We hear often that we need to reconnect with where our food comes from and engage with the farmers who grow it. While I’ve raised masses of my own vegetables in years past, my garden is not as large or as productive as it once was. Like many of you, I source most of my produce either from the grocery store or from our bountiful farmers’ markets. It’s easy to disconnect food from the land and not think about it too much when we’re simply loading up our carts in the store or perhaps even when we’re ordering groceries online.
A trip I took recently to Cascadian Farm Organic in the “magic Skagit” Valley just north of Seattle served as a good reminder of how much we can learn from the talented, knowledgeable and caring people who grow our food. And when the scene on the farm looks as idyllic as the images in this slideshow (yes, the rainbows actually happened while I was there!), you can’t help but feel inspired and want to share the excitement. Here are a few things I learned on the excursion that may spark your interest in visiting a local farm or engaging with growers at your farmers’ market. Full disclosure: This was a trip #sponsored by General Mills. All opinions expressed are my own.
Slide 2 of 9: Cover Cropping: Nature Abhors a Vacuum
If crops are the payoff, then soil is the investment. Organic farmers know that not being good stewards of the land will eventually add up to failure. At Cascadian Farm, a rotation of cover crops is used between growing seasons to cover and protect the soil, provide erosion control, increase organic matter, suppress weeds and pests, improve soil structure and give livestock good snacks to munch on. The cover crop shown in this slide is called Crimson Clover (Trifolium incarnatum). It’s a rapid and robust grower (actually a legume, which helps to fix nitrogen in soil when it’s turned back in). Not only is it beautiful to behold, it is a favorite of pollinators, which play a critical role in helping the farmer get food on the table.
Slide 3 of 9: Compost: That Black Gold!
Mike Peroni, Cascadian Home Farm’s resident farmer, LOVES his compost. He reached into the massive pile onsite at full arm’s length to grab a fistful of the goodness there for us to see, smell and touch. Composting is critical to the life cycle on an organic farm. It serves many purposes: It reduces landfill waste and emissions; it reduces dependence on fossil fuels; it’s an elixir for the land and is a habitat for beneficial bacteria, bugs, worms, fungi and the like. Have you tried composting? Your garden and all the eaters in your life will thank you for it!
Slide 4 of 9: Water and Sustainability
While a clean and constant water supply is not necessarily as great a challenge in the Skagit Valley where Cascadian Farm is located, it’s becoming more of an issue for growers everywhere, especially for those in drought-sticken regions. Climate change is impacting the amount of clean water that can be used for irrigation. In addition, the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in conventional farming increases the risk of groundwater pollution. Use of such chemicals is prohibited in organic farming, which replaces synthetic fertilizers with compost, animal manure and green manure. Greater crop biodiversity also enhances soil structure and water infiltration.
Slide 5 of 9: Happy Pollinators = Food Bounty
Acres of blueberries are grown here, many of which you’ve probably eaten in your Cascadian Farms Organic cereal. Now enjoying brilliant autumn color as they rest before the next growing season, these bushes (and most fruits and vegetables grown for the food supply) are reliant on busy pollinators (bees, butterflies, moths, ants, beetles, etc.) to help blossoms achieve fruit set. Site director Ashley Minnerath explained how European honeybees are often trucked into commercial operations to get the job done during growing season. After several years of experimentation, the pollination program at this farm was shifted to attract native wild bees to do 100% of the pollinating. The change has neither impacted yields nor quality. Fostering healthy habitats for pollinators is yet another step in building a strong, biodiverse organic loop.
Slide 6 of 9: Food Bounty = Harvest Time!
This behemoth of a machine, known as the Littau Berry Harvester, rides up and over the tops of the blueberry bushes shown in the previous slide. The revolving spokes in the door “flail” the blueberries into a conveyor that brings them to the top deck where a team of four people fills and stacks boxes of berries. Even a rainy day couldn’t dampen the spirits of our intrepid group of food and nutrition experts.
Slide 7 of 9: Kiwi Connection
Hardy kiwi vines (Actinidia arguta) “holding hands” across rows. The fruits, also known as kiwi berries, are about the size of a large grape (see next slide) and the plants can withstand winter temperatures that plunge to zero degrees Fahrenheit. All in all, a pretty inspirational scene!
Slide 8 of 9: A Kiwi A Day Keeps the Blues Away
Resident farmer Mike Peroni foraged many a hidden cluster of kiwi berries for our curious group, which devoured the fruit right off the vines. Unlike their fuzzy cousins, the skin on the kiwi berry is smooth and edible, ready to pop right in your mouth! The inside of the fruit has the same beautiful green color and flavor explosion as the more common Hayward variety. Seriously one of the most surprising and delicious fruits I’ve ever tasted!
Slide 9 of 9: The More You Know…
Aristotle was right: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” This trip to an organic farm (even for someone who covers food and nutrition issues all the time), was enlightening and surprising on so many levels. I was ecstatic to see how passionate these caretakers of such precious farmland are about the science and craft of growing food. If you don’t live near farmland, be sure to bend the ear of the growers at your closest farmers’ market. Ask them questions about their land and their animals. They are bursting to tell you more than you can probably absorb about it. Ask them what makes their apples taste so sweet or gives their lettuces such vibrant colors. At least start the conversation. If it pulls you a little closer to the land from which your food comes and helps you understand its connection to your health, you’ll have taken another important step toward wellness. Many thanks to the teams at @bell.institute and @cascadianfarm for making #CFVisit2016 possible!
During Mental Health Awareness Month, help your clients ease back into exercise and enjoy its stress-reducing benefits.