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Food Security | New World Seeds & Tubers

Last week Tom and I visited Corvallis Oregon.

While there we stopped in Albany, to visit the headquarters and retail shop of Nichols Garden Nursery.

One of the owners, Rose Marie, called while we were there, and when advised that Tom was at the shop, had a long chat with him. While they talked, I went out to the back to have a look at the gardens.

There are both herbs and vegetables back there.

The herbs are arranged into landscaping, while the vegetables are in beds. However I have seen elsewhere some very attractive landscapes done using artistically-arranged vegetables.

The strappy-leaved plant in the foreground is Zingiber myoga. I recognize it because I have some too. A hardy, vigorous relation of culinary Ginger, from Japan. The skeletal figure behind it belongs to a spent Angelica herb.

Speaking of which, while there I bought some seeds for Angelica archangelica, which I haven’t grown for years. My interest in it was rekindled by someone reminding me that in the old days, its cut petioles were often mixed with rhubarb pie at a ratio of 4 parts rhubarb to 1 part Angelica, to cut the amount of sugar needed. Angelica is naturally sweet, with a mild anise-like scent with musky overtones.

I also recall that the Scandinavian side of my ancestry used (candied?) Angelica in sweet breads. Apparently the leaves and roots are useful too. The leaves can be dried and brewed as a tisane (“herbal tea”), or used young and fresh in salads.

The seeds can be used as a spice, but Fennel which is a little stronger might work better for that purpose. I use Fennel seed and a little pearl sugar to make slightly sweet rolls. Fennel seed tastes quite sweet without containing any actual sugar; it’s a good way to cut down on the use of sugar.

I also bought some seeds for growing Agastache foeniculum, and Chenopodium nuttalliae, known by its Aztec name Huazontl.

Agastache foeniculum is probably the most modest of the Agastaches, but it’s still fairly attractive. It is probably one of the finest tisane herbs you could grow, with an enticing fragrance somewhere between mint and anise.

Huazontl is a member of Chenopodaceae, which has given us so many other fine vegetables such as beets and spinach. Huazontl is used for making vegetarian dishes during Lent.

I also bought a couple of plants: Yacon, also known as “Bolivian Sunroot”, and an herb I have wanted for a long time now, Vietnamese Mint, not to be confused with unrelated Persicaria odorata, which is not a mint and smells more like Coriander leaf. Yacon is a big leafy Dahlia-like plant, a member of the same family, Compositae, whose Dahila-like tuberous roots are naturally sweet. Vietnamese Mint’s claim to fame is its tender leaves which unlike the leaves of most mints are tender enough to eat as a salad-like fresh herb.

Next stop was Stalford Seed farm, where we met the owners, the Stalfords, and the manager, Gian Mercurio. Stalford Seed farm grows wheat, oats, beans, flax-seed, and a few other crops.

Before the tour, the Stalfords treated us to a supper whose key ingredients were grown on the farm. I liked the shortbread, which was made from whole soft white wheat. We also had a dish I’ve had on a number of farms, wheat-berry salad.

Cooked soft wheat-berries also work well wherever you want to give something a little character and chewiness. I’ve had them in yoghurt. I think they would also work in soup much as pearl barley is used.

Wheat is not as hard to grow and harvest as most people seem to imagine. It used to be grown on a more widespread basis than it is now, and families would take some of their grain to the miller to grind it, bring back the flour to home, then take their unbaked loaves to the baker. Now none of that local shared infrastructure exists anymore, though I suspect that if average homesteaders and farmers knew what to do with it, they could still make effective use of home-grown grains.

While we were eating, I met David, born in Buenos Aires and currently living in Eugene. He’s a vegan. There were plenty of hearty vegan dishes thanks to the wheat and the beans.

Before the tour, we listened to a little talk about the farm and some food security issues. Gian got my attention telling us that Portland has a 3-day food supply. Although some food is still grown in the Willamette Valley, as a case of globalization, most of it gets shipped out of the country, while Portland’s food gets shipped in.

Much of the Willamette Valley doesn’t grow food anymore; it grows lawn-grass. The farmers couldn’t make a decent living growing food, so they just gave up. There are a few food crops still grown, and Tom treated us to a pint of large, fairly good local blueberries we bought at a roadside stand.

I suspect Seattle has even more tenuous connections to its food supply: more people and fewer surrounding farms. Ours some distance southwest is one of the relatively few. Most of the farms in Western Washington are dairy-farms, which don’t produce as much food for a given amount of land as say grain and bean farms. Ours is a rare exception for growing crops not cows.

For some reason I forgot to shoot pictures of the wheat fields. They looked pretty good. The wheat was getting very dry and the heads were starting to curl as they are apt to when they’ve been dry for a while.

Yesterday, closer to home, we harvested our own wheat on a smaller scale. I’m going to be threshing my share for a while so I might not be posting as often as usual. Considering that our planting was experimental as we didn’t know what would work here, it was fairly successful. Most of our cereals survived and a few actually thrived, despite challenging growing conditions. Wheat is rare in Western Washington but it does occur. It’s mostly soft white winter wheat, but it’s possible to grow red and white hard wheats too, and it’s possible to get the protein levels to respectable levels if you fertilize them in the boot stage.

More about our wheat project soon.

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