Vegan MoFo #8: A Refreshingly Simple Dinner of Lentils, Brown Rice, & Sauteed Squash

vegan mofo 2013

My dinner plate, generously sprinkled with nutritional yeast.

My dinner plate, generously sprinkled with nutritional yeast.

Returning after a weekend-long hiatus to my Vegan MoFo theme of the dinners cooked and enjoyed by my 21-person on-campus vegetarian co-op, I’d like to share with you, dear readers, last night’s meal created by my close friend Gabe and new Ferry member Andrew (a merging of old and new, if you will!). These fabulous Sunday dinner cooks utilized the flavorful summer squash featured in Ferry’s weekly farm share from the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (PFP), highlighting the veggie’s succulent yet delicate flavor.

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Accompanied by simply prepared lentils and creamy short-grain brown rice, the summer squash provided an unpretentious meal, refreshing in its accentuation of the veggie’s true character. Seeking to include a leafy green in all of my meals, I tossed a handful of arugula from the farm share with a splash of olive oil and included it on my dinner plate, along with a healthy dusting of nutritional yeast (which, by the way, perfectly complements the flavor of summer squash…or of anything…like a shoe).

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In other news, my co-president Katie and I led the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition (VARC) in our first general body meeting of the semester, welcoming a surprising number of enthusiastic first-year students with an astounding set of poster-making skills. Here’s to a productive, community-building, and informative semester of outreach!

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Until next time, Ali.

Vegan MoFo #6: Baking for the Freshman Activities Fair and an Heirloom Tomato, Cucumber, & Corn Salad

vegan mofo 2013

As I mentioned in my last post, yesterday I enacted a baking tornado upon the Ferry kitchen in preparation for today’s Freshman Activities Fair, at which I will table for the Vassar Animal Rights Coalition along with my co-president Katie (yes, the very same Katie who interned with me at Compassion Over Killing this summer). The Fair will provide an ideal venue for new VARC member recruitment, campus Meatless Monday participants, and mentors to participate in our newly launched Veggie Buddy System, which pairs experienced vegans with veg-curious students to ease their transitions to veg*nism.

To obtain funding for distributing baked goods at the Activities Fair, Katie and I applied to VegFund, a phenomenal organization that “empowers vegan activists worldwide by funding and supporting effective outreach activities that inspire people to choose and maintain a vegan lifestyle.” VegFund supported all of the feed-ins that we organized with Compassion Over Killing, as well as many of VARC’s food-related outreach endeavors last year. With VegFund’s help, we secured the money needed to produce 74 chewy apricot almond oatmeal cookies, 74 date-nut “crunchy sticky bites,” and 88 banana bread bites.

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activities fair baked goods (4)

After (almost) single-handedly baking for 150 minutes straight, Katie arrived at Ferry House to (almost) single-handedly design the display board for VARC’s table at the Activities Fair. The board proudly displays VARC’s newly designed logos (see above), a blurb explaining why we do not include chocolate or palm oil in any of our baked goods, an advertisement for the lecture that Carol Adams will give at Vassar on September 29 (WAY TOO EXCITED FOR THIS), an advertisement for VARC’s recently launched website and Facebook page, and photos of various VARC members interacting with rescued farmed animals at sanctuaries. At the Fair, we’ll also have computers available on which to sign up for VARC’s email list, our campus Meatless Monday campaign (now in its third year), and our aforementioned Veggie Buddy System.

Katie with our fabulous display board.

Katie with our fabulous display board.

To refuel after a busy day of Fair preparation, I whipped up a summery salad of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn in a dressing of olive oil, tamarind paste, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup. Served atop a pile of mixed greens, accompanied by a pile of brown rice and hummus, and sprinkled with nutritional yeast, the salad nicely showcased the end of summer’s bounty of produce. Fortunate enough to have an on-campus farmers’ market, we Ferries employed some of the house’s collective food budget to partake in these phenomenal edibles. Sadly, I suspect that these heirlooms will constitute the last tomatoes worth tasting of the year.

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Stay tuned for tomorrow’s MoFo post, which will recount both VARC’s Activities Fair ventures as well as our wild edibles walk with vegan forager Zaac Chaves, and our subsequent picnic.

Until next time, Ali.

The Meaning of “Farmers Market Vegan”: Guest Post on Food Politic

Today, dear readers, I’d like to direct you to the “journal of food news and culture” known as Food Politic. There, you’ll find a guest post of mine that recounts my journey from a farmers’ market enthusiast into a food-lover deeply concerned about the politics, ethics, and environmental impact of the food system, particularly in terms of animal agriculture. The piece also explains, as denoted by the title of this post, why I chose to name my blog “Farmers Market Vegan.” I would hugely appreciate it if you would visit my article on Food Politic and leave a friendly comment, seeing as I expect to receive mostly antagonistic responses from the site’s largely non-vegan audience. Thanks oodles in advance!

In other news, I’m thrilled to announce that, for the third year in a row, I plan to participate in the Vegan Month of Food (MoFo), which this year will take place in September (and thus starts tomorrow, oh man!). This year, I’ll focus my posts mainly on the food concocted and enjoyed by my 21-person vegetarian co-op at Vassar, known as Ferry House. Check out my past MoFo posts if you feel so inclined.

vegan mofo 2013

Until next time, Ali.

If I Were to Open My Own Vegan Restaurant…

At not more than seven years of age, I typed up a rainbow-hued list of menu items (including “French toast sticks” and “peanut butter sandwich”), stuck it inside a three-ring binder, and scrawled “Seiter’s Place” in Sharpie across the front. At age thirteen, the pique of my Food Network fandom, I received (facetious, I’m sure) confirmation from my mother that I could attend culinary school as long as I earned my undergraduate degree first. After going vegan in my sophomore year of high school, I jokingly entertained requests from friends that I serve as their personal chef and health coach. In other words, I’ve long viewed the culinary arts as a legitimate and desirable career option to pursue.

Fully intending to devote the remainder of my professional and personal life toward bettering the lives of animals, promoting veganism, and fostering a more equitable worldwide society, I envision before me a sea of career paths: nonprofit management; grassroots activism; magazine, book, and blog authorship; restaurant work; the list continues. I’m steadfastly certain, however, that my primary livelihood will include two aspects: writing and cooking.

Thus, at some point in my life (perhaps after writing my first book on the links between plant-based diets and egalitarian societies, or after launching a nonprofit devoted to dismantling corporate seed-patenting and winning back the rights of farmers in the non-Western world to grow their own food…or whatever), I would wholeheartedly love to open a vegan café/community bookstore that hosts social justice-related speakers, book and discussion groups, yoga workshops, and various other educational outreach events—kind of a Busboys-and-Poets-esque type thing. Engaging in such a project would allow me to combine my passions of social justice activism, the written word, and culinary creativity in a meaningful manner, with the potential to reach, educate, and inspire a generous amount of individuals.

I’ll iron out all of the details later, but for now, I’d like to provide you with a working menu for the seasonally inspired Farmers’ Market Vegan Café.

Breakfast and Brunch (available all day)

Trio of Granolas with Accompanying Milks
Apricot-lavender granola with lavender-vanilla almond milk, berry-lemongrass granola with coconut-cashew milk, sweet corn-thyme granola with maple soymilk
*Raw trio available upon request

Waffle-nanza Platter
Gluten-free sweet potato waffles, maple tempeh bacon, and coconut-braised kale

Fruity Waffle o’ the Day
Changes depending upon fruit seasonality, always served with coconut mascarpone and infused maple syrup

Raw Spirulina-Banana Crepes
Filled with cashew whipped cream and fresh fruit coulis

Seasonal Vegetable Tofu Scramble
Seasonal veggies and greens scrambled with tofu in a curried peanut sauce.

Seasonal Smoothies
Changes depending upon fruit seasonality, favorites include blueberry-basil and peach-raspberry-ginger
*Add a topping of your choice of granolas for an extra charge
*Add kale to any smoothie at no extra charge

Fresh Bakery Selection
Includes muffins, sweet breads, fruity crumble bars, and granola bars
*Raw options available; all baked goods are free of refined sugar and flour, and are sweetened with either dates or local maple syrup

Appetizers

House-Made Bread Basket
Served with a selection of seasonal hummus and pesto

Cheese & Cracker Plate
A selection of house-made nut cheeses served with seasonal crackers
*Raw crackers available upon request

Herbed Garden Gazpacho
Topped with roasted chickpea “croutons”
*
Add a side of house-made bread for an extra charge

Toasty Kale & Coconut Summer Rolls
With lemongrass tofu and sweet almond or peanut dipping sauce

Raw Nori Rolls
With seasonal veggies, sprouts, coconut meat, and sweet almond or cashew dipping sauce

Salads

*Add seared tofu or tempeh to any salad for an extra charge

Big ol’ Farmers’ Market Salad
Mixed greens, alfalfa sprouts, seasonal veggies, chickpeas, and quinoa or brown rice, all tossed in house-made Liquid Gold Dressing

Tangy Kale Salad
Kale, seasonal veggies, raisins, and sunflower seeds tossed in maple-mustard dressing

Spinach & Wild Rice Salad
With almonds and tarragon-mustard dressing

Purple Potato and Haricot Vert Salad
With red onions and miso-mustard dressing

Fall Medley Salad
Brown rice with pomegranate-infused roasted butternut squash and cauliflower, toasted hazelnuts, and baby arugula

Sandwiches

All non-raw sandwiches served on house-baked bread (gluten-free available) with your choice of side salad, baked sweet potato fries, or house-made root veggie chips (raw or baked)

Roasted Brussels Sprout Grilled Cheese

Caprese Sandwich
House-made vegan mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, and basil

“Chickpea of the Sea” Sandwich or Lettuce Wrap
A delectable mash of chickpeas, avocado, and dulse flakes

Raw Garden Vegetable Sandwich
Scallion cashew cream cheese, marinated mushrooms, and butter lettuce, served with house-made raw root veggie chips

Entrees

Fig & Hazelnut Pizza
With caramelized onions and basil sauce on a raw buckwheat crust

Socca o’ the Day
Seasonally rotating French-style chickpea pancake

Bowl o’ the Day
Seasonal veggies, steamed or sautéed leafy green, whole grain, baked tempeh or tofu, and dressing

Miso-Maple Roasted Eggplant & Kale Tacos
With lentils, gingered cashew cream, and mango salsa

Beverages

On-Tap House-Brewed Kombucha
Seasonal flavors

Green Juice o’ the Day
Seasonal flavors

Hot Tea
Selection of organic & fair-trade brews

Herb-Infused Iced Tea
Seasonal flavors

Dessert

Raw Cheesecake o’ the Day
Changes depending upon fruit seasonality

Chocolatey Pudding
Carob, avocado, and banana pureed into a smooth pudding

Trio of Seasonal Ice Creams
*Raw selection available

Raw Cookie Dough “Blizzard”
Banana “soft-serve” with raw cookie dough bites and seasonal fruit swirl

Until next time, Ali.

The DC Farmers Market Scene

 In preparation for traveling to any city in which I intend to spend an extended period of time, I create three detailed lists: veg-friendly restaurants to visit, yoga studios to try out, and farmers markets to patronize. The planning for my summer move to DC proved no differently. While I’ve already introduced you to the compilation of DC restaurants that excite my gastronomic curiosity, and intend to profile the activist-oriented Yoga District at which I’ve become a summer member, today’s post regales the vibrant array of local, seasonal produce featured at three of the DC farmers markets nearest to my apartment.

In the above handy-dandy map, the blue pin represents the Aya Community Market, the yellow represents the well-known Eastern Market, and the green represents the H Street Freshfarm Market. Below, you’ll find a detailed description of each market.

Aya Community Market

Though the smallest of the three markets I’ve explored with only two booths set up on the day I visited, the Aya Community Market aspires to hugely noble goals. Founded by the nonprofit Dreaming Out Loud, the Aya Community Market seeks to further the organization’s mission to “empower the potential in under-served communities” by providing fresh produce, creating sustainable employment, and introducing resources promoting a healthy lifestyle to those living in food deserts and low-access neighborhoods. Indeed, in addition to functioning as a farmers market, Aya also provides a venue for eco-friendly living workshops, cooking demonstrations, health screenings, and live music and poetry.

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Regrettably, I missed the pleasure of experiencing any of the latter few exciting activities during my jaunt to the market, and none seem scheduled on Aya’s online calendar before I leave DC. I can only hope that Aya continues to serve the community in the manner it intends, and grow beyond its current humble size. Regardless of Aya’s questionable success, one of the two vendors with whom I interacted at the market provided me with two gorgeous bunches of Red Russian kale, a quart of fragrant strawberries, a box each of pastel green beans and squeaky sugar snap peas, and a bunch of beets complete with their greens.

Eastern Market

As DC’s oldest continually operated fresh food public market, the Eastern Market attracts a huge crowd of produce-admiring customers every weekend to its open-air farmers market. The outdoor market, open on Saturday and Sunday, boasts over twenty vendors selling fresh produce, prepared edibles such as hummus and barrel-brined pickles, and homemade body care products. Alongside these so-called “Farmers Line” vendors, a variety of arts-and-crafts merchants display their handcrafted jewelry, screen-printed t-shirts, painted ceramics, and more.

Eastern Market's "Farmers Line."

Eastern Market’s “Farmers Line.”

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"In a Pickle" vendor.

Pickles galore! A vegan’s dream.

Though its’ farmers market takes place only on the weekends, the Eastern Market houses indoor vendors every day. Some of them sell fresh fruit and veggies, but most of them sell the butchered flesh of various animals, creating a stomach-churning odor that dissuaded me from reentering the building anytime soon. Thus, I happily remained at the outdoor portion of the market, eagerly purchasing the last asparagus and strawberries of the season, a fragrant bunch of lavender that I proceeded to dry in my apartment, and one of the most beautiful bags of mixed greens upon which I’ve ever laid eyes.

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Unfortunately, judging by the cantaloupe and sweet corn available at the Eastern Market in late May—much too early for either of the crops’ seasons in this region—I would presume that not all of the market’s vendors source their produce entirely locally. Because I much prefer to eat exactly following the seasons, support a local economy as much as possible, and experience the intimate food-grower relationship of a true farmers market, I decided to visit a market slightly farther from my apartment than the Eastern Market in order to satisfy my three aforementioned criteria.

H Street Freshfarm Market

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After four weeks of my residency in DC, I finally paid a visit to what I’d consider the most ideal farmers market in close proximity to my apartment (though none can even hope to rival the absolutely impeccable Dane County Farmers Market that I’ve adored since childhood). Part of DC’s 11 producer-only Freshfarm Markets—”the leading voice[s] for farmers markets in the Washington, DC, metropolitan region, and a national leader in the local food movement”—the 9-year-old H Street Freshfarm Market operates every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to noon. The H Street Freshfarm Market also functions as a partner of the H Street Main Street Program, which works to foster the revitalization of the historic, yet currently rather downtrodden, H Street Corridor.

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I had the pleasure of biking to the H Street Freshfarm Market on a gorgeously sunny morning, discovering a farmers market modest in size yet bountiful in high-quality produce. Two rows of about five vendors each lined the 13th & H Street block, offering peak spring goods from black mulberries to squash blossoms to microgreens to loaves of artisanal bread.

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Expectedly, I filled my tote bag to the brim, particularly excited about a box of fresh young fava beans that I later transformed into the Fava Bean Cakes pictured below—crisp patties of mashed potato, fava beans, carrot greens, and Middle Eastern spices, inspired by a (not originally vegan) recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. I eagerly await my next jaunt to the H Street Freshfarm Market.

Fava Bean Cakes inspired by Ottolenghi's "Plenty."

Fava Bean Cakes inspired by Ottolenghi’s “Plenty.”

If any of you, dear readers, reside in the DC area, I’d greatly appreciate if you’d inform me as to your favorite nearby farmers markets.

Until next time, Ali.

The Arlington Farmers Market

While no farmers’ market can compete with that of my hometown—the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the U.S., recently deemed one of the world’s 17 greatest food markets—the Arlington Farmers Market, just across the street from my four-week-old home of Vassar, has saturated the DCFM-shaped abyss in my heart both with generous farmers evoking familiar midwestern friendliness, and glowlingly fresh produce from the scenic Hudson Valley. The small-scale market offers, along with fruits and vegetables, a wide array of handcrafted goods—from silver necklace pendants to soap to maple-walnut peanut butter to dill-pickled brussels sprouts—every Thursday afternoon from 3:00-7:00. To my immense satisfaction, I often spot a good many Vassar students perusing the market during my local-produce-fulfilling jaunts—a hopeful sign of the younger generation’s growing curiosity with and appreciation of connecting with the food they eat.

Thanks to the Arlington Farmers Market’s compactness, I quickly developed a feel for the market’s vendors that established at which stands to purchase my weekly produce necessities, which I’d love to map out for you:

 

 

I spend my first market dollars at a dependably crowded tent, popular thanks to their wide selection of juicy fall fruit—such as peaches, nectarines, plums, and concord grapes—as well as their vast array of brilliantly hued heirloom tomato varietals, from Green Zebra to Brandywine, of which they offer succulent sample slices. A box of fruit, a generous pile of heirlooms, and perhaps a cucumber or an ear of corn usually find their way into my tote bag from this stand (the name of which I do not know), implemented in fruit-sweetened granola or salads throughout the week.

 

Next, I eagerly scamper over to the Phillies Bridge Farm Project to satisfy my every leafy-green-based desire, as well as to partake in a bunch of knobbly carrots or a pint of candy-like sungold tomatoes. Not only does Phillies Bridge supply me with verdant lacinato kale for smoothies and crisp mixed salad greens, they “feed hundreds of community members and engage over 2,500 people each year in the wonders of food production through our CSA, education, and community outreach programs,” playing an active role in the social justice realm of the farming world.

 

My deep adoration for everything pickled propels me toward two stands featuring impeccably canned veggies: Awesome Specialty and Perry’s Pickles. I’ve so far sampled Awesome’s spicy, tender slices of Kimchi Carrots, and Perry’s irresistably tangy sauerkraut, but I can hardly contain my excitement in purchasing a jar of Awesome’s Dilled Brussels Sprouts or Spicy Pickled Okra. Unfortunately, Perry’s classic kimchi, in which I would otherwise gladly partake, contains fish sauce for “authenticity,” while their pickled pineapple contains sugar. Darn those questionable ingredients!

While I don’t usually buy the goods offered by the Vermont Peanut Butter Company, I often gawk at their inspired flavor combinations, such as Maple Walnut, Cinnamon Raisin, and “Green Mountain Goodness” with flax and pumpkin seeds. On the downside, all of their flavors that contain chocolate also contain animal products, which intensely disappoints me seeing as I would happily sample a spoonful of their Champlain Cherry Almond Butter if not for its exploitative ingredients. I suppose I’ll just have to conduct some almond butter flavor experimentations of my own.

 

Though not always present at the market, Stephanie’s Gluten Free Delights offers tantalizing cupcake creations, many of which satisfy vegans as well as those with gluten intolerances. On this particular market venture, Stephanie boasted three vegan, gluten-free cupcakes: chocolate-cherry cupcakes with vanilla bean frosting (pictured above left), chocolate-raspberry cupcakes with chocolate frosting, and spiced carrot cake cupcakes with creamy coconut frosting.

 

Finally, Rusty’s Farm Fresh Eatery, a health-focused restaurant in Red Hook, sets up a stand headed by an eccentric white-haired man who somehow received the impression that I spearhead Slow Food Vassar, and has since pestered me about coordinating a campus World Food Day event in October (with my schedule? Sorry, buddy.). I forgive his nagging, though, due to his exciting selection of freshly brewed nettle and hibiscus teas, wheatgrass juice, salad mixes, dried cinnamon apple slices, and dehydrated kale, and thoroughly intend to visit his restaurant further upstate in the near future.

Every Thursday fills my soul with joy to pay homage to the Arlington Farmers Market, miniscule in comparison to my beloved DCFM, but welcoming, well-stocked, and community-oriented, nonetheless.

Comment Provoking Questions: How large is your local farmers market? Does it mostly boast produce or are there other specialty items? Do you follow your own “market map”?

Until next time, Ali.

Vegan in College: Transitioning to Vassar

As I mentioned in my latest “Interview With a Farmer” post, I officially moved into my dorm at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY on Tuesday. Along with my internship at the Troy Kids’ Garden, most of my summer included transferring my possessions into cardboard UHAUL boxes, quadruple-checking my comprehensive packing list, agonizing over narrowing down my course selections amongst the plethora of stunningly intriguing options during pre-registration, and researching the bounty of esteemed New York vegan restaurants to visit during my studies in the Hudson Valley. Nerves permeated no aspect of these preparations; I had eagerly awaited the commencement of my college journey since junior year of high school. However, only one of my most prized hobbies, as well as a necessity of life, caused me much anxiety when considering my move to the east coast: food. Yes, my friend and current Vassar sophomore assured me that the All-Campus Dining Center (ACDC) provided a wealth of vegan options (including a create-your-own stir fry station!), but I panicked over the possibility of forsaking the intense pleasure I constantly discover in creating my own meals, especially those utilizing fresh produce from the farmers market.

Thus, I clicked my mindset to full-fledged food/kitchen preparation mode. Opting for the minimum form of the meal plan, which more or less allows me to eat one meal per day in the ACDC, I happily retained the ability to enjoy my daily smoothies and lunch salads, along with weekly (and meticulously budgeted) jaunts to the Arlington Farmers’ Market as well as to a grocery store and a health food store called the House of Nutrition, both just across the street from campus. A large portion of my kitchen supplies completed the 17-hour-long trek to New York with me, including my blender, food processor, famous blue ceramic salad bowl, stainless steel pots and pans, cutting board, and loads of Tupperware containers, all of which now live snugly alongside my clothing in my wooden wardrobe plastered with old New Yorker covers.

In addition to various supplies and appliances, I also packed three plastic bins full of pantry staples which currently reside underneath my bed. Top Left Bin Contents: spices, nuts, dried fruit. Top Right Bin Contents: gluten-free flours, cacao and carob powders, date syrup and agave nectar, cacao nibs, baking powder, agar flakes, baking yeast. Bottom Bin Contents:teas, seasweed, nutritional yeast, grains, canned beans, olive and coconut oils, vinegars, coconut aminos, Dijon mustard.

In terms of actual food preparation, I whipped up multiple batches of different types of veggie burgers, along with a couple fabulous Gluten-Free Buns from Green Kitchen Stories, to freeze in my mini-fridge’s freezer. Here are the six burger recipes I followed: Black Bean Beet Burgers from Including Cake; Foolproof Tofu Burgers from Choosing Raw; Classic Veggie Burgers from Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes; Juice Pulp Veggie Burgers from Sketch-Free Eating; Quinoa Sweet Potato Kale Cakes from YumUniverse, and Poblano Pepper, Sweet Corn, and Pinto Bean Burgers from Peaceful Plate.

The bottom portion of my mini-fridge houses fresh produce from the Arlington Farmers’ Market, including gorgeously succulent sungold and heirloom tomatoes as well as robust salad greens, along with GT’s Kombucha (I haven’t yet discovered a local kombucha brewer in the Poughkeepsie area), my infamous Liquid Gold Dressing, tahini, dates, miso, and flaxseed meal.

As for the actual areas in which I cook, every morning I head downstairs to the newly renovated dorm kitchen to blend up my smoothie—thankfully, the kitchen is secluded from anyone’s actual room, so I musn’t worry about rousing sleepy college students in the wee hours. This larger communal kitchen houses my blender, food processor, and basic smoothie ingredients, including kale, fresh fruit (also from the Arlington Farmers Market; I gleefully picked up white peaches, raspberries, and nectarines last night), homemade almond milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds, lucuma, maca, spirulina, and wheatgrass powder.

My well-guarded bag in the communal refrigerator.

My first smoothie at Vassar–yes, that is a name label from my label-maker on the spoon.

For lunch, I’ve set up my dresser as a make-shift countertop to prepare my prized salads.

Dinner usually leads me toward the ACDC, along with my collegiate compatriates, to enjoy a surprising host of wholesome vegan options complete with a well-stocked salad bar, whole grain salads, roasted vegetables, tofu, and brown rice.

Last night’s plate included roasted brussels sprouts (my favorite!), mixed greens, chickpeas, carrots, tomatoes, cold roasted beets, and mung bean sprouts.

So far, I’ve not harnessed a moment of time amongst the whirlwind of orientation for culinary experimentation, though I do intend to aromatize the kitchen with a batch of granola in the very near future. Welcome to Vassar!

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.

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.

Interview With a Farmer: Jones Valley Farm

This post serves as the second 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.

Mike Martin of Jones Valley Farm never ceases to impress me with his wide array of rainbow-colored produce of European, mostly Italian, origin, including Rosso Milano onions, fava and romano beans, baby artichokes, fresh lavender, peacock broccoli, escarole, lacinato kale, and chiogga beets. Perfecting the intricate technique of displaying differently hued vegetables for optimal sales, Mike sets his goods against neutral gray bins to allow the food to seize center stage. While Mike has expressed to me his deep inquietude about coming across as a “food snob,” I can imagine no farmer more humble or willing to engage in friendly dialogue to educate market patrons about his unfamiliar produce.

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

Mike Martin: Our farm is out by Spring Green in a deep, narrow valley. We’ve kind of modeled it after a small, European-style family farm and only supply the Dane County Farmers Market; we don’t do a CSA.

FMV: What kind of crops do you like to grow?

MM: I like to grow, oh, almost everything. Our favorite over the years has been salad greens, but they’ve been really tough this year with the heat. I like to grow a lot of exotic stuff, too, which is especially fun to watch grow, taste, and see people enjoy.

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

MM: My grandmother inspired me. She wasn’t a farmer, but she always had a big garden that I helped her with. When I think back to it, she’s probably the one who started it all for me.

Greenhouse at the farm.

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

MM: Well, the biggest hardship is doing a bunch of manual labor and then watching the plants get destroyed by weather or insects. Our farm has been hit by floods, drought, insect infestation—it’s just amazing, the stuff that happens out there. As far as the greatest reward, I think it’s coming to the market, meeting a lot of people, and watching them enjoy the produce. The open-air market, to me, is the most fun to be a part of; that’s why I don’t do a CSA. I’d rather come to market and interact with all the customers, who actually teach me a lot.

Market stand.

FMV: How long have you been selling at the farmers market?

MM: We’re approaching 20 years now.

FMV: Wow, that’s very impressive! What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison and the people who shop at the farmers market?

MM: I’ve been around the country a little bit and I’ve looked at other farmers markets and the food culture in other towns—this is one of the best, if not the best, especially for a town this size. It’s really an amazing place.

Fava beans.

FMV: Do you find that many of the people that you meet at the market are knowledgeable about the produce you offer?

MM: There’s a certain segment of customers here that are knowledgeable about what we grow; a lot of Europeans, especially, are familiar with it. I would say, though, that overall, most people who come through this market don’t know what we grow, just based on their questions—they’ve never seen a lot of the stuff that we bring in.

FMV: But then you introduce it to them.

MM: Yes!

Garlic scapes.

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

MM: I’m kind of both encouraged and discouraged. I recently dropped my organic certification because of the direction that’s headed. The rules and the way you have to carry out their audit trail aren’ts really scale-specific, and they’ve raised the fees now on smaller growers while capping them off for the larger growers. I’m still organic, but I’m just not certified anymore.

FMV: I’ve heard that the organic certification is quite difficult to obtain and maintain.

MM: Yes, especially if you’re growing a lot of different crops in small amounts like we are. We grow probably 150 different types of crops. Compared to a conventional corn and soybean farmer, the audit trail is huge for us.

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

MM: L’Etoile—Tory Miller buys a lot from us—as well as Underground Food Collective. Other chefs will also stop by the market stand early in the morning, like Nostrano. But really, Tory’s our biggest buyer.

FMV: Does he buy a variety of your produce or just select items?

MM: He comes every week and buys lots of stuff. He’s a major driver behind this market. He comes early in the morning, goes around, and buys from several stands. It’s really great what he’s doing in supporting the small farmers around Wisconsin.

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

MM: I think if you have access to this market [the DCFM], Wisconsin is a great place for a farmer to come and have a go at it.

FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?

MM: I would tell an aspiring farmer to take some art courses to learn about color and shape, which will help when it comes to marketing. Presentation of your food makes a lot of difference because there’s so many good growers and so much good produce at the market that you want to stand out. Learning a little bit about color, texture, and how to display stuff will really help out.

FMV: Can you explain how you implement those design ideas in your stand?

MM: I put contrasting colors together. It’s funny—a vegetable won’t be selling very well, but if you just move it to a different spot, all of a sudden it will fly off the shelves. If you pay attention to why that happens, you can learn a lot.

FMV: That’s very intriguing! Is that why you chose to display your produce in grey bins—so that you would get a pop of color?

MM: Yes, grey is a pretty neutral color and it makes colors pop.

FMV: When my mom and I first started shopping at your stand, we referred to you as the “grey bin people.”

MM: [Laughing] Really? Well, basically I’m a failed artist. I have a fine arts degree and was a professional college student for years.

FMV: And then you got into farming.

MM: Then I ended up doing this, yeah!

My favorite salad mix at the market.

FMV: I love that story! Well, my final question—what is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on your farm?

MM: Ooh, that’s a tough one. I think my favorite would have to be radicchio.

FMV: Mmm, good choice.

You can find Mike on Facebook at Jones Valley Farm, at his farm blog, or you can email him at mmartin01@localnet.com.