The Call and Times, Column 3 – Seasonal Eating

18 02 2014

(December 6, 2013)

The Urban Farmer

Eating with the Seasons in New England

            With the rapid drop in temperature we’ve experienced over the past few weeks, it is more and more difficult to remember the warm, productive days of our urban farms. For those in our area, agriculture can easily be seen as a “summer break” kind of endeavor – an activity reserved for only the warmest few months of the year. And as a rule, the Earth’s temperate regions (most of North America, Europe, and Asia) tend to have distinct seasons, including an annual period of cold weather. Since the dawn of humankind, this has presented a challenge to agriculturists – how and what do I eat when the trees are bare and the ground is covered with snow?

At first glance, it would seem that our 21st century society has overcome the need to eat according to the seasons. And we surely have, so long as we are willing to pay the price. This price, as it so happens, comes in the form of massive amounts of fossil fuels used to ship food from the tropical and subtropical regions to the temperate ones; of the environmental degradation in Mexico, South America, and other tropical areas, caused by unregulated industrial agriculture operations; of blander tastes and less nutrients in the food we eat; and of a disconnect between us and the land and the loss of the ages-old knowledge that allowed our forefathers to survive, and even thrive, in the face of the same climatic obstacles that we don’t even attempt to overcome. With all of these issues, it might be prudent to try to find a more sustainable answer to the question of what and how to eat in a region where it isn’t always summer.

One of the best answers that I can give is also one of the most straightforward: eat what you can find at the farmers markets and local farms. By sourcing food from these local farmers, we virtually guarantee that we are getting a good quality product, helping the local economy, and, more relevant to the goal at hand, buying food that is in season, in our area, at the time it is bought.

Larger annual farmers markets tend to open up sometime in the early summer, around May, and stay open until October or early November. At markets like this, you will find everything from the first berries of summer, to the last just-picked winter squash of the fall. Alas, they are only open for 6 months of the year, the “normal” time for agriculture in a temperate region. But a new concept has gained ground in recent years, and it perfectly complements these annual summer farmers’ markets – namely, the winter farmers market. There are dozens of winter farmers markets open in the Southern New England area, offering a huge variety of local fall- and winter-grown produce, as well as other foods and value-added products. Farm Fresh RI (http://www.farmfresh.org/), a farmer-to-consumer advocacy organization, is a great source of information about the locations and offerings of winter (and summer) markets.

That said, it’s probably useful to get an idea of what exactly you might find at these winter farmers markets. Farm Fresh RI’s website also has a comprehensive Rhode Island Harvest Calendar, which is a pretty complete listing of when each type of crop is harvested in this area. This knowledge is the basis of seasonal eating. A small cross-section of this list are the foods that are being grown, or in short-term storage, in the dead of winter. These include vegetables like salad greens, members of the broccoli and onion families, root crops, and winter squash; fruits like apples and quinces; fresh and dried herbs; and all sorts of meats, milks and cheeses, eggs, and sweeteners like honey and maple syrup. The literature on seasonality is extensive, and entire diets and cultural cuisines have been formed around seasonally-available produce, so I would suggest taking a more extensive look at the Harvest Calendar on Farm Fresh RI’s website.

But of the answers that I have found to that central question, my favorite has to be: figure out what you can harvest and eat during the winter, and grow it. With a little know-how, planning, and hard work, it is possible to enjoy homegrown and home-raised food even in the New England winter.

As last month’s column discussed, there are a wide variety of food preservation methods that allow the modern urban farmer to save food for the winter. By employing those practices, the winter larder can be stocked with all sorts of foods, from root-cellared potatoes, carrots, apples and squash, to canned pickles, jams, and sauces, to anything that can be frozen or dried. In my opinion, this should one of a backyard farmer’s primary sources of winter food “production”.

It is also possible, and entirely feasible on a small-scale, to grow certain plants during the winter. A few beds of my garden are currently devoted to a slow-growing winter crop of garlic and field peas – but the garlic will not bulb until late next spring, and the field peas will be harvested in the spring and used as a supplement to chicken feed. For winter eating, it is common practice to use an inexpensive glass or plastic greenhouse, or a similar structure called a cold-frame (an enclosed, wooden, glass-topped frame set on the ground) to accelerate the growth of the desired crops. With these techniques, the dedicated urban farmer can eat most of the vegetables on the aforementioned list of cold-tolerant crops – greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, and collard greens, many members of the onion family, and even mushrooms.

Far more significantly, eggs and honey are still largely available during the winter. In many cases, chickens will still lay at this time of year, especially if they are provided with supplemental lighting in their coop. Also, honey, being one of few foods that can be stored almost indefinitely, should be a great source of tasty homegrown Calories during the winter months.

In addition, it is worthwhile to note that it was traditional practice for meat animals to be slaughtered late in the fall to serve as a dependable source of food during the winter. This practice is still useful in this area, in places where small animals are being raised for this purpose.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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