Category: Growing Good Food (page 1 of 2)

How to grow good food from the ground up

Chickens in the Hood

My social flock, hoping for treats

With a cluck, cluck here, and a cluck, cluck there…

Raising backyard chickens is on a steady rise with no signs of slowing, and I completely understand why! In my opinion, raising hens is one of the simplest and most enjoyable ways we can plug back into our food system.

I got my first chickens almost 20 years ago, and I’ve been lucky enough to raise chickens (roosters too) in a few different situations; a farm in Sweden, a home with a few acres of woods surrounding it, and now in my fenced in suburban backyard. Each situation has given me and the chickens unique freedoms and challenges.

Part of my old flock from Sweden

Chickens require only a few minutes of care a day, but it is DAILY care, and they’ll be more like pets the more you hang out with them. There will be a LOT of poop, and some amazing eggs. The continual chicken antics are an added bonus.

There are so many obvious benefits to raising hens

*Convert Table scraps into eggs

*Break the disease and pest cycle in gardens/fruit trees

*Till your garden space for you

*Add to compost piles and work them for you

*Fertilize plants once manure is aged

The other intangibles include teaching your children, and/or yourself some basics about where our food comes from,  feeling like you can make a difference in the food chain, and companionship. Our hens make our whole yard more enjoyable, and we all spend more time outside because of them. And yes, even on those dark, sub-zero winter mornings, I’m always glad I got outside for a few minutes.

Think you’re ready to pull on your muck boots and join me in the coop?  I can’t wait to welcome you to our flock, but first there are a few things to consider.

Are Chickens Allowed?

Our two Black Australorp as babies

The first thing to do is find out what is allowed in your city. You’ll find this buried somewhere within the city code, like White Bear Lake. Some places have you license each hen, some license the coop, and many don’t have specific language in them about hens yet. But that is changing as more and more people are adding hens to their urban homesteading routine. Here’s a ChickenLaws PDF listing of how the Twin Cities metro cities line up with allowing backyard chickens, compiled and shared by Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply (THANKS GUYS!).

If you find your city doesn’t allow it, contact them to find out if anyone else has asked about it. Chances are they have. With minimal digging, a little internet stalking, and maybe a call to Bob at EggPlant,  things can start moving quickly. I initiated the backyard chicken keeping code changes in White Bear Lake a few years ago, and it was a great learning experience, and darn empowering to watch government work for the people!

The girls getting excited about fresh hay, the drawer slides back in to form the floor of their coop.

The Chicken Coop

You’ll need a solid coop to keep out the nasty Winter elements and any predators. Chickens need at least 4 square feet per bird inside a coop, plus a fenced in run area, and most also have much more open space to run in outside.  My husband, the designer + builder of our coop, researched a few online designs before melding them into one. The pull out drawer makes cleaning the coop SO much easier than our last design.  It is designed to be moveable (if you’re Paul Bunyan) like the chicken tractor models, but ours has stayed in place. The run goes underneath the coop, and the girls love this space in the winter.  We tack frost cloth on the north side of the run in winter to keep the wind down and catch the sun for them.

A winter treat

Feeding the Birds

Most people who want to raise hens want to do so in part to give the chickens a good life, and running around scratching happily for bugs and seeds is what makes a good life for a hen. In the winter when they can’t scratch around you’ll need to help them out a little. I keep a supply of scratch grains and freeze dried meal worms handy. I’ve also added random ‘bird feeder’ types of amusements to their run just for fun.
There are many different kinds of feed, both organic and conventional. In my years of raising chickens I’ve used every kind out there, chickens seem to prefer feed that looks like real grains but will eat the pellets too.

Admire the poop plate, doing its job.

Chicken Poop

You’ll have more hay and poop than you imagined, so you’ll have to have a plan on what you’ll do with it all before you get them. It makes for great compost!  Cleaning the coop can be a lot easier, especially in the winter if you install a “poop plate” under their roosting bar. Ours is made of thin stainless steel and slides in ans out of a frame. This allows me to remove the majority of the poop and even when its below zero for weeks on end (Hey there, January and February) I can bend it enough so the poop pops right off! This saves on hay too.

Bringing Nettie back to the flock after her recovery

Sick Chicks

Chickens have an astounding number of ways to get sick. Luckily, I had many years of zero health issues…until this winter when one of my girls got Vent Gleet (EWWW). I learned a lot fast, and was able to treat her without going to a vet, but it was great to know that TeleVet  was there (thanks again to EggPlant for that info!) But, yes, I had to bring a full grown chicken into my home, wash dried and frozen poop off her butt, then blow dry her so she didn’t catch cold. Yes, we’re now bonded for life.

Here’s another piece of wise advice from Bob Lies of EggPlant, “know before you get your chicks home if you are the kind of person who will spend $200 on a vet bill for a $5 chick.”

Bella, Betty, Nettie, Stella (yes our kids named them)

The Chicken or the Egg
There are well over 70 breeds of chickens that you could bring home from different hatcheries around the country. Many local suppliers get their hens from the same hatchery in Iowa, Hoover’s Hatchery.

Most northern chicken keepers  will opt for a ‘dual purpose’ hen, meaning they are good for both egg production and meat.  Another thing to consider is their overall size, as a bigger bird can handle colder weather. The  store EggPlant Urban Farm Supply is the most small flock/backyard friendly I’ve found so far, as the let you purchase a single chick of any of their 10 varieties. Most other ‘farm stores’ require minimums of 2 to 5 hens of each variety. I’ve purchased chicks closer to my neck of the woods, from Hugo Feed Mill (their Chick List) and Houle’s Feed and have been happy with the chickens’ health from both shops.

Our egg stash after we missed a day collecting

Another thing to keep in mind, different breeds lay different colored eggs. There are chicken breeders who breed for specific egg colors.

I’m just happy with the beautiful The blues of our Ameracanas and browns of our Black Australorps.

The End of the Road
No one wants to think about this when they’re buying cute fluffy baby chicks, but chickens do not live forever. They’re most productive in egg laying until about 3 years of age (depending on breed) and then taper off. You’ll have to decide how long you’ll keep a non-laying hen in a small flock. You could slaughter and use as a soup chicken, although this is a hard step for many because of how chickens become pets even when you think they’ll be treated like ‘livestock’.  We’ve eaten our chickens in the past, but I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it this time around, now that our boys have come to love them. We will likely find a farmer friend to take them after they stop laying consistently, because in White Bear Lake the limit is 4 hens, and I need at least that many laying to keep our family in eggs.

Chickens are Social!

Bob, the human, showing the class Gimley, the Hen.

If you’re still questioning how big a deal backyard hens are, just take a look at the plethora of online community spaces for all us ‘Crazy Chicken People’. There are some useful, standard online resources like BackyardChickens.com,  to university extension programs, to the slough of Instagram feeds dedicated to hens, like @henopause, @thedirtmag, @roundrockfarm; and be sure to check out #fluffybuttfriday… all of which I love.

I’ll Be At Egg|Plant

When it comes to taking care of another living animal, its nice to talk to another living person. And for that, there’s nobody better than the peeps at Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply. They find homes for over 1,000 baby chicks each Spring, with Americanas and Gold Stars as their most popular breeds. You pre-order your chicks a few weeks in advance and now is the time to get planning!

The storefront of my dreams

Walking into Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply is like taking a step sideways in time. The shop itself looks like it was pulled out of the 1940’s but all the items inside along with the staff’s knowledge is 100% modern. The store is the product of a country girl marrying a city boy and some inspired compromising. After completing her horticultural degree, Audrey wanted to provide a place where she could help her neighbors grow great food right where they were. Her and husband Bob (the chicken class instructor extraordinaire) put their passions into practice and 8 years later have created a hub of urban homestead nirvana.

The chicken supply corner, my happy place

They sell chicks and everything you’d need to raise them into happy healthy egg laying machines. From basics like bedding and feed, necessities for treating sick chickens (chickens are always finding new ways to get sick) to specialty treats, these guys have you covered! They celebrate the chicken keeping community each Fall with a “Coop Tour” of backyard set ups all across the Twin Cities. This year’s tour is set for September 15th, not that I’m planning ahead or anything 😉

Egg|Plant also has supplies for seed starting, gardening,  (including  organic pest control and fertilizers) canning, fermenting, cheese making, bee keeping, books on all these homesteading skills and carry a supply of edible and pollinator friendly plants each spring and summer.  Leslie, the store manager was a wealth of knowledge and has this way of getting you even more excited for your own projects! All these happenings are housed within this cozy, whimsical space in the hipster*ville between Merriam Park and Tangletown, right off I-94.

A class mate, and obvious chicken lover

Even the classes offered at Egg|Plant are fun and funky. I sat in on a class last Saturday and felt like I had found my people 😊 Even a chicken raising veteran like myself learned a few fascinating things about pecking order, and how each chicken has one eye that’s far sighted and one that’s near sighted, so they can see what they’re scratching on the ground while watching for predators in the sky. Just like Bob said during the class, “Chickens are VERY good at being chickens.

A few really good tips from the class were:
*Build your coop for the largest number of birds YOU would want. So if the city allows for 8 hens, but you want to start with only 4, maybe build for 8 hens (they require 4 square feet per bird) in case you decide to increase later. Chicken coops are going to be the most expensive part of getting started with chickens so you don’t want to build twice!
*Electricity. Since many of us live “up North” you’ll want to plan on how to heat the water and coop, provide a light source during the cold winter months.

Predators are a big concern for some people who oppose backyard hens. Accidents do happen, and it’s part of the food cycle I’ve been able to teach my kids about too. Also, there’s this idea that rodents will be drawn to the chicken run and feed. But, as long as you keep your feed in a closed bucket or shed, and clean your coop so you have healthy chicks, you shouldn’t have a problem.

Bella, helping dig potatoes

One of my friends, Deanna, listed these reasons for raising backyard hens: “You can’t beat the flavor of the eggs, involving our girls in the hands-on process of growing their own food, helping to create responsible food consumers, plus the fact that we’ve reduced our weekly trash and have awesome compost, it’s just such a win-win-win.” I think she really hit all the major reasons so many people are finding it not just worthwhile, but rewarding to raise backyard hens.

PSA: Chickens Lay Eggs without a Rooster.
You only need a rooster if you want more chickens.

Another basic REAL reason to keep hens is because you think animals should be treated humanely. Over the years, we’ve become more and more separated form our food; growing, processing and cooking it. The image of the two comparative chicken breeds looks like progress to some and like a horror story to others. I see a horrific manipulation of one of God’s creatures. Now, I know my 4 hens and there few eggs aren’t going to change the world- BUT… if enough of us make these small shifts, we really can make an impact.

The U.S. Government thought it was important enough that each person have backyard chickens that they created these flyers back in the day.

I think raising backyard chickens just makes sense, and makes for some great stories and great omelettes too.

But don’t just take my word for it, Bob from Egg|Plant says that chickens “Are a fun and fascinating creatures, they make great pets, and they provide eggs! Keeping chickens makes you an active participant in your own food production. And they are beautiful, too“. Words from an expert who helps hundreds of families around the metro raise chickens each year. Three cheers for Bob and Audrey doing what they love.

I highly recommend hanging out online, talking with someone who raises hens, or visiting EggPlant or your local farm supply store before buying those cute fluffy chicks. But, like always- I also say give it a try, WE can do this!

Besides, who wouldn’t want a chicken to hang out with at your next bonfire 😉

Here’s to Diggin In, 

Michelle

 

 

 

 

Garden Dreams ⇒ Garden Goals

I know you’ve felt it too, even though its still cold- the days are longer, the sun is stronger and the birds have started singing again! Time to dig in and start turning our garden dreams into garden goals. Now is the time to ensure those mouth watering harvests!

There are as many goals for a garden as there are gardeners. There are also as many ways to plan a garden as there are gardeners.

Think about what you want from a garden and go from there.

Peppers, Tomatoes, Beans and Pak Choi

  • Fresh herbs- most herbs do well in containers
  • Salsa garden- that will take some space and extra happy soil
  • Root crops-  to grow and store through the winter a cold frame might be worthwhile
  • Child’s Learning Garden- a raised bed will help in keeping little feet off seeds
  • Space to Relax– Seating and scents, gain privacy with vertical gardening structures

And those of us that like to spend a majority of our Summer’s free time in the garden; honestly assessing what worked and didn’t work from last year’s efforts will go a long way to make this season even better.

Goals for my garden this year include:
Learning how to play more with Mother Nature ~ Grow first successful celery and cauliflower crops ~  Harvest + Preserve healthy food.

Plan to Enjoy

I grew more food than I knew what to do with that year, with this simple plan.

Garden Plans can be as simple as you want them to be.  Back in 2014  I  filled a 30′ x 80′ garden plot with so much food we ate mostly homegrown that year! And as you can see, it wasn’t much of a technical plan. Disclaimer *This was a newly tilled space on great soil.

Whatever the garden, turning your ideas into reality starts with a plan. Be honest about how much you want to put into your garden. While there are tons of shortcuts and time-saving tips, but in general the bigger the garden, the more time it requires to be productive.

One of my goals with Forks in the Dirt is to inspire people to make small changes that add up over time. On that note, dreaming big and starting small is smart if gardening is new to you. I pinky swear to keep you up to date with all the best Farmers Markets and CSA’s if you’d rather support our local growers than grow your own!

Here are a few Ground Rules and terms that get tossed around the garden:

Crop Rotation

Crop Rotation is the most important habit to get into for organic gardeners. This practice of moving plants to different locations each year will help keep bugs and soil born issues at bay. There are two main ways of rotating; by family or by nutrient demands. This can get very involved; for more information here’s a great Old Farmer’s Almanac article and video. I use Niki Jabbour’s rotation by nutrient demand which is roughly roots (carrots, beets) -> beans/peas -> Fruiting (tomatoes, squash) and potatoes -> leafy greens and the brassica family.

Companion Planting

“Jewel” Nasturtium

This practice uses the fact that every plant has its own growing habits, and finds ways to use those differences to grow more and better crops. This could mean planting deep root plants next to shallow roots, or a plant that repels pests or attracts beneficial insects next to a vulnerable neighbor. This is about creating one big happy neighborhood. Rodale’s Organic covers it in depth HERE. I started by adding nasturtium and calendula flowers to entice more pollinators and beneficial bugs.

Succession Planting

My Garden boy helping plant greens after the midsummer harvests

This mean getting rid of the plants that are done producing so you can plant new crops to keep producing. Certain crops mature more quickly than others; the fast-growing ones (radishes, greens, peas are typical) can be removed after harvest and then that same space can be replanted with a variety of fall loving vegetables (kale, root crops, greens). Our own University of MN does a bang up job as usual giving practical info on their WEBSITE.  The plants that did best for me in last season’s second planting (early July) were Pak Choi, Arugula, Kale and Broccoli.

Nothing like bright green turnip tops in the Fall garden

Basic Garden Planning Steps

  1. Make a list of all the plants you want to grow in your vegetable garden.
  2. Draw an outline of your garden on a piece of paper, include fences + fixed garden beds.
  3. Draw  where you want to plant crops and where the paths will be.
  4. Revise! Once on paper you’ll be able to better ‘see’ the garden in August.
  5. Keep in mind crop rotation practices.
  6. Add in companion planting ideas.
  7. Add in succession planting ideas.

I used some form of this process through many years of garden planning and it served me well. My plants may not have all been in the perfect spot, but they had all the compost they could dream of. Or if I forgot to follow best practices for crop rotation, I had grown select flowers to entice in enough beneficial bugs to balance it all out. Gardens are our wonderfully imperfect attempts at working with Mother Nature, and remember- Mother Nature WANTS to grow!

“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the Spring and ends in the Fall is missing the best part of the year… for gardening begins in January, with the DREAM.
― 
Josephine Nuese

This year we are going to attempt more in our yard’s gardens than ever before, and I can hardly wait!

Last Fall after the new beds were layered with compost, leaves and soil.

There’s nothing like the clean slate of a new garden bed, and I have FOUR new 4’x8′ raised beds! Last Fall we more than doubled our vegetable growing space.  And yes, I went overboard with my seed order despite my best efforts. But there is something magical about this time of year, with dreaming in full swing and the whole growing season ahead of us!

But, I felt a little overwhelmed trying to figure out my much larger garden plans using the same techniques that have served me well in the past.

An earlier version of most of my back veggie patch.

Because of my doubled space and previous years of growing in the same beds this Winter I’m diving into something that I *think* will help me keep my sanity and increase harvests; I subscribed to an online graphic garden planner. There are a few versions out there. Please don’t waste your time with any of the free versions, better to draw your own than get frustrated with those. After looking around, I chose the GrowVeg.com version, it has A LOT of really specific settings that overwhelmed me until I remembered: that I didn’t have to use them all, along with that “Mother Nature Want to Grow” quote from above. It does not have an app that works on my android phone, iPhones are OK.

With the GrowVeg online planner, you start by adding your exact location, and you can switch from ‘Square Foot Gardening’ to ‘row planting’, put in dates for succession planting – and, this was what made it worth the annual fee for me: Crop Rotation assistance! It does this by keeping track of what you planted where so when you plan next year’s garden it alerts you so you can avoid planting a vegetable in a place where the soil needs amending before it can best grow that plant. It also shows a list of best companion plants. It even generates a master plant list for purchasing. Genius!

It’s pretty intuitive, and totally worth checking out- PLUS they give you a FREE one-week trial, and you can print your plan to plant off without paying anything. Click on the Garden Planner link in the top navigation bar HERE.

Planting nectar + pollen sources makes everything happier!

SO Fun, and SO addicting! And, no, I’m not getting anything in return for mentioning them- I just wanted to share! Let me know what you think if you find time to play with the online planner! 

The best part of planning your garden early is being able to start your own seeds; we’ll cover starting seeds indoors with the next blog post.

I’d love to hear your tricks to help plan great gardens, or what you still have questions about for future blog post ideas 🙂

Looking forward to digging in the DIRT!

Michelle

 

 

The Good Acre: Full Circle Food Hub

The Good Acre (TGA) provides Full Circle Local Food System Support. From soil to your table, TGA is there implementing the organization’s mission:

“We connect and strengthen farmers, food makers, and communities through good food.”

This is the place you can learn how to make kimchi, pick up a farm share with locally made add-ons, attend a beginning farmers conference, volunteer in a hoop house or find your child’s school lunch staff kicking up their culinary skills. Full circle!

There is also a contagious positivity running through those artfully slanted walls that makes it all gel.

I stumbled upon this powerhouse operation online while looking up local CSA’s. Turns out Community Supported Agriculture is the perfect term for part of what happens here, but The Good Acre goes way beyond the traditional CSA.

What is a Food Hub Anyway?

Farm Share Packing Day

food hub, as defined by the USDA, is “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution, and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”

The thing that the USDA missed in its definition is the community that takes root around an initiative like this. There are farmers who would not be making it if it weren’t for TGA. In 2016 around 65,000 pounds of food moved through the facility. That’s 65,000 pounds of food that traveled significantly less than the average 1,500 miles. Hello lowered carbon footprint.

Food Hubs like TGA aren’t prolific, and that may be in part because for now, they rarely turn a profit. They are often funded in part by donations, grants and in the case of TGA- significant support from the Pohlad Family Foundation.

There’s so much shaking at TGA on any given day, that’s it’s easy to overlook one of the ways they bring good food to the community. So, let’s break down how they put the mission into action.

Cala Farms

Farmers:
The Good Acre has a dedicated staff member to do farm visits and help with things from building soil fertility to crop planning for the items TGA has contracted to buy.  Staying up to date on the latest farm safety protocol and working with wholesalers on behalf of the farmers they partner with is another piece of the pie. Another thing that shows TGA’s support to making lasting change in the local food system is:

Grower Support Specialist, David VanEeckhout
“He’s been an organic farmer for over 20 years and helps our farmers implement sustainable and organic practices on their farm that will help them with pest management, soil fertility, and more.”

Photo credit: The Good Acre

They also tend three hoop houses of varying sizes and strengths as testing grounds for farmers interested in growing some seasonally-extended crops. They are used for instructional purposes, and supply berries, ginger, peppers and tomatoes to local food makers such as Chow Girls and You Betcha Kimchi.

Galen and crew brewing Kimchi

Storage:
They have both dry storage, cooler and freezer storage spaces available for rent. This type of space is hard to come by,  which Galen Kanazawa, of Fierce Ferments,can attest to that, “The Good acre offered us affordable and convenient storage space. Being able to make as much as we need to with no space limitations enabled us to scale up to a warehouse distribution level of business. Additionally, they helped us gain a higher profile by getting our name out there in front of some bigger accounts that we otherwise likely wouldn’t have noticed us.”

Photo credit: The Good Acre

Farm Share:
The new TGA CSA, Power in numbers. Simply pooling farmers produce and offering it up in a carefully curated box each week is another way TGA connects local community with the local good food. Because they work with a variety of ‘often’ organic farms you can expect to see up to 70 varieties of produce over the course of the season this year! Because of their close relationships with many local makers (like produce from their farmers, then made in their kitchens) they are able to offer some great “add-ons” to their farm share as well- like fresh eggs, bread, kombucha, kimchi and the like. More info HERE.

Sound like the perfect option for you? Sign up for their 18 week Farm Share HERE!

Wholesale:
TGA works with wholesale accounts in hopes the good food coming through their doors is spread wide and far. They work with a handful of local wholesalers, and increasingly, schools and hospitals, YAY! *we still have a long way to go on bringing this into the mainstream*

White Bear Lake Schools kitchen staff perfecting their roasting skills. Photo credit: The Good Acre

This hit close to home when I realized TGA had directly effected my kid’s lunchroom. Turns out TGA worked with our local White Bear Lake school district’s kitchen staff on how to cook with the local produce they are procuring through their wholesale program. “The Good Acre currently works with over a dozen area school districts, all of which have the opportunity to bring their Nutrition Service staff members in for training on scratch cooking techniques and development of healthy recipes scaled up for the lunch line and suited to kids tastes”, offers Nikki Warner, TGA marketing manager. A food hub that can offer locally grown produce and training on how to prepare it really is a win/win for our schools and our kids. This awesome service is funded by the USDA Farm to School Grant TGA was awarded in 2017. Keep it coming!

I’m jumping up on my soap box now:
This is such a great way to start that sea change in moving towards making local food systems sustainable. When we ask for healthier, local foods on our children’s lunch menus it has an effect that takes root. A child may be offered that food for a first time, or know the food and get others excited about it. Of course kids are always going to get excited for sweets, but they do get excited for brussel sprouts too- when they taste good. I love that TGA is there for the full circle from working with the farmers, the wholesalers and the kitchen staff to implement real change in the way our kids view food. I’m jumping back down now.

“We believe that the more that we can connect local makers to our network of growers, the more equitable, vibrant and resilient our local food system will be.”  The Good Acre website

Making Mushroom Jerky!

Commercial Kitchen: Rental
With Food safety laws as they stand, if you’re going to sell food in a store you need to make it in a commercial kitchen. Which is good for public health, but bad for start-up companies. Introducing the shared space commercial kitchen. These kind of ‘rentable’ kitchens are popping up in more places all over the country, there’s even a website, Food Corridor, that connects makers with kitchen space. These spaces give small companies, like ProCured Mushroom Jerky  a chance to break into the local wholesale and institutional markets. TGA currently rents this space out to 15 different makers every month. If you’re interested in adding your name to the growing list of renters- find more info HERE.

Commercial Kitchen: Classes

Ready to make my own yogurt thanks to Iman Mefleh of You Bethca Kimchi

I just took my first TGA class, a DIY yogurt class and I have to tell you the instructor made us all feel right at home in that stainless steel kitchen.  I’ve gone to some other cooking classes before and this felt more approachable and laid back- but with so many great tips and tricks thrown in there by Iman Mefleh of You Bethca Kimchi that is was worth every penny. Julia Cohen, the Culinary Support Specialist, is pumped about the wide variety of offerings in their kitchen, “We offer cooking classes truly ‘for the people’, our classes are approachable and our instructors are some of the best around.”

I was really impressed with how much information I walked away with for a very reasonable price. They offer tons of classes, on everything from Pho to kitchen skills ‘boot camp’. The best place to keep up with their class offerings is their TGA Facebook page. I can’t wait to go back and try something else new. If you become addicted to their classes, they have a Cooks Club membership that saves you money on multiple classes and gets you some awesome perks. For now, I’m excited I know what to do with the extra whey in my yogurt!

Maker to Market:
You guys, this program makes me so happy. It’s genius in its simplicity- and beautiful in its heart.  From the website:  “Lakewinds Food Co-op and The Good Acre have partnered under a shared purpose: bring new and diverse slow food products to the world as we strengthen our food community as a whole. We help independent food makers hit the ground running. We source ingredients from small, local, and disadvantaged farmers to cultivate our local food economy. And we give consumers amazing new choices at shelf. It’s a win-win-win.”

From Senoras de Salsa,to Caldo Foods sauces and spices, the results are delicious!

They are currently accepting applications for the 2nd Maker to Market! More info HERE.

mix and match fingerlings

Bringing  Food + Community Full Circle
This is one lean, mean food systems machine. Nestled into the east side of the Twin Cities Metro, and across the street from some U of MN test fields, TGA add such value to the food we eat, the farmers in our midst and the future of food systems.

Implementing the “Frost Mob” was another way I tried to get involved this past year. Interested in helping local farmers quickly gather crops threatened by unexpected frosts? Or maybe you’re interested in volunteering in another way? You can let their spunky marketing manager, Nikki Warner know by emailing her.

In so many ways they are doing the heavy lifting of laying a solid foundation. They’re working to make small farms viable thanks to the Pohlad Family Foundation, some large grants and individual donations. They hope to be self sufficient, and what will help that to happen is for us consumers to vote with our dollars. You’ve heard that before, but we can use our dollars not only to buy from local farmers via Farm Shares and  farmers markets,  but the larger food movers, the wholesale food side– like restaurants, school lunch programs, hospitals and other institutional wholesale opportunities.

Asking where your food comes from is a Good place to start.

I am a huge proponent of the Farmers Market and CSA (or TGA’s Farm Share) but thinking about making small farms secure far into the future we’ll need to do more than buy a few tomatoes from a few of them every week; we need to find a way for local to be necessary – not a luxury.

I can’t wait to Dig In to making my own yogurt. Thank you to The Good Acre for  doing Good Work!

Michelle

Seed Saving Starts Now!

Saving Seeds means Saving Life.

I know that sounds dramatic, but saving seeds is a big part of why humans hunkered down into communities and began our long march towards civilization (we’ve still got on our marching boots though, right!?). Variations of those seeds still sustain us today. 

Until a few generations ago, most people planted what they had saved from the last harvest. With a few additions now and then from neighbors or travelers.

But for me and many home gardeners, saving seeds had fallen off our radars. It is making a bit of a comeback and I am encouraging as many people as I can to jump on this bandwagon with me!

To start saving seeds please remember:
Not all seeds are suited for saving!

There’s a simple trick to buying the right seeds so you can save + grow again.

Grow Heirloom varieties, or open pollinated varieties.  Hybrid seeds will not produce the same vegetable that you took the seed from.

Garden Planning, my Favorite!

I love getting those seeds catalogs and will have larger than anticipated bills at a few seed companies once I finalize my orders, but I am proud to be able to skip over a few seed sections because I’ve saved my own seed stock from what I grew last year.

Saving seed is intuitive- if we stop to see the plants we nurture as part of Mother Nature. Everything has a cycle, and the whole reason tomatoes exists is to grow more tomatoes so they make it easy for us. Or as Michael Pollan suggests in a few books, like The Botany of Desire and TED talks, the plants have us working for them.

Back to the real world application of all of this-

We’re half way through one of the coldest Januaries on record across the northern US, so most of us are looking forward to those lazy days of summer even more than normal. Oh Summertime; being surrounded by lush green growth, the sounds of birds chirping and bees buzzing, smelling flowers, picking strawberries warmed by the sun… (the weeding, mosquitoes, heat and humidity have conveniently faded into the back of our memories.)

And this is the moment the seed catalogs begin storming in, right when they know we’re at our weakest, most desperate state. Well played seed companies, well played.

The colorful pages of these catalogs offer escape from the winter weather and promise sunny days filled with so much growth it overwhelms our senses, often including our common sense.

A sample of saved seeds from my garden. Picked, dried, stored and ready to plant.

As much as I still revel in these catalogs and all they promise I’m able to skip over a few sections now because I’ve been saving seeds of plants grown in last year’s garden.

There is something so empowering about growing your own food AND saving your own seeds so that you can grow more food again next season- without the help of anyone except Mother Nature.

The simple act of bringing in a seed connects you to a 10,000 year-old heritage of saving the best seeds to better the food we eat. It also makes sense to this frugal mama because you save cold hard cash on your next seed. With both reasons, you get to play with Mother Nature and see what happens.

Luckily for us (and our ancestors), the process is pretty intuitive with most seeds. You pick a seed and save it. But like all the things worth doing, seed saving is worth doing well.

And I’ve found just the local lady to help us ALL learn to do it well!

Pam talking with visitors at the WBL Winter Market.

I’d like to introduce Pam Larson Frink .

Pam started the White Bear Lake Seed Library in April of 2016 and has been gaining steam and seed stock ever since. She also holds a Masters in Environmental Education and a Horticultural degree, so she knows her stuff inside and out. For those of you that were able to attend the White Bear Lake Winter Farmers Market, Pam was there representing the seed library.

The Seed Library at the White Bear Lake Library.

She also thinks a lot like me, “I think saving seeds connects you to the food you eat. It’s so easy to buy produce at the grocery store that you don’t understand that it’s more than just food. It’s soil and insects pollinating the plant and clean water and sun to grow the plant. And if you don’t take care of the soil and the water and the insects you soon will not have food.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Easy Peasy

The following are all Pam’s suggestions to starting to save seeds. These produce seed the same season as planted and are mostly self-pollinating, minimizing the need to be mindful of preventing cross-pollination.

4th Generation of my Blue Lake Pole Beans!

Beans and Peas- Both of these are some of the most widely (and easiest) grown garden veggies. You can let them ripen and then dry on the vine. Wait until the pods are yellow or brown and dry to the touch. Then pick them and shell them if you want. I tend to leave my pole beans in their pods for easy sorting. And my kids are more likely to help me plant if they get to pop them out of their pods as we go 🙂

Lettuces- Let the lettuce ‘bolt’ or send up its main flower stalk and wait for the flowers to fall and seeds to form on the heads. Gently knock the seeds into a paper bag. You’ll want to go out a few days in a row to get all the seeds as they ripen but before they fall off.

Sweet/Bell Peppers Harvest when ripe, pull out seeds, careful not to break the seed coating and dry on a paper towel for a few days, store in a paper envelope once dry.

Tomatoes- Harvest when ripe, scoop seeds and pulp into a glass with water, let sit for couple days, seeds that float to the top aren’t viable and you can toss. The seeds that stay at the bottom are the best seeds. Strain, then dry on paper towels. Store in paper envelope once dry.

Pam also teaches classes on seed saving techniques that dive a little deeper than we’re getting into here.

Pam’s Next Local Seed Saving & Starting Events:

Seed Packing & Demo: Mon, January 29th from 4:30-8pm
@ the White Bear Lake library.

Class: Sat, March 3 @ the Maplewood Library, 10:30-11:30am

Class: Sat, March 3 @ the White Bear Lake Library, 1-2pm

 

I’d tried reading the highly regarded book, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth, but felt overwhelmed by ALL THE INFO! Another book recommended that is on my library wait list is Seed Sowing And Saving by Carole Turner.  But, after talking with Pam, I feel like I’m more than ready to save a few more varieties this fall.

And here’s where the planning comes in!  It is easy to forget when you’re looking at all the glorious varieties in the seed catalogs that…

If you want to start saving seeds, you have to start with save-able seeds.

Look for seeds labeled ‘open pollinated seeds’. This also means NO HYBRIDS, often labeled as F1! These are NOT good options for seed saving. They will not ‘come true’ if the seeds are planted, they will often revert.

Reverting

Johnnys Potomac Custom Mix (F1) Snapdragon Seed, which I still order even though the colors will never stick, now I know why!

Pam had a perfect story from her early days of gardening that explains this “reverting”… She had grown a beautiful rainbow of colored snapdragon flowers. So she decided to save the seed to enjoy the color burst another season. Pam planted the next Spring, getting sturdy snapdragon plants. But every single flower bloomed pale yellow. This is nature saying nice try 😉 The seed of a hybridized plant most often does not “come true” and reverts to one of the gene pools it was hybridized from. In the case of the snapdragon seeds, this meant pale yellow.

Swinging Squash

Things get a bit more complicated with certain groups that cross pollinate; squash are the notorious for cross pollinating with each other. Some open pollinating plants will cross pollinate. Seed growers have tricks like growing inside greenhouses, growing miles apart or bagging seed heads to avoid cross pollination. I might try to bag a favorite zucchini after she’s pollinated this summer!

Before I understood that squash were ‘swingers’  I had already saved and dried a few butternut and acorn squash seeds. So, after talking it over with Pam, I’m going to do my own squash experiment, I might grow something delicious, or something horrible. Either way, I’ll be playing with Mother Nature which is a win for me!

The Seed Stacks

Seed Libraries are places where people can ‘check out’ seeds to grow on their own.  The hope is that you can save some seed and replenish the seed stock the following Fall/Winter. They’re usually housed inside public libraries, but also co-ops and community centers. Checking out the seeds are free, but some ask for  membership info or volunteer commitments.

Our WBL Seed Library asks for membership info, but as Pam quipped, “There are no seed Nazis around”.  Started in April of 2016, the WBL branch is serving the community well, going through over 1,000 seed packets in 2017!  They take both home saved and purchased seed. With a few necessary caveats.

Donating to the seed library? Please keep in mind:
Heirloom or open pollinated varieties only. If they are home saved seeds, a few choice vegetable varieties; Beans, Peas, Lettuce, Sweet Peppers and Tomatoes, and native flowers.

This year the White Bear Lake See Library is especially looking for some native pollinator plants like Milkweed, Liatrus/Blazing Star and Monarda /Bee Balm– but only the native non-hybridized varieties.

To save seeds of native flowering plants, wait until the flower forms a seed head, knock off seeds (or cut seed head) and bag.

I just went and ‘harvested some more bee balm and milk weed today, Jan 17th for the Seed Library once I knew they were low. Quite a few of the seeds had been knocked down by the wind or eaten by birds, but there were enough to make it worth my efforts.

So far, I’ve only ever saved enough seeds to use the following year, and keeping them in paper bags inside paper envelopes has worked well for me. But if you want to save for multiple years you’ll be better off storing in an airtight container- like a mason jar. Just make sure they are completely dry before you seal that jar!

Seeds make tasty treats too!

I want to give a shout out to the people who have worked to secure our right to save and share our own seed, with a Minnesota bill being signed in May of 2015. The business of seeds is BIG business, and without the efforts of many groups working together to protect our rights to save and share seeds, thank you!
Do It Green! 
Gardening Matters
HomeGrown Minneapolis

A few more online resources that Pam suggested include:

  • Seed Savers Exchange– One of the best nationwide sources for heirloom seeds, they have a stunning selection of seeds for sale (but don’t get sucked too far in!)
  • They also have their actual “Exchange” program, outlined HERE
  • The University of Minnesota, as always has gathered simple, accessible practicle information about saving Vegetable seeds grown in MN. 
  • If you’d like another online read about seed saving, The International Seed Saving Institute has some easy to read info as well.
  • White Bear Lake area residents, be sure to check out the WBL Seed Library’s Blog site and sign up for their emails, its a great way to connect with other local gardeners!

There’s literally endless information out there. Like all things gardening, saving seeds is less daunting and way more fun when you get to talk to someone else who either knows what they’re doing, or is making the same mistakes as you are 🙂

I hope you can join one of the White Bear Lake Seed Library packing events, I’ll be there on January 29th at the WBL Library.  It would be a fun and fruitful way to meet more of you in person!

A special thanks to Pam for taking her deep plant knowledge and vision to help the community and creating our local Seed Library- the ONE THOUSAND packets of seeds shared in 2017 is just the beginning!!

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson

Will you try to save any seeds this year? Which ones? I’m determined to save my tomato and peppers this year!

Can’t wait to Dig into the Dirt again with all this talk of seeds!

Michelle

 

 

Hive Mind.ed

The passions that bind this blog together: gardening, cooking, local farmers and food shelves all rely on one thing to exist:

Pollinators!

We need those busy bees, butterflies, wasps, ants, moths etc..

Now they need us.

**GIVEAWAY**
…has ended, thanks for all who participated 🙂

WIN 4 Passes to the Polli*Nation Festival Sept 10
Live Music* Food Trucks* Craft Beers*Bee Science*Art
Contest Ends Tuesday Sept 5 at 7pm
Like us on Facebook to enter: www.facebook.com/forksinthedirt/

Unless you’ve been hiding under a garden paver, you know that bees are in trouble. Honeybees in particular have received lots of coverage in the news- topics like Colony Collapse Disorder, Varroa Mites destroying hives, and pesticide kills after a windy day. Honey Bees get most of the news coverage because they are the easiest of the pollinators to observe, being raised in a controlled area rather than being so spread out like the other wild and native pollinators. But there are signs that ALL the pollinators are in trouble. Continue reading

How To Relish Zucchini Season

Anyone with a garden- or a neighbor who gardens- or a co-worker who gardens probably knows that zucchinis basically bombard your garden in late July. One day your looking at these stunning flowers, Male (Left) Female (Right)

and the next you’ve got baseball bat sized fruits (yes, fruits). Botanically, zucchinis are fruits, a type of botanical berry called a “pepo”,  the swollen ovary of the zucchini flower.

Everyone grows zucchini because it is so easy to grow, and they’re truly versatile and a great addition to many of my healthy recipes…

I love grilling it (with onions, peppers, olive oil and Italian spices), shredding and freezing for adding it to pretty much anything) making zucchini fritters (best GF recipe HERE) or baking the beloved loaf of zucchini bread. I also have neighbors who gladly take a few- at first…

But no matter how creative I get, its tough to keep ahead of the zucchini harvest.

I know, I did it to myself; not only do I plant too many of the huge plants, I can’t help but help nature along and hand pollinate when I see flowers, which makes a huge difference for how much they produce… Just think lots of zucchini, lots and lots of zucchini…


Relish the Fields

So, when I found a recipe a few years back for zucchini sweet relish I was more than intrigued. When I read that it used 12 cups of shredded zucchini at once, I was sold. I made my first batch and, YOU GUYS- it was amazing! And I have to say after years of tweaking it is down right zen.

Sweet Relish is not really something most people get all jazzed about, I get it- but there is something magical about taking the lowly zucchini and making it shape shift into this tangy/sweet/saucy condiment.

My Hombre Zucchini Freshness chart; starting with a same day pick in front. Lighter green, shiny but not waxed skins means fresher when you shop.

The best part is the recipe works just as well with those stealth zucchini (the ones that hide on you and become ginormous overnight) as with regular size. Just be sure to remove the seeds and you are good to go.

Canning Curious?

Yes this is a Boiling Water Canning recipe. If you are new to canning; you can SO do this! Just pretend I’m there holding your hand. And also – READ THIS, I wish I would have known a few of those things before I dove into canning and wasted a good amount of time and produce.

And, if you really Can’t Can (see what I did there) go ahead and keep the relish in the fridge without processing it- it will keep for at least 3 months.

Since I have more zucchini waiting for me to shred I’ll get right down to it:

Zucchini Sweet Relish

12 Cups Shredded zucchini (seeded but not peeled)
4 Cups finely chopped onion
4 T Canning Salt

 

1 ½ C Chopped Peppers (colorful variety of bell or sweet minis)
3 ½ C White Sugar (I tried raw sugar and honey and it did not work!)
2 ½ C White Vinegar 1 T Cornstarch
½ t Nutmeg
2t Turmeric
2t Celery Seed ½ t Black pepper

 

Directions:

Mix first 3 ingredients with hands into a large glass bowl, hopefully with a tight fitting lid (so the onion smell is contained) and let sit in refrigerator at least 6 hours or overnight.

Later:
Sterilize 8 -10 pint sized canning jars

Drain zucchini/onion mixture and rinse with water to wash away some of the salt.

Chop peppers and add the rest of the ingredients into a large stock pot, then add drained and squeezed zucchini. Really squeeze the juice out of shreds! I make monster size zucchini balls (its the little things).

Simmer for 30 minutes.

Pack relish into jars, fill to top.
(try to do this part pretty quickly so the relish stays hot).

Carefully lower jars into a large stock pot of boiling water, trying to keep 2 inches between them, and make sure water is at least 2 inches above the lids- process (boil) for 30 minutes.

Carefully remove and place onto a surface that take some serious heat, and leave to cool 24 hours.

There is nothing better than hearing that ping of the canning lid popping into place so you know that it sealed properly!

The results. The two white topped jars are for the fridge, they will be gone soon enough 😉

What we don’t eat here, I give away to family and friends, they make easy holiday and hostess gifts too.

This stuff tastes amazing, it goes on the obvious brat and hamburger, brings a ham sammy to another level, and kicks up tuna salad. I’ve used it as a ‘dip’ for cucumbers, carrots and pita chips too…

Harness the power of the prolific zucchini and preserve its awesomeness for next spring’s first burger on the grill.

Go ahead and Dig Into Canning!

Michelle

 

 

Forks’ Weekend Spread: July!

Twin Cities farm & foodie fans, here we go again with an over the top summer weekend overflowing with possibilities. And this time, I’ll be here to partake in the farm fresh tastes, sounds and celebrations! Time to jump on this hay wagon and enjoy the ride 🙂

July 15: Eat Local Co-op Farm Tour 

The barn doors are wide open. Twin Cities co-ops have gathered 27 of their hard-working farmers together to open their farms, fields, milking rooms etc. to you for the day. Use this Farm Tour guide to map out your self guided tour and see which farms have special activities, music, even samples that match your interest. This is a great FREE way to let your kid milk their first cow, see actual farm work being done, pull their first carrot and talk to farmers about how they farm. Be ready to stock up on farm fresh produce-right from the farm! Last year my boys and I experienced a great sense of community at Big River Farms,  along with a great wagon ride, samples and music. We bought a few things that had been picked right from the fields we toured. This year they’ve added a little something extra with pollinators! I remember it as one of best days with my boys last summer.

Wagon riders at last year’s Big River Farms’ tour day.

Tips: Wear farm appropriate clothing (farm boots, sun hat), bring along some bug spray, a cooler for things you buy and a lunch if you want. Learn from my mistake last summer! Print out a google map, because these are RURAL farms, you may lose service once you’re on the road!

Stay up to the minute and Follow on Facebook. TC.Farm (also featured below in the Tullibee Butcher Dinner) went the extra acre this year and created their own guide; which looks awesome!

Details: 10am-4pm. 31 locations across the extended metro area.

Continue reading

Celebrating Strawberry Season!

Don’t you wish this time of year could go on forever; the long, sun-shiny days, the kids still excited about summer break, gardens just starting to burst!  To save that fleeting, sweet taste of summer we’re turning it over to Megan Baumler who, having her doctorate in nutrition and being a registered dietitian, knows a few more things than me about why buying local, fresh produce to preserve for later is so valueable- in so many ways. Take it away Megan!

Shiny, bright red, studded with seeds, and warmed by the sun: gently grab by the stem, twist and pull, and place into your mouth. There is nothing like the taste of a freshly picked strawberry. Locally grown berries are sweeter, smaller, more nutritious, and more dense than berries that have traveled cross country to be showcased in the grocery store. Most of the berries come from California, where the strawberry season is much longer and thus more land can be devoted to them.

Here in Minnesota, locally grown berries are a specialty item: a delicacy with a fleeting cameo. Strawberries make an appearance for about 2-4 weeks every year, from mid June to early July. This should give you just enough time to be able find a couple hours to get to a farm and pick your own (PYO in berry lingo) or to buy the pre-picked treasures. The local berries are so much better- in flavor and nutrition. Continue reading

Superfoods Assemble!

Move over Goji.
Watch out Acai.
Aronia has arrived.

Elderberry in bloom at the Oakdale Nature Center

This superfood might already secretly be growing in your backyard. Aronia even comes with its own super-powered sounding scientific name…it is also commonly known as Black Chokeberry, but I’m sticking with aronia 😉 And let’s not forget about another native super food,  elderberry.

The purple-black berries of both aronia and elderberries pretty much blow away other commonly revered superfoods with their antioxidant levels.

Antioxidant levels in food are measured by Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC). ORAC measures the overall antioxidant power of a food or supplement. USDA research shows Aronia berries has one of the highest antioxidant content of any fruits,” from the Aronia Berry Services of Northeast Iowa.

With all these local “super” fruits, you didn’t even miss Acai berries, did you?

Just saying.

Considering the list of berries that DO grow in our Midwest region, we don’t need to fly food halfway across the world to eat SUPER healthy.

Aronia, Elderberry, Wild Blueberry, Blackberry, Raspberry, Strawberry, Cherry. All grow local. All Superfoods. All things my kids will eat. Especially if I can keep this super hero theme going with them.

Both aronia berries and elderberries require some sweetening, in my sweet tooth opinion. Supposedly if you freeze them some of the starch turns to sugar and increases the sugar content enough for eating. This might also be why birds seem to save these berries until later winter. I’d rather add them to a smoothie, (yum!) muffins or cook up some jelly or syrup.

Gerry checking on an Aronia Berry Bush at the Oakdale Recreation Discovery Center

Which leads me to how I found out about these tart-n-tasty little health bombs…

Meet local superhero in disguise, Gerry Parenteau of Bearwoods Sugarbush.

This guy just keeps going! He’s fueled by passions like taking caring of and foraging for berries and educating the public about their benefits. I met him at the Oakdale Indoor Farmer’s Market earlier this year, when my own frozen berry supply was running low. We bought some of his elderberry syrup in a Flash (ha). That syrup has amped up the flavor of smoothies and kept my yogurt and granola breakfast routine more local for months. The best $9.00 I’ve spent in forever. He was also sampling his new Aronia Berry syrup, another winner. Continue reading

Growing Farmers Growing Food

Minnesota Food Association + Big River Farms

Just driving to this unique teaching farm makes my mouth water. Admittedly, that doesn’t take much, but the foods grown here are second to none and the farmers have a lot of fun along the way. Food integrity is deeply rooted in every choice made at the Minnesota Food Association and Big River Farms; plus they give one mean tractor ride! Come along and fall in love with this vital and idyllic farm on the outskirts of Marine on the St. Croix.

They grow organic food in a way that honors the land and engages marginalized people. This is truly a one of a kind place. Being a land-based training program focusing on immigrant and minority populations you could meet farmers from many distinct cultures just walking through their fields. The diversity within the program is seen as another strength which drives their mission:

To build a more sustainable food system based on social, economic and environmental justice through education, training and partnerships. 

Women run Big River Farms. From L to R, Danielle Piraino, Laura May Hedeen, Emily Squyres, Lebo Moore, Molly Schaus.

The education piece of their mission is achieved through their Farmer Training Programs . The training is a 3-4 year program starting with the basics in organic production and post-harvest handling moving up to whole farm management where farmers hone their marketing and business development. Classes are held in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate working adults. “There are currently 17 farm teams in the program, 11 of which are land-based at Big River Farms – the others have other land or are taking classes only, without using the land. There are 7 cultures represented in this group,” according to Laura Hedin, MFA program manager.

Interested in taking the next step in growing your inner farmer? Contact Laura at laura@mnfoodassociation.org.

With a deep and solid list of teaching staff like Molly Schaus, Farm Director and May Lee, former student (see my blog post about her farm HERE) the 90 acres of certified organic land is well planted, well rested in between use and always well loved.

Farm Plot Allocation Map. Planning time up front ensures land health in the long run.

The training program has led to several success stories over the years. Farmers like Rodrigo and Juan Carlos of Cala Farms who have found a great market in wholesaling. Or Moses and Rhona of Dawn to Dusk Farm who focus on Farmer’s Market sales. These and other MFA graduate farmers’ stories can be found on their Meet the Farmers page.

CSA Box of Vegetable Heaven.

 

Eat Out Of The Box
With all the care and devotion new farmers give to their crops you know the veggies placed into a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce box are going to be top notch! Add in certified organic food and competitive rates with other CSA farms and buying a CSA from Big River Farms is a natural choice. Their CSA program also supports many different farmers simultaneously. They can supply up to 200 shares for the season’s 16 weeks. That will help you eat your veggies and support immigrant farmer education at the same time. They have 12 drop locations around the Twin Cities. You are in luck, because there are still CSA shares available through May 31. Get your Big River CSA here. Continue reading

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