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Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

2010 NOFA-NY Conference Enthuses Young Aspiring Farmer

In Community Supported Agriculture, Edible Events, Feeding the Community, From the Land on January 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

This past weekend, January 22-24, was a whirlwind of learning, networking, and celebrating for me. A young aspiring organic farmer, I attended the NOFA-NY Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY. The conference title, Circles of Caring, was a fitting description of the atmosphere there. The farmers attending were the type of people who care about their neighbors and the community. They realize that the quality of their product (whether vegetables, dairy, meat, maple syrup, or something else) affects the wellbeing and health of their customers. They are aware of the daunting forces of the industrial food system, and they work hard to bring an alternative to their community. It was a pleasure to meet, listen to, and talk with many of them.
I left my house in Tonawanda at 4am on Friday, making it just in time for the start of an all day workshop tailored for beginning farmers. Walking in I was curious to see who these beginning farmers would be. It turned out that many people in the room had similar stories to share. There were those with no prior agricultural experience, who had decided that it was time for a career change. There were many who had grown up on a family farm, and were now feeling drawn back to help or reinvent their family’s operations. There were a good number of people who had been apprenticing on farms for a number of years, and felt it was time to start something of their own. These farmers were from all walks of life; some young, middle-aged, with land, money, without land, experienced, inexperienced, single, or with families. Discontent with the industrial food system, and eager to make a better life in a nurturing community, we attended this conference. For me in particular it was great to be back around like-minded young people pursing sustainable farming.

In the beginning farmers workshop we met four different farming couples and spent the day talking about their successes, failures, ideas, and wisdom to share. That evening I heard Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream, give a keynote address. She spoke of organic farming as the solution to a history of abuse from agricultural chemicals. Sandra and many of the people in her community have felt the direct impacts of toxins in their environment though various cancers and birth defects. She spoke against the idea that the “dose makes the poison”. There is no safe threshold for a toxic chemical. It may not out rightly kill you at low levels, but that does not mean it isn’t damaging your body. Furthermore a chemical, such as an insecticide, will alter in the environment, mix with other chemicals, and cause unforeseen damage. Certain people are genetically predisposed to be more responsive to toxins than others, and will be affected more often. Sandra talked of the importance of the timing of chemical exposure. Humans are especially vulnerable before and right after birth. Many children are born prematurely or with defects due to agricultural chemicals in their blood. Besides the environmental costs, the health care costs of agricultural toxin exposure are enormous. Sandra prompted that we can reclaim safe living environments, and cease using those chemicals by farming organically.

The workshops that I attended on Saturday were eye opening for me. At 8am I attended a workshop on permaculture that was geared toward farmers. I have to admit that permaculture tends to get me rather excited. For those of you who haven’t heard of permaculture, unfortunately it is rather challenging to define. I like to think of it as a way of using the landscape to meet human needs while at the same time increasing ecosystem health. In permaculture you look at and analyze the systems on your land (such as vegetation patterns, water systems, and soil), and look to see how they can better meet your needs, and improve the overall functioning of the entire landscape. Ethan Roland, of Appleseed Permaculture, spoke about various ways that farmers can utilize permaculture principles. Ethan spoke of increasing soil organic matter through rotational grazing. He explained a method to restore functioning in compacted soils through keyline plowing. The keyline plow tears a slit a couple feet into the ground allowing for water penetration, and root growth into the soil and subsoil. With the aid of oxygen this process jumpstarts microbial activity.  Ethan talked of managing water systems in ways that maximize groundwater retention through ponds, wetlands, and rainwater catchments. One thing that I really appreciate is that permaculture principles are mindful of climate instability, and potential crop failure. Relying on a few types of crops leaves you more vulnerable to scarcity if one crop fails.  You can plan for increased food security by planting a myriad of crops, trees, berries, annuals, shrubs, fiber crops, fuel crops, and grains. I came away from the talk having made an incredible new friend, Emma Brinkman (fellow aspiring farmer and permaculture enthusiast), and excited to put some of these ideas into action.

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WNY Maple School – Maple Syrup 101

In Cooking Fresh, Edible Confections, From the Land, Liquid Assets on January 20, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Although I have no previous maple syrup making experience, I am keen to try it out this winter. The thought of having access to a natural sweetener produced feet from my house is really appealing. I am drawn in by the fact that for a few weeks out of the year, the trees in my backyard, which I normally don’t consider a food source, are able to provide me with free flowing sugar. With this in mind, I was looking forward to attending a day long series of workshops about maple syrup making.

This past Saturday a group of maple enthusiasts gathered at the Western New York Maple School and Trade Show in Gainesville, NY. The gathering was geared towards both experienced maple producers and beginners. It included three hour long workshops, a keynote address from Patrick Hooker, the NYS Agriculture Commissioner, and a tradeshow of maple products and sugaring supplies. I was encouraged to see when I arrived at 10am, that there was a large turnout of over 100 people. Many of them seemed to have been in the maple business for a while. A few of them, like me, were maple novices.

I attended the first morning session geared toward beginners and hobbyists. The presentation was given by Steve Childs, an experienced maple producer, who works for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Wyoming County. He clearly guided me through what anyone with some maple trees would need to know to make maple syrup this season.

The first thing to do is identify your maple trees. Any mature maple tree over 10 inches diameter can be tapped. Although hard maples (sugar maple and black maple) are generally associated with making syrup, all types of maple trees (including the soft maples: silver maple, Norway maple, and red maple) run sap and make fine syrup according to Steve. You may need some help identifying your maple trees, since even experienced foresters have a hard time identifying trees in the winter. The major differences between a soft and hard maple can be told by looking at the buds and leaves. Soft maple buds are round and red, and their leaves have saw-toothed edges. They are generally thought to have lower sugar content, but their sap runs earlier in the maple season. Hard maples have reddish brown buds with sharp points, and the leaves have rounded edges. Hard maples are thought to have sweeter sap, and run sap later in the season. However, the sugar content of the sap is quite variable, changing from year to year and tree to tree.

Once you have identified your maple trees, you must now wait until the weather is right for the sap to run. Sap runs when the winter days are warm while the nights still hit freezing temperatures. Generally this happens between February 10 and March 10. When the weather is right, drill a hole 7/16” in diameter, about 1.5” deep. Drill the hole at about chest height, or at a height convenient to lifting the collecting buckets. Depending on the tree diameter, you may drill more than one hole to tap. Make sure to never tap the same hole twice. (Tapping a recently tapped hole will cause yellow sap, which has an off flavor, to run.)

Once the hole has been made, gently tap a spile (or spout) into the hole. This will allow you to collect the sap. Then place a food grade container under the spout, keeping it covered so that debris doesn’t fall into the collection bucket. Once your bucket has filled with sap, remove it from the tree, and bring it back to be processed. Since maple sap is the perfect media (sugar and water) for microorganism growth, it is best to process it soon after collection. Filter the sap through a clean cloth or filter paper to remove debris. Since about 40 gallons of sap are needed to produce one gallon of syrup, most of your time will be spent boiling down the sap. A number of methods can be used to evaporate the water, and large scale syrup making operations use evaporators. In general you will fill a boiling pan with several inches of sap, making sure to watch that there is enough sap to keep it from scorching. Then put it over a heat source and let it evaporate until the sugar content hits 66% (this can be measured with a devise called a hydrometer). Alternatively, if the syrup is boiling at 219 degrees F, it is considered done. Once the syrup is finished it should be filtered one more time, and placed into clean containers while it is 180 degrees. Once sealed maple syrup can store for a long time without spoiling.

NYS Governor Paterson and Ag Commissioner Patrick Hooker

Another highlight of the maple school was a keynote presentation by Patrick Hooker. Patrick had grown up making maple syrup on his family’s dairy farm, expressing fond memories of it. He continues to tap some maple trees on his land today. Patrick talked affectionately of the maple syrup industry, pointing out that it receives little criticism. There are few negative environmental and health impacts from making maple syrup, and it is a tasty product in high demand. Patrick discussed New York State’s potential in the maple industry. New York has more maple trees than any state, while only less than 1% of the trees are being tapped. Currently NY ranks third in maple production behind Canada, and Vermont. Maple syrup is one of the few agricultural products where prices remain good, and demand is high. Larger corporations like Wegmans have interest in supporting local syrup. However, the number of maple producers in NY currently couldn’t meet that demand.

Patrick noted that one important way to encourage entrants into the maple industry is by demystifying the process. Those who have never made maple syrup, often think it is more challenging than it actually is. With events like today’s maple school, we can educate more people about how to make maple syrup. Another important step is to increase rights to tap maple trees. Instead of buying all the land that the maple trees are on, it could be possible to rent maple sap rights on other people’s land. One popular idea is to allow the tapping of maple trees on state land.

Wyoming County is home to a number of established maple producers who take pride in their business. I got to talk with Dottie of Merle Maple, whose family maple business has been going strong for 4 generations. They have 16,000 taps and make a number of products including cinnamon maple cream (which I sampled and loved), maple syrup, maple sugar, maple mustard, and many more. Merle Maple, along with many other maple producers will be part of the upcoming Maple Weekend. This two weekend event occurs March 20-21 and March 27-28, 2010. Maple producers will be open to the public with farm tours showcasing maple production, and other farm events. For more information about the Maple Weekend, visit

posted by Caitlin Henzler, aspiring farmer

Behind the Scenes at the Food Bank of WNY

In Feeding the Community on January 14, 2010 at 12:10 pm

The warehouse at the Food Bank of WNY

A few weeks ago the local fire department was hosting a holiday food drive. I received a flyer in the mail asking me to leave a bag of non-perishables out that would be collected for the Food Bank of Western New York.  Of course I had completely forgotten about it the day that I heard the sirens of the fire truck coming toward my house. I rushed to the pantry to pull out some cans of diced tomatoes I kept on hand. I felt a surge of good feelings as I put my cans out, and thought of the wonderful smells of simmering tomatoes (pasta sauce, chili, etc) that would greet the recipient of my donation. I wondered for a moment what journey my cans would take, but I had faith that the people of the Food Bank would safely bring the food to those in need.

Most of us have heard of the Food Bank of Western New York, but I bet few of us know what actually happens there. When I think of a food bank I have a vague impression of cans of food being transferred from donation bins, and ultimately ending up as some needy person’s dinner. But what exactly goes on at the Food Bank, where does donated food come from, where does it go, and who receives it? This morning Lisa Tucker and I got a behind the scenes look at the happenings at the WNY Food Bank.

After a donation is picked up it, along with its fellow donated items, makes a short drive to 91 Holt St in Buffalo. Hopefully the driver has been there before, because if you don’t know the exact location of the Food Bank it’s easy to miss. The truck then backs up to the loading dock of a 50, 610 square foot warehouse. The loading dock is a busy place, people are taking calls, filling orders, organizing, and picking up orders. Along one wall are stacks of orders waiting to be shipped out. On the opposite side is a wall of coolers containing perishable baked goods, produce, and dairy.  Forklifts zoom around moving pallets of goods. Although food drive items are an important part of donations, the majority of food comes from food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. In addition, grants allow the Food Bank to purchase food.

Wayne, Food Bank employee and ruler of 'Wayne's World'

The food drive items then make their way to the back of the warehouse to be sorted. The sorting room is lovingly referred to as Wayne’s World, named after the Food Bank employee Wayne, who is in charge of sorting through the donation bins.  Wayne is sort of a sorting expert, and is in charge of instructing others how to do it properly. If your donation has passed muster (it is edible for humans, not expired, not obviously defective, not on the list of recalls), then it moves into a bin of similar items to be stacked in the warehouse. You would be surprised the sort of things that end up in donation bins that are not edible for humans. As we talked with Wayne, I could see broken dog biscuits that had somehow ended up in the mix.

The main section of the warehouse is filled with stacks of canned, boxed, and bottled non-perishables. There is also an 18,000 square foot freezer containing frozen perishables. My donation has made it into the Food Bank, but now what? We wait for a call from a local service agency. These include soup kitchens, food pantries, and emergency shelters in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, and Cattaraugus counties. The Food Bank does not directly deal with individuals, but is rather a bridge between available food sources, and agencies serving the needy. Over 400 member agencies have access to the list of available food. They place an order, it is filled, moved to the loading area, and is picked up. Once the donations have made it to the service agencies, the food is distributed to people in need.

The Food Bank of Western New York helps serve an incredible 97,000 people a month, 39% of whom are children, and 11% are seniors.  We asked our tour guide, Polla Milligan, if there has been an increase in the number of needy people with the downturn in the economy.  She replied that the numbers in the city have remained constant, while there is an increase in suburban families using the resources of the Food Bank.

Polla Milligan in the Food Bank's Community Kitchen

The Food Bank isn’t just a warehouse. It’s a group of dedicated people working to educate the public about hunger here in WNY, and the importance of healthy eating. To spread the message of proper nutrition, Polla Milligan heads out to local schools with her unique puppet show. Puppets really get the kid’s attention, and are a non-intimidating way to tell children that they should pay more attention to what they eat. Polla empowers children by making them aware of the food agencies where they and their families can get access to healthy food.

The Food Bank furthermore educates the public by offering cooking workshops at their spacious community test kitchen. The Good Cookin’ class for adults focuses on menu planning, budgeting, basic meal prep skills, and nutrition. The Kids in the Kitchen Program teaches kids how to prepare simple snacks and meals. This program has recently partnered with their Garden Project, so children can have the experience of harvesting and preparing fresh food.

Leaving the Food Bank earlier today, I was impressed with what I had seen. The volume of food that they distribute is remarkable, and their mission is admirable. I found myself pondering two things that I had heard. First, while we tend to think of donating food during the holidays, people are hungry year round. The summer is an especially low donation time for the Food Bank. Second the amount of fresh produce being donated has declined sharply in the past five years. It is hard to promote healthy eating, when you don’t have the ingredients to make it happen.  Since summer is when fresh produce is at its peak, it only makes sense that more partnerships with local farms will help the Food Bank to further its mission.

The Food Bank hosts a number of fund raising events throughout the year. Coming up this February 4th is the Sweet Charity event, offering dessert, champagne, wine tasting, a silent auction and more. It will be held at Asbury Hall at 341 Delaware Ave, Buffalo. The Food Bank also welcomes donations and volunteers.

posted by Caitlin Henzler