Archive for April, 2014

In Season!

This Article was originally produced for the Oregonian’s FOODday

DSC_0123Asparagus is a picky plant: It requires specific soil, it takes years to establish a crop, fields are susceptible to disease and harvesting is labor-intensive. For those brave enough to grow it, asparagus has historically supplied farmers with an early-season cash crop, but imports from South America, Mexico and California have made the arrival of local asparagus less of a rite of spring and instead a seeming example of how local products cost more.

The result of the extended season, cheap imports and the plant’s finicky nature means less local asparagus. According to the USDA, Oregon’s farmers plant 75 percent fewer acres than they did 20 years ago. All these forces work in concert to change the way asparagus tastes or at least how you perceive the vegetable should taste.

Fresh asparagus is a sweet vegetable, about 4 percent natural sugar. Once picked, stalks convert that sugar to starch, and the longer asparagus waits in transport or sits on a shelf, the more fibrous, less sweet and more acrid it becomes. Thus, the two-week-old asparagus you buy at a store and keep in the fridge for a week becomes the baseline for how you think the plant tastes: slightly bitter and chewy. Once in a while, through planning or good fortune, you find the real deal — fresh, crisp and sweet, reminding you how asparagus ought to taste. The asparagus available at most farmers markets is delivered soon after harvest — often within a day, so the flavor will never be better unless you head out to the field with shears and a pot of simmering water.DSC_0081

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Oh, Happy (Earth) Day

by Kelly Merrick

Once a year, at the end of April, comes a day where we take the time to honor the planet we live on, and we call this day Earth Day.

Lucky for us, we live in a city that makes it easy to love the earth every day of the year, not for just one day. We have more than 10,000 acres of public parks and natural areas to enjoy, we’re just a short drive to the ocean, the mountains and the desert; and we have such an abundance of local and fresh food that we can honor the earth even when we shop for our groceries.

Speaking of honoring the earth and buying groceries, there’s a great chance for you to do both this DSC_0205Saturday, April 26 at the Arbor Day Festival, which will take place from 8:30am to 2pm right in the middle of the Portland Farmers Market at PSU.

The festival is put on by Portland Parks & Recreation along with the Urban Forestry Commission and is Portland’s annual gathering to honor the culmination of Arbor Month.

There will be interactive games, and educational activities for kids of all ages, including the highlight of the event – the Bill Naito Community Trees Award ceremony at Noon. The ceremony will honor the 936 people who made the Guinness World Record for largest tree-hug a reality, as well as Phil Hamilton, who put in over 21,000 hours over the course of 20 years to help document and restore the forest of the Tryon Creek State Natural area.

The Arbor Day Festival will feature something for everyone, so come do your shopping at the market and then stop by to enjoy the fun. The weather is even supposed to clear up just in time for the event, so you can leave your umbrella (yes, Oregonians do use umbrellas) and galoshes at home and soak up some sun while you celebrate trees in the city.

In other market news, you can also catch the following vendors at PSU this week in a limited market appearance:IMG_0661

  • Portland Mushroom Company – making a one-time guest appearance (they will be a regular at the Buckman and Pioneer Courthouse Square markets this season)
  • My Wreaths – last day until the fall
  • Cascade Naturals
  • Dave’s Killer Bread

And last, but certainly not least, three markets are joining in on the springtime fun this week! Buckman opens Thursday, May 1; King on Sunday, May 4 and Shemanski is back starting Wednesday, May 7.

Happy shopping!

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Refuge Gardens: Growing Opportunities

Our friends at Refuge Gardens, a program of Mercy Corps Northwest, connect recent refugees with the land, supplies and skills they need in order to improve their livelihoods through small-scale farming. Later this season, you can visit their booth at the PSU and Shemanski Park Markets, where the farmers sell their crops.  In the meantime, read more below to learn about the program and how you can help support it.

By Seth Belber, Program Manager, Refuge Gardens

From farm...

From farm…

Did you know that Portland welcomes 1,000 refugees into its city limits each year? Mercy Corps Northwest’s Refuge Gardens provides these families with an opportunity to integrate and build healthy lives within our community.

Through our program, families receive access to land and farm training. They grow and market seasonal produce, which provides financial stability and access to healthy food grown without synthetic inputs of any kind.

There are many ways you can help support this program:

CSA SUBSCRIPTION: Receive a weekly box of fresh, local, seasonal vegetables, while contributing to the well-being of refugee families from the Nepali Bhutanese and Karen Burmese community.  (Pick up locations include the Shemanski Park Farmers Market on Wednesdays).  Download the 2014 Refuge Gardens CSA Flyer>>

DONATE LAND: Much of this work is done on small plots donated by the community. If you have an unused parcel of land and want to learn how to put it to use, contact Seth Belber at sbelber@mercycorpsnw.org.

...to market

…to market

GIVE: Individual contributions can make a huge difference.  Your donation will help purchase fertilizer, seeds, equipment, and other farming supplies.  Click here to make a donation>>

Thank you for your support!

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Rhubarb, Daffodils & Signs of Spring

Years ago, I remember reading a passage where an author (1), was recollecting how in his youth heDSC_0383 was so impoverished that sugar was a luxury and living in outpost far away from other fruits, he used to scour the sandy inclines next to railroad tracks with his brother for rhubarb poking through a dusting of snow. So desperate for the promise of warm weather and the taste of something sweet, they’d break off the stems and suck the juice from the stalks as trains roared by them.

I can’t look at rhubarb without feeling spoiled and being grateful for all my choices. The passage was also powerful enough to inspire me enough to bite into a stalk. Just once and I forever add sugar or honey and make a quick jam out of spring’s first sweet offering.

DSC_0003Now that were inching closer to berry season, we have a lot more things to satisfy a sweet tooth. Especially, if your willing to expand how you define sweet, last week the PSU market had sweet peas, asparagus, calcots and of course honey.

Starvation Alley is also rethinking sweetness. Washington’s only certified organic cranberry grower sells cold-pressed, undiluted cranberry juice. Full of flavor, the juice stands on it’s own without the addition of sweeteners or juice blends. Try it out, it might be the very thing for Easter brunch or depending on how modern your Seder is, it could replace the parsley on the table.

DSC_0017Speaking of Passover and Easter, Pine Mountain, Pono and Sexton Ranches can hook you up with brisket. Simon the Salmon man will be on hand at PSU with “not very many fish,” but enough to get the early risers set up. The Smokery has fish kippered and prepared for the holiday table. And if your joining a meal as a guest, PSU has pretty flowers, chocolates and wine/cider/mead to share.

A spate of markets open in May, but until the calendar flips, PSU is the only venue from Portland Farmers Market. 8:30-2 on Saturdays. Come visit us, bring a guest and load up on rhubarb and everything else the Northwest spring has to offer.

(1) I’m reasonably sure this was from John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers & Keepers, but my memory is in decline enough that I can’t guarantee that’s where the passage rests, but can promise, that is a book worth reading. 

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Bogs, Mire & Berries

For some, when they find themselves in a hole, just keep digging. When Starvation Alley finds IMG_20140301_094805themselves in a hole, they grow cranberries. While a cranberry bog isn’t a metaphorical hole, rather an acre or so of land, set just above the water table reinforced by earthen dikes, there should be some analogy akin to lemons and lemonade. If only cranberries were better understood, it would work as a trope better.

When people think about cranberries it revolves around two uses: If you are a traditionalist, cranberries, particularly relish, serves as an anchor of the holiday table. For the pluralistic, urban living populations, cranberries mean Cosmopolitans, in this case, the cocktail; possibly some other cocktail. Even with the average consumption up to 2.3 pounds per citizen, mostly in the form of juice, cranberries could use a higher profile, Starvation Alley is here to help with that.

IMG_20140120_160114In 2008, John and Debbie Oakes purchased 60 year old cranberry bogs on the Long Beach Peninsula, just across the Columbia from Astoria. In 2010, the Oakes’ son, Jared and his partner, Jessika Tantisook, took over management of the farm. Beginning with the 2011 growing season, Oakes and Tanitsook began the three year transition resulting in the farm becoming the only certified organic cranberry farm in Washington State and the closest organic grower to the Portland Metro Area.

The organic certification is just part of a new way of approaching a very old crop in the pacific NW. Starvation Alley doesn’t sweeten their product. Their cranberries are frozen, unthawed in small batches and cold pressed. This method allows for tangy, nuanced flavors to shine through, making what Starvation Alley’s Alana Kambury calls, “Garnet gold; a product that stands on it’s own without sweeteners, juices or diluting.”

On the business side, Tantisook and Oakes recently filed paperwork to become a Social Purpose Corporation. So few people grow cranberries organically there isn’t a large repository of knowledge, data or best practices. Starvation Alley is working to change that, along with the SPC designation, they’re helping with two area farms transition to organic methods and they’re teaming up with Bainbridge Graduate Institute, where 3 of the Starvation’s team members earned MBAs in Sustainable Systems. These partnerships allow the enterprise to share their knowledge, failures and successes; providing information so farmers can, according to Kambury, “improve their livelihoods while helping them make more environmentally and socially minded farming decisions.”

YarrowSince so little is known about cranberries, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the crop is not hydroponically grown. Cranberries develop just on land, the evergreen shrub the berries grow on actually needs moderately acidic soil to thrive, not water. Bogs are usually flooded for harvest, but not always, growers can dry harvest berries using an Edward Scissorshandsish rake. This method is highly labor intensive and not as photogenic – As a flooded bog is a photo composition waiting to happen: The berries are crimson, set off against opaque water and autumnal browning, the setting is the agricultural equivalent of a super model – just point and click and everything around the lens looks better. Starvation Alley employs a wet harvest. At Starvation Alley the fields are flooded twice, once early in the season for pest control and second time for harvest – ripe berries float to the surface where they are harvested.

So far their efforts have been well received. Edible Portland have nominated the farmers as Food Heroes. Starvation Alley’s juices can be found on the cocktail lists of many of the NW’s hotspots (keep track of where to get that pluralistic, urbane cocktail here) and with their appearance at the PSU Farmers Market (and soon the King Market), they’re able to share their passion and creative approach to cranberries with thousands of food lovers every week.

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