Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why Heirlooms?

   We probably ought to begin by explaining some terminology.  An heirloom plant variety is a variety that you can save seed from, plant it, and get essentially the same thing again generation after generation.  The alternative is a hybrid variety, which if you were to save seed from, you'd get something not quite the same as the previous generation: maybe a different color or shape, often less productive, probably a different taste or texture, etc.  So, for example, the seed of an heirloom 'German Johnson' tomato should yield another 'German Johnson,' but the seed of a 'betterboy' (which is a hybrid) would yield a tomato that might more closely resemble one or another of the parent lines that were crossed to yield the 'betterboy' or some very different cross.  So the most basic thing to understand is that for the gardener or farmer growing hybrid plants means going back to the seed company to buy more seed every year, whereas with heirlooms there's the potential to isolate a variety (from other varieties of the same species it might cross with) and save seed to replant.
   We grow pretty much exclusively heirlooms (or more accurately “open-pollinated” varieties which includes all heirlooms.)  Even those crops that are almost always hybrid, like corn, onions, broccoli, bell peppers... even with those crops we're growing heirlooms instead.  So why grow heirlooms?  There are a lot of little reasons.  Heirloom varieties were often bred for taste; modern hybrids are often bred more narrowly for productivity or traits like suitability to picking under-ripe and shipping long distances.  Heirloom varieties are often more suitable to simple organic growing methods; modern hybrids are often bred specifically for use with heavy applications of purchased fertilizers, intensive irrigation, and other chemicals and plastics.  Of course, heirloom varieties also allow us to save a lot of our own seed, which means we can be more self-sufficient and grow a product with more local value.  Saving our own seed means we don't have to worry about buying seed that might come treated with chemicals we don't want to use.  It means we can grow varieties that originally came from 50 different sources without having to pay separate shipping and handling to 50 different seed companies every year, because if we can save our own seed we only need to get it here once, so overall it means that we can grow a greater diversity than we could otherwise.  And when we save seed from an eggplant, instead of a packet with 30 seeds, we have 10,000 seeds, which means we can share with friends and neighbors and other farmers, and they can often share with us.  We wrote last week about the field peas that came from Eric's great uncle.  Another pea variety came from friends at church and another variety from a customer.  We're growing yacons and roselle (wonderful crops that we didn't even know about), sweet potatoes and tomatoes from friends in Rutherford County, another tomato from Melissa's mom, rhubarb and field corn from Eric's former workmate in the Brushy Mountains, beans and butterbeans from a farmers' market customer, peanuts from a friend in Virginia peanut country, etc., etc.  Many of these seeds came with working knowledge of how to grow them.  What all this amounts to is independence: heirlooms mean the potential to eat the kinds of crops and to farm in ways that aren't determined by corporate profitability.  And as much as anything, what we want to offer to you is a real alternative to the corporate food system.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Summer peas

  On these late summer afternoons we've been retreating to the house to shell peas.  We each take a bowl, even the kids, and start working on the pile in the middle of the table.  A few summers ago we visited a neighbor with a homemade sheller; in a half hour his machine shelled out the couple bushels we'd brought along.  We haven't been able to talk him into making a similar sheller for us.  But an excuse to sit down in front of the fan (and even watch a movie!) when it's hot outside isn't so bad.  Then come winter, we'll pull peas out of the freezer or pour them out of a can and enjoy the summer's work.
  I'd never had "peas" growing up.  I'm not even sure the related dry black-eyed pea made it on our table.  Soon after moving to North Carolina, though, Eric's great aunt and uncle offered me a big bowl of little green peas grown in their garden.  I was hooked.  His great Uncle Nick sent us home with seed and we've been growing them since, saving seed every year to keep the family seed going.
  But we haven't stopped there.  We've become pea collectors, always curious and ready to try another variety.  There is an incredible number of varieties with each corner of the South having a favorite pea and many families having seed handed down from generation to generation.  This year we're growing pink-eye purple hulls, strawberry crowders, red rippers, colossals, and “Nick's peas.”  (“Crowders,” by the way, are so called because they're closer together in the pod than other field peas.)
  Of course one problem with growing so much variety is that it complicates seed saving.  Peas need one or two hundred feet of isolation distance to come true. To meet this challenge we separate varieties we want to save seed from in separate gardens and harvest enough seed for multiple years.  Saving pea seed is simple.  Just let the pods go until they are completely dry on the plant.  Then on a hot dry day harvest them into a feed sack and thresh with a baseball bat like we did with the dry beans.  Put them in a glass jar and freeze them to make sure any bugs are dead.  If there's room, just keep the jar in the freezer.
  In the garden, peas are space hogs.  It takes a large area to grow enough to have some to put up.  That said, we think of our pea plantings as cover crops.  They are legumes that add nitrogen to the soil.  And fairly quickly, they vine to completely cover the soil surface and outcompete weeds.  So it's a cover crop that's edible and profitable to grow.  Peas are also fairly quick, 60-90 days depending on the variety.  They can be planted any time from early May to late July.  There are hardly any other crops that can be planted mid-summer and withstand the heat and dry spells and mature a crop before it gets too cold like peas will.  They have few pests and diseases aren't a problem.
  Harvesting the peas can be easy or challenging.  Some varieties have peas that stick straight up above the canopy while others hide under the leaves.  The easiest to harvest are ones that have a colored hull when they are ready, like pink eye purple hulls.  There is actually good debate about when a pea is ready to harvest.  Some folks like them in the "green" stage for a fresh vegetable taste.  These are not quite so easy to shell as when the pea has just started to dry down a little.  We usually pick a bit at both stages and if there are enough peas, separate them out as we shell.
  Peas are simple to prepare.  Simply boil in salt water (or with some pork product) until soft.  Then drain and add some butter.  We also enjoy them cold in a summer salad mixed with corn, peppers, tomatoes and onions.  They are great in soups, too.
  The pea season should last as long as it stays warm.  If you happen to stop by the farm some hot afternoon, we'll find an extra bowl for you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Melon Ice Cream

   It's melon season and it's also ice cream season.  So how about melon ice cream?  Why not.  We even found a recipe in an ice cream cookbook that inspired us.  Here's our version, approved by Hattie.

2 cups melon puree
2 cups cream or mix of cream and milk
7.5 oz honey
  Cut one melon in half.  Remove seeds and peel; cut into chunks.  Using an immersion blender or blender, puree.  Measure out two cups.  Put the rest in the freezer to use another time for ice cream or for making smoothies.  Add the dairy and the honey.  Puree again to make sure it is all well blended.  Thoroughly chill before freezing according to your ice cream maker.
  Next on the agenda - watermelon popsicles.