Tag Archives: agriculture

This is what seasonal looks like

Spinach. Again. Walking onions, green garlic, radishes, and kale. A curly head of lettuce from the greenhouse. Nice to have rhubarb—so early this year.

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Welcome to the season’s first community-supported agricultural shares on Colorado’s Front Range.

When members join a CSA, it doesn’t take long to figure out that eating locally and seasonally isn’t like shopping at a grocery store. Variety and availability is determined by the climate—temperature, day length, precipitation, zone, and weather influence what can be planted and when. After winter’s frigid temperatures, the soil needs time to warm up before most crops can be seeded. Even when spring days are sunny and warm, nights remain cool. The last frost of the winter can hit in March, April, or even May. Until all chance of frost has passed, tender crops can’t be planted. Moisture is another variable: too much and seeds rot in the ground; not enough and they don’t germinate.

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All these factors and more determine what’s ready in the Stonebridge barn each week. From early May until mid-June, the share is limited because fall-planted or perennial plants are still waking up from the winter. At Stonebridge, the season starts a month earlier than most CSAs in our area because our members are ready for early spinach and fresh lettuce. From kale to rhubarb, anything else is a bonus in those first unpredictable weeks.

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In Colorado, we say if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. Change will come. The same is true in eating seasonally. When we’re tired of the same early crops, the brassicas—cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage—started in the greenhouse and transplanted to the fields in early spring soon join the line-up, along with baby beets and carrots seeded in May’s still-cool soil. Peas—so much work but such a treat—show up next in the barn; many of them don’t make it home but get eaten on the drive instead. Spring-planted spinach comes on as winter-over spinach begins to bolt. Kale and chard are both raring to go. All those greens take getting used to but, as our doctor says, eating greens “is like eating health.”

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Once the summer squash and cucumbers need picking every other day, the garden’s bounty has arrived. Garlic is harvested and given every week. Beans beg for picking as beets and carrots become Saturday regulars. The show-offs of the fields—tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant—make their many weeks’ seeding, weeding, and tending worth it. Even people who think they don’t like eggplant admit that a fresh one is a whole different matter.

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Come August, farmers are busy harvesting and members are busy cooking, canning, drying, and freezing with help from our weekly recipe list (stonebridgefarmcsa/recipes). This plentitude won’t slow down until the temperatures cool again. When first frost threatens, high summer crops are pulled for the barn; the pepper “pick-down” yields plenty for freezing, too. After frost nips the vines, winter squash and pumpkins are harvested in a hand-to-hand relay from the fields to the hay wagon and the hay wagon to the barn. Onions come in from the fields to cure, leaving autumn’s Asian and other greens, roots like rutabagas, carrots, and turnips, and whatever’s stored in the barn to fill the end-of-season shares.

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Repetitious? Sometimes. Unpredictable? That’s farming. But people who hang out at a CSA learn to treat vegetables like old friends. Ah, how wonderful to see you again! It’s been a year since we last met. You’re looking well. I can hardly wait to make that soup/salad/dip/dessert I only make each spring/summer/fall.

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Seasonal eating has its challenges. In any given year, one crop will shine and another will lack luster. Especially in Colorado, no week can bring the amount or variety of vegetables available at a grocery store. We hope the benefits of supporting local agriculture outweigh that inconvenience. Fresh is a flavor; fresh-picked veggies just taste better. Not to mention the value of keeping local land in organic agricultural production through participation in a community-centered, reciprocal effort. As we say at Stonebridge, when the community feeds itself, the land and the people prosper.

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Eating seasonally brings surprises, satisfactions, and delights. It also brings disappointments and, sometimes, failures. Good thing farming is forgiving. Each season, we get to try again.

If you’re a new CSA member, learning the season’s rhythms takes time. If you give it a chance, one day that shift will occur. From kids learning to eat vegetables to members anticipating the next crop, we’ve seen that magic in the barn as “Spinach again???” becomes “Yippee, spinach again!!!”

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The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting (with video)

To my readers: If you receive Pearlmoonplenty via email, yesterday’s post did not include the video. Click here to view it at the end of the post. 

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To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes.

At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm.

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Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

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The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting

EarthDayGreeleyTribune To mark the 45th anniversary of the first Earth Day in 1970, I participated in a pre-Earth Day program at our local library to promote the Youth of the Earth Festival, a community event organized for the first time last year by the Youth of the Earth Council and Sustainable Revolution Longmont. The free festival this Wednesday at the Boulder County fairgrounds from 4 to 7 PM will include music and dance performances by local schools and youth groups; recycling; storytelling; education about bees, birds, and energy; healthy food prepared by an on-site chef; and games with locally donated prizes. If you don’t live in our area, I hope you’ll find an Earth Day event near you. At the library event, I read my chapter “The First Earth Day . . . and Still Counting” from A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography because I wanted to share the early days of Earth Day with the students involved this year. I created a visual background video to show 1970s Earth Day images, as well as more recent photos from our farm connecting that time to the environment today. In the essay, I talk about planting an apple tree in memory of my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Osborn, in whose class I celebrated the first Earth Day, so I included a visual sequence about growing, picking, and pressing apples for cider on our farm. applebaskets Forty-five years isn’t much time to turn around the ecological problems confronting our planet. In fact, today’s it’s clear that the state of the earth is worse than anyone imagined forty-five years ago. It seems we’re facing a tipping point from which we must push harder for the changes needed to adapt and survive. This is no time to abandon hope. It’s only time to hold hope closer as we work together—finally–toward a more sustainable future.

If the video isn’t embedded below, click here to watch it.

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Like Roosters

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“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”                      –Thoreau, Walden

On a trip to Cuba a decade ago to research sustainable agriculture, I arrived too late at the guest hostel in the southern, rural part of the island to see much of the hills surrounding us with palm trees in a small valley. I got my chance early the next morning when I was awoken by not one, not two, but what sounded like hundreds of roosters crowing all around me. I dressed quickly and went outside to find that roosters roamed freely in this village, strutting as lustily as Thoreau’s chanticleer. Roosters are undoubtedly more intent on alerting other roosters to their territory than on signaling transformation, but in El Valle del Gallo, as I called this place, I witnessed the power of roosters crowing in unintentional symphony at the dawn of another day.

Recently I heard a story on NPR about two women in their thirties who own a small boutique in a Tehran mall.The women’s best-selling items might not seem radical: shirts, mugs, and pillows with roosters on them. Yet these roosters feature feathers drawn from the words of a Persian poem celebrating a new dawn. Like an earlier t-shirt the women offered with the word onid, or hope, the rooster items draw mixed reactions. Some customers don’t believe there’s hope for their country right now, while others want to believe in a new future for Iran.

These women were hopeful because they remembered a more open time in their country; the items they sold offered the possibility of a brighter day. The women’s belief in renewal touched me because I, too, retain an optimism that often seems naïve in the face of the world’s problems, a hopefulness based on the idea of a better future once voiced by young people of the 60s and 70s. “All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, “Love is all we need.”

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In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about the first Earth Day in 1970 and the optimism symbolized by bell bottoms and group efforts to clean up the environment: “Earth Day would not only create awareness of the steadily declining health of the environment, but bring hope of a better future for our planet.”

Our farm was home to a small commune of hippies in the early 1970s. Living in a tipi, bus, barn, and old farmhouse, they raised cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to the small town nearby.“We didn’t know we were hippies,” they laughed, “until we read about them in a magazine and realized we were hippies too.” I was thrilled to hear that the Paul Butterfield Blues band had jammed in our living room. They showed us vestiges of the work they’d done here at the farm and told us how things had been different back then, including a much smaller farmhouse then we have today.

Their back-to-the-land experiment was short-lived, but their work contributed to the farm’s organic stewardship. Twenty years later, my partner and I started a community-supported farm on the same land. For the last 24 years, we’ve been building the kind of future we’d like to see, one based on a reciprocal relationship with the land and community-based support for organic food production.

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We raise chickens at Stonebridge, but since we don’t breed our own chicks, we don’t need rooster services. Last spring, we bought six chicks that were supposed to be egg-laying hens. From almost the beginning, I suspected that one of the blue-green egg layers would grow up to be a rooster. Its legs were longer and feathers more pronounced than the others; it looked regal, as if it were wearing a pair of 18th-century pantaloons and a tapestry jacket, just the type of braggart Thoreau had imagined. “ER-er-er-ERRR,” it crowed one day as I passed by the coop, making its intentions—and gender—clear. Luckily, our chicken-loving friends were willing to adopt a rooster to replenish their breeding stock.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

I love my chickens, but since hearing the story about the Iranian shopkeepers and their rooster t-shirts, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the louder fowl of the species. Metaphorically, we need roosters among us to arouse the sleeping into action, voice inconvenient truths, and lead the call for change.

Today, social networking provides roosters more perches from which to crow than in Thoreau’s time. That may not make it easier to be a rooster; as befell ours, the risks of raising an unwelcome alarm will always exist. Still, more roosts means more roosters crowing together about the big things we’re facing like climate crisis, violence in communities and nations, and an ever-deepening gap between the have-mores and the have-lessers.

Roosters may be individualists, but with so many crowing at once, a collective message will surely rise above the cacophonous din. Like the roosters of El Valle del Gallo, we can raise our voices together with hope for change. By pairing personal acts with collaborative action, “hope” can be more than a slogan on a t-shirt. If we care about the future and the world we’ll leave behind, let’s be like roosters and wake each other up.

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Glean: A Fall Food Journey

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We gleaned the last of the peppers last week before John pulled the tomato and peppers stakes to till the fields. Putting the beds to rest marks the end of another Stonebridge season, one lengthened by unusually warm fall weather this year. But what’s “usual” about weather anymore? The first hard frost fell just before Halloween and after the last Saturday pick for our CSA members. We’ve given tomatoes on the final Saturday before, but always green tomatoes ripened in the greenhouse, not from vines in the field.

I traveled a bit this fall, teaching, lecturing, and reading from my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography. Each time I left the farm, I missed another turn toward fall, returning to trees more golden than just days before. On my return, we slowly emptied the fields of their crops, until only hardy greens like kale and spinach and roots like carrots and rutabagas remained in the warmth of the autumn sun.

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When I travel, I always pay attention to food, searching for meals that offer something delicious and new. I want to experience food in a way I haven’t before. Sometimes, I research restaurants before I go; other times, I depend on serendipity to draw me toward a grand discovery. I traveled this way for decades before I realized that food is one of the markers by which I create, appreciate, and remember my journeys.

Here’s a few memorable meals from the last few weeks in Oregon, Colorado, and Utah:

My sister traveled with me to Oregon this year. Our first meal was from one of the fun food carts that circle an entire city block. Here’s a photo story of my grilled veggie and cheese sandwich–and a local resident sharing the last of it with his flock of friends.

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And here’s an exquisite fig tart with chai tea. You can see how much I enjoyed it.

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On the Oregon coast, my sister and I collaborated on sautéed zucchini & cabbage tacos with fresh salsa and avocado, along with corn on the cob bought just that morning by my mother-in-law at a local farmer’s market. We visited other farmer’s markets along the coast, finding gorgeous Asian pears, gluten-free bread and cookies, and locally caught and canned tuna.

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On our trip back to Portland, we stopped at our favorite farm in the valley, where we bought hazelnuts to take home.

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Back in Portland, we dined at Prasad, a vegan restaurant in the revitalized Pearl district. I loved the fresh spinach and cilantro topping our “Brahma Bowl” of garam masala veggies and quinoa; the color of the “Rising” beet/carrot/apple/ginger juice; and, of course, the vegan peanut butter cookie!

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I don’t have any food pics for Golden, site of Women Writing the West’s 20th anniversary conference, but I particularly enjoyed the roasted and stacked mushrooms, red peppers, and squash with teriyaki marinade. Ordering vegetarian at a conference is always interesting—if not risky—but this dish was colorful and tasty, too.

Of great loss to Golden is the closing of Golden Natural Foods. After 30-some years of business, the shop is closing its doors. I’m glad I got to visit one last time.

In Salt Lake City, I spoke and read at a Slow Food event as part of Utah’s Book Festival. With a mission of “good, clean, and fair food for everyone,” it’s no surprise Slow Food members throw a great potluck! My only disappointment was being too busy to eat more of it. Highlights were the beautiful roasted beet soup donated by Urban Pioneer Foods; beet cashew butter on delicious crusty bread; arugula, cabbage, and orange salad braided on a plate rather than tossed in a bowl; and zucchini-packed bar cookies as one of many wholesome desserts.

Paying attention to food on my journeys–especially dishes that highlight local cuisines and produce—helps me learn about a region’s people, cultures, and history. Searching out “food hubs” like Portland’s carts, small-town farmer’s markets, and Slow Food gatherings teaches me how local folks create both food traditions and innovations, two sides of the same impulse toward re-centering delicious, safe, and nutritious food in our lives.

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Back at Stonebridge, we ate the last of the gleaned jimmie nardellos, stuffed with Manchego cheese and roasted in the oven for a half or so at 375º. My very last bite paired browned salty cheese with softened sweet red pepper, the finale to an amazing 23rd season.

Soon we’ll dig the last of the leeks, carrots, and other roots for our Thanksgiving shares, to accompany butternut squash, pie pumpkin, onions, garlic, and potatoes. After the fields are cleared, we’ll eat from the greenhouse, barn, and freezer. As we say farewell to this year’s abundance of fresh vegetables, we’ll give thanks for another season on the land.

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We have other good-byes to make soon—losses that aren’t as easy as the tilling of fields. As the season draws toward its inevitable end, we’re reminded to glean what we can, while we can, from experiences, relationships, and connections with each other and the earth. Perhaps farming helps us understand that bounty and loss travel together, leading by turn on this journey called life.

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Tractor Trouble

DSC_4868 copyLightning and thunder have driven John in from the fields as I get home from afternoon errands in town. We watch the rain come down, pouring hard for five good minutes before tapering to a sprinkle. Not a gully washer, but enough to make a difference after this record-breaking first-week-of-September heat.

John gets off the phone with the place that repaired our tractor tire last year. One of the big rear tires on our 1950 John Deere B is flat.

“How much would it be for them to come out here and fix it?” I ask.

“The guy said it’s a hundred bucks just to drive over and shake my hand. We can take it there. We just need to get it off first.”

I’m not overjoyed at this news. Tractor repair is dangerous and we’ve had some close calls.

“I’ll jack it up, put blocks under the body, and pull off the tire. No problem,” he says.

“And you won’t have to get underneath or stick your hand in anywhere? You’ll block the wheels so it can’t roll? You’ll use a good jack that won’t slip?”

“Come out and see. It’ll be fine.”

DSC_0725A few minutes later, in boots and a raincoat, I go out to the tractor barn and find John’s got the John Deere up on a jack with blocks of wood under the body. He ratchets the jack higher to get the weight off the tire and slip another board under the tractor’s belly. The jack, not quite heavy or agile enough for the job, slips a little. No harm done, but it’s a good reminder that this tractor is a heavy piece of machinery. John lowers the tractor again and starts over with a better jack to get the last board in place. The tire’s hanging just off the ground, ready for removal.

Now comes the hard part: getting the tire off the axle. But there’s a trick. Like those magic boxes where one panel squeezes another tighter so the door can slide open, the John Deere requires removing three bolts and placing two of them in different holes where the force of their tightening will narrow the plate that holds on the tire and allows it to slip off the axle.

Since the bolts haven’t been removed for 13 years when the tire fell off accidentally, they need a little rust remover and a lot of torque to get them moving. John works them, back and forth, tapping here and there with the mallet to loosen the metal plate that holds the tire in place. Finally, it comes off, exposing the axle shaft through the cast iron center of the tire’s hub. As I monitor the tractor for slippage off its bed of boards, John hammers and heaves the tire off the axle, pulling it free with a big “Humph” that nearly knocks him off his feet.

The tire’s off! Now all we need to do is get it in the bed of the pickup. I back the truck up to where John holds the heavy tire and he rolls it to the lowered tailgate. But it’s too heavy to lift into the bed. John’s got a better idea, one that involves yet another tractor. I groan, but he’s right. He’ll lift the tire in the bucket of the Farm-All and lower it into the truck. Easy, right?

Getting the tire into the bucket is no problem—we just roll it in–but depositing it in the back of the truck isn’t as simple as it sounds. The tire is 55 inches in diameter; the truck bed is barely wider than that, and the frame on the back of the truck, the one we use for hauling lumber and pipes and even a cupboard all the way from North Dakota, might be in the way.

This is where John’s skill with the big red Farm-All really shines. Lifting the tire in the Farm-All’s bucket, he approaches the truck carefully, easing just close enough to the edge of the bed to tip the tire in. Still, the tire doesn’t slide off and I’m afraid if it does, it will smash the tailgate right off the truck.

John gets off the tractor and walks over to where I’m looking skeptical. As he judges the angle he needs to lift the bucket for dumping the tire in the back of the pickup, I come up with my own better idea for the next phase of this project. “I know, after they repair it, let’s pay the place to bring the tire back and put it on the tractor.”

John looks at me askance for a long second and then shakes his head. “You don’t really have the sensibility for this, do you?” He sounds annoyed but I can tell he’s teasing by the way his dimples are flashing.

“Nope. I really don’t.” I have to admit that all this tractor ballet makes me nervous. I don’t drive tractors so I’m less confident about what they can do. For John, the worst of the job is over. Getting the tire back on will be a cinch. For me, we still have a tire to transport and re-attach.

John laughs as he swings himself up to the seat of the red tractor. “We can do it!” he shouts over the engine. The bucket lifts & tilts; the big tire slides perfectly into the back of the pickup.

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John gets down, closes the tailgate, and grins. “Nothing like the satisfaction of a job well done.” I have to agree, but in my case, it’s more like relief. Nothing bad happened. We didn’t wreck the tire, tractor, or pickup. More importantly, no one was hurt.

Tomorrow morning, John will take the tire out east of the highway to be repaired. We’ll ask Joe to help wrestle it back on. For now, our tractor work is done. We walk back to the house in the evening light as more thunder rumbles. It’s time for dinner with the first of the Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers roasted with Manchego cheese, golden brown eggplant slices, fresh-fried rosy potatoes, and a toast with Stonebridge wine to our tractor success.

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In Celebration of Local Food

Finally, a cool down. After the hottest August in the last 140 years with temperatures in the high 90s for over three weeks, I walked outside at 6:30 yesterday morning to noticeably cooler air, as if a damp towel had been laid over the farm. We welcomed the cool down as we harvested for four hours, our biggest pick yet of the season—and we haven’t even started on the winter squash. Until the first frost, the garden will be burgeoning and we’ll be running to keep up with it.

Last week we participated in several activities for Local Food Week. I spoke on a “So You Want to Be a Farmer?” panel for Transition Boulder about nurturing community in CSA (I read Red, Red Barn to portray what community looks like at Stonebridge), and our hundred-year-old farm was one of four hosts for a Slow Food Bike-to-Farm Tour. Cyclists sipped our cold mint tea as John showed them around the vineyard and talked about creating a local winemaking culture on this side of the mountains, or Front Range Backyard Viticulture, as we call it.

Bird-netted and protected from raccoons with electric fencing, our vines look great and promise to be heavy enough to justify the purchase of a large crusher-destemmer for our cold-hardy grapes. John’s been teaching classes in planting, pruning, and harvesting grapes and the idea of growing varieties suited to this climate—and discovering what wine grown here tastes like—is catching people’s attention.

Every week is local food week at Stonebridge but this time of year brings its own pleasures. The fall garden is just starting out with small bok choy, turnips, and napa cabbages to pick for the share, while the summer garden is at its height with zukes, cukes, green beans, arugula, basil, dill, cilantro, parsley, chard, kale, onions, garlic, carrots, and beets.

The heirloom tomatoes are ripening fully and the peppers are gorgeous. We gave five varieties of peppers yesterday, from the sweet red skinny Jimmy Nardellos (so delicious stuffed with slivers of Manchego cheese and roasted at 395 for 20 minutes or so) to juicy Red Cheese for slicing to San Ardo Poblanos for stuffing to Hungarian Hot Wax (our favorite to spice up marinara or salsa just a bit) and the hot hots like Serranos, as well as the more prudent sweet green bells.

Even the As You Like table of “cosmetically challenged” freebie vegetables is full—but it’ll be empty by the end of the day because our members know a little scratch and dent doesn’t ruin the vegetable.

Except for yesterday when we were up and outside early for the pick, I’ve started each morning of the last week by slicing something for the dehydrator. We got our Western Slope peaches a week ago so I’ve been drying those in wedges for winter fruit. One day I dried parsley to give as part of our Thanksgiving share, but mainly I’ve been drying paste tomatoes for all our winter and spring pizzas and pastas. I grow four varieties of paste tomatoes—Opalka, Amish Paste, Flame, and Gold Paste—and we’ve come to depend on them for our off-season pantry. One of my favorite things about paring tomatoes is how excited the chickens get about tomato scraps for breakfast!

This week also brought something new to our local food preparation and cuisine: goat milk. A friend gave us some milk from their dairy and another friend shared the additional ingredients and instructions for making chevre, so we got to make a little cheese of our own this week. We used it on a wonderful bruschetta last night by layering arugula, chevre, fresh tomato slices salted and peppered, dried parsley, and a little sprinkled romano on a locally made crusty baguette and baking for 20 minutes at 400. Served with a little white wine, this was local food at its best.

In the overfilled barn yesterday, one of our members stopped to thank me for my guest editorial that appeared in several of our local papers this week against the growing of Genetically Modified crops on Boulder’s Open Space. I appreciated her gratitude because it shows that people are paying attention to the issue. John and I attended the community comment session this week and, although the vast majority of speakers listed compelling reasons to ban GMOs on Open Space, I don’t think that’s what the commissioners will decide. They’re too worried about managing weeds on county land and too near-sighted to make the necessary changes at this point. We’ll see.

For now, we’ll rejoice in the plenitude of local, organic food as we turn the corner from summer to fall and the overlap of vegetables that fills the barn with thoughts of simple meals prepared in celebration of taste.

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