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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.


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 which includes instructions on how to use your car as a dehydrator!

(For some great old fruit drying pictures:

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

Welcome to the Inner Circle

September 27th, 2010, by Erin

There’s a word farmers use to describe the more unusual, rarefied varieties we get a kick out of growing: esoteric. The assumption is that such varieties are appreciated only by other plant geeks and hard core foodies (a word which has an unfortunately negative connotation in my mind – what’s wrong with caring about your food?). The cultivation of such esoteric varieties implies an impractical search for flavor, for the forbidden fruit, the holy grail of the garden.

I’ve always liked the word ‘esoteric,’ and could easily picture what it meant, in farming terms, but I wasn’t quite clear on its precise definition. So I looked it up:

Esoteric adj. a) intended for or understood by only a chosen few, as an inner group of disciples or initiates (said of ideas, literature, etc.) b) beyond the understanding or knowledge of most people; abstruse

(abstruse?!?… “abstruse adj. hard to understand; deep; recondite”… recondite?!?… “recondite adj. Beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind or understanding; profound; abstruse”)

This definition isn’t quite what I was expecting, but it leaves me with the dissatisfaction I was predicting it would. I say it’s not fair that the pursuit of really good flavor is limited to the chosen few. Shouldn’t we all enjoy our food? There is the conundrum that something cool inevitably loses its cachet once it’s gone mainstream, but I think that’s where the local food movement can step in. If small farms were well-supported enough so that the farmers had a bit more breathing room (with their time and finances) and could play a little, they could discover and cultivate all the unusual things that were well-suited to their microclimate. And differences in climate and ecosystem as well as appropriate scale would set natural limits to the spread of certain varieties and foods. So each farmers’ market, CSA, or local food store would have its own unique varieties (say, didn’t that used to be the case, once upon a time, but not so long ago?) We can all be in the inner circle – in our own foodshed.

This sounds like a great scenario to me. It’s a goal of many farmers I know (a few of us at North Star included) to grow things they truly enjoy growing (and eating!). There is, however, often a sort of tug of war between productivity and livelihood on the one hand and passion and creativity on the other. We can all relate to this, right? The need to make a living often leads us to do things that we don’t love to do, even if we’re not compromising our morals by doing them. Planting anything is a gamble, and the first rule of intelligent farming is to have a ready market for what you’re planting. Whether or not those new oddball crops will sell is anybody’s guess. The fruit CSA ameliorates this situation a bit, by providing an infrastructure in which we (the farmers) can grow unusual varieties and have a ready market for them, and you (the consumers) can try new and amazing things without going on a wild goose chase to find them. Just by signing up, suddenly, you’re in that inner circle, and the esoteric is becoming a bit more recognizable.

First-timers walking up to our market stand or checking out the list of varieties that North Star grows won’t see many familiar faces. No Red Delicious, no McIntosh, no Granny Smith…. I think there’s one Fuji tree out there somewhere, and a number of HoneyCrisps for the enthusiasts. But Hudson’s Golden Gem? Esopus Spitzenburg? Adams Pearmain? A season or two, and these are old friends. And you CSA members get first crack, because the small amounts of the unusual varieties go right into the fruit shares.

“But what’s with the wacky names?” you might ask. Many are heirloom varieties, others are new varieties bred for disease resistance, some are North Star originals, some just needed naming – they might be a “numbered variety” (still being tested and not yet or not ever named and released for commercial distribution) or they might be a “mystery variety” that was shipped incorrectly by the nursery. Some of these varieties received the death sentence of “commercially unviable.” But viability looks a little different when you’re growing on only 15 acres, handling fruit by hand, and sending apples to market days after harvest. It also helps to have informed customers who appreciate a variety of flavors throughout the season. It might be humanly impossible to grow all of the hundreds of varieties possible in our southeastern Pennsylvania region, but with the inner circle on board, we can certainly try!

Low-Hanging Fruit

September 13th, 2010, by Erin

When I gave one good friend the news that I was going to be working at an orchard, he laughed at me. Not to disparage my choice of career in agriculture, but because I’m short. I told him: that’s what ladders are for! And it’s true – there’s nothing I can’t reach with the use of a ladder or the Brownie (the hydraulic lift built for orchard use). Sometimes, I think it’s even helpful to be small – I can squeeze between crowded branches or the the wires in the trellis system, climb under limbs and find all of the lowest fruit. But, yes, usually, it would be to my advantage to have several more inches to work with or the coveted long fingers and wide handspan of the natural-born apple picker.
Royalty in hand
Today I felt especially diminutive in the orchard. To be honest, I felt like I was in a cartoon – a small character in a world of magical, supersized fruit. I was picking the Royalty apples in the young orchard. The advice I got before I headed out to pick: Use two hands for the big ones! The Royalty apples are freakishly large, some weighing in right around 2 lbs. They’re more than a meal; they’re an entire pie. Royalty is a large apple to begin with, but the trees in the first few years of production give especially large fruit. Last year, we dubbed them “SuperRoys” and separated out the largest to appeal to customers who go for that sort of thing.

Notwithstanding my 5’3″ reach, even the Royalty trees – topping out as some of the tallest apples after three seasons in the ground – can be mostly harvested from the ground. This might defy your image of an apple orchard, but commercial apple trees these days tend to be shrinking. The trend toward dwarfing rootstock means that apple trees might top out at 10 or even 6 feet. Every grafted apple tree has two components: the rootstock and the scion. The rootstock controls the size of the tree (as well as many other qualities), and the scion contributes the variety (eg Royalty, Gold Rush, etc.). A smaller tree means that it’s easier to reach (less ladder work), but also, as with most agricultural research of late, the development of these dwarfing rootstocks is an attempt to increase productivity. To produce apples, you need sunlight. The most sunlight reaches the outside edges of the tree, and there’s less and less light as you travel toward the inside of the tree. This shaded interior is what one of my teachers fondly referred to as the “zone of firewood production” (as opposed to fruit production). Smaller trees have less “inside,” with more outer edge relative to interior than larger trees, thus they can produce more apples per acre. (This is an oversimplification of some pretty complex interactions, but you get the general idea.)

At North Star, the youngest orchard is at the home farm near Cochranville. The apple trees are noticeably more dwarfed than the apple trees at the two other leased properties the farm grows trees on; in fact, their size and resultant weaker root system means that they require a trellis to withstand the strongest winds. Most of these trees are on “Bud 9″ rootstock, which means that they’re 30% the size of a standard tree and will offer a crop only two to three years after being in the ground. (Officially, that’s Budagovsky 9 in the tradition of naming rootstocks after the research station where they originated, and then shortening them to a confusion of M’s, MM’s, Bud’s, and random numbers.) At North Star, the apple trees in this orchard are in their third year and producing a surprisingly large crop for such young trees. At maturity, we’ll keep them at about 12 feet tall and continue to see a lot of apples in the first tier of branches that’s easily reached from the ground.
Orchard from tractor seat
Maybe the orchard is a cartoon world after all – shrinking trees, gigantic apples… An orchard is not a wild place; it’s very much shaped by the human touch. From breeding to grafting to pruning, the trees themselves are human (co)creations. The orchard at large is also engineered, the tree spacing carefully considered for optimum production, the rows and alleyways designed around the tractor the way Los Angeles was designed around the automobile. It’s a planned endeavor every step of the way, a conversation with Mother Nature, but one where she always gets the last word.

(Rootstock info from The Apple Grower by Michael Phillips)

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