Plastics Part 2: Less Plastic in our Lives

This is part 2 in my writing about reducing plastic. Part 1 explains what we’re doing on the farm. This post talks about reducing plastics in our lives.

In the last few blog posts, I have talked about my family’s coastal road trip and visit to the amazing Monterey Bay Aquarium. What really struck me was SEEING how microplastics move in ocean currents and the water column. It was at once beautiful, mesmerizing, and awful.

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Photo by Catherine Sheila on Pexels.com

Plastics are everywhere.

Sea life is eating plastic at every level, often because algae, the basis of the ocean food web, grows on floating plastic.

There is so much plastic in the ocean, it has formed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch“–a floating island of plastics larger than Mexico.

Plastics are found in 90 percent of sea salt we eat. This fact burned me.

Why am I focused on ocean plastics when I live 300 miles from the ocean? Well, plastics cause terrestrial problems, of course, but everything goes downstream. Our garbage and, unfortunately our recycling, ends up in the ocean. The products and clothes we use shed plastics that end up in our water ways and accumulate downstream. Since we hide away our landfills–they are remote, covered, bulldozed–the ocean is the easiest place to see the true impact of plastic, which is why I keep coming back to it.

What if plastic was more important to us?

I’ve been kicking this idea around in my head for a while–what if the answer is not to feel guilty about plastic but to value it more? Today plastic is cheap, safe, convenient, and shameful.  I’ll use or buy “unnecessary plastic items” when I’m tired or when my willpower is maxed for the day; when my kid wants a drink on a road trip and I don’t feel like having a long conversation.

What if we considered plastic a vital strategic resource to be use for the most critical reasons? What if we limited plastic use to health care and safety? What if it was as important as our stockpile of vaccines or the strategic oil reserve?

This idea might be a helpful way to think about your own purchases and plastic use. Is this plastic critical for health and safety? Or is is just convenient? Does this plastic purchase really match the value and impact?

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Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

What to Avoid

First and foremost, we’ve got to stop using PET single use plastic. This plastic has no where to go but the ocean. Mostly, it can never be recycled. No PET means no more plastic water bottles, drink bottles, plastic bags, party cups, cup lids, and no more straws. Do you really need to stir milk into your coffee with a plastic stir stick that can kill ocean life and will outlast your time on earth? I argue you do not.

Of course there are folks with disabilities who need straws to drink. This is a strategic and critical use. Otherwise, find an alternative.

Skipping the straw will not solve the plastic problem, but it will start changing how we behave and what we use. That is what we need.

Two Reason (besides the environment) to Change Your Plastic Habits

1. You’re getting ripped off! Plastic containers are used to sell you things in volume. Shampoo and laundry detergent, for example, are mostly water! If you buy liquid forms of things you can buy as a concentrate or solid form, you are paying too much.

2. Recycling isn’t working. Even if you put plastic bottles in the recycling bin, the chance that they are actually recycled is low. The recycling system is breaking down. We have been sending our recycling waste to China for decades and now they don’t want it.

Tips for Reducing Plastic in Your Life

1. Be that weirdo!

Lots of things we can do to reduce plastic will make us look weird. OH WELL. What other people think of you is none of your business anyway.

If other folks start doing weird things I do, I won’t look so weird. So, join me! Bring a glass container to a restaurant for put left-overs. Ask for a real glass or fork when plastic is provided–most of the time people oblige me without hesitation. Offer to wash the dishes at community events so they can skip the plastic. Take bags with you to pick up trash on your walks or hikes. Keep pint mason jars and forks in your car to use at events or parties.

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My plastic reduction kit.

2. Make avoidance a new habit.

Create habits for yourself and your family that mean you can avoid the plastic question all together. Give your kids the job of returning the re-usable grocery bags to the car. Buy a family of “to-go” mugs AND a thermos and pack it with you. Shop at second hand stores for the plastic things you need or want.

3. Break with tradition

Do we need balloons at birthday parties or can we just do with paper lanterns and crepe paper? Does your sandwich have to go in a baggie? Or can you put it in a piece of butcher paper or parchment or a waxed wrap?

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Wax wrap we use to cover bowls.

5. Embrace the re-gift.

Re-gift things like excess kitchen wares and toys like Legos, GI Joes, and Barbies. They are usually abandoned, not worn out. ASK for re-gifts.

6. Make goals you can brag about.

My dear “weirdo” friend Sarah told me in October, “I haven’t drank from a plastic bottle in 10 years.” What?! Let’s give this woman a metal medal! I want to be like Sarah, and while she wasn’t bragging, I would. 🙂 What I’m really saying is, party without plastic.

7. Walk away.

Look for plastic free options, ask for plastic free options, then walk away. I almost never regret the thing I didn’t buy. You can always go back.

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My husband’s new wool running shoes.

8. Buy Better Products

Here are my tips for products I appreciate or am going to try.

Clothing:

I’m avoiding plastic fabrics, and sticking with leather, cotton, wool, hemp and other plant-based fibers. I bought my husband a pair of wool running shoes for Christmas from All Birds and loves them. I’ve also checked out Astral hemp shoes and Rothys which are made from water bottles.

Cleaning:

I believe in the power of vinegar, Bon Ami, and Boraxo soaps, which are old brands and widely available. There are lots of other products out there, but look for powders that come in cardboard, not plastic jugs. I’m excited to try these new laundry detergent strips. Also check out this site for numerous plastic-free, ecofriendly cleaning products.

Kitchen:

We use Etee bags and wraps instead of baggies and cellophane. They are waxed cotton. Etee also has cleaning products.

Buy wooden and metal utensils, bowls, etc. instead of plastic. Use rags instead of paper towels.

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Local products packaged in glass & metal.

Personal care:

To avoid the plastic bottles, try shampoo & conditioner bars, and just stick to bars of soap from the farmers market–we have a lot of local soap makers. There are so many options out there, you will find something you like.

Local company Growing Wise and many other companies are marketing deodorant in cardboard tubes. Growing Wise will also personalize what you need based on skin and needs at their Union, Oregon shop.

Other northeast Oregon companies that don’t use plastic include Wild Carrot, which markets their products in glass, and Dr. Lorraine’s Adventure Salves, which uses metal tins.

Things to Read & Watch

Is plastic unavoidable? Kinda. Can we significantly reduce our plastic use? Yes. Should we completely re-think how we use it? We must.

Thanks for reading!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

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Plastics Part 1: Less Plastic on our Farm

January 1st 2020, the state of Oregon banned the ubiquitous single-use “t-shirt” bag at grocery and retail stores. I heard a limited amount of grumbling before the law went into effect, but mostly, I have been watching how this new law is quickly changing habits. Shoppers and store employees seem more adaptable and amenable than I expected.

A few years ago I would have to argue for the right to carry too much loose produce in my arms to my car. When I did remember my bags, I always got the side-eye. As the offending cloth grocery bag neared them on the conveyor belt, checkers always looked at me as if I had asked them to bag up avocados in my dirty underwear. (In fairness, maybe tote bags could have come in colors other than dirty white and I could have washed them a bit more.) But no more! The gold rush age of the reuseable bag is upon us. Now it is time for our farm to take more responsibility and more action to decrease plastic use.

photo of a woman standing on a pile of garbage near trees
Photo by Stijn Dijkstra on Pexels.com

Background: It’s not (all) your fault. It’s the system!

When you stop and think about it, why is it the individual’s responsibility to recycle bottles, packaging, bags, etc. that companies create? Why isn’t the responsibility of a company, a larger entity with more resources, expertise and employees than you, to manage waste they manufactured? Why do we think so much about littering and recycling? Because of a highly crafted marketing campaign to make you feel responsible for trash you didn’t create.

I learned about the history of “Don’t be a litter bug” campaign from the excellent podcast Throughline. It has made me question our own practices as a family and business.

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Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

In short, the podcast argues “trash,” in some ways, is a modern idea. People were so unaccustomed to throwing anything out, beverage companies had to actively teach customers that bottles were disposable. In 1953 the “Keep America Beautiful” PSA campaign funded by beverage companies teaching us not to litter–after earlier teaching us to do just that. This was all a way to avoid having to pay for the cost of dealing with trash they created, which is now the fault and responsibility of individual consumers. This is true until today–Keep America Beautiful is still at it, telling us trash is our fault, and you can even donate to help them spread the word!

How I’m Changing Things on the Farm

Just as beverage companies should deal with the zillions of single-use plastic bottles they sell, Nella Mae’s Farm should take responsibility for the plastic we use and sell to you. This is what we’re planning to do in 2020. I hope you’ll send me ideas and feedback about what else we can do.

1. We will provide paper bags for dry produce and limited compostable “plastic bags.” This means you’ll see lots more paper lunch bags out at our farmstand and our market booth for you to use. We have also been experimenting with BioBags produce bags this winter. BioBags seem to be the best solution on the market. They compost quickly (if properly composted) and are made of non-GMO corn.

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2. We will take back your plastic and compostable produce bags. Unfortunately, the BioBag is permeable and was a big fail when it came to packaging. The greens get slimy and/or wilted within a day or two. We will still use plastic produce bags for salad mix, but we will take them back at market and the farmstand and get them properly recycled or composted. (Side note: I learned from a friend that works at a lumber company that Trex decking is really, truly made of recycled plastic bags!)

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Arugula wilted after a few days in the BioBag.

3. Provide plastic free options. We will test out a self-serve salad mix bar at the market where you can bring your own bag (plastic or re-usable) to fill with salad and buy by the pound. We will test out selling salad mix in re-usable produce bags that you can bring back. Let’s see how it goes!

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Putting greenhouse plastic on a friends’ greenhouse last year.

4. Reduce & reuse plastic use in our farming practices. It is really hard to avoid plastic irrigation parts and greenhouse covering. Plastic mulch is very helpful for suppressing weeds, but we can get by with a little weeding help from our friends.

We will re-use greenhouse plastic by making low-hoop coverings for outside growing and offer plastic for you gardeners to use. (Check out our upcoming classes where you can get some!)

We already reuse and patch old irrigation t-tape as many years as we can and then use it to trellis our tomatoes. We will offer free used t-tape to any gardener who wants it. You can probably use it in your garden because you need shorter sections than us, or use it to trellis too.

We are also buying new tools and products that are made from plants or metal–sisal twine, wooden handled-tools, and metal buckets instead of plastic. Our favorite re-use by far, though, has been the dog neck cone that we use as a funnel for pouring concrete into post holes. (Patent pending!)

5. Push for changes at the farmers market. I recently participated in a webinar on plastic at farmers markets by the Clean Fairfax Council. I learned that a single random farmer at a farmers market in Fairfax County, VA gave out 76 plastic bags in an hour during a Clean Fairfax survey. That is 10,000 bags from one vendor in a season! While farmers markets are not subject to Oregon’s single-use plastic bag ban, markets should get on board. This is a much easier sell now that shoppers are becoming accustomed to paper bags and bringing their own. I have sent a proposal to the La Grande Farmers Market to ban single use “t-shirt bags” and things we can do as a market to make things easier for vendors and shoppers.

You know what I’m going to do. Here’s what you can do.

I am always relying on customers, neighbors, friends, and family for farm support–this effort is no different. I need you!

1. Show support for banning plastic bags at the farmers market. Email me a letter expressing you support! I will share with the market, and your support will help vendors see that customers aren’t going to freak out. You can also volunteer to help us get reusable bags to shoppers. Clean Fairfax Council suggests creating a “take a bag, leave a bag” station at the market. I have also been talking to friends about having reusable bag sewing days at the market. Can you help out? Let me know!

2. Help other shoppers with our experiments. It takes a lot of time to show each individual shopper how to utilize our farmstand and market booth. Help spread the word! Tell friends and fellow shoppers, “hey, Nella Mae takes back compostable and plastic bags. Here’s where you put them.” If you see someone who looks confused about our new self-serve salad mix, help them out! If people are confused, they won’t buy and this experiment won’t work. (Please note, we will still have pre-bagged options, not just self-serve.)

If you’re really into this idea and have an hour on a Saturday, volunteer to be a guide at our market booth and help folks get the hang of things. It sounds silly, but it is really important for our business and the success of our plastic reduction efforts.

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Plastic mulch helps young plants get established without weed pressure.

3. Help me weed! If you want some farm time, come help me weed! When we eliminate plastic weed mulch, that means more weeds to pull. After plants get established and shade the ground, it isn’t such a big deal, but until then, I could use some extra weeders!

Thanks for reading!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

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Agriculture, Food & Justice

Today I am grateful for the contributions that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle of freedom riders, freedom fighters, and freedom “foot soldiers” for a more just society for everybody in America.

Today I am thinking about the connections of food and agriculture with Dr. King’s work on civil rights and poverty.

Today I’m thinking about the intersections–those  between housing, health, and food deserts; between discrimination and land ownership; between slavery and agriculture; between the takeover of indigenous lands and farming.

As I consider the history of US agriculture on this day about justice, it feels heavy. I think about the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to formerly enslaved people. I think about the theft of land from indigenous people from coast to coast. I think about the modern discrimination in government lending to black, Latino, women, and other farmers. I think about the abuse and poverty of migrant farm workers through history. I think about the Japanese farmers in Oregon who were interned during World War II and never got their farms back. I think about the immoral dichotomy between the amount of food we grow in the US and the number of people who struggle with hunger and food insecurity.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I also think about all the many people who are growing and harvesting food in new and old ways to create a more just society. I am heartened by the First Foods movement, the local food movement, food justice movement, and the Slow Food movement. I am heartened by the growing interest in who grows it, where it comes from, and how it was grown or harvested.

Per usual with these blog posts, I have a list of things I think we can DO. Here’s what I think matters when it comes to food and agriculture to make things more just, equitable, and fair.

1. Eat food that is Good, Clean and Fair

Slow Food International suggests focusing on eating food that is “Good, Clean & Fair.” I like the simplicity. You can look for certifications like Equitable Food Initiative, which certifies  labor practices, food safety, and pest management. Equal Exchange and Rainforest Alliance are good certifications for tropical fruits and nuts, chocolate, tea, coffee, and even tourism. Shop local at from local growers and pay a price that supports a living wage for everyone on the farm.

There are also a few foods that our family has been avoiding because we have concerns about whether they are good, clean or fair. We generally avoid cashews, palm oil, imported soy, factory farmed meat and eggs, and now some seafood, as I wrote about in this blog post.

2. Food Deserts

A friend of mine knows a rancher who stops in just about every rural town to buy something at the grocery store. He says it is the best way to keep rural grocery stores open and food accessible. For folks in northeast Oregon, think about stopping at places like the Community Merchants in La Grande, Union Market, Elgin Foodtown, and  Ruby Peak and Dollar Stretcher in Enterprise. Don’t forget the local farmstands like Val’s Veggies, Liza Jane’s, Platz Family Farm or our farmstand in Cove.

Let’s make our farmers markets more welcoming and accessible to all vendors and shoppers. Be friendly, helpful, and inclusive of all vendors and shoppers. Support nutrition programs and volunteer at your market.

Let’s support the treaty rights of indigenous people to harvest first foods.

3. Farm Workers, Farmers & Ranchers

Let’s support local, state, and federal policies and programs that address injustice in food and agriculture. I have benefited from Department of Agriculture programs that to support local production as well as loans for beginning, minority, and female farmers.

Let’s support farms and ranches that have the highest standards treatment of workers such as the Equitable Food Initiative. Let’s have the highest standard ourselves for how we treat the people who grow and harvest our food.

Thank you for reading.

Happy MLK Day!

Nella Mae

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How to eat seafood sustainably

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Sardines at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo by Michael Hatch.

Every December my family and I “get outta Dodge” for a few weeks. It is the only month we all have time off at the same time–from the farm, work, and school. We are often drawn to the ocean because we live so far from it in northeast Oregon. In the last few years, we have traveled to Chile, Mexico, Portugal, and this year, down the Oregon and California coast. Each trip we consume as much seafood as possible and learn a lot about the unfamiliar and interesting life on and in the ocean. Last year in Portugal we learned about the Mediterranean sardine harvest and the national love for the tiny fishes. We saw old tide mills used to grind grain and Roman salt ponds along the coast.

This year our trip was down highway 101 and highway 1 from Reedsport, OR to Big Sur, CA. Our kid is a budding wildlife biologist and “animal rescuer,” so we made sure to stop at the Marine Life Center in Charleston, OR and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in CA. I learned three important lessons in Monterey: 1) I want to live in a Mediterranean climate eventually, 2) how to eat seafood more sustainably, and 3) the impact of plastics on our oceans (more in a future post.)

I am not a sea faring lass, and feel out of my depth when it comes to understanding how to eat different fish and seafood species. I know enough to look for the “dolphin safe” label on tins of albacore tuna, but not much else. Luckily, the Monterey Bay Aquarium assesses the sustainability of seafood and provides guides and best practices for eaters. Here are a few things I learned and resources you can use.

1. Leave the tuna/shrimp/salmon comfort zone

In the US, we primarily eat tuna, shrimp, and salmon. If we give other species a try, we give these ones a rest.

Taking this to heart, we bought fresh, local sabelfish at a family-run fish market in Monterey and loved it. I realized that I stay in my tuna and salmon comfort zone because I don’t know what else to try. The aquarium website also has lots of recipes for trying sustainably caught and raised seafood that you may not be familiar with.

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Photo by Naim Benjelloun on Pexels.com

2. Avoid species that result in bycatch and habitat damage

How fish are caught really matters. Some fishing methods result in a lot of bycatch–that is non-target species that are caught in nets. Dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, marine mammals, birds, and juvenile fish are common bycatch from methods like gill nets, purse seines, and trawls. Dredging and bottom trawls can also damage habitat like coral on the sea floor. Specific impacts can be reduced using better sein and trawl techniques, specifying where dredging can occur, and using other fishing methods. Long lines and jigs, for example, result in less bycatch because they are more targeted and allow the release of unwanted species.

You can learn about fishing methods here, but all you really need is the Seafood Watch consumer guides from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. You can download the Seafood Watch guides as an app or as state-by-state printable guides here. I put the guide in my wallet. They even have guides for eating sushi.

You can search specific species here and get a rating for how sustainable they are.

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Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

3. Farmed vs Wild Caught

I have always avoided farmed seafood, but I can’t really say why. I had a vague concept of the pollution and disease that could be spread through aquaculture, but our road trip and the aquarium made me reconsider. I was impressed by the oyster farming we saw in Tomales Bay, and learned more once we got to the aquarium.

Just like agriculture, aquaculture can be practiced sustainably or poorly. Just like in confined livestock operations, waste water treatment at fish farms is very important. You can read about aquaculture here.

But how do you know if seafood is sustainably farmed?

Seafood Watch recommends looking for several important labels that indicate sustainably farmed or caught seafood. ASC-Certified, BAP-Certified, Naturland, Friend of the Sea, Canada Organic Farmed, Certified Sustainable Seafood.

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4. Ask these questions

When you’re at the grocery store or a restaurant, you can ask these questions when you’re making choices about eating seafood.

  • Where does it come from?
  • Is it farmed or wild caught?
  • Does it have a sustainability label?
  • What does the Seafood Watch guide say?

5. In short, the seafood & fish I will enjoy and avoid

Yum! Arctic char, barramundi, clams, lingcod, mussels, sablefish (aka black cod), scallops, sole, oysters, pompano, rockfish, sanddabs, US catfish and US farmed trout.

  • Pacific cod (especially from Alaska) cod but NOT Atlantic cod.
  • Albacore tuna but NOT Yellowfin or Bluefin tuna.
  • US farmed oysters are a better choice than wild caught oysters.
  • US farmed shrimp are better than wild caught or imported shrimp.
  • Northwest salmon is OK but NOT Chinook from Puget Sound.

5. Other random things I learned

We saw seaweed collection and drying on the island of Chiloe, Chile, but I learned on this trip seaweed is also farmed!

“Scallops” (which I love) is just a general term for many species of saltwater clams.

I have eaten Dorado in Mexico for my whole life without knowing it is also called Mahi-Mahi. It is delicious, but not the best choice.

Happy Eating!

Nella Mae

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Your grateful farmer

Don’t forget Pomegranates!

“Pomegranate-1” by Sheba_Also 43,000 photos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

This post is an addendum or bonus to the last post, It’s Winter: What’s in Season? In addition to the 10+ in-season crops I mentioned, my mom reminded me we are also on the tail end of the California pomegranate season. Both she and my cousin have turned me on to a great method of pomegranate aril (seed) extraction.

  1. Cut the skin along the equator of the fruit but not too deep. You don’t want to damage those rubies!
  2. Twist the fruit open into halves.
  3. Loosen the chambers of white pith holding the arils.
  4. Hold half the fruit over a bowl and whack (!) the back of it with a wooden spoon. The arils should fall out without much pith.

Here’s a Youtube video demonstrating.

Also, pomegranate molasses?! Yes, please! If you interested, check out these recipes.

It’s Winter: What’s in Season?

In December my family made a huge road trip from northeast Oregon, to the southern Oregon coast, down the California coast and back home. We saw a lot of new country and drove the entire range of the redwoods from southwestern Oregon to Big Sur, California. It was a great physical and mental break from the farm, and luckily we have family and friends who can take care of our animals and monitor our hoop houses while we’re gone.IMG_4326.JPG

With my husband driving and my daughter and the dog in the back, I held down my typical role reading the map aloud and Googling anything that interested us (or just me.) I daydreamed about living in a Mediterranean climate (it just looks so easy!) I did a lot of not thinking about farming until we drove through the Salinas River Valley. There was a lot of active agriculture a week before Christmas, and I thought, “what is truly in season in the US in the winter?”

I looked around for hints. Through Salinas Valley and later the San Joaquin Valley we saw miles of hoop houses and dormant strawberry patches. We drove through the “garlic capital of the world” (Gilroy, CA) and the “artichoke capital of the world” (Castroville, CA) and past fields of cabbages as far as the eye could see and the nose could smell.

Artichokes Growing 1“Artichokes Growing 1” by Greg Woodhouse Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

After our road trip through California agriculture I decided to compile a short list USA-grown produce that is in season now.

It’s Winter: What’s In Season?

  1. Artichokes

Central California coast artichokes are perennial. They are managed for winter, spring, and summer harvest. The peak harvest is March through May, but harvest is happening now (January.)

Everyone knows artichokes are best eaten with garlic butter (or mayo), but here’s a recipe for grilling them if you want to try something new.

  1. Broccoli

Broccoli is harvested year round on the California coast, but the peak season is December through mid-March. Also grown in Texas. I love a classic broccoli salad with raisins or cranberries.

  1. Brussels Sprouts

Warmer US climates are harvesting Brussels sprouts in the winter. Most people just add bacon, but I like them with cranberries too. Here’s a link to 30 new recipes for Brussels sprouts.

  1. Cabbage

Cabbage is grown and harvested year round in California thanks to its varied climates. Also harvested in winter in Texas. Here’s a cabbage salad recipe that also involves another in-season crop—grapefruit.

  1. Cauliflower

Warmer US climates like Texas are harvesting cauliflower in the winter. Cauliflower curry!

  1. Celery

Warmer US climates like California & Texas are harvesting celery in the winter.

  1. Grapefruit (Texas & Florida)

Peak harvest is December through February. California grapefruit is harvested in the fall. Fun fact: grapefruit have a very long gestation period. They will hang on the tree for 14 to 15 months before reaching maturity!

  1. Oranges (Florida & California)

Navel oranges peak December through May. Tangelos and tangerines peak October through March.

  1. Storage crops

Many crops are harvested in the fall and sold throughout the winter and spring. Varieties are chosen based on their ability to store. Some varieties of pears don’t even ripen properly without storage. Don’t forget to eat garlic, potatoes, winter squash, apples, and pears.

  1. Year-round

Due to our huge country’s varied climates, you can enjoy carrots, greens, and lemons year round from US producers.

You also have the beginning of California avocado season and Hawaiian papaya season starting in March.

Hope this is interesting and helpful!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

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Last year’s Brussels sprout harvest.

Demystifying the Seed Catalog

Nella Mae’s Tips for Choosing and Ordering Seed

December 30, 2019

Just when I think the days can get any shorter or darker, a small blessing arrives—seed catalogs in a rainbow of colors and significant heft. They brighten the dreary days and are excellent paired with tea and bed. Seed catalogs are the endosperm to my dormant germ of ambition. In other words, they feed my excitement and allow me to start dreaming about the coming growing season—which will always be bigger and better than last year! 😉

As I studied my seed catalogs this year and made my first order ($401 worth), I noticed how much information is packed in to each seed description. With this blog post, I want to help explain some of the terminology as well as give some suggestions for how and where to choose seed.

seed catalogs.JPGSeed Companies

At Nella Mae’s Farm, we primarily buy seed and tools from Johnny’s Selected Seed. That said, there are many other great seed companies we like.

  • Johnny’s Selected Seed is a large company with an extensive organic and conventional seed options. Lots of growing information and great customer service. Winslow, Maine.
  • Territorial Seed is great for the home and northwest gardeners. Cottage Gove, Oregon.
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    Baker Creek’s vibrant catalog!

    Baker Creek Seed specializes in rare, weird, and heirloom varieties from around the world. Their catalog is a work of art. Mansfield, Missouri.

  • High Mowing Organic Seed specializes in 100% organic and non-GMO seed from independent seed producers. The website has a great blog and growing information! Wolcott, Vermont.
  • Wild Garden Seed specializes in open-pollinated varieties lovingly selected. Philomath, Oregon.
  • Fedco Seed is an organic growers’ cooperative with good options. Clinton, Maine.
  • Seeds From Italy is the US distributor of Franchi Seeds, which is Italy’s oldest family-run seed company. They specialize in heirlooms and have interesting things to try. Lawrence, Kansas.

Reading a Seed Catalog

Each catalog has its own format, abbreviations, and symbols, so follow these tips for better understanding:

  1. Look for the legend at the front of your catalog. It is the “decoder ring” for fully understanding seed descriptions.

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    Pull out box with helpful info on starting cauliflower.
  2. Don’t skip the first few pages of the catalog—they have important information about seeding rates, disease resistance codes, etc.
  3. Look for other pull out boxes and notes about culture, growing, harvesting, starting seed, etc. as you go along. Some seeds need special soaking or cold storage for best germination.
  4. After reading the catalog, check out the seed description on the website if you need more information. They can fit more growing tips and taste descriptions online.

When you are reading a seed description look disease resistance; whether the crop should be trellised; if they are greenhouse growing varieties; if it is treated, conventional or organic, hybrid or heirloom seed; if it is cold/heat tolerance; when to plant, and more.

How to pick seeds for YOUR garden

Days to Maturity: This is the (very imprecise) estimate of how long it will take for your crop to mature. (Do children come with DTM? That would be really useful.) If this crop is transplanted as a plant like tomatoes rather than direct seeded like carrots, the DTM is from the time of transplanting.

Choose varieties that match your hardiness zone and that fit comfortably into your window of frost free days. For example, our Cove, Oregon farm is in USDA hardiness zone 6b and enjoys 100-130 frost free days. I haven’t been able to reliably grow crops with a long DTM, so I generally pick varieties with a DTM of less than 100. For more on determining your garden’s hardiness and frost-free days, read on!

Frost-free days: You can find your location’s average number of frost free days quickly at the Old Farmer’s Almanac site. Just remember to plus or minus the average based on your lived gardening experience. For example, I know it is always colder at my house than the rest of Cove, and I have fewer frost-free days.

Hardiness: Click here to find out your USDA hardiness zone by zip code. Hardiness determines whether things will overwinter. It is a life-long devastation, but I will never have perennial rosemary, wisteria, or artichokes. Never. While these lovely plants are perennial in California, Georgia, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, they will not overwinter at our zone 6b, 3,100 ft high farm. They can live only in the Mediterranean climate of my mind.

Key Words in Catalogs

  • Early- Yes, this means you’ll get an early crop. It also means this seed is probably more suitable for short season places like mine.
  • Heat-tolerant- This seed can grow outside its normal season. For example, heat-tolerant spinach will do alright in the summer at our farm without bolting.
  • Resistance- Many hybrid varieties are bred for their resistance to plant diseases. Check out the codes and descriptions if you have had specific disease problems like powdery mildew on cucumbers. If you have had mysterious, undiagnosed diseases, consult your local master gardener program next time!
  • Wildly Adapted- A variety that grows well in various climates.

Organic vs Conventional Seed

This is a matter of preference. Certified organic seed is sometimes more expensive, but in my experience, usually not by much. It won’t break the bank of a home gardener. If you do break the bank buying seed, call me. We can start a support group. 🙂

If you want to support organic seed growers, help reduce pesticide and herbicide use in agriculture, or you like the idea of eating something that is 100% organic from seed to table, buy organic seed.

Open-Pollinated vs Hybrid

At our farm, we use both open-pollinated and hybrid seed. Open-pollinated seed is the oldest way of breeding seed, and it was started to create seed (and plants) that are more uniform. In open pollination, a single variety is grown in isolation from other varieties so the resulting seeds are “true to form.” The new seeds should look, taste, and grow similarly to their parents and not have the characteristics of milkmen or interlopers.

Hybrid seed is an old, although more modern type of seed. Plant breeders choose plants from specific, different varieties and allow them to cross. The resulting seed is a mix of characteristics from both varietal parents. Hybridization allows breeders to choose flavor from one variety and disease resistance from another and create uniform seed (and plants.) Hybridization is not the same as genetic modification (GMO), which often adds genes from different species.

Heirloom

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Baker Creek’s wacky heirlooms.

Old, open-pollinated varieties that are basically unaltered since their original breeding are called heirloom. Many people prefer their taste over hybrids. They can have less disease resistance.

Treated Seed

When you open your seed packet, you might find some strange colored seed—often red or blue. Some seed is treated with antimicrobial or fungicidal chemicals to protect from pests and disease. Treated seed is not organic.

Your seed catalog will note whether seed is treated or not. If you decide to buy treated seed, do some research. Some treatments are in the neonicotinoid family of insecticides, which are very hard on pollinators.

Seeds have arrived!

Make sure you don’t lose all that precious knowledge! I write directly on packages important notes like “trellis” or “soak.” I also separate seeds into fall, spring and summer planting groups so they go in at the right time, even when I’m in a hurry.

I hope this post helps explain a few things about buying seed. If you have specific questions or topics you want me to write about, contact me at nellamaesfarm@gmail.com

Best to you all!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

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Many Thanks! 2015

IMG_2167 (1)This Thanksgiving I am so grateful for land, soil, sun, aquifer, plants and animals; for our customers, for local restaurants, and for the La Grande Farmers’ Market; for our new barn, irrigation system, hoop house, farmstand, and deer fence; and especially for my parents, family, friends, neighbors, fellow farmers, and my community who made all possible.

This year folks have often recognized the success of the farm and business and congratulated me on my hard work. I sure appreciate folks’ compliments, but want to make it very clear this farm is a community project, not a solo one. It would be false advertising to say otherwise.

One year ago this farm was a marginal pasture. Since then we have put in a road to the farm, an excellent well, brought in 10 loads of soil and manure IMG_2136for terraced beds, put up a hoop house, installed a drip irrigation system, built a deer fence, constructed a barn and farm kitchen, installed a septic system, built a farmstand, developed a farmers’ market stand, and moved our tiny house to the farm. If you think this could be done by a single person, you’re insane!

But in our country we highly value entrepreneurial spirit, fierce independence, and the idea that anyone can boot strap their way up–alone. Farming attracted me because it seemed to fit this narrative. I have always liked to work independently and for myself; to see my own ideas made real; to do things my way. Even as a tiny kid my favorite saying was, “I do it myself!” and I would. But that meant I was often wearing red cowgirl boots on the wrong feet.

10628893_743088832052_2173897599529740239_oEvery day of this growing season the independent boot strapping narrative was handily defeated by reality. Reality had only to roll its eyes, gesture at the work waiting in the fields that day and the boot straps would slink away to be chewed on by the dog. Many times a day I was calling on family, friends, friends of friends, neighbors, fellow growers, customers, and strangers (off and online) for advice, information, ideas, time, hands, strong backs. My mom was up working long days every day with me, planting, harvesting, weeding, pest controlling, back breaking. My dad and good friends and neighbors Sandy and Dick were basically on-call to help with everything from carpentry to weeding to irrigation blow outs to pest identification. My family, Michael and Chloe, spent every weekend at the farmers’ market with me. A few friends got random “help me I’m desperate for a tomato picker” calls and responded. Customers, friends, and strangers came out of the woodwork to help. Furthermore, I received a grant to construct the hoophouse and drip irrigation system from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and a low-interest loan from the Farm Services Agency to build the barn and septic system. In short, every structure, every plant, every idea on this farm and every dollar earned has the fingerprints of dozens of people in my family and community on it.red boots 2

This farm and this year have taught me to freely ask for help and advice, to ask questions and be open to suggestions in a way I never have been. I still have a long way to go. My independent nature made accepting help and asking for it a challenge. But my pride is easily overcome by the grounding, comfortable and joyful feeling of complete interconnectedness. It is shrunk by the deep feeling of safety and gratitude I have knowing I have access to well of friends, wisdom, help, and love. I’ve come to find out that being prideful and fiercely independent isn’t as great as getting things accomplished together and wearing your red boots on the right feet.