Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Cheers to Target on its Grocery Revamp

As you may have read, Target has announced that it will shift its grocery offerings to minimize it's reliance on packaged foods from large conglomerates toward a mix of fresher foods from smaller manufacturers and providers.  The move is said to be undertaken to allow Target to better compete with Whole Foods, which is a smart business choice.  After all, the customer base of Target, who often jokingly refer to the store with the French pronunciation "Tar-zhey," are more likely to do their grocery shopping at the affluent consumer destination like Whole Foods and even Costco than they are big box stores like Wal-Mart.

This is good news, though, for those of us hoping to influence food production with our food dollars. I know I cannot generalize from just my own area, but our suburb has seen the opening of several organic and fresh food-focused grocery stores in just the past year.  Adding Target to the mix of options for those of us wanting more control over what we consume is another triumph.

Of course, it still pays to read labels and do your homework.  We try to buy as many organic and local options as possible.  But, in the past six months alone, I have seen an influx of organic blueberries available in our area grocery stores where before I didn't even know if it was possible to grow blueberries organically on a large scale.  And I have seen several signs on traditional brands committing to no GMO ingredients and no HFCS.  Those are major wins for our health.

Although large grocery and store chains still have the problems of large distribution networks to deal with, it is nice to see them committing to providing better, more local, and more sustainable options.  I'll be looking more favorably at the Target grocery section from now on, and I hope you also support these stores taking positive steps toward making safer and healthier food available for everyone.
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Friday, May 22, 2015

Five Late May Garden Tasks

As I write this, it's 54 degrees outside.  It's been 54 degrees so many mornings in a row, I'm starting to think my weather app on my phone is broken.

It feels a bit chilly for late May, to me, but I know late May weather is variable around here.  That's why we spend so much time hurrying out into the garden the minute it's sunny and 70; the next day, our gardening will be interrupted by rain, chilly temps, or paying work that demands to take priority.

But, as we move into Memorial Day weekend, I thought I'd share five things I will be doing in the garden to hopefully encourage a huge future harvest of healthy, inexpensive, sustainable food.

  1. Keep nurturing the cucumber and zucchini seedlings.  I got a late start getting my cukes and zukes started this year, but I'm kind of glad.  I think our chilly mornings would have stunted the fragile baby plants, and I'm happy enough to let them sit in their plant incubator under a grow light, happy and warm until I can plant them.
  2. Keep sifting compost.  The winter has given me a bumper crop of finished humus for the garden, and every chance I get I'm running through the sifter and applying it where needed. This "black gold" goes on the main garden, in the potato containers, and in the other containers that hold plants.  The rapidly-growing tomato you see in the photo is planted entirely in finished humus from my compost pile.  It is easily six inches taller than its siblings in the garden, which are in a combo of humus and garden soil.
  3. Make egg tea.  This is the season to make the egg shells do double duty.  When tomatoes get blossom end rot (that horrible black, soft, flat blemish that ruins a tomato), it is generally from too little calcium.  We soak our egg shells in water overnight, then use the "egg tea" to water the tomatoes.  We also crumble up the shell and put it at the base of the plant to get even more calcium into the soil.
  4. Tent the blueberries.  Since the blueberries have set fruit, it's time for me to get out the bird tent and try to keep the critters from pulling at the ripe berries from below and the birds from taking the ripe berries from above.  Last year, I wasn't very successful, so I'll be fortifying my tent this year.
  5. Plant beans.  Green beans can be planted pretty much up until the Fourth of July around here, but giving them a later start than the rest of the garden gets them a bit out of sync with the Japanese beetles, so they incur less beetle damage.  I have one planting of beans in the ground already but hope to put in a few more over the next week so that I have plenty to can for the winter.

What are you doing in your garden this weekend?
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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

It's Time to Join a CSA!

Seriously, you guys:  Do you have any idea how hard it is to photograph a pound of ground meat and have it look like anything but a crime scene?

Blog illustration woes aside, I want you to think about joining a CSA or two now that summer is here.  If you believe in sustainable living and supporting your local farmers, a CSA is a great way to make your support tangible.

CSA stands for "community supported agriculture." Think of it as Kickstarter for meat and veggies. You purchase a "subscription" for a particular period of time, and once a month (or once a week, maybe), you receive a delivery of farm products that you've specified.

This time of year, many farms are selling subscriptions to vegetable CSAs, which is a great option for those who don't veggie garden for themselves.  You'll pay a certain amount up front, and then once a week or so, you'll go to a pick-up point (maybe at a farmers' market) and get whatever the farmer has harvested in the past couple of days.  If it is a good veggie year, you may get more; if it isn't, you may get less.  And you may get some veggies you don't normally buy, which is fun.

What we belong to, however, is a meat CSA.  I want to talk you through that process as a consumer, because it is a bit different, and I'll admit I felt a little confused at first until I got the hang of it. Now, I wouldn't consider any other way of stocking my freezer!

  1. Twice a year, we are asked for a subscription payment and the "level" of our support.  We pay around $180 for a six month period, during which we receive 5 lbs. of ground beef and pork sausage each month.  That works out to about $6 per pound, which is fantastic for animals raised with a sustainable rotational grazing method on a small farm that uses organic farming methods.  I know that Mr. FC&G and I are minimizing exposure to killers like glyphosate and getting all the healthy goodness of meat from animals raised in pastures rather than on a CFO. And because I've seen the farm with my own eyes and look the farmer in the face at least once a month, I have a level of trust I wouldn't have otherwise.
  2. Each month, our farmer emails us a reminder of our pick-up point.  For us, it's a set time on a certain day in a certain parking lot.  Other customers will pick up at farmers' markets the farmer goes to.  
  3. We also receive a discount on other farm products, and I can tell the farmer by email what I want:  eggs, pork chops, roasts, or the like.  So I know I have a set quantity of the basic meat we need each month, and then I can tailor our other purchases to my budget and our needs. Grilling season means time for some of his yummy pasture-raised pork chops.  I also put in an order for some whole chickens to be harvested later in the summer, so he knows how many animals he needs to raise.
  4. That's the big benefit.  The farmer gets some up-front payment to help him buy and raise expensive animals, and I get a measure of certainty about how much meat I'll have each month and the quality I can expect.  I also know that the meat I'm getting is very fresh, sometimes only days after harvest.

I encourage you to look into the various CSA options available in your area, especially meat CSAs if you are a meat eater.  For two people, that five pounds of meat each month are plenty to feed one meat-eater and one "flexitarian," and we feel good about making sure that we're supporting a family farm that treats its animals and the humans who consume them in the most kind, humane, and healthy way possible.

The Analysis

Fast:  Picking up the delivery takes no more time than running to the store, and the purchase is as easy as writing a check twice a year.  Very efficient.

Cheap:  The prices are very competitive for sustainably-raised meat in this area.

Good:  You can't put a value, however, on the benefit of directly supporting a farmer who is taking pains to provide the kind of product you want to put in your own body.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Testing Carrot Seed Tape

I've always loved to experiment with plants.  Even as a kid, I was forever taking cuttings of different plants, jamming them in a pot of dirt, and seeing if they would grow.  (Spoiler:  Many of them will.  Don't let people fool you about needing to always cut at a node and dipping in rooting medium and starting in a glass of water.  These things might increase your chances of success, but a fairly high percentage of plants will start little copies of themselves if you jam a cutting in dirt and keep it moist for a couple of weeks.)

Anyway, spring is a great time to experiment, because you are busy putting all the lovely new plants in the ground.  I'm running a couple of experiments this year, and I'll keep you updated on their progress.

The first one is using seed tape to start my carrots.  Normally, I just sprinkle carrot seeds across a raised bed that I have and let them grow in a random sort of way.  It generally works, except they really need to be thinned, and I'm really bad at making myself do that.  So, I often wind up with stunted carrots and less yield weight-wise than I would have normally.

Longing for a beautiful, long row of well-spaced carrots, I bought some seed tape.  It's kind of ridiculously expensive, costing I think $3.49 for about a row and a half of carrot seeds.   But the beauty is, you prepare your soil, dig a furrow, and lay the tape in and cover it.  Ideally, the tissue-like paper will biodegrade, the seeds will sprout, and you will have a perfectly-spaced row of carrots.

That's the plan.  I just put some carrot tape in the ground this weekend, so it's too early for any sprouting.  But I'm hoping this gives me a nice load of robust carrots we can enjoy this summer and freeze for winter.

I'll keep you posted.

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