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The Sansa Sensation: Non-Browning and GMO-Free!

August 7th, 2015, by Lisa

Sansa
Earlier this year the FDA approved genetically modified (GMO) apples, and we may see them hitting the grocery store shelves by 2017. Dubbed ‘botox apples’ by some, these altered Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples are designed (ie. genetically modified in a lab) to prevent bruising and browning. (Read more about it in this NPR article and this New York Daily News article).

We at the farm believe that the development of GMO crops is like opening a Pandora’s Box (or can of worms, if you prefer). Things could take off and become big problems in no time. We’ve already seen that in pesticide-resistant monster weeds which have developed in response to GMO corn, soy, and other field crops.

And honestly, in the case of the GMO apples – what IS the point? Sure, some apples start to brown nearly immediately upon cutting them, but others do not. The non-browning characteristic already exists in some varieties, like the Sansa we recently picked.

Sansa is a delightfully fruity and sweet early apple. Not commercially ‘pretty’, perhaps, with its non-solid pinkishyellowish/lightly russet-y color scheme, but it certainly looks beautiful to us! And you know we at North Star do not care much about looks anyway – it’s flavor that counts!

Sansa

Sansa, hours after slicing

Every year when the Sansa start producing I am reminded of how lovely they are. And then as I cut them up for eating, I remember that they also don’t brown.

Some varieties, like Royalty, will start browning within seconds, but others do not. When there are already naturally-occurring non-browning gems like Sansa around, why on Earth are food and Ag scientists fooling around with genes in a lab? So they can have nationally-recognized varieties like Granny Smith and Golden Delicious with that characteristic? Then people will have no idea if they’re eating a GMO apple or not (because, of course, there are no labeling laws in this country….YET).

Personally, I think it would be so much better if the apple industry would stop fooling around with unpopular varieties which “look good” (although many customers hate Golden Delicious just as much as Red Delicious now because the apple industry has ruined it – but that’s another story). Why not start growing some YUMMY varieties and NOT fool around artificially with the genetics? Consumers can be taught that delicious apples can come in “ugly” packages…we’ve seen that happen with our own farm. We routinely have customers pick out the “ugliest” varieties for sale at our market stand, as they know those apples will taste just awesome!

Cut Sansa

Sansa core 2 days after being cut


And so it is with Sansa….a very unassuming-looking apple with great flavor AND a nifty non-browning characteristic….and no GMOs are involved!

By the way – those GMO apples, when they come out (and I’m sure they will), will hopefully have the word “Arctic” attached to their variety name. So if you see “Arctic Granny Smith or Arctic Golden Delicious”, you know what they are. Of course, that is if that name is kept with them. I’m betting the “arctic” part of the name will mysteriously disappear.

The Trials and Tribulations of Tomato Testing!

August 6th, 2015, by Lisa

tomatoes
Tomatoes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, flavors, and growth habits. What they all have in common generally at this time of year is….love. There’s nothing quite like a fresh tomato from the garden going straight into a tomato sandwich for lunch.

Sure, we all love our tomatoes, but ’round here, tomato season also means rounds and rounds of taste-testing….and it’s not quite what you think. Visions of sampling various heirlooms may come to mind for you, but as is typically the case here at NSO, what we’re tasting is the latest in Farmer Ike’s tomato variety development projects.

Like his beet, carrot, eggplant, pepper, peach, and apple breeding projects, the goal for tomato breeding is to develop a new variety which has both excellent flavor and grows well in our climate. Fewer cracking and disease problems are high on the list of attributes Ike is looking for, as well as a nice growth habit for the plant.

The particular project we’re tasting right now is a cross of a flavorful green heirloom (one of our favorites!) called ‘Malachite Box’ with a tough-as-nails red standard tomato called ‘Iron Lady’. Ike is hoping that the disease-resistant nature of Iron Lady and the delicious and colorful nature of Malachite Box might combine to make an awesome tomato.

NotesBelieve it or not, the pictures here show tomatoes from JUST that cross – yep, they come in all colors!

It is too early to tell if Ike will come up with the next great nouveau heirloom, but for now we’re in the midst of trying the fruits of his labors. A couple times a week, he’ll bring various numbered selections to the lunch table, that we and all the farm helpers might sample and express our thoughts. He’ll then take notes and make plans for further development (or discards) from there.

Sounds cool, right? Except that it can be hard to taste tomato after tomato in its unadulterated state (like, NOT on a BLT!). Plus, quite a number of these early selection aren’t very good, quite frankly. They may be pretty, but flavor-wise they’re taking after Iron Lady more than Malachite Box at the moment. But that may change, and there’s plenty more to try! He’ll also throw in a ringer (one of our regular for-CSA and for-sale varieties) to make sure we’re on target when tasting.

Ah, the trials and tribulations of working with a plant breeder….when sampling becomes part of the job description!

A NSO Exclusive: Farmer Ike’s Eggplant!

July 13th, 2015, by Lisa

Ike and Eggplant
Joining the ranks of Farmer Ike’s other home-developed fruits and veggies (like carrots, apples, peaches, beets, and tomatoes) come some absolutely beautiful and delicious eggplant!

Farmer Ike was tiring of spending 30 cents apiece on high quality eggplant seed, so he took matters into his own hands and started working with eggplant breeding some years ago. He now has a line of lovely large black eggplant as well as those completely gorgeous striped eggplant (and yes – they’re GMO-free!!).

Both are very well adapted to growing in our little micro-climate (as this picture attests), and both are super-delicious.

You can use eggplant interchangeably in recipes. I feel the striped ones are a wee bit sweeter and more tender, but not much, as Ike’s black eggplant are more tender than commercial varieties anyway.

If you get some of those striped beauties, they are very photogenic, so take a pic before you peel them. Better yet – any artists out there? They deserve to be portrayed in a painting! Acrylic, oils, watercolor; whatever! (and please, if you do one, share a picture of it with us!)

Enjoy these tasty beauties – you’ll find them nowhere else in the world…and that’s pretty darned nifty!

That Practice Which Shall Not Be Named

July 1st, 2015, by Lisa

Voldemort

Visions of Voldemort, yes?

No worries – he’s not around here. But the thought came to the minds of our geek farmers this spring as we were becoming frustrated over the use of the word “organic”.

You likely have a notion of what “organic” means. But did you know that most farmers can’t use the word, even if they are following those methods of growing? It’s true! Unless a farm is certified organic by the USDA, they cannot legally use the term to describe their growing practices.

Now that makes things very tricky. On a busy farmers’ market day when a customer asks “Are you organic?” we know what they are asking. The basic gist of the question is whether we are using natural methods to grow crops rather than dousing them in lots of man-made pesticides.

But since many of us small farmers decide to not be certified by the USDA, we cannot say we are growing organically, even though we may be following all the rules. So how to address the question, then??

(Full disclosure: we are talking about our vegetable production here. In the orchard we use some of those practices which shall not be named in addition to using targeted low-impact pesticides when necessary.)

So then comes this kind of round-about discussion along the lines of: “We use crop rotations, floating row covers, hand weeding, cover crops, and other OMRI-certified (Organic Material Review Institute) methods in our vegetable production. We also make our own compost rather than using purchased fertilizers. Plus we practice seed saving and even develop our own vegetable varieties to focus on flavor, disease, and pest resistance.”

You can imagine that by the time we’ve tried to describe all of this without using the “O word”, customers are sometimes left with their brains spinning and confusedly follow up with “So, you’re organic….” or “So, you’re not organic at all?”

Arrghh – it is very frustrating and confusing to all. And takes a lot of time at market. Sometimes it makes us think about going through the certification process. But we don’t want the added expense and record keeping involved to jump through all the hoops, especially if we can get the gist across to people one way or another, so I kinda think we won’t ever do it for the garden.

When we have an inquiry via email, we’ll direct folks to the last question of our FAQs page for the answer. At market or in person? Spinning brains on all sides….

I’m not sure what the answer is. We’ve managed so far one way or another trying to impart how we grow our veggies. But it sure would be easier if we had another term we could use to describe things. It would be lovely if Harry Potter (well, in all honesty, Hermione) could come up with a spell for us to use to just **poof** impart the info to the brains of those who inquire.

Because “organic” shall not be named.

Weirdo of the Week: Dill!

June 19th, 2015, by Sarah

Dill
Now, we know you have some familiarity with dill. Dill pickles, right? Or that dried green stuff you throw on potatoes to make ‘em look fancy. Fresh dill however, is an entirely different animal. It’s often described as “feathery” looking, and really it is a character with its distinct scent and showy greenery.

On its own, fresh dill adds brightness to any veggie or pasta salad. If you’re up for the challenge, give this dill-packed Afghani spin on ricea try. If you prefer to keep it simple, try these under-ten-minutes yogurt biscuits for a quick impressive addition to dinner.

Of course, there is a reason we think of potatoes and pickles when we think of dill-they’re delicious! So pack your fridge with simple no heat pickles. Then team up potatoes, dill and butter for some serious comfort food. What a great way to use this weeks weirdo!

Weirdo of the Week: Garlic Scapes!

June 7th, 2015, by Sarah

Garlic Scapes

“What on Earth are those weird pig tail shaped green things?” you might very well be asking this week. Those pig tails are garlic scapes, the stalks of undeveloped flowers that are emerging from each growing garlic bulb.

Why take them off the garlic? For one, they are delicious, plus once those flower stalks are gone, the garlic plants can put more nutrients and energy into growing delicious fat bulbs for later in the year! In the culinary world scapes are wonderfully versatile, as they can be used as milder version of their garlic parents or a vegetable in their own right.

ScapesSo, what to do with garlic scapes? A quick check online will yield a bounty of scape pesto recipes but, let’s be real, we want more options! That being said, making pesto is a good place to begin, as is swapping scapes in for regular garlic in hummus recipes.

Grilling, which imparts a nice char and brings out the scapes sweeter side, is a good option. Try tying them into knots before putting them over coals to make them easier to handle with tongs.

A simple, impressive option is to quickly sauté the scapes and pair with an easy bechamel sauce, fancy speak for a cream sauce made even better by adding cheese. We did this last week with asparagus; scapes in place would have been fantastic! For a really interesting dish, give this garlic scape soup a whirl.

So don’t be intimidated by this week’s weird vegetable. Dish it up and enjoy!

Farming Whatsit: Flagging Tape!

June 3rd, 2015, by Lisa

Pink Tape
Walking through the orchard on a summer day is a colorful affair. It’s not the oranges, yellows, and reds of ripening fruit which catches your eye first, but bright an gaudy flags of color fluttering from many trees.

Red, black&yellow check, white with orange polka dots, purple, blue&white stripes, etc. – the varying colors can seem endless. What, oh what, does it all mean??

Each color means something, of course, and trees are tagged accordingly.

checked ribbonFor the most part, each flag color means a particular person did the thinning work on that tree. Nicole’s thinned trees have a green flag, Kelly’s are dark blue, Justin’s are white with orange polka dots, and so on. Each person uses that color throughout the year for particular tasks. Flagging trees helps everyone else know the task has been done on that particular tree, and also provides a way for us to check on how helpers are doing on the task, and where they may need some tips and hints to improve their technique. Fruit thinning isn’t quite rocket science, but there is definitely a learning curve!

There are a couple of flag colors we don’t much like to see, however.

A BLACK flag is basically the kiss of death. That tree is slated to be cut down. Perhaps it is sick or otherwise not performing well. Or maybe we’ve decided the fruit from it really, REALLY doesn’t taste good.

A RED flag indicates a tree which is struggling with fireblight, which is a very transmissible bacterial disease which can completely kill trees and wipe out entire orchards if not kept in check. So trees which are known to be infected, but which we’re keeping an eye on and trying to save, will be flagged with red.

A PINK flag means “look at me for specific instructions for this tree”

Red and black aside, the fluttering ribbons on a breezy day is a pretty neat sight to see. Not only does it just look cool, but it also means the work has been completed in that area….which takes us closer to fruit harvest stage. Hurray!

Vegetable Care & Storage 101

May 25th, 2015, by Lisa

Carrots

“How do I keep my carrots from getting wobbly and my lettuce from wilting when I get it home?”

Questions along those lines are very common at the beginning of the season, as especially as folks are getting big boxes and bags full of goodies from their CSA share or farmers’ market shopping excursions.

One key point to remember: most vegetables are very high in water content. The chilly air in a refrigerator is very dry, and sucks moisture out of all produce (even beets will get wilted!).

However, since our vegetables are picked so fresh, they should keep a very long time for you in the refrigerator….IF you make sure to keep that moisture contained! For most items, that simply means putting them in a tightly-sealed plastic bag or sealed container and trying to make sure most of the air is removed.

Plastic bags can be used over and over again for various vegetables, and you’ll find that even our fresh lettuces will keep upwards of two weeks in this manner! Carrots stay crispy, chard stays puffy and brilliant – you get the idea! Sure, using a lot of plastic bags maybe isn’t ideal. But re-use of bags helps and air-tight reusable containers (either glass or plastic) are a great alternative.

For ALL green leafies (lettuce, chard, chinese cabbage, kale, etc.), the most important thing is to make sure the bag they are in is sealed as much as possible to keep air out. When I wrap up chard in a bag and store it in my ‘fridge, it keeps for nearly two weeks! Lettuces will keep this way as well.

Carrots, beets, summer squash, peppers, beans, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, cucumbers, and peas will also all keep for a long time in a plastic bag or plastic container in the fridge.

Eggplant can be cold-sensitive. It’s best if you can use them within a few days, but I do keep them in the ‘fridge.

The NOT FOR THE FRIDGE section:
Potatoes, garlic, winter squash, and onions should be stored in a dark environment at room temperature or a little cooler. Something like a cupboard works well. I tend not to store them in a basement, as many basements tend to be damp and humid…but maybe yours is different.

Tomatoes - smallerTomatoes should NEVER go into a refrigerator unless you’re at risk of not using them before they go bad. A cold environment will suck the flavor out of a tomato in very short order, so refrigerate only if you absolutely have to.

If you’re awash in tomatoes and don’t feel like making sauce to freeze or can, you can freeze whole tomatoes! I do this all the time and it provides a great-tasting addition to winter soups and casseroles without the added salt, herbs, and preservatives you’d get in processed tomatoes from the store. Simple cut out the top part of the core and pack them in bags. When they thaw, the skins will just slip off. Sure, they’ll be mushy, but you’re adding flavor to winter dishes, and although they won’t taste like summertime tomatoes, they WILL taste better than grocery store ‘cardboard’ tomatoes!

We’ll try to pass along some other ‘putting by’ tips and tricks during the season.

Here’s a list put out by a farmers’ market that covers everything from artichokes to pomegranates. For the most part, I agree with what they have to say, although I don’t agree with all of their fruit suggestions (please – store apples in the refrigerator!)…so go with our suggestions on that. But since I don’t grow artichokes or pomegranates (nor citrus!), their list may be handy for you to look at.

Do YOU have any tricks and tips to share with other veggie lovers? Comment below!

Farming Whatsit: the Brownie!

May 19th, 2015, by Lisa

Brownie
Brownies are most everyone’s favorite, and here on the farm the same holds true. Although in this case, we’re talking a piece of heavy machinery not a chocolatey edible.

This week, this Brownie will get seriously busy as we begin the two-month-long process of fruit thinning. Unfortunately, it can’t do it all on its own, but rather requires an operator who stands on the platform driving it around and lingering in the tops of the fruit trees thinning away extra fruits.

As of tomorrow, the Brownie will be running pretty much constantly. This year, if you were here to visit, you’d likely see either Paige, Josh, Justin, Nicole, or Lisa up there at any given time.

Last year, Farmer Zippy had a chance (see video below). He wasn’t too keen on it though, so I don’t think we’ll convince him to do it this year. Plus, his little hooves have a hard time manipulating the clippers needed to thin Asian pears!

Swarmin’ Fun!

May 18th, 2015, by Lisa

An unexpected Sunday afternoon adventure!

The bummer is that only minutes after Farmer Ike exclaimed “She’s in!”, the queen came back out and the swarm proceeded to move on over greener pastures (literally).

My thought is that She either thought that hive was too much of a fixer-upper and She did NOT want to deal with it, or that maybe it was haunted by the ghosts of bees past…

:-)

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