Winter bounty: Supporting local agriculture even when it’s cold

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These squashes all shine in wintry dishes. Image: Suzie’s Farm, Flickr

By Marie Orttenburger

The browned, frozen fields of the Midwest in winter don’t exactly call to mind visions of bounty.

But Minnesota writer Beth Dooley doesn’t want that to stop people from buying locally produced organic foods in the colder months. In fact, to her, doing so is a political action.

Dooley’s recently published book, “In Winter’s Kitchen,” turns the spotlight on locally sourced winter foods. At the core of the book, Dooley addresses the unsustainable methods of corporate commodity farming.

“We’re draining our aquifers in order to irrigate our fields for thirsty corn,” she said. “We’re using up our resources, our water, we’re destroying our land and we’re importing oil from unstable countries in order to be able to farm this way, and that doesn’t make any sense.”

Locally sourced food helps address that problem.  But people can forget about local agriculture when the ground freezes.

Dooley hopes to bring attention to the efforts in our region that support sustainable local farming throughout the entire year.

“The practices that the organic farmers use are so important to taking care of the soil,” Dooley said. “There’s a lot of really good work going on right now to help create resiliency in our region.”

Dooley’s book highlights the variety of foods available in winter and the innovations that make them possible.

Dooley’s book highlights a variety of winter foods produced in North America’s breadbasket

“It’s focusing on what’s working,” Dooley said. “I don’t think that’s lifted up enough.”

When the temperatures drop, people start to crave warm, hearty foods. That craving coincides with “what mother nature is providing us,” Dooley said.

Root vegetables and winter squash store well, making them last for months after harvest. Some even improve with time. Dooley said certain varieties of carrots sweeten during storage.

“They’re harvested before the frost,” said Dooley, “but as they’re stored, in usually sawdust or wrapped in newspaper, their carbohydrates sweeten over time. So they actually taste better in February than they do when they’re first harvested.”

Winter squashes like butternut squash, acorn squash, buttercup squash and more, are other foods that get better over time. They need to cure a bit; so storing them allows them to become drier and sweeter, Dooley said.

Of course there are also challenges. The shells of winter squash tend to harden in storage, making them difficult to cut into. But Dooley has tips for that too.

“You can stand on top of your car and drop it onto your driveway, that’s what works for me,” she joked. “I’ve had to take a cleaver or really good French knife and just whack at it. You have to use a little elbow grease, I’m afraid.”

But once the squash is broken up and the seeds removed, sticking it in the oven and letting the flesh soften makes it easier to work with, she said.

Hardy, storable produce isn’t all that a Midwest-based winter diet has to offer. With the help of certain technologies, farms can continue producing less-hardy leafy greens into the colder months.

Katie Brandt, a farmer at Groundswell Farm in Zeeland, Michigan, uses a hoop house, a tunnel-like structure made out of polyethylene that keeps soil and plants warm with solar radiation. It’s extended the farm’s growing season seven weeks into the early winter and has enabled her to plant four to five weeks earlier in spring, she said. It also allows the farm to support an 80-member winter CSA–or community-supported agriculture, which is an alternative way for individuals to buy local produce.

The hoop house supplements Groundswell’s stored crops, such as onions, garlic and potatoes, with salad greens, spinach, lettuce, radishes and cilantro, Brandt said.

Hydroponics and aquaponics are other sustainable technologies that can extend the growing season for Midwest farmers, if they choose to farm indoors. Hydroponics is farming without soil, using only water and nutrient mixtures instead. Aquaponics is the combination of hydroponics and aquaculture, using the nutrients from fish waste to feed the plants.

“[Aquaponics] can be operated indoors with the use of artificial light,” said Bob Miller, vice president of Pentair, a water management company that partnered with Minnesota’s Urban Organics to create an indoor aquaponics system. “This makes it a viable year-round option for farmers in climates that may have a shortened growing season, including the Midwest.”

Most commonly, aquaponics systems are used to farm leafy greens like lettuce and herbs like basil, Miller said. But they are capable of producing more than 250 varieties of vegetables, and can even grow fruit. Simultaneously, farmers can grow tilapia, hybrid striped bass, koi, catfish and salmon.

Urban Organics set up its system in the old Hamm’s Brewery in Saint Paul, Minnesota. There, they grow different varieties of chard, kale and herbs.

The bottom line for Dooley is that a locally sourced diet in the seemingly barren winter is totally possible–and important.

Dooley doesn’t have any delusions about eliminating big agriculture. But she believes that small efforts to support sustainable agriculture, like remembering your local organic farms in the winter, can make a difference.

“I’m not saying that Monsanto is going to collapse any time soon or that Cargill is going to collapse any time soon,” Dooley said. “What I’m saying is that we need to look at the practices that have tremendous integrity and are showing us different ways to be.”

Aware of the availability of local food in winter, and the fun that comes with preparing it, promotes sustainable growing practices, Dooley said.

“I grew up in a time where our mantra was ‘the personal is political,’” Dooley said, “and I think people forget that. We forget how much power we have as consumers and as voters.”

You can purchase Beth Dooley’s “In Winter’s Kitchen” online on Amazon.com or at your local bookstore.

Win a copy of Beth Dooley’s “In Winter’s Kitchen”

Submit your favorite winter recipe that uses as many local ingredients as possible, along with one to two sentences about why you chose to include it. We’ll add it in the slider below for later publication.

All entries will be placed in a drawing. The winning entry will receive a free copy of Beth Dooley’s “In Winter’s Kitchen.”

The rules are simple: think winter. What kinds of foods do you crave when it’s cold out? Soups, stews, bakes and roasts are all fair game, as are any other wintry dinners or desserts that come to mind. Pick recipes that are filled with locally sourced foods.

Possible ingredients: parsnips, rutabaga, potato, carrots, any of the winter squashes, beets, cabbage, sweet potatoes, cranberries, apples, chestnuts, milk, honey, butter, wheat, local meats and more.

Send your entries to greatlakesecho@gmail.com with the subject line “Winter Recipe Contest.”

  • herbed acorn squash bisque

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