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Farmer Zippy’s Notebook: Winter!

February 8th, 2016, by Zippy, translated by Hannah

Zippy Planning.s
It’s pretty quiet around here in the winter, but the work doesn’t stop altogether. Winter’s all about getting ready for the next growing season – and there’s LOTS to do to get ready! There aren’t as many people around – lots of our helpers take the winter off – but the ones who are here keep very busy!

On warmer days we go out into the orchard to prune. All the trees need to be pruned to keep them healthy, and so we get lots of fruit next year. It’s no fun to be in the orchard all day when it’s cold out – it gets really windy here at the farm, especially in the winter. Sometimes we’re so bundled up you can’t tell who is who!

We work inside on the coldest days, or when it rains or snows. There are lots of projects that we save for the winter, when we aren’t as busy. Equipment gets worked on, and there are building projects to do. Fixing up the insides of the buildings, making market display containers, things like that. Right now we’re building tables! Can you guess what they’re for? I bet you can’t – but you’re going to see them soon! You see, they’re the display space for our new store (which I’m REALLY excited about . . . once it’s open, you can come visit me at the farm, and I can’t wait!).

Zipp and Apple ChipsThere’s lots to do in the office, too. We spend weeks making plans for the gardens and ordering seeds (that’s what I’m helping with in the picture above!). Did you know that you can’t plant the a crop in the same place two years in a row? That means that every year you have to carefully figure out where EVERYTHING goes. And then you have to figure out how many seeds you have to order. It takes a LOT of work! There are last year’s orchard notes to go through, and this year’s CSA to set up. Right now I’m spending lots of time helping farmers Lisa and Hannah build our new website (which you’ll see soon! It has pictures of all our apple varieties, and it’s really cool).

As I write this it’s very snowy. I’m inside, and the wind’s blowing around the house, and I’m eating apple chips and drinking cider we froze last fall and dreaming about summer! If I close my eyes, I can almost feel the sunshine, and feel the warm wind in my wool . . .

Your ‘Voyage of Discovery’: Arikara Beans

October 6th, 2015, by Lisa

Arikara - scaled
Cool fall nights and windy/wet/stormy weather get you to thinking about soups, stews, and chili, right? It sure does for me! It’s good thing, then, that right about now is when ‘dry beans’ or ‘cooking beans’ are ready to be adopted.

Over the years, we’ve grown a number of different kinds of beans, including black beans, purple ‘Koronis’ beans, speckled ‘Cranberry’, and several more. This year, for various reasons, we ended up growing just one variety, but we think it’s a mighty good one….the ‘Arikara’ bean.

Now, you may think they’re not much to look at. Plain-jane brown or yellowish-brown is none-too-exciting to look at (and the kids will not use them in gluey dried macaroni and bean art), but what they lack in flair they make up for in flavor. And what a history they have….

“Arikara beans, “Ricara” beans to Thomas Jefferson, were named for the Dakota Arikara tribe encountered by the Lewis and Clark expedition during their “Voyage of Discovery.” These beans were among the significant horticultural “discoveries” of Lewis and Clark, and perhaps more importantly, dried Arikara beans helped feed and sustain the members of the expedition through the arduous Fort Mandan winter of 1805 when temperatures averaged four degrees. Arikara beans were likely first grown in eastern North America by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Jefferson said the Arikara bean “is on of the most excellent we have had: I have cultivated them plentifully for the table tow years.”

Esopus SpitzenbergPretty cool, right? Now, old T.J. knew a thing or two about good food. We’re growing his favorite Esopus Spitzenberg apples as well, and we know they’re awesome, so you might just want to give these beans a try.

One thing to remember for sure: although these are ‘dry’ beans, they are way the heck fresher than beans you’d buy in a store. So cooking time is waaaay the heck reduced as well.

The first time I cooked up a batch, I figured I’d get them started and come back in a few hours like I’m used to. Humph – mightily overdone they were. I’ve since learned that these beauties should have a little more attention paid to them, and a lot less time in the hot tub. So, an hour more or less will do ya in general….just keep an eye on them and see how they behave in your pot.

Need some basics? Check out “Cooking with Dry Beans is Easy!” and the recipe “Braised Arikara Beans with Rosemary and Vinegar“.

Enjoy your voyage of discovery in beans – and let us know below if you have any winning recipes!

Oh, nuts!

September 24th, 2015, by Lisa

Bet you didn’t know we were growing nuts!

A few years ago, Ike planted pecans, hazelnuts(filberts), hickories, walnuts, and even some almonds. I hear tell we’ll get to try a couple of almonds next week. The gang got to share the first single walnut at lunchtime today (a very little piece, obviously), and the pecans and hickories will just have to wait a year or two yet.

But meantime, this was the first decent crop of those hazelnuts!

Raw, they taste rather bean-y, so Ike recommends roasting them. Here’s more about Ike’s nuts (pun, pun…) from the man himself:

This year we will have a small supply of hazelnuts to sell. We will be selling them in quart boxes which hold approx. 1.2 lbs which should give you about 8 oz of shelled nuts. The nuts are a mix of the five varieties we grow, which include Yamhill, Gamma, Delta, Jefferson, and Eta. The different varieties have different size nuts but the nut kernels are actually pretty similar in size. These were all bred at Oregon State for Eastern Filbert Blight resistance and hence their adaptation to the east. This is our second crop and we have been very happy with the quality of the nuts.

We have hand harvested and air dried the nuts, and they are ready for cracking and roasting. These truly fresh hazelnuts are a real taste treat compared to most commercial hazelnuts. Unroasted the nuts really aren’t that exciting but roasting brings out their delicious flavor. To roast, we shell and place them on a cookie sheet at 350 in the oven for 15-20 minutes or until they are just beginning to brown slightly. Over-roasting diminishes the rich flavor and can dry them out. Immediately after roasting, while still warm or even hot, use a towel to rub off the thin brown layer on each nut. That layer tastes fine on the unroasted nuts but detracts from the roasted nut’s flavor. The flavor is truly addictive as soon as they cool enough to eat but remains very fine for at least several days. We have not been able to test it beyond that point because they all disappear!

If you’re in need of a good nut cracker, we highly recommend the “Drosslemeyer” cracker, which is available on Amazon. At about $40, it seems rather pricey, but it is pretty nifty-looking and works like a dream so you don’t get worn out with tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome AND you don’t end up with pinched fingers! For folks like us who intend to be nut cracking for a long time to come, the price is worth it.

Weirdo of the Week: Butternut Squash!

September 24th, 2015, by Sarah

It’s about this time of year when cans of cranberry sauce and pumpkin puree start gracing the ends of grocery store aisles. Do you know what’s really in many of those cans of pumpkin though? Butternut squash! It’s true; the USDA is pretty lax on their definition of pumpkin, and so long as the veg inside falls under the same genus as the orange jack-o-lantern type, it’s technically pumpkin. It makes sense really; squash varieties often have a sweeter taste and are less stringy than what we typically think of as pumpkins, so they make for a better pie filling.

To get your own squash puree, do it the quick, simple way, and get roasting. This is how I remember my mom making squash when I was growing up. Just slice your cucurbit in half, scoop out the seeds, poke some holes in each half, place on a cookie sheet with a bit of water, and get cooking. Best of all, no peeling involved! Just scoop out the pulp when done.

butternutFor a very Autumnal take on lasagna, combine butternut squash and another Fall share star, kale. This version sounds super yummy! Just be sure to peel your squash in this case, the recipe forgets to mention that point. There seem to be divided camps on whether one should use no boil noodles for lasagna, but for this recipe I would recommend using them as the sauce is more creamy than saucey. Regular noodles may not cook completely.

Lastly, we of course need to include some recommendations for squash pie, because, pie. Here’s a savory version with cumin, onions and spinach. It call for using filo dough, but that stuff is a pain, and honestly, fairly tasteless. Get yourself a regular frozen crust and save yourself the hassle. This sweet take on squash pie will surely rival any traditional pumpkin pie, and though it’s from Martha Stewart, it’s easy as…pie (which is usually pretty hard, come to think of it). This recipe says to steam the squash, then puree it, but just roast it instead to save yourself the trouble of peeling gourds and dragging out the food processor.

(Editor’s Note: remember the microwave cooking trick for squash as a quicker alternative to getting one cooked!)

‘Tis the Season to Eat Local!

September 23rd, 2015, by Stephanie

Week 1
You may have heard terms like “locavore”, “locatarian”, or “seasonal eating” being used at farmer’s markets or local restaurants and wondered what all the fuss was about. These are terms that describe, in part, what you already do by having a CSA share with us or shopping at one of our market stands: eating food grown locally and in the correct season for the area you live in. Barbara Kingsolver even wrote an entire book on the subject called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (which we highly recommend!).

We live in a time where everything we want to eat is just a trip to the grocery store or a click of a button away. But what are we giving up for this convenience?

Fruit tastes best when it has been picked at the perfect time and doesn’t need to travel long distances to get to the consumer. Grocery store fruit needs to be picked “green” or under-ripe so that it can be transported from the grower to the distributor to the grocery store and finally to the customer. Some of the distances are greater than others like apples from Washington, bananas from the Caribbean, and grapes from Chile.

tomatoesEating seasonally may not allow you to make your favorite recipes year round, but it does insure that when you finally do get to the right season for it, you have the best ingredients available which will make your meals that much more enjoyable and memorable. And if you have patience and plan ahead, there are plenty of delicious options year-’round.

Summer is a great time for peaches and plums. Eat them in oatmeal, on salads, grilled, on pizza, in pies or cobblers, and in muffins. They freeze well for use later in the year when peaches and plums are not in season and peaches also dehydrate really well!

Fall is a great time for apples and Asian pears. Both can be frozen, canned into sauce, dehydrated, and stored in the fridge for quite a while. Of course we also recommend eating them fresh for snacks, with peanut butter, on salads, with roasted vegetables like beets, sautéed with onions (one of our favorite things to do with them!), in pies, crisps, tarts, cakes, and more!

Winter and Spring are great times to use up what you have stored up in jars or the freezer and what you dehydrated. Or as some of you may know, it is a great time to eat GOLD RUSH! I know it’s still a bit early to even think about it but we do have an amazing storage apple called Gold Rush which, if kept in a cool, dry, safe place, can last until March or later! The texture might change a bit but so will the flavor – it gets sweeter as the months go by!

Eating locally and seasonally applies to vegetables as well, and provides many additional options for all seasons but particularly for the fruit- sparse times like winter and spring. Early spring crops like asparagus, greens, or rhubarb are a nice fresh addition to storage crops like potatoes, beets, butternut squash, onions, garlic, and sweet potatoes. And the canning, freezing, and dehydrating options are abundant and delicious too!

It might seem silly to wait months and months for a particular fruit or vegetable to be in season when the grocery store has them available year round, but we think that locally grown produce that looks and tastes great is worth waiting for. And it feels pretty good to support growers in you own community as well. Thank you for choosing to eat locally!

Here are the fruits WE wait all year for….

NSO Staff Picks:

Hannah: Hosui Asian pears and Aurora European pears
Paige: Shinsui Asian pears and Hudson’s Golden Gem apples
Justin: Jupiter grapes
Susan: China Pearl and Loring peaches
Chris: China Pearl peaches and Shinsui Asian pears
Caleb: Any of our Asian pears
Lisa: Jupiter grapes
Abel: Any of our freestone yellow peaches
Ike: Purple Heart plums- the first plum of the season!
Stephanie: Imperial Epineuse plums and Russet apples
Josh: Purple Heart plums and John Boy peaches
Sarah: Purple Heart plums and Jupiter grapes
Maureen: Jupiter grapes and Hosui Asian pears

What do YOU look forward to?

We Love Our Jobs, but if We Have to Complain…

September 9th, 2015, by Stephanie

2015 Staff
For all of us working here at NSO, we don’t have too much to complain about. We get lots of fresh air and sunshine, all the exercise we need (who needs a gym membership?), more tasty food than we have room in the fridge for, and everyday is Casual Friday! But, when forced to write about the less than pleasant aspects of orchard work, I was able to come up with a few things.

Here is the list:

LadderBoots and Ladders- The mornings here are pretty dewy so most of us wear knee high rubber boots so our feet and pants stay dry. The downside, loss of support and they can get very hot. Also, they are not great for climbing ladders since they don’t have great traction and the ladder rungs get slippery with over-ripe fruit.

Kneeling in nasty stuff- Speaking of over-ripe fruit, it is not fun to kneel in. Plums are the worst. We need to decide between wearing shorts, which means dirty knees, or pants which means dirty clothes.

Picking bags get heavy- Our picking bags hold about 2/3 of a bushel of fruit which can weigh up to 30 pounds. Some things are quick to pick, like large apples, but other things take a long time to fill a bag, like mirabelle plums. Spot picking also makes this harder since you have to carry the fruit around while moving from tree to tree looking for only the most ripe fruit.

Spot picking- Spot picking needs to be done for many apple and Asian pear varieties since the fruit on the tops of the trees and the ends of the branches tend to ripen faster than the bottoms and the inside. We want you to get the fruit when it is at its best but there are a few challenges. As I said above, the bags get heavy, colors look very different in the shade vs. the sun, and it is much easier to accidentally knock fruit off the trees (particularly with the ladders) when you aren’t picking all of it.

BrownieBrownie noise- The Brownie is a drivable machine used for fruit picking which makes it much easier than using ladders to get the tops of tall trees. It can go up, down, left, right, forward, and back but it is very noisy! We need to wear hearing protection when using it and when working nearby.

First peach of the seasonPEACH FUZZ!- No matter how hard we try, the fuzz always ends up in the creases of our elbows and on our necks. We try not to scratch since it will only make it worse but sometimes we just can’t help it!

Mushroom Farm Neighbors – Our Avondale orchard is located next to a mushroom house, which smells well, like a mushroom house. I think that says enough.

As you can see, there are downsides to working in the orchard but, for the most part, it’s pretty peachy!

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

August 7th, 2015, by Lisa

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, 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 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


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.

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