Food Adventures with Connie

My Washington Adventure with the National Young Farmers Coalition

For those who don’t know, I am the Northwest Regional Extension Associate for the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA). I teach produce growers about Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule and teach trainers how to present the PSA Grower Training curriculum on those topics. I am also trained to provide On-Farm Readiness Reviews (OFRR), a program of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to give produce growers an individualized on-farm walk-through and discussion of Produce Safety Rule requirements in preparation for a Produce Safety Rule inspection from the FDA or the state’s department of agriculture (inspections start in 2019 for covered farms selling >$500,000 of produce annually).

Last week I had the opportunity to travel across the state of Washington with Cara Fraver and Maggie Kaiser of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) delivering the PSA Grower Training Course and participating in on-farm discussions about Produce Safety Rule requirements (similar to, but less formal than, an OFRR). Along the way I met some great people and ate some great food. This is a photo summary of that adventure.

Day 1

Big Sage Organics tour and produce safety conversation: they grow and sell certified organic produce in Washington State’s Columbia Basin and the greater Pacific Northwest.

The Produce Safety Rule allows growers to use surface water, but, as with GAPs certification, in the future it will need to be tested for generic E. coli and how and when it is used may need to change depending on those test results.

Day 2

PSA Grower Training in Spokane with Anna Kestell of Washington State University – Spokane County Extension. Here Maggie is getting attendees to practice handwashing for 20 seconds.

We made a quick stop at Palouse Falls State Park as we drove to Walla Walla.

Day 3

PSA Grower Training in Walla Walla. I didn’t get any pictures from our packed training room, but look at the great training weather we had (it was raining, so growers couldn’t be in the field anyway 😉).

Hands down the best training lunch I’ve ever had – local, colorful, and delicious!

Hayshaker Farm tour and produce safety conversation: as their website states, it is “8 acres of vegetables, fruit and herbs, powered by a few horses and some humans.”

Day 4

Welcome Table Farm tour and produce safety conversation: their commitment to food safety was apparent and we enjoyed hearing the details of their farm’s policies for producing certified organic fresh food and fine flowers from the owners and their knowledgeable workers.

After the farm visit we drove to the Olympic Peninsula!

map showing route from Walla Walla to Port Hadlock, WA

We stayed at an Airbnb in Nordland. Check out this panoramic view!

view of the Puget Sound from deck of Nordland house

Day 5

PSA Grower Training in Port Hadlock with Erin Murphy of Tilth Alliance and Karen Ullman of Washington State Department of Agriculture. Again, I failed to get a decent picture of our packed training room, but here are some sights from Port Townsend that evening.

collage of sailboat mast, jellyfish sign, and sushi dinner

Day 6

I slowly made my way to the airport: enjoyed some tide pooling before leaving the Airbnb, participated in two conference calls around more sightseeing in Port Townsend, rode the ferry to Seattle, and wrapped it all up with dinner at the Walrus and the Carpenter.

That was my first time eating a raw oyster!

I suck at taking selfies, but here I am with Maggie and Cara right before they dropped me off at the airport. I’m glad I had the opportunity to hang out and get to know them this week.

selfie of Connie, Maggie, and Cara

Thank you to the Washington Young Farmers Coalition for their hospitality, lining up training locations, great local food, and farms willing to host the on-farm discussions with trainers and course attendees (and thank you to their member farm owners and workers for participating!). To connect with a state chapter near you, visit NYFC’s Chapters webpage.

Find a PSA Grower Training Course near you by visiting PSA’s Upcoming Grower Trainings webpage.

“No Pets Allowed” and Other Rules for a Berry Safe Pick-Your-Own Experience

Last week I was invited to speak at the biennial Missouri Blueberry School about the implications of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) for pick-your-own farms. This post summarizes that presentation.

To start, growers need to know if their farm is covered by the FSMA Produce Safety Rule. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a handy flowchart of six questions available at http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/UCM472499.pdf to help growers determine if their farm is covered, excluded, exempt, or qualified exempt (where many pick-your-own farms will likely fall). I have created a video available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Px_Uk3AOhUE to walk growers through this document.

A farm is qualified exempt if 1) they have between $25K and $500K in annual food sales (meat, milk, eggs, value-added products, etc. in addition to produce; that’s currently $539,982 with inflation – see https://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/ucm554484.htm for details) AND 2) a majority of the food is sold directly to qualified end-users (like the consumer who purchases berries at a farmers market or on a pick-your-own farm; see the flowchart linked above or definition of Qualified End-User in 21 CFR § 112.3 for details). If a farm is qualified exempt, they still have a few modified requirements under the Rule (detailed in 21 CFR § 112.6) including 1) prominently and conspicuously displaying their farm name and address on food packaging labels, and/or on a poster, sign, or placard at the point of purchase and/or on documents accompanying the produce, and 2) keeping sales records to demonstrate that their farm satisfies the criteria for the qualified exemption, including a record of their annual review of these records (21 CFR § 112.7).

Labeling slide from the PSA Grower Training

Understanding that many pick-your-own farms will be qualified exempt, I focused the rest of my presentation on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) that all produce farms should consider following, and highlighted those relevant FSMA Produce Safety Rule requirements as presented in the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA) Grower Training course (for more information or to find a PSA Grower Training near you visit https://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu/training/grower-training-courses/).

Next, I discussed the following slide from the PSA Grower Training. Though this slide addresses routes of contamination from employees, the same routes of contamination apply to pick-your-own customers and the farm’s visitor policy should address them.

Routes of Contamination slide from PSA Grower Training

What is a visitor? Examples of visitors include pick-your-own customers, agricultural tour groups, or school groups. § 112.3(c) defines a visitor as any person (other than personnel) who enters the farm with permission. FDA’s Draft Guidance for Industry (page 54) elaborates to say that “Visitors could include consumers, delivery personnel, vendors, or others who are touring, conducting business, or observing your farm.”

What does the Produce Safety Rule require growers to do about visitors? § 112.33(a) requires that growers must make visitors aware of policies and procedures to protect covered produce and food contact surfaces from contamination by people and take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that visitors comply with such policies and procedures and (b) make toilet and handwashing facilities accessible to visitors. Those two things are musts, meaning if your farm is covered by the Produce Safety Rule, you have to do them.

Visitors slide from PSA Grower Training

The handwashing station doesn’t have to be indoors or even have warm water, just soap, running water, and single-use towels.

portable handwashing station

Key items to review with volunteers and visitors are: 1) what parts of the farm and packing areas they can enter, 2) that they should not visit the farm if they are sick or have symptoms of illness, 3) why, when, where, and how to wash their hands, and 4) to keep their pets at home (this is not just a food safety risk, but a liability issue as well). These are GAPs that should be followed by all produce farms, but a grower may decide to not institute them on their farm and still be in compliance with the Produce Safety Rule.

I proposed the following ten rules for growers to consider including in their farm’s visitor policy.

1. Do NOT Visit the Farm When Ill

112.22(a) requires that all personnel who handle covered produce during covered activities or supervise the conduct of such activities must receive training that includes: 2) The importance of health and personal hygiene for all personnel and visitors, including recognizing symptoms of a health condition that is reasonably likely to result in contamination of covered produce or food contact surfaces with microorganisms of public health significance.

So the first rule I would suggest is to not visit the farm when ill. This should be understood by most adults, but sometimes folks need a reminder. We often see signs posted at hospitals during flu season. You could easily make something similar for foodborne illnesses to post at the farm.

2. Children Must Be Accompanied By an Adult

There are several reasons for this: 1) kids may randomly touch and contaminate produce that gets left on the plant or thrown on the ground, 2) we don’t want anyone eating produce that has dropped to the ground and unsupervised children may be tempted to taste test easy-to-reach fruit, and 3) it’s a safety issue if they disturb a snake, trip on drip irrigation, etc.

boy eating a peach in a peach orchard

This is my son in a peach orchard. Did he get that fruit off the tree or off the ground?

3. Wash Your Hands before Picking

We’re not worried about the common cold here, we’re worried about foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli, and viruses like Norovirus and Hepatitis A, commonly associated with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

It would be good to post the steps of proper handwashing in the bathrooms, by the sinks. Here are the steps taught in the PSA Grower Training course.

Proper Handwashing slide from the PSA Grower Training

You can often get colorful signs from your local health department to post on the farm. This one is available from Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

4. Use the Toilets Provided

I know, this one may seem like common sense, but it’s a good idea to remind customers that they should use the provided bathroom facilities rather than “go” in the field. Signage could say things like “please don’t water our plants” and “please don’t change diapers in the field.”

5. No Eating, Drinking, Chewing Gum, or Smoking in the Field

Body fluids can contaminate produce, even saliva, so visitors should be discouraged from eating, drinking, chewing gum, or smoking in the field. It’s up to you to decide how restrictive to be with visitors on your farm. You may want to set up a picnic area away from the field and encourage visitors to use it.

6. Do NOT Litter

This is another one that seems like common sense, but folks may need a reminder. A “no litter” policy helps prevent contamination of produce and also helps with pest control (by not serving as an attractant). Often, if visitors are aware of the “why” behind a farm’s policy, they are more likely to comply.

7. No Pets Allowed

All pets, not just dogs, can pose a food safety risk. If you have signage that says “no dogs,” I guarantee that someone will try to challenge it by showing up with other pets like raccoons or pot-bellied pigs.

If you have a farm dog think about whether or not the risk it poses is worth letting it run in the field. It may play an important role, such as chasing deer away in the evenings, but if it doesn’t have a job, it shouldn’t be in the field.

Guide or service dogs may be allowed, but you’ll want to be sure their handlers are aware of the potential for dogs to carry contamination and that they will be responsible for minimizing the likelihood of their dog becoming contaminated before arriving at the farm.

Many pick-your-own farms also have petting zoos. This is my youngest daughter who loves animals. If given the choice, she would hang out with the animals and then pick strawberries.

girl and rabbit at petting zoo

girl in a pick-your-own strawberry field

She picked first, and then touched the animals on this farm. Something else to consider adding to your visitor policy. You may also want to locate a handwashing station outside the animal enclosure with signage to remind visitors to wash their hands.

8. Do NOT Drink Water from Hoses or Sprinklers

It is likely not potable and most hoses are not food grade material. Signage could direct visitors to a water fountain or water bottles available for purchase on-site. Also, if the farm has any open water sources like ponds, the grower should consider signage telling visitors to keep out.

9. Use Provided Picking Containers and Liners

These could be single use containers like my daughter had of strawberries, containers that are cleaned and sanitized between uses, or containers with single-use liners like grocery bags (growers should try to find food grade plastic liners).

strawberries inside plastic shopping bag

The main thing is that we don’t want visitors bringing their questionable containers to the farm. We don’t know that they have our same high cleaning and sanitizing standards.

10. Only Harvest from Designated Areas

You may want to flag or rope off areas not yet ripe or that have received recent pesticide applications. Again, this is as much for visitor safety as to prevent contamination of the produce.

Additional safety tips to consider adding to the farm’s visitor policy:

  • No running as we have uneven ground
  • Wear close-toed shoes
  • Remove jewelry
  • You may see insects and wild animals on the farm that can sting or bite – please respect their space
  • A first aid kit and phone are available at the cash register, shop, entrance gate, etc. in case of emergency

From the GAPs Worker Health, Hygiene, and Training Decision Tree: A first aid kit should be stocked and available to all workers and visitors. Workers who have cuts or other injuries could contaminate fresh produce with bodily fluids such as blood. All workers need to be trained to respond to injuries including knowing the location of first aid supplies, how to wash and bandage minor cuts, and to wear gloves or other covering to provide a secondary barrier between the injury and produce they handle. All contaminated produce must be thrown away and the injury should be written on the injury reporting log and kept on file.

As a reminder, the above suggested policies are GAPs and based on my own experience on farms, not necessarily required for compliance with the FSMA Produce Safety Rule. If you operate a farm covered under the FSMA Produce Safety Rule, the two requirements are 1) that you make visitors aware of policies and procedures to protect covered produce and food contact surfaces from contamination by people (it’s up to you to determine your farm’s policies and procedures) and take all steps reasonably necessary to ensure that visitors comply with such policies and procedures and 2) that you make toilet and handwashing facilities accessible to visitors (21 CFR § 112.33).

Making Visitors Aware of Your Policies

Policies can be reviewed with visitors through the use of posters, handouts, short policy summaries, or verbally when they enter the farm. FDA’s draft guidance (pages 55-56) provides examples of ways that farms can make visitors aware of policies and procedures to protect covered produce and food contact surfaces including 1) supervisor explains to visitors and 2) signage where visitors will be on the farm.

Additional Resources

The National GAPs Program publication Food Safety Begins on the Farm (available for download at https://gaps.cornell.edu/educational-materials/) contains chapters on U-Pick Operations and Petting Zoos to help growers make short-term improvements on the farm while making long-term plans to move toward best practices.

The PSA factsheet Records Required by the FSMA Produce Safety Rule describes all the records required for compliance and provides templates that growers can download and alter to meet their farm’s needs (including a Qualified Exemption Review Template). While covered farms are required to make visitors aware of their food safety policies, sign-in sheets are not a required record.

Social Media on the Pulse of Produce Safety

It’s been a while since my last post primarily because I switched jobs nine months ago and feel like I’ve been running ever since. Writing a blog post has been on my to-do list for at least the last two months and today I finally have something to share.

I currently serve as the Northwest Regional Extension Associate for the Produce Safety Alliance (PSA). The PSA is a collaboration between Cornell University, FDA, and USDA to prepare fresh produce growers to meet the regulatory requirements included in the United States Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule. Read more about the PSA and check out the many resources the PSA team has produced at https://producesafetyalliance.cornell.edu/.

My primary role on the PSA team is to serve as a resource for produce growers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska and support the university researchers, Extension educators, and government agencies tasked with providing training and resources to help them understand how to comply with the Rule. This involves training and mentoring those who have gone through the process to become PSA Trainers and PSA Lead Trainers. The PSA team is participating in an Advanced Skills Workshop for PSA Trainers next week at UC Davis and as the account manager for the PSA’s social media accounts, I have been asked to speak for a few minutes on the use of social media for staying up-to-date on produce safety information. If that is a topic of interest to you, please see below for my tips or download the 2-page handout I’ll share there.



Social Media on the Pulse of Produce Safety

Spending a few strategic minutes on Twitter and Facebook each day can help PSA Trainers stay up-to-date on outbreaks, research, resources, and trainings of interest to their stakeholders.


Twitter

Twitter is a useful platform for engaging with other researchers and Extension professionals as well as monitoring for government updates and breaking produce safety news.

Twitter accounts to follow:

Twitter tips:

  • Include a photo or infographic in each tweet
    • Tweets with images earn 2.5 times more engagement than tweets without images
    • Use your own photos or find creative commons licensed images on sites like Pixabay
  • Use a dashboard application like TweetDeck to manage your account
    • Schedule your tweets in advance so the account is active even when you’re out of the office
    • Create columns for tweets that mention you or certain keywords or hashtags, create a list of PSA trainers, etc. so those tweets don’t get buried in your feed
  • Use analytics and include them when reporting your program impact
    • On your Twitter profile page click “View your top Tweets” for impressions, engagements, and engagement rate


Facebook

Facebook is a great way to engage growers and has a wide audience across all age groups, both domestic and international.

Facebook accounts to follow:

  • Produce Safety Alliance @ProduceSafetyAlliance
  • WIFSS @teamwifss
  • Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative @IndigenousFoodandAg
  • Local Food Safety Collaborative @LocalFoodSafetyCollaborative
  • NCR FSMA Training, Extension, and Technical Assistance @NCRFSMA
  • The Northeast Center to Enhance Food Safety @necafs
  • CDC @CDC
  • US Department of Agriculture @USDA
  • US Food and Drug Administration @FDA
  • Local fruit and vegetable growers associations
  • Local university departments of horticulture and food science, Extension
  • State departments of agriculture and health

Facebook tips:

  • Include a photo or infographic in each Facebook post
    • Posts with images earn 2.3 times more engagement than posts without images
    • Use your own photos or find creative commons licensed images on sites like Pixabay
  • Keep it short
    • Posts that are short (like tweets) receive more engagement
  • Schedule your posts in advance so the account is active even when you’re out of the office
  • Monitor your page insights and include them when reporting your program impact


Additional Social Media Tips

  1. Virginia Tech Social Media Decision Tree
    https://vt.edu/content/dam/vt_edu/brand/resources/social-media-guidelines/Decision-Tree.pdf
  2. Six Easy Steps to Stretch Social Media Mileage
    https://www.extension.org/2015/11/09/six-easy-steps-stretch-social-media-mileage/
  3. Social Media Image & Video Sizes 2018
    https://makeawebsitehub.com/social-media-image-sizes-cheat-sheet/

Peach Leaf Curl

We are seeing quite a bit of peach leaf curl in Southeast Nebraska.  Peach leaf curl is caused by the fungus Taphrina deformans.  This fungal disease is one of the most common diseases in the home orchard and can affect the blossoms, fruit, leaves, and shoots of peaches and nectarines.  (Cherries have a similar leaf curl diseases caused by T. cerasi.)  Peach leaf curl is more severe following cool, wet springs; temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees F are ideal for infection.

peach-leaf-curl

The primary symptom is a thickened, puckered area on leaves which will turn yellow to red or purple with the loss of chlorophyll.  These leaves may prematurely drop, weakening the tree and making it more susceptible to other diseases, pests, and cold injury. The disease can also result in reduced fruit set, size, and quality.

A single fungicide spray applied while trees are still dormant (just prior to bud swell), thoroughly covering all branches, shoots, and buds will control peach leaf curl.  Effective controls include Bravo, Ziram, and copper compounds.  See the Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide for details.

At this time of year, most infection has already occurred, and fungicide sprays are relatively ineffective.  Fruit on defoliated trees should be thinned to reduce stress and improve tree survival.

Best 5 Apps Discovered at NETA

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Nebraska Educational Technology Association (NETA) Spring Conference in Omaha.  Although I’m not a K-12 teacher, librarian, or administrator I’m glad I followed a coworker’s recommendation to join the association and attend.  As a Nebraska Extension Educator, one of the immediate benefits I found was learning about cheap or free, easy-to-use apps that I can immediately put to use in my programming to grab the attention of youth and adults on the web, increase audience engagement at face-to-face events, and ultimately better serve my clientele. Here are the best five apps I discovered at NETA last week and how I plan to use them in my online programming.

best-5-apps-discovered-at-NETA-header

1 – Flipgrid

flipgrid-in-app-store

I learned about Flipgrid from Holly Clark in her presentation Checks for Understanding.  You can pose a question or discussion prompt and have students respond with a short video.  Talk about engagement!  And students can use other apps and filters on their devices to really show their personalities.

Now how can I use this platform?

One of Holly’s examples was a school that uses Flipgrid for teachers to introduce themselves at the beginning of the school year (Spring Lake Park, Back to School 2016). This would be great for parents that can’t make it to the school’s open house in the fall. In Extension we could use it to have the educators and assistants in each office or district introduce themselves and talk about their programs, where they’re located, and what topics to call them about.  We could provide a link on our websites so clientele could get to know us and perhaps help them decide who they want to have come talk to their community or garden group.

I already interview fruit and vegetable producers for my blog. In the future, as part of those interviews, perhaps I could get them to record a short intro about who they are, where they are located, what they grow, how to find them online, etc. Then we could create a grid of local food producers that customers and students can use to get to know them, identify internship and mentorship opportunities, etc.

For future conferences, we could have key speakers record a brief description of who they are and what topic they’ll be covering that can be used to help promote the conference and their individual sessions.

The possibilities are endless.  As Holly cautioned though, you only get one grid for free and after that you have to pay.  So if I decide to run with all these ideas I would need to pay.

2 – Animoto

animoto-in-app-storeHave you ever tried to make a slideshow to share highlights of an event?  If so, were you happy with the results?  Last fall I wasted most of a perfectly good day trying to make a slideshow about county fair, trying several apps that I still can’t get to stop popping up on my screen and sending me spam, only to settle on creating it in YouTube (4-H Grows in Cass County slideshow) which just didn’t allow me the freedom to make it as “pretty” as I wanted.  I don’t know how else to say it other than I knew there had to be a better way.

Enter Animoto.  Andrew Easton introduced me to this app in his presentation App-Smashingly Great Instructional Videos.  Not only did he introduce it but he gave us time to try it for ourselves (check out my three-photo slideshow of my daughter playing softball).  This app was very intuitive and easy to use, so now you will be seeing more slideshows from me (and I will actually feel good about them).

3 – Adobe Spark Post

adobe-spark-post-in-app-storeWe see infographics everywhere.  A quick Internet search of “why infographics” will give you list after list of why they are so effective.  I have listened to my Nebraska Extension colleagues expound on why infographics are so great and which apps they use to make theirs.  I’ve tried.  I have.  But I just didn’t like the feel of any of the apps other people swear by.

Well no more.  Shaelynn Farnsworth gave a whole NETA presentation titled May the Infographic Be With You about having elementary school kids create infographics to demonstrate their learning.  That’s right, I need an app so simple that kids can figure it out.  Shaelynn provided some simple infographic rules to follow and then turned us loose to practice using Adobe Spark Post to create a one-fact infographic. Here’s what I came up with in less than five minutes.  I can do this!

one-fact-apple-infographic

4 – iMovie

iMovie-in-app-storeMy iPhone came with iMovie on it and I had honestly just never taken the time to play with it until Michelle Cordy showed us all the ways she uses it with the kids in her classroom during her presentation Create & Capture Learning-iMovie on the iPad.  I wish I’d had teachers with out-of-the-box thinking like her when I was in elementary school!  Anyway, iMovie is an easy to use app that as I said, comes standard on new iOS devices.  With it you can record and edit short video clips.  I don’t feel like I need to go into much detail because unlike me, you probably already know all about iMovie, but if you don’t, check it out.  Michelle also showed us how easy it is to use GarageBand to create a custom soundtrack for your videos, which is really cool, but I’m not quite there yet.

How-to videos are an obvious use of this app for Extension: how to collect a soil sample, how to identify and control pests and diseases…the list goes on and on.  What I like about this app is the control it gives me over my final product and again, easy enough that kids can use it, so there’s really no excuse not to make more videos to help share fruit and vegetable production recommendations with the masses.

5 – ChatterPix

ChatterPix-in-app-storeThis is another gem from Andrew Easton.  With ChatterPix you take a photo of any object, draw a line on it for a mouth, and then record yourself speaking.  As you talk, the mouth will move.  I’ve played with this app and think it would be a lot of fun, especially for projects aimed at kids, but I don’t have a finished project to share with you yet.

Some ways I’ve thought about using this app are to have different fruits and vegetables introduce themselves and where they like to grow, to have agricultural tools describe what they’re used for and any safety precautions you should take around them, or have the different farm animals share interesting facts about themselves.

Bonus app: Tiny Scanner

tiny-scanner-in-app-storeI don’t know about you, but I regularly have to sign paperwork, scan and email it back to the sender.  I also sometimes have something in hard copy that I need to be able to save or share electronically.  Yes, my office has a copier that can scan (to email, thumb drive, or X drive it’s so fancy) and my printer at home has a scanner, but it’s all the way in the basement and I have to step around boxes and “stuff” to get to it (I know, poor me).  Well, now I have a scanner on the phone in my pocket.  Just take a picture (it automatically crops out the area outside the paper’s edge), adjust it to be lighter or darker, black and white or in color, and then email it or save to your camera roll.

tiny-scanner-demo

How cool is that?

What would you add to this list?  Leave a comment explaining what your favorite app does and how it could be used to serve Extension clientele.

Note: the above screenshots are from an iPhone; FlipGrid, Animoto, and Tiny Scanner are also available for Android devices.

The Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How of Soil Sampling for Home Fruit and Vegetable Production

Whether establishing a new garden or orchard or managing an existing planting, submitting a soil sample for analysis is an important step in sustainable food production.  The results you obtain from this test will let you know if your soil has an appropriate pH for the crop you want to grow and offer recommendations of amendments necessary for optimal plant growth; they will also let you know if you can cut back on your fertilizer applications which will save you money and may result in greater yield.

handful-of-garden-soil

Who?

Anyone growing fruits or vegetables should collect and submit a soil sample for testing every three to five years, more often if changing production systems or trying to identify the cause of poor plant growth and production.

What?

A soil sample is a composite mixture of multiple sub-samples (10 to 15 should be sufficient for most home plantings).  If your planting contains more than one soil type (different texture, color, drainage, etc.), then you should collect a separate sample of each.

Where?

Sub-samples should be collected randomly across the production area, to a depth of 6 to 8 inches.  In perennial tree and vine crops you may want to collect a second sample as deep as 24 inches if you suspect severe subsoil problems; the root systems of these plants may extend 36 inches or more into the soil.  Keep in mind however that amendments primarily affect just the upper soil layer; nutrients like phosphorus and potassium and amendments for adjusting pH like lime are not very mobile in the soil.  Incorporating these amendments deeper in the soil is not an option for perennial plants because you want to avoid damaging their root systems.

When?

A soil sample can be taken any time the soil is not frozen.  It is best to submit samples in the fall or early spring so you have time to apply any necessary amendments before or early in the next growing season.  Soil test values will vary by season; you will want to collect samples in subsequent years during the same season so results and recommendations can be compared.

For best results, collect samples when the soil is relatively dry rather than after a rain event or irrigation.

Why?

Soil pH and nutrient content have a direct effect on the health and productivity of fruit and vegetable plants.  Submitting soil samples for testing will provide you with recommendations for amendments that can improve your soil quality.

Your results may indicate that you have been applying too much of certain nutrients.  For example, excessive nitrogen in the soil will cause your plants to become excessively vegetative (lush green growth) with a negative effect on fruit yield and quality.  Knowing this will allow you to reduce your fertilizer inputs, and therefore your annual input costs.

How?

soil-probes

Three different soil probes capable of sampling to a depth of 8 inches.

Use a soil probe, auger, spade, or shovel to collect sub-samples from 10 to 15 points across your production area.  Make sure you sample from where the plant root systems are or will be (rather than from walkways, for example).  Mix the sub-samples together in a clean plastic bucket, removing any large stones, vegetation, or other foreign material.  You’ll need about two cups of soil to fill the lab-provided sample container.

soil-auger-peach

Soil sampling in a peach planting using an auger. Samples should be collected where the plant’s roots are located, here at the peach tree’s dripline.

Several labs in Nebraska offer soil testing.  Midwest Laboratories in Omaha and AgSource in Lincoln are two options.  Their websites contain information about requesting a soil sample test kit, which parameters they test for, and when you can expect to receive your results.  The test will cost approximately $25 per sample.

Next Steps

Your soil test results will contain recommendations for soil amendments based on the garden or orchard crops you indicate on the sample submission form.  If you have questions about interpreting your test results or which soil amendments will best meet the needs of your site and production system, contact your local Nebraska Extension office.

Most fruit and vegetable plants prefer an acidic soil pH.  If your test results indicate that the soil’s pH is too high, elemental sulfur can be used to lower it.  Just keep in mind that Nebraska’s clay soils have a high buffering capacity which means that their pH will immediately begin to rise after you add sulfur.  To maintain the desired pH you may need to add sulfur every year or two.

For more information about managing soil and nutrients for vegetable production check out UNL’s Fertilizers for Vegetables in Home Gardens. The Midwest Home Fruit Production Guide is an excellent source of information about fruit production, including recommended fertilizer rates.

Handful of garden soil photo via Jing, https://pixabay.com/en/soil-hand-farm-garden-fertilizer-766281/, CC0 Public Domain.

Kohlrabi

Growing up in a rural Central Oregon community, I never saw kohlrabi until I moved to the valley for college.  And then it looked so foreign to me that I wasn’t brave enough to try it.  Fast forward to me as an adult, regularly receiving kohlrabi in my CSA shares and now that I know what it is and how versatile it is, I enjoy experimenting with kohlrabi in different hot and cold dishes.

kohlrabi-in-the-produce-aisle

Kohlrabi is one of the Brassica oleracea in the family Brassicaceae, or cruciferous vegetables.  Usually a plant gets its own species name but B. oleracea includes such diverse vegetables as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale as well as kohlrabi.  So in order to specify that we’re talking about kohlrabi we add var. gongylodes to make it Brassica oleracea var. gongylodes.

As shown in the image at https://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3395076/brassica-oleracea.0.jpg, the kohlrabi variation of Brassica oleracea was selected for its stem.

As with other cruciferous vegetables, kohlrabi is low in calories, high in vitamin C, and a good source of dietary fiber.  Eating cruciferous vegetables several times per week has been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers such as colon and rectal cancer (Source: Have You Tried Kohlrabi?).  For more information about the relationship between consumption of cruciferous vegetables and cancer risk, check out Cruciferous Vegetables from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

Knowing how cruciferous vegetables are complemented by cheddar cheese I wanted to make a sort of kohlrabi and cheddar casserole, like scalloped potatoes but with kohlrabi instead of potatoes and chicken broth instead of cream.  Here’s what I came up with.

Kohlrabi Gratin

Ingredients:

  • 3 kohlrabi (after peeling and slicing I had 1.629 pounds, about 4 cups)
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 ½ cups chicken broth
  • ¾ teaspoon sea salt
  • Dash of cayenne pepper
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (for sauce)
  • ½ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese (for topping)
  • Paprika

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a saucepan, sauté onions and garlic in butter until soft.  Stir in flour and cook for one minute.  Add broth, salt, and cayenne pepper and cook on medium heat until smooth, stirring often.  Stir in one cup shredded cheddar cheese and cook until melted.  Remove from heat.

In an eight by eleven inch baking dish, layer half of the kohlrabi slices, half the cheese sauce, the other half of the kohlrabi slices, and the last of the cheese sauce.  Top with the half cup of shredded cheddar cheese and sprinkle with paprika.

kohlrabi-gratin-before-baking

Bake uncovered for one hour or until easy to pierce with a fork.  Serve warm.

kohlrabi-gratin-after-baking

plated-kohlrabi-gratin

Look at all that cheesy goodness!

In the Garden

As with many of the other cruciferous vegetables, kohlrabi is a cool season crop that grows best at temperatures below 75°F.  It can be grown from seeds or transplants and planting in succession is recommended so it isn’t all ready to harvest at the same time (it’s delicious, but there’s only so much you can eat at a time and it only stores for a few weeks under refrigeration).

For more information about growing kohlrabi, check out these Extension resources.  For best results, go by recommendations from a state with similar soils and climate to your own.

Sources:

Henneman, A. Have You Tried Kohlrabi – University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Higdon, J.  Cruciferous Vegetables.  Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute.  2005.  Accessed 20 Feb 2017.

Stromberg, J. Kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage are all varieties of a single magical plant species.  Vox.  10 Feb 2015.  Accessed 20 Feb 2017.

9 Reasons to Bake Rather Than Buy

I was asked to speak to a 4-H club today on reasons you might want to bake from-scratch items at home rather than buy baked goods from a store.  It was fun to think about all the reasons I bake, so I decided I’d also share my list with you.

  1. Special Dietary Needs

Do you have a loved one who has diabetes, high blood pressure, or other health conditions that come with dietary restrictions?  If so, you can find delicious recipes that limit the amount of salt or sugar or make use of artificial sweeteners so they can still enjoy baked goods.  You can also often reduce fat content in baked goods by swapping out the butter or oil for applesauce or by using reduced-fat or fat-free dairy products in place of regular versions.

Americans commonly have low dietary fiber intakes.  You can increase the dietary fiber content of your baked goods by looking for recipes that call for whole wheat flour, rolled oats, wheat bran, or wheat germ.  In general you can substitute whole wheat flour for half of the all-purpose flour called for in a recipe.

Picky eaters in your house?  Thankfully my kids like fruits and vegetables, but for those that don’t you can sneak fruit and vegetable purees and dried fruits into a variety of baked goods.

  1. Food Allergies, Intolerances, and Sensitivities

Last week I attended a meeting where we were encouraged to bring a snack to share and were given a list of foods that people in the group were allergic to and therefore needed to be avoided.  One of the best ways to ensure that you’re avoiding food allergens is to bake items from scratch – then you know exactly what they contain.  Even if the donuts or cookies you want to buy don’t obviously contain nuts, for example, they may be made in a production facility that also handles nuts.

roll-allergen-statement

Example of an allergen statement from a package of slider buns at the grocery store.

True food allergies can cause anaphylaxis and even death, so you can’t be too careful.  (The most common food allergens must be declared on food labels: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy.  For more information check out Allergenic Foods and Their Allergens from UNL.)

Likewise, if you’re feeding someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, you can avoid the gluten in wheat, rye, or barley by using recipes that call for alternative flours.

  1. Preservatives

Have you ever wondered why bread you bake at home molds within a few days while a loaf from the store can last one to two weeks?  There are additional ingredients added to that store-bought bread that are responsible for extending its shelf-life and maintaining its quality.  Those ingredients are called preservatives.

Don’t get me wrong, I love food science and the amazing things we can do with food ingredients.  But I recognize that many folks are concerned about food ingredients that they don’t understand, like preservatives.  If you bake your own bread, cakes, cookies, etc. you get to control which preservatives get added.  Yes, even salt and sugar are food preservatives.

  1. Freshness

Along those same lines, that bread you buy in the store is likely a day or two old when you purchase it.  Granted, it’s not as old as those eggs you’re buying at the store, but it’s not as fresh as homemade.

  1. Variety

By baking at home you have the flexibility to try out different flavors, textures, shapes, and sizes in your cakes and breads.

You can also use your creativity.  What’s your favorite dried fruit?  Have you ever tried it in oatmeal cookies?  One of my favorite combinations is roasted pecans and dried, sweetened cranberries (here’s my favorite oatmeal cookie recipe).

What are your favorite vegetables?  If you make your own pizza crust, and assemble and bake your pizza at home, you could come up with some exciting new combinations not available at your local pizza parlor.  Chicken, red pepper, and asparagus pizza?  Why not?

  1. Family Fun

Some of the best family time is that spent in the kitchen.  Even toddlers can help stir and cut and decorate cookies.

Plus, you can turn it into a science lesson.  Unlike cooking where you can throw in a little of this and a little of that, baking is about chemistry and chemical reactions; each recipe tweaked is a science experiment.

You can also use the experience to give your family greater appreciation for where your food comes from and what it takes to get it to your table.  Consider a field trip to a wheat growing area of the state, buy some wheat berries, and grind them into flour that you then use to make bread.  Or visit a you-pick apple orchard, harvest apples, and use them to make a pie.

  1. Aroma

Did you know that realtors used to encourage home sellers to bake cookies before an open house?  Why?  Well I think you would agree that the aroma of baking bread or cookies in your kitchen is unbeatable!  I can also attest to the fact that the aroma can lure teenagers away from their rooms and devices.

  1. Less Waste.

At a minimum, bread purchased at the store is going to come in a plastic bag.  Cakes and cookies are probably in a plastic clamshell container.  Do you re-use these when the product is gone or do you immediately dispose of them?  Here’s an opportunity to reduce the amount of packaging waste going to landfill and/or recycling center.  At home you can store your based goods in re-sealable dishes and avoid the waste.

Food at the grocery store has some sort of date label on it (“best by,” “sell by,” etc.).  What happens to that product if it isn’t sold or donated by that date?  Most likely it’s off to the landfill.  Some grocery stores will turn this over to a farmer to feed to livestock, but most won’t make the effort.  At home you can bake just the quantity that your family will eat right away.  Extra bread or cookie dough can be frozen and thawed as needed.

  1. Price

Home-baked items are definitely cheaper than their store-bought counterparts.  Take rolls for example.  Here is a bag of 12 wheat slider buns for $2.99.  That’s $0.249 each.

wheat-rolls-at-the-store

Compare that to rolls made at home (recipe below).  I estimate that my recipe’s ingredients come to $2.39 (estimated using http://www.pricingbakedgoods.com).  That’s $0.10 each.  (And my rolls are so much better than anything the store has to offer – see 4, 5, and 7 above.)

hot-buttered-rolls

Something Else to Consider

Okay, those are all reasons for baking at home.  But I’m a realist and a busy mom. I DO NOT bake all my family’s baked goods.  Flavor-wise there are some things that I make time to bake, like cookies and birthday cakes and rolls for holiday dinners.

Do you know the four main factors that Americans consistently identify as important in food choice?  They are taste, texture, cost, and convenience (Source: Insel et al., 2010).  Baking at home is the way to go for best taste, texture, and price.  But that brings me to the number one reason for buying baked goods at the store: convenience.  Don’t feel guilty about buying sandwich bread from the store.  If you take into consideration your time, which is valuable and finite, that $3 loaf of bread doesn’t look so bad.  And it just makes your home-baked goods all that more special.

Share in the comments a link to the one recipe you insist on baking rather than buying.  I’ll go first.  Here’s my favorite recipe for dinner rolls.

Best Ever Dinner Rolls

Ingredients

  • ½ cup milk
  • 5 tablespoon butter, divided
  • warm water
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 (1/4-ounce) packages active dry yeast (that’s 4 ½ teaspoons if you buy yeast in bulk)
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 4 to 4½ cups bread flour

Place milk and 4 tablespoons butter in a 2-cup glass measuring cup.  Microwave on HIGH for 1½ minutes.  Add enough warm water to measure 2 cups.

Combine sugar, egg, and salt in a large bowl; mix well.  Add milk mixture; mix well.  Stir in yeast; let stand 2 minutes.

Add 1 cup whole wheat flour and 2 cups bread flour.  Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, until smooth and elastic.  Add 2 cups of bread flour.  Mix dough with hook or stir in by hand until smooth.  Stir in enough of the remaining flour by hand to make dough easy to handle.  Turn out on lightly floured counter-top and kneed for 5 minutes or until smooth and elastic.

Place dough into bowl that has been sprayed with cooking spray.  Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled in size (about 45 minutes).  (Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched.)

doubled-dough-with-indentation

This dough has doubled in size and you can see the indentation in the top left.

Punch down dough; divide in half, then half again, then half again, so you have eight dough portions of equal size.  Now divide each of those portions by three so you have 24 rolls.  Using lightly floured hand, shape each roll and place onto a buttered half-sheet pan (or two cookie sheets).  Let rise until double in size (about 1 hour).

Heat oven to 375°F.  Bake for 14-16 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from oven and rub tops with butter.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

fresh-buttered-rolls

I wish you could smell the fresh roll aroma!

Makes 24 rolls.

References

Allergenic Foods and Their Sources – University of Nebraska Lincoln

Insel, P., D Ross, K McMahon, and M Bernstein.  2010.  Chapter 1.  Discovering Nutrition, 4th edition.  Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

Promise in a Bud

If you take time to look, you will find beauty in every season.  Take a dormant apple spur for example.  Oh, I know this short, wrinkled shoot is not much to look at, but with a little imagination you can picture the leaves and fruit it will soon bear.  Spring will be here before we know it.

Carl-Sagan-quote-over-apple-spur

Did you know that apple trees bear mixed buds meaning that they contain both flowers and leaves?  Most mixed buds are found at the terminal end of spurs on two-year or older wood, so that is where the fruit will develop.  These spurs may continue to bear fruit for ten years or more so we need to be careful not to damage them during annual pruning.  Smaller buds elsewhere in the canopy are usually vegetative but still important as their photosynthesis sustains the tree and the developing fruit.

Fruit Tree Pruning Resources:

Ode to Fried Cornmeal Mush

cornmeal-mush-header

Oh fried cornmeal mush!
Your sunny color makes me smile.
I wait impatiently as you sizzle in the skillet,
Until you emerge, crispy on the outside,
Your center warm and welcoming me home.

Oh fried cornmeal mush!
Such powerful memories evoked through three simple ingredients.
You are just a tiny piece of my grandfather’s legacy.
I never got to say goodbye, but through you
I share his love and lessons with my children.


I woke up this morning thinking about my grandfather on my dad’s side.  He left this world in 2007 when I was 29 years old.  He’s not the first loved one I’ve lost but we had a special connection and I feel him watching over me.

grandpa-playing-guitar

You see, I was his oldest grandchild.  He taught me how to ride a horse and how to drive a pickup with a clutch.  Believe me, when you’re towing a broken down vehicle carrying your stern/serious/impatient/unforgiving grandfather you master the art of “easing” off the clutch very quickly.  I’m not sure how old I was at the time but I know I was still a pre-teen.  I know this because by the time I was 13 I was driving a tractor (with a clutch and a whole bunch of other gears and knobs to master – someday I’ll tell you about my hydraulic fluid shower) helping him raise alfalfa hay for himself and neighbors.  That was the summer my grandfather was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer and, as the oldest grandchild (and probably because my parents hoped it would curb my wild side), I got too stay with him and Grandma and accompany him to his treatments over an hour away.  To this day I can’t eat an old fashioned doughnut without thinking of him because we would stop and buy those donuts and something to drink at a gas station along the way.

I’ve made more than my share of mistakes but Grandpa never tried to tear me down or made me feel like he thought any less of me.  I miss him dearly and remain grateful for the time I got to spend with him.

Anyway, thinking of Grandpa puts me in the mood for cornmeal mush.  I can picture him standing in the kitchen, frying up slices.  They’re good plain or between two slices of buttered toast.

Cornmeal Mush

Recipe from The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, (c) 1990.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 4 cups water
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt

Directions:

Butter a bread pan and line with parchment paper.  Set aside.

Mix the cornmeal with 1 cup cold water.  In a saucepan, bring 3 cups water and the salt to a boil.  Add the cornmeal mixture to the boiling water and cook, stirring often, over medium heat for 7 minutes or until thick.

Spread in buttered bread pan and refrigerate.

corn-meal-mush-in-pan

Using parchment paper makes it easier to remove the chilled mush from the pan for slicing.

When thoroughly chilled, cut into 3/8-inch slices.

slicing-cornmeal-mush

You can use a knife or chopper like this to slice the mush. If the upper surface is too dry to achieve a clean cut, flip the “loaf” over and cut from the bottom.

Fry in bacon fat, butter, or oil until golden on both sides.

frying-mush

This is not a low-fat food. 🙂

Drain on paper towels and blot with paper towels to remove excess fat.

removing-excess-grease

Serve warm.

fried-mush

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