Farm Journal Part 18: Last Impressions

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 18: Last Impressions

The summer has flown by. The days are chilly in the morning, pleasantly warm in the afternoon, and downright cold in the evenings. On my bike rides to school, I watch flock after flock of geese fly south overhead and smile at the scarecrows and other harvest decorations neighbors have set up. My time at the farm is coming to a close this season, and I find myself reflecting on the last four months and all that I’ve learned. Let’s start with the heavy stuff, the big-picture lessons I’m walking away with.

When friends asked how my summer at the farm went, I hesitate before answering. It wasn’t always wonderful. To say that would be glossing over the days when I definitely didn’t want to work, or when I was sore, or when I had to grit my teeth to get through because I was tired. But, for every day that was difficult, there were two that were great. I love working with plants (I worked as a landscaper and gardener before this job) and I really love being outside all day. Organic farming definitely has those two things in its favor.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

It’s also a lot of work. I’m not unused to hard work, but organic farming puts its own spin on it. A typical day can be very back intensive, bending over to harvest or pick bugs off plants for hours on end. One thing I learned is that you definitely have to pace yourself, switch jobs frequently, and make sure to take at least one day off a week, otherwise you’ll just burn out.

Farm Journal 17: An Early Fall

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 17: An Early Fall

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Well, it’s an early fall. This isn’t much of a surprise to anyone who has spent the summer outdoors. The cicadas started singing in June, the geese started flying south in July, the apples are early and all the squash plants are dying back! And rumor has it that if Mother Nature gets her way, this will be a cold and snowy winter. Remember when I was bemoaning the hot, humid days? Well, now is about the time that I sort of wish they’d come back! Winter is coming too fast, and there are a lot of things that need to happen before the first frost.

What does an early fall (and subsequent early winter) mean for a small organic farmer? First and foremost it means the potential reduction in harvest weeks for our CSA members. If the frost comes, most of our plants will die. Generally we like to harvest until October, but if this cold streak continues, that definitely won’t be happening.

This is also the time of year that we need to be incorporating manure and compost into the fields and then planning our winter cover crops. Cover crops, which are used for all manner of reasons (holding nutrients, preventing wind erosion, suppressing weeds in the spring, etc), need a little time to grow before the winter snows kill them back. Otherwise, planting them will have been a wasted effort. With the frosts fast approaching, this needs to happen sooner rather than later.

On top of feeling the rush to get the fields cultivated and planted, the urge to preserve food is starting to burgeon. Food will go bad quickly once you’ve harvested it, and this time of year, everything is ripe at once. We hate to waste food, therefore many a sleepless night has been spent canning or chopping and freezing over the last couple of weeks.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

There are a few nice things about the fall weather, however. The crops are easier to harvest because they don’t experience the type of heat stress that they did in the middle of summer. Also, I really enjoy the crisp mornings. Seeing my breath as I lean down to pick something is, in a way, rather poignant. And, believe it or not, the cold weather can actually be beneficial to some plants. While many crops begin to die back around this time, Brassicas (broccoli, kale, etc) and winter squashes and gourds tend to do very well in the cold weather. In fact, it is only after the first couple of fall frosts that the Brassicas truly taste their best! And of course, the squashes and pumpkins are starting to turn and they are just beautiful.  I promise to take a picture of the pumpkins for my last installment next week.

Speaking of last installment, next week’s will be mine. School has started and I have a demanding schedule. I’m facing my last couple of weeks at the farm, and I simply can’t believe how fast the summer went. I’ve had an amazing experience working at the farm, and I’ve learned so much. I can’t wait to share my final insights with all my readers. So, until then, get out and enjoy the weather. It doesn’t get much better than this!

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Farm Journal Part 16: Not a 9-to-5 Job

Hand Weeding at Cramer Farm

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 16: Not a 9-to-5 Job

Last week, I had to put my cat of 17 years down. His health had been failing over the last few months, and he had been in and out of the vet all last week before I made the final decision. Tigger was like family to me, so learning to live without him has been hard. My other cat has been lost without Tigger as well. This has translated into many sleepless nights due to her constant yowling. I’ve spent more money than I care to think about during these last two weeks, have gotten precious little sleep, and haven’t eaten very much.

What does any of this have to do with farming? It’s a reality check. Real life may intrude all it likes, but the produce will not pick itself, the weeds will not hoe themselves, and the pests will not kindly squash themselves for you. Even though I was tired and sad, I only took a couple of days off at the end of last week. I couldn’t justify leaving everyone else at the farm shorthanded because I wanted to mope at home. Losing even one person in a harvest crew can easily tack on another two hours of work for everyone else. I just didn’t want to do that to my coworkers.

Farm Journal Part 15: The Cycle of the Seasons

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 15: The Cycle of the Seasons

The cycle of the seasons, the wheel of the year, the rhythm of nature… this concept has many names. However, they all represent the notion of acting in accordance with the seasons. We often see this concept reflected in the actions of different animals throughout the year: the Vs of geese flying south in the fall, the bears eating lots of fish to fatten themselves for hibernation, the playful chattering of courting squirrels in the spring, and the migration of monarchs in the summer. Humans are no different, especially farmers.

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Winter is spent resting, recuperating, and planning for the next planting season. November and December are the months for vacation and spending time with family. How coincidental that the majority of our major holidays fall within these couple of months! Seeds are ordered in January / February and repairs are made to machinery in preparation for spring. This is a slow time of the year, and this break (I have been personally assured by Joey) is very needed and appreciated.

In the spring, farmers hit the ground running, starting seeds in their greenhouses, prepping the fields, and making last minute fixes to machinery that will need to be used in a few weeks. As spring turns into early summer, there simply isn’t enough sunlight for all the work that needs to be done. This time of year sees lots of weeds and lots of pests, not to mention all the transplanting and succession plantings that must go in the ground. Of all the times during the year, this is the season that does not allow for any delays or breaks. Your personal schedule will invariably take a back seat to the farm. If the weather is good, you have to take advantage of it because there is no guarantee that the next day will be equally as nice. We experienced this a lot this past spring with all the rain we had. Several days were misspent doing things that probably should have waited until a rainy day.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Summer is a force to be reckoned with as well. The early morning light encourages starting as soon as the sun is up, because the heat of the day will surely knock you out by early afternoon! And by this time, the weeds need to be tackled, tomatoes need to be trellised, drip tape and irrigation systems need to be laid, etc.! There is an endless amount of work to be done on a farm in the summer and because the days are so long, it is tempting to use every minute of that sunlight. However, summer is a little more reliable in that the weather is fairly predictable. Therefore, it’s wise to take it easy every now and again. On the hot, sultry days, a two or three hour lunch isn’t unheard of. And frankly, it helps keep the work ethic up!

However, as the summer nears the end, the tone is shifting. Autumn is just around the bend and that means that winter isn’t too far behind. This seems to lend a second wind to us farm workers. The days are blissfully cooler, which makes hard work much, much easier. The crisp early mornings are refreshing and they help with the harvest because the crops are not experiencing heat stress when we cut them.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

I am noticing that the mornings are darker and this lends a little solemnity to our early morning starts. We seem to be working faster, not just because our skill at harvesting has gotten better but also because there seems to be less time to do it. Or at least, it feels like it. Suddenly the lazy days of summer seem far away (although it has only been a matter of weeks) and I am filled with the desire to start canning and getting things in order for the school year.

I am excited about the coming autumn. I’m looking forward to learning about winter field preparation, spreading compost, and planting cover crops. Most of all, I’m looking forward to harvesting the winter crops (like the winter squash, potatoes, and cabbages). And I simply can’t wait for the pumpkins to start turning orange!

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Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Farm Journal 14: Confessions and Revelations

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 14: Confessions and Revelations

I had a rather delightful conversation with one of our CSA members’ daughters earlier this week. I was packing tomatoes into boxes when she came in with her mother to pick up their share. She walked over to me and declared, without preamble, that while tomatoes were very pretty, she couldn’t stand to eat them. I immediately laughed and told her I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one!

This prompted a string of questions about why I didn’t like them, what vegetables I did like, which were fun to harvest, etc. Given that I’ve fielded similar questions from other friends and family, I thought I would give a run down of some of the vegetable confessions and revelations I’ve had throughout the summer.

We’ll get the confession out of the way first. I admit to never having liked tomatoes, especially when they are raw. Now, after having spent the last month harvesting and learning to sort them, I confess that I hate tomatoes with a passion! First, your hands turn a nasty yellow green from the sticky coating on the plants as you harvest the fruit. Second, they smell absolutely awful when they begin to rot. And don’t get me started on what they look and feel like when they go bad. There is nothing more gag inducing than grabbing a healthy-looking tomato and having it explode in your hand, leaving hundreds of ants or little worms crawling up your arm in the leftover stinky muck. Blech! However, I’ve had to make a grudging truce with tomatoes, seeing as how they are one of the most popular summertime crops purchased at farmers markets and vegetable stands. If I intend to have a future CSA, I’ll be growing these fellows or I won’t have any members.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

What do I like to harvest? Well, that’s much easier to answer! By far, my two favorite vegetables to harvest are kale and potatoes. It helps, of course, that I especially like to eat them. However, there is something fundamentally pleasing about harvesting both of them that really just makes me glow. Let’s see if I can explain. Kale is incredibly easy to harvest; you just snap the leaves off the main stalk. Early in the morning, there is usually quite a bit of dew clinging to the leaves, so they look just stunning with the early morning light twinkling over the droplets. And I get such visual and tactile pleasure out of creating a bunch of kale. I simply love looking at them, and the leaves have a sort of leathery feel that makes them fun to wash because water just beads up and rolls right off them. Plus, making bunches goes very quickly, so you feel like you’ve been very productive.

Potatoes are even better (and much, much more fun) to harvest. First, someone goes through with a pitchfork and digs up the plants. Another worker then follows, plucking the potato tubers off the plants and dropping them in the bucket. Another worker (usually me, because this is my favorite part) then digs through the soil with their hands, trying to find any lost tubers that may have come off the plant (which happens often). What can I say? I get to channel my inner 5-year-old here! I’m elbow deep in dirt, trying to find lost treasure! It also happens to be a great upper body workout. I never would have guessed I’d enjoy harvesting potatoes so much, but by the time we’re done, I usually have a goofy grin on my face. Go figure.

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Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Farm Journal 13: The Dog Days of Summer

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 13: The Dog Days of Summer

Hand Weeding at Cramer Organics
Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

My, oh my, has it been hot lately! The last week or so has seen temperatures in the 90s and humidity levels nearly as high. It shouldn’t be much of a shock, then, that this translates into absolutely miserable working conditions on the farm. We like to joke that our “comfort level” for the day will be a whopping zero. Although this weather is less than ideal for humans, it actually has a lot of benefits for farming. I don’t think I’ll ever like August in Minnesota, but at least now I can fully appreciate the multitude of meanings behind the phrase “the dog days of summer.”

Given that I try to move with the rhythm of the seasons, I am doing my best to enjoy these days for what they are: the last hurrah before autumn comes and winter follows closely behind it. Come January, I will be thinking of these days with longing. But it’s pretty hard right now to imagine those 10°-below-zero days when, even at 6:30am, I have sweat slipping down my temples and back as I hunch over to snip salad mix.

Farm Journal 12: The Fauna on a Farm

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 12: The Fauna on a Farm

An animal call from the nearby woods gives the vague impression of monkeys swinging through trees, yelling at each other. Seconds later, a deeper and more guttural sound rips through the foliage — definitely not the same animal that made the previous noise. Gently layered over these foreign sounds is the constant symphonic buzz of various songbirds and cicadas. Hawks circle in the sky, and as a breeze plays across the fields, dozens of unfamiliar butterflies and moths dance above the crops. If you pay close enough attention to the ground at your feet, you might see the toad hopping across your path or the tree frog leaping through the basil plants. And as you dig out weeds and kneel in the foxtails, you are probably within inches of a retreating snake.

A tree frog at Cramer Organics
Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

At the beginning of the summer, I remember commenting that it felt like we were working in a jungle instead of at a farm. You wouldn’t believe the incredible diversity of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, and amphibians (and even a few crustaceans) we have out here. As the summer has progressed, I’ve had many animal encounters that have been both humorous and irritating.

There was the day that a fawn had wandered into one of our fields while we were working. While the baby deer was indeed adorable, the fact that it wasn’t afraid of humans was a recipe for future munched zucchini and pepper plants. Before Joey or I could attempt to scare it off, Madrone came running from the opposite field, carrying a weeding knife in one hand and yelling a battle cry. As he ran through the grassy field, chasing the ridiculously frightened deer back into the woods, we couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar scene from the movie Braveheart. Needless to say, we were bent over laughing for a long time.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

It was during our snap pea harvest that I discovered where all the tree frogs like to hang out. We harvested in the morning, when the temp was cooler and the sun was not as fierce.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

As we moved our way slowly through the towering forests of pea plants, sunlight virtually obscured by the leaves, dozens of little green frogs leapt ahead of our hands, staying just a pea pod out of reach from our nimble fingers. Occasionally a frog would miscalculate and actually jump onto one of us! These were my favorite moments.

Sometimes I’ve had frightening experiences. One afternoon I was weeding a particularly over-run bed of onions and I found myself kneeling in the bed to get a better position. I was completely immersed in the weeds — the foxtail and lambs-quarters were taller than my head. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was grabbing (as long as it wasn’t an onion) so when I grabbed something that curled around my hand, I immediately dropped it and let loose a little scream. Mary, the other intern, couldn’t stop laughing at me when it turned out my attacker was a garter snake.

Aside from the many up close and personal encounters, just having the sights and sounds of all the wildlife around me really makes me feel like I’m a part of the system, and this is what gives me the most pleasure when I’m out in the fields. The hawks soar above us, occasionally swooping down to catch a doomed mouse in the next field over, not caring that we sit a mere 20 feet from their meal. The dragonflies flit about our heads, happily feasting on the mosquitoes and deer flies that plague us so much. The birds provide such never-ending, rather pleasant background conversation that I find myself periodically eavesdropping on. The key point here is that they don’t care about us and, for the most part, we don’t care about them. I like to think that I am just one more animal out there, doing what I do, and perhaps humoring some other animal that may be watching me.

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Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Farm Journal 11: What do I do with THIS?

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 11: What do I do with this?

Every week I stagger home from the farm with a bushel box filled with vegetables (and all the zucchini and cucumbers I could want on top of that). Just so you know, a bushel box of vegetables is a LOT of vegetables — usually enough to feed a family, not just one person.

I’m a vegetarian, so I eat more vegetables than the average bear. However, my cooking skills up until this summer were essentially non-existent. As I started bringing home my weekly produce, I learned quickly that while raw and slightly steamed vegetables are good, they get old fast.

I had promised myself that other than purchasing dairy products or bread, I was not going to go grocery shopping this summer. Therefore, I realized that I needed to learn how to cook, and fast! It has been a little over two months, and while I am no seasoned chef, I have learned quite a bit. I’d like to share a few resources that have proved invaluable, as well as a couple recipes that I really love (and that are really easy!).

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

First off, like any good twenty-something-year-old, I turned to the Internet for cooking help. In my first couple boxes, I was getting vegetables (like kale and chard) that I didn’t have any experience cooking, and a lot of other vegetables that I didn’t want to eat alone.

Farm Journal 10: That’s Right, I GREW That!

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal 10: That’s right, I Grew That!

Prior to this summer, I never would have thought that vegetables could be cute or beautiful. And to be honest, I never felt guilty about throwing unused food out either. Come to think of it, I didn’t dread the coming storms quite as much as I do now, and I never used to feel strange if I didn’t eat vegetables with each meal. My, oh my, how those things have changed for me.

I was quite excited the other day because Madrone, one of the other workers, saved an adorable zucchini just for my box! Apparently, he had overheard me gushing about how cute it was earlier in the day. And that was the not the first time this summer that I have raved about how pretty the crops are — neither am I the only one. Joey often walks through her fields and exclaims over the adorable baby fennel or the brilliant little orange cherry tomatoes. You really can’t help it; they become like your pets. You’ve put time and energy into making that plant grow as healthy as possible and when you see the results, they are truly lovely.

Courtesy of Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

When storms come, I find that I get much more nervous now than I ever did before… but for the crops! We’ve had a difficult time this season with damp-loving diseases like powdery mildew and spot blotch. Our washed out fields are just coming back, and to get more rain would only be cruel at this point. Hail is now my worst nightmare; last Friday I continually checked the radar to make sure the hail was going to miss our farm (thankfully it did, but I feel terrible for the farms that it did hit). I can’t help but do a little happy dance in the mornings when I check the radar and see that the day will be dry and sunny!

I’ve never been your typical college kid in that I’ve always had a pretty healthy diet. I always tried to include one vegetable serving a day, plenty of fruit and grains, and a little protein here and there. I never eat fast food and I don’t drink soda. I thought I had a pretty good diet going when I started working at the farm this summer. Boy, I didn’t know what I was missing! Let me tell you that the vegetable selection you have at a conventional grocery store is paltry. I’ve eaten many new vegetables this summer that I didn’t even know existed. It’s pretty pathetic, but I didn’t know there were different kinds of eggplant or cauliflower. And I’d never eaten Swiss chard or kale before. Well, I’m hooked now!

On top of that, I’ve discovered that I hate throwing my unused produce out. Heck no! I invested my figurative blood, sweat, and tears into that crap — there’s no way I’m letting it go to waste! Because of this, I’ve had to resort to all sorts of sources for recipes to cook all this produce. Not only have I learned a great deal about cooking (it’s not just smearing peanut butter on bread anymore), but I’ve also gotten very organized about my meal planning so that I use everything and don’t have too much left over. It’s actually quite addictive to eat vegetables at every meal, and I have no intention of letting that change just because of winter.

Farm Journal Part 9: A Labor of Love

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Farm Journal Part 9: A Labor of Love

As I tell my friends what it is like to work on a small organic farm, I have noticed a common theme in their questions, my answers, and the resulting astonishment.

Oftentimes, they can’t believe the amount of work we do on a daily basis (“Why, that’s slave labor!”) or they gasp when they see my arms and legs dotted with angry red mosquito and fly bites (which I accumulate despite donning pants and long-sleeved shirts for the workday). I knew that there existed a rather romantic idea of organic farming, but I had not realized that so many people subscribed to it.

While there are days that are quite simply perfect, there are even more that neatly dispel the notion that organic farming is nothing but bright sunshine, communing with nature, and baskets of beautiful produce sitting everywhere.

The weather can make or break a day, right off the bat. The hotter the weather (and the higher the humidity), the harder the work will be. There is nothing (and I mean NOTHING) worse than the combination of hoeing and 90 plus degree temperatures with high humidity. Hoeing is difficult, requires arm and upper back strength, and is repetitive to the point of mind-numbing redundancy. Imagine doing this with black flies and deer flies zooming around your head, mosquitoes biting you everywhere, and sweat stinging in your eyes. Now, do that for four hours. However, this exact same activity is a pleasant workout when the temperature is only 75 degrees and the day is dry and breezy. On beautiful days like that, your mind can wander from the task at hand and you are better able to appreciate those chirping birds or buzzing bees.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Speaking of insects: I have become a ninja in the art of deer fly squashing. My fellow intern Mary and I have come to a tacit agreement that it is okay if we smack each other, as long as the intent was to kill a fly. This has resulted in some rather painful (but successful) fly annihilations. We have long since given up spraying ourselves with bug spray; it just simply doesn’t work. Whether it is because we are sweating it off within minutes or it isn’t strong enough (and we even tried 40 percent DEET), bug spray is effective for all of 10 minutes before it stops working; after that, we’re pulling horseflies out of our ears the rest of the day.

Farm Journal Part 8: Ode to the Hoe

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

With all the rain we’ve had lately, the weeds are positively stifling our crops. And it is a constant, uphill battle to keep them relatively under control. Because of this, I have had plenty of time (entire days, really) to become closely acquainted with the various types of hoes that exist. For every bed, for every crop, there is a particular hoe that works best. Some of us have found one hoe in particular that resonates with our being (Francesca the diamond hoe happens to be my favorite). Whether it matches our personality, or speaks to us in a more spiritual way, we have had the opportunity to really connect with our hoes on a level that is deeper than that which we form with other garden tools and implements (tractors aside). Given all the quality time we farm workers have had with our hoes, I have composed a little tribute to our wood and steel friends that I would like to dedicate to all the farmers and gardeners out there who may have their own, special hoe:

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Ode to the Hoe

Whether noon’s burning sun hot on our backs
Or the early morning with gentle breeze
Though we might prefer the thought of an axe
You, oh Hoe, perform with dignified ease
A job, thankless, yet so material
Endless, delicate, needing skill too
Humbly, we tire in its ruthless dust
We, with our thoughts of rest ethereal
But, resolute with strength, oh no, not you
Steadfast, weed, vine, and root are felled with lust
Your might obliges my often weak hand,
A partnership, unmatched, I am in awe
Toiling together, we work the land
No better matched couple I ever saw
I, my desire and patience provide
You, trustworthy vigor and brawn do lend
As one we work, quite seamless I am sure
Apart, we could not quell the rising tide
Of foxtail and bindweed that never end
Only joined do we, exultant, endure.

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Farm Journal Part 7: The Real Dirt

University of Minnesota Agriculture student Ruth Burke is spending this summer interning at a CSA farm called Cramer Organics of Delano, MN. Throughout the growing season, she’ll share weekly updates about the experience with readers of the Heavy Table.

Part 7: “The Real Dirt”

When you walk into a grocery store nowadays and peruse the produce section, you probably won’t see much insect damage or dirt on the vegetables and fruit — at least, not the commercially grown produce. However, take a look at the organic produce, and you might notice a distinct difference. While most wholesale organic produce (that sold in supermarkets or co-ops) is quite comparable to commercially grown produce, you might still see some blemishes that would not be acceptable with non-organic products. If you purchase directly from a CSA, your vegetables might be a little dirty and there could very well be a hitchhiker in the form of a worm or beetle in your lettuce.  The question is: Is this okay?

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

While I personally thought that a certain amount of dirt and pest irritation on my organic produce was okay (if not expected), there are many people who feel otherwise. I found myself at odds with those folks who feel that organic produce should be just as pristine (or darn close) as commercially grown produce. Commercial farmers have a host of advantages compared to organic farmers in terms of making their produce look shiny, clean, and pest-free. They use various pesticides and chemical fertilizers to keep the bugs at bay and to force the vegetables to grow large quickly. Often, commercial produce is sprayed with wax or harvested early and then exposed to ethylene gas (en route to its final destinations) so it can ripen on the way. Of course this produce is going to look “perfect,” and I felt strongly that it was perfectly fine for organic produce to look more “real.”

I have since had my attitude adjusted in regard to this topic after talking with a few people who generally disagree. One of those people is Katie Kubovcik, a farmer at Big River Farms in the St. Croix River Valley. I find her argument to be rather compelling. When I asked her what level of dirt or damage is acceptable in organic produce, she responded by saying that it honestly depended on the market, but that very little should be accepted. In the wholesale market, there is a great amount of pressure to have as clean and damage-free produce as you can get, simply because that is what consumers currently demand. Regardless of the fact that, over time, our view of produce has changed significantly (mostly due to the industrialization of the food production process), we are still held hostage to consumer demand. Also, in the effort to promote organic produce to a nation of consumers who already have a difficult time incorporating vegetables into their diets, it is best to consider ease of use when preparing produce for market. Dirty vegetables that will require time to clean are just not as “easy” to use.

Ruth Burke / Heavy Table

Katie states that the label “organic” should not be an excuse for poor quality or dirty produce. “It is more than possible to grow highly nutritious produce that is visibly appealing as well,” she explains, “and therein lies the art form.” To her, growing produce is an art, and it is her personal goal to grow a beautiful, perfect vegetable, every time. Certainly, some amount of damage and dirt is inevitable, especially when the produce is harvested the same day. But, Katie points out that part of the salability is in the beauty of the produce. Naturally, taste and nutrition trump all other things, but aesthetics can easily ruin an appetite before a single bite is had. She is realistic in that she understands that sometimes a season for a particular vegetable can be particularly hard. In circumstances like these (when an entire crop is poor due to pest damage or weather), she feels that it is important to communicate to your CSA members which damage is merely cosmetic and which is not, and to remind them that while this produce may not look the best, its nutritional value is still comparable (if not higher) than commercial produce.

In the end, I still don’t mind if my produce is a little flea-bitten or dirt-encrusted, but I better understand the argument that this isn’t necessarily okay for everyone. If you are paying a premium for a product, you want it to be of the highest quality possible, and this includes looks. Therefore, while some of our consumers may have relaxed standards, it’s okay that some don’t. And in striving for perfection, we can hopefully meet the needs of both parties.

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