Summer Plans

Hi, folks! Just a short post today, as I have to prepare loads and loads of animal-free bacon-y goodies for today’s (well, last Friday’s by the time you read this) Vegan Bacon Tasting, hosted by the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC). As such, I thought I’d let ya’ll know about my summer plans, since they involve lots of cool (well, I think, at least) animal justice-related endeavors, including a sanctuary internship and a field work project for my Geography major.

First, I’ll be spending five days a week working full-time at Heartland Farm Sanctuary, a five-year-old sanctuary just outside of my hometown’s city limits. In addition to feeding the residents, cleaning out their barns, accompanying them on medical visits (including to a licensed Reiki practitioner!), and giving them lots of love, I’ll also be helping out the leaders of Heartland’s summer camp for schoolchildren and assisting in some event-planning.

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As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I’ve become increasingly committed to learning how to more adequately communicate with other animals, to really listen to the folks with whom I seek to work in solidarity. I’m eager to further pursue this practice at Heartland this summer, both by working there and through my aforementioned Geography field work project. Through this project, I intend to highlight the marginalized voices within animal justice work, including women of color, slaughterhouse workers, and the animals themselves. In doing so, I hope to challenge the animal justice movement’s privileging and exclusionary visibilizing of white, wealthy men in order to advance a more radical agenda of animal justice, as laid out by the movement’s oft silenced voices. I would greatly appreciate any reading/resource suggestions from ya’ll, as I’ve only just begun constructing the syllabus for this project.

Anywho, I’ve got to go get up to my elbows in vegan bacon grease, so I wish you a lovely week and look forward to hearing any resource recommendations you might have.

In solidarity, Ali.

A Return to Raw Night at the Green Owl: An Eastern European-Inspired Raw Dinner

Upon returning to my hometown of Madison, WI for a month-long winter break from my hectic life at Vassar College, I’ve engaged in a number of activities that have contributed to a true sense of homecoming. Even though I now happily consider the Vassar campus as my veritable stomping ground, Madison’s liberal, progressive, vibrant, eclectic, environmentally-minded community earns an eternal place in my heart, and during my extended visit back I’ve truly enjoyed partaking in the activities that, for me, define the Madisonian lifestyle. Those translate to frequently patronizing my two favorite heated yoga studios, Inner Fire Yoga and The Studio; shopping for high-quality, organic, and local produce as well as specialty health food items at the Willy Street Coop; supporting the Dane County Farmers Market every Saturday; whiling away the hours in my well-equipped kitchen; and sampling the generous amount of veg-friendly restaurant cuisine this fine city has to offer.

Concerning Madison’s restaurant scene, once again experiencing a certain special, monthly dining event excited me more than returning to any other eatery while back in my hometown: Raw Night at the Green Owl. I’ve returned to the Green Owl for their Raw Nights on six occasions now, determined to pay that sixth visit during my winter break after an excruciating four-month hiatus from the gourmet raw cuisine offered by Cara and Jennie. Last Thursday night, I, accompanied by two of my dear friends, satisfied this fierce determination at the Owl’s “Eastern European Winter Themed” Raw Night, which featured light, colorful, uncooked variations on the heavy traditional dishes of the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and the like.

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Foreshadowing the party of pink and parade of pickles that would characterize our meal, a creamy apple slaw mixed with locally fermented red cabbage sauerkraut and garnished with chives began my long-awaited reunion with the Owl’s ever-improving raw fare. An intriguing meld of tart, tangy, sour, and sweet flavors united by a lovely undertone of caraway, the slaw served as a fresh opening to the five tantalizing courses to come.

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Yet another brilliantly pink dish followed the slaw—a chilled borscht served with a dollop of cashew sour cream and topped with fresh dill and chive oil. I’ve long hesitated to sample borscht or to make it myself out of a fear that the soup will taste simply like, well, a pile of soggy shredded beets. Don’t get me wrong—I adore the earthy sweetness of beets, but always felt that an entire soup devoted to them would taste rather overpowering. Indeed, my skepticism proved accurate, as a beety boxer knocked out my tastebuds with the first spoonful of borscht, and I could only stomach another couple experimental tastes before handing off the cup to my dining companions (we opted to share two prix fixe menus between the three of us due to the generous portion sizes). However, I don’t want to blame the fabulous folks at the Owl for a less-than-appetizing soup, for I feel strongly that any rendition of borscht would inspire in me the very same negative reaction. Offering a redeeming quality to the second course, the creamy cashew sour cream inspired me to save it from drowning in its beety ocean as I stole the dollop from both bowls of soup.

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The final small plate of the meal included crisp endive leaves filled with a savory pumpkin seed pate and accompanied by cumin-spiced pickled turnips. Though the pate tasted like just about every other nut pate I’ve sampled in the past (not bad, just nothing special), I positively fawned over the brightly hued, impeccably tangy, surprisingly spiced pickled turnips. Blame my powerful adoration of all things pickled, but I would call these pickled turnips a work of culinary art, especially due to their employment of cumin—a spice I never would have considered adding to pickles. Green Owl: I’d like a barrel of the pickled turnips, okay? Thanks.

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Temporarily straying from our dinner’s otherwise pink theme, our main plate of Kofta Biryani drove our party of three into a symphony of “Mmm’s” and “Oh my god’s” with its quartet of dazzling components. Crusty on the outside with a delicately textured center, three deeply flavored walnut balls bathed in a creamy gravy boasting an undertone of cinnamon. Beside the walnut balls glowed a sunnily hued saffron-cauliflower “rice” pilaf studded with dates, bell peppers, and coconut flakes. Providing a refreshing flavor contrast to the three other unctuous aspects of the dish, a side of crunchy house-fermented brussels sprouts rounded out our main course.

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As per usual, dessert proved the most decadent, astounding, and utterly mind-blowing course of the entire meal…or of all of the meals I’ve eaten over the past couple of months. This cardamom-poppy seed cheesecake with orange blossom-blood orange glaze and citrus-apricot sauce left all three of us literally speechless, as we devoured both slices in complete silence, communicating with each other only with strained expressions of, “I finally understand what it truly means to experience a food orgasm.” And now I cannot force myself to think about anything else other than this cheesecake…so thank you, Green Owl, for ruining all my intellectual hopes and dreams. I’m okay with that, though, as long as I can curl up with a slice of your cheesecake every night.

Needless to say, my “welcome back” Raw Night dinner fulfilled and exceeded all of my expectations, and I’m currently attempting not to allow my absence from Madison, and thus from the Green Owl, during my spring semester of freshman year to cause me too much gastronomic suffering. Sigh. If any of you, dear readers, experience the pleasure of dining at the Green Owl for their Raw Nights, please let me know so my palate can live vicariously through yours.

Until next time, Ali.

Meeting the Madison Raw Foodies

While Vassar’s dining options include an impressive variety of creative and healthy vegan dishes, they falter, rather predictably, at providing food catering to a raw foods diet. Yes, both the Deece and the Retreat (Vassar’s main dining hall and cafe-style eatery, respectively) feature considerably well-stocked salad bars, but I certainly cannot hope to discover any cashew cheese, zucchini noodles, or kale chips within a 200-foot radius of either building. Though I don’t adhere to an exclusively raw diet simply because, from experimenting with doing so over the past couple of years, I find it unsustainable for my active lifestyle and too restrictive to truly enjoy. However, I prefer that both my daily breakfasts and lunches consist heavily of raw foods to ensure high nutrient density, thoroughly enjoy reveling in decadent raw desserts every so often, and immensely admire individuals who have vastly improved their health (many even reversing Western diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers) by committing to a raw diet. That said, I took great pleasure in sharing a potluck dinner last night with a handful of fellow members of the Madison Raw Food Meetup Group who, unlike the vast majority of my college campus, wholeheartedly appreciated the nourishing power of pure veggies, fruits, nuts, and seeds, as well as shared my enthusiasm for sprouting, dehydrating, juicing, and smoothie-ing.

Raw Potluck Collage

Starting from top left and working clockwise, our group of health-minded folk enjoyed:

  • A wonderfully tender kale salad massaged with a citrusy olive oil dressing and tossed with avocado and grapefruit.
  • Mushroom Pizzas with a tahini-based pate, tomatoes, and spiced avocado slices.
  • (My contribution!) Falafel and Hummus Wraps with marinated mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers (recipe here). I adored the deeply savory, quite olive-y flavor of the pumpkin seed falafel, but opted to make a more seasonal wrapper out of winter squash rather than the one called for in the original recipe.
  • Satisfyingly crisp sundried tomato-basil crackers and sprouted rye berry crackers accompanied by the silkiest, most delectable cashew cream cheese in which my tastebuds have ever had the pleasure of frolicking (of course the woman who provided these dishes employed a VitaMix to yield such a creamy spread—oh, the jealousy!).
  • Two superfood dessert bars—the first of hemp seeds, dried figs, dates, and almond butter; the other a chocolatey date-nut square topped with shredded coconut.

The buffet table also included apple slices and almond butter, hemp seeds to top the kale salad, a strawberry cheesecake, and a platter of my Red Peppermint “Sugar” Cookies.

Boasting a larger turnout that the last raw food meetup I attended during the summer, last night’s potluck offered an informal, friendly setting in which to chat with likeminded vegans and nutrition junkies, including two members of the Madison-based band Sexy Ester, who describe their music as “post-modern power pop.” Lyndsay, the lead singer, described to me her journey to raw foodism: she adopted a vegan lifestyle at age 18 out of a deep love for animals and decided to experiment with a raw foods diet in an attempt to ameliorate long-term digestive issues—more power to her! I intend to keep in touch with her and continue to support her band’s endeavors.

Finally, I’d like to conclude this post by rehabilitating the powerful discussion I introduced in my last raw potluck recap, which describes my experience in and advice for finding the inspiration to remain vegan for life. The post touches upon my transition from health-focused veganism to passionate animal rights advocacy, and how both educating oneself of the three major reasons—the animals, the environment, and health—for becoming vegan as well as surrounding oneself with a community supportive of a compassionate lifestyle prove necessary “In order to thoroughly cultivate the dedication and unwavering psychology necessary to nuture a permanent vegan lifestyle” (as quoted from the post I’m referencing). I’d love if you’d take the time to read (or re-read) my musings and contribute your thoughts to the conversation.

Until next time, Ali.

Interview With a Farmer: Roots Down Community Farm

This post serves as the fifth of my “Interview With a Farmer” series. Through this series, I hope to cultivate a deeper relationship with small-scale, organic vegetable farmers, both in the Madison and Poughkeepsie—my hometown and my college town—areas, and to offer insight toward the staggering importance in supporting these hard-working, noble individuals, who act as the backbones in the fight against overly-industrialized agriculture.

Prior to this spring, I had never before encountered the gorgeous produce grown by Kyle Thom of Roots Down Community Farm, a five-year-old organic farm that offers bountiful CSA shares and just this year entered onto the Dane County Farmers Market scene after enduring a lengthy waiting list. One look inside Kyle’s greenhouse rife with every variety of heirloom tomato trellised methodically on a single string per vine convinced me of his utter dedication and passion toward providing impeccable fruits and vegetables to the near-Madison community. Kyle’s generosity, considering both the grocery bag bursting with veggie goodies with which he sent me home after the interview as well as the beaming smile he shares every Saturday at the market, surely will further his ventures in the strong agricultural network of southern Wisconsin.

On a more personal note, I’d like to apologize for my semi-hiatus from the vegan blogosphere over the past couple of days. Tuesday marked my official transition into the Vassar College community in Poughkeepsie, NY, and our freshman orientation schedule leaves little room for leisure activities such as blogging. I do plan on writing a post chronicling my meal plan and food preparations during my shift to college life, but probably won’t finish it until this whirlwind of introductions, social gatherings, and class registration has settled. Stay tuned, my friends!

Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.

Kyle Thom: We’re in Milton, WI and we grow a wide range of diverse plants. We do have a CSA that feeds about 85 families a year with weekly and biweekly shares that run from late May to mid-October. We don’t offer any winter shares yet and our boxes contain strictly fruits and vegetables. We also attend farmers markets every week—the Eastside Farmers’ Market, the Fitchburg Farmers Market, and the Dane County Farmers Market.

Out in the fields with a glimpse of the greenhouse.

FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?

KT: I was very interested in ecology, wildlife, nature, being outdoors, and being active as a kid. I got into cooking when I was younger and always had a love for science; I find growing to be somewhat scientific and I’m a big dork about it—I get really into all the facts about it.

FMV: Out of those interests, how did the farm itself originate?

KT: I started farming as a teenager, helping on some farms in Stoughton where I grew up. I worked at Pleasant Hill Farm, which is no longer a CSA farm, unfortunately, but they were for a long time. There, I picked raspberries and washed spinach just as a side job to make some money when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I started farming as a partner with somebody in October of 2005 to try it out and fell in love with it. That’s when I decided I wanted to start a farm of my own.

Gorgeous green zebra tomatoes on the vine.

FMV: What would you identify as the greatest hardships and rewards about farming, respectively?

KT: The greatest reward is when people find value in what you do and in the food; they either tell you directly or you can tell because they’re enthusiastic about it. The greatest hardships, I must say, are weather, insects, and all the plagues that farmers have to deal with.

FMV: How do you manage those plagues?

KT: Well, insects can be managed through monitoring. Most insects hatch during a certain time of year, so if you know when that is, you can expect it. In weird years like this when there’s a warm winter, more insect eggs and larvae survive, but there are certified organic insect sprays that we can use if we have an infestation or if there’s an insect that could cause a major problem.

FMV: Would you say that your farm was hit hard by weather this year?

KT: No, I wouldn’t say that. We suffered some losses, but gained more of the earlier crops that matured faster in the heat.

Kyle displays the ginormous sweet yellow onions.

FMV: How long have you sold your produce at the farmers market?

KT: Since I started farming seven years ago. I began marketing myself at farmers markets because I knew I couldn’t build a CSA customer base right away—no one had ever heard of me or my farm. I started my CSA after two years with just 10 members, then joined the Fair Share CSA Coalition the year after, and finally became certified organic in my third year. It’s been a slow progression of meeting the goals I had when I started, but I think I’ve reached all of them. Now, though, there are new goals to set. I’d like to expand my farm and provide more food to more families.

In the greenhouse: basil and tomatoes.

FMV: Do you enjoy selling at the farmers market?

KT: Yes. I enjoy meeting new people and socializing over food. Sometimes I’m too tired to really want to be there, but when the crops are ready, they’re ready. When life gives you lemons…

FMV: You’ve got to sell the lemons! But you mentioned earlier that you also employ workers on the farm. Do you ever send them to the market to sell for you?

KT: No, I haven’t developed the infrastructure or obtained enough equipment to do that. Also, we haven’t really met anyone who is willing to pack a truck for that long or wake up at 3:00 in the morning to go to market. It’s a little hard to find the right person for that job—who you want to represent your farm and your name.

Milo, the adorable grey tabby of Roots Down.

FMV: What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison?

KT: I think the food culture in Madison is extensive and very broad. There are a lot of ethnic foods in Madison compared to other cities, like Janesville, where I live; they’re a little more chain-oriented. I lived in Madison for quite a while and very much enjoyed the restaurants down there—lots of good chefs, lots of good food. I wish I had more time to visit.

FMV: Do you appreciate the connections between many restaurants in Madison and local farmers?

KT: I do. It’s cool to see chefs walking around the market on Saturday morning with their wagons. Hopefully one day, our farm will be able to sell to them more extensively.

Big ol’ green bean harvest.

FMV: Do you currently supply your produce to any restaurants or grocery stores?

KT: Not really. I’m constantly busy selling at markets and running around doing CSA drops— I don’t have much more time to also stop at restaurants. I’ve supplied to some chefs who come to the markets, though, like The Weary Traveler, Alchemy Café, Ian’s Pizza, and Underground Food Collective. They usually have small orders—a little bit here, a little bit there. But selling to restaurants is not really a priority for me.

Red and orange bell peppers in the field.

FMV: As a small farm, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production, both in the Wisconsin area and beyond?

KT: I think I’m both encouraged and discouraged. The organic food movement is growing, and it’s encouraging to see so many young farmers starting up. I’m probably a young, beginning farmer myself, but it’s still encouraging to see other people like me doing it. The old generation of farmers is going to disappear soon, and we have to replace it.

FMV: Would you say that nation’s focus on local food is expanding?

KT: I think it’s growing, yes, which is very positive. Commercialized agriculture is definitely still a huge presence, though. There’s some scary things out there when it comes to cheap food—the way it’s shipped around and what sorts of chemicals people are putting in their bodies. America has such a problem with diabetes and obesity—corn and sugar plays a big role in that. But hopefully it’ll improve with the growth of small farms.

A second greenhouse brimming with beautiful heirloom tomatoes.

FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?

KT: It’s a lot of hard work—don’t get discouraged too quickly and be patient. Remember that you can’t accomplish everything in one year or one season, so just keep trying. Learn from older farmers whenever you can because getting on-farm experience is priceless. Working on several different farms is even better than on one because no two farms are alike—each one does things in its own way. I’d recommend reading a lot, too. Dig into seed catalogues or books on soil and biology so you can understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. That way, you can find value in each individual task because it’s all a chain. A lot of the best farmers I’ve ever seen will tell you that all the little things you do make a great crop.

FMV: Are you mostly self-educated or did you study horticulture in college?

KT: No, I don’t have a degree, I just started reading. I was homeschooled, so I don’t feel like I need the label of a college degree to be able to farm. I think farming is a very active, physical career that requires a lot of energy—you can’t learn that.

Picked melons storing in the cooler.

FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area serves as a good place to start a small farm?

KT: Yes. It has a great climate—it doesn’t get too hot and the winters aren’t that severe. It’s definitely enough to keep a farmer busy for 10 out of 12 months of the year, and if you have the space, you can store crops for the entire year.

An amalgamation of bumper stickers decorating the walk-in cooler.

FMV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?

KT: I get excited about almost everything! But I have to say, I really enjoy working with tomato plants, just because there are so many different varieties. I also really enjoy growing onions and garlic—anything in the onion family. I like growing melons, too—those are exciting. Oh, and fennel. It gets a frilly top and a blanched bulb beneath. When they’re all in a perfect row and weeded nicely with the fronds waving in the wind, it’s gorgeous.

FMV: Spoken like a true farmer!

You can find Kyle online at his website or on Facebook at Roots Down Farm, or you can email him at csa@rootsdowncommunityfarm.com.

Until next time, Ali.

August Raw Night: My Last of the Year

Lo and behold, last Thursday marked the end of an era, the finale of an epoch, the conclusion of a generation—I enjoyed my last Green Owl Raw Night of the year. After six progressively stunning ventures to Madison’s hub of vegetarianism for six increasingly complex dinners, culminating in a veritable uncooked feast of impeccable Thai flavor, I must bid adieu to my beloved monthly Raw Nights as I relocate in a mere week to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. While I anticipate a plethora of superb eating excursions to New York City, living only a simple hour-long Amtrak ride away from Manhattan, I won’t feel the welcoming sweep of the Green Owl’s kelly-green wings into its palace of raw yummies until returning to Madison in January for winter break. In the meantime, I’d like to mourn my four-month hiatus from the Owl by commemorating the astounding amalgamation of pure summer bliss in which I reveled last Thursday.

The Last Supper of summer’s bounty began with a juicy salad of yellow watermelon and heirloom tomatoes in a balsamic drizzle, topped with fresh basil. Literally any dish featuring heirloom tomatoes will smack a huge smile on my face, guaranteed, and this tangy, acidic, ever-so-slightly sweet salad certainly proved no different, especially considering that the refreshing crunch of the watermelon mingled amusingly with the tender succulence of the tomatoes. I only wish the Owl had perfected some sort of raw baguette (is that even possible?) to sop up all the juicy tomato deliciousness left behind on my otherwise clean plate.

A creamy soup of cucumber and dill followed, providing effective textural contrast and a palate-cleansing flavor against the bold salad that preceded. My waitress informed me that cashews formed the base of this soup, though I could only detect an incredibly fresh lightness of cucumber rather than a heavily cloying nuttiness. Every spoonful reminded me of biting into a crisp, perfectly fresh cuke.

Our last appetizer consisted of flax crackers with veggie hummus. The crackers harbored an intense sundried tomato flavor studded with Italian spices, rendering them rather pizza-like, while the cool, creamy squash-based hummus served as a mellow accompaniment. I did, however, think that the plate came packed with a few too many flax crackers than I would have cared to enjoy—I still had to save room for an entree and dessert!

And oh, what an entree for which I saved room. From left to right, the Green Owl mad genius team offered a cob of sweet corn slathered in garlic-infused coconut “butter”; two kebabs of tender red bell pepper, earthy cremini mushrooms, and crunchy summer squash; and two slabs of juicy barbeque papaya “steak” coated in a spicy dry rub. While the notion of a papaya steak blew my mind (not to mention my taste buds), the unbelievably sweet corn, brilliantly coated in coconut oil to mimic the melting deliciousness of fresh-off-the-grill corn cobs, claimed the title of my favorite aspect of the entire meal…

…except, perhaps, for dessert (how can you blame me?). While not the most photogenic dish I’ve enjoyed, I could not have wished for a more satisfying denouement to my numerous Raw Night experiences than this messy, juicy, fruity, tangy berry cobbler with banana ice cream. A bright magenta sauce of mixed berries that popped upon contact with my tongue pooled around a surprisingly smooth, walnut-based cake topped with fresh raspberries, while an ice cream consisting simply of bananas and vanilla bean rounded out the dish. According to my waitress, the cake contained some sort of seaweed that I would assume to be irish moss, since that would certainly account for its meltingly tender texture.

Farewell, Green Owl. You’ve fulfilled my yearning for gourmet raw goodies over the past 6+ months, and I will miss your joyous atmosphere, your unceasingly friendly waitstaff, your neverending creativity with uncooked vittles, and your ability to make me and my tummy incredibly content. Until January, thank you.

Until next time, Ali.

Interview With a Farmer: Garden to Be

This post serves as the third of my “Interview With a Farmer” series. Through this series, I hope to cultivate a deeper relationship with small-scale, organic vegetable farmers, both in the Madison and Poughkeepsie—my hometown and my college town—areas, and to offer insight toward the staggering importance in supporting these hard-working, noble individuals, who act as the backbones in the fight against overly-industrialized agriculture.

While I don’t interact with Scott Williams of Garden to Be as often as I’d like to during the summer, I look forward to seeing his smiling face every weekend at the indoor farmers market in the winter. Scott’s baby shooted vegetables including peas and sunflowers, as well as his microgreens, often grace my daily salads, reminding me of the honorable work he performs both as a farmer and as an activist for social justice. A beamingly positive and optimistic attitude in the face of unpredictability on the farm and the responsibility of raising two children inspire my ardent admiration of Scott, who truly understands and effectively elaborates on small-scale agriculture as a means of social change. In addition to his primary endeavor of supplying produce to restaurants and grocery stores, Scott also offers a “storage” CSA share that provides large quantities of vegetables commonly used for pickling, canning, freezing, and other forms of preservation.

Scott at the first outdoor market of 2012.

Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.

Scott Williams: We’re 20 miles southwest of Madison, near Mount Horeb, right in the corner of Dane County. My wife, April, and I own seven acres and rent six more directly adjacent to us from Roger Sponem, one of the original owners of the land. He lives at a farm across the road; the land was his wedding present back in the 50’s. It’s really cool to have that connection with a heavily experienced farmer, to see his old tractors, and to have his blessing shining down on us. All our land is certified organic. We have two greenhouses that are roughly 1,200-1,500 square feet each, and operate one of them year-round to grow the microgreens and pea shoots that we sell at the Dane County Farmers Market, the Willy Street Co-op, and Metcalfe’s. But since 2000, we’ve sold primarily to restaurants in both the Madison and Milwaukee areas.

Ruby Streaks Mustard Microgreens.

FMV: You mentioned your organic certification, about which I’ve previously spoken with a couple other farmers. Do you find it difficult to maintain the certification?

SW: No, we do really well with it since I’m meticulous about record-keeping. I don’t find any of the rules too overly cumbersome, but it does involve a lot of paperwork. I used to do it all by hand—no computer or email for our first few years—but once we got Quickbooks in 2005, everything became much easier to keep track of. The application is fairly long, but our farm doesn’t do anything suspicious in terms of the questions to which the certifiers pay the most attention—our methods don’t change that much from year to year; we don’t use very many off-farm inputs other than seeds, potting mix, and compost; we don’t buy much in the way of chemicals, organically approved or not; and we don’t have both organic and non-organic production to keep separate. Everything we do is dedicated to organic production and we use really reputable sources for our seed and supplies. I like our certifying agent, MOSA; they’re easy to talk to and have always sent pretty good inspectors. I think there’s a twinge of cynicism in organic certification since the USDA is involved, and we all know that they are influenced by large corporate farms that do whatever they want—if they get help up in litigation for a supposed offense, they’ll just continue with it and call it organic, usually without USDA interference. But large farms are not specifically our competition. I’m happy to say that most people who buy from us can easily meet us—we’re at market during four months of the year, the restaurant chefs know us really well, and they introduce us to their staff—which makes for lot of interim trust and well-cultivated relationships that set us apart from those industrialized “organic” farms.

Buckwheat Shoots.

FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?

SW: Food politics and social responsibility. April and I were vegetarian for a super long time, and I recognized diet, food production, and food transportation throughout the world as political issues pretty early in my life—probably in high school, like you! [Motions to me.] At that point, I started gardening and working in social justice businesses, nonprofit organizations, and cooperatively owned businesses until I found myself in Madison and met Steve Pincus, the owner of and farmer at Tipi Produce, as well as one of the original founders of Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee and one of the most senior members of the Dane County Farmers Market. I had worked previously on a farm in Michigan, but the concept of small farming as a political statement didn’t make full sense to me until I started working with Steve on a farm in close proximity to a rather large city. I recognized that he was growing food for real people and deeply admired the amount of attention that he paid toward stewarding his little corner of the world. Steve worked with a lot of retailers and grocery stores, but only a couple of restaurant chefs would come and buy at the farmers market, like Odessa Piper, the original owner of L’Etoile. As a single young man who ate out for most of his meals, I didn’t want to hunt halfway around the world to find tasty, local, organic dining options, and became interested primarily as a farmer in collaborating with restaurants. The philosophy that April and I have always shared is that we all have a responsibility to one another other and to the land we live on, so sliding toward the world of farming and expanding that responsibility to restaurants seemed quite natural.

Heirloom Tomatoes.

FMV: Can you talk a little bit more about how farming connects to the social justice movement?

SW: I think at this point, I see that who we are, how we’re connected, and how we take care of each other is intrinsic in being able to take care of ourselves—food is a huge part of that. Take the programs April and I are involved in, for instance: we’ve always been members of the Fair Share CSA Coalition, we host farm tours for school groups, we hosted Bike the Barns a few years ago, we’ve served on the committee to start the Partner Shares Program that helps provide CSA shares to low-income families, and April is currently serving as a consultant for the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, which is a co-op of Hmong- and Latino-American farmers who are trying to branch out and sell their produce at other outlets besides just markets around the city. April’s role is to create better marketing solutions to make the farmers more profitable and and their businesses more sustainable.

Salad Turnips and Red Radishes.

FMV: What would you identify as the greatest rewards and hardships about farming, respectively?

SW: Maybe I could start with the hardships. I think it always strikes people that where we live doubles as where we work. It’s sort of an adage, but there’s always something to do on the farm, and it’s a little difficult to manage work and leisure time, especially with a family. This year, for example, we didn’t see rain for two months and I had to run irrigation constantly. I can put off moving sprinklers and setting up drip lines by 15-20 minutes here and there, but otherwise it’s a very scheduled process. My alarms were always going off reminding me to go move the irrigation, go turn off the sprinkler, go turn that on—interrupting story time, bath time, or lunch. So one of the hardships is trying to balance separate aspects of life, because you’re right on the farm all the time. There’s also hardship in trying to grow food when certain factors are not entirely predictable. But even when some things aren’t working out, some things are, and it’s really rewarding to hear how much people enjoy the food, especially when the restaurant chefs to whom we supply our produce are recognized. To know that we provide one of the elements that’s a part of a chefs’ palate in creating these awesome menus, dinners, and experiences for somebody dining out is when I can truly say, “Oh, I’m so proud of what we do!” It’s an honor to work with artists and scientists who are very successful in such a competitive business field. Plus, it’s awesome to see my kids getting involved with food and showing interest in the farm, whether they’re playing on the tree swing or in the creek, or actually harvesting the produce and eating it. My son loves to cook, and to watch him learn and grow is so rewarding.

FMV: How long have you sold your produce at the farmers market?

SW: Garden to Be became a member of the Dane County Farmers Market in 2000 and started selling regularly in 2002 since there was a two-year waiting list. But by 2004, we started scaling our market stand back and shifted to selling primarily to restaurants, though we do still go to the winter market and have been for two years.

FMV: Even though you don’t attend the market as often as the farmers who sell every weekend year-round, do you enjoy selling there?

SW: I really do. I love the interaction and seeing regulars. For example, Johnny would buy the same thing every week. Then one day, he changed his mind and bought something new! I asked him, “Oh, what’s happening here?” He told me, “I’ve been in a rut. This week, I’m not buying the same of anything.” After that, I had a fun time asking myself, “I wonder what he’s going to buy this week!” I always think about that close connection with people that we meet and get to know at the market. I love the atmosphere and the spectacle of the market outside; it’s so exciting.

Scott and Chef John of Sardine Restaurant promoting microgreens at the Willy Street Co-op.

FMV: What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison and the people who visit the market?

SW: First of all, what I tell my family and friends who live outside of Wisconsin is that Madison is so supportive of the important aspects in getting on the right track toward a healthy and sustainable food system. People recognize the importance of healthy food and taking care of our land in a sustainable manner, then they spend their money on it. They could be spending their money on anything other than food because, let’s face it, good food is expensive. But 10,000-plus people show up at the market every week and spend their money with local businesses on better food—raw food—that they then prepare themselves. It’s just amazing. The market’s been here since 1972, and I think what might be considered a regional cuisine has been forged out of relationships made at that market. For instance, Odessa Piper opened L’Etoile in 1976 and became the first chef in Madison to shop at the market from local farmers; now you see dozens of chefs bringing wagons around the market every week. That market has helped shape what has become a growing trend. I mean, how many cities do you go to where there’s that much attention paid to what produce is in season?

FMV: Do Madison’s qualities make you hopeful that similar attitudes toward food will expand to the rest of the nation?

SW: Yes, and they have. For example, in the time that Madison’s been involved in the sustainable food movement, the food scene in Chicago has changed dramatically. The Green City Market has grown, there’s dozens more markets there, and their attention toward food has now shifted from that of other big cities. The shift has started in other places, too. April and I visit family in the Cleveland, Ohio area, which is still sort of desolate to me in terms of where to eat, but there are a lot of great things happening there right now—farmers run CSA’s and deliver to restaurants, which they’ve never done before. I think that the Saturday market on Capitol Square has had one of the biggest impacts on the food scene in Madison in the last 40 years. It’s done so much to shape our restaurants, our co-ops, and our grocery stores, and has started a national organic trend.

Flats of microgreens and pea shoots ready for delivery at L’Etoile.

FMV: As a small farmer, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production, both in Wisconsin and beyond?

SW: I remain pretty encouraged and try to keep a smile. We still have to improve the energy usage and transportation portion of food production. But large-scale industries are turning toward smaller suppliers now—Target, for example, carries organic products—and I’m definitely leery. Prior to having organic certification standards and knowing what any particular label might mean, we had to read a lot, and now we’re reading again. Alright, so a product is “certified organic”. But are they asterix-ing certain ingredients? It just reminds me how much responsibility rests with us as individuals to constantly push the envelope. Though, it’s really nice to know that, at the very least, there’s more attention paid to the types of chemicals used and more public money supporting energy efficiency in food production, s0 hopefully we’ll see more of that.

FMV: You mentioned earlier that you supply your produce mainly to restaurants and grocery stores. Can you talk more specifically about that?

SW: Yes, we supply to about 30 restaurants and grocery stores around Madison. Both of the Willy Street Co-op locations and two of the Metcalfe grocery stores mainly carry our microgreens and young shooted vegetables like buckwheat, sunflowers, and peas. As for restaurants, we offer larger quantities of produce, both pre-cut and still in the flats. The latter way, the chefs can cut as they want it, which is nice, especially for certain places like Shinji Muramoto’s restaurants—he can put the flat right out on the sushi counter and display the food that his diners will eat at that very meal, which is exciting. (You can find a full list of restaurants and grocery stores to which Garden to Be supplies here.)

Spring outdoor market stand.

FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?

SW: Go to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. Work part-time or full-time on a farm. Do some research, pick a farm, and work on it. Read This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman. It’s a very honest, no-nonsense look at the nostalgic feeling that everyone gets from her father, Elliot Coleman—the master of organic market gardening right now. He’s written these manuals and workbooks that every CSA and small organic farm has copies of. Melissa’s book is a lot more about the hard work involved in farming and how much of your life you have to devote to it. There are a lot of jobs that require the same amount of work, I think, but farming is definitely as much a lifestyle as it is just a job—April and I hadn’t anticipated that. By the time we started realizing it, we were knee-deep in the farming world and completely addicted. But it’s a lot to consider—you’re a business owner, you need to understand so many things that you don’t think of in terms of personal gardening, you’re taking your passion out of a hobby realm and into a responsible business realm. I’d recommend reading anything that provides some sort of insight into the balancing working and living on a farm, as well as how to make sure you’re meeting your needs. Also, you need to have some experience. There’s nothing harder than being a beginning farmer who’s started a CSA and has taken both money and memberships, then spends their entire first year overcoming weeds and getting discouraged or despondent. It’s a really good idea to figure out a lot of those fundamentals while working for somebody else—they can cover for you, direct you, and guide you. Luckily, there’s a lot of resources for aspiring farmers to gain experience—the Fair Share CSA Coalition’s website offers all sorts of resources for first-time farmers and is updated pretty frequently. Michael Fields also offers internships and workshops, as well as links farms together so that interns or just agriculture-curious people can tour farms for a day.

FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area serves as a good place to start a small farm?

SW: I think there’s still tons of room, tons of business, tons of commitment toward, and tons of demand for local, organic food in Wisconsin. People here are very creative and open to both new ideas and really old ideas that haven’t been tested in the area before. It’s nice to see people who aren’t of Southeast Asian descent buying Asian melons and gourds from Hmong farmers out of curiosity, or experimenting with interesting herbs usually grown in Mexico. The average shopper in Madison and at the farmers market is savvy—they watch the Food Network, read cookbooks, pick up copies of Edible Madison magazine, and read restaurant reviews. They have direct access to what Tory Miller is doing inside L’Etoile. They can experience all these creative uses for food that they think they knew all about. It’s a great place to be and to grow food.

Garden to Be at Eagle Heights Community Gardens.

FMV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?

SW: That is really hard to narrow down. Every year, I’ll have my annual favorites. Last fall, for example, I randomly started growing salad turnips for the first time in a while—really sweet, white turnips with young, tender greens. I have this salad mix seeder and I decided that I would plant them really thick with baby turnips; they turned out so delicious. For about two months, I ate them all the time and decided that they were my favorite vegetable. But in this really weird way, I have always loved growing peppers and potatoes, even though they aren’t greatly marketable crops for us. I thought that for the amount of labor and space put into those crops, I couldn’t effectively charge as much as I would need to. But after the few years that we didn’t grow potatoes, I thought, “Man, why did we ever stop growing potatoes?” I love harvesting them, digging them, watching them grow, and trying to outsmart potato beetles. Peppers, too. There were years when I was growing just one or two plants of thirty pepper varieties—I just love their diversity. Those two vegetables, longevity-wise, are my favorites.

FMV: I’ve never heard anyone talk so passionately about potatoes and peppers.

You can find Scott on Facebook at Garden to Be or on their website, or you can email him at gardentobe@tds.net.

Raw Potluck Meetup and Remaining Vegan for the Long Run

Last Saturday, I attended my first event hosted by the Madison Raw Food Meetup Group—a modestly attended yet cheerful potluck at Jewel in the Lotus Yoga. The brightly hued, spiritually rich studio provided a jovial atmosphere in which to meet like-minded Madisonians, discuss vegan issues, learn about individual experiences with raw foodism, and sample an array of delightfully fresh uncooked vittles.

 

I provided three dishes: Raw Tacos—chili-spiced walnut “meat” topped with pico de gallo, guacamole, and cashew sour cream wrapped in a napa cabbage leaf; Spiced Melon Shooters—a creamy soup of cantaloupe and avocado uniquely spiced with ginger, cumin, and a hint of cayenne, elegantly served in Dixie cups; and Coconut-Lemon Meltaway Cookies, the scrumptiousness of which I’m certain you can gather simply from the title.

Rather blurry (I apologize) Raw Tacos.

Coconut-Lemon Meltaway Cookies

Goodies prepared by my fellow potluck attendees included a tasty mingling of contrasting flavors and textures in a “casserole” of Bragg’s-marinated mushrooms, sweet corn, and alfalfa sprouts; fresh-picked purslane; a pesto of kale, basil, walnuts, garlic, and nutritional yeast; and a superb dessert of rosewater-soaked date halves stuffed with almond butter and sprinkled with cacao nibs.

Mushroom-corn casserole.

My plate of raw fabulousness.

While seated upon tasseled, jewel-toned cushions, our small group of friendly strangers shared a deliciously nourishing meal and engaged in a surprisingly intriguing discourse pertaining to veganism. I chatted primarily with a lovely and fascinating woman named Sonya, who dove into the vegan realm a mere two months ago, yet offers the tremendous insight of an experienced activist. Our conversation flowed in and out of our personal journeys through veganism, my jealousy of her well-stocked raw kitchen (complete with an Excalibur dehydrator and a Blendtec), the vegetarian community in Madison, and the wild success of this year’s Mad City Vegan Fest. However, after touching upon one topic in particular, I couldn’t shake it from my contemplative mind: adopting a vegan diet solely for health reasons, only to backtrack into animal product consumption and repudiate a potentially life-altering shift in consciousness, whether toward animals, the environment, or both.

I’ve unabashedly admitted before that I, like many others, became a vegan out of a borderline obsessive desire to achieve optimal health through my eating habits. Eliminating animal secretions (I had already not eaten their flesh since the 4th grade) from my diet almost overnight, I dove headfirst into the ocean of veganism, immersing myself in the waters of vegan blogs, books, Twitter accounts, magazines, and podcasts. While I did so with the singular intention of stuffing my brain full of plant-based nutritional information (Becoming Vegan played a huge role in my early days), after a couple of months, the compassionate message at the heart of the vegan movement ceased to serve as a mere murmur and transformed into a veritable roar. Yes, these bloggers, authors, Twitter-users, columnists, and podcasters offered wholesome recipes and a wealth of nutritional knowledge, but they also shared an intense desire to rid the world of animal cruelty and environmental degredation—a desire that often crept (and often more-than-crept) into their work and that I could not ignore “once I finally allowed myself to absorb the true magnitude of the utterly inhumane impact a non-vegan lifestyle has on non-human animals” (as quoted from my blog’s Philosophy tab). I soon traded Becoming Vegan for Animal Liberation; cried while listening to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcasts on “free-range” egg farms, pigs, and animal mutilation instead of downloading only her nutritionally focused episodes; and expanded my Twitter feed to include PETA, Compassion Over Killing, and Mercy for Animals among the food bloggers.

But what if I hadn’t permitted the reality of egregious animal suffering to permeate my once purely health-conscious psyche? What if I hadn’t surrounded myself with a virtual community of like-minded people? What if I hadn’t continued to educate myself and expand my knowledge of vegan issues on a daily basis? What if I hadn’t shifted my perception of veganism from a rather superficial aspiration of weight management to a selfless urge to cause as little harm as possible to the world and all of its inhabitants? If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t call myself a vegan today.

Recently, I’ve encountered a number of former vegans who, after harboring supposedly steadfast ideals, somehow “unlearned” the cruelty to animals, to the environment, and to their health that originally inspired a passionate desire to live in accordance with their values. While I certainly don’t believe that their compassionate morals suddenly morphed into a bloodthirsty lust to harm living beings, I strongly suspect that they allowed themselves to conveniently forget the astronomical impacts of animal consumption, re-blanketing their once liberated true ideals with weak excuses and justifications—”Sometimes I crave a cookie and it’s hard to find a vegan one”; “I had to eat meat after getting pregnant”; “There was nothing else to eat at a party except for steak and I was famished. I just kept eating meat after that because I liked the taste”; “No one else I knew was vegan and I felt isolated”; “I felt tired all the time as a vegan. It just wasn’t right for my blood type.”

Perhaps, though, their true ideals never actually seized the chance to fully manifest themselves. As I discussed before, veganism never enveloped the deepest crevices of my soul until my reasons for maintaining the lifestyle matured from health-based to ethical. They did so because I constantly inhabited the virtual vegan world, which first introduced me to the magnitude of animal cruelty, provided a support group to combat the barrage of non-veganness in my real-world community, and continually enforced my decision to live compassionately. In order to thoroughly cultivate the dedication and unwavering psychology necessary to nuture a permanent vegan lifestyle, I strongly believe one must accomplish two tasks: 1.) Discover and heavily educate oneself about all three intrinsic backbones of the vegan movement—animals, environment, and health—to create a powerful plethora of personal inspiration and a constant reminder of why veganism remains essential in saving the world. 2.) Surround oneself with likeminded people, whether online or in a tangible community, to converse, share experiences, and reinforce each others’ imperative decision.

If these two ongoing missions rest incomplete, perpetuating veganism can seem quite difficult, isolating, hopeless, and finally, unmerited. Persuading oneself to forgo a vegan lifestyle, founded upon any of the excuses listed above or a number of others, becomes infinitely easier without a staunch “why vegan?” knowledge base or encouragement from fellow vegans.

I sincerely hope all of you have already or will soon uncover the motivation to remain vegan for the very very very long run.

Until next time, Ali.