By Dylan Koenig, Community Fellow
I consider myself a fairly conscious consumer - I vote with my dollar, support local businesses, buy organic, eat with the seasons, and many other catchphrases. Now, after working in both the gardens of the Allegheny Mountain Farm and the intensive market garden-style operation at the AMI Farm at Augusta Health, I am adding a new catchphrase to my mantras of capitalism: management-oriented eating.
Dylan, our farm manager on the mountain when I was a Farm Fellow, used to preach to us his principle of management-oriented design- that it’s critical to consider how you are going to practically manage a system as you are designing it. For example, if we plan an elaborate food forest with perennials and annuals working in harmony, we should also consider how we’re going to be able to get water to the crops, and if we can transport tools and vehicles for an efficient harvest. Or, if we’re planning our garden to maximize land usage of the beds, we need to also consider how much space is needed to crouch and work comfortably in the beds for hours at a time.
I say we take this idea - that management is central to design - and apply it to a farmer-oriented perspective of the bounties that the farmers market has to offer. By doing so, we could eat well while also making the lives of the farmers a bit easier and their operations more diverse/ecologically balanced as well!
So without further ado, here is my list of veggies that I hope you’ll buy more of, and a few I wouldn’t mind if you avoided (by subbing out for the others, of course!).
Everyone I work with on the farm is sick of hearing me talk about my love for this Japanese turnip variety, so now I must turn to all of you! These white golf ball to baseball-sized gems are sweeter and creamier than a typical turnip, with a mild flavor somewhere between a radish and an apple. They’re a treat to grow, harvest, wash, and pack- and even better to eat. They mature quickly, provide some soil aeration for the following crop, and I’d love to be able to grow even more of them in the garden! Oh and don’t forget to eat the tops - they're great in a soup or sauteed!
Now, this may be preaching to the choir a bit since swiss chard seems to be well-loved in some circles, but I highly endorse this vegetable! It overwinters well on the farm, meaning that we can grow and harvest from it in the fall, leave the plant in the ground in the cold months of winter where its roots will nourish the soil ecosystem and its canopy will protect the soil surface from erosion, and then continue harvesting through to springtime! Not to mention, the vibrant green leaves and rainbow stems are so nice to have around during a busy day in the field.
Any winter veggie!
Maybe this is cheating, but I think the winter offerings of a small farm are some of the best tastes you can get as a consumer. In the cold months, many veggies - like carrots and spinach - convert their starches to sugars to prevent the water in their cells from freezing. This effect gives the winter harvest a much sweeter flavor compared to the spring or summertime. From a management perspective, it’s great to have customer support in the off-season because work is slower during the winter. Also, as mentioned, it’s beneficial for our soil to have something growing in the ground - whether it’s a cash crop or cover.
Oh, lettuce. A seemingly innocent leafy green. I never expected that harvesting and washing lettuce would be among our most labor-intensive tasks! It’s a love-hate relationship on the farm. Many smaller farms depend on the high price these prized leaves can fetch at market combined with the sheer amount that can grow in small spaces in order to make their ends meet. But from a management-oriented perspective, a lot of time goes into cutting the leaves, triple-washing them, all the while picking through each handful for weeds, mulch, and slugs at each step of the process. I also appreciate that greens like spinach, kale, mustard greens, and chard have a bit more to offer in the way of nutrition and flavor, but this is a personal preference! We recently improved our wash/pack system with a large 3 bin sink and salad spinner that makes lettuce more manageable, but even with that I still say, try some other greens, too - they’re awesome!
Okay, now things are really going to get contentious. Tomatoes are among my favorite foods to cook with, and an heirloom or Sungold variety fresh from the garden can be an experience that will make you see God, but oh my can these be labor- and nutrient-intensive to grow. From the start, these are a hands-on crop. They benefit from lots of potting up in the greenhouse, where each seedling is transplanted into successively larger pots before going into the ground. Many farmers will even graft heirloom varieties onto a heartier rootstock for the disease resistance it can offer. This brings me to the next point - tomatoes are a huge disease and pest magnet. If you’ve grown tomatoes you may have experienced the unique heartbreak of, after all the prep work and getting out the mozzarella and balsamic, witnessing the plants become overrun with insects called Aphids just as they reach maturity. On top of these, tomatoes are heavy feeders that require a lot of soil nutrients to grow, so it’s important to plan crop rotations accordingly and avoid growing them over and over in the same bed every season. That all said, tomatoes are magic, and walking into a high tunnel that is positively drenched in the aromas of tomato vines and basil makes me swoon, so my takeaway here is this - like all good things in life, enjoy them in moderation.
That’s my brief management-oriented shopping list for the farmers market. I recognize this is a pretty narrow view from my perspective of some of the farms I have worked on, and I’m really curious to hear from others what they wish they could grow more (or less) of on their operations! If you’d like, follow up in the comments here on our blog or social media accounts and let me know! And one final note, any crop you buy simply because you enjoy it is one I am extremely happy and proud to offer to you. Please continue eating lettuce if that’s your bag, there’s no shaming intended here - merely an offering of a fresh perspective on the work going on behind the scenes to bring these veggies to market.