 4H laying hen project. I know my eggs are not that old, they are in fact, quite fresh. I return my cartons to make his 4H project more cost effective and so my egg carton dates never accurately reflect how fresh they are. But on the occasion that I run out of eggs, I read the Julian date on the carton so I can mentally calculate how old the eggs are.

So now the “use by’ date: A “use by” date on the carton is not required but many egg packers use them. It is not an expiration date. USDA says these dates are “the recommended maximum length of time that the consumer can expect eggs to maintain their quality when stored under ideal conditions”. Typically it is within 30-45 days of being packed. They don’t “expire” after that date, but are probably better for baked goods than they are for breakfast. They probably won’t whisk up a very nice meringue.

Keep in mind that eggs are a perishable food item. How they are handled and stored by also affects their quality and safety. If you go to the grocery on a warm day, buy eggs, put your eggs in the car, do a couple “quick” errands on the way home that turn out to be not so quick, you’ve reduced their shelf life regardless of the date on the egg carton.  Eggs should not go un-refrigerated for more than 2 hours, less if they are in a warm car. Storing eggs properly helps maintain their quality and safety. I always do my grocery shopping last on a list of errands so that my perishables get home quickly and put away.

Hopefully, you found this blog useful. I remember being so tickled after my egg packing field trip to be able to use the Julian date to figure out within 24-48 hours of when my eggs were laid and to meet the farmers who raised the hens.

Also, If you have never heard of “Ag in the Classroom”, I encourage you to Google it for your state and find out more about a very important agricultural training program for teachers.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Healthy Soils, Healthy Foods

One would assume there is little happening on the farm in January but actually quite a bit is happening. Like most farmers, we are passionate about being good stewards of our soil. The soil is our livelihood. Without the highest quality dirt, we cannot grow the highest quality foods or stay in the family business that we love. We spend as much time improving our soils as we do growing crops. We consider that the most sustainable farming practice. Our goal is to leave the soil in better condition that we received it so the next generation can have a healthy, profitable family farm.

To that end, the crop we are growing this winter is “cover crops”. There are several categories of cover crops including: Cereal crops like wheat, barley, oats, rye, and triticale; Brassica crops such as rapeseed and tillage or Daikon radishes; and Legume crops like crimson clover, hairy vetch and Austrian winter peas. Though each are different, cover crops are meant to improve the soil by reducing erosion and nutrient losses, add “green manure” or nutrients and organic matter to the soil, and build soil structure or what we farmers call “tilth”. Basically, we want our ground to feel like your walking on a shag carpet. (yes I know the word “shag” dates me…!)

Since farm equipment is very heavy, it is critical to us to keep our “tilth” by managing our soil. We practice “No-Till” farming on most all our fields. No-till means we do not plow or turn the ground over, but plant the seeds directly into the ground which still has last year’s crop particles (like chopped up corn stalks) all over the ground. No-Till farming not only builds up our soil but also reduces our carbon footprint by reducing the number of times we drive equipment across the field, which reduces the amount of fuel we use.

We use organic fertilizer like manure or chicken litter when its available and only apply what the crop needs for nutrients to grow. Crops, like humans, need “food” that contains vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Things like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, calcium, boron, iron, magnesium, manganese, sulfur, and many other nutrients are found in the soil and are used by plants for growth, fruit and seed development, photosynthesis, root structure, plant health, and other life-supporting functions for healthy plants.

 A couple of examples:

Boron is a critical nutrient in fruit development. We apply boron to the soil for our grape crop so that the vines produce consistent, uniform berries on a cluster. Boron is critical in what we call “fruit set” or uniform clusters. Have you ever bought a cluster of grapes that isn’t uniform? If so, the soil where it is grown could be deficient in boron.

Plants need potassium, which we apply to the soil in the form of potash. Tomatoes have a high demand for potassium. Potassium is critical in assisting with the movement of water, nutrients and carbohydrates through out all the tissues of the plant. 

Calcium benefits “structure” as in your bones and tissues as well as plant tissues and structure. Soybeans benefit from adequate calcium to promote plant health and produce high quality beans. We apply lime in the fall not only to balance the pH of the soil but also so that calcium is readily available to the spring crops like soybeans.

Soil provides the food source or nutrition for crops to grow. Soil to farmers is like food to you. Much like your doctor (or dietitian!) can look at your lab results and assess your health, so too can we farmers read soil reports and determine the health of our soil. We only apply what the soil tests show is needed. There is no "multi-vitamin" application of nutrients to the soil "just in case". The soil gets "prescribed" exactly what it needs. As I said in my intro blog, being a farmer is being a health care professional for the dirt we are stewards of. It is in our best interest to maintain the health of our soil to grow healthy foods for you to buy as well as to maintain a profitable family farm for future generations.

Healthy soils = Healthy crops = Healthy foods. Your farmer is the one who makes that happen.