CSA Box Content Pictures

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Growing the Great Tasting Vegetable

Growing the Great Tasting Vegetable

As our small vegetable farm enters its 3rd season, we’ve honed in on growing the best tasting vegetables we can for our customers.

When we started our farm, it was a big question mark what type of farm we should be, what to grow, where to sell.  An attempt to grow vegetables for the wholesale market was a useful, but costly education. We simply didn’t have the necessary scale of efficiency.

Providing a weekly vegetable CSA (community supported agriculture) box directly to subscribers was the path chosen. There are many CSAs in the USA now, were customers pay at the beginning of the season and then receive a box of vegetables each week. It’s a great way to get fresh produce from local farms.

Customers in California have many CSA options. Many farms will grow some of their own food and also buy food from other farms or the wholesale market to put in their boxes.   Some farms will deliver from over a hundred miles away. Some do home deliveries, some use drop off points.
What niche could we fill in that would be useful to customers compared to the wide variety of options customers have?

Quickly we decided to provide the best tasting vegetables within the constraints of economic sustainability.

What does it take to grow great tasting vegetables?  There are four basic ingredients and one extra secret ingredient. The four basic ingredients are:
  1.   Freshness
  2.   Plant Variety
  3.    Soil vitality
  4.    Climate
Let’s look at each of these.

Any backyard gardener will tell you how much better a just picked vegetable tastes than the exact same variety bought in a store which was picked a week or two earlier.  Most of our produce is picked and delivered to customers within 24 hours. This means we have to grow all our vegetables. Buying from another farm and repackaging it adds at least days to the turnaround. We harvest most of the produce in the cool evening and some early the next day. It’s then packed and shipped by afternoon. This limits our distribution range, we can’t deliver a hundred miles away. And growing all our own, limits how much we can sell to just what we grow. Focusing on freshness limits our potential expansion, but provides local customers with the freshest possible produce.

This is a big one. Most Americans have grown up on rather taste-free vegetables. The vegetables serve more as backdrops to seasoning and sauces rather than their rightful place as the source of flavor.
How did this happen? Why wouldn’t farms grow for taste? Certainly customers prefer it. Unfortunately vegetables are purchased on sight and cost, not taste. Customers can’t taste them first. Even if they could taste a small fresh sample, this wouldn’t be enough. Most vegetables need to be cooked first for their full flavor to emerge. Talented plant breeders of modern commercial varieties, focus on good looks, fast growing, and disease resistance. Flavor doesn’t sell, so it’s traded away.
    As backyard gardeners running our farm, we know many good tasting varieties. Also, we’ve been trying many different varieties of all the vegetables to make sure we grow the most flavorful ones regardless of their looks. After two years of this, an interesting, and in hindsight expected, observation can be made:   
slower growing, less attractive vegetables are tastier!

Why would this be? Without having a PhD in the plant biology of taste, one can only speculate. Many slower growing varieties have deeper root systems. These deeper roots can mine more minerals and nutrients.  Then taking more time to grow, a more complex flavor emerges. In comparison, a shallow rooted, fast growing plant, tastes watery and bland.
    Take cauliflower for example, we typically grow a variety that takes 80 days to mature. It’s a big plant with a large root system, and has a medium sized head. Last year, late season, we grew a fast variety, only took 50 days to mature.  It had a surprisingly small body and large head. To me it looked like an alien mutant you’d see on an old science fiction movie. I could see why it was a favorite with commercial farmers.  The smaller body meant you could grow them closer together. Overall, you can get 3x the harvest from this variety. No wonder most farms choose it.
    However, after we put it in the boxes, my wife cooked it and I became ashamed we included it. By comparison it was bland; not at all what we wanted to be doing. Fortunately, since it was fresh and grown in good soil, it still tasted better than store bought ones and some customers even complimented it. But I knew it was far from what we should have been serving.
   The same goes for Broccoli, many customers have mentioned they never liked Broccoli before they cooked ours. We’ve settled on two varieties, one takes 90 days to mature, the other 66 days. This compares to a common commercial variety that takes 49 days.
    Snap peas and snap beans are both vegetables whose taste has almost been eviscerated commercially. I’ve grown backyard vegetables for over two decades mainly to get good tasting peas and beans. Commercial farms all plant bush peas and beans that all mature at the same time and are machine harvested. Very efficient and keeps the price low. The older pole varieties have deeper roots and mature over an extended time. They have to be manually harvested often, so few, not even small market farmers, will grow them. But they taste great! This year will be growing Sugar Snap peas and Scarlet Emperor Runner beans, the tastiest varieties that will grow in our climate. Hopefully we’ll have enough labor to harvest them, otherwise we’ll invite volunteers to pick them for a portion of the crop.
    We are taking a chance on Kale this year. Last year we grew Ripor a beautiful “frilly” type you see in stores often. Two different seed catalogs have stated, though, that White Russian Kale is the tastiest. It doesn’t look as good, but we have switched over to it. Hope the catalogs are right.
    For cucumbers we’ve settled on an older variety, Marketmore 76. We’ll keep trying others, but we’ve already tried Corinato, Diva, Marketmore 97, … These other varieties look great, have almost perfect figures with uniform dark color, like they’ve just stepped out of a tanning salon. They look good on store shelves and if you eat them, they taste great. But if you eat them next to a Marketmore 76, the 76 will taste even greater and your opinion of the others will drop.
    Zucchinis:  This year, half of our plantings are Costata Romanesco.  Here’s what Johnny’s Seed Catalog says:  “Traditional Italian Heirloom with the best flavor … with only half the yield of hybrids, but much better flavor, … nutty and delicious.” The catalog lists 10 other zucchinis, not one of the other descriptions even mentions taste, just how prolific and attractive they are. Hopefully the Romanesco’s will grow well enough in our cooler climate.

Our variety trails and explorations go on and will continue as we continue to hone in on the best tasting varieties for each vegetable we grow. We do need to warn our new CSA subscribers, that some members have told us they don’t enjoy going out to restaurants as much anymore. Now they pay attention to how the vegetables taste and are usually disappointed at restaurants.  They cook at home more often now.

Soil Vitality
The health of the soil probably makes a big impact on flavor. Having biologically alive soil with lots of organic matter should result in happier plants developing more complex flavors. While I’ve never seen a definitive study, most long term gardeners correlate great soil with great taste.
A lot of media discusses sustainable farming. To truly discuss sustainable you need to include “at what soil vitality level”. On one extreme you can say hydroponic greenhouses are sustainable, yet they don’t even grow in soil or organic matter. They use liquid, petroleum derived fertilizers and grow in inert mediums that have no alive biology. Yet you could state they are sustainable. We probably will never run out of enough petroleum products to produce fertilizer. Also many Midwest farms, where the topsoil has been severely eroded, can also be “sustainable”. Their soil is virtually lifeless from tilling, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, just like growing hydroponically.  This can be sustained as long a petroleum and gas based chemicals are available, which currently seems not to be a concern.
On the other extreme, the most biologically alive soil is usually in backyard gardens that use no-till, heavy mulch, organic techniques. The soil contains multitudes of worms, insects, microbes, ….  It produces great tasting, nutritious vegetables. However, these techniques haven’t proved to be economically sustainable.  It takes too much labor to establish these growing beds and the plethora of insects typically munch down any small transplants or direct seeded vegetables.  A couple market farms I visited or read about, use no-till and add a layer of compost each year to the bed. They try to completely eliminate weeds and don’t use cover crops. Their soil is quite alive, but it’ hard to say whether it is “more alive” than a bed that has a variety of weeds growing along with the main crop.  One farm even grows in weeds, soils great, harvests though aren’t an example of good economic sustainability.
    Our own approach to soil vitality is evolving. Originally we tried no-till, but the weeds got to be too many and just putting down finished compost lead to a reduction in worms. Worms need uncomposted organic matter to feed on. Currently we are cover cropping over the winter and then doing a light/shallow till in the spring. We add about an inch of wood chips before tilling. After the shallow till, we mulch with an inch of compost and wood chips mixed at a 2:1 ratio.  The wood chips attract worms. A Cornell University 15-year study looked at the differences between cover cropping, adding wood chips and doing nothing to improve soil each year. Interestingly, adding wood chips did more to improve the soil than traditional covering cropping. Yields were slightly higher, organic matter more, and the worm count was several times more. Our goal is to have biological alive soil with many worms in it all year round.
    Virtually all farms, organic included, don’t have worms in the soil during the main growing season. The big organic farms, like Earthbound and Lakeside Organics, have really developed cost efficient methods for growing organically, which is a great contribution. A recent study showed that 4 out of 10 nursing mothers in America have Roundup, a chemical herbicide/weed killer, in their breast milk. So having inexpensive organic produce available is a great contribution to society.
     The soil vitality at the large organic farms though is actually quite low.  You won’t find one worm in them during the growing season. A typical procedure is to heavily till the soil and flame to eliminate all weeds.  Then organic fertilizer is applied and a thin 1/8” layer of compost spread. The compost isn’t to increase the organic matter in the soil, it primarily reintroduces biological life/microbes back into the soil that can then break down the fertilizer for the plants. The procedure is just repeated for each crop. The soil doesn’t improve, and actually loses organic matter over time, but it is an organic method and is very efficient.
    For our soil, we hope that every shovelful of dirt will have worms in it all year round. We’re not there yet, but striving towards it.

For many crops climate, notable heat or cold, makes the fruit sweeter.  Oranges need heat, whereas crops like broccoli, chard, and kale get sweeter with cold weather. Given we can’t change the weather, we work with what it gives us.

What about the secret ingredient?  Well, it’s the most important one—too important to discuss only at the end of an article. It deserves a full article to itself. Once written, we’ll post it on our farm blog at: www.AnandaValleyFarm.com.

May all your harvests be joyful,

Eric Munro
Farming Manager
Ananda Valley Farm
Half Moon Bay CA