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Meet the Farmers: Sophie

October 28th, 2010, by Lisa

(Sophie has been a full-time helper since spring 2007)

Background: I don’t really keep track of what I’ve done in the past… there’s too much to do in the present! Plus, I always have to be on the look out for rabbits, treats, concrete trucks, and Amish buggies… I can’t spend time thinking about the past. What if one of them shows up?!

Why are you working at North Star Orchard? Wait, I’m working? I was just having fun… that’s not work!

What do you want to do when you grow up? I’m four… I’m already grown up!

Least favorite farm job: Fighting groundhogs, accidentally biting frogs, going in the house, hiding from thunder, waiting for Mom to come home.

Favorite farm job: Getting treats and toys, chasing concrete trucks that go past my house, barking at buggies, scouring the farm to chase out those pesky rabbits, watching people do things in the barn.

Favorite vegetable/ fruit: I really like Housi Asian pears and some of the really sweet apples. Carrots and Brussels sprouts are awesome, too.

Favorite flavor of ice cream: I’m not sure if the blog’s reading audience would want to know just what I like to snack on while I’m running around the farm…

CSA vs. ASC

October 20th, 2010, by Lisa

By now, many many people know what CSA stands for, but in case you’ve missed it, it is “Community Supported Agriculture”.

And now, for a bit of history:

Its roots reach back more than 30 years to Japan where a group of women concerned about the increase in food imports and the corresponding decrease in the farming population initiated a direct growing and purchasing relationship between their group and local farms. This arrangement, called “teikei” in Japanese, translates to “putting the farmers’ face on food.” The concept traveled to Europe and America, where it was given the name “Community Supported Agriculture” at Indian Line Farm, Massachusetts in 1985.

In this country, the differences between CSAs are as vast as the number of CSAs. While they are primarily vegetable-based, many offer fruits as well. Meat, cheese, and even grain/flour CSAs are in existence. Most CSAs have members sign up early, sometimes even the fall prior, while others have various payment plans, or account-balance-based structures. Some CSAs have hefty work requirements of members, while others do not have any. The list of differences goes on.

What CSAs all have in common, though, is a significant connection between farmers and consumers.

I argue, however, that perhaps we should be making a shift to calling them ASCs instead; Agriculture Supported Communities. With all the buzz about ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’, shouldn’t we be looking at ASC as a model?

There’s something that seems not-quite-right when some CSAs are delivering veggies all over Philadelphia, and pushing 60 to 100 miles from their home base to do it. There are farmers who are traveling 3 hours and more to sell at Philadelphia and New York City farmers’ markets. Please note I am not dissing these operations, just making a point. Personally, it seems somehow not-quite-right for me to be schlepping Fruit Shares to Horsham and Kutztown, each of which are 40 miles distant, or going to a farmers’ market 60 miles away. It’s not that I don’t want those folks to get my fruit – not in the slightest – but now that ‘local’ and ‘CSA’ and ‘sustainable’ are gaining such momentum, I think we must watch out for how to encourage things to ‘travel’ in the right direction.

It wouldn’t make sense, after all, if a Lancaster-based CSA were delivering shares to Philly, while an urban or suburban Philly farm couldn’t sell all the shares it had available to sell. And although there are no other local Fruit Shares like ours available in the area at this time, if one did pop up near Kutztown but had to deliver shares to our own Chester County area, we’d be passing each other on delivery day. Sounds goofy, huh? But that’s just what has happened as commodity agriculture grew. As a nation, we are exporting apples TO China, and importing apples FROM China. Where’s the sense in that? Same thing goes for all kinds of other crops and businesses.

So, what we need to be on the lookout for, and work towards, is making sure that things make sense. Work towards ASC: If you’re joining a CSA, choose one close to home. And then, as years pass, make sure it’s STILL the closest one to home. While I’d hate to say goodbye to long-term members of ours who live at somewhat of a distance, I would enjoy saying ‘hello’ to new members who live in our own county. While I’d be sad to leave some far-flung farmers’ markets that I’ve gone to for years, I’d be happy to supply my direct neighbors with food, knowing at the same time that other new farms are supplying the people I used to. Of course, new orchards are far and few between, as the development costs, in both time and expense, are so friggin’ high. But, new farms will come along if we all, as a community, can show that there is the need and desire for them.

In days gone by, we all practiced ASC. Little hamlets and small towns relied on their own neighborhood farmers to feed them. We are living in an environment so gosh-darned suited to agriculture that there is no reason why we cannot again practice ASC. But, of course, many people are still unaware of the concept of buying local, or may be unwilling to practice it. They may think it too expensive or inconvenient. But such feelings and attitudes are changing; we’ve been watching it happen.

Community as a word has come to represent just about any group: Facebook friends, online gaming groups, etc. Community as a locale would be a great thing to bring back as its major definition. Imagine knowing personally your shoemaker, cheesemaker, electrical engineer, jelly maker, and farmer – because you lived near them, worked with them, and supported each other in business. I think we may be headed that way. ASC is one of the first steps.

ASC would really be teikei. But, we’d love to see things go further than that. Let’s really see the consumers’ faces, as well as the doctors’, the mailmans’, and yes, even the garbage collectors’. It takes all of us to build community.


For a great example, watch this video about what a small town in Vermont has done! (Grab your coffee, this one is about 20 minutes long, but worth it!)

An Asian pear a day….

October 18th, 2010, by Erin

I probably wouldn’t be working at North Star Orchard if it weren’t for the Asian pears. It’s true – they’re what drew my attention to this farm years ago at Philadelphia farmers’ markets. I’m not the only one; they truly have a cult following. I’ll often open my mouth to answer a question about them at a market, only to have another customer standing nearby answer enthusiastically for me. I’ve heard about Asian pears shipped away to kids at college who are yearning for a taste of home, and about some that are shipped each year to relatives in Europe. I know my parents won’t let me in the door at Christmas-time if I don’t bring pears along.

So many people love them, but they’re still a bit of a mystery to most. What are these things? These “apple pears,” “Korean pears,” “sand pears,” “salad pears,” nashi? Well, “apple pear” is misleading; they really have nothing to do with apples, except that they share a plant family (Rosaceae). What they actually are is another species of pear, Pyrus pyrifolia, that has been traditionally grown in Japan, China, and Korea. You’ve been eating them for weeks (if not years) now, so I don’t have to tell you what they taste like, or about their characteristic crunch. Unlike “European” pears, Asian pears are picked ripe and ready to eat – none of that guesswork about when it’s reached its moments-long window of peak ripeness before turning to unpleasant mush in the center. Keep them in your fridge loosely in a plastic bag and they’ll keep for weeks. (Especially good to know this time of year when the CSA’s ending!)

Perhaps the Asian pear fervor is only unusual in this country where fruit generally serves as a sort of placeholder. We’re not accustomed to great flavor, but rather a healthy something to tide us over or fill a lunch bag. Most of us grew up on inoffensive-at-best apples and identical-looking bananas, definitely nothing to get excited about. In Asia, however, where these pears come from, they’re served as a special treat or gift or shared around the table after a meal. Here, as well, I sense that Asian pears are treated as something special. If nothing else, the price inspires a bit more awe than we’re used to affording a piece of fruit, and reflects the hours spent hand-thinning the crop as well as their fragile nature.

All season long I’ve been looking forward to learning more about these pears and their traditional uses, and I have to confess, I haven’t been too successful. There still isn’t that much information out there, readily available on the information superhighway (in English anyway). I was, however, able to find a bit on their usage in traditional Chinese medicine. From Kitchen Medicine Cooking Medicine, a blog about Food, Herbs, and Philosophy from Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine:

“The most common Kitchen Medicine in the East for the lungs are Pears. Pears are cooling and moistening which in moderation is how the lungs like to be. Not only do pear’s cool energy counteract the heat building in your lungs with infection, but their viscous moist quality is a natural lubricant for the mucous membranes of the lungs, with expectorant qualities, too.

Bite into a ripe pear. Compare with a ripe Apple. Pears have a viscous quality. This is a moistening characteristic that targets the lungs and nasal passages, and makes them excellent food this time of year, raw or cooked.”

Appropriately enough, I was fighting off a cough as I did my research, and it took longer than it should have for me to realize that I should get up off the couch and go steam some Asian pears. I highly recommend this recipe (adapted from Nina Simonds’ A Spoonful of Ginger), even if you’re feeling 100% healthy. Once cooked, the texture of Asian pear is remarkably similar to cooked European pears.

For anyone who’d like to dabble in the world of pickle making, Asian pears can also be used in kimchi. I’d recommend using Olympic, a Korean variety with a little more crunch and tart flavor. Another Korean cooking technique I learned: use Asian pear to marinate and tenderize beef in recipes such as bulgogi and galbi.

Also, one of the nicknames for Asian pears, “salad pears” makes a great suggestion – they go fabulously in salads, providing a sweet and crunchy counterpoint especially to bitter or spicy greens. Finally, online success – a search easily turns up a number of Asian pear salad recipes…

from New York chic (good luck sourcing the mâche outside of Union Square!): Morimoto’s Asian Pear Salad … to a tasty way to balance out bitter endive or escarole: Endive and Asian Pear Salad … to something like this, which comes pretty near my idea of food perfection: Asian Pear and Arugula Salad with Goat Cheese.

All of these suggestions, however, are contingent on any Asian pears lingering beyond the moment you take them out of their bag. The traditional way to eat a North Star Asian pear is, after all, to simply eat it, as soon as possible, caution to the wind with juice flying, a bit of the mystery still intact.

Under the Weather

October 11th, 2010, by Erin

This is the time of year when everyone seems to be fighting off a little something, be it a cold or flu, and I’m grateful that I work outside and am not trapped inside with all those germs. However, we’re all literally “under the weather,” affected by what the sky throws at us, even though we sometimes as a culture pretend not to be. Case in point: Just over a week ago in our area, the Brandywine Creek rose to flood levels and many major state routes as well as smaller roads were closed in places due to high water. But the world carried on, everyone attempting to drive to work as usual. And, surprise! Some were met with confused traffic jams on detour that lasted for hours.

As farmers, we’re one of the few remaining professions in this country that seriously takes the weather into account to plan our day. Often, we North Star employees wake up to phone messages from Ike or Lisa, with the morning’s weather-dependent plan of action for the day. People are often curious how a certain weather event affects what we do at work. If we can, we avoid or plan around working in the rain. Some things can’t happen; peach picking, for example, needs to wait until the peach fuzz has dried off a bit. Tomatoes and peppers shouldn’t be disturbed while their foliage is wet, for fear of spreading fungal diseases. There are inside tasks that can be done, like packing CSA shares, washing vegetables, or planting seeds in the greenhouse. But some days, we have to persevere. Last Monday, with a steady rain and the temperature flirting with fifty degrees, we needed to pick vegetables for the CSA. The week before, with the Olympic pears needing to come off the trees and intermittent rain showers for days, we spent the day out in the orchard, hiding out in the box truck at intervals to avoid the worst of it.

We’re a motley crew on days like this – hats, brightly colored and mismatched rain suits, rubber boots, and – if we’re really desperate – neoprene gloves that act like a wetsuit to keep your hands “warm” in cold water. This is often the limiting factor in rain – nothing will slow you down like cold, numb hands. Wet feet are a close second, and rain seeping down the inside of your sleeves is a major annoyance, but not good enough reason to stop. Spirits are varied on a rainy day. Most of us find our minds wandering to daydreams of a hot cup of tea and a warm blanket; some of us find it “refreshing” and enjoy the challenge.

And what about the trees? How do they feel about the weather? Well, this season I’m sure they’re wishing that the rain could have been spaced out a bit more evenly. All of this rain came as Chester County had entered a drought watch, the lowest of the state’s three official classifications of drought conditions. Some of the trees were affected, their fruit ripening even earlier than expected (in a year when the season’s already ahead of schedule) and dropping fruit prematurely due to drought stress, which complicated our efforts to pick the fruit at the optimum moment. Rainstorms can also be detrimental, with high winds flinging fruit from trees. Full-size Olympic pears flying around; now that’s no joke! For this reason, we take special care to remove the fruit from the tips of branches when we’re thinning the Asian pear crop. And you can imagine the impact of even a brief hail storm on an orchard. A whole season’s harvest can be ruined in a matter of minutes. We had a not-so-severe hailstorm this summer; perhaps you’ve even seen a piece of fruit or two that was “kissed by the hail” with a tiny, cosmetic blemish. Other weather events can have a lasting impact on the trees. While an annual crop can be wiped out and tilled in, perennial crops like fruit trees are an investment. When disaster strikes, you try to pick up the pieces as best you can. Last winter’s blizzard left us scrambling to devise the best way to deal with split peach trees and to correct broken scaffold branches in the young apples.

Obviously (I hope), the weather plays a huge role in agriculture. In an orchard, weather patterns determine which varieties you can plant – different varieties have different levels of cold hardiness and chill requirement; each type of fruit requires certain conditions to reach peak flavor. An apple that loves upstate New York won’t fair as well in southeastern Pennsylvania and vice versa. Weather patterns also make some areas more ideal for growing beautiful fruit. The major fruit producing areas of Washington and California, for example, have a summer dry season without rain, which makes a world of difference for the control of fungal diseases that thrive in wet, humid conditions. Furthermore, in a world where climate change is already manifesting itself in eccentric weather conditions that affect agriculture, a commitment to eating locally means that everyone, not just those of us who spend our days out in the elements, should pay a bit more attention to just how “under the weather” we really are.

Meet the Farmers: Jay

October 9th, 2010, by Lisa

(Jay helps out part-time every year.)
Jay
Background: I’ve been homeschooled all my life, which has given me a great chance to really follow my interests during all the times at public schools which are wasted (role call, travel [on the bus and between classes], dealing with loud/obnoxious kids, etc.). Thanks to having a more flexible schedule, I have more time to really focus on what I want to do. Right now, that is web programming and other computer science topics.

Why are you working at North Star Orchard? Well, the most obvious thing, maybe, is that it is a very convenient place for me to work, since I live right there. I’ve grown up with the farm, so I think my personality has really been influenced by the work I’ve been doing… rather than coming in to work with preconceived notions of what I do and don’t like, what I like doing, and by extension why I’m working at North Star, are based on my work experiences. Finally, I can’t deny that it’s nice to have a seasonal source of income.
Jay at Market
What do you want to do when you grow up? At this point I’m looking towards following some sort of programming, Internet, or other computer-y type path. I haven’t quite settled on just where in that (admittedly vast) field I want to go into, but I’m hoping that the computer science class I’m taking at the Chester County Technical College High School will help me more firmly solidify the details.

Least favorite farm job: Moving all the 40+ pound crates of fruit out of a small box truck in a space of an hour or two. Those things are heavy.

Favorite farm job: Talking to customers at farmers’ markets. Market-goers tend to be really friendly, and it’s been great getting to know some of our customers.

Favorite vegetable/ fruit: Apples. There’s just so much variety!

Favorite flavor of ice cream:
Chocolate chip cookie dough. Not real healthy, but even farmers need to give in sometimes.

Schnitz!

October 4th, 2010, by Erin

The phrase “dessert apple” may have become a bit obsolete. Nowadays, the combination of words conjures up images of pies, crisps, apple dumplings – sweet things that involve apples and follow a meal. An apple on its own is about the healthiest thing you could eat, right? Not dessert at all! But really the phrase really just means an apple that you would want to eat raw and fresh without first cooking, baking, or pressing it. So, really, pretty much everything that we grow at North Star is a “dessert apple.” Some are good for cooking as well, as the line between cooking and eating apples is not well defined in the U.S.

So, what’s with the name? I’m guessing that it hearkens back to an era when apples were synonymous with cider, and if you weren’t drinking your apples, you were likely drying or cooking them (or drying them and then cooking them). These apples were distinct from the ones popular today, with an unpalatable flavor or texture when raw. So, historically, for the masses, an apple that you would want to eat out of hand would be something of note. All those apple trees Johnny Appleseed planted? They were for pressing cider (which was, of course, the hard stuff), and the apples would have been too astringent and bitter to eat whole or unfermented. This is due to the prolific nature of apple genetics; plant an apple seed and you’ll get something dramatically different from its parent. So since Mr. John “Appleseed” Chapman was planting seeds, except for the one in a million, he was necessarily planting cider apples. In An Apple Harvest, Frank Browning and Sharon Silva explain: “If apples are nearly everywhere in the New World and the Old, they are not all uniformly delicious. Of the six thousand or so identified varieties, only a few hundred are good enough to be swallowed. Most are little green knots, their scant sugars drowned in bitter acid.” Furthermore, while American nurseries of a hundred years ago offered hundreds of varieties of apples for sale, today you’d be lucky to find upwards of thirty easily available. (These stable varieties are propagated by grafted cuttings rather than seed.) Some of those varieties gone by the wayside are the ones traditionally used for drying, which would have had an unpleasantly dry texture.

However, apple drying is not limited to those varieties; you can dry any number of dessert apples as well, and it’s a great way to spread out the harvest without taking up precious refrigerator space. Then you can snack on them as is all winter, or soak them in water or cider and use them in place of fresh apples for baking. There are several methods for drying (or “dehydrating”) apples. Fruits of all kinds have been dried in the sun since prehistory. Another of the oldest methods is to simply peel and core them and string them up whole in a warm drying room. Slicing them into rings speeds up the process. With the advent of modern ovens and specially-built food dehydrators, apple (or pear) rings can dry as quickly as overnight. Basically, the idea is to expose your food to warmth and air movement to lower its water content. If you live in a warm, breezy arid climate, you’re all set. But say it’s summer or fall in Pennsylvania, then you have a little less control over your drying conditions, and you’ll probably want to move your drying operation inside, and crank up your oven or dehydrator.

I currently have a top of the line ‘Excalibur’ dehydrator on long-term loan, and the Excalibur and I have been spending a lot of quality time together lately. I’ve got a routine down – about a half an hour to forty-five minutes in the evening peeling and slicing, run the dehydrator all night while I’m asleep, awake to a warm, apple-y smell rising from my kitchen, turn off the machine for the day, check on the fruit when I get home from work, and then run it a few more hours if anything needs more time. Home-scale dehydrators run the gamut – from the “Snackmaster” at around $40 to the “Excalibur Deluxe” topping out over $200. If you’re in the market, you’ll want to look for one with a thermostat and a fan.

Or, if you’re using your oven, put the fruit first onto wire cooling racks, cotton fabric, or cheesecloth, then onto your oven racks. If you use baking sheets, you’ll need to turn the fruit, since the air flow can’t travel through. Keep the oven as low as possible – no higher than 145°, or if your oven doesn’t go that low, turn it to “warm.” You might need to prop the door open a bit to encourage air circulation.

Either way, the process is pretty simple. Whether or not you peel the apples is up to you. The thickness of your apple slices also depends somewhat on you – how chewy or crispy you want your apple rings to be, and how long you want to spend drying them. In some scenarios, with some fruits, it might take up to even a few days. You do need to remove a certain amount of the water content to prevent the fruit from spoiling. Various sources say as dry as a raisin or until the fruit feels dry and leathery on the outside but slightly moist inside. If you’d like more of an “apple chip” just let them dry longer. If you’d like you can “pretreat” your apple slices – not with sulfur like commercially dried fruit – but with lemon juice and/or honey. This helps to keep your fruit from browning, but I’ve never really found this to be a problem. Dunk your fruit in lemon juice, a honey-lemon dip (1 cup honey: 1 cup water: the juice of one lemon), or a honey syrup of ¼ cup honey in 2 cups of hot water.

As you’re drying you’ll want to check in on your fruit from time to time, to turn it, or to remove any fruit that’s dry (it won’t all be done at exactly the same time). The amount of time needed varies widely with temperature, thickness, variety, etc., but I’ve found that overnight at about 135° is generally sufficient for most of the fruit I’ve dried. For more detailed instructions, check out http://www.pickyourown.org/apples_dried.htm which includes instructions on how to use your car as a dehydrator!

(For some great old fruit drying pictures: http://www.fruitfromwashington.com/History/fruit_prep.htm)

Resources:
An Apple Harvest by Frank Browning and Sharon Silva
Preserving Summer’s Bounty by the Staff of the Rodale Food Center

North Star Orchard • Ike & Lisa Kerschner
Email: Lisa@northstarorchard.com • Phone: (610)-593-0314
3226 Limestone Rd. • Cochranville, PA 19330
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