Saturday, October 21, 2006

There’s a passage in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” that always grabs me, as it speaks about the narrator’s dedication to the philosophy of reason. His dedication comes not from a profound belief in the philosophy itself, but the exact opposite: disbelief. “No one is truly dedicated to something they have complete faith in.”

I suppose that’s where I am at with farming these days. I have been farming for 23 seasons, achieved two degrees from major universities, have worked in four states, traveled throughout North America to study tree fruit growing, and settled in the Hudson Valley to farm. I hate to tell everyone, but farming as a stalwart industry in the Hudson Valley has moved on. It has moved to Washington, California, Chile, Mexico, and many other distant places. Fortunately there are a few obstinate folks, like myself, that stick to it not out of a profound belief that farming has much of a future in the Hudson Valley, but because we want it to have a future and we love what we do.

Most farmers these days are farming their land not for the crops, but for the actual real estate value. Growing stuff these days pays the tax bill and generates some income, but it does not create real value except when the price of an acre of land goes up. The realities of local agriculture are that it is what it is because we can’t compete with large, multinational, corporatized farms (read: industrial food factories). I see more land up for sale, being sold, and being converted to architectural litter than ever before. So how do we put real value back into farming when we have two forces working against each other? How do we create an almost Zen-like dedication to farming; one where we don’t question tomorrow?

I think the simplest answer is for communities to Buy Locally Grown Food. Our only advantage is geography. We’re closer to the people and markets, so…..

1. Local transportation is cheaper and better for the environment. Plus, it tastes better because it is fresher.
2. We support local communities by employing local people (when they can be found) and
3. By keeping local dollars local
4. Most importantly, people can visit, learn about, and interact with local farms and farmers. They can see, touch, feel, smell, and hear their food being grown. They can know their roots and know their food!

Am I dedicated to farming? Yes, but not because I am convinced we’ll be here tomorrow. I am dedicated because I believe we need local farms and a local food supply, and it should be our primary food supply. I am dedicated because most food found in mega-grocery stores is junk. I am dedicated because my great-grandparents homesteaded 600 acres of the finest bottom land in Kansas and were kicked off the land by the Army Corpse of Engineers to build a reservoir. I am dedicated because this big Blue Marble we depend on is all we have. Clean air and water, biodiversity, scenic vistas, and vibrant communities are all dependent on one thing: open space. In the Rondout Valley that open space is predominantly farms. Without them we lose it all.

My dedication to farming comes from an uncertainty about its future. The only way to secure a future is to invigorate and reenergize the farms and farmers themselves through healthy economies. That can only come from local communities. I am dedicated to farming because I am not sure it can be done, but I sure want it to be done.

You want cheap food? Go to Wal-Mart. If you want clean air and water, scenic vistas, healthy biodiversity, and great food, then Buy Locally-grown food from real farmers. Know Your Roots!

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Not All Ciders Are Created Equal

Make no mistake about it, not all cider is created equal. In this day and age when the average consumer is looking for the best, most refreshing farm products they can find there are a few mass producers of cider that actually work against the grain. They utilize any old apples around, blend in the wash water from the cleaning process (diluting the cider), and ply it full of preservatives. The crowning moment is when a sell by date rivaling Egyptian sarcophagi is added giving warehouse purchasing agents carte blanche to order trailer loads and let it sit in inventory for as long as 8 weeks. The end product is about the furthest thing I can imagine from real, farm fresh apple cider.

No matter where you’re from, the process of making apple cider is pretty simple. You start with a generous mix of good sound apples (no rotten ones, please) that are washed and scrubbed before they are ground up into pumice or mash. Once the mash is ready, it is pumped into bags or onto cloths made of porous fabric resembling cheesecloth. The “pumice cakes” are then squeezed between racks using a large hydraulic press releasing the apple cider. The expressed cider from each pressing is then blended to create a complex tasting, delicious beverage.

In commercial facilities (including orchards and small farms), the cider must be pasteurized or treated with a special ultraviolet (UV) treatment system to kill dangerous bacteria. Some producers may also add a preservative, other do not. Adding a preservative increases the shelf life of the product, which is not a bad thing unless the advantages of the preservative are abused (as is often the case). No matter whether a preservative is used or not, the cider changes over time. The longer it sits waiting to be consumed the less fresh it will be by the time it reaches you.

And that’s it to making apple cider. Pretty simple, huh?

While the process of making cider is pretty simple, the real magic comes with the choices a producer makes. The type of apples, how many different kinds, drops or not, preservative or not, how long of a shelf life, UV or pasteurization, plastic or glass….the list goes on…all play a role in the quality of cider. I can’t speak to how all cider producers make cider, but I can say that large mass producers are easily the biggest violators when it comes to quality. Volume is the key to their success and low prices; something smaller, quality producers can’t easily compete with. Please, don’t let anything get in their way.

The first problem with mass produced apple cider and juice is that most producers use whatever apples are available throughout the year leaving the quality inconsistent and mediocre at best.

The second is that, although most don’t use drops (apples that have fallen from the tree), some do. In general, the quality of the apple is not the most important thing on their list. As long as it isn’t rotten and falling apart, they’ll generally use it without hesitation.

Third, though most large processors require a farmers spray records to verify compliance with EPA and state regulations (and often the processors own standards), the documentation process is generally a formality and not an actual mechanism for providing the consumer with a safer product. Several years ago I was privy to one case where the grower’s records were actually doctored in order to comply.

Fourth, since large processors are more concerned with maximum utilization and less so with the integrity of their product, some use the water from the wash down process to bring any remaining juice into the holding vats. This, of course, also adds water to the product which dilutes the cider which…well, you get the idea.

Fifth, the final concoction is then heat pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria. This process, while creating a mighty safe product, also destroys the texture and flavors of the cider adding yet to the reductionist process they are using. There is a process called flash pasteurization that uses a minimal amount of heat for a short period of time to kill the bacteria. Flash pasteurization has less of an affect of the cider’s flavor and texture than regular pasteurization process, but still more than that of UV.

Finally, the addition of preservative brings the whole process to an end. Actually it is not the addition of preservative that’s the big problem; it is the calculated “sell by” date that’s critical. It’s true: cider with a full dose of preservative can sit on the shelf for a long time. This gives produce buyers and managers, as well as grocery store shelf stockers the option and flexibility of ordering a lot at one time and not having to worry about it going bad (i.e., fermenting). The problem is that the cider continues to degrade as it sits on the shelf and by the time an eight week old cider is purchased and consumed it has gone through a lifetime full of changes and barely resembles what it was the day it was pressed.

Fresh apple cider is like fresh produce and has a short shelf life by nature. Anything that is done to unnaturally extend the shelf life of a product results in a product that is less fresh, less wholesome, and less recognizable than it was nearer the point of production or harvest. Fresh apple cider is not a fine wine. It is not meant to be aged for future consumption. It is meant to be drunk as soon as possible after it is made. Autumn may be the best time to drink apple cider, but really, cider made at any time of year from fresh whole apples is just as great. You just have to make sure where it is coming from.

Here at Stone Ridge Orchard we’re taking an approach that is winning us rave reviews. And while we want to have a product we can provide year-round, we also want a consistently high quality product that tastes just as good in April as it does in October. Not all ciders are created equal. Know your farmer, know your cider, know your roots.

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