I had a delightful visit from my parents, so this week’s post is short. But they witnessed what may well be one of the wettest Junes I’ve experienced since moving to Indiana. These images sum up what they saw of Indiana this time around.
Water, Water Everywhere
The sunflowers (first of the season purchased at the farmers market Saturday morning) sit brightly on my kitchen island, reminding me of that orb so little seen lately. Yes, the sun has been peeking out a bit today, but solar radiation has certainly been in short supply this past month. For me, the lack of sun affects me more psychically—too much of the same make Petra an irritated (and perhaps irritating) girl. It isn’t that I dislike rain; in fact, I enjoy hearing thunder or listening to a steady soaking rain falling on my roof. But not for days at a time. That said, my complaints are just that, silly complaints. For a farmer, whose livelihood depends on the weather, days of rain can make or break one’s year financially.
I write this on the first day of summer, 2015. The solstice officially occurred at 12:39 PM EDT (16:39 UTC). Earlier today, I drove down to Indianapolis and was struck—almost stunned—by the amount of standing water I saw in the fields. Traveling the interstate in Indiana means traveling alongside farm fields (and, being Indiana, those would be fields of corn, soybeans, and maybe winter wheat). Every field was partly covered with water. In March or April or even the first half of May, it is not unusual to see field with vernal ponds, those temporary mini-lakes occurring where the water table is high. But by the start of (astronomical) summer, they are usually gone. The longer days and warmer temperatures allow for a greater ability for evaporation (or transpiration, which is the process of water returned to the atmosphere in vapor form via plants). What’s different now is that the ponding is occurring to a greater extent than even that of the spring. I know—I have a field behind my house and can see the water in spots. And what else is different is how many fields have NOT been planted.
It’s June 21. By now, the farmers should have planted their fields. But conditions this month have been so wet that many fields haven’t even been touched. Acres that should have corn or soybeans growing haven’t been touched and still have last year’s harvest detritus littering the ground. Planting was already behind schedule back at the beginning of May (which was, in retrospect, a fairly dry month); Now this soggy, sodden June has rendered planting even farther behind. And once the summer begins, it may be too late. It’s not just planting, either. Conventional farmers may find conditions too wet to apply fertilizer. Agricultural experts at Purdue University suggest that Hoosier farmers prepare for crop losses due to the flooding.
What’s the Problem with Standing Water?
Plant survival, that’s the problem. Roots cannot survive in saturated soils for very long. Crops planted earlier have (by now) developed stronger and deeper root systems; they will be likelier to survive this flood onslaught. But recently planted corn and soy may be more vulnerable. That comes with the risk, then, of nothing to harvest. And, come fall, no crops means no money.
Yes, pun intended. California’s exception drought is getting most of the attention these days. And it rightly should be of concern to us, not just Californians, but the rest of the United States. California does serves as the fruit and vegetable and nut basket—no pun intended—of the country. The recent climatology, coupled with social and political decisions, has culminated in a mess. A big mess.
But, as the case of Indiana shows, too much rain can also be detrimental. I talked with a lamb farmer at the market on Saturday and she told me that her soybean fields were underwater; the lamb pasture is full of water, too,. Another farmer, one who grows organic fruits and vegetables, was bemoaning the plethora of storms that just keep coming and coming and coming. Farmers, as my great-uncle was fond of saying, are the greatest gamblers on the earth. They gamble with the weather.
Counting Blessings and Counting Luck
I’m grateful that my livelihood isn’t so dependent on the chaotic nature of the atmosphere. And hopefully yours isn’t either. In that case (if you are religious), count your blessings; if not religious, count your luck. Maybe I pay for this with some higher prices at the market or with some down moods because I haven’t seen the sun in some time or the occasional flooded roads in my subdivision. But overall, I’m grateful that my concerns with the weather are so small. Farmers aren’t nearly so lucky.
Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland
If there is one idea, one image, one thing that seems to be endemic in the minds and imaginations of the many of the rest of America, it’s that the Midwest and Plains are full of bucolic family farms, where chickens run at the feet of wholesome children and every supper is chock full of home-baked bread, hearty pickles, and meat from one’s own herd. Well, there may still be some of that, but the reality is that much of the agriculture in the Flyover States is industrial and that the family farm has a difficult time surviving against the corporate invasion. But there ARE some farms (and farmers) that fit, well, maybe not quite the picture painted above but perhaps something similar or even better.
Tucked into an industrial monoculture agricultural model are small farms producing heirloom produce and artisanal goods. Some of these farms have been in the same family for generations; others have been started by people who are new to farming, but have deep-seated beliefs about how food should be raised (e.g. organically). What farms like these share is a commitment to personal values.
Thanks to Anna Blessing’s informative (and inspiring) book Locally Grown, you have a chance to meet the people who grow heirloom vegetables and humanely raise poultry and livestock on a smaller, more local scale. Blessing’s book allows us to chat with (via book form) those farmers who are breaking away from the monocultural, industrial model. The reader can find out about the farming practices used by these farmers. We get to meet Greg Gunthorp, of Lagrange, Indiana’s Gunthorp Farms, who raises meat and poultry. We meet Mick Klug and his daughter Abby, who raise fruits and vegetables in southwestern Michigan. We meet Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband, who run Champaign, Illinois’ Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, a farmstead goat creamery. These producers—and others—are featured in the book.
The book’s subtitle is Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland, but Blessing is really focusing on farms known to supply some of Chicago’s best restaurants. So, that means the book does have a Chi-town-centric approach, but it’s accessible nonetheless. The photography is inviting and enough information is given so that the Heartland foods enthusiast can track down the growers by themselves. And, of course, a link to restaurants and their chefs (e.g. Rick Bayless) means that you’ll find recipes in Locally Grown as well! The recipes utilize the foods grown or made by the producers featured in the book, but you can certainly use what you find at your local farmers market. A few recipes might have ingredients that are difficult to find—I don’t think, for example, that I’ve ever seen a lipstick pepper in my life—but one can easily find substitutes for such elements.
In short, Anna Blessing’s Locally Grown is a welcome addition to any cooking enthusiast or any person interested in foods produced in a more sustainable and local manner. She sheds light on what has been, up to now, an unfortunately neglected part of America’s food culture.
If you’ve only eaten radishes raw, try eating them cooked. This simple recipe adds another way of enjoying this root vegetable to your culinary repertoire. This recipe is based on one from Diane Morgan found in Fine Cooking (Issue 122).
What You’ll Need
- chopping board
- large skillet or frying pan
- measuring cup and spoons
- 2 bunches radishes, tops removed (can save some of the radish greens)
- 2 Tbsp butter, salted or unsalted
- 3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 1 tsp sugar
- salt and pepper
- flat-leaf (Italian) parsley (or reserved radish greens)
How to Cook Braised Radishes
- Rinse and dry the radishes. Cut off the tops and root tails. Then slice into approximately ¼ inch rounds (if radishes are very small, feel free to halve or quarter them).
- Over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the radishes (with a pinch of salt), cover and cook them on medium-low for 5-10 minutes, stirring fairly often (of course, you’ll have to uncover them to stir). They should become noticeably softened.
- Once softened, add your stock and bring the mixture to a boil. Then add the vinegar, sugar, and salt (about ½ tsp, though you can use less if you opted for salted butter). Reduce heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally.
- Cook until the liquid is reduced to a glazy consistency.
- Garnished with chopped parsley or chopped radish greens. Serve immediately.
Eavesdropping on a Farmers Market Conversation
Late May in Indiana can be a time of real produce anticipation. Unlike early May, when bedding plants and a few lettuces form the bulk of offered wares, late May brings us a peek into the summer ahead, when fruits and vegetables from local farmers overflow the vendor stands. It’s when my Flyover cooking imagination really starts taking hold.
I was in line at the Christopher Farm stand (run by organic farmer extraordinaire Wendy Carpenter) on Saturday, as a market trip is part of my Saturday morning routine. I overheard a customer in front of me ask Wendy if she knew of Dan Barber (the celebrated chef and sustainable foods advocate). Wendy hadn’t heard of him, but the customer, no doubt looking at her delicious carrots and beets, mentioned that Barber believed the Midwest’s root crops were the best, given the cold winters. I have no idea if Barber ever said that (and while I did read his eye-opening tome The Third Plate, I don’t remember if he discussed them or not). But certainly, many root crops are sweeter after a frost, because they process their starches into sugars. That said, root vegetables are hardly limited to the midlatitudes; cassava (aka manioc—it’s the source of tapioca) is a staple food in places like Nigeria, Brazil, and other low-latitude countries.
Types of Root Vegetables
Perhaps Barber—if he really did say this—was referring to a category of root vegetable based on the taproot, the central root from which other roots grow. Types of taproot vegetables include carrots, parsnips, and yes, the radish (the other category, tuberous roots, would include cassava, yams, and sweet potatoes). Radishes are, to me, a sign that summer is on its way (even if it’s not here yet)–they are one of the first non-lettuce vegetables I find for sale at the farmers market.
The radish (Raphanus sativus) is thought to have originated in southeast Asia. They have been cultivated for millennia far from Asia (e.g. Europe). Although there are varieties that linked to various Asian cuisines (e.g. daikon radish and Japanese cookery), my focus here is mainly on those commonly seen in my Flyover farmers markets.
Although radishes with red spherical taproots (yup, that scarlet orb that you eat is the taproot) are most common, one can find radishes in a variety of colors (e.g. white, purple). Additionally, they may be shaped like stubby fingers instead of globes (such as the spicy French Breakfast radish).
Radishes are typically eaten raw, perhaps in salads, as crudites, or as part of a sandwich. Although their sharp crispness is the appeal for many a radish lover, these can actually be cooked. When subject to heat, radishes become earthy, yet sweet. Any spiciness is tamed (but in a good way!) Later this week I’ll be posting a recipe for radishes cooked in butter—you an even use the radish greens as a garnish.