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Archive for March, 2013

California Climate and Agriculture Network Farm Field Day

Earl’s Organic sponsored the Soil Building, Water, Biodiversity and Climate Change Farm Field Day, part of the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) Farming For The Future 2013 Summit February 20-21 at UC Davis. UC Davis was originally designed as a farm school and students were called “aggies”. I am an aggie and was very excited to be back visiting my alma mater.

CalCAN is a coalition that works to advance policies to support California agriculture in the face of climate change. They advocate that agriculture can play a proactive role in responding to the climate crisis by reducing its carbon footprint and thus helping to ensure the long-term viability and security of our food and farming system.  Retrieved from http://www.calclimateag.org

One third of global CO2 emissions come from agriculture and land use changes such as forest clearing. Fertilizer applications account for most all of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions (a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2), and agriculture contributes two-thirds of all methane emissions (25 times more potent than CO2). California, with a huge agricultural economy is the twelfth largest producer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world, and agriculture is responsible for six percent of GHG emissions in California, according to the Scoping Plan pursuant to California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32).  Retrieved from http://www.calclimateag.org

I personally love growing vegetables on my small front porch but I didn’t have an intricate knowledge and understanding of the essential roles nitrogen and carbon play in the growing process.  Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients for crop growth and carbon is needed to increase crop productivity and enhance soil and water quality.  However if there is too much nitrogen and carbon released into the atmosphere this can cause a greenhouse effect we all know as global warming.

While at UCD we toured 2 working farms and a research facility where we witnessed how agriculture practices can affect climate change and what farmers and researchers are doing to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

Farmers use many techniques to slow down the effects of climate change including cover crops, composting, planting trees and reducing synthetic fertilizer use and tillage. These techniques can help store large amounts of greenhouse gases in the ground, potentially reducing the growth of GHG levels and at the same time improve water quality, increase soil fertility and agricultural productivity. We were able to see some of these practices at work as we began our tour.

We started at The UC Davis Student Farm where Mark Van Horn, Student Farm Director, showed us both the student Market and Ecological farms. The students sell the produce grown on the Market farm at farmers markets and the UCD Coffee House to raise funds for the Market production.  The farms are certified organic and focus on teaching a wide diversity of skills year round including direct seeding and transplanting of crops, growing transplants in the greenhouse, field preparation, irrigation, cultivation, pest management, harvesting, packing and marketing.  They have an average of about 150 students which fluctuates based on the season. The Ecological garden is a half-acre with flowers, vegetables, herbs, fruit trees and chickens. It provides an opportunity to teach students, grade school students and adult visitors about ecological horticulture.

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Nodules on nitrogen producing plants

Both farms use compost and cover crops to improve the quality of the soil.  Compost contains nutrients not found in synthetic fertilizers which can improve plant health and growth. It also helps improve water drainage and holding capacity and reduces erosion.  A huge pile of compost largely consisting of sheep manure borders the Market garden.  The compost, rich in organic matter, has to be kept at a minimum of 130 degrees for a specific amount of days in order to be used on the fields. (pic)

Cover crops are used to improve nitrogen content in the soil, contain weeds, protect soil from runoff and suppress soil diseases and pests. Nitrogen is vital for plants but most nitrogen is available only in gas form which most plants can’t use.  Cover crops, such as legumes are used because they can take the nitrogen from the air and store it in their roots. Nitrogen fixing plants need help from Rhizobium, a bacteria that affects legume plants, in order to take in the nitrogen and store it. The nitrogen causes lumps on the roots to form called nitrogen nodules.  Only a little nitrogen goes into the soil while the cover crops are growing but when they die the stored nitrogen is release into the soil rather than the atmosphere. Mark pulled up some legumes to show us the nodules in the roots where nitrogen is contained. (pic)

Our second stop was Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility with over 300 acres dedicated to agriculture research in a Mediterranean climate.  Their largest and longest research project is a 100 year old study started in 1993 to measure the long-term impacts of crop rotation farming systems and the inputs of water and nitrogen on agriculture sustainability.  There are 72 one acre plots with a mix of conventional, hybrid(conventional with cover crops) and organic systems.  The crops include alfalfa, corn, native grasses, tomato, wheat and sunflowers. The researchers and students measure crop yields, crop nutrient levels, soil quality, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and economic returns for each plot. One of the largest questions is “Can we increase our sustainability as we increase our food production?”

Click here for a short video of Russell Ranch.

Another study at Russell Ranch investigates the impact of biochar applications on soil carbon, soil microbiology and greenhouse gas emissions.  Biochar is charcoal that is used for agricultural purposes and is a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil for a long time. It is made from organic biomass such as manure, wood or agricultural byproducts. It is spread on the fields and then worked into the soil to help increase crop yields, help to prevent fertilizer runoff and leaching, replenish soil with organic carbon, and encourage the growth of soil microbes essential for nutrient absorption.

Click here if you are interested in learning more about how biochar is produced.

Our last stop was Sierra Orchards, a 450 acre organic walnut orchard started in 1980 in Winters, CA right next to Davis.  Originally, 325 acres of the land grew tomatoes until 1997 when the walnut trees were planted.  Craig McNamara, owner, farmer and environmentalist, uses sustainable practices in all aspects of the farm.  Over half of the fertilizer is derived from cover crops and the rest is from compost. He doesn’t use tillage, has planted hedge rows to create a habitat for pollinators and uses drip irrigation which is the most effective way to conserve water. He wants to have the type of agriculture that positively impacts people who farm, the planet, and farm profitability.

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Craig McNamara from Sierra Orchards in Winters, CA

Putah Creek nearby is an important part of the conservation efforts on the farm.  Recently they have narrowed and deepened the creek to make a faster rushing stream. Ideally they would like this to be a place for migrating fish like salmon.  His goal is to work with nature; Craig says “farmers just want best management practices”.

Sierra Orchards is also a state wide center for land based learning with over 2000 students and 5000 visitors a year. He wants the next generation to be well versed in sustainability so they share what they have learned and have a deep connection to the land.

While numerous farmers, academics, and policy makers have made huge strides in recent years in discovering new techniques for reducing the GHG impact of agricultural production, there is much work still to be done.  The question still remains: How can we disseminate these larger techniques into large scale commercial agriculture to ensure the long term viability of our food systems and reduce the environmental impact of the agriculture industry?  There is no easy answer but I have never met a group of people more dedicated to coming up with ways to solve the problem.

Earl’s Announces the Launch of its Formal Sustainability Program

Organicology LogoWhile representatives from Earl’s sales department met with customers, vendors, and fellow distributors at the Organicology conference in Portland, Kathy met with sustainability coordinators from various organic food businesses at an intensive seminar, Sustainability 101, hosted by the Sustainable Food Trade Association (SFTA). SFTA is a non-profit trade association and community of food related businesses that works to expand the understanding and use of sustainable business practices within the organic food trade. SFTA works with its members to facilitate the creation of sustainability strategies, performance benchmarking, the collaboration and sharing of best practices, and the of spread knowledge and information through webinars and workshops.

Earl’s Organic has long been committed to sustainability; for years we have been composting and recycling, purchasing recycled paper and recycled office supplies whenever possible, using only non toxic cleaning supplies, purchasing all organic cotton company apparel, reusing pallets,  and participating in the market corporation’s green team. In 2013, however, Earl’s decided the company needed to take its commitment to sustainability to the next level and create a formalized sustainability program and method for tracking its progress and performance.

Kathy’s background in sustainability leadership made her a suitable candidate to coordinate the project and she has since been tasked with working with the SFTA to create a formal sustainability program, convene and direct an internal sustainability team, begin to track and record Earl’s Organics’ usage metrics, write Earl’s first annual sustainability report, and manage projects to reduce the environmental impact of our office and warehouse operations.

Since the New Year Earl’s has already made strides towards greening our office and warehouse operations. We have made significant upgrades to our internal composting and recycling programs in attempt to increase our waste diversion rate and make progress towards our goal of operating a zero waste facility. In addition, we began working with the San Francisco Water Department as part of their pilot program to test the viability of turning anaerobically digested food scraps into energy. As a result, in addition to reducing food waste, this project is sequestering carbon and methane gases (two powerful green house gases emitted during the normal composting process) and producing a source of renewable energy. Furthermore, we are working with our landlord, the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market Corporation, to construct a parklet in Earl’s parking lot to increase the publically available green space for employees to use and enjoy.

Kathy

Kathy will soon begin recruiting fellow Earl’s employees to join her sustainability team. The team will be comprised of a diverse array of employees from each department who can assist with the collection of usage metrics, set department goals, and advocate for and implement intradepartmental improvements. Earl’s will use its metrics to produce an annual sustainability report outlining our annual environmental impact, demonstrating our monthly and annual progress, and identifying areas for future improvement. Through this process Earl’s aims to become more conscientious of the impact our operations have on our employees, our customers and vendors, and our community and the environment and to use this understanding  to manage our progress towards our long term environmental goals.

California Asparagus Is Here!

California asparagus is here at Earl’s! We have been eagerly awaiting the beautiful bunches of green stalks with purple tinged tips. Whether you grill, steam, stir fry or gently peel for a spring salad, asparagus is delicious.

CVP Asparagus seaonal eats

Our California asparagus comes from Coastal View Produce a 3rd generation Violini family farm located in Gonzales, CA in the heart of the Salinas Valley, who has been growing high-quality organic asparagus for over 30 years.  Brian Violini’s Grandfather was a Swiss immigrant who started a new life in the fertile Salinas Valley.  “I can remember being 10 years old and pulling weeds and moving sprinklers for my grandfather,” says Brian Violini, who now runs Coastal View Produce with his brother. “We’ve had this farm for three generations. My grandfather started with a dairy and then moved into farming. My dad and my uncle ran the farm after him, and now it’s me and my brother. Farming, it’s all we know.”

 

California Asparagus Is Here!

California asparagus is here at Earl’s! We have been eagerly awaiting the beautiful bunches of green stalks with purple tinged tips. Whether you grill, steam, stir fry or gently peel for a spring salad, asparagus is delicious.

CVP Asparagus

Our California asparagus comes from Coastal View Produce a 3rd generation Violini family farm located in Gonzales, CA in the heart of the Salinas Valley, who has been growing high-quality organic asparagus for over 30 years.  Brian Violini’s Grandfather was a Swiss immigrant who started a new life in the fertile Salinas Valley.  “I can remember being 10 years old and pulling weeds and moving sprinklers for my grandfather,” says Brian Violini, who now runs Coastal View Produce with his brother. “We’ve had this farm for three generations. My grandfather started with a dairy and then moved into farming. My dad and my uncle ran the farm after him, and now it’s me and my brother. Farming, it’s all we know.”

California produces over 70 percent of the nation’s fresh market asparagus with over 20,000 acres, followed by Michigan and Washington. The height of the season in California runs from March to June.  California asparagus is mainly grown at the confluence of California’s two greatest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, in the rich peat of the delta lands an hour south of Sacramento. Salinas Valley, the Central Coast, Coachella-Imperial Valley area and Santa Barbara County are also considered prime growing areas. Asparagus was originally planted in the delta region in 1852 but the interest in growing asparagus commercially wasn’t until the early 1900’s.

Asparagus is a perennial crop producing year after year. The crowns are planted in long beds deep in the ground.  New hybrid varieties can produce for a few weeks after a year in the ground and older varieties may take up to 3 years to produce. Once the plant is established it can produce for 10 years or longer. The stalks only turn green when they are exposed to the sun and develop chlorophyll.  White asparagus is covered with mounds of sand so they are never exposed to the sun and is said to have a milder flavor than green asparagus.  As the weather warms, a single asparagus spear can grow anywhere from 6 to 10 inches in a single day.

The field workers tediously cut asparagus spears by hand with a special razor sharp curved knife, laying them at the end of the rows to be picked up later.  Once the asparagus are done being harvested for the season they go to fern, the tips turn feathery, which allows the plants to transfer carbohydrates and energy to the roots by photosynthesis and to store nutrients in the crowns.

The size of the spears comes from the age of the plant. The youngest plants produce the skinny stalks and the thicker spears from older plants are sweeter and juicier because they contain higher levels of carbohydrates. Look for bright solid spears with no blemishes, firm tightly closed tips and avoid wilted looking stalks. Choose bunches with freshly cut ends and take a quick sniff, asparagus should have a fresh grassy smell with no odor of rot.

Try to eat them as soon as you buy them but they can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator.  Place them upright in the refrigerator in a dish of water or wrap a damp paper towel around the base and secure with a rubber band before storing in a plastic bag in your vegetable bin.

When you’re ready to eat them, snap or cut off the woody white portion at the bottom end of the asparagus. They’re perfect coated with olive oil and roasted, which leaves them firmer, nuttier and sweeter than steaming.  Asparagus is high vitamin C and K and folic acid and contain less than 50 calories per 6 oz serving.  Click here for recipes.

If you have ever had strange side effects, from eating asparagus it is because of the high levels of asparagusic acid, volatile organic compounds, including forms of sulfur, which are metabolized and then passed very quickly, in as little as 15 minutes, into the urine.  Retrieved from Field Guide to California Agriculture by Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin.

Also check out California’s largest asparagus festival in Stockton on April 26th-28th

Anaheim, Jalapeno and Poblano chile peppers on special!

Earl’s has anaheim, jalapeno and poblano chile peppers from Covilli in Guaymas, Mexico on special this week and next!

Anaheim chilies are mild. Try roasting and peeling them to bring out their flavor. Anaheims are about 6 inches long on average which makes them perfect for stuffing.  They are delicious stuffed with cheese.

Anaheim Chilies

Anaheim Chilies

Jalapenos are one of the most common chilies and easy to find.  They are about 2 inches long with a medium heat. If you like your dishes spicy you might want to add a bit more than the recipe calls for.  Smoked dried jalapenos are called chipotles.

Jalapeno

Jalapenos

Poblano chilies have a lot of flavor and although usually mild you can sometimes get a hot one.  They are great in soups and sauces and in dried form they are called ancho chilies. Ancho means wide or broad, perfectly describing the shape of the chili.

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Poblanos

 

 

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