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Christmas Eve harvest @ Truckee Community Farm
As we gather together this happy day and celebrate with a cornucopia of holiday foods, we should pause and assess the seasonality of our winter plates.

Are there eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, berries, or beans at your table? These are warm-weather, summer crops. To help build a sustainable food system, we have a responsibility to be aware of non-seasonal foods. If we don't buy them, then grocery stores won't stock them helping them focus on seasonal foods which are often accessible within  regions 150-250 miles away versus 1500 miles.

Yesterday, the Growing Dome at the Truckee Community Farm produced an 8lb harvest of leafy greens: arugula, curly kale, Siberian kale, Swiss chard, butterleaf lettuce and romaine lettuce.

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The aftermath - neatly trimmed rows of greens
Outside was four feet of snow with more in the forecast. Inside, the Growing Dome was busy raising winter veggies keeping them warm like an incubator does for its baby chicks. Other winter crops will soon come into harvest like spinach and mache and a variety of rooted vegetables such as beets, turnips, radishes, carrots, leeks, garlic and potatoes.

Tis' the season to be merry both in our hearts and in our stomachs! Keep the warmth in your thoughts and the cool-hearty foods on your plates.

 
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Photo courtesy of Jamie Kingham
The winter edition of "edible Reno-Tahoe" just hit newsstands and pasted below is the beginning of an article I wrote about some fascinating farmers along the East Side of the Sierra...a portion of the story had to be cut from the print version in order to make word count so I've included it here. The omitted section shares how the farmers, Dan and Rachel McClure, met and got started farming. Knowing the background and history of a farmer is just as important as knowing what they grow and how. Because really...how can you know your farmer if you don't know their "story"? And often, it is the best part as you will find out below. For the complete story, go to the edible Reno Tahoe" website.

As we walked through the greenhouse, clipping and sampling leaves and flowers, it felt a little like a scene out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where everything seemed edible. It was magical as licorice exploded from the French Tarragon and the taste of cucumber from the Starflower made my eyes widen in surprise. 

I wasn’t on a movie set; rather, this was the small, specialty-crop farm of Dan and Rachel McClure with Sierra Edibles and Nevada’s Own. On 10 acres of land below the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains in Wellington, Nevada, the McClures produce more than just edible flowers but also a variety of herbs, hardy perennials, native berries, heirloom tomatoes, free-range eggs, and one unique variety of mushrooms.

Dan and Rachel first met in Palm Desert, California in 1996 and moved to San Luis Obispo a year later to attend Cal Poly. There, they sealed their fate together...Upon graduation in 2000, they stood on life’s frontier. With youthful enthusiasm, they wrote their mutual goal together and displayed it on a sign in their backyard greenhouse. The sign read: “In five years, we will be growing food for market.”

Dan’s love for plants and flowers, however, began long before, when visiting a sick relative who was on an extended stay in the hospital.

“I noticed that people only smiled two times when in the hospital … when they heard a baby was born and when they received flowers,” Dan recalled. “I knew then, I wanted to be in the garden business and make people happy.”

Dan’s horticulture science degree took them to Oklahoma after graduation where he pursued a career in commercial greenhouse production. But a conversation that began at Cal Poly itched at them through their early profession...A college lecture discussed the threshold of pesticide use in the field. Dan and Rachel struggled with this industry practice, knowing it was not how they planned to fulfill their goal. And when they had their first son, Roark, with brother Atlas following six years later, they knew the game had changed; they wanted to pursue a type of farming that was good both for their family and the earth. By 2005, it was time to move and start their own more ecologically sound practice.

Dan had grown up in the Sierra, so it was a natural choice to return home and settle in a place that was both scenic and in close proximity to several consumer markets where the McClures could sell their food. As they unpacked, they discovered the sign they had made five years earlier in San Luis Obispo...something to be said for the power of intention.

Read the rest of the story at edible Reno-Tahoe magazine!


 
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Food artisans at the Truckee Tahoe Food Swap
I just went to my first food swap on Sunday night and I'm super fired up about this idea. A food swap is where you make food and trade it with other people who made food. Instead of cash, you barter...a jar of salsa for a loaf of bread or half-dozen eggs for some granola. It is the ultimate recipe for community...take a group of people, add handcrafted foods, stir slowly, sprinkle laughter, ideas and inspiration. Let rise for two hours and take home a basket of assorted culinary creations. 

It's the Christmas morning of grocery stores...It is a total surprise what you will find but everything is edible and stocks your shelves with an array of goodies. Some items are pantry staples like jam and pasta sauce and others, are items that you may have never otherwise bought like goat cheese marinated in rosemary infused olive oil or pumpkin hummus.

The way it works is...you bring enough of something to share. The more you bring, the more you get to take home! Once everyone has arrived, checked in and displayed their artisan foods, the trading begins. You mingle around the room sampling tastes and connecting with neighbors in a cultural exchange. It doesn't get any more real or personal than that.

Building a local food system takes a long time but it starts with simple steps and a food swap is a great first start. They are easy to launch but be sure to follow a few critical guidelines to keep the health department at bay. Since most of the food will have not been prepared in a commercial kitchen, their is an inherent liability in how the food was handled. But as long as everyone is trusting that participants have used best practices, all you have to do is ensure attendees register in advance acknowledging the risk they are assuming and that they too have followed proper food safety in the kitchen.

 
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Eliot and his wife Barbara on their farm in Harborside, Maine
Now that I've officially been indoctrinated with the principles of 4-season growing, I wanted to give tribute to my sensei, Eliot Coleman and replay a post from last February when I got to hear him speak for the first time. Give it a read...

The only thing holding Tahoe back from being like its food abundant cousins down the hill, are its winters. Tahoe gets the same amount of sun - nearly 300 days of it - but has cold temperatures. We just need to harness the sun's heat and were golden, literally!

Fortunately, there are good people like Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm. He has been perfecting his 4-season growing techniques for the past forty years. He gleaned most of his information by visiting and studying the traditions of French and British farmers. He would come back to his farm in Maine adapting what he learned and further refining the skill of year-round farming.

Reno, Nevada had the fortune of a 2-day workshop this past weekend with the father of cold-hardy vegetables. As a budding farmer myself, I was eager to hear the voice behind the words in the books I had been reading.

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Row covers inside an unheated greenhouse
"Simplicity! That's our motto," preached Eliot. "Low-tech and high quality "real" food are our guiding principles." He wants his systems to be replicable. If they are complicated, they will never gain traction. And he's succeeded! To get in the game, however, you have to be okay with cold weather and hard work. But the systems he has designed aren't elaborate or overly expensive.

Here are a few basic winter gardening concepts:
  1. The cornerstone of Eliot's process is the "double-cover." Take an unheated greenhouse which serves as the first cover. And then place a lightweight row-cover over the crop. The insulating layer is the double-cover. it can increase the temperature near the plant by 25+ degrees!
  2. Focus on growing cold-hardy vegetables like salad greens and root crops. The matriarchs of the bunch are spinach and arugula. But leafy greens in general are the mainstay: mache, claytonia, endive, escarole, minutina, lettuces, watercress, parsley, raddichio, sorrel, mizuna, Asian greens, as well as chard, collards and kale. Other go-to winter crops include carrots, leeks, broccoli, garlic, radishes, turnips, beets, potatoes and kohlrabi.
  3. Strict planting schedules and crop rotations play an intregal role. Seeds must be planted well in advance of the first frost so plants can get established and keep producing throughout the winter. The bewitching hour is 10-hours of daylight. Once we fall below 10-hours/day, plant growth slows down. But by the time the last of the winter crops have been harvested in February, the clock has turned and we've rounded the corner and have started to exceed 10-hours of daylight. Crop rotations ensure that what comes out goes back in by enriching the depleted soil with nutrients from a different crop family each planting. There are 13 crop families!

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Picture Inexpensive low-tunnels can still utilize double-covers
Eliot reminded the audience of a scene in the movie, The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman, "My hope is that one day, a respected elder will take a promising young graduate aside and say, son...I've got one word for you, farming!" He believes in what he is selling and the future that small-scale farming can offer our communities, economy and environment through 4-season growing!