Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Long Live Small Farms: Postcards from the Garden State

"It was fifty years since he had begun with his Mary, full of hope and pride, the merciless soil had hugged them to its bosom ever since each spring without rest. But he did not think of that. The soil gives forgetfulness. Only the present is remembered in the spring, even by the aged who have spent their lives tilling the earth." - Spring Sowing, a short story by Liam O'Flaherty.

Organic, non-GMO seeds on display at DePiero's Farm in Montvale, New Jersey, another family farm whose sun will set with a retail development slated to replace it. With the earth now providing its glorious bounty from the seeds, I am thinking of those who bring the food to our table: the under-appreciated farmers. Let us not have forgetfulness for them.

NorthJersey.com reported on the plight of small farms in New Jersey, noting "Statewide, the last 64 years have seen the number of farms shrink from 25,000, to 9,071. Bergen County has only 60 left; Passaic County, 78." The article talked about farms diversifying and meeting the demand for entertainment, like hayrides and corn mazes. I see crowds at the farm during the fall and for things like peach picking in the summer, but many seem so quiet the rest of the year.  I like how James Abma, owner of Abma's Farm in Wyckoff, put it that, ultimately, the onus is on the customer. “If they want to continue to see the small farms and garden centers, they have to patronize."

There's a lot of opposition to developing DePiero's Farm, and I'm not for development either, but I feel for the family farmers too. We can't lionize them, but not patronize them. Admittedly, I do most of my shopping at Trader Joe's, so I can do better too. My mom and I try and lunch regularly at local farms (save for the winter) and I buy produce and baked goods too when I stop by. We stopped here just before the arrival of spring, and here are some postcards of farm visits from this season, my love letter to the American small farmers. Don't judge New Jersey by what you see on television by our governor or horrendous "reality" shows. We are the proud "Garden State."

Family farms are a part of my American dream. 

There were just a few others enjoying a Sunday treat and we didn't spot a soul in the greenhouse except workers and there were few shoppers. My mom remarked on how it was a little sad, but I noted we don't come here either usually (our other farm haunts were closed for the season). Imagine if this place was booming with customers. I seldom pass by a shopping mall and not see its parking lot packed.

I was dreaming of their bakery offerings and I was not let down. I had a comforting warm hot cross bun and chamomile tea.
My mom and I, both lovers of gardens, were overcome with a sense of joy upon entering the greenhouse. A neighbor remarking on the joy a small daffodil plant brought her when seeing it bloom each day said when you have plants, "Who needs medication?"

One of life's miracles: seeds sprouting. Gardens are not only place of beauty and magic, but are healing too. It turns out there is a natural antidepressant in soil. According an article featured by Gardening Know How, "Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

Gardeners inhale the bacteria, have topical contact with it and get it into their bloodstreams when there is a cut or other pathway for infection. The natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant can be felt for up to 3 weeks."

 I left with asparagus, frisee, red raspberries, some local honey and a cheerful daffodil plant. Cheery red tulips were on the cart too. I loved that for Grace's first birthday my mom bought her a bunch of tulips even though she's just a baby. She said, "It's important." I think flowers are too. So are books and farms.
"I love tulips better than any other spring flower; they are the embodiment of alert cheerfulness and tidy grace, and next to a hyacinth look like a wholesome, freshly tubbed young girl beside a stout lady whose every movement weighs down the air with patchouli. Their faint, delicate scent is refinement itself; and is there anything in the world more charming than the sprightly way they hold up their little faces to the sun. I have heard them called bold and flaunting, but to me they seem modest grace itself, only always on the alert to enjoy life as much as they can and not be afraid of looking the sun or anything else above them in the face." - Elizabeth Von Arnim's Elizabeth and Her German Garden. How much we can learn from tulips, and from nature.
The Abram Demaree farm stand in Closter, a cozy, no frills lunch spot. As soon as they reopened for the season, we were here.

The Greek gyro with spinach, feta cheese, tomatoes and tzatziki sauce.

Sharing their warm homemade apricot pie with a cup coffee. 
At Demarest Farm in Hillsdale. I wrote previously about the uncertain future of this farm after it was put for sale, and thankfully it has new owners.
From the hot buffet, a twice baked potato, zucchini, veggie chili, an onion roll and cranberry apple herb tea. We bring our reusable cutlery to reduce our impact.
An apple blossom and fresh fruit.
I couldn't think of a happier place to be on Mother's Day.
They had a complimentary breakfast buffet. Our red picnic ware was cheerier than Styrofoam.
Long live these farms, and long live the small farmer.
Nature's candy: strawberries. "He walks by the table and stops to look at a bowl of fresh field strawberries, still half full. David says that his daughter calls these "happy strawberries" because they grow wild. He says she thinks the fruit sold in stores is "unhappy because it sits in boxes" separated from the plant." - Brindle 24 by J.J. Brown.  I'm so tired of out of season, tasteless strawberries from thousands of miles away. These strawberries are happy indeed.
At Old Hook Farm in Emerson, the first asparagus of the season.
At Abma's Farm in Wyckoff.
Happy meal: carrot ginger soup, roasted red pepper hummus with veggies and a sour cream orange cake.

I brought one of their Chinese almond cookies home for tea time with my green jasmine tea. With a book: heaven.

We decided to put our money where our mouth is and signed up for a CSA (community-supported agriculture) with Abma's Farm. They use non-GMO seeds and utilize organic farming methods but are not certified organic because of the paperwork. I have been wanting to shift towards both local and in-season produce. With the ongoing drought situation in California, I'm not comfortable with so much of our produce coming from there, especially if such wholesome, high quality vegetables are in our own neck of the woods from local farmers. I'll never become a total locavore. I can't imagine parting with my avocados, bananas or mangoes, but I want to incorporate local foods much more. I still love Trader Joe's especially for pantry items, but with the CSA we're buying little produce there now.
Our first week's share: arugula, spicy salad greens, spinach, radishes, and a jar of local honey. Production was behind because of the weather. We signed up for the egg share too so will be getting half a dozen eggs each week for 20 weeks. It's like getting a present from Mother Nature.
Week two: spinach, arugula, kohlrabi, broccoli leaves, radishes and a head of lettuce.
Week 3: turnips, kohlrabi, Swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, bok choy and eggs. In addition to the eggs we signed up for, we decided to do their other add-ons, a dessert bread and wine. A raspberry chocolate chip bread and a Tomasello Winery Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine.
The two wines from the first two weeks: an Daffodil White semi-dry wine and an American almonique almond wine.  

I don't drink more than a glass of wine at a time. Like the produce we're getting, this was about going outside our comfort zones, enjoyment of life and supporting local agriculture.

In HGTV's House Hunters International, a guilty pleasure show, a couple living in Paris was buying a second home in Provence with a baby on the way. The couple was sitting on their sunny patio at the end enjoying their breakfast with local honey, and the woman, an American,  talked about the French understanding the "art of living." I think that's why I've been drawn to Parisian and French things so. But we can't all move to France. I want to embrace the "art of living" in my backyard here too.

I also think our culture creates an unhealthy relationship for youth with alcohol, not treating it as something with pleasure and happiness, but as taboo. I hate the excessive drinking as a right of passage for youth.

"In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary." — A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Week 4: arugula, garlic scapes, a head of broccoli, lettuce, spicy salad mix and escarole, with our add-ons: eggs, a chocolate chocolate chip bread and Tomasello cherry wine. Even my husband who is a chef is unfamiliar with garlic scapes. I love how much we are learning.
Escarole from the CSA with some basic pantry items from Trader Joe's like pasta and organic white beans. Red pepper flakes added some heat. We savored the meal on the patio fireside. This is good living.

This has already been a life-changing experience. Even if we had planted a large garden this year, we wouldn't have had things like bok choy or kohlrabi. Kohlrabi is my new favorite vegetable, and I feel like I'm cooking across time with my grandmother in Switzerland who prepared it with lots of butter and parsley for her family.

Gene Baur, in his book with Gene Stone, "Living the Farm Sanctuary Life: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Mindfully, Living Longer, and Feeling Better Every Day," said, "Our food is among the most intimate connections we make with the earth." I feel more tied to the earth when I visit a local farm. I think that's why I feel so content at them. Our world is so fast moving today and technology plays such a heavy hand in our daily lives. At farms I remember what matters most: health, good food (even better when shared with family and friends), gratitude, and respect for our earth which provides so well for us, a reminder to treat her kindly.

I don't think Americans understand the true reckoning of their ability to shape the country by where they choose to spend their dollars. Election day is important, but equally is where we vote with our wallets. Family farms, mom and pop restaurants, bookshops, and charity thrift stores all get my vote. This canvas tote says it all: Support Local Farms. Don't let small farms be a disappearing act.



  1. As always, I love your pics of the wonderful meals you find while out and about. You are lucky to have such places around you, we don't have anything like that in our neck of the woods in Montana. We have been members of a CSA for quite a few years now, but just got our first box of the season this week. The season starts out slow here and we know that the first few weeks are usually mostly lettuce and greens. But that's fine with us. Unless you are a major gardener, you definitely get more variety than you would growing your own. And it is such an adventure, not knowing what will come each week and discovering new veggies that you must then figure out what to do with! And it does feel great to know that you are supporting a local farm and a whole system of agriculture supportive to local farmers. I wish you a summer of veggie fun!

  2. Hi Amy! Good to hear from you! Most of these farms are about half an hour away (Abma's is a little closer). I'm sure you have gorgeous Montana scenery! Montana is on our travel bucket list. One day!

    As someone who hasn't eaten meat since I've been a teenager and a lover of veggies, it's humbling how ignorant I am about the growing and preparation of many of them, and how limited I was in the variety I put into my shopping cart each week. This is such a more satisfying way of eating. I'll be sharing more CSA photos along the way.

    I think gardening and cooking are such important life skills (both of which I have a lot to learn about), and as I near 40, my thirst for knowledge grows on all fronts. I want Grace to learn these skills too. Fortunately, my husband is a chef and has much more experience gardening so can teach us both. :-) Sadly I know almost nothing about growing fruits and vegetables. I agree you get a wonderful variety with a CSA that you wouldn't unless you had a large garden.

    Enjoy your CSA too! Happy summer!

  3. Hi Catherine,
    What beautiful photos and impressions of the small farm life. I think one day you and Steve will have a farm in your future, and for now, the CSA is wonderful to have. Taking care of the earth by gardening is so rewarding, nothing compares with it.

    1. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for the comment. I hope at least we'll have a vegetable garden in our future. We have lovely herbs now and beautiful flowers. Our neighbor down the street showed us his impressive garden he's been tending for four decades and I was struck with garden envy.
      I so agree about the connection between the earth and gardening. I consider all the chemicals people pour onto their lawns, all the water that's used, and all the resources (monetary and environmental) involved in hauling away yard clippings. Imagine if we diverted those resources into something we could eat? I love the Food Not Lawns movement.
      Enjoy the plant based blessings of the earth this summer!

  4. Hi Catherine! I just read a post from a blog I recently began reading and it reminded me of the kinds of things you write about and I wanted to share it with you: http://zerowastechef.com/2015/07/27/amnesia-of-things-past/
    I hope you enjoy it. Take care, Amy

    1. Hi Amy. Thank you so much for sharing that beautiful and thoughtful blog post which I really enjoyed. Isn't it funny how the heart remembers a small treasure like special ice cubes from a holiday party? I can still recall visiting my mother's aunt in Switzerland in summer as a young girl and getting served tea in fine China and a homemade fruit tart. It feels like yesterday.
      I could fill an entire blog (and regularly consider doing so) about our curbside rescues, everything from furniture, artwork, dishes, and more. Each of those items had a story that shouldn't end in the landfill.
      I hope you are enjoying your CSA. I have a CSA update in the works. A summer of vegetable heaven it's been. My best to you and your family.