Organic. What does that mean? What does that mean to you?

A “certified organic” label shows that a product has met USDA guidelines for production under the National Organic Program.  Typically, people understand that these guidelines mandate minimal chemical inputs (e.g.  pesticides and inorganic fertilizers) and so demand for organic foods is usually driven by interest in personal health and access to nutritious and non-toxic foods.  But there are many other reasons to buy locally produced organic products.  By shopping for local foods, you are keeping money local, putting it into the pockets of your neighbors instead of distant, faceless corporations.  You are also “paying” for cleaner water and air; decreased soil erosion and contamination from chemicals, pesticides, and antibiotics; and even enhancing benefits to wildlife.

True, organic products often cost 10 to 40% more than comparable conventionally produced products, and that can be a major deterrent to consumers shopping on a budget.  Take it from a college student, I know.  If only they made organic Ramen! However, sustainable agriculture seeks to connect growers and buyers and to educate people about production practices and challenges whereby they can come to understand and learn to appreciate the more realistic costs of organic foods.  That is, how organic growers are actually investing in the community instead of merely profiting by passing on “unpriced” externalities in the form of environmental and social degradation.

Think about it.  In the holistic sense of the word, how “organic” is produce shipped all the way from California or overseas?  How sustainable is a production system that relies on such heavy energy expenditures to store and ship products over long distances?  Each time an agricultural product changes hands, that’s one less cut that goes back into the farmers’ pockets.  How does that system ensure that agriculturalists receive fair pay for all their hard work?

On the other hand, think about all the added benefits of the shopping at the farmers’ market.  Consider the unique varieties of heirlooms offered- those oddly colored and strangely shaped fruits and vegetables you might be willing to try- and (fortunately!) friendly and knowledgeable people who can tell you what they are, how to cook them, and even recommend tried and true recipes.  Here you can talk to the actual growers about quality of their products and the soundness of their land use practices.  You can see the pride they take in offering something they’ve nurtured with their own two hands.  “This relationship… between consumer and producer is what I feel is the heart of “organic” and this is what people need to be looking for. Not a label slapped on fancy packaging, but a producer they know and trust1.”

You’ve got a wallet full of ballots; where will you cast them?

“One very powerful tool to affect social change is our consumer dollar2.”  How individuals spend their money actually says a lot about their values and priorities.  A sustainable food production system desperately needs educated consumers, because each purchase you make affects us all.  Educating yourself about your food purchases and the production methods that created them, a strategy called “green purchasing3,” enables you to make a difference.

“The easiest way to promote a sustainable lifestyle is by living your values. Sustainable purchasing is one way to demonstrate that value.  In fact, getting others involved in your purchasing habits is a great way to spread awareness to friends, neighbors, and others in your community2.”  What better reason to come on down to the farmers’ market?

So please consider whether these are worth paying more for when you make your shopping choices.  If you believe health and prosperity are important not only to you, but to your friends and neighbors and food producers, then I encourage you to support your values with your money.

I encourage you to buy thoughtfully.

And I look forward to seeing you soon!

For more information, visit:

NOP Organic Labeling Standards

One More Reason to Vote With Your Dollar from Slow Food USA

10 Tips to Buying Organic on a Budget

Sources:

  1. http://farmermarketing.blogspot.com/2005/09/certified-organic-vs-true-intent-of.html
  2. http://blog.taigacompany.com/blog/sustainability-business-life-environment/vote-with-your-dollar-for-sustainable-change
  3. http://www.esourcingwiki.com/index.php/An_Introduction_to_Green_Purchasing#Food

Interns wanted!

With the success of the first season of the market garden and internship program, we are looking for new interns for 2011! Five internships are available to start spring 2011 to work on the farm and in the market garden. Produce grown will be sold at the farm market this summer. All majors and background are welcome to apply, and no experience necessary. Interns will learn sustainable and organic vegetable production, soil fertility and cover crops, small business management, tillage systems and crop rotation, and much, much more. Two new requirements of the internship will include registering for PLSC 275 and PLSC 492. Those who are interested can find out more by visiting our website at organics.utk.edu or contact Mary Rogers at mroger30@utk.edu /974-0710.

End of the season

As any farmer can attest, a growing season goes by quite quickly. The seeds go in. The plants break ground. The fruit produced and harvested. The plants fizzle away. It is to be expected that things will come to an end. Such is the case with this year’s internship. Starting in January, 5 interns assisted with daily farm operations, took over the market garden, weeded, tilled, planted, manned the farm market, played in “the cull garden”, and ran away from terrorizing killdeers. They learned to drive tractors, to put out fish emulsion, to operate a farmer’s market, and to grow every vegetable they could imagine. They learned that okra plants will always cause itching, that squash plants will need to be harvested every day, and that cherry tomatoes give out possibly too many cherry tomatoes. They counted insects, squished off Colorado Potato beetles, and battled horn worms on a daily basis. They thumped watermelons, carefully handled tomatoes, and taste tested the hottest peppers on the farm (Aurora in case you were wondering). They did each and every one of these things with full effort- and during this hot, hot summer.

So it is that I commend each one of you. Kelly. Jess. Mechelle. Daniel. Philip. (Alex and Nora, I’ll include you all too)  and say thank you for a wonderful season, for taking this risk, taking all the challenges we threw at you, and continually making the program and the unit. I am grateful for this experience with each of you, and I hope at the end of this we have made farmers out of you.

Grant

2010 Intern Coordinator

Salsa Day Salsas

Thanks to all those who came out to Salsa Day. We had a wonderful time sharing our concoctions, competing, and fellowship with everyone. As promised and as follows are the salsas submitting in this year’s Salsa Intern Challenge including the winning one, Everything Nice Salsa. Congrats to Mechelle and Nora

Philip and Daniel’s El Presidente’s Finest

5 Roma Tomatoes

1/2 Medium Size Onion

2 Medium Size Jalapeno Peppers

2 Large Cloves of Garlic

1/2 Teaspoon Salt

1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder

1/2 Lime’s Juice

1/4 Cup Cilantro Leaves

1/2 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Cooking Spray

1. Take two of your roma tomatoes and slice them very thin. Then using cooking spray, coat your cookie sheet and place the tomato slices on top. Next pop your tomato slices into the oven on the top shelf and set the oven to broil. Once they become very shriveled remove them. It is extremely easy to burn them so watch carefully.

2. In your food processor chop up: 1/4 Medium Size Onion 1 Medium Size Jalapeno Pepper 1 Large Clove of Garlic (not bulbs). In a skillet at medium heat pour 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil. Then place the chopped jalapeno, garlic and onion on top of the oil. Cook this mixture until the onions appear wilted.

3. Next chop the remaining tomatoes, 1 clove garlic, 1/4 onion and 1 jalapeno.

4.To this tomato mixture chop in: Cooked Onion, garlic and Jalapeno Mixture from step three, Roasted Tomato Slices, 1/2 Teaspoon Salt, 1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder, 1/2 Lime’s Juice, 1/4 Cup Cilantro Leaves

Grant’s Orange Afterburn

3 Valencia Tomatoes, 1 Arkansas traveler, cord with seeds remove and as much liquid removed as well.

3 cloves garlic (maybe more), slightly diced

1/2 Medium Onion, chopped

Salt

Pepper

In proccesor, dice onions and garlic. Take out, and set aside. Add tomatoes to processor. Chop. In bowl, fold mix together. Season with salt and pepper. For this salsa, the garlic is pretty over powering which is the goal.

Kelly’s Arkansas Wildfire

So this was my first attempt at salsa, and not to toot my own horn, but… beep beep because I was pretty proud of myself. I tied for third in the competition which was fine by me. My salsa was Arkansas Wildfire, named for the Arkansas Traveler heirloom tomatoes used in it and the heat off of some hot peppers, both from the farm. It was definitely the hottest of the five salsas and pretty chunky compared to the others. Here is the recipe for Arkansas Wildfire:

6 medium sized Arkansas Traveler tomatoes

1/2 onion

1/2 garlic bulb

3 hot peppers (jalapenos or hot pepper of your choosing)

dash of salt

All I did was chop this stuff up, mix it together and added the salt. I will say the garlic was a little strong for my liking, so a little less might still get the job done.

Mary’s “Mariachi Madness” Salsa

  • 7 tomatoes (3 ‘Valencia’ and 4 ‘Arkansas Traveler’), seeded and chopped
  • 1 medium sized onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 3 jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely chopped
  • ½ habenero pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 T  salt
  • 1 T  oregano
  • 1 T  cumin
  • 1 T Tabasco
  • 1 T honey
  • ½ cup of apple cider vinegar
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped

Directions:

Mix everything but cilantro in a large bowl. In a 2 qt saucepan, heat to boiling and reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Pour into a 1 quart jar and mix in fresh, chopped cilantro.

And finally the winning salsa……

Nora and Mechelle’s Everything Nice Salsa

Ingredients:
3 medium sized tomatoes
1 half bell pepper
1 half head of garlic
1 apple
1 jalepeno (to taste)
1/3 cup almonds
2 teaspoons honey (to taste)
1 medium onion
2 teaspoons basil
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

Dice all ingredients and stir together. Let sit overnight for best
results. Be free with your salsa-making!

Enjoy your Everything Nice salsa. 🙂

Killdeer Nest

Recently on the farm, we discovered a nest of spotted eggs and a momma killdeer protecting them. Beautiful eggs of a beautiful animal. The only problem was that they were on top of one of our baby cucumber plants!

All was well until we needed to weed the plants around the nest and to trellis all the cucumbers. As soon as we got close to the nest, the killdeer would either screech loudly over and over or run off and fake a broken wing. The broken wing act is to distract the predator from the eggs and draw it to the adult.  She was sometimes aggressively protective of her eggs and sometimes just obnoxiously loud. I know you’re probably thinking– “Come on, it’s just a momma bird trying to protect her babies.” We know, we know. We had appreciation and respect for what she was doing, but the repetitive squaking soon became more than just an annoyance– it was constant! Here’s an example of the classic killdeer broken wing act.

Eventually, the eggs hatched and the gorgeous killdeer family left us for a new home. We were glad to help them out with their housing situation, but we do hope they don’t tell their friends!

Blister Beetles are here!

It’s been awhile since the blog has gotten any attention and I’m breaking the silence! We have been busy at the farm which has left us little time to blog and keep everyone updated. A good bit of time we spend at the farm is done insect scouting, which might sound like an in depth process, but is literally just checking every plant for insect- pests. This past week myself and some other interns were scouting and noticed a new insect on our eggplant, and not really anywhere else. They were identified by Mary, our boss, as Blister Beetles. They get this common name by a defensive mechanism of secreting cantharidin, a chemical that causes blister on the skin where the bug touches. This chemical is released near the leg joints of the insect and affects people differently depending on how reactive they are.

We usually smash bugs with latex gloves on and I was thankful I had them on before asking Mary more about the blister beetle. The damage is pretty substantial on our eggplants, the beetle has greatly defoliated about a quarter of our plants. We realized that after smashing as many as possible it was going to be hard to put a dent in thier already robust population. So I geared up and sprayed the eggplant with Pyganic. I know what you are thinking, because it was my same though when I first heard of this product. How can you spray for insects if you are growing organically? Well this is an insecticide that is derived from chrysanthemums, so it is organic itself. After a hot hour of spraying I was done and hopefully the blister beetles are through munching on our eggplants! Take it easy in the heat!

We’re Certified!

We have good reason to celebrate! As of Monday, June 7, 2010, 9.8 acres of the Organic Crops Unit completed the transitional period to become certified organic.  The UT Harvest Market is included in this acreage, and we are pleased to offer our organic produce at our student-run market in the Friendship Plaza of the UT gardens every Friday, from 2-4 pm (this Friday, June 11 from 3-5 pm).

We have worked hard and learned much during our transitional period, and we know we still have much to learn!

Being organic means trying to reach an equilibrium with nature by building our soils, growing the healthiest plants possible, and reducing insect and disease pressure through natural means. This is a dynamic process, and always presents us with new challenges. Our undergraduate assistants, graduate students, interns, and everyone who works or has worked at the OCU has has played a part in helping us reach certification.

How have we achieved this?

We build the soils by planting cover crops in the fall and spring, and incorporate these “green manures” into the soil to provide nutrients for our transplants. We side-dress our veggies with compost and fish emulsion and use straw mulch t0 to keep our soil covered. We are trying to find ways to reduce tillage and manage our weeds selectively by mowing, hoeing and hand-pulling. This keeps us in shape!

We use certified organic seed and OMRI approved inputs that are pre-approved and on our organic systems plan. We try to use off-farm inputs sparingly, but sometimes need to use neem oil, pyrethrum, spinosad and Bt to help manage our pests. We selectively cull or prune out diseased plants and use row covers. We plant many different crops, and rotate fields to reduce pest pressure. We plant flowers for the pollinators, beneficial insects and to pick for bouquets for the market garden. With all the different colors, heights and textures, our diverse garden is attractive.

I’ve learned one of the virtues necessary for successful organic gardening is patience. It can take time for natural processes to occur; for soil organic matter to build, for weeds and insect populations to stably decline, for organic matter to compost. If you are a patient observer, you’ll see that nothing happens overnight. This is my 3rd summer here, and each year our team grows a little more, we do a little more research and our garden gets a little bigger. It is a natural progression, and little by little we reach our goals. By this time next year, we will complete the transition for 3.7 more acres!

The April-May Recap

As further explanation for the lack of information on our the market, we could just say that we have been really busy with school and work which in actuality is true. The past month has been very productive and beneficial in our project. So here’s the recap:

Market Garden

Cool Season plants took off finally in April. We used a row cover to keep pests off and this tended to work for our Kale, Swiss Chard, and Cabbage without having to spray too much (though we ran into some problems with Aphids and had to take a Neem Oil Mix to them). Fertilizing was done on transplants and our direct seeded produce in every other week shifts using Schaffer’s Fisheries Liquid Fish. The interns, much to their enjoyment, had fun mixing dead fish together in a water solution. While it stinks, it is an effective method that has helped us out greatly. Our potatoes finally took off as well. We were worried that we might have put them in too early or the location might have so much compaction that the potato plant might struggle to break the ground but after some periods of warmer weather and finger-crossing on our part, the potatoes broke through and are standing close to a foot tall. Now we are monitoring them weekly to make sure the pests don’t get them.

As stated before, our market garden is in a 4 quad system and we rotated into the next one as soon as it became warm enough. Rows of corn and beans were planted mid-april. We planted 8 rows of sweet corn that should give us all we need and a variety of beans (bush, pole, soup, etc) were planted near each other. Being in the south, we also had to plant okra, putting out 4 rows of Clemson Spineless. After much talk, the best approach for quad 3 and 4 was to lay down black plastic. What we had learned from the start of the season by strip tilling, we had more problems with the cover crop sustaining and with weed control. By laying down black plastic mulch, it meant we could just plant in a certain area. The mulch keeps in moisture, raises the soil temperature, and allows us to control the weeds-since they will just be around the plant. So one friday the guys at the farm attached a roll of plastic mulch and we rolled them down the rows. The next week we planted all of our squash, melons, tomatoes, zucs, cucs, and peppers. The layout of them also means that quad 4 has much room to expand its vines (it is hard to describe how this looks, so just go with me). We are caught up with our planting, and just waiting to put out the second succession of some crops.

Field Tour

The second field tour of the unit was held last month. During this time, over 200 people came out to look at our farm and listen to what are current research is. Topics ranged from no-tillage broccoli, high tunnel production, the market garden, small fruit production, marketing, cover crops and much more. We always enjoy this day because it allows people to further engage in learning and education, and to connect the research we do with the general public. Thanks to all those who came out to support  us and we look forward to next year’s!

Market Day

As it has been known, the market garden has been leading up to the Harvest Market. After months of planning and production, we finally had our grand opening May 14 in the  UT Gardens’ Friendship Plaza. Our first day we had strawberries, lettuce, spicy lettuce mix (it has a kick like Wasabi), green onions, kale, swiss chard, china choy, kohlirabi, and. We were very pleased with the turn out and the receptive group that joined us in making the market successful. It meant  a lot to all of us who had worked so hard on this project to finally see the end result. Our 2nd market saw the same result and we will continue to be at the UT Gardens 2-4 every Friday until school starts back.

So, as you have read, these last couple weeks have been busy but we know that the weeks to come will be even busier as more crops come in and need maintenance and harvesting.

The Bee’s Knees

This past Monday we had a workshop out on the farm where Dr. John Skinner of the Entomology department at UT talked about honey bees and beekeeping in Tennessee. He began with explaining just how important honey bees are to organic crops, and said insect pollination is responsible for one out of every three bites of food consumed! Quoting his hand-out, “The estimated value of pollination to Tennessee crop agriculture exceeds 130 million dollars a year.” Unfortunately, there have lately been major set-backs to the honey bee population, like mites and hive beetles, so Dr. Skinner has been working to make beekeeping easier for the average farmer and manage mite populations.

One of the things I never knew was the fact the color and taste of the honey that bees make differs according to the plants they visit for nectar. Some types of honey are a dark amber tint and have a richer taste than other types with a light golden color and a sweeter taste. If you know your honey’s, you can easily become a connoisseur of the yummy stuff! Honey also has health benefits (in moderation, of course) that include everything from energy and immune system boosts to remedies for sore throats and hangovers. Check out this website for other honey facts. Products other than honey include beeswax (which has a lot of common uses), candy, candles, and plenty of others.

Organic farming offers benefits to pollinators like the honey bee, but some practices can actually harm your honey bee population. By avoiding some of these practices (like primary tillage, flame weeding, plastic mulch and classical biological control), you can help support the local bee population. Of course, a couple of the practices above are unavoidable, but Dr. Skinner simply suggests minimizing them.

The workshop got me so interested in beekeeping, and I hope I can someday have my own beekeeping operation!

Have a sweet weekend,

Mechelle

Broccoli Chickpea Puree

Hey, all! I hope our loyal readers are doing very well this fine, warm and beautiful spring day. Few things make me want to have a nice healthy green meal  on the front porch like a beautiful day. So here is a great recipe from the New York Times for what is basically a green hummus. I spiced mine up with some cayenne pepper, white pepper and sea salt but it is very adaptable so don’t just follow the recipe, make it your own!

Broccoli Chickpea Puree

1/2 pound broccoli crowns

2 garlic cloves

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed, or 1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas

1/2 to 1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds (to taste)

2 to 4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (to taste)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons sesame tahini

1. Steam the broccoli for five minutes until tender but still bright. Refresh with cold water and drain on paper towels.

2. Turn on a food processor fitted with the steel blade, and drop in the garlic. When the garlic is minced and adhering to the sides of the bowl, stop the machine and scrape down the bowl. Add the broccoli, chickpeas and cumin, and process to a coarse purée. Turn off the machine, and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Turn on the machine again, and pour in the lemon juice and olive oil with the machine running. Process until smooth. Add the tahini and salt to taste, and blend well. Serve with bread, croutons or pita, or as a dip with vegetables.

Yield: Two cups.

*Best eaten the day of due to the lemon changing the flavor but mine is still tasty after two days.