Guest Essay: Where is GTF?

This essay by Patrick Merscher, Assistant Manager at the Hillsdale Farmers'‚Äč Market in Portland, was published in the market's newsletter when Gathering Together Farm was not able to attend the market due to flooding from a January storm. The farm, located on the banks of the Marys River in Philomath, and its neighbors are still feeling the effects of that storm, and April’s heavy dose of rain, hail and snow hasn’t helped. Merscher's essay explains what such heavy flooding means for farmers and crops.

Around the New Year, you may remember the Pacific Northwest receiving a heavy amount of precipitation in a relatively short amount of time, which is not unusual for the area, although these events are increasing in frequency and intensity. You may also recall the news stories about flooding all around the region, especially in low-lying areas like the Willamette Valley, and about the effects it had on the many farmers that call these places home.

One of the market’s largest vendors, Gathering Together Farm (GTF), was heavily impacted by the floods, and they spent months away from the market. Every week shoppers would ask, “Where is Gathering Together? The flood was weeks ago—why aren’t they back?” These are brilliant questions, and one of our roles at the market is to act as a conduit between our local community and local farmers. So, here are some insights on what happens when a farm floods, and why it takes so long for them to return— and no, it’s not just because absence makes the heart grow fonder, although we certainly missed them.

Slow Winter Growth: The fresh winter vegetables you find at market (think radicchio, cauliflower, leeks, etc.) are actually started in late summer and early fall. Before winter starts, plants need to be about three-quarters mature in order to survive the cold temperatures. Growth during the wintertime is exceptionally slow here in the Northwest because of cold weather, short days and low-intensity sunlight. Plants are more holding in the field than they are growing. When a flood damages these winter crops, they actually have a lot of growth to catch up on and less-than-ideal conditions to do it in.

Oxygen Depletion: Plants respire just like humans. Standing water smothers the plant’s breathing pores (called stomates) essentially suffocating the plant. The extent of damage done by oxygen depletion is made worse by warmer waters (a symptom of climate change), stagnant water, younger plants, and the amount of time plants stay submerged.

Nitrogen Loss: Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for healthy plant growth and the health of the plant’s immune system. Forms of nitrogen that can be taken up by plants are also very water soluble, so much of the nitrogen can run off the field as flood waters recede. Anaerobic conditions (i.e. a lack of oxygen) also promote certain microbes that consume the nitrogen for their growth. Lack of nitrogen further slows plant recovery, reduces yields, and increases plant disease. Nitrogen can be replaced, but options are limited on certified organic farms like GTF. Often these organic sources of nitrogen require a mineralization process done in the soil to become available for plants, so it’s not a quick fix. Winter conditions also slow the mineralization process. The farm is also concerned about costs of production like fertilizer and labor, both on the farm and to work the market.

Erosion: Flooding not only removes soil nutrients, but it can physically remove organic matter or even the soil itself. The organic matter is responsible for holding onto nutrients and serving as a substrate that plants can root into. Sand, gravel and rocks can also be moved during flooding, physically damaging the plants. Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farms and farmers spend years developing it. This cannot be easily replaced.

Weed and Disease Growth: Floodwaters bring in weed seeds and plant pathogens. Since crops are damaged, weeds have an easier time growing and competing for sunlight and soil nutrients. Damaged crop plants are virtually sitting ducks for plant pathogens like fungi that love damp, cool conditions and can outgrow the plants easily. Of course, manual or mechanical weed control is the first line of defense on organic farms like GTF, but digging, tilling or otherwise working waterlogged soil, even just walking on it, destroys the structure of the soil and can cause compaction. This will have longterm effects that could be seen for years to come because, again, soil health is something farmers spend years building, but nature can take it away in an instant.

While none of this is pleasant to talk or think about, hopefully you have a better understanding of the plight our local farmers are facing. When one of them experiences a catastrophe like this, please be patient as the farm and the workers recover. They may not be able to come to the market for a few weeks, but your patience is one way you can support them and the market.

Read a profile of founder John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm. Top photo of January's flooding at GTF from their Instagram account.

Guest Essay: How To Harvest Wild Onions

Now that spring is on the way, it's time to get out in our fields and forests and bring home some wild goodness. My friend, author Hank Shaw, is an authority on hunting, foraging and cooking all manner of wild things—his four books on those topics are considered definitive guides—and his post on harvesting wild onions is particularly pertinent to this season.

Ramps, wild onions, wild garlic. These are some of our best wild foods come springtime.

Ramps.

More than 100 species of wild alliums call North America home—allium being the genus covering both onions and garlic—but it is the Eastern ramp, Allium tricoccum, that has been all the rage among chefs in recent years. They’ve become so popular I even see chefs here in California using them with abandon; no native ramp grows within 2,000 miles of San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Locavore issues aside, perhaps the trendiest thing about ramps right now is to bemoan their overharvest.

Is this happening? Certainly, in some places. I’ve seen some startling before and after photos. But most professional foragers I know harvest the same patches of ramps every year — and some of these folks have been picking for 30 years. They know, as well as any good farmer, that you don’t eat your seed corn. The sustainability of any bulb, corm, root or rhizome harvest all hinges on how you pick the plant.

Here’s how you do it.

First and foremost, you must find your onions. Ramps are showy onions with large, wide leaves. They’re pretty easy to spot, especially in Eastern woodlands, where they can literally carpet the forest floor for acres. Most wild onions are not so easily located, although one, the invasive three-cornered leek of California and Oregon, A. triquetrum, is almost as gaudy as the ramp.

hank_shaw_onions2.jpg
Wild onions in situ.

There’s an onion for pretty much every environment, from deserts to forests to streamsides to lawns to high above the treeline in Alpine meadows. My favorite is the dusky onion, A. campanulatum, which is common in the mountains from California to British Columbia.

Onions, being bulb plants, send up grasslike shoots first. This can be as early as January in the Bay Area for the three-cornered leek, to mid-July for Alpine onions. Onions, in general, like to live in large troops: It’s weird to find just one onion.

hank_shaw_onions3.jpg
A patch of wild onions.

A great many onions have a rosy blush to the base of their stems. But not all. Your nose is your best tool when trying to figure out if that grassy shoot you are looking at is an onion. Anything that looks like an onion that also smells like an onion is an onion. Lots of bulbs, some of them poisonous, can look like an onion, but none will also smell like one, too.

Once you’ve found your onions, look at the patch. Are there only a few onions there? Or does the patch have hundreds or even thousands of plants? If there are only a few, consider moving on. I like to pick patches with at least 100 plants, and preferably patches even larger than that. Regardless, follow these rules when you do decide to pick:

  • Pick only the largest individuals. See the photo on the left above? There are a dozen little onions in that image, and only the largest one is worth picking.
  • Stick and move. Pick that large one and move on. Look for another large one. By doing this, you will scatter your picking activity and leave the patch thinned, without large holes in it.
  • Take only 10 to 20 percent of any given patch. And that 20 percent number is only really for private ground or ground you have a very good idea that no one else knows about. Think about it: If I collect 10 percent of an onion patch, then you come along and take 10 percent, then two other people come… well, we’ve screwed that patch, haven’t we?
  • If you really need some wild onions, but the patch is pretty small, pick one large green leaf from each plant. That’s what I do with my Chinese garlic chives at home and they never appear to really notice it. It’s a good way to get that flavor you crave without digging up the whole plant.

Read the rest of Hank's post to get more suggestions on harvesting these wild bulbs, plus recipes for home use, including pickling!

Wild onion photos by Hank Shaw. Check out Hank's books here.