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The Veg-heads Game: The blueberry, mushroom, cucumber, carrot and tomato
When talking to kids about fruits and veggies, you have to speak their language. Dressing up and  playing with silly props are always a good way to communicate a message but the activity is only as valuable as the impression it leaves on the child and the lessons they take home.

On Wednesday, July 11th...I traveled to Whole Foods Market in Folsom, CA to lead a kid's camp. The objective...teach kids about the nutritional value of their fruits and vegetables. If I went in spouting words like beta-carotene and antioxidants, I would have been met with blank stares. I needed something funny, hands-on, interactive and involved group participation.

The event was sponsored by Lisa's Organics and a promo event for their Gardens-to-Hospitals program. Lisa's Organics produces frozen, organic vegetables and their slogan is "Eat Your Veggies." Gardens-to-Hospitals' (G2H) parallel slogan is "Eat Your Colors!"

I start off asking the kids, "What are are your favorite colors to eat?" They quickly catch-on and start shouting out, "strawberries, snap peas, watermelon, pineapple, etc.." I explain that a colorful plate gives us a plateful of vitamins and minerals from different fruits and veggies.

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I ask for five volunteers to represent the five color groups: red, yellow/orange, green, blue/purple and white/brown. Hands go up! I select the first five promising that everyone will get a turn to participate. I pull out some simple, homemade costumes...colored, felt tunics with matching trucker hats that have a corresponding vegetable for each color group. I slip the tunic over their head and place the hat on their head. Giggles break out! The kids look as silly as I hoped they would. The make-shift costumes get them using their imagination like they would when playing at home and absent a stylie blueberry, mushroom, cucumber, carrot or tomato costume.

The audience members (the other children) take turns pulling a FRESH fruit or vegetable from a basket. Holding the vegetable, they are asked to identify the color and place it in the basket in front of the appropriate child/vegetable. As the items get selected, I get ready with my props...

Beets get pulled from the basket and is determined to be purplish. I say, "beets have magnesium which is good for muscles." I give the blue/purple child, water wings to represent BIG muscles. Laughter erupts!

A carrot gets selected! I follow-up, "carrots have stuff to keep our eyes healthy," and I give the yellow/orange kiddo some over-sized glasses.

Next, snap peas :) I tell the children, "Green veggies have fiber. Fiber keeps things moving through our bodies so stuff doesn't get stuck," and I hand the child a plunger.

Mushrooms get chosen! "Mushrooms have things to help clean our system and flush out the bad toxins. It's like an internal toilet brush." The child smirks as handed a toilet brush to hold.

The tomato child gets a tomato placed in their basket. I explain, "tomatoes have stuff to fight cancer. It's like having boxing gloves to ward off disease." The children laugh as oven mitts get slipped on the tomato kid.

By the end, the human fruits & veggies are holding and wearing a variety of props sometimes struggling to keep it all in balance. I ask the audience, "As you can see, we need all these colors to gives us what we need to stay healthy. You just can't eat the same thing everyday and hope to get everything you need to grow big and strong."

I ask, "How can we eat more fruits and veggies?" We talk about making fruit smoothies and juices. We have fun brainstorming the different pizzas, soups, and sandwiches we could make to get as many colors as we need each day. I encourage the kids to get their parents to take them to a farmers' market, perhaps start a garden, find some recipes they can make and basically get more involved in the foods they are being fed so they can have more fun.

 
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Skull & Crossbones aren't what I really picture when I think of sweet strawberries or any happy field of green for that matter.

I snapped this photo last week while on my agroecology course at UCSC. We were passing a monocrop of conventioanly grown strawberries in Salinas, CA. We were laughing at the absurdity but really, there isn't anything funny at all about this picture. And it's not just strawberries that we need to be worried about when it comes the synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in conventional farming methods.

At no point in my food's life cycle should I be told that I can not touch it. Even if it could be proven safe by the time it reaches my plate, what about all the environmental impacts like soil degradation and water quality including the field workers, farmers and applicators who are are subjected to these chemicals. Not to mention the amount of fossil fuels used to create these pesticides and fertilizers. It's bad enough we put fossil fuels in car, it has no business being applied to my food. Ick!

 
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I was sitting on the back stoop at friend's BBQ the other night typewritering through an ear of corn. I commented on how much I love corn-on-the-cob. Others nodded in agreement mumbling words of happiness through kernel laced grins.

Then it occurred to me...We don't mind respecting the seasonality of sweet corn anticipating it's summer on a stick flavor in July & August; so why do we expect to see tomatoes in January or Asparagus in October? We don't expect to see a ears of corn piled high in December.

The irony is...corn is one of the world's largest commodity crops and is available all year-long in the processed form yet we dance and sing at its arrival each summer like a long lost friend. Granted, corn for eating and corn for high fructose corn syrup are different varieties, but the principle is the same...we know how to respect seasonality so why can't we do this across the board for all fruits and vegetables?

Want a few more fun facts...sweet corn has more sugar than starch and must be eaten rather soon after harvest before all that sugar turns to starch. Corn for processed food is made from a tasteless field variety like "Yellow Dent Corn" which has more starch than sugar and must be processed in order to be edible..

 
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This weekend, fellow co-workers, Jared and Ben, took my open air classroom on the road to two, other organic farms. Both are located just a few miles from Abbondonza. Seeing the style, focus and size of other farms gave my whole project perspective. First stop...Oxford Farms. They have a small CSA program, attend a couple farmer's markets per week but primarily focus on supplying food to local restaurants. We were greeted by the owner, John Brown, who is an authority on soil science. For an hour, we stood amongst rows of popping veggies talking about soil ecology and his biological farming practice. I could take a semester long course on the subject and not learn as much as I did in that one hour. Here are a few nuggets for you to chew on...1) Want to get the sugars up in your vegetables to make them sweeter? Pay attention to the calcium and magnesium balance in the soil. 2) Want soil that holds more nutrients and retains water better? Add more clay. 3) Your veggies are only as good as your soil. Not just for how they grow but for how they taste and how nutritious they are. You can farm organically but if you don't remineralize your soil you'll have less wholesome, blander tasting vegetables. 4) Take the last three fun facts and consider what is in your daily vitamins. Most of what we take vitamins for are what nutrient dense farmers amend their soil with. Perhaps if we paid more attention to our soil which fed our vegetables, we wouldn't have to take vitamins. Hhmmm! I was in love with their processing center where vegetables come to get ready for market. Take the virtual tour of their streamlined process. Click here!

Second visit...Ollin Farms. They have a robust CSA program with over 140 shareholders, attend two farmer's markets each week but have also diversified by offering a variety of agritourism options including pick-your-own strawberries, road-side farm stand, summer veggie camp for kids and an outdoor banquet facility. But my favorite product offering is their family dinner. The typical cost of a barn dinner is over $100/person pricing most people out of consideration. Ollin's "family" dinners are just that, for the family and only cost $30/person. Pictured above in the red shirt is the farm manager, Chad, with two of his happy shareholders who do a work trade.My co-workers, Jared and Ben, are the ones wearing the fashionable fedora hat and the maroon shirt, respectfully. We caught Chad and team on break giving us a chance to learn more about what makes their farm one of the more profitable farms in the area...access to city water which enables them to plant earlier, be the first to market each season and as a result turn crops over faster. The winning feature of the day was their lettuce spinner. You've probably never considered doing this with your washing machine....Check it out, click here!

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If you let your plants go, they will bolt or flower. Here is what spinach looks like when it has bolted. Let it bloom and dry up and you'll get seeds.

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Want a salad of mixed greens? Just plant a variety of greens really tight together in one bed. When ready, just go through with some scissors. Leave enough at the base so the lettuce can regrow and enjoy garden, fresh greens all summer.

 
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Last night we went to see The Samples at the downtown street fair in Louisville, CO. Their visceral sound brings you back to the moment you first heard them...driving west on I-70 in an open air Jeep Wrangler on a blue bird Colorado morning. The sounds of Sean Kelly's voice seemed to float through the air above the red rock of Glenwood Canyon. We were headed to Moab for the first time. I was only 23 years old. It would be interesting to be able to talk to that young girl. I look at all the awesome young people I am working with at Abbondonza, most are in their early 20's, and envy how early on they have made a decision to dedicate their lives to a more sustainable food future. I have no regrets mind you. I've worked and played in some pretty amazing places but if I had an extra 18 years on me, I could get that much more accomplished in this project to build a more resilient food economy. BTW the way, if you check out some of The Samples music, listen to: Feel Us Shaking, Indiana, Did You Ever Look So nice, to name a few.

Thursday and Friday were all about planting. In market and CSA farming you do what's called "succession farming." It's when you plant rounds of plants so you can harvest them at different times. This was the second succession of the season. We planted seven, 200 foot rows of lettuces with four varieties per row. That's a lot of greens...Radicchio, Red Fire, Oscarde, Endive, Optima Summer Crisp, etc... You get quite a system down making the process efficient and automated. You work in teams...two people drop the starters in the pre-spaced holes on either side of the row and a crew follows behind planting them in the ground with a trowel. The attached picture is of Hillary, one of the culinary students on the farm this week, who was getting to plant her first plant ever!! Such a cool experience for her and for us. Having the four CSR students made the planting feel like a Ford Motor assembly line. We were cranking through the trays of starters but talking and laughing as we moved down the row staying focused at the same time. Sometimes you have to pinch off the root bound bottom of the starter or prune the bad leaves., toss ones whose soil is dry and make sure to get the plant deep enough but not too deep. It's like putting a baby to bed. You lovingly place them in their nest and tuck them in. The conversations we have as team would be enough for one blog alone telling stories, sharing news and trying to solve the worlds problems. You not only learn a lot from each other but you really get a sense of community as we work together to bring food to the table.

Here is a link to a video of Pete plowing the furrows of the tomato fields.We aren't planning to use the work horses for all the fields but we hope to integrate them as much as possible and it ties us back to the time honored tradition of working the land. As you will see, it is a lot of work. Gives you a lot more respect for folks like Charles "Pa" Ingalls. Eventually, the plow driver will be able to drive and lead at the same time but since Pete is still in training, we have Becky guiding him.

 
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Lunch happens every day right around 1pm, three hours after the 10am break. We prepare a group lunch and everyone pitches in before all sitting down in the shade of open air barn while a cool breeze washes over us. People will spend $80 or more for a barn dinner but for us, it's a daily celebration. We've been eating "onion greens" sautéed with olive oil and tossed with scrambled eggs and other yumminess. I know, I had never heard of them either. Come to find out, they are the tops of yellow onions. Who'd a guessed. I'm totally into them. They're mild and a bit sweet not bitter like chard or kale. Not sure how to get them at home though...ask your farmer or grow your own :) Here's a another fun fact about onions...scallions, or green onions, are just young bulbous onions. Let scallions grow and they'll develop a bulb like yellow, white and purple onions. Maybe I'm the last to know this but I found it fascinating.

In other news...Yesterday I learned that hoeing has a dual purpose. Seems like most things do on the farm. Today, I learned that plastic tarps aren't just for keeping weeds out but for also helping to generate heat for hot crops like melons, cucumbers and tomatoes. The tarps you see covering fields is there to generate heat while also keeping the soil moist. Pretty nifty! But then you have to sprinkle dirt around the base of the cucumber or melon plant so the leaves don't touch the plastic. The plastic can get really hot obviously and can scorch the delicate leaves. You can't just throw the dirt on there though, you have to carefully distribute the dirt so the base of the plant is free to breathe but no plastic is showing within a foot of the base. There is a lot of precision in farming. The melons and cucs we were planting were trials meaning we were only planting two or three of each variety in order to see which one does best in this climate. The winners will get to come back next year and have a whole crop of its own (Abbondonza is a seed farm too but I'll cover all that in a different blog post - even cooler stuff).

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