Posts Tagged ‘C&B Farms’

Melon run

Farmer Margie, winter melons, and Mike Counts.

Last month I rode up with Farmer Margie to C&B Farms up near Clewiston to load up with fruit for the summer fruit sales. We came back packed to the rafters with melons. Loaded in the back were three boxes of cantaloupes (the last of the season this far south), and six big heavy boxes of some of the cutest round watermelons I ever saw. They are called “personal size” and it’s easy to see how one person could very easily gobble one up. And at the other end of the size scale, we snagged several ginormous winter melons that had originally been destined for Asian communities up north. Each one of the winter melons was about 20 pounds, but that is just a guesstimate.

The CSA got a lot of food from C&B Farms through the regular season. A quick look at the newsletters (you read and kept yours, didn’t you?) shows that we ate zucchini, celery, rosemary, strawberries, yellow squash, green beans and mint — to name a few things — grown there. Margie kept telling me that I ought to go up and visit C&B, so when she called me the other day about making the melon run, I jumped at the chance.

Snake Road wiggles like a snake.

We rode up up I-75 and headed west on a bright sunny morning with big puffy clouds in the sky. Margie spotted all kinds of things — an occasional bird perched in a dead maleleuca tree, big green shrubs studded with pale pink wild hibiscus native to the Everglades, and a golden brown snake rippling across the road. About an hour into the journey, we turned onto Snake Road (but didn’t see any snakes there). Swamp lilies grew in the canals on either side of the road as it turned and twisted past cow pastures dotted with cabbage palms and cypress domes. Swallow-tailed kites soared above. The sawgrass was in bloom, sending up long feathery clusters of small, reddish flowers. We passed through the bustling Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, took a turn and found ourselves in the Devil’s Garden agricultural area.

C&B Farms in Clewiston

C&B Farms is sandwiched between Clewiston and the edge of the Everglades. According to owner Chuck Obern, the farm is 2500 acres in size, with 1500 acres that are tillable. Of that, 1000 acres are planted  conventionally and 500 acres are in organic production. Chuck offered us a quick tour of his farm, so Margie and I hopped into his truck and headed down a sandy road into the heart of the farm. One side of the farm is organic, and the other side is conventionally farmed. The two sides are separated by a large ditch and a row of of trees. Each side has separate farming equipment and packing lines, where the produce is rinsed and boxed, and there’s a separate organic section in the enormous cooler.

A 2-acre block of rosemary.

Mid-June is pretty much the end of the season and there wasn’t that much growing at C&B. It’s already too hot. We passed by two-acre blocks or fields of herbs — dill that had already bolted, marjoram, knee high sage, bushy rosemary, tarragon, oregano, spearmint, and parsley. We passed by long brown piles of compost, which is used mostly for water and nutrient retention, or as a soil conditioner. The soil is light gray and sandy, very sandy, and it’s amazing they can get so much to grow in it. We passed by blocks of cantaloupe, personal sized watermelons, and butternut squash.

Pumping station for drip irrigation. Barrels hold liquid fertilizer.

Crops are irrigated two different ways. There’s an automated double drip irrigation system (double meaning two lines of drip tape per planting row). Water is pumped from a ditch or a well, and liquid fertilizer is mixed in. A computerized system controls how much water is sent where and when. There’s also the seep irrigation system in which water is pumped into or out of the ditches to raise or lower the water table under the fields. The water seeps into the soil from underneath, rather than drip down from the top. Seep irrigation water is reused or recirculated several times before it is sent to a retention area. Excess water is treated to remove phosphorus before it is released back into a canal bordering the Everglades ecosystem.

During peak season, 500 workers are in the fields picking and packing. But at the end of the season, with a lot less growing, there are only about 100 workers. Fields were dotted with trailer-mounted portapotties complete with a handwashing and sanitizing station, as required by recent federal food safety laws. These regulations also require that workers can’t wear jewelry or bring outside food or drink into the fields.

The federal food safety act is actually many sets of guidelines that came about after the e. coli incident with contaminated jalapenos from Mexico a few years ago. Since then, domestic growers have to comply with stricter standards of produce handling cleanliness. To check compliance, a major food safety certifier comes once a year to check procedures, equipment, and records over a period of three days.

Mobile portapotties, with handwashing station, that are taken out to the fields.

Surprisingly, Central and South American growers do not have to comply with the same strict federal food safety laws as domestic growers. The vast majority of imported produce is not inspected. At most only one to two per cent (maybe even less) of the food coming in is checked for the same standards of cleanliness and safety, and pesticide residues. “There’s no traceability, no accountability,” Chuck complained. “And no guidelines. It’s not a level playing field.” Imported or “offshore” produce is priced less than domestically grown produce, and American farmers find it hard to compete. Their costs have gone up due to extra work and expenses meeting the new guidelines.

So what should a conscientious food shopper do? “Vote with your dollars,” said Mike Counts, the C&B sales manager. “Your dollar ultimately makes the statement. If enough people do it, they will change.” That said, we finished loading up and headed back out on the highway. One hundred miles later we were back at Bee Heaven, unloading fresh melons that had been picked just a few days before. Maybe it costs a little more to buy local and organic, but as you sink your teeth into those juicy fruits, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re keeping a couple of local farmers in business.

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Winter melon for summer

Rachel presents the winter melon. Photo by Daniel.

One of the more unusual offerings at the Bee Heaven Farm summer fruit sales has been winter melon, also known as wax gourd. It’s called that because of the white, waxy coating on its green skin. A few weeks ago, I rode up with Farmer Margie to fetch them from C&B Farms up in Clewiston. The growers boxed and shipped the giant melons to various northern cities that have large Asian populations.  I’m told the Chinese consider winter melon a cooling food, and that these melons grow much larger in China.

A slice of winter melon.

These melons are huge and heavy! The one in the picture weighed at least 20 pounds. There’s no way that you could sit down and eat the whole thing, nor would you want to. Usually you buy it by the chunk. The flavor is very mild and slightly sweet, similar to a honeydew, and the flesh is white. The melon is very juicy and releases a lot of clear liquid after you cut it. A slice doesn’t keep very long in the frig, maybe a couple days at most, and then it starts to get mushy in places. If you’re not going to use all of it, wrap peeled and seeded chunks in plastic and freeze.

Winter melon is best eaten cooked, not raw. Recipes abound on the Internet for winter melon soup, stir fry, drinks and even pickles. You can also freeze peeled and seeded chunks for later use. After sifting through all kinds of possibilities, I settled on making soup. I had all the ingredients on hand — homemade vegetable broth, a couple skinless chicken thighs, carrots, mushrooms, scallions, garlic and ginger. The melon chunks softened as they cooked and turned translucent. They took on the color and taste of the broth. I added salt and pepper, and finished with some toasted sesame oil for more flavor. The soup was good, but I can’t say for certain if it was cooling. It was hot soup, after all.

Chicken vegetable soup with chunks of winter melon and a drizzle of toasted sesame oil.

Maybe next time I’ll try making a simple drink to test the cooling properties of the melon. A drink recipe I found on asianhealthyrecipe.com calls for one pound of melon and 5-6 cups of water. These are the instructions: Cut the melon into chunks and cook it skin, seeds and all, until some liquid comes out of the melon. Then add water, bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Add honey to taste, and serve either hot or cold. The recipe didn’t say if you’re supposed to strain the chunks out, but if you did that, I suppose you could eat the melon in a separate dish, maybe mixed in with something else. (It is, after all, quite mild flavored.) The drink is supposed to be cooling — and slimming, if you leave out the honey.

Have you tried winter melon? What recipes do you have for it?

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Record-breaking cold temperatures rolled in, and a freeze warning was issued for several nights in a row this week. The farmers in Redland scrambled to protect their crops from the freezing cold, but generally fared well. CSA growers located further north — Worden Farms in Punta Gorda, and C&B Farms in Clewiston — got frost damage on Tuesday night. They’re still evaluating how much damage they got, and if any crops were lost.

As a result, there may be less in the share box this Saturday and maybe for the next week or so. Freeze damage is one reason, and less veggies growing is another. “Plants don’t like to grow when it’s cold. They like to go dormant,” grower Dan Howard explained to me. If there’s a killer frost and lettuce (for example) is burned by cold, that’s it, there’s no more local lettuce to eat until it’s replanted and harvested again. Remember, as CSA members, you agreed to share the same risks as the growers! No faking it with lettuce from Belize or somewhere… not in this CSA! (Also, because vegetables were damaged by the cold, or were not ready to pick, there will be less in the stores and the prices will go up.)

Reemay, or floating row cover, protects delicate greens and pole beans against freeze damage.

Margie Pikarsky at Bee Heaven Farm protected delicate basil, heirloom tomatoes, and pole beans with large sheets of Reemay, or floating row cover. It’s a spun polyester fabric that is used to cover plants, much like a blanket. The row cover acts like a blanket to hold in the heat and keep plants warm. Margie added she’s not watering as much, because that runs the risk of plants mildewing, or hot condensation cooking entire plants. Her crops have been covered since the first freeze warnings on Saturday, and the Reemay will stay up until the cold blast forecast for this coming weekend.

On Wednesday afternoon, Dan Howard of Homestead Organics, was cautiously optimistic. “Tuesday night it went down to 33, 34 degrees, but not a killer freeze,” he told me. He had prepared his bean fields by watering them quite extensively during the day on Tuesday. (It’s just too much acreage to use row cover.) Dan explained that his crews “soaked the ground down real good. Water insulates the ground to keep it from getting colder. Well water is 75 degrees, the same temperature year round. Dry ground gets colder than wet ground.” He explained that ground temperature is the most important for the plants, keeps the roots from freezing.

If the temperature gets below 32 for any length of time, plants will become permanently damaged from the cold. “Anything below 32 is bad, and at temps of 28, 29 degrees, it’s a total loss,” Dan explained. Monday night wasn’t that severe because there was a blanket of cloud cover, which acted as insulation and kept the temperatures from dropping too low. Tuesday night the sky was clear and temperatures dropped — but it was windy, and that made a difference. The moving air keeps ice from forming on the leaves. “If there’s no wind and clear sky, you get frost,” Dan said. And frost is what kills plants. It coats the leaves and burns them much like frostbite. Leaves turn black and wilted from the damage and the plant will die. Farmers can knock ice off the plants by spraying fields with water in the middle of the night, Dan explained. That’s why they’re up all night, watching the temps, checking the plants watering in the fields and groves.

In a similar vein, Robert Barnum of Possum Trot Nursery watered his tropical fruit grove on Tuesday night. He has giant pumps to draw well water, and tree-high sprinklers dotted through his grove. Tuesday night temps dropped to 36, and Robert was up at midnight and again at 3 am watering and checking on his trees. He explained that water gives off heat as it freezes, 353 kilocalories per gram of water to be exact, and that bit of heating warms the plants. Once the water on the plant freezes, it keeps the temperature constant at 32 degrees even if air temperatures drop below that, because a heavy coat of ice acts as insulation. But you have to keep watering, he insisted, to keep that small but important heating process going.

By Wednesday night Robert was less optimistic than Dan, and said the thermometer already read 39 degrees at 9 pm. The sky was clear and the winds were dying down. It looked like there would be a killer frost that night. Margie said the temperature dropped hard and fast — and then something unexpected happened. Some light cloud cover rolled in, and those clouds were enough to act like a blanket keeping heat from radiating away from the ground at night. Temps hovered around freezing, then came back up a bit. “I never saw anything like that,” Margie told me. But the main reason why the anticipated killer frost didn’t happen, according to Jonathan Crane at TREC: when the temperature fell to 35 it also reached the dew point. When the temperature meets the dew point, heat is released and the temperature rises, and that is what happened on Wednesday night. (There might have also been a bit of ground fog.) End result, no freeze, and crops were spared — this time. A more severe blast of cold air is forecast for the weekend, and growers (especially to the north of us) are bracing themselves.

To learn more about how frost forms and dew point, take a look at this web page.

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