(JTA) - I will now share a cardinal truth of the life agrarian: If you give them tomatoes, all else is forgiven.
OK, the truth may only be trivial. It might not even be true. But some conviction along those lines must have lain behind my decision to plant 1,000 — yes, 1,000 — tomato plants this year. How this came to be is something that unfolded in typical fashion: I seeded a couple hundred plants in drill trays in early spring, looked at them after germination and — freaking out that they wouldn’t be nearly enough — ran to the computer to rush order more seeds that I plunged into soil immediately upon arrival, hoping they would catch up.
They did. In fact, I had hundreds extra, a predicament born partly of the local farmers market informing me after the second week I was no longer permitted to sell potted plants. Thus began a frantic effort to give away these suffering tomatoes, suffocating slowly in their pitifully inadequate four-inch pots. That endeavor was only partially successful. Earlier this week, a few dozen plants, some throwing pathetic little fruits in a last ditch attempt to pass on their genetic material, wound up in the compost pile. (It wasn’t necessarily a bad fate; there they were greeted by several hundred pounds of rotting carrots and cucumbers.)
The vast tomato planting also raised the question of where to store all those fruits between harvest and market. The answer presented itself in the form of a 14-foot box truck that hadn’t moved in months from its parking spot at the auction house across the street. Its owner was more than willing to me let me stash the truck in the shade and use the box as a ripening area, but the engine wouldn’t start when we tried to jump it. So my neighbor — a man I will write more of later, as he has quickly become as indispensable to our success this season as Fred — threw a chain under the body and towed the thing over to the farm.
All this chaos led last week to a milestone of sorts: The first appearance of tomatoes in our CSA boxes. To me, this is the real beginning of summer, the moment when the northeast’s signature warm-season crop makes its debut. If all goes well, our plants will produce a swarm of fruit over the next eight weeks. With a little luck, many will go even longer. The inaugural tomato variety is the one I consider the finest I’ve ever tasted: The sungold. The product of the breeding genius of a Japanese seed company, this cherry tomato has a deep yellow-orange color and a flavor that is more than just sweet. With their addictive syrupy tang that bursts in your mouth, sungolds are a reliable sellout at the market. On average, I eat one for about every 10 that I harvest.
I had never encountered a sungold before 2010, when I wandered into the greenhouse of the farm I was working on in Vermont, plucked one off the vine and was transformed. Now, no self-respecting small farmer is without them. I’ve seen half pints of these things selling for as much as $4.50 at the farmers market. That’s about a quarter per cherry. Not too shabby.
The onset of the tomato harvest — now a daily task on the farm — is an opportunity to test just how eternal the truth of abundant tomato giving actually is. Not that we have anything to be forgiven for. Our boxes these last weeks have been teeming with seasonal goodness. Squash, kale, beets and basil have all made regular appearances. But the sight of all those plants weighted down with fruit, one or two of which begin to blush red each week, has removed some weight from these shoulders, now starting to stoop with the fatigue of high season. If all else fails, there will still be tomatoes. And for that, I rest a little easier.
Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer.
(JTA) — We were out weeding squash last week when Fred came over to say he had to show me something but he feared it would lead to an act of violence.
Regular readers will know Fred is the farm’s sole employee. (I believe the technical term is “farm hand.”) He’s also a devout Hare Krishna, strict vegetarian and devotee of non-violence.
With a prelude like that, I knew where this was heading.
Fred led me to a spot in the field, cleared away some brush, and there in a small hole were four or five baby rabbits. Fred and Raul – one of Fred’s spiritual fellow travelers and an occasional presence at the farm – were busy cooing over their find. I was completely unmoved. I realize this makes me sound like a heartless ogre, but cute as they were, I had bigger fish to fry (or rabbits to roast, if you like.)
I had seen momma bunny hopping around with her cotton tail (Fred had rather unhelpfully christened her Hare Krishna — get it?), and all I could think about when looking at those little tufts of fur was that rabbits breed like rabbits! Soon there’d be lots of Hare Krishnas running around (a Fred fantasy, I’m sure) and I’m pretty convinced they’re the ones that have been chomping on my snap peas. The babies had to go, and I knew exactly how I was going to do it.
The other regular presence on the farm is my landlord Joe. An Italian immigrant with a thick accent and a penchant for dropping the last syllable of words, Joe is a lifelong farmer, a Catholic and a carnivore. He raises a handful of goats on the farm that he kills with a small knife to the throat and butchers himself. A few weeks back, he asked me if any vendors at the market sell rabbit meat. I didn’t know, but Joe went looking himself and came up empty. I figured presenting him with this find would buy me some goodwill.
Countless anxieties attended the planning for my first season farming. Losing my entire crop to deer was not among them.
Neither of the Northeastern farms where I had worked previously worried much about these herbivores. One farm was large and could keep losses from deer to a minimum with a shotgun. The other was on a main street in a semi-suburban environment where the deer pressure was fairly low. In both cases, a sort of Cold War stalemate prevailed. There were occasional border skirmishes and the requisite resort to arms. Losses were incurred on both sides, but never at catastrophic levels. The balance of power always prevailed.
But from the moment I began working our fields, I’ve gotten hints that we shouldn’t be nearly so casual. Connecticut is deer country. One of our towns gave its name to a disease borne by deer ticks. Neighbors would shoot me dubious looks when I shrugged in response to questions about my deer control strategy. Nonspecific references were made to a lost pumpkin crop a few years back.
One farmer a few towns over advised me in May to stop my planting and focus all my energies on protecting what I already had. If I had to do it all over again, he told me, I would invest in some serious fencing. I ignored him.
Even the deer tracks I’d notice each morning in our freshly plowed beds weren’t enough to light a fire. The tracks would pass by beautiful, tender green leaves that were left entirely unmolested. They were toying with me, I would say, waiting for the moment of perfect delectability before they decimated the whole crop. I didn’t really believe it was so, but somewhere in back of my mind I feared it might be.
This story originally appeared on J. Weekly.
Steve Schwartz’s mother did most of the cooking in his childhood home in suburban San Diego, but when his father, Miki, took to the stove, he had one specialty: mushroom omelets.
“That’s the only thing he ever cooked, and from that, I think I got the idea that mushrooms are a delicacy,” said Schwartz.
Schwartz, 47, learned how to grow mushrooms while in the Peace Corps in Thailand, from a tribe of Mien women, and the knowledge stuck. He followed that experience with a stint on a kibbutz in Israel, where he took to the rhythms of a farmer’s life, rising early and working in the fields.
Schwartz now farms oyster and shiitake mushrooms on his own three acres — though the mushrooms take up just a fraction of the land — in Sebastopol, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His farm, New Carpati, is named after the region where his father, a Holocaust survivor, grew up in Junosi, now part of Ukraine.
But that’s not all Schwartz does.
The brand new magazine Modern Farmer is no more for farmers than Sports Illustrated is for professional athletes, or Everyday Food is for chefs. It’s for the growing numbers of farm enthusiasts. Lured by a handsome portrait of a rooster on the front cover, I picked up a copy when it came out last month to see what it’s all about.
As someone who grew up on a small farm (and now lives in a big city) I enjoy the satisfaction of being able to identify different breeds of ducks, recognize a blueberry bush well before it offers anything to harvest, or decide when an ear of corn is ready to pick. These basic pleasures shouldn’t be reserved for country folk, and Modern Farmer is here to clue in urban and suburban readers.
The premier issue spans an impressive breadth of topics, from mango grafting in Malawi to a “rurbanist” shepherds’ cottage in Tasmania. Its cheeky tone entertains without falling into snarky territory, and manages to sidestep waxing too devoutly about the virtues of agrarian life. What the articles may lack in depth, the magazine makes up for by showcasing the rich variety of contemporary agricultural practices — and practitioners. It has much to offer anyone who wants to know more about where their food comes from, or to begin getting their hands in the dirt — excuse me, soil — if only a window box.
The next shmitta (sabbatical) year is two years away. At Hazon we’re gearing up for it already by doing some weekly learning on the topic with Rabbi Ari Hart, and recently, a look at some of our foundation stories in the Torah – Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel in particular – led us to unexpected realizations.
Such as: What if Jewish tradition sees farming as a lower, compromised, even “exiled” state? And what is the point of a cycle – whether it is seven days of Shabbat and the week, or seven years of a Sabbatical year cycle – if they keep simply repeating themselves?
Across the country, Jewish environmental and farming programs are (pun intended) taking root in the Jewish community. Whether they are semester long fellowships (like Adamah and Urban Adamah), programs at summer camps (like Eden Village, Kibbutz Yarokand Amir Project, to name just a few), the number and variety of these programs is increasing.
The East Coast-based Jewish Farm School has been offering alternative spring break programs and hands-on, skill-based Jewish agricultural educational programs for several years, but this June they are taking the field to the next level: in partnership with Hebrew College, JFS will offer a one-week, service-learning program that combines farming experience with Jewish learning aimed towards college-aged students. This program, called “To Till and To Tend,” is the first of its kind to offer college accreditation for participants. The program is structured similarly to the Jewish Farm School’s alternative spring break trips, which immerse participants in organic farming environments, but it is the collaboration with Hebrew College that makes this program so unique. For the Jewish Farm School, “To Till and To Tend” is only the jumping-off point to a semester-long, gap year-style program they hope to pilot in the future.
Well, it is indeed winter here in the Holy Land. The warming lights of Hannukah have passed us by, and the days are still feeling short. Temperatures in the Tel Aviv area usually fall between 10C and 22C (50F-72F), while folks in the Jerusalem area suffer a bit more with temperatures getting as low as 0C (32F). Perhaps this seems laughable to folks in colder regions of North America, but keep in mind that our homes are not equipped for the cold, with most everyone depending on space heaters or dual heating/cooling air conditioner units. Luckily, Israelis are a warm and open people and are perfectly comfortable snuggling up with one another during these cold months. We all get by.
Yet winter is a time of growth and renewal in Israel. Winter satiates the earth’s thirst with its rains, and with that comes a blanket of green that envelops the land. As it has for thousands of years, the land continues to feed and nourish its inhabitants despite the temperature shifts. Fall and early winter offerings, fruits like guavas and persimmons, and nuts like walnuts and pecans, are nearing the end of their time, while the citrus trees continue to bless the land with their beauty and their tasty fruits. A quick drive through any residential area will reveal a multitude of lemon, orange, clementine, pomello, kumquat, and limequat (a key-lime and kumquat hybrid) trees, lovely and heavy with fruit. Meanwhile, closer to the earth grow the brassicas, one of nature’s nutritional monarchs, packed full of fiber and anti-cancer compounds. Broccoli, turnips, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, and mustards all fit into this category and thrive during Israel’s colder, wetter months. Not to be forgotten, spinach, beets, carrots, and peas are also flourishing these days.
Living in Tel Aviv means that I take a lot of things related to food for granted. I know that when I go to the market, veggies will be much, much cheaper than packaged foods and fresher than most places in America. I know that nearly any time of day or night I can order a latte and sit with my computer for hours, without anyone rushing me to leave. I also know that the season for tomatoes is more similar to the one I grew up with in California than the one I got used to coping with in New York. Those are everyday kinds of things that I’ve learned after more than a year of living in Israel.
But last week I had the pleasure of exploring the food landscape of Israel from a new angle as a participant on the Israel Sustainable Food Tour, sponsored by Hazon and the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership. Jeremy Benstein of the Heschel Center crafted a tasty and interesting itinerary that kept us moving and eating across the country. I was treated to meals in restaurants I never would have found on my own, visited farms where folks are doing incredible work, and met outstanding people who are invested in food issues here in Israel. We explored themes that I spend a lot of time thinking about but less time engaging hands on.
This afternoon I picked up a radish and decided to taste it. When I rubbed it on my pants to take the soil off the spot I planned on biting, it came out this stunning crimson color that stopped me in my tracks. I took a second to imagine everything in my frame of vision as a photograph and marveled at the beauty of my pink smudge against the dull orb in my cracked, earth-caked hands, and then I made a blessing over it and took a bite. This is farm life — seeing God in a radish! Yes, it so happens that most of the people around me are devout Christians, and the Jews around here eat together at the Crab House on Rosh HaShanah morning, but in a very important way I’m living a more meaningful Jewish life than ever before.
So why do I sound apologetic and defensive?
In his recent article “A Jewish Farmer Grows in America” Ben Harris described the process that led him from the life of a journalist to the life of a farmer, a journey that resonates strongly with my own, and I daresay with those of many other young farmers as well. But one thing Harris does not discuss in his article is how he was received by those who populate the life he left behind. I don’t know the details of his experience, but I can speak for myself and share my own inside story.
With the end of the High Holidays, autumn is in full swing here in Israel. Everyone feels it — from produce lovers, like myself, bidding goodbye to the delectable sweetness of the summer’s watermelons and mangoes, to the country’s farmers harvesting this season’s new delights and preparing for the coming rains.
You don’t need to pay attention to the weather to figure out that autumn is upon is; all you need to do is look out the car window.
Enormous date palms, lining the streets and highways of the country, have grown heavy with ripening dates, their fronds sagging under the weight of the bright red, golden, and tan fruit. Dates are eaten both fresh, when they are crunchy and smooth, or dried, when they are enjoyed soft, sticky, and sweet as candy.
When I participated in the Adamah Fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the fall of 2006, I remember feeling such amazement at the way that the High Holidays perfectly lined up with the agricultural calendar. I arrived at the farm just in time to see summer turn into fall — to harvest the last of the tomatoes and eggplants, clear out old cucumber and summer squash plants and begin to put the field “to bed,” planting cover crop and spreading manure to ensure fertile soil for the next growing season. As we celebrated the New Year, we dipped the first of the season’s apples into honey and feasted upon the frost-sweetened storage crops of the season: carrots, beets, and potatoes.
This year, the beginning of fall brought on the terrific force of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Connecticut rainstorms usually bring about an inch of rain, but these storms together brought between 9 and 11.5 inches of rain. This massive amount of water caused our main field, the sadeh, to flood — not once, but twice. As these waters rushed over the rows of carefully tended vegetables, they wreaked havoc. Low-lying vegetables such as cabbages and carrots were drowned. Other crops were simply swept away. The winter squash, which had been gathering sugars to be as sweet as possible for harvest, floated in the floodwaters to the woods at the edges of the field. Because of possible contamination in the floodwaters, vegetables that remained after the waters receded have been deemed unsafe to eat. Topsoil — the fertile, soft soil that farmers spend almost as much time cultivating as they do vegetables — was completely washed from the field. The past seven years of composting and cover cropping was lost and will have to begin our next season on hard, compacted soil.
Britain’s next food TV star may just be a kosher housewife. [The Jewish Chronicle]
With the Jewish farm movement growing, Leah Koenig takes a look at the history of Jewish farming in America. [Tablet]
The tale of a family’s babka recipe. [Gilt Taste]
Last butcher standing: “Yuval Atias is the last of the Bay Area’s independent kosher butchers.” [The Wall Street Journal]
Many people believe that there is no place better to live than a big city, but Adam Berman, Executive Director of Urban Adamah in Berkeley, California, thinks so for different reasons than most. Following his dream to take Adamah: The Jewish Environmental Fellowship “to the next level,” Berman has gathered a dozen like-minded young fellows to help him get the first independent Jewish community urban farm off the ground — literally.
Berman, who founded Adamah in 2003, during his seven years directing the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, felt it was important to establish a farming and social justice fellowship in an inner-city setting, where more people would have access to the farm’s produce and programs. The fellows, too, would have greater and more direct access to social justice initiatives addressing what Berman refers to as the “dysfunctional ago-economic system” and related issues of poverty and food security.
(Watch the video below, in which Urban Adamah fellows show how to grow food in an urban area.)
When winter arrives in the northeast, local farms are blanketed in snow and even some of the most conscious cooks’ attention shifts away from farmer’s market and into the sad acceptance that it’s nearly impossible to eat locally-sourced vegetables and fruits during these cold months. Folks look around at the snow and ice and then look at me, an organic farmer, and ask the inevitable question: What do farmers in the northeast do now? After I let them know that I’m on “summer vacation”, relaxing from growing their food, I let them in on the rarely-told story of the farmer in the winter, and how that story can help them eat locally year-round, supporting small, sustainable food businesses.
The winter is definitely a time for farmers to catch their breath, let their bodies recover from the physicality of the rest of the year, and read (I’m currently nose deep in “Atlas of Remote Islands”. It is also a time for farmers to get busy crop planning, scheduling the timing of plantings, determining how much of each crop to grow, ordering seeds and equipment, and hiring apprentices or farm labor for the coming season.