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Reliability | New World Seeds & Tubers

Last Saturday’s breakfast was pineapple-pecan pancakes.

That’s not typical of weekend breakfasts at our house; that’s more like weekday fare. Unfortunately I was up late last night doing chores and was too tired to get up early enough to make something better.

Unfortunately, pecans are hard to ripen here, though I’m giving it a shot. Walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts are better suited for the climate, and I’m growing those too. I’ve got both black and “English” walnuts, a few hybrid hazelnuts, and a variety of hybrid chestnuts, thanks in part to the generosity of a correspondent near Sacramento who just happens to be an expert on chestnut trees!

Yes, I know the nut trees aren’t going to be bearing any time soon. “The best time to plant fruit and nut trees is 20 years ago. The next best time is NOW” (old saying).

Pineapple is more of a longshot. I’m aware the gardeners for European aristocrats grew first oranges then eventually pineapple in hothouses for their bosses, but I can’t afford a heated greenhouse.

It’s not that the other ingredients were home-grown; in fact there are reasons for division-of-labor. It’s more a matter that they could have been.

Virtually all cookbooks I have ever seen ostensibly about using home-grown produce include mostly store-bought and exotic ingredients, with just a few nods to the back-yard tomatoes and basil!

There are quite a few exotic ingredients in our pantry. Here’s a short list of ones we use in large amounts:

  • Bananas
  • Black pepper
  • Chocolate
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • Lemons
  • Mangoes
  • Nutmeg
  • Oranges
  • Pineapple
  • Sugar
  • Vanilla

Black pepper is tricky. It can actually be grown as a freeze-back in the sunbelt states but not as far north as I am. I am aware of substitutes but they tend to be just as tropical. Capsicum (“red peppers”–not to be confused with red peppercorns) can be grown as annuals, though there is some cutoff as to just how far north. They’re pretty marginal here though I can grow some of the small-fruited, half-wild types that are fairly vigorous despite the latitude.

We’ve cut down on chocolate quite a bit since the price started rising steeply a few years back. Now the situation is worse with production having plunged due to civil war in Côte d’Ivoire.

I’m currently investigating a substitute for Cinnamon. I’ll write a dedicated post about it if it turns out to be viable.

Vanilla is a hard one because there is such a strong association between baked goods and the smell of vanilla. I’ve found several references suggesting using maple syrup or almond extract. The latter comes from bitter almonds which most people are unlikely to grow.

Ginger is tantalizing for being only marginally tropical. You can grow it and dig it before winter hits if you have a long and warm enough growing season to work with. One of my ideas is to cross it to Zingiber myoga which grows at cooler temps and is cold-hardy to about USDA z7; it’s vigorous to the point of being almost weedy in my climate. As far as I am aware, the only part of Zingiber myoga that is eaten are the blossoms (I think the Japanese make tempura out of them). I’ve never taken a good look at the rhizomes, mostly because like other Gingers they resent being disturbed unless actively growing (the rhizomes sometimes rot if damaged while dormant).

Citrus is a challenge. I actually have a cold-hardy (well, sort of) Citrus in my back-yard, a hybrid between an Ichang and a Taiwania “Lemon”, but it might be a challenge getting the fruit to ripen. A better bet would be to grow lemon-scented herbs like Lemon Verbena and Lemon Balm. Some Thymes are also vaguely citrusy, as are many “Geraniums” (Pelargoniums), but Pelargoniums are no hardier than Citrus.

I think we can pretty much forget about Mangoes, Nutmeg, and Pineapple.

Sugar is an interesting item on several counts. On the one hand, it CAN be produced outside of the tropics, for example using sugar beets. Sugar beets are not the easiest crop to grow: they make a small rosette of leaves that does not deal well with weed pressure, AND they are deer magnets. They also work best if you have a long, coolish growing season so that they can build up sugar as long as possible.

Crystalline sugar is tricky to make, but I’m not sure why you’d want to; it’s too refined. I’d rather have the vitamins and minerals. The question in my mind is how hard it would be to simply make beet syrup such as is made in Germany and Scandinavia.

Tim Peters suggests syrup sorghum if your climate is warm enough, and Tom Kleffman suggests tapping Maples including species other than the Sugar Maple. Our ubiquitous Bigleaf Maple produces sap with 1/3 the sugar content of that of Sugar Maple, so it can be done if you have more fuel to evaporate off more water.

On the other hand, I’ve been interested in cutting down on sugar consumption anyway. One trick I know, that my Scandinavian ancestors used, is to stud sweet bread-rolls with Fennel seed and raisins. Fennel seed and Anise are naturally sweet. Angelica seed might work too (not sure–but I have some to try).

I don’t particularly care for foods that are sweet through-and-through anyway. I typically cut the sugar from American recipes, finding them too sweet anyway. For pumpkin pie, I typically use only 1/4 cup sugar and 1TBSP molasses. Fruit pies I think should balance to be noticeably on the tart side.

You can also add 1/4 part Angelica to Rhubarb pie, to cut the amount of sugar required to sweeten it. Another herb used as a non-sugar sweetener is Sweet Cicely.

I’ve grown Stevia a few times, but in my cold, wet winters (well, compared to those in its native Paraguay) it is prone to rotting especially in La Niña years. It’s not long-lived anyway. Hard to reproduce by seed because it often doesn’t produce any, but seed is available and I would guess seed-grown plants probably more fertile.

I have, however, made a pretty good “herbal lemonade” using back-yard grown Stevia and Lemon Verbena. It’s not tangy like real lemonade but smells quite good. And…it’s GREEN. Makes a good herbal smoothy for backyard parties. One of these days I’ll try to remember to make a post about herbal smoothies.

Yet another non-sugar sweet crop is Yacon, which is why I’m interested in it despite several challenges it poses.

What do you think? Do you have ideas for home-grown substitutes for exotic ingredients? How about the “eat local” crowd? Ideas? Comments?

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Corn that is lodged, not sweet enough, and over-ripe

Tom and I went to our farm yesterday to harvest potatoes, garlic, and a few odds-and-ends.

Most of the farm is rented out to tenants. One of the tenants grew sweet corn.

Not an unusual choice for the area despite the high latitude, but a bad choice for this particular growing season; spring was cold and wintery, essentially non-existent. There were a few short warm spells late summer, but mostly it was cooler than average. The corn failed to develop the sweetness the prospective buyer was looking for.

Which is consistent with the expectations of scientists such as the late Dr. Theodore Landscheidt who claim(ed) that the El Niña/La Niña cycle is driven by sunspot activity. Other German scientists have found historical evidence of correlations going back up to thousands of years in tree rings and coral reefs.

As far as I can tell, long-range weather predictions tend to impact farm planning only if they’re optimistic. My buddy Tom Kleffman (Three Daughters Farm–hmm, soon to be Four Daughter’s farm, congratulations old boy!) tells me that in Minnesota, most of the commercial farms have switched from wheat and short-season corns to long-season corns and soy. They seem to think the sunbelt is creeping north.

As a result, much of Minnesota’s corn crop was damaged on September 15th when a severe frost hit. Note that September 15th falls before the autumnal equinox that comes around Sept. 21-22. In other words, the corn was damaged by a summer frost.

That was after getting a late start due to a cold spring. Minnesota got it too.

My tenant was unable to sell his corn, and it’s now over-ripe and much of it lodged. A number of issues doomed my tenant’s corn. Here’s a short list:

  • The deciding factor for choosing corn over less heat-loving crops was buyer demand not what was a safer bet.
  • Weather risks were never considered in the equation, even though evidence of a La Niña event was already overwhelming when the corn was planted.
  • Buyer demand trumped ALL other considerations even though the buyer decided to opt out of the deal at the last minute when the quality was not to their liking. The corn never got enough heat units to be sweet enough for market.
  • The farmer had no risk mitigation plan as far as I am aware.

The farmer’s woes became our woes. Earlier this year, Tom and I got an unpleasant surprise when our share of the field was unusable, being barely worked and full of clods and intact roots of weeds. I had to use a pick-mattock on it to plant anything, no joke. His attention diverted to his own problems, the farmer didn’t give our needs attention.

Even after I emphasized our need to have the field plowed promptly, I doubt it’s going to happen, so I’m going to recruit someone else to do it. I’m sorry for his difficulties, but I can’t afford to make them ours any more than they already have.

It seems to me that the balance-of-power among producers, market-makers, and consumers has gotten out-of-whack. We are now in the ridiculous situation that farmers are going bankrupt while consumers can’t afford food!

Speaking of which, I got an unpleasant shock last time I was at the local market looking for some lunch. I kept thinking “I can’t afford that…I can’t afford that…I can’t afford that…”.

What’s supposed to happen, to keep supply and demand dynamics in somewhat equilibrium, is that demand drives up prices, which creates an incentive for the farmers to grow more food, which attracts prices back to an equilibrium point. What’s happening instead is that higher prices at the retail end are not (yet) translating into higher prices at the production end. Independent farmers have little leverage in negotiating prices, so the higher food prices are not trickling down to them, at least not enough to save their operations from chronic cash-flow problems.

I don’t have an answer, but I know what we’ll be doing. Food is getting expensive and supplies are tight. We will continue to be more cautious as regards what we think we can deliver in terms of crops and will continue working on crops where reliability is given a higher priority than productivity. In an unstable environment, reliability is productivity in the sense that having some food gets you more food than losing a gambling bet and having none at all.

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