November 16, 2011

No sweetness in this honey.

 For me, honey brings to mind images of busy bees, hungry Pooh Bears, and warm whiskey-tea drinks. Lately, honey has been in the news for lacking the one ingredient that makes honey certifiably honey: pollen. Food Safety News researched the current state of honey by testing sixty varieties of honey found easily in grocery stores, restaurants, big box stores, and pharmacies. The results showed that 76% of grocery store samples, 100% of drugstore samples, 77% of big box stores samples, and 100% of individually packaged honey samples had no pollen.

Honey becomes pollen-less through ultra-filtration. In this process, honey is heated, diluted, and forced through small filters to remove the pollen. This process is costly, degrades the quality of the honey, and does nothing to improve shelf-life. So why remove the pollen? Without pollen, the source of the honey is untraceable. When you cannot source the honey from it's originating country, then no one is to blame when contaminants such as antibiotics and lead are found. Furthermore, this allows the illegal importation of Chinese honey into US markets. In 2001, a tariff and tax was placed on Chinese honey to protect American bee-keepers from going out of business since Chinese honey was considerably cheaper. This led to producers finding other means of getting honey into the US markets, such as importing through other countries.

While the FDA says that honey without pollen is not actually honey, it doesn't test imported honey for pollen or alterations (such as diluting the honey or using corn syrup to make honey-like syrups to be sold as honey). Ten years ago, contaminated Chinese honey was found coming in from Canada, but even this has not driven the FDA to create national guidelines and testing procedures. Despite cries from the American honey industry and senators such as New York's Charles Schumer, the FDA doesn't plan to do anything more than they're doing now.

Honey is still safe to consume and an excellent addition to tea, but understanding the source of your honey can be challenging to near impossible. If having pollen in your honey is important, then make sure to know the source of your honey by purchasing directly from bee-keepers (check your farmers market or local co-op) or reading bottle labels. Chances are the Pooh Bear shaped honey bottle won't have pollen in it, though it'll probably be cheaper. 

Oh, and can eating local honey help reduce allergies? This study out of the University of Connecticut Health Center tested this idea by taking three groups of allergy suffers and having one consume local honey, the next commercial honey, and the last placebo honey. Those eating the true honey had no noticeable reduction in allergy symptoms compared to the other groups. This makes sense since allergies are caused by wind-borne pollen particles that bees don't collect ... otherwise wind-borne pollen wouldn't need to be blown about by the wind!

November 6, 2011

Politics in Maple Sugar.

I must admit, I'm not a huge fan of maple syrup. As a child I much preferred the sugary maple syrup substitutes to slather on my pancakes. With time I've come to appreciate the flavor and nuances of maple syrup, and as a horticulturalist I'm interested in the process behind consuming a tree's xylem sap as a sugary confection.

Typical maple leaf
A plant has two plumbing systems to move nutrients and water around. In general, the xylem moves water and nutrients up from the roots to the leaves. Phloem moves the carbohydrates produced from photosynthesis down and around the plant to places in need of sugars such as growing buds, developing fruit, and young leaves. In general these two systems work side by side to help the tree grow and function properly. When the winter comes, extra carbohydrates are drained from the tree tops and moved into the roots for storage. These extra carbohydrates will provide a much needed boost to get things going when spring comes.

Harvesting maple syrup
Harvesting maple syrup occurs in the early spring when a tree first begins to move sap upwards to the buds. Holes are bore into the trunk of a tree and a collecting apparatus - either a bucket or bag - is attached to the end of a spigot that helps the syrup flow outwards. In this way, a single tree can produce up to 3.2 gallons a day and 9-13 gallons in one four to eight week season. The sap contains mostly sucrose, water, and different mineral nutrients such as potassium, calcium, zinc and manganese.

Once the sap is harvested, it must be boiled to concentrate the flavor and create the syrup. This process takes a long time and a lot of equipment depending on how fancy you want to be. In general, 5-13 gallons of sap will produce about .26 gallons of syrup. After concentration, the syrup must be filtered to remove sugar crystals and is then bottled and graded.

Three Grade A, darkest Grade B
Grading is an interesting procedure, and the grade values of the syrups we eat are about to change. Currently in the US, there are Grade A and Grade B syrups. Grade A tends to have a more mild flavor and lighter color, while Grade B has a darker color and more intense maple flavor. The grading system favors a more sugary, less maple like product - a situation that true maple aficionados don't like. In the early pioneer days, maple sugar was initially valued for making sugar. Maple sugar was more accessible and cheaper than sugar from sugar cane imported from the West Indies. Eventually sugar cane came to dominate the market, so maple growers shifted the focus from sugar to syrup. The preference for lightly flavored and colored sugary syrups dominated, which meant that it was easy to create syrups with additives that looked and tasted like the real thing. In 1906 a law was passed to maintain that maple syrup labeled as such remain only syrup from maples. Grading works off colors according to these early preferences with lighter, clearer syrups maintaining the highest Grade A, and dark, more opaque syrups landing as Grade B. Grade B tends to be cheaper because of it's lower standard, but Grade B also has a more intense maple flavor that is cherished and sought after. With the new system to take affect in 2013, all true maple syrups will become Grade A, distinguished by colors - golden, amber, dark and very dark. This takes away the preference for lighter, less flavorful syrups - but it also means a probable rise in the cost of Grade B type syrups.

Red maple, Acer rubrum
Through grading, politics has shaped the American preference for a more sugary, less flavorful syrup in exchange for the dark, mapley flavors of grade B syrup. New policies aim to change these preferences, and give more power to the consumer when choosing flavors.

Because the syrup we currently value is milder and lighter, it's easier to fake. In Vermont this is a big deal - and some politicians are seeking felony charges for those who create and sell artificial knock-offs, looking for a similar special protections like those given to Hawaiian coffee and Washington onions. Senators Patrick Leahy from Vermont and Susan Collins from Maine are hoping that the Maple Agriculture Protection and Law Enforcement act (yes, this spells MAPLE) will increase the punishment for fraudulent syrup to a five year maximum prison sentence.

Sugar maple, Acer saccharum
If you were to care about the trees in a situation like this, it's in the best interest of the grower to make sure that not too much sap is harvested from the trees. The trees, mostly sugar, red, and black maples, can begin harvest at 30-40 years old, and be used for up to 100 years. The holes themselves don't cause too much damage to the tree as natural systems will plug the hole once spigots are removed. However, care must be taken to prevent contamination and the introduction of bacterial and fungal diseases.

Why maples? Maples have the highest concentration of sugar in the sap - simple as that. Other maples can be used for syrup harvesting, but they tend not to produce as much as the big three. Maple syrup harvesting has a fantastic history dating back to Native Americans. In fact, the harvesting of sap is one of the few agricultural pursuits that is not a direct import from European countries. It's nice to see that so many people care about the cultivation and purity of this national heritage, and hopefully the tradition can continue (even though we'll never produce as much syrup as Canada - there's a reason their flag has a maple leaf on it.)

November 5, 2011

The End of Tomatoland: Where some do it right, and what you can do as well.

The last three chapters of Tomatoland explore some farmers and growers who are doing things better. There is a farmer who grows organic vegetables in Florida and up the eastern coast. While the work isn't easy, he's been able to keep things sustainable and organic on a small scale, while also paying workers fairly. While he isn't chemical free, the chemicals are considered organic and his smaller scale operation allows proper functioning on a whole. There is a lawyer who not only fights for the rights of migrant workers, but wins. Others have helped build housing for migrant workers and develop education and daycare facilities to support the families. While always at risk of failing between bank loans and breaking even, workers can pay affordable rent and live in humane conditions. There are people who are trying to improve the system, no matter how much the system fights back.

This stood out to me the most: the farmer that works smaller scale eliminates the middle man. He sells his tomatoes directly to the restaurants and the public at local farmers markets. Here, he can set the price he needs to keep his farm afloat and he can sell whatever tomatoes he likes and his customers will buy. When you sell to distributers, the price is set - no matter if you break even or not. And with distributors, your product must live up to the expectations of others. Bottom line is this: farmers markets are a fantastic way to help support sustainable, local agriculture and to know exactly what you're eating.

Tomatoland gave an in-depth overview of the business of growing tomatoes in Florida. Florida is unique in its practices, and this book should not be used to judge the growing operations of other crops. But this book can be used to make you think about the produce you buy.

October 30, 2011

Why is saffron so expensive?

Saffron is one of the more expensive herbs, running upwards of $1,000 a pound in the US. What makes the little red strands so very expensive?

Crocus sativus

Saffron comes from a flowering bulb, called Crocus sativus. If you recognize the name, the crocus is a family of popular flowering bulbs. Crocus are neat because some of them grow vegetative material (leaves) in the spring to store carbohydrates, lose the leaves over the summer, then produce flowers without leaves in the fall. One of my favorite crocus is the Naked Lady, which produces really long flowering stocks that seemingly come out of nowhere. 

Each Crocus sativus flower grows from a crom (which is an underground stem, like a bulb), which will produce up to four flowers each year. Each of the flowers grows things in multiples of three - six petals, three male parts, and three female parts. This diagram shows the exact terminology of these plat parts. In the saffron crocus, the stigma extends beyond the petals of the flower, creating the saffron threads. This means that for each flower, three threads of saffron can be harvested. Per plant, you can harvest a total of twelve threads per year if optimal conditions persist. In total, a pound of dry saffron takes 50,000-75,000 flowers - roughly a football sized field of them. Additionally, each thread must be hand picked upon harvesting and quickly dealt with to preserve flavor and quality. It's a lot of work, which further explains it's high cost of production.

Saffron is grown mostly in the middle east and Mediterranean climates, where the summers are dry and breezy and the winters don't matter as much. Check out this saffron field in Iran - where it looks quite dry, indeed.

Impostor saffron - Colchicum autumnale, a Naked Lady
Saffron can be easily grown in your backyard by selecting and planting the specific saffron crocus, but be warned that not all crocus grow edible stigma threads. In fact, the Naked Lady mentioned above can grow very similar looking stigma threads that are quite toxic. 

October 25, 2011

Tomatoland Chapters Four and Five: Labor issues and Taste.

As far as tomato growers in Florida go, they're pretty powerful and they can get away with a lot of things. So what do you do when you want to change the system? Go to the customers of what the growers produce, and get them to change. It's not a perfect solution, but the only thing to get around the growers - and not even get around all that well, really. If something like the issues regarding labor laws bothers you, research the sources of your produce. 

Tomatoland has discussed farm workers, farm owners, and pesticide usage in tomato production - and now taste. A tomato from the grocery store tastes like a watery ghost of tomato, sometimes with a grainy texture and always a beautiful shiny skin. I'm never satisfied with a grocery store tomato, but I still buy them - I want to make fresh salsa, or need a tomato for the obligatory taco topping or burger addition. Nothing compares to the tomatoes I get from my gardens or the farmers market, tomatoes that have taste and texture that are much more satisfying. So if tomatoes can taste delicious from other sources, why aren't production tomatoes flavorful? It all comes down to processing - a common problem that affects a lot of produce. Growers look for a few key things in vegetables and fruit for production purposes. First, you need a consistent crop - the fruit should be ripe all at the same time to save on labor, and of the same shape and size. Second, the fruit has to survive the production process - the picking, the moving, the packing. A worker picks a tomato, places it in a bucket with a bunch of other tomatoes, and then dumps the tomatoes in a big tub of tomatoes. These tomatoes get trucked to a processing plant, in which the tomatoes travel around between water baths and conveyer belts, falling down here and ratcheting up there. To survive, a tomato needs a thick skin and tough interior to not be squashed. Third, the tomato has to have a long shelf life to endure the entire process and make it to the markets. 

A fresh picked backyard tomato would never survive this process. So what happened? Growers picked fruit that could survive the process. These particular tomatoes are picked at a mature green and then treated with ethylene to induce a red color. Sometimes, these 'mature greens' aren't quite mature, but workers can't tell the difference and the consumer gets tricked. A tomato that gets a high grade in production has a particular shape, shine and color - taste doesn't matter. Taste is tricky because there are a lot of components that go into a particular fruit's taste, and it's difficult to breed according to these tastes because the genetics aren't understood completely. So when a grower understands enough to breed a tough skin, even ripening across the crop, and resistance to some disease, taste is left out.

So what does this mean? If you want the convenience of a grocery store tomato that is available year round, then you'll pay for it in a lack of taste. But if you're willing to pay more and eat seasonally, flavorful tomatoes can be found at farmers markets and in CSA boxes every summer. 

Tomatoes from greenhouses, called hothouse tomatoes, tend to not have the same struggles of production that field tomatoes do. So far, Mr. Estabrook has only shared the scorn Florida tomato growers feel towards hothouse tomatoes because of their competitive value. Growing things in greenhouses makes a lot of sense because you can manipulate the temperature and light radiation to produce whenever. More on this later, stay tuned!

October 18, 2011

Potato update.

According to this news article, the Senate voted to allow unlimited potatoes in elementary schools. Why couldn't they attempt to limit french fries, and promote healthy ways of eating potatoes instead? Or even promote other vegetables in greater frequency?

Nevertheless - isn't politics fun?

I'm a big fan of Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution - attempting to change the way elementary schools approach food in the first place. Check out his website, found here.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

California is what I know and love, and it's allowed me to be spoiled when it comes to food and agriculture. Shopping locally is not a challenge, eating seasonally comes naturally to me, and California's growing season extends beyond most of the country. I don't have to deal with severe seasons and limited produce availability that my friends on the East Coast experience, so I decided to give myself an education and picked up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver and her family left Arizona to live off the land on a family farm in Virginia. The challenge was to only eat what they could grow or find locally and do without what didn't fill that criteria.

I approached this book differently than I have Tomatoland - Kingsolver is not a journalist, and I felt that it would not be fair to treat her book as a journalistic piece. Rather, it's a piece of realist fiction - Kingsolver's experience in agriculture. The problem is that the author sees it as a journalistic piece, and while this wasn't a problem in the beginning, I have found myself struggling halfway through the book.

Kingsolver's initial intent on moving the family Eastward was to be more conscious about food and buck the industrial food system most of us survive off of. In her opinion, there's a lot of cheap junk food and artificial everything available, and it's not good for mass consumption or sustainability. Society eats out of a grocery store where the seasons don't matter and no evidence of where the food actually came from exists. The food tends to not be healthy, developed with environmental consciousness in mind, or supportive of small farmers and local communities. And these points make a lot of sense - do you know what is in season? And what it means to eat an out of season piece of fruit? Kingsolver attempts a pretty bold stance on current eating habits of Americans - give up anything and everything that isn't in season and can't be found locally. No bananas, no winter cherries, and certainly no chocolate.

I applaud her efforts, and I like a lot of what she suggests and what she tries. She uses organic methods that promote sustainability in the garden, which works well on smaller plots. She supports local farmers by only shopping at farmer's markets. She raises truly free range turkey and bakes her own bread. In the book it's just becoming summer so she's at prime time for a lovely harvest. But I have yet to know what winter is like without a grocery store - and I don't know what her garden would be like if she had a day job like I do. Kingsolver is lucky to be able to try this adventure, to have the time to spend on feeding her family so thoughtfully, and to have such a supportive family. But not all of us are as lucky. Not all of us have farmer's markets, or time enough to bake our own bread. And not all of us have the money to spend more on food.

Here's what Kingsolver suggests for learning what is in season: think of a general everything-plant growing from seed, starting in the spring. Leaves are the first thing to pop out of the ground, spring greens like lettuce and spinach. After the plant has some time to grow, it will start to develop flowers - things we eat like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. After the plant flowers, it sets fruit - first the fruit is soft, like peas and cucumbers, and then the fruit develops color like tomatoes and peppers, and then the fruit gets harder and darker, like pomegranates and winter squash. When fall comes, the fruit is gone and the plant stores sugars in the roots - when we eat potatoes, yams, and onions. After that, hopefully you've done a lot of preserving - nothing grows in winter. If you consume produce out of this order, then it has come from some place that is in a different season - like South America. More on that later, stay tuned!

October 13, 2011

How-to Open and Eat a Pomegranate

  First, use a knife to carefully cut the top off. The best way to do this is run a knife through the layer of skin as if cutting the peel of an orange.

Once cut all the way around, remove this part.

Do the same for the bottom. Not every part of the skin has to be removed.

If you look at the top of a pomegranate, you'll see that there are distinct sections seperated by a thin white film of skin. Cut through the skin at each of these sections.

Next, grab a section and pull it apart. It's now ready to eat!

You can either softy break off the ariels (doing such under running water makes it a little bit faster!) or eat it straight off of the rind. I do it this way, but my dog has a harder time with it. All in all, this is a quick way to get to the juicy good bits, without being messy!


One of the cooler aspects of my job is being able to enjoy the diversity of our collections, and fall is perfect for this: pomegranates and persimmons are in season.

We have a lot of different pomegranates at our location - many varieties that taste a lot better than the 'Wonderful' variety you buy in grocery stores.

Before we begin, a quick vocabulary lesson: the fleshy part you eat that covers the seed is called the ariel. 

First, Parfianka - my boss's favorite. It has a much better pomegranate flavor, with an excellent balance between sweetness and tangy. Plus, the seeds are soft making it easy to consume. 

This pomegranate is ripe, despite it's lighter color. It has a tangy taste and pink ariels. 

This one, Haku Botan, is really sour. The ariels are white, and the fruit itself is whiteish-green when ripe.

This one, like many of the pinker varieties, is really sweet. It's too sweet for me - it lacks a deep pomegranate flavor. Unfortunately, the sweeter varieties also tend to have a  much harder seed. 

This is what a pomegranate tree looks like. They tend to be really bushy, have small leaves, and really impressive thorns on the branches.

But a few thorns are worth eating something this gorgeous, right?

October 12, 2011

Don't Spread the Love.

It's really tempting to bring back what you love when you visit places, and it's even more tempting to do this with plants and plant related items like fruit. However, you should never, ever do this.

Moving plants, plant parts, and fruits in and out from other countries and states allows the potential for the spread of diseases and insects that can damage previously unaffected crops in substantial ways. There are several examples of how these things have already happened, and several current cases in which officials are desperately trying to prevent the further spread of disease into currently unaffected states.

Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri
Citrus greening disease is one of the diseases on high alert. Originating in Asia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Brazil, the disease was first found in Florida in 1998 on an ornamental landscaping plant related to citrus. It's hypothesized that it came to a backyard garden through tourism or importation of infected material, and from there further expanded throughout Florida. The disease is spread by little psyllids, who move freely across state and country lines, sharing the love with Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, and onwards.

Citrus greening disease prevents fruit from fulling ripening, as well as hindering the growth of the tree and causing eventual death and decline. Symptoms take a few years to show up, and at first mimic common nutrient deficiency symptoms - making detection even more difficult. Before symptoms even show up, psyllids can spread the disease to new trees and exacerbate the problem. If you have one diseased tree in your orchard, chances are that your entire orchard is infected and removal won't do anything. This disease is poorly understood, there are no control methods to prevent infection, and there is no cure once the disease is found. Furthermore, all citrus that we know and love comes from a limited genetic lineage - meaning that no natural resistance to the disease exist.

Would you eat this fruit?
California has a $1.8 billion citrus industry that could very well be brought to it's knees by this disease. California already has the psyllid to spread the disease, but not the disease - yet.

Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service
How is California trying prevent the spread of the disease? When you enter the state, you pass through agricultural check points looking for specific incoming items that are not certified to pass through. Items in question can be moved across state and country lines if they're inspected and treated by specific government workers. At my place of work, we share dormant cuttings across the country and world - and each and every cutting is inspected to ensure we're not spreading diseases and insects of concern. Right now, no grape material is allowed into New York and no walnut material can leave California because of pest concerns. Our tax dollars pay for this government service to try to protect our agricultural industries through APHIS, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

What can you do about this? Don't try to bring plant material and plant related items across state lines. If you really want to, then make sure it's okay and don't lie about it to officials. These rules and regulations are in place for a reason - whole lists of invasive and devastating pests and diseases were accidently brought in by unsuspecting people who 'just wanted to grow this plant at home' or 'share this fruit with friends.' It only takes one or two pests to cause an uncontrollable epidemic.