Tag Archives: organic agriculture

Family Farms Then, Farm Food Now

I found this photograph with some old family things and wondered who the white-bearded gentleman might be. He showed up wearing overalls in another photo taken with my great-grandparents, Noah and Mabel Short, and three of their six sons. From the North Dakota license plate and the house front pose, it looked like an out-of-state family visit by car, making me suspect the distinguished looking man was my great-great-grandfather, George Washington Short, and his second wife, Flora, who lived outside Stillwell, Indiana. When I sent my great-aunt the photos, she agreed the man with the trim white beard must be her grandfather, GW.

Next I spotted George Washington in a group photo with Mabel and Noah holding their two oldest boys before they left Indiana for North Dakota in 1907. The building looks like the church near the cemetery where my great-great-grandfather is buried, a photo I found later on find-a-grave.com. Noah and Mabel are just left of the photo’s center. Can you find GW on the right next to Flora?

And then GW and Flora appeared again in another photo taken at a house with a fancy porch, probably another church gathering. I recognized the young woman next to Flora as their daughter Pansy, who I had seen in a photo from her 1915 visit to Noah and Mabel in North Dakota. I also figured out that the handsome young man with the mustache in both photos was probably Noah’s brother Frederick Pershing Short, the “Pershing” for their mother Mary McBroom, who was third cousin to the General John J. Pershing.

Recently, I met a first cousin twice-removed through ancestry.com (first cousin twice-removed means she was my grandfather’s cousin). Our DNA tests matched, so we contacted each other to share what we know. I sent this newly found cousin my photos of George Washington and she affirmed I was right in my guess. Her father was GW’s youngest son, Welcome. I was thrilled to think this cousin had known my great-great-grandfather when she was a child, but the timing seemed odd since my own grandfather Russell, her cousin, has been gone a long time. That’s because she is descended from the second, younger part of GW’s family with Flora Dennie and I am from the first, older part with Mary McBroom. After my great-great-grandmother died young, GW remarried, creating two separate families, with my side moving to North Dakota in 1907, which was where my grandfather was born.

With the help of my expert genealogy friend, a little more research uncovered that at 16, George Washington Short left his home in Indiana to serve in the Civil War. In 1864, he was wounded in the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and was discharged after the war ended in 1865. He saw a bit of the world for a young man of his time, but when he came home, he bought some land for himself. A photo from my new cousin put it all in place. Here was George Washington in work shirt and suspenders on his farm. In the background you can see an earlier view of the barn in my first picture.

George Washington Short became a farmer, just like his father, Silas Short, and his grandfather, Curtis Short in Sussex, Delaware, before him. That’s as far back as my records go. But the farming lineage reaches forward to GW’s son Noah, his son Russell, and—although he left the farm to become a surveyor—my father, Robert Short. The census records don’t say “farmer” next to their names, but my paternal grandmothers were farmers, too, from Hannah (last name unknown), Mary Ann Thompson, and Mary McBroom to Mabel Amor and Olga Jacobson, my grandmother. Farmers are also on my maternal side, but that’s another story.

This story about George Washington Short has gotten me thinking about farming today. In GW’s time and before, farms and farming knowledge passed from generation to generation in this country because the majority of the population lived on family farms. They grew and ate their own food and sold crops when they could. Their land was not just where they lived but where they made their living.

I found GW’s land at the northwest intersection of two roads in section 14 of a 1921 plat for Pleasant township, LaPorte county, Indiana. Seeing his name on that plat gave me another thrill. Now I could picture the land that held that big barn and fences around fields on which he grew crops and raised livestock and Flora kept a big garden to feed her family of seven.

Today, food barely comes from a farm, not when you consider all the processing and packaging that happens before we eat it. Farms and farmland are shrinking, both from loss of land to development and from consolidation of farms into bigger, corporate-owned businesses. Food is big business—but it’s not the kind of food my great-great-grandparents or even my parents ate when they were young.

To get a sense of the food industry today, take a look at how much of your food dollars goes to farmers—a mere 8.6%. And from that, farmers pay the costs of production, including farm laborers, seeds, insurance (a big chunk), irrigation, machinery, and structures. The rest of your food dollar goes to stuff you probably rarely think about when you sit down to a meal, like transportation, packaging, advertising and the costs of retail and trade services that get your food from the field to your plate.

Community supported farms like ours are keeping smaller acreages in food production and that’s important not only for farmland preservation, but for helping people eat closer to the plant. Here’s a chart showing the most common veggies consumed in the US today, with the green part of the bar meaning “fresh.” Potatoes, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and carrots are the most popular fresh vegetables on most people’s tables.

But when members join a CSA farm, their plate will include all kinds of other vegetables. Just this week for the third pick-up of our season, our subscribers took home spinach, green garlic, radishes, head lettuce, kale, and beet greens—all fresh, all just-picked, all organic. The first two weeks, they got rhubarb, too, which we’ll pick again this Saturday. And this is just the start of the season, with the bulk of the garden still to come. Once the basil’s in, we joke that people get back the cost of their membership in what they save on the price of supermarket basil (which comes in plastic, how appetizing).

Eating from a CSA farm isn’t exactly like eating from a family farm like my great-great-grandfather’s, but these days, it’s about as close as you can come. Small, local community farms help people eat closer to the land and closer to the health provided by the food. Even in the days before antibiotics and immunizations, George Washington Short lived to be 90 years old. I like to think fresh food and hard work on the land kept him healthy and fit. I hope eating food from Stonebridge Farm helps our members stay healthy too (check out our recipes here). Delicious vegetables, farmland preservation, and local community support for food production–I think my great-great-grandfather would approve.

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Rain, Finally, Rain

With no snow in March and little moisture in April, we’ve been thinking about drought here on the Front Range. Snow pack looked good last fall but dropped to 50% levels with the dry spring. Agricultural experts are warning that this is the first of a three-year drought cycle and advise farmers to plan properly. We’re not sure what “properly” might mean for us, except to water as much as we can now, especially perennial plants and trees in the hope of getting them through the hot summer.

In 2002, the irrigation ditch at our farm went dry. If it hadn’t rained in mid-August, we might have lost our crops. We planted our vineyard that year and did lose many of the vines. We’re worried that this year could be that bad or worse—and if not this year, then the next. The grass near the barn looked parched already; we’ve been watering the fields as much as we usually do in July. We’re luckier than others who don’t have a ditch at all or who live further from the head gate and run out of water earlier in the season than we do, but once the water’s gone, it doesn’t matter where on the ditch you live. Last Friday hit a record high temperature and we wondered how we’d get through a summer that seemed to be starting months earlier than it should.

And then it rained. Sunday night was a real rain, not just a few drops but enough rain to wear a raincoat, and yesterday was cloudy with a little drizzle. Both nights were cool but not cold enough to freeze the grape buds or baby fruit on the trees. Perfect. The mountains got some snow as well, which may help ease irrigation worries later on.

This morning, the farm looked different: fresh, verdant, and relieved, like it might make it through the season after all. I transplanted mint under the outdoor water spigot at the house. That’s where my grandmother kept her mint on the North Dakota prairie, the only place it was guaranteed moisture; when she’d water the flowers along the side of the house, the spigot would leak onto the mint. My grandmother didn’t waste water. She even washed dishes in a tub in the sink so that she could throw the water on the flowers when she was done. She’d make tea from that mint, the coolest drink in the hot summer.

The smell of mint still reminds me of my grandmother and the childhood summers I spent on the farm. Planting mint under our own spigot seems like a hopeful tradition. Whatever this summer brings, we’ll do our best. We’re still worried about a warming climate that is changing our weather patterns and impacting the way we farm, but for now, we’re happy for the reprieve of a rainstorm and the return of spring.

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Stuffed Peppers: A $2 Meal

I’m a supporter of a dedicated non-profit organization called Women Thrive Worldwide that advocates for women’s economic opportunities and rights internationally. I met WTW’s founder, Ritu Sharmu, years ago in Denver at a global women’s rights conference and was impressed by her commitment to increasing our government’s support for policies and budget priorities that help women around the world lift themselves out of poverty. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, Ritu lived on $1 a day in Burkina Faso, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to better understand the way many people in the world survive today. WTW also raises awareness of how global crises like famine, war, recession, and natural disasters place a disproportionate burden on women through sexual violence, food insecurity, increased family responsibilities, and social barriers.

Right now, Women Thrive Worldwide is asking for meal ideas, stories, and recipes as part of their Help Women Feed the World campaign. To recognize the fact that 2.5 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day, WTW is asking people to cook just one meal for that amount. By growing our own food at Stonebridge, we eat pretty economically, but $2 a meal is still a challenge. Tonight I’ve made stuffed peppers for two people that, I hope, would not cost more than $2 if you either grew the peppers yourself or got them at a farmer’s market or grocery store. I submitted our stuffed pepper recipe and was selected for the Women Feed the World Campaign. Click here to see my recipe and learn more about this fabulous campaign, including $2/meal recipes from around the world.

Here are more pictures and the story I wrote for Women Thrive Worldwide: 

My partner and I have an organic community-supported agricultural farm (CSA) in Colorado. From August through October, we harvest lots of different kinds of peppers and love to make stuffed peppers in a variety of ways. Before the first hard frost comes to the garden, we pick all the peppers and share them with our members. If you don’t grow your own or are a member of a CSA, peppers are also an economical choice at farmer’s markets or grocery stores.

The great gift of peppers is that they’re so easy to freeze: you don’t have to do anything but core out the stem and seed pod, chop or slice them, or leave them whole to freeze for stuffing later. When you’re ready to make stuffed peppers, pull them out of the freezer, stuff, and bake—no need to thaw first.

Our stuffings always include a mixture of grain (bulgar, quinoa, rice), nuts or seeds (walnuts, sunflower, sesame), grated or finely diced veggies (carrot, more peppers, broccoli, kale, spinach, summer squash), and some grated or crumbled cheese (feta, Monterey jack, or parmesan), although cheese is optional if it’s over your $2 budget or for a vegan diet. For extra protein, add cooked lentils or small beans. Buying grains and legumes in bulk saves money; I always make a double batch so I have enough for a couple of meals.

Mix the ingredients in about equal amounts, season the mixture with fresh or dried herbs like parsley, basil, or oregano and a little salt and pepper, and stuff into a cored and seeded pepper like a green or colored bell, poblano, anaheim, or even skinny Jimmy Nardello sweet red peppers. Stuff firmly but don’t pack too hard so that the stuffing can bake inside the pepper. You can top each pepper with a dollop of marinara or enchilada sauce if it’s in your budget but they’re still delicious with no sauce at all. (If the skin gets a little scorched, you can peel it off.)

Bake in a low-sided, oiled roasting or cake pan at 395 for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the thickness of the pepper. Once the pepper’s soft and a little wrinkled, it’s ready to eat.

Tonight I stuffed poblano peppers with a mixture of cooked bulgar, grated carrot, chopped fresh flat parsley, sesame seeds, red lentils, and grated Romano cheese. (To cook bulgar, add 1 cup grain to 2 ½ cup boiling water, reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 25-30 minutes. For red lentils, bring 2 cups water to a boil, add 1 cup rinsed lentils, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. You should have enough of both ingredients to stuff 8 good-sized bell peppers.)

In the US, our cuisine is often based on separate protein, grains, and vegetables on a plate and we think it’s bare if it’s not “filled out” this way, but in much of the world, these components are mixed together to form a single main dish. Stuffed peppers is exactly that—a bundle of wholesome ingredients that together create something greater than the parts!

To help Women Thrive Worldwide in their work for global women’s empowerment, join their Dollar a Day Circle

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Gluten Free? Try GMO Free

[I wrote this letter for our local papers but want to share it with my readers first because many of you are interested in this topic and I’d love comments.]

My daughter needs a gluten-free diet so I’m used to checking labels and asking at restaurants about gluten-free options. But as an organic farmer in Boulder County, I’m also concerned about the future of our food safety now that GMOs are entering our diets. A recent study in Canada found the Bt gene in the bodies of pregnant women and their unborn babies. Since the women ate conventional diets, the Bt most likely came from corn genetically modified to contain the Bt pesticide. But because GMO foods aren’t even labeled, we’re not allowed to know whether these potential allergens are in the foods we eat, even if we try to avoid them.

In 2003, the Boulder County commissioners held a public meeting about allowing GM corn on leased county open space agricultural land. Speaking in favor of GMO crops, the State Secretary of Agriculture asked the commissioners not to “take away our tools.” When then-commissioner Paul Danish remarked to anti-GMO advocates that GM seeds were already in use so “we can’t be virgins,” organic farmer John Martin brought down the house with “We may not be virgins but we don’t have to be prostitutes.” Despite community concerns, the commissioners decided to allow GM corn on publicly owned land.

Now the county is trying to craft protocol about open space agricultural usage and the biggest debate surrounds more genetically modified crops—sugar beets most immediately—and the value of growing them in our county. On the pro-GMO side are some farmers and chemical agricultural interests like CSU and farm consultants who claim that GMOs increase yields, decrease pesticide use, and are the wave of the future for feeding an increasing world population.

On the anti-GMO side are environmentalists, organic farmers and businesses, and citizens concerned about public health. They argue that GM crops should not be allowed on publicly owned land because GMOS threaten organic agriculture, are predicated on evermore dangerous pesticides as weed resistance increases, and pose devastating risks to health through the introduction of potential allergens. Opponents also point to the terrible track records of chemical companies like Monsanto, the lack of peer-reviewed studies regarding problems to ecosystems and human health, and the inadequate governmental process for determining safety of these new types of organisms.

At a recent panel discussion of these issues, an agricultural consultant echoed the State Secretary of Agriculture by lamenting that government is “taking away our tools.” Yet the reason those tools were taken away is their toxicity. Take DDT: Scientists started raising questions about its horrible impact on natural systems in the 1940s, yet it wasn’t banned until 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the public to its dangers. Clearly, that “tool” wasn’t a good one to keep in the toolbox.

As an organic farmer, I believe that GMOs “tools” are already proving dangerous and certainly don’t belong on publicly owned land. Farms like ours face potential destruction if GM drift contaminates our crops and we as farmers face lawsuits from biotech companies if GM plants are found on our land. Looking to the future, our farm would never consider selling our land to open space if GM crops might be allowed here some day. Even if the county required GM farmers to carry huge liability policies, I cannot see the possibility of GM and organic co-existing in any long-term relationship because the county cannot protect organic crops from contamination. But beyond particular organic farms like ours, the county is responsible for protecting the health of its open space land and the citizens that live here.

It’s time for Boulder County to take steps away from risky agricultural practices and start down the road to environmentally sustainable policies–which in the long run will prove economically sustainable as well–by banning GM crops, leasing smaller acreages to encourage farming for local consumption, connecting local growers with local organic businesses, and supporting transitions away from chemical dependency through organic practices that increase yields and improve soil for better human and planetary health.

If, like me, you read labels and are concerned about how the food you eat is grown, urge Boulder County to be governmental leaders toward new agricultural practices by emailing them at croplandpolicy@bouldercounty.org.

 

 

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