Summer Celebration: A (Plant) Family Gathering

June 6, 2014

For the second year in a row, CUESA will be highlighting six culinary “families” at our annual Summer Celebration fundraiser. More than 50 of the Bay Area’s best chefs and bartenders will craft original bites and drinks around these plant groups, from the sweet (berries and stone fruit) to the savory (alliums and legumes).

All of these dishes will showcase the season’s best from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, and some of our farmers will be present to share their bounty and talk about how their crops are grown. We spoke to a few folks who will be at the event to learn some interesting facts about these star summer crops!

Berries: Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm

In contrast to strawberries and raspberries, blueberries are one of the few commercial crops native to North America. Native Americans used to call them “star berries” because of the shape of the calyx (the tip of the berry, where the flower grows).

There are many advantages to growing a native fruit, according to John Carlon at Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm. “Crops like grapes have been bred and selected for thousands of years,” he says. “But blueberries are just recently cultivated, so there’s a lot of genetic diversity in the population, since it hasn’t been manipulated by people.” Such diversity contributes to resilience and adaptability in a plant.

In addition, “If you’re trying to grow blueberries sustainably, there’s a lot of natural pest control in the ecosystem,” John says. This is because the blueberry bush, its pests, and the pests’ predators have all coevolved, creating ecological balance. Native bumblebees have also coevolved to be well adapted to pollinating the blueberry flower.

Alliums: Dirty Girl Produce

In the summer, Dirty Girl Produce gets a lot of attention for their juicy strawberries and dried-farmed tomatoes, but the farm’s alliums (onions, scallions, leeks, and their ilk) play an understated though important supporting role.

Red shallots are Dirty Girl’s go-to allium. In the spring and summer, these shallots are harvested and sold green, and in the fall, they are cured and stored for sale throughout the winter months. “They have the best storage capacity of the alliums,” says farmer Joe Schirmer.

Selling cured shallots and onions in the winter months contributes to the farm’s overall economic health. “We want to keep our business going and keep people employed year-round,” explains Joe. “It’s easy to stay busy in the summer, but it’s harder in the off months. Anything we can do to extend the harvest, like preserving tomatoes or storing alliums, is huge.”

Grains and Legumes: Tierra Vegetables

While sweet corn usually steals the summer spotlight, grain corn is the star staple at Tierra Vegetables. “Sweet corn is delicious, but it’s a one-shot deal,” farmer Lee James says. “It’s a fresh product, so you’ve got to eat it right away.”

From a sustainability perspective, grain corn, which can be ground into cornmeal for polenta, bread, and other foods, offers much more bang for the buck. “Sweet corn takes more water and fertilizer than grain corn, even though grain corn grows for three times as long,” she says. “I myself can eat six to ten ears of sweet corn in one sitting, but one ear of grain corn can feed a family of five. It provides more nutrition per acre, plus it can also be put in storage.”

Dried beans (legumes) are another important staple crop at Tierra. Beans are self-pollinating, which means that many varieties can be planted in the same field without any risk of cross-fertilization. They are also an excellent rotational crop, putting fertility back into the soil through nitrogen fixation.

The farm grows about 25 varieties in a rainbow of colors and flavors, most of them rare, heirloom, or otherwise “noncommercial,” Lee says, because of their irregular sizes and shapes. With names like Anasazi, European Soldier, and Nicaraguan Red, these unusual and flavorful beans have been passed on to Tierra from people around the world.

Stone Fruit: Blossom Bluff Orchards

Diversity is the name of the game at Blossom Bluff Orchards, which grows more than 130 stone fruit varieties in the Central Valley, from peaches and nectarines to apriums and peacotums. “Having a lot of options throughout the summer helps set us apart from other farms,” says Bryce Loewen.

Different varieties bear fruit at different times, and each only briefly, which makes orchard planning something of a jigsaw puzzle. The Loewens might decide they need a yellow peach to fill a particular slot in their summer harvest calendar, so they go to their local nursery or ask neighboring farmers for leads on varieties that grow well in their area.

Blossom Bluff works with Dave Wilson Nursery to trial new, unnamed varieties from Zaiger Genetics, the famous fruit tree breeder credited with developing the aprium and the pluot. Bryce says, “Ultimately the relationship with the nursery has been the biggest benefit in finding new stuff and deciding what we’re going to try out.”

Leaves and Flowers: Star Route Farms

While temperatures climb in the Central Valley, coastal farms like Star Route Farms, based in Bolinas, take advantage of the June gloom. Tomatoes and peppers can’t be grown because they’re susceptible to fungal diseases in foggy climes, but that doesn’t bother farm manager Annabelle Lederink.

“We always have really nice lettuce, our purslane is really tender, our nettles are always green, and even our beans seem happier than those from the Central Valley,” she says. Star Route grows about 30 varieties of greens, including an assortment of lettuces, chard, spinach, and kale.

In the summer, edible flowers like squash blossoms, nasturtiums, borage, and anise hyssop help to add variety to mix. Annabelle recently discovered that lemon flowers are also edible. “When we take people around the farm, we always stop and eat some lemon blossoms.”

Cucurbits: County Line Harvest

Petaluma-based County Line Harvest is also well known for their lush greens, but in the last couple years, melons and cucumbers (of the Cucurbitaceae family) have started making an appearance at their stand in late spring.

Four years ago, County Line purchased 80 acres in the Coachella Valley—a true game-changer for the farm. “It’s totally taken us to a different level on the farming side and business side,” says manager Megan Strom. “It’s expanded what types of crops and how many we can grow, and it allows us to keep our employees year-round.”

At their southern location, County Line grows 10 varieties of melons, including Snow Leopard honeydews, mini watermelons, and Piel de Sapos (Megan’s favorite). The hot desert climate helps to concentrate the sugars in the fruit.

“Melons can be a tricky crop to harvest, since it takes a while to understand the ripeness, but they’re pretty low maintenance compared to the other crops we grow,” says Megan. “And they’re really fun. You just poke the seed in the ground and three months later, it’s a fruit.”

Meet the farmers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and at CUESA’s Summer Celebration on June 22.

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