By Melanie Lekocevic
Locally sourced food — from farm to table — is a growing movement in America, and nowhere is it more alive and well than in the Twin Counties, with a rich abundance of farms producing everything from apples to zucchini.
For the savvy shopper, there are plenty of options for getting access to this nutritional extravaganza, from farm stands and farmers markets to going to the farm to pick your own tasty treats or using a food distribution resource like Field Goods.
“We grow everything from A to Z. Whatever vegetable you can think of, we grow it,” said Jean Wais of J&J Farms in Athens.
The available foods, of course, change with the seasons as everything goes straight from the farm to the customer’s table.
“We have vegetables up to November or December,” Wais said. “There are vegetables that are cold weather crops, like broccoli and kale the heartier vegetables don’t mind the cold. I have put a row cover, which is thinner than a tarp, over the kale crop, and even after a freeze or two, the kale is still good.”
Weather is a big factor for farmers, even over the winter when crops are dormant.
Don Baker owns the Don Baker Farm in Hudson, where they produce fruits like apples, cherries, apricots, peaches and plums. He said the most vital part of the weather is its consistency.
“Constant weather is what you want, not extreme weather thaws and then dips to subzero temperatures, it’s not good for fruit trees,” Baker said. “It’s better if it gets cold in December though not bitterly cold and then stays that way.”
Farmer Dan King co-owns Rexcroft Farm in Athens, and said the variety and quality of foods a small farmer can produce is tantalizing, and far outreaches what you can find in the supermarket.
“We produce from amaranth to zucchini, and everything in between,” King said. “We grow a lot of nontraditional vegetables like papalo and epazote, which are used a lot in Mexican cooking, and we have four different kinds of kale. We produce six kinds of eggplant.”
King’s farm is broken up into two parcels he owns 340 acres on Leeds-Athens Road where he raises cows, chickens and pigs, and 60 acres on Route 385, where the vegetables are grown. He also has 12,000 square feet of greenhouses, where he grows things like hydroponic lettuce, which uses water, rather than soil, along with a nutrient solution.
With hydroponic planting, King said, “there are no soil-borne diseases, no herbicides or pesticides, and it’s actually easier to grow vegetables hydroponically than in soil. You can also guarantee the quality because plants have to search for nutrients in soil, but with water I put the nutrients in so I know how much is there.”
In autumn, farmers are busy in fact, August and September are among their busiest months, with plenty of crops to harvest.
“There is a lot of harvest in September tomatoes, melons, pumpkins, winter squash,” King said. “Those are all harvested most heavily in September.”
King said small farms are able to produce not only higher quality food, but unusual varieties that might be unavailable to larger farming operations and, in turn, supermarkets, making farmers markets a popular choice for food-savvy shoppers.
“We produce items you can’t buy in most stores because it has to be picked by hand,” he explained. “Vegetables you buy in the supermarket were often bred specifically to be firm and able to be handled by machines in mass production. Flavor is lost that way. When you pick by hand, you can go with more delicate or heirloom varieties, which do not stand up to machine harvesting.”
Fall is also a time for an abundance of other kinds of vegetables to make their way from the farm to your dinner (or lunch) table.
“In the fall we are still harvesting summer crops like tomatoes and peppers, and getting ready for the fall crops likewinter squash, which we put in storage, along with potatoes, beets, carrots, radishes and onions,” said Sam Lipschultz from Whistle Down Farm in Claverack, which is owned by Eileen Wallding.
After the late summer and early fall crops have been harvested, farmers’ attention turns to other ventures and crops.
“We have a lot of storage crops like root vegetables that can be stored over the winter, so in the fall we spend a lot of time harvesting and storing the root crops like beets, carrots, turnips and rutabaga,” Ashley Loehr from Sparrowbush Farm in Livingston said.
Jason Rauf of Rauf’s Family Farm in Medusa said that in early fall their attention is on harvesting pumpkins, winter squash and Indian corn, which they sell at their farm stand at Smith’s Corners and at farmers markets, and work on planting more vegetables.
“We plant garlic and cover crops, like winter rye and winter wheat, which seed in the fall and serves as erosion control and a source of fertilizer as it is plowed,” Rauf explained.
One Columbia County farm, Tierra Farm, offers a slightly different twist on the farming industry. While they do still produce some vegetables for sale at their Valatie retail business, their main focus is on roasted nuts.
Tierra Farm Chief Operating Officer Brandon Bjerke said they buy raw nuts from other farms around the world, and then roast them with their own personal touch.
“We flavor our nuts in ways that are a little adventurous,” Bjerke said. “For example, we do salt and onion cashews, maple toasted coconut chips and agave ginger cashews. And we don’t use any oils, everything is dry roasted.”
Farmer Jamie Pecylak of Rauf Family Farm offered this advice when shopping for vegetables, use more than just one of your senses to make your selections.
“A lot of people eat with their eyes,” Pecylak said as she held up an unusually shaped zucchini, stating that most people wouldn’t buy it even though there is nothing wrong with it. “They want food to look nice, but that doesn’t always affect taste or nutrition.”