Who Grew Your Food: Specca Farm

There is this farm stand on Rt. 206, on the Southbound side and anyone who lives south of the Columbus Market, or uses Rt. 206 to and from the shore, know it: The Corn Stop.  It has been there as long as I can remember. Last weekend, I was teaching a class and needed some peaches for a recipe I was making, so I went there so I could at least get something local.  The woman behind the counter was wearing a Specca Farm shirt so asked where the farm was and when she told me, I remembered why I knew the name.  Many years ago, I took my children strawberry picking there.  They are located just outside of Mt. Holly, NJ and grow very fine produce.

Later in the week, I had the opportunity to talk to Lisa Specca about the farm.  Her husband’s grandfather, Romeo Specca came from Italy after World War I and started work in this country as a gardener.  After some time, he was able to purchase some land in Philadelphia (where Franklin Mills Mall is today!) and begin his farming career.  In 1958, when his property was purchased to make way for the great new North-South Interstate 95, he purchased land in Burlington County, New Jersey, and founded the Specca Farm we know today.  His son David continued the farm and passed it on to his son, David (that’s David II), who runs the farm with his wife Lisa and their children, David (that’s III) and Steven.

The farm began as many in NJ, as a truck farm, taking produce into Philadelphia markets.  David I began the “U-Pick” as a side business that gained popularity over the decades.  They are not open all summer.  The crops they grow for U-Pick are not harvested all summer, so for example, right now, in July, they are closed.  In the early spring they open for a variety of greens, including Broccoli Rabe, of which they have four varieties, each with its own fan-base.  Later in the Spring they have strawberries.

They open again in late summer, mid-August, which is really when the harvest in New Jersey kicks into high gear.  Tomatoes and cucumbers are peaking, okra and green beans are plentiful.  And they stay open until Christmas allowing for the wonderful fall vegetables NJ has to offer, like cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower that all thrive in the cooler temperatures of autumn.

The farm is a conventional grower because they are not yet able to produce enough compost and manure to use as fertilizer in their fields.  They use an IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that includes minimal spray, and only sprays that are labeled “Next Day Harvest”.  David II’s off-farm work at the Burlington County Eco-Complex keeps him well aware of the environmental issues facing our county and holds land stewardship as a high priority.

What does The Corn Stop have to do with any of this?  Well, when the previous owner retired, and the business became available, the Speccas decided to give retail a try.  Lisa is excited about the new opportunity.  The Corn Stop is not selling exclusively Specca Farm produce, but produce from a variety of sources in order to provide more variety in what they have to offer.  If it can be grown locally, and is in season right now, The Corn Stop has it.

If you want more information about the U-Pick, you can check out Specca Farms on Facebook.  Not into Facebook?  You can call them at 609/267-4445 and listen to a recording of what will be available for U-Pick.

Living La Vita Locale 7/12: Peaches

Ok, FINE! I’ll give Georgia THEIR peaches, because if you live in Georgia, and can get those gems tree-ripened, they are wonderful.  But in mid-July in New Jersey? It is all about the Jersey peach, especially white peaches that squirt juice all over when you bite them.  We like to pick peaches at the same orchard where we pick our apples, Strawberry Hill.  We bring home about a bushel of peaches and I can some, and lacto-ferment some, and dry some, and make fruit leather out of some.  And yes, we eat the rest of them: peach cobbler, yogurt with peaches, or even just a plain peach as a snack.  While I will buy “bump-and-dent” tomatoes to can into sauce (because sometimes I do not get enough tomatoes from my garden even with what is supplemented by the CSA share), I will not skimp on peaches.   They must be perfect specimens and perfectly ripe.

Peaches are number two on the list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods as defined by the Environmental Working Group.  Because they are fuzzy, peach skins retain much of the topical fungicides and pesticides that farmers spray on the fruit.  And because they are fuzzy, it is nearly impossible to get all of the chemicals washed off of the fruit.  And it is very difficult to grow a soft fruit that is susceptible to a plethora of pests and fungi without the use of chemicals.  That is why organic peaches are hard to come by. Additionally, with peaches being publicized as part of the “Dirty Dozen” more people are choosing organic over conventional.  This is why organic peaches are so expensive.

Of course I went in search of a local organic orchard!  Did I find one?  Yes.  But they did not grown peaches.  As a matter of fact, I could not find one local organic peach.  Not one.  The organic orchard I found only grew organic apples — the soft fruit orchards were on another property they owned about a mile down the road, and were not organic.  They, like Strawberry Hill, use IPM (Integrated Pest Management) system that minimizes the use of chemicals.  They do not use antibiotics (Yes! There are some pesticides that are antibiotics!), they release lady bugs and parasitic wasps to manage insect pests, but they do have to spray sometimes. Usually fungicide, and usually when it has been very wet.  My advice is to call the orchard and ask questions.  Most farmers and orchardists will be very happy to talk to you — they will be surprised that you are interested.  So while Strawberry Hill is a conventional orchard, I still buy fruit there because I feel that their practices are environmentally sound.

The absolute easiest thing to do with peaches is to lacto-ferment them.  Lacto-fermenting fruit can be a little tricky because the ferment can go “boozy” very quickly.  This is one I check about every 12 hours.  As soon as you feel a little effervescence on your tongue, it is time for this to go into the fridge!

Lacto-Fermented Peaches

2-3 ripe peaches, peeled and cut into chunks catching as much juice as possible

1/2 C fresh berries (blackberries and blueberries are usually coming in around the same time as the peaches)

1/4 C cilantro leaves

1 T salt

In a scrupulously clean quart jar, combine all of the ingredients.  Secure the lid and shake the jar until all of the ingredients are combined and the peaches and berries are broken up.  Leave this on your counter for 1-2 days, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  This needs to be stored in the refrigerator, below 42° F.

This is delicious as is, or mixed with fresh chopped tomatoes and sweet onions as a salsa, spooned over grilled fish or chicken, or blended with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil for salad dressing.

Not a fan of cilantro? Try some basil instead.  Don’t have blackberries?  Use strawberries.  This is just as wonderful without the berries.  If you want an amazing topping for ice-cream, leave out the herbs!  Have fun experimenting.  If you come up with a new combination, please share it in the Comments!

Living La Vita Locale 5/30: Salad greens

What’s fresh at the market this week? Salad greens, kale, collards, and spinach. If you are new to eating seasonally, treasure these greens now, because once high summer hits, the baby greens and cool weather lettuce are done. Granted their place is taken with other greens and lettuces, but these sweet greens of spring and early summer are truly delightful.

Salads are great, and dressing is really easy to make, like Basil Vinegrette, but how about something that elevates these greens to main dish status?

Asian Burgers with Greens

1 lb. ground beef (100% pastured is best), preferably 85% lean

¼ C Mirin

¼ C soy sauce

2 T rice wine vinegar

1 t brown sugar

½ t black pepper

1 clove of garlic, crushed and finely minced

½” piece of ginger, grated

Mix all of these ingredients thoroughly and let rest in the refrigerator for at least three hours, or overnight.

In a small food processor, or single-serve smoothie blender combine the following:

½ C olive oil

¼ rice wine vinegar

2 T soy sauce

1 t sugar

½” piece of ginger, finely grated

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

Blend until smooth. Open the container and taste the dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste. This can be made up to a week in advance. Refrigerate until you are ready to use it.

Heat the grill to medium hot. Make four patties from the ground meat mixture.

Before you put the meat on the grill, mix some greens together in a bowl. You can use any combination. At the Collingswood Farmer’s Market this week, there were a variety of lettuces and spring mixes, and at the Fernbrook Farm CSA, shareholders received lettuce and kale. From my garden, I thinned my beet patch, so I have baby beet greens. You could slice bok choy. Include a variety for texture and taste. Mix the greens with the ginger dressing and let it sit until you finish grilling the meat. The dressing will wilt the greens.

Grill the burgers to the desired doneness. Plate the burger on a bed of greens.

Living “La Vita Locale”

This summer I will be engaging in a new endeavor on my blog, “La Vita Locale” that will feature recipes for produce that is currently available in local farmer’s markets and my Community Supported Agriculture farm, Fernbrook Farm CSA. Some posts will include links to prior posts (why reinvent the wheel, right?) in order to give you the most options for your produce.

One of the projects I sometimes give my students when I teach the Politics of Food unit is to go grocery shopping with a parent and look for a list of items at a grocery store and a farmer’s market. The discussion we have after they do this activity is always compelling because they realize that phrases like “Fresh baked on Premises” does not mean made from scratch with whole foods ingredients. Baked on premises only means that they defrosted a pie and stuck it in the oven, baked it, let it cool, and put it in a box. They learn that the produce at some Farmer’s “markets” comes from Florida and California. There is nothing wrong with a store selling fruits and veggies from other states, but when there are “Jersey Fresh” banners festooning the market from one end to the other, there is an implication that the food is local. News flash: Oranges don’t grow in New Jersey. Neither do avocados.

The students soon come to realize that there are farmer’s markets and then there are Farmer’s Markets. The ones we have relegated to lower case “fm” are the ones where maybe 10% of what they have for sale is actually produced by the company or farm that is selling it. We understand that a farm may not bottle its own honey, or make its own salsa, and maybe they get those value-added products from another local source, but those things usually aren’t the bulk of what is available in the farm shop. How do you know what the farm actually grows? If it isn’t labeled “Smith Farm’s Own” or something like that, just ask. With the amount of publicity food is getting lately, with this big emphasis on “Fresh & Local,” it has become ever more important to ask questions, read labels, and not just take for granted that if the produce for sale is presented in a little basket that it came from a local farm source.

Then there are real Farmer’s Markets, like The Collingswood Farmer’s Market that I had the pleasure of visiting yesterday with my friend Cathy. On Saturday mornings, farmer’s come in and set up tables and sell produce.  This is one way to eat lower on the commodity chain: fewer steps between the producer/farmer and the consumer — you! Yesterday at the market I saw a lot of asparagus. It happens to be a great year for asparagus – we have been eating asparagus from our patch 2 or 3 times a week for the past few weeks. I didn’t buy any. But I did get wonderful organic strawberries from DanLynn Farms. My strawberries are just blushing, so I was pretty excited to have strawberries (and so were my children!). I also picked up amazing fresh mushrooms from Davidson’s Exotic Mushrooms. Most mushrooms from the grocery store are dried out, but until you have had a freshly harvested mushroom, you wouldn’t even know the difference.

photo 3But the fun story of the morning was running into a former Triton student, April, at the Treehouse Coffee Shop’s booth. They featured fresh-made lemonade (like right in front of my face) and a wide variety of baked goods, including a really excellent gluten-free brownie. They also carry salsa and jams produced by people in the community. The Treehouse is located in Audubon, NJ and hosts the Our Yards Farm CSA, which is run by Julie, a “graduate” of the apprentice program at my CSA! I love how small the world can be!

Back to those mushrooms! We were having grilled lamb, so we sautéed the mushrooms to serve along side:

  • 2 T butter
  • 1 pint of mushrooms
  • 1 T chopped shallot
  • 2-3 T white wine
  • 1 t chopped fresh sage
  • salt to taste

Cut the mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Heat a cast iron skillet and melt the butter over medium heat. Add chopped shallot and cook until it is translucent. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they are golden. Deglaze the pan with the white wine. When the pan is dry, turn off the heat. Toss with chopped fresh sage. Salt to taste.

Food Disconnect

Fanny Burney, our camera hound
Fanny Burney, our camera hound

Student: “What kind of eggs do your chickens lay?”

Me: “Brown.”

Student: “No.  I mean are they the kind of eggs that you eat, or the kind that turn into chicks?”

Me: “Well, we don’t have a rooster, so they won’t turn into chicks.”

Student: “Oh.  Roosters lay the eggs that turn into chicks.  I didn’t know that.”

Me: “Uh, no.”

Yes, that is an actual conversation that took place in my classroom not too long ago.  And while I was laughing (and so was the student after an explanation), it made me very sad that so many people are so disconnected from their food. So I ventured a question to them, “Where does your food come from?”  The answers?  They varied, but they were all fast food places.

If someone asked my children that question they would tell you, “a farm.”  I’m glad that they know this; that we have the privilege of being able to go to the farms and buy our food direct from the farmers.  What strikes me is that my family is a minority, and it is a paradox – as food delivery and technology advances, we go out of our way to bypass the advances in order to get better food because the “advances” are actually a degradation.

Industrial food has created a system that creates distance between the food source and the consumer.  The more steps between, the more people can profit from the same item.  Economics really does drive our culture.  America took the success of Henry Ford’s car production and applied it wherever she could – to the food industry, to the medical/pharmaceutical industry, and now to education.  One size fits all and the faster and cheaper we get it to market, the better it is for everyone.

Everyone is going to college, or deserves the chance, or must because there are no more manual labor jobs available.  OK, I’m going to state the obvious: Not everyone is smart enough to go to college.  Stupid people do exist.  And you know what else?  Some people don’t want to go to college.  And manual labor jobs do exist, we’ve just become too elitist to think that anyone would want to do them.  Or we’ve out-sourced it because that is less expensive.  Or we created a system that doesn’t allow for us to see them.  And what irks me is that the colleges, especially the for-profits and community colleges, really do want all of these students to attend.  Why?  It doesn’t matter if the student passes or fails, as long as the college gets paid.

But then there is my friend Terry.  She decided not to go to college and become a nurse.  Rather she became an apprentice on a farm.  And two years later, she is happily working on a farm.  Outside in the fresh air.  And she told me that she could not imagine smelling hospital every day.  She is content.  And while the manager at my CSA did go to college, he was an English major, not a botanist, or a biologist, or an Ag major.

In a sense, this applies to the food system.  For the corporate public, it doesn’t matter if the food is good or just mediocre, or void of any nutritional value, as long as people are making money! That underpaid laborers are processing meat products is of no matter as long as the food remains cheap, which is all that seems to matter to the general public.  While we still teach children to sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm, we don’t teach them that the pig, with his oink, oink here and there, is also the bacon on that bacon cheeseburger.  When I suggested to my students that a steer they ooh’ed and ahh’d at because it was so cute might end up in a taco, they flipped out.  I was being too harsh.

Really?

But this is exactly what corporate industrial food desires – a complete disconnect between the meat on the hoof and the meat we eat.  Corporate food wants a consumer that doesn’t know that all eggs could be chicks if they were fertile and incubated.  This is the paradox: everyone has to go to college in order to be kept stupid and indoctrinated into the idea of corporate busy, so that we perceive ourselves as not having time to prepare foods for ourselves, or go to the farms and buy direct from the farmer.   My generation started our children on this pretty young.  I remember sitting at a pre-schoolers’ Halloween party, listening to the parents discuss the myriad of activities in which their children participated: gymnastics, dance, karate, swimming, soccer, T-ball, cheerleading, art, music, Mommy and Me Yoga, Daddy and Me Spanish.  During the pre-school years, my kids participated in dinner with Mommy and Daddy, every night between 5:30 and 6:30, followed by a game of See How Much Water We Can Get OUT of the Tub Before Our Bath Time is Over.  I was really freaked out that kids had four or five activities at the age of 3 or 4.  No wonder these mothers were ready to have nervous breakdowns – they worked a 40 hour week and then ran around for another two or three hours a day taking the children to different activities.  Why?  What is the point?  One mom told me so that her son could get into a better college.  I thought, ‘I never heard of a college checking into pre-school activities.’  And for the benefit of the child? Who remembers what she did when she was 4 by the time she is 7?

But by 12, she is indoctrinated into the busy mindset.  And this is what keeps many Americans dependent on fast/convenience foods.  Dinner is not something to eat at a table with utensils, it is something eaten in a car with fingers.

Fertile and incubated ideas can produce change, so educate the next generation to see food from source to table, and make informed decisions.  Break the perception of what corporate America deems is necessary, and make decisions based on what you need.  And when someone says, “A rooster lays an egg on the roof of the barn.  The roof has an equal pitch of 45° on either side.  Which side of the roof will the egg roll down if the wind is blowing ESE at 15 MPH?”, you will know that the correct reply is, “Roosters don’t lay eggs.”