News and blog
In the past, you have (or maybe haven't) read me blogging about in depth growing practices, answering your questions from the interwebs, and creating content to address some of our most frequently asked questions at market. All these have been fun "blog series" to write if you want to call them such a thing but I hadn't come up with the next thing to write about until today when I was tasked with judging the maturity to harvest of about 6 different apple varieties. I took to Instagram to nerd out when I realized, hey! This might make for a fun read! And when you're as nerdy as I am with... well... everything, then you're pretty much of the opinion that there's a large population of folks eager to nerd out with you. So, in blatant denial of the truth - that being, of course, that you couldn't be any less interested, I introduce the new blog series, Nerdy Ag.
So! Apple trees exhibit two kinds of growth: vegetative and propagative. While that statement alone warrants another blog entry unto itself, we'll concern ourselves only of the propagative growth which is how we get fruit - that is to say vegetative growth makes limbs and leaves, propagative gives us fruit. We'll talk about buds and biennial trees later. A pollinated blossom forms a tiny fruitlet that undergoes rapid cell division. After "June drop" these apples start to grow by cell division and finally, begin to convert starches to sugars. There are many ways to tell if an apple is "mature" or ripe - some sensory, some scientific.
The first indicator is seed color. The apple (matured ovary, nerds) isn't making it's final maturing stages until the seeds have gone from a green color to a darker, browner color. If you cut open an apple and see green seeds, you need test anything else - you're looking at a "green" (immature, unripe) fruit.
A second test for apples that have mature seeds is a starch-iodine test. Again, apples that are cut and tested are immediately discarded, so let not your heart be troubled. To perform a starch iodine test, you'll need to cut the apple horizontally and use a garden spritzer to apple an iodine solution. When the Iodine reacts with the flesh of the apple, you can determine what percentage of starches have been converted to sugars. Because this starch conversion to sugars continue post harvest, it's important to consult charts like this to determine when to harvest (see also 8 index chart).
A third test, popular in the processing apple industry, is using a penetrometer. As the name implies, this tests the firmness of the apple by the resistance pressure made by the cells of the apples flesh! A reading of the pressure at the time of delivery of apples to a processor is an important metric in deciding what products can/should be made with them. Fancy penetrometers are for inside, lab use only and sit on a table to remove all other variables. Hand held penetrometers are more common, as they are easy to take to the field with you, though steps must be made to insure the accuracy of measurements. This final, fourth mention of the term "penetrometer" is merely to see if there's still anyone out there with a middle school sense of humor who hasn't giggled.
But the fun and easy one that I use the most is the refractometer (pictured). This measures the brix, the amount of sugar, in a suspended solution, of which apple juice (cider) is one. We'll talk sensory tests later, but as one who is somewhat sensory deficient, this is my method of choice. Testing is done by squeezing the juice of an apple onto the pen-like tip of this kaleidoscope measuring device. Once you flatten this solution into a thin, uniform film, you can point the refractometer at the light and see the reading as you look into the eyepiece. Let's get this gadget working!
Let's start with a low brix reading. Please consider the Braeburn apple pictured to the right, here. As you can tell from the photo - my iPhone camera lens through the eyepiece of the refractometer, this apple is measuring only 12 brix (bx). To taste this apple, you'd agree - underripe. And, true to form, this would be about 10-15 days earlier than we'd ever harvested Braeburn otherwise.
But! As you'll also see form the picture, it looks like a ready-to-eat apple! I'm colorblind, so I'm making myself learn fruit maturity the scientific way and this is a situation in which it's really helpful. However, I'm also blessed with a discerning palette and it wasn't hard for anyone to find this apple green, starchy, and unsweet to taste it. Let's move on - I only tested this one because I was driving by it on the way to other fruits!
These next two varieties had different brix but were both deemed to be ready for harvest. The first was a slam dunk. It's only the second harvest for these here at Three Springs but they're quickly becoming one of my favorites - Pink Lady cv. 'Maslin', an early ripening mutuation of Pink Lady cv. 'Cripps Pink'. As you can see in the photo, these chimed in at a brix over 15 which is really great! Most importantly, they tasted like they were ready.
As did the Cameo, pictured on the right. Long a favorite here around the farm for their flavor, crunch, and storability. This is an apple we typically sell straight through March, April, and May so at a few fewer brix, these will be harvested at a maturity that will 1) taste good now, right off the tree and 2) have some starches that can convert to sugar in a storage scenario such that the fruit continues to mature and sweeten in storage, rather than spoil.
The next apple I tested is one we get a lot of questions about in the fall: Stayman. Without going into the differences between Stayman, Winesap, and Stayman/Winesap (this is the first of these) - 'Snapp' Stayman for the real hort nerds out there was an apple that measured high in brix but I didn't think was quite ready. We were hoping to harvest these with the likes of Cameo and Pink Lady 'Maslin' from a logistics/efficiency/management perspective. However, while the instruments put Stayman on par with 'Maslin' Pink Lady - it still tasted starchy to me. I just think this one needs a little more time. From a logistics standpoint, the next chance we would have to harvest it would be the following week at the same time, but I think that'll be worth the wait based 100% on my own sensory evaluation.
The final case we'll look at is the same apple in two different areas of our same farm. We'll call this variety Mystery Apple (to torture you) and we'll call the first location X, and the second Y (he said quite nerdishly). Mystery Apple, location X is on a semi-dwarfing disease resistant rootstock - G.16. These are planted between an existing block of Honeycrisp on m.26 (also semi dwarf) and a windbreak beside a little brook. What this means is shading - significantly less sun than site Y. It is, however, lower elevation and a consistently warmer site than site Y and the rootstock more dwarfing. Trees on site X are also significantly younger than Y, less mature. While I have witnessed more dwarfing (read, more light inception) and young (smaller) trees produce higher quality fruit, these apples at site X, while a little inconclusive if you look at that shot, were, at best about a 14-15 bx.
Meanwhile, older more mature trees, on a more vigorous rootstock, at a higher elevation (colder) site (Y) produced mystery apples with a brix of 21! I'll keep an eye on these two blocks going forward but Mystery apple harvested last year at a brix of 24 and since this year was a little more mild, heat-wise, I'll call these ready to harvest at 21 for 2015. But this is just a cool, nerdy, scientific horticultural wonder to keep an eye on as these two blocks mature. Block Y will be less light inception per tree in full sun. Block X will be more light inception at a half-day's sun. Which will produce better quality (higher brix) Mystery apples. It's science - that's what makes these mysteries fun!
** EDIT 10/12/2015 **
This nerdy blog references penetrometers and starch-iodine tests! See video below from PA Apples for MORE nerdy content including videos of both nerdy instruments in action! Note, that bench penetrometer will be much more accurate than our hand-held penetrometer!
Apple harvest is just getting started in PA. Did you know that apples are carefully hand harvested? Here's a look at the harvest process. #PickPAapplesPosted by Pennsylvania Apples on Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Despite the long hours and sacrifices made around here to make this farm a success, we try to remain very much aware of the privilege and opportunities we enjoy. Just as past generations of the Wenk family invested in their kids, we enjoy the opportunity to benefit... many kids! All over our community. We hope you join us and enjoy some delicious food along the way at this two great events that connect kids to good food through leadership and education!
First up is an event in Central PA on Saturday 9/26 hosted by our friends at LEAF Project: "Savor! A Strolling Supper", to benefit the work this great organization does to empower and educate youth through agriculture. We've been a partner farm of this organization from it's inception and are honored to be paired with friend of the farm Chef Carey Ehly for the dessert course in this year's event. See photo and visit the LEAF website for details.
The second event is one we've enjoyed participating in and attending for several years running: Maryland Farm to Chef, benefitting AIWF's Day's Of Taste, Monday October 5th at the B&O Railroad Museum. This chef's competition supports efforts to provide culinary and agricultural education to Baltimore public schools. This year, we're partnered with the Baltimore Bartenders Guild and PlantBar in the Best Beverage competition. It's always a great night out with incredible food and a great vibe - people supporting a great cause. For tickets, just click this link - we'll see you there.
And just because videos are fun, check out some videos about these great organizations and consider joining us in supporting them this year.
How's this for a fun thing to pass along - our very first FARM DINNER! Talented Chef and fried of the farm Brian Ricci has opened this new spot on North 12th between Callowhill and Vine. We've talked about doing something together for quite a while now and we're pleased to announce this Three Springs-inspired tasting menu is going down Tuesday September 15th. Mark your calendars! All the details can be found below - it's a sure bet to make an otherwise ordinary Tuesday evening the highlight of your week. We're thrilled and proud to have this opportunity.
Brick and Mortar Three Springs Fruit Farm Tasting Menu- vegetarian options available
Tuesday September 15th (FB event page)
Time: 5-10pm, during normal dinner service
Cost: $45, includes drink pairings (wait, are you serious? Four courses with drinks = $45?!! Ok, I'll take it. Tax and gratuity not included of course)
Reservations: recommended by calling (215) 923-1596, or http://www.bamphilly.com, OR OpenTable
Yes, Farmer Ben will be there hanging out - might even have some tricks up his sleeve!
I was asked for my reaction to the new bipartisan bill sponsored by Reps. Courtney & Gibson "Young Farmer Success Act of 2015", as described in this Mark Bittman editorial, that would classify those farming for ten years as public servants in the interest of student loan forgiveness.
First off, I love Mark Bittman. He's a great mouthpiece for the change we need in our food system.
And I love this editorial! I actually have friends who have lobbied on behalf of the NYFC. I also support Rep. Courtney's bill and think you should too but, as Mr. Bittman alludes to early on, the problem is not so simply solved.
In addition to the land access issue, young and beginning farmers are faced with a learning curve. This is the part in this editorial where I point out how fortunate I am to have received a degree from PSU's College of Ag and that I have a family full (moreover, a community full) of experienced advisers and mentors in the field of agriculture, which is a pun that's tired but necessary in this case.
A young, motivated baccalaureate graduate doesn't make a successful farmer overnight. That being said, I know plenty of them that have achieved success. I also know plenty who have wanted to, tried to, and ultimately could not or are not farming presently due to a variety of circumstances. The point of Bittman's article is that, should our society value food production as public service, as I agree we should, then loan forgiveness can solve one of these circumstances to which I'm referring. Maybe it starts the cultural change that can bring the whole situation back into balance.
In a lot of ways, working on a farm has been considered an option of "those who couldn't attend college" for generations. That's how we got to this point in the first place, right? First off, education is a worthy pursuit any way you slice it - it's vital to understanding the richness of life any way you slice it. And while it's not the case that "nothing about your liberal arts education will prepare you for farming" - if we're serious about farming as public service, let's find liberal arts colleges with student farming programs and support them - there are two fine one's in our backyard (Fulton Farm, Dickinson). Let's be real about it - if farming is public service (and it is), tell your sons, daughters, nieces and nephews that farming is an impactful career choice (Cicero sure thought so). Encourage them to learn the sciences! Tell them about PASA, about FutureHarvest CASA. I know it's not for everyone, but when I figured out I wanted to farm, I studied Ag Sciences. It offered me incredible opportunities that were practical, applicable, and not easily learned "in the field" to recycle the expression again, to everyone's irritation. Step one, let's get this bill passed and get some student loan relief for young and beginning farmers. Step Two, let's complete this culture change and talk about farming as public service... not like it's a last resort for people who "couldn't do my job", for example. While the mechanics of farming seem simple, making a farm a successful business (not to mention someday retiring) is incredibly difficult - it's not a lower percentile thing, so let's just put that whole notion to bed. And Step Three, although education of ANY kind is, in and of itself, very important, the more science, training, and practical experience our new farmer-public servants have, the more likely they succeed. Teach young farmers plant science!
All this before we tackle the land access issue!
(or providing farming opportunities to minority and women farmers, but c'mon - I've only so much time I can devote to this stuff... I am farming here, afterall)
So! Here's all the more I can say about stuff like this when it happens. I graduated Penn State's College of Ag, eager to farm and work outdoors with my family on lands that meant a great deal to me and a community that still supported agriculture. I didn't have the first idea where that path would lead at the time. It lead me to Philadelphia! Our first farmers markets were in Philly. My friends, family, in-laws were there too. And so were a lot of people who really loved food. Wanted to know where it came from - everything about how I grew it. These people became my friends. They trusted me, and I trusted them. I listened when they spoke about all the great things going on in Philadelphia. I was green coming out of college. I didn't have any idea what a "food scene" was. But Philly embraced me, and "learned me up right quick". So, when the occasion does arise that I'm honored with this kind of great recognition, it's cause for me to stop and appreciate the opportunity I was given. To thank my father and uncle for giving me the chance to prove myself, for my mom, who every Headhouse customer knows, puts in long hours every Sunday, what would really be her only day off, to help me out. To everyone here at the farm for all of their hard work - this farm is nothing without the good people we're fortune enough to have on our team. And thank you to all of the outstanding people I've met in the food business. Certainly you Philly folks - you know who you are, from the kind words of customers at market, to the folks who have never failed to steer me right, thank you. And certainly the folks in Baltimore, DC, and our neighbors in the industry as well. In short (hah! right)... I'm humbled by the recognition and there are too many people to thank.
Well, folks! You probably saw it coming! With our new Pantry items, it's become all the easier to provide our awesome customers with simple gifts on the go! Maybe for coworkers, maybe clients, maybe hostesses... either way, it's a fun way to show your appreciation AND support local agriculture. Gift baskets are customizable, come with a nice "Wenk" mini-crate filled with items and we will attempt to ship them, if you please. Let's visit the options.
The Jams and Spreads basket is perfect for someone who loves breads (and biscuits, and muffins, and toast, and yogurt) as much as we do. Of course, we've gotten to meet some of the best bakers in the US at our farmers markets, but then again, I'm betting you're taking advantage of these too. As always, these are customizable but you can always trust us to come up with a great assortment of our excellent spreads in this basket!
The Kosher basket is a great option for anyone but especially for followers of the Jewish faith. Our local, family-owened, customer processor Kime's Cider Mill has earned this Kosher certification allowing us to offer the following products Kosher certified: canned peaches, apple sauce, apple juice, apple butter, peach butter, and pear butter.
If you have someone in your life who, due to health reasons or dietary choice, is eliminating refined sugars from his or her diet, we understand how difficult it can be to find stuff to eat! Anymore, it's hard to get away from all that. With this in mind, we offer a wide variety of products - really the very same products above (with the exception of peach butter) are available without sugar - No Sugar Tonight!.
And then there's the "hot sauce" eater. I'm kind of one myself. It used to be the "hot sauce guy" was like your crazy uncle. However, the American palate is getting much more "spice hungry" with each year. Now there are plenty of guys and gals with a great appreciation for spicy foods, and you better believe we've got them covered! Customize your own basket if you like, but don't leave out the Muscle Bound Lummox - our signature hot sauce! We'd be happy to make one for you, clean and simple - Hot Stuff! Coming Through!
Or just throw the Kitchen Sink at 'em! We've got the ultimate gift choice for big fans of Three Springs - 12 of our finest products in one container! How cool is that? We'll pick out 12 favorites or we'll let you choose exactly what suits you/your friend and loved one the best. Tell me! How cool is that?
Customize your basket in the "comments" section at check out!
Some markets close at Thanksgiving, others at Christmas, others play by rules that aren't so simple! I've updated the Farm Calendar to help simplify this, but here's the details just in case! We'll cover the easy ones first!
FRESHFARM Markets Silver Spring - EVERY Saturday! April-December hours: 9-1pm, Jan-March 10-1pm
Kenilworth Farmers Market in Towson, MD - every Tuesday from Mother's Day to Thanksgiving 3:30-6:30pm
Columbia Heights Community Marketplace - every Saturday 9-1pm until December 13th (last market day)
Greenbelt Farmers Market - Every Sunday 10-2pm from May to Thanksgiving, plus the following:
12/7 Holiday Market
1/18 - Winter Buyer's Club Delivery, 10am
2/15 - Winter Buyer's Club Delivery, 10am
3/15 - Winter Buyer's Club Delivery, 10am
4/19 - Winter Buyer's Club Delivery, 10am
Headhouse Farmers Market, Philadelphia:
11/23 Headhouse Farmers Market 10-2pm
11/26 Headhouse Open, 3Springs not attending
12/7 Headhouse Farmers Market
12/14 Headhouse Farmers Market
12/21 Headhouse Farmers Market
2/7 Headhouse Febrary Buyer's Club, Saturday at noon
3/7 Headhouse March Buyer's Club, Saturday at noon
4/4 Headhouse April Buyer's Club, Saturday at noon
Farmers On The Square - Carlisle - every Wednesday in December at Project S.H.A.R.E. 3-7pm, every 1st and 3rd Wednesday (except Holidays) 3-7pm, Project S.H.A.R.E. Jan-Apr
Farmers On Walnut - Every 1st and 3rd Thursday at Camp Hill Presbyterian Church 3-6pm
Why Are Peaches Fuzzy?
No, not Fozzie! Fuzzy!
This question was posed to me via twitter by Sean, proprietor and brewmaster at Mellody Brewing Co., food maven, #tastingjawn master, stylish bow tie wearer, friend of the farm, and stalwart Phillies supporter:
@3springsfruit why are peaches fuzzy?— MellodyBrewing (@mellodybrewing) August 26, 2014
A great question, Sean, and a worthy blog entry in our "Ask a Grower" series.
Peaches, Prunus persica, were originally grown in China. Clemson claims these fruits washed up on the shores of the New World in 1571 with Spanish missionaries, first arriving in what's now St. Simon's Island, Georgia. So, they evolved in a climate and environment not very familiar to me.
However, by my observation here in the Eastern US, peach fuzz (or pubescence to all we Horticulture nerds) is a natural defense system for protecting the fruits from rainwater. The tiny hairs allow droplets of water to sit on top of them and not on the more vulnerable skin of the fruit. Now certainly, when rains are heavy, the peaches will get wet. But for light rains or heavy dews, it's conceivable peaches could be more susceptible to rots and bacteria than they already are without that pubescence.
Unless, they just adapted to express the recessive allele for pubescence and became nectarines. Nectarines are simply fuzz-less peaches. Though there are markedly different flavors between peaches and nectarines in many cases, scientifically, this is all that separates them. Why don't nectarines rot more than peaches? Well... hehe - sometimes they do. However, they've been naturally selected for smoother and smoother skin, allowing (in an ideal environment) to allow rain waters to slip-slide all down the fruits and onto the ground, feeding the roots.
Some suspect peach fuzz can deter browsing from insects and other animals. Well... as I said, I've never been to China. The super smart-alecky farmer notion in me would like to know why it hasn't stopped any stink bugs, Oriental Fruit Moths, Tarnished Plant Bugs, Western Flower Thrips, Tufted Apple Budmoth, Plum Curculio, crows, turkeys, or deer that we have here in our environment... just to name a few. I'm just glad it hasn't stopped you, the faithful 3Springs blog reader and peach devotee, from browsing on them at your home!
Wocka Wocka Wocka!
- "Ask a Grower" vol. VI - Grafting
- "Ask A Grower" vol. V - Proper Apple Storage
- "Ask A Grower" vol. IV - All About Cider
- "Ask A Grower" vol. III - Clingstone Peaches vs. Freestone Peaches
- "Ask A Grower" vol. II - Granny Smith Fables
- "Ask A Grower" vol I - Roots & Scions
Heirloom, Just Old, or Ugly
Heirloom tomatoes are officially a thing! Or so I'm told.
All jokes aside, heirloom tomatoes more than a thing, they're an awesome thing! Since their advent into the marketplace, many other things have been anointed as "heirloom" as the term has come to be synonymous with a level of quality. But what does the word mean and how is it used? How is the term abused? Let's (blanch, and) peel back some tomato skin and learn more!
When a clock or a quilt is a family heirloom, it's an item that's been handed down in the family for generations. While there's no consensus definition of heirloom as applied to tomatoes, this first premise is required in any definition of heirloom - it must be a tomato that's been handed down for generations. When you hand down Grandfather's watch to a new generation, it's as simple as keeping it somewhere safe until you entrust a younger family member to keep it somewhere safe. To pass along an heirloom tomato, you need to save seeds and use those seeds to grow a new crop of tomatoes of the same variety (ideally) every year. Therefore, a hybridized tomato, whose seeds are infertile and designed such that their seeds must be purchased every year and not saved from the fruit, cannot be an heirloom.
Without any real numbers to back me up, hybridized tomatoes (red slicers in the grocery store and their ilk) make up the overwhelming majority of the marketplace but represent a very tiny percentage of the biodiversity of the tomato (tomatoes originated in Mexico, for the nutritional anthropologists out there). It's impossible to quantify the number of heirloom tomato varieties they are because many are open pollinated and the genetic makeup of each tomato can change from year to year. In this way, a seed saver's tomato patch is similar to a livestock operation - such that your neighbor's Green Zebra tomatoes might possess different characteristics than yours if you're selecting your seeds for different quantities.
For me, that's the whole of my definition. While the tomatoes your family brought over from Italy and have grown every year in your garden are, maybe, more heirloom (if there can be such a thing) than my Arkansas Traveler, if the tomato can be passed down (and has been), it's an heirloom in my eyes.
The Arkansas Traveler (pictured above) was an intentional example, to demonstrate a counter argument. One of the first things you'll learn when you study heirloom tomatoes is there are multiple and conflicting stories around the origin of each variety. Many of these are fictionalized and romanticized to make them more appealing. So, depending on which story you believe, the Arkansas Traveler was either passed down "through folks in the Mountains of Arkansas where it was a hillbilly favorite" or it was developed by tomato breeders at the University of Arkansas anywhere from the 1930's to the 1970's. But this much is for sure, the seeds saved from our Arkansas Traveler tomatoes will yield tomatoes similar to its predecessors. Since this has occurred over at least one generation, I consider these heirloom tomatoes. Again, the main distinction being it's viability from seed.
So, why do heirloom tomatoes taste so much better? First, a reminder that language is what we make it to be, just like a wiki. Sometimes, our population gets it right. Sometimes, we abuse terms like "artisan" (NSFW language). But, there's nothing about "heirloom" that automatically means delicious! More than likely, the heirloom tomato seeds were saved by folks because somebody found them tasty. However, I've had plenty of heirloom tomatoes that didn't taste good and a very select few hybrid tomatoes that did taste very good as well. However, by in large, tomato breeders bred hybrid tomatoes to look good, store well, and take abuse. Heirloom tomato seed savers have selected and saved seeds almost exclusively for taste and flavor. And that's why heirloom tomatoes taste better. It isn't that they automatically taste better, it's because they were selected for taste rather than anything but, in the case of their hybrid counterparts.
So! To review, in a very logic problem kind of way. All non-hybridized seeds can be heirlooms, but not every one is. All heirlooms are non-hybridized. Not all "old" tomato varieties are heirlooms, BUT (again) all heirlooms are (at least a few generations) old. Heirloom tomato seeds can be saved based on any preferable characteristic but are most commonly saved because of their superior flavor, often resulting oddly colored and oddly shaped tomatoes that taste good! However, not all heirloom tomatoes are oddly colored and oddly shaped just as not all hybrid tomatoes are uniformly colored and shaped. Anything can be considered "heirloom" if it has been passed down over a number of years, but that doesn't mean it has the characteristics you want.
And that is as comprehensive a lecture on heirloom tomatoes as you'd ever care to read!