Some cooking techniques are writ in stone. Preheating your oven before baking. Rinsing basmati rice in several changes of water before cooking. Stuff like that. Others are matters of debate, with pros and cons argued vociferously on either side. One of those is soaking dried beans overnight before cooking. To no one's surprise, I give credence to contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm's explanation (see below), who, in my opinion, with Carol Boutard, grows some of the finest beans in all the land.
Why has the practice of soaking grains and beans prior to cooking persisted for several millennia? Biologically, two separate events occur when the bean awakens in the presence of moisture.
Germinating seeds release into the surrounding soil nasty compounds when they germinate. These compounds discourage insects, fungi and bacteria from attacking the seedling before its own defenses are developed. Some seeds also release compounds that prevent neighboring seeds from germinating, a phenomenon called allelopathy. Some people claim these compounds are nutritious and tasty.
Poppycock, I say.
I suggest tasting the soaking water and decide for yourself whether the stuff is tasty…it isn’t. This is one reason why people traditionally soaked grains and legumes, and then drained the soaking liquid before cooking them.
There is a second reason, more of an aesthetic gesture. The seed is very carefully packaged to provide energy in the form of simple sugars and building materials in the form of amino acids when it breaks dormancy and the embryo begins to grow. Millions of simple sugars are connected together to form starch molecules. The amino acids are connected to one another to form proteins. The starches and proteins are densely packed around the embryonic plant. When the seed germinates (i.e. soaked overnight), specialized enzymes snip apart the starches and proteins, and those unpacked units are then assembled to grow the plant. Imagine a pallet of lumber that is strapped together, efficiently packaged for storage and transport, but not yet a house. The enzymes are akin to carpenters, pulling the pallet apart and reassembling it. They also need energy to fuel their work in the form of simple sugars until the seedling is ready to photosynthesize its own food.
Cooking without soaking relies on the brute force of heat to break apart the package rather than the elegant, gentle, natural mechanism given us in the simple seed. Akin to running over the pallet with a bulldozer. I find the flavor and texture are better with soaking, a bit sweeter and smoother. I cannot fathom the objection to soaking them overnight, as though it is some major inconvenience. Bear in mind, the farmer spent several months tending the crop for your table. What’s a few more hours to do justice to the farmer’s careful effort?
As important as a reliable employee, equipment a farmer can depend on is a critical component of any farm, from working the soil to planting to growing to harvesting. New equipment is often prohibitively expensive, so farmers patch and nurse and replace parts on older machines until they simply give out. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm offers several examples, and welcomes a new arrival.
All machinery is serviced and checked over the month before our summer harvest starts. That helps but doesn’t completely avert troublesome moments.
Early in July, we went to use the van for a quick run the hardware store; it wouldn’t shift out of first gear. Turns out mice had chewed the transmission harness and fried its brain. Brought to mind Malvina Reynolds’ “The Little Mouse.” Fortunately, it wasn’t on a delivery run and full of berries. We had it towed to N. Columbia for a new brain and it is back home. A couple of delivery runs in a rental made us appreciate the simple, open structure of the original Sprinter vans. We have modified ours so we can comfortably load it with up to 200 flats.
Light ground transportation is essential for an efficient farm operation. We have two old John Deere Gators. Each has seen two decades and several thousands of hours of service. We have two small ATVs of the same age. They have been reliable but we decided we needed a back-up utility vehicle after an ATV clutch failed. The van problem also spooked us.
We wanted to avoid another internal combustion engine to feed and service. Last year, Polaris introduced an electric version of its Ranger (top photo). After a couple of weeks of using it, we are very happy. Polaris mostly makes aggressive, noisy recreational off-road vehicles with sinister feline or heavy bull lines designed to show dominion over nature. It was a surprise to stumble upon this silent, gentle and rather comely bit of iron and plastic from the company. It will be staff’s primary transportation after Carol's ATV returns. We are ready to convert to electric ATVs when they are available.
On a simpler equipment level, staff use “burros” to hold and move the berry flats as they fill them. Made by us of lightweight cedar and thin plywood about 15 years ago, they were due for rehabilitation and modification. The burros were getting rickety and had been repaired at various times. The trays were a bit too big so berries would fall between the walls of the tray and the flat, staining the flat. We might say, who cares? Well, staff did and mentioned it, so the observation was heeded. The plywood had started to disintegrate so it was time to address the problems.
We reduced the dimensions of the tray and used lightweight but rigid plastic “twin-wall” for its bottom. The structure is pulled together with threaded rods to support the tray. As a final gesture, we painted the various parts and assembled ten different and cheerful burros, each with its own markings. No two are alike.
The handle of the burro makes an attractive perch for birds, so we tip them on their side in the field so they stay clean.
Finally, the purple martins successfully raised their brood of six. We are in the processing of adding 16 gourd-style nesting boxes specifically designed for the birds. The young that emerged this year will be of breeding age in 2021. As they are a gregarious species, other mature birds are expected to join our breeding pair next year.
Photos of Polaris ATV, burros and purple martin by Anthony Boutard.
More than a place to buy local products and meet your farmer, a farmers' market is a place where longterm friendships can grow. In this remembrance, contributor Anthony Boutard recalls Ayers Creek Farm's longtime customer Martie Sucec, she of the blackberry slump and a dedicated fan of the farm's berries.
We decided to become vendors at the newly formed Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, debuting on Bastille Day 2002. Our first market e-mail was sent to our friend Martie Sucec. Martie loved Boysenberries above all other fruit, and we were advising her that we would have a flat set aside that weekend. We kept her updated week-to-week, and soon her friends and other customers asked to be included.
A lay editor at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Public Health Research, Martie had a deep appreciation for language, a loathing of jargon, and a kind manner. Any author worth their salt would work hard for her approval. When asked how he started Coming into the Country, John McPhee quipped he started with “Dear Mom,” whiting out that salutation when he was done. My market essays often started with “Dear Martie” in mind.
When Chester season started that year, Martie came back the next week with a slump and a couple dozen copies of the recipe which she had gleaned from an old edition of Gourmet (recipe below). Martie ritualized the gesture and for fourteen years we would return home with a slump made the first Chesters of the season. Vendors who counted knew her by name.
Carol first encountered Martie 25 years ago—meet is too feeble a word to describe such an event—and came home describing the neighborhood chair of the Multnomah Village Neighborhood Association as an amazing person. Later, I had my own encounter and shared Carol’s sentiment. At one point, I told Martie that she reminded me of General Anna, a central character in Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War, a book I had purchased at a school book fair and read as a 5th grader. A couple of days later, having read the book, Martie chuckled about how much she enjoyed Anna, a principled and determined resolver of conflict.
Martie died in April. That same week a purple martin arrived at the farm, checking out one of the bird boxes used by kestrels, starlings and flickers. A week later, he returned accompanied by his mate and, if I am interpreting their behavior correctly, they are busy feeding chicks. Those handsome, gregarious birds will be associated with memories of Martie, our handsome, gregarious friend.
Martins have a quality described as site fidelity, with the birds returning to the nesting site year-after-year. The martins, and Marties fondness for Boysenberries, slumps, grey shallots and Sibley squash will keep her in our mind all year.
4 c. fresh blackberries (2-3 pints) 2 tsp. lemon juice (add some zest, if you like more lemony flavor) 3/4 c. sugar, depending on the sweetness of berries, or to taste 1 c. all-purpose flour 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder 1/4 tsp. salt 3/4 c. milk (whole, 2%, hemp or soy) room temperature 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
Preheat oven to 375°.
Put berries in an ungreased 5 to 6-cup casserole, gratin dish, deep dish or ceramic pie plate and sprinkle evenly with about 1/2 cup of the sugar. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining sugar into a medium bowl. Add milk and melted butter and whisk until smooth, then pour over berries (don’t worry if berries are not completely covered). Bake slump in middle of oven until top is golden, 35-45 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool 20 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
I've seen folks posting pictures on their social media feeds of some early season grains and produce from Ayers Creek Farm, so I was glad when the following update from contributor Anthony Boutard arrived in my in-box.
Around this time of year I receive inquiries regarding the upcoming season. Might as well get a jump on the questions. Here is how things look in the field.
After dealing with last year’s disastrous brand name starting mix, chronicled earlier, this year we purchased our potting mix from OBC Northwest. OBC, once the Oregon Bag Company, morphed into supplying greenhouse supplies when cleaning and reusing bags became a historical artifact. No lofty claims advanced by creative artwork on the package (below left). It is a simple and generic organic mix in a plain white tote which we supplement on our own by adding some bonemeal, kelp, humic acid and supplemental wetting agent.
The wetting agent allowed in organic farming is derived from yucca and is a very important component of the mix. In soilless potting mixes, the yucca extract promotes the even wetting of the peat and compost. At transplanting, it keeps the area around the roots moist so they will grow easily into the surrounding native soil. As the yucca extract is an organic compound, it is perishable, breaking down over time, rendering the mix stale after a few months. At that point it is nearly impossible to resaturate the soilless mix properly. The water just passes through as in a sieve, though it is not obvious that the mix has not absorbed adequate water. Refreshing the wetting agent is an insurance policy. The other problem with last year's mix was low-grade compost. The company was obviously cutting corners to meet demand.
The peppers and tomatoes are now in the field and look great. The first run of direct sown crops—the corns, beans and chickpeas—are in the ground as well. The rain has come at the right times. Mustard, durum and soft red wheat are sown in November, and are also in fine shape. Sometimes a planting season will, by chance, progress smoothly, much in the same way as a Saturday delivery run when we happen to be in the van for every aria in the Met’s broadcast of La Boheme. Some years, on the other hand, are a challenge, a delivery with no relief from unsatisfying driving music.
The pollination of the perennial fruits occurs April through June. For the small fruits, the crop looks excellent. Prompting us to buy another freezer to increase production of Loganberry and Boysenberry preserves. Plums and apples have a good set. The cherries were in bloom during several frosty nights and the crop is sparse, noncommercial. The Chester blackberry bloom is beginning, the hives were placed last week, and this run of dry, warm weather is helpful.
In early May, we were inspected for compliance with the rules of the National Organic Program (NOP). This is our 20th year as certified organic growers. The first four years preceded the NOP, and compliance was measured against the standards laid out by the International Federation of Organic Movements (IFOAM). Every few years, the certifying agency decides they need to bust you for something. Predictable and infuriating, but nothing personal.
This year, our certifier decided that we needed to have an Organic Handler Plan in addition to the Organic Crop Plan. Never mind that every crop we sell is grown by us, and every detail required in the handling plan is already covered in the crop plan, making the handler plan a pointless redundancy. As an aside, it is very hard to be a commercial farmer who does not handle the crops they grow. For 19 years this was deemed sensible by a succession of reviewers and inspectors, but now it is obvious to a new inspector that has never seen seen our farm that we might be perpetuating an epic fraud.
With a well-articulated snarl, the handler plan was submitted. Apparently, a big potential for fraud was averted as a result. Now we have to put a sticker in the bags denoting the lot number. Simply adding “Lot number 2018” will placate the bean counters. Without a handler plan, this fraud preventing measure would have gone uncorrected. Navigating life, it is best not to get hung up on these arbitrary indignities.
We will be scheduling some open days again this year, coinciding with the early cane berry ripening, the first week for the Chesters, early September for the Astianas and grapes, an early October date, culminating with days before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In between, Josh Alsberg at Rubinette Produce (2340 NE Sandy) maintains a good selection of our goods—fresh and dry. Jim Dixon at Real Good Food also carries some odds and ends in his new store on NE Couch at 10th.
Saturday morning there was a a two-word e-mail from Anthony Boutard at Ayers Creek Farm. Under the subject line "Elders" it read "In bloom." That was enough for me to cancel my plans for the day, gather up my nine-year-old nephew—who was staying with us while his parents had a well-deserved getaway at the coast—and hit the highway.
Arriving at the farm, Carol handed over the key to the Gator along with a bucket—my nephew asked if there were seat belts and I hollered, "Nope! Hang on!"—and we bounced along the track Anthony had mowed to a back field. I knew from previous trips that the elderberries were scattered among an eclectic collection of trees on a west-facing slope overlooking the farm's wetland. And sure enough, pretty soon I could see the white clusters of blossoms glowing against the bushes' dark foliage.
Pulling up to the nearest shrub, the flowery perfume of the blossoms enveloped us, and I set to clipping off the most mature clusters. Trundling through the tall grasses, flitting from shrub to shrub gathering blossoms like bees collecting pollen, the bucket quickly filled and we headed back to the house.Picked and ready to infuse for three days.
Back in the city that afternoon, I spent a good two hours pulling the blossoms from the stems, a tedious but necessary job since the dark stems of the flower clusters are toxic, though the tiny green stems attached to each flower aren't a problem. Last year I'd infused vodka with the flowers to make a liqueur similar to St. Germain, the artisanal French product. Since, after a year of aging it had just begun to be drinkable, I decided to make syrup this year, which only takes about three days to be ready to use. (Here's the basic recipe.)
I'd made the simple syrup earlier so it could cool while I picked the flowers from the stems, then I stirred the blossoms into it and covered it with a clean dish towel. Three days later, I strained it through a fine mesh sieve and it was good to go. Dave immediately started trying it out on cocktails, which you'll find below. With almost two gallons of syrup stashed in pint containers in the freezer, I've got plenty to experiment with, so I'll keep you posted as more uses come to light.
Elderflower Gin Spritz
2 oz. elderflower syrup 1 oz. gin Soda water Sprig of mint Strip of lemon zest
Fill Collins cocktail glass two-thirds full of ice. Add elderflower syrup and gin, then top off with soda water. Stir briefly to combine and add mint and lemon zest. For a non-alcoholic but very refreshing drink, simply omit the gin.
2 oz. gin 1 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice 3/4 oz. elderflower syrup
Fill cocktail shaker with ice, add ingredients, shake very well and strain into martini glass. Garnish with lime wedge.
The farm in winter is often portrayed as a dormant time, with barren fields devoid of activity but for the stalks and dead detritus of the previous year's crops. Nothing could be further from the truth, as elucidated by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm.
As we work our way down the row, it is clear the farmers are not the only organisms harvesting the chicory. We share the field with three different rodents: pocket gophers, voles and mice. We all have our own harvesting methods and challenges.
Farmers use several different harvest knives. We maintain a fleet of ten six-inch produce knives and eight five-inch produce knives. These have straight blades and a square tip, the sort produce staff have in their holster at the grocery store. These knives are cheap (~$14) and rugged. The six-inch knife is safe and easy to use in the field. The curved blades and sharp points of a chef’s knife are fine in the kitchen but a dangerous menace in the field. A lettuce knife is a more specialized tool, having two cutting edges. Carol and Linda use these to liberate the head from the ground, and shift to the produce knife for trimming. The five-inch knives, a bit too small for the field, are useful for the final trimming at the sink. For other tasks, the heft of the machete-style knives is useful.
Because the knives are used in the abrasive environment of the soil, after a couple of hours the edge is lost, and the knife is swapped out for a sharp one. We go through three or four knives in short order. Back at the shed, we put a fresh edge on the knives with an electric sharpener. A few years ago, a farm magazine had an absurd article telling farmers how sharpen their knives with an oil stone. Even with the mechanical sharpener, the effort takes 30 to 45 minutes. I sharpen my wood block tools with a series of Japanese water stones, but for a knife that will return to soil the next day it is a stupid waste of time. Staff prefer to use a mill bastard file which is a bit coarse for my tastes, but I always defer to them on the matter of tools they use.
Waterproof gloves round out the harvest tools. One hazard with field gloves is that it is easy to wind up with a community of left hand specimens. The cure is to name each pair and write the name on both gloves. For example, we have pairs named Jasper, Maine, Moscow and Olive. Once named, the left and right gloves hang together, a bit of magic I can’t explain.
Our most common companions in the field are voles. In literature, subterranean creatures shunning the sun invariably lack a sense of humor. Dwarfs and trolls, whether in Wagner, the Norse legends or Tolkien, are difficult characters. And so it is with the voles and gophers. During the winter, the gophers are lethargic and consume very little. They are a summertime menace. In contrast, voles become hyperactive in the winter.
Voles are aggressive hoarders, relentlessly caching food. In the chicories, they start with the root, working their way to the crown. Then they pull the leaves into their tunnel. (Top photo: A fine chicory hollowed out by a vole, a beautiful remnant.) Plant materials are masticated and then cached in hollowed out areas where the vegetation ferments, similar to ensilage. They aspire to no leisure activities, never ceasing in building their cache accounts. Voles excavate miles of tunnels, keeping them away from the eyes of predators. The voles have a short tail, small, beady eyes and their ears sit close to the head. They seldom leave the safety of their tunnels. In the winter they live communally in a hole lined with dry grass, conserving their energy. Even during the wettest weather, the underground nest stays dry.
We also encounter mice in the field. They don’t cache vegetation. Mice cache and consume seeds, and they seek out insect larvae and pupae. They eat some foliage to round out their diet. During the winter they also rest communally in grass-lined nests, with one or two sallying forth to feed while the others keep the nest warm. The live in underground burrows, or in hollow logs, irrigation pipes, bird houses, cars or any place providing shelter. They have long tails for balance, large ears to hear advancing predators and bulging eyes that give them a range of view, all valuable for an animal that forages above ground. They are adept climbers, and they have a more beguiling presence than their subterranean-dwelling kin.
The mouse seed caches are visible in both the cultivated and uncultivated areas of the farm. Not every store of seeds is consumed, and those left uneaten sprout. In the photo above, tufts of native grass betray an unused granary. In the field, clumps of chickpeas, wheat, corn and favas in a similar pattern are common.
What eats get eaten. A healthy population of rodents is the base for a healthy population of predators. We have barn and great-horned owls, kestrels, red-tail hawks, great blue herons and weasels all partaking of the fine rodent riches. The barn owls hunt in the open fields and the great-horned owls tend to stay in the cover of the oak savannah. No, predators do not control the rodent populations; it is exactly the reverse, rodent populations drive survival of the predator young. Without adequate food, the young languish and die.
Both owls currently have chicks in the nest, and a good rodent year means more of these chicks will become adults. The owls tear apart the rodents, regurgitate a cast or pellet of fir and bones. The herons gulp down their prey whole. Red-tailed hawks and kestrels tear apart their prey. The kestrels don’t like the stomachs, so they eviscerate their prey, leaving a pile of guts near the feeding perch. The kestrels are more resilient than owls and other raptors because they feed happily on larger insects such as grasshoppers, frogs, worms and small snakes. As an aside, owls are more closely related to parrots than the hawks and falcons.
Aside from poison, which we would never use, there is no means of controlling these small rodents. Even poison baits are a stop gap measure of dubious efficacy, just a damaging outlet of the farmer’s anger. The gophers, mice and voles are part of the endeavor and, in their own right, remarkable creatures. A heathy ecosystem self-corrects. Rodent populations are cyclical. In 2013, we had intense rodent pressure and lost the entire chicory crop. As a concession prize, a young bobcat took up residence for several months. Tito was not happy about the matter, though. The following year, voles were scarce.
We are on a wildlife corridor, so various creatures, elk, deer and mink move through the farm. Thursday night, Abel saw a cougar and her kits near the barn. They are probably moving to the ridge dominated by Bald Peak in search of prey, deer in particular, but quite possibly small livestock as well.
Read more of Anthony's Farm Bulletins. Photo of vole from Wikipedia. All other photos by Anthony Boutard.
Cows, sheep, chickens…sure. Normal farm animals. Stretch a little and maybe you'll come up with birds, bees, bugs. Even coyotes or other predators. But contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston has noticed yet another creature that calls his farm home.
Our trips to the irrigation pump are less frequent as temperatures moderate. We are starting to withhold water from the annual crops. For the berries, however, watering through September is critical so the primocanes, which will bear next year's crop, can put on as much growth as possible. Heavy canes bear better fruit. Winter crops like the cabbages, chicories and parsnips must also receive a good dose of water for good root development. When starting the pump, we watch the water carefully for any changes in quality.
This week, a new creature appeared near the pump station. A large moss animal, or Bryozoan, was drifting in water (top photo). A gelatinous mass about the size of a soccer ball, it is known to bryozoologists as Pectinatella magnifica (left, from Wikimedia). It is the largest of the 22 freshwater moss animals found in North America. Most are delicate creatures that go unnoticed by all but a handful of dedicated professionals. Pectinatella is hard to ignore, and brought us back to invertebrate zoology class.
The bryozoans are invertebrate animals with a nervous system and a gut, and in the same general evolutionary branch as sea urchins and lamp shells. They feed on bacteria and algae using feathery tentacles reminiscent of corals. Like corals, they are colonial animals, and the large mass drifting in our irrigation channel is actually a colony of individuals that are fused together in the gelatinous matrix. Ambling along the bank, we saw several other colonies ranging in size from a softball to a medicine ball. They need warm, clean water. As the water temperature drops below 60 degrees (15 C), the colonies will die. The species carries on by producing a resting stage called a statoblast, and next year these will grow into new colonies.
Most of 4,000 or so bryozoans are marine animals, and attach themselves to rocks, piers and ship hulls. Of the many animal orders covered in invertebrate biology class, we would nominate a bryozoan as an unlikely resident of a Willamette Valley farm. Obviously, we weren't paying attention to the mention of 50 freshwater species separated into the Class Phylactolaemata, and their preference for clean, still waters.
Water is every farmer's vulnerability. We fret constantly about the supply, delivery and quality. Seeing this stately creature drifting slowly in the water, with its ancestry stretching back 450-million years to the Ordovician Period, provided a comforting benediction on the irrigation ditch.
The Bard of Ayers Creek, Anthony Boutard, sends another bulletin from the real world. To subscribe to his missives, simply e-mail him and ask to be added to the list.
We always have two or three bald faced hornet nests on the property. These are very valuable insect predators. The only time we remove the nests is when they are built in the berry field. Over the last few years, they have been located high in the oaks, bothering nobody. Unlike their close cousins, the yellow jackets, they tend to be pretty calm, and we have been spared their sting. Yellow jackets are almost as valuable. However, tending toward omnivory, yellow jackets are more inclined to damage fruit and tend to be wired with a hair trigger when you are near the nest.
When you stumble across a nest, it is impossible to outrun them, though a hasty departure is required. We have found the trick is to stand absolutely still against the trunk of the biggest tree nearby, and the wasps will circle in an upwards spiral around the tree looking for your head. Soon, they depart. The most likable of the group are the paper wasps who build small, open nests under the eves of buildings. They build nests on our heavy truck, and seem unfazed by the trip to Salem and back two or three times a week. They watch us keenly, but leave us alone as we work around them. The wasps, as a group, use their stinger as a tool to paralyze their prey, and they inflict a more painful and longer lasting injection than honey bees.
Last week, we found a bald faced hornet nest in a drooping branch of a mirabelle plum tree but a foot above the ground. When we mentioned this to our crew, they noted the locations of a couple of other nests likewise close to the ground. New Englanders have always regarded low wasp nests as a harbinger of a harsh winter, the 'seventh winter' in a cycle. We had a sense of this earlier, and we have planted our sensitive crops in more sheltered locations than in the past, and are hedging with larger plantings of the more hardy greens. Consequently, it was interesting to hear meteorologists predict a colder winter this year for Oregon.