Grower’s Row: January: Surviving and Thriving

By Lauren Kaplan, Farm Crew Leader

Farm fields in January

Farm fields in January

It’s winter, and the days are short. As I write this in the first week of January, we currently have 9 hours and 17 minutes of daylight.

As farmers, we often refer to this time of year -- when daylight falls below 10 hours per day -- as the Persephone period. During this period, regardless of the temperature, plant growth slows to a near-halt. The greens that we’ve been harvesting from for our Winter CSA put on most of their growth in October and November. (This is why the process for winter greens actually began on a 70-degree day in September!) These days, the plants are mostly hanging out, waiting for that critical increase in daylight hours to signal renewed growth.

High tunnel greens are healthy and awaiting harvest

High tunnel greens are healthy and awaiting harvest

Those of you who leave your office at 5pm to darkened skies are probably acutely aware of the brevity of daylight hours. But don’t despair: there’s a light at the end of the tunnel! Though it may seem (especially now that the holidays are over) that the winter stretches out, endless, ahead of us… the truth is that with the Winter Solstice behind us, the days are already growing longer.

For now, the farm crew -- taking a cue from the plants -- have also slowed down. We are taking advantage of more flexible time in the winter to rest and rejuvenate. While Leon is snuggling his new baby daughter, LK and German are both reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (which for German is the first of fifty books he plans to read in 2019); Chris has been doing lots of hiking with his curious and adventurous pup; and Laura is making jams from squirreled-away summer fruits and painting vegetable portraits (like this beautiful arrangement she made for Lauren’s going-away card!).

Speaking of Lauren McDonald, our dear friend is settling into her new home in Belfast, ME with her partner Julia and their rambunctious cat Turtle Bean. She’s preparing for lots of fiddle gigs, savoring every bite of her dwindling supply of purple carrots, and sending warm wishes to all of us (and you!) here while making new farming connections in Maine.

Surprise overwintered Hakurei!

Surprise overwintered Hakurei!

Just like these candy-sweet overwintered turnips that amazingly not only survived the winter cold, but thrived -- so are we not only enduring these dark days, but enjoying them for all that they are. We hope your New Year is off to a healthy and happy start, and that you too are taking advantage of these Persephone period to snuggle up on the couch with a good book, enjoy a steaming mug of hot chocolate or tea, and generally adopt a Scandanavian winter mindset towards these short but precious days.

Poughkeepsie Food Power After-School Programs are Accepting New Students

Poughkeepsie Farm Project is running after-school programming at six schools in the Poughkeepsie City School District as a partner on their Empire State Extended Learning Time grant and with support from the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Twice per week at six schools, PFP educators engage students in garden-based learning in all subject areas through hands-on gardening and food activities. While caring for their school gardens, students conduct, science experiments, explore plant life cycles, write poetry, observe insects, prepare healthy snacks, design inventions, read and discuss literature, create art, and improve their academic and leadership skills.

If you have a student who attends PCSD who would like to take part, please download the form below and return to your child’s school or to Poughkeepsie Farm Project, PO BOX 3143, Poughkeepsie, NY 12603. To register elementary students, please fill out the form below. Forms for Middle an High School students are coming soon. Please call or text 845-475-2734 to arrange to drop off forms at Poughkeepsie Farm Project’s office.

Program Registration Form (all elementary schools)

Poughkeepsie Farm Project’s Elementary and Middle School Programs
Poughkeepsie Food Power is the perfect place for your child to increase their academic and leadership skills in a nurturing environment. Through children’s literature and group projects, Poughkeepsie Food Power builds social-emotional skills which support school and life success. Students will build skills in all subject areas through hands-on gardening and food activities. While caring for their school garden, students conduct science experiments, explore plant life-cycles, write poetry, observe insects, prepare healthy snacks, design inventions, create art, and read and discuss high-quality children’s literature.

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Poughkeepsie Farm Project’s High School Internship
Would you like to help care for your school garden, learn to cook healthy meals, and participate in fun team-building activities? Join the Poughkeepsie Food Power Internship at Poughkeepsie High School.

  • Gain culinary skills while preparing delicious meals with garden produce

  • Build leadership and relationship skills

  • Explore career and growth opportunities in the food sector.

  • Become active members of our local food system and work to create justice, equity, and power for all eaters.

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Here are some highlights from Our After-School Programs:

Ring in the New Year with a Healthy Relationship to Food

By Chris Gavin, Garden Educator

I’ve never really been one to participate in the rituals of New Years, especially the resolutions to change things about myself. I think my disconnect from this traditions is rooted in our cultural tendency to be hard on ourselves and focus on the things we want to eliminate from our lives. So many New Year’s resolutions - especially those related to food - are negative, things you need to stop doing in order to finally be that perfect version of yourself you’re always striving towards. Stop eating those high calorie snacks that we all know aren’t good for us, quit substances like caffeine or alcohol, give up carbs or dairy or meat or sugar. And we usually see our success or failure in austere terms, so when we inevitably slip up it is easy to feel like a failure and give up entirely.

Instead of focusing on the negative, remember that resolutions are all about wanting to be happier and healthier in the new year. Instead of getting sucked into the negative rhetoric around food choices that is so common this time of year, let’s focus on affirmative steps we can take to ring in 2019 with a happier and healthier relationship to food.

  • Give yourself the gift of food with a CSA share.
    In addition to the incredible bounty of healthy and delicious food each week, there are other perks to membership. Being a CSA shareholder gives you the chance to revel in the natural beauty of the farm. You become a part of a community - you can chat with a farmer, share recipe ideas with other shareholders, and make new friends. And sign up for a working share so you can get your hands in the soil and help grow the food yourself.

  • Share food with someone you love.
    Approach cooking and the sharing of food with joy, excitement, and gratitude. As we tell our students, when you cook for someone you are giving them the greatest gift because you are giving them everything they need to grow and thrive. A meal is a great way to reconnect with an old friend in this busy season.

  • Have fun and experiment in the kitchen!
    Push your food boundaries, don’t let a recipe or an unfamiliar ingredient hold you back. If you don’t love a vegetable one way, don’t be afraid to change the recipe or try something entirely different. Use your intuition and revel in the alchemy of finding the perfect flavor combination.

  • Cook more an home, even if it is just for yourself.
    Cooking for other people is great, but remember that you are worthy of that same care and love. Take the opportunity to indulge in one of your favorite recipes and cook with the freedom of knowing nobody is watching!

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This January, be kind and forgiving to yourself when it comes to food. Embrace the new year with positivity, and happy eating!

Meet Tamika and Lindsey

Meet Tamika and Lindsey. Two students from Vassar College share their experiences of interning with Poughkeepsie Farm Project through the Office of Community-Engaged Leaning.

Ed. Note: This article has been adapted from pieces Tamika and Lindsey wrote for Vassar College's Office of Community Engaged Learning Newsletter. It has been edited for clarity.

Tamika is in the Meditation Garden. She’s in the brown t-shirt!

Tamika is in the Meditation Garden. She’s in the brown t-shirt!

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My name is Tamika and I am a prospective Environmental Studies major. I am an Education Intern with Poughkeepsie Farm Project this semester. I’m interested in local food systems and food justice. Since PFP is a local community farm project committed to making fresh produce accessible to the Poughkeepsie community, I am gaining real experience on how a community-minded food and agriculture organization operates. PFP offers community supported agriculture (CSA) shares of fresh produce to the local community and also provides a variety of programming both at the farm site and in the Poughkeepsie community. My work as an education intern thus far has primarily been with the meditation garden at the PFP site on Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve. I help out every week during the open volunteer gardening time, primarily with weeding and other maintenance of the plant beds and medicine garden. This work has made me realize how much hands-on love and care goes into growing plants. I have also learned a lot about herbalism and the many uses of plants from PFP’s volunteer herbalist, Beatrix Clarke.

Working at the meditation garden has really made me realize the relationship between the community and the garden, too. I definitely notice a difference in the amount of work we can accomplish and visible change in the garden on the days when we have lots of volunteers as opposed to the days when it is just me and the PFP staff. I think this really speaks to the importance of community support for PFP.

Lindsey in the plaid shirt teaching kids at a workshop!

Lindsey in the plaid shirt teaching kids at a workshop!

My name is Lindsay Irwin - I am a Sophomore Drama and intended English Double-Major participating in a Community-Engaged Learning Opportunity through Vassar. I’m an Education Intern at Poughkeepsie Farm Project, which allows me to fuse my interests in Education, English and Drama. Each week, I bike up the road to the farm and prepare myself to spend 4-5 hours doing something different that feeds my love of nature and inspires me to write poetry and short creative pieces which will eventually culminate into one large or multiple small final pieces. Each time I’ve gone to the farm, I’ve contributed to my journal with notes and images that will eventually lead to my final creative project.

So far in my farm adventures, I have tabled for PFP at parent-teacher conferences at a local Poughkeepsie public school, led cooking workshops for local elementary students, planted garlic on Halloween to bond with the farm crew, and my personal favorite, directed a short play about the parts of plants starring students on a field trip to PFP. This community engaged learning opportunity has really pushed me to use my skills in a new way outside of the classroom and blended my passions, letting me pass on my enthusiasm to these local students, and learn from them as well.

Going off-campus for a few hours a week definitely puts me in a creative mindset and allows me to get a taste of what it would be like to teach kids theatre in the real world, work on a farm, and write professionally from natural inspiration.

Growers Row: Four Seasons Farming

Growers Row: Four Seasons Farming
By Lauren Kaplan

The tractor implements are stored for the season. The distribution tent is down. The fields are quiet, tucked away in cover crop. To a casual observer, it may look like a whole lot of nothing-much happening.

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But inside the high tunnels, it’s another world. Look closer, and you’ll find a lush green world, bursting with kale and chard, spinach and salad greens, chicories and tatsoi and bok choy (oh my!). These heated tunnels, which we’ve been planting and weeding and watering, opening and closing (and mending) for the last three months, are now the heart of our winter activity -- and a welcome, semi-tropical respite from the frigid fields. Our greenhouse, which will be piled high with trays of seedlings and sprouts come spring, has been temporarily transformed into a winter wash station. And our coolers are well stocked with carrots, sweet potatoes and other root crops, cabbage, onions and winter squash.

We will spend the next few months buzzing back and forth between the tunnels, the coolers, and our wash station, harvesting and washing and sorting and packing out a beautiful assortment of produce for our Winter CSA.

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We are really excited about our Winter CSA (a more traditional-style CSA) and the opportunity it affords to slow down a little with our members -- to talk with people, share recipes, and spotlight unique and different crops. As farmers, we’re also deeply grateful to have winter work. It keeps us learning, keeps us employed, and is one important part of the sustainability we strive to achieve here on the farm and across the organization.

For those of you who have signed up for the Winter CSA, we thank you for supporting us in this. We will see you for the SECOND distribution on Saturday December 15 -- and we hope you’ve made room in your refrigerator! Stay tuned for recipe ideas (including more for the ever-intimidating but vastly under-appreciated Black Spanish radish).

For everyone else, we wish you a warm and cozy, happy and healthy holiday season. Be safe, eat your greens, and we will look forward to seeing you in the spring!

Grower's Row: Giving Thanks

by Lauren Kaplan

It’s November. (How did that happen?) The leeks are all harvested, the garlic has been planted (all 17,400 cloves), and we’re getting ready for winter. And while it’s always a little sad to see the growing season come to a close, this November comes as a bit of a relief, as it marks the end to a pretty tough year.

With all of the hot and wet weather, we saw some significant losses this season. Our edamame planting was lost to a pest that feeds on germinating bean seeds. We lost half of our first planting of peppers to heat stress, and had a curiously light eggplant harvest. The seemingly endless rain took a toll on our chard, beets and carrots. Diseased greens meant not enough chard, and very small beet and carrot roots. (Whereas last year we harvested nearly 4 large bulk bins of beets, this year we harvested only one, from the same amount of land.) Nearly all of our celeriac and winter rutabaga was lost to rot.

While some crops succumbed to the weather, others thrived. We had a great garlic crop, and an outstanding onion crop! We brought in 2,000 lbs of garlic and over 11,000 lbs of beautiful golden and red onions. Our carrot germination and weeding was spot-on, and (before the disease) it had never looked better. The raspberries were bountiful, and provided many weeks of picking. The diseased basil, forgotten about behind the hot peppers, returned from a diseasy August for a late-summer burst! We have peppers at the end of October! Despite some failure in our winter storage crops, the purple and white daikon are looking pretty stellar, and the butternut are still bountiful.

We also took some risks trialing new varieties. We tested out a few different potatoes, a new rainbow carrot mix, a new winter squash (the hazelnut-flavored Black Futsu), and a stunning purple Chinese cabbage, to name a few. Last year’s onion trial resulted in a sturdy storage onion that’s been holding well this year, and promises many more weeks of onion distribution into the winter CSA.

Perhaps one of the brightest and best parts of this challenging year has been the endless support we receive from all of you, our members and shareholders. We receive so much support, in the form of smiles, words of appreciation or encouragement, surprise deliveries of baked goods or pain relieving ointments, extra volunteer hours (in response to one of my desperate calls for hands), and a shared curiosity and interest in the work we do and the land we care for.

On a personal note, it always makes my day when you, our shareholders, ask questions (anything from why we didn’t have edamame this year to why the kale looks different) to learn more about your food and how its grown. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt uplifted working across from one of you during workshare hours -- how touched I’ve been by the stories you all have shared, by your generosity and kindness and diversity of perspectives in this PFP community.

Support is, in fact, one of the central cores of a CSA -- community supported agriculture. And so, as the close of the season draws near, we’d like to take a moment to express our gratitude for the bounty, for feeding us; for the losses, for teaching us how to grow and be stronger; for the winter, for providing rest and respite and the opportunity to reset; and to all of you, for sticking with us year after year, and allowing us to grow for and with you. Thank you.

Staff Highlight: Larissa Alvarado- The Heart of Poughkeepsie

This article was published in Pioneers: A Spotlight on Poughkeepsie’s Community Leaders, a magazine researched and written by Sage Kawelo, a Marist student placed at Hudson River Housing through the Tarver Summer Internship Program. At PFP, we are thrilled to republish the piece written about our beloved colleague, Larissa Alvarado. Ed. Note: While Larissa does volunteer heavily in the Poughkeepsie community, she is also a well-loved paid staff member of PFP. The full magazine can be found here.

“Each of the people spotlighted in this magazine dedicate their heart and soul to Poughkeepsie.
They devote their time to the community without expecting anything in return.
Let’s give them the credit they deserve.”

Larissa Alvarado: The Heart of Poughkeepsie

Community work would not be possible without the volunteers who put in the time. Larissa Alvarado is one of those many volunteers. She commits her time to Art Centro, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, Family Services, the Art Effect, Mid-Hudson Heritage Center and local food pantries.

As a single mother of 3 children, it seems astonishing that Larissa was willing to give away any of her free time. But many of the places that she volunteered at also provided her with services that she and her children could benefit from. For example, at a point when food was scarce in her household, she volunteered with a local food pantry so that she was able to fill her fridge while helping others fill theirs. Larissa was born and raised in Poughkeepsie and she enjoys giving her time back to helping her community.

The Poughkeepsie Farm Project holds cooking workshops to teach people about what they can do with the plants that they grow. One afternoon, Larissa took her nephews and nieces to a workshop and was exposed to all of the wonderful work that they do. They had been given a recipe, ingredients, and means to make their meals. Larissa decided immediately that it was something that she wanted to be a part of.

Larissa is a gifted artist. Though she used to paint with watercolors, much of her work today are ceramic pieces. She donates a lot of her time at Art Centro, which is a ceramic art center. At Art Centro, people who volunteer for 4 hours a week are allowed to use the studio when they want. Now, whenever Larissa wants to volunteer with a new organization she allots 4 hours a week to the mission.

Larissa has displayed her art in the Pop-Up Shop in the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center. Her pieces were displayed for purchase regularly. The Shop would showcase art shows for individual artists and on the day that her art was headlined, the Shop overflowed with her family and friends. All of them coming out to support the woman who filled their fridges and worked alongside them. The Pop-Up Shop has taken a hiatus as of this summer. But Larissa continues to create her art.

Far above her title as a Community Volunteer, Larissa is a devoted Jehovah’s Witness. She is first and foremost a believer. What she loves about creating art is the ability of the artist to show people what they see. When Larissa looks at the world, she sees a gift that God created for us and she translates that love into her work. This isn’t limited to the art pieces that she creates. Larissa pours that love into all of the volunteer work that she does.

Larissa Alvarado: El corazón de Poughkeepsie

El trabajo comunitario no sería posible sin los voluntarios que han invertido su tiempo. Larissa Alvarado es una de esas personas dedicadas al trabajo de voluntariado. Ella dedica su tiempo a Art Centro, el Vassar Farm Project, Family Services, the Art Effect, Mid-Hudson Heritage Center y despensas de alimentos.

Como madre soltera de 3 hijos, parece sorprendente que Larissa estuviera dispuesta a regalar parte de su tiempo libre. Sin embargo, muchos de los lugares en los que ella se ofreció de voluntaria también le proporcionaron servicios de los cuales ella y sus hijos podrían beneficiarse. Por ejemplo, en un momento en que la comida escaseaba en su hogar, ella se ofreció a trabajar como voluntaria en una despensa local de alimentos para poder llenar su refrigerador mientras ayudaba a otros a llenar los suyos. Larissa nació y se crió en Poughkeepsie y le gusta ofrecer su tiempo para ayudar a su comunidad.

El Proyecto de la Granja Poughkeepsie organiza talleres de cocina para enseñarles a las personas lo que pueden hacer con las plantas que cultivan. Una tarde, Larissa llevó a sus sobrinos y sobrinas a un taller, y los expuso a todo el trabajo maravilloso que hacen. Les habían dado a todos una receta, ingredientes y materiales para preparar sus comidas. Larissa decidió de inmediato que esto era algo de lo que ella quería ser parte.

Larissa es una artista talentosa. Aunque solía pintar con acuarelas, gran parte de su trabajo hoy en día se centra en la cerámica. Ella dona mucho de su tiempo al Art Centro, un centro de arte de cerámicas. En Art Centro, las personas que trabajan como voluntarios durante 4 horas a la semana pueden usar el estudio cuando lo deseen. Larissa ahora usa esa medida para cada organización con la que se ofrece como voluntaria.

Larissa ha expuesto sus obras de arte en el Pop-Up Shop del Mid-Hudson Heritage Center. Sus piezas se exponían para la venta regularmente. La tienda exhibía muestras de arte para artistas individuales y, el día en que sus obras se exhibieron, la tienda se desbordó con su familiares y amigos. Todos vinieron para apoyar a la mujer que llenaba sus refrigeradores y que trabajaba junto a ellos. Desafortunadamente, la tienda cerró recientemente. Pero Larissa continúa creando su arte.

Más allá de su título como Voluntaria de la Comunidad, Larissa es una Testigo de Jehová devota. Antes que nada, es una creyente. Lo que le encanta de crear arte es la capacidad del artista para mostrarle a la gente lo que ve. Cuando Larissa mira el mundo, ve un regalo que Dios creó para nosotros y ella traduce ese amor a través de su trabajo. Esto no se limita a las piezas de arte que ella crea. Larissa vierte ese amor en todo el trabajo voluntario que ella desempeña.

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Grower's Row: October is the month of: Green tomatoes! Purple Potatoes! Sweet potatoes! ALL THE SQUASH!

Growers Row: October is the month of: Green tomatoes! Purple Potatoes! Sweet potatoes! ALL THE SQUASH!
By Lauren Kaplan, Crew Leader

Goodbye summer eats….

Goodbye summer eats….

If you’re a CSA member, it may be time to say farewell to most summer fruits like peppers and eggplant -- BUT you can expect about 2 more weeks of green tomatoes! These tart, tangy fruits may be intimidating, but we encourage you to give them a try during the short window when they’re available. Green tomatoes are great pickled halved (for snacking and salads) or in slices (for sandwiches or *pickled* fried green tomatoes).

Green tomatoes ready for distribution

Green tomatoes ready for distribution

Purple fingerling potatoes straight from the plant!

Purple fingerling potatoes straight from the plant!

Later in the month, look for the appearance of purple fingerling potatoes and the much-beloved butternut squash. Purple potatoes make for a fun mash, and are beautiful roasted with rosemary or thyme -- especially if you snagged a celeriac root from an earlier distribution. Butternut squash can be roasted in rounds, in cubes, with brown butter and sage, or tossed together with potatoes and sweet potatoes. It is also perfect for soups and pies. When substituted for acorn squash, it lends a velvety quality to this 5-ingredient Thai-spiced Pumpkin Soup. Kale and carrots will get noticeably sweeter as the weather gets colder, and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes will eventually make their hefty debut.

The farm team surveying the sudan grass

The farm team surveying the sudan grass

While you all are busy steaming up the kitchen with your farm-fresh creations, we (the farm team) are out here busily covering our farm-fields with cover crops and planting hardy greens to prepare for Winter CSA. Kale, chard, spinach, radicchio and cutting lettuce are all making their way from the greenhouse to the high tunnels. Here, they will be planted with careful attention to spacing, to maximize space while still ensuring enough room for plants to size up. They’ll grow slowly, and we will harvest these precious winter greens from December through March.

Out in the fields, some blocks are home to fall radishes and turnips, all of which are swelling in size beneath their stiff leafy canopy. In others, large blocks of cover crop are quilting the farm in lush, verdant green above, while below ground they are cultivating a rich, busy micro-ecosystem in their rhizosphere or root-zone. Some of these cover crops, such as the majestic sudan grass or oats and peas, will either be tilled in or will winter-kill, covering the soil like a winter blanket. Others, like rye and vetch, will survive the winter to bring a burst of life to the farm in March, when the soil softens.

Meanwhile, we continue to harvest every week for CSA, and to chip away at bigger projects -- such as liberating our fence from the clamoring tower of trailing vines and other plants that are threatening to pull it down with their leafy weight. Here to help us with some of these projects, we have the newest group of Vassar and Marist students! It’s been a pleasure and a help to have some fresh new faces on the farm, as well as some help from former students who seem to just really like being here. (We know how they feel!) And of course, workshare continues, with some really hard-working, fantastic groups to close out September and kick us into full-on Fall.

Enjoy the autumn harvest, and we’ll be back with more Winter CSA share updates in November!

Summer Recap

PFP was out and about in Poughkeepsie and beyond this summer!

Briggin and Larissa worked with Poughkeepsie teacher Mary Ficht to revitalize the garden at Warring School with new garden beds for more growing space!

Chris and Jamie lead a family gardening session at Krieger School this summer as part of the Farm Fresh Home Chefs program.

Arm-of-the-Sea put on a beautiful and highly educational theatrical production called Dirt: The Secret Life of Soil in the courtyard of the Environmental Cooperative in partnership with PFP.

At our annual Summer Institute for Educators: Using Gardens to Build Community, Chris taught participants how to manage large groups in a small garden while cleaning up the garden, planting bean seedlings and carrot seeds, harvesting carrots, and preparing a snack.

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Serena Padilla from Hudson Valley Seed led the group in a workshop on Food Diversity and Building Community in Educational Gardens.

Jesica Clark of Willow Vale Farm taught participants how to build A-frame chalkboards for teaching in the garden.

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2018 Summer Institute Participants

Denise, Ellie and Demier offered tastes of "Peach Surprise" on the first day of school at Morse in conjunction with a visit from the Dutchess Outreach Mobile Market.

Briggin and Jamie hung out with fellow educators, KayCee and Susan, at the Community Harvest Party at the Kingston YMCA Farm Project.

Kate and Demier offered tastes of roasted squash at Morse School and talked with families about the versatility and variety of squash.

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Ellie brought our summer education/Green Jobs team to Jesica Clark's Willow Vale Farm in Stanfordville so Demier, Kitana, Savannah, and Isiah could learn how to erect a high tunnel by helping Jes install hers.

Harvest of the Month: Tomatoes

September's Harvest of the Month is tomatoes. Harvest of the Month is an initiative of Poughkeepsie Farm Project’s Farm to School program. A different local farm product is served in school meals at area schools each month and we are helping to promote these locally available farm products.

Tomatoes – An Educator’s Favorite “Fruit-Vegetable”
By Chris Gavin, Garden Educator

As summer draws to a close, families around our community are busy preparing for the start of a new school year.  For parents and care-givers it means gathering school supplies, for teachers it means readying classrooms and lesson plans, for kids it means getting the most out of the last hot days of vacation.  And for me, a farm and garden educator at the PFP, September means TOMATOES! One of the tricky things about doing garden education in schools is that students are on summer break when the growing season is at its peak.  BUT when September rolls around and kids are heading back to school, our farm and gardens are still churning out juicy and delicious tomatoes of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

One of our goals as a teaching team is to facilitate joyful and engaging experiences around the eating and growing of healthy foods.  And from the perspective of an educator, tomatoes are the perfect crop to introduce at the start of the school year. Tomatoes are accessible – what kid hasn’t at least heard of them?!  They are beautiful – tomatoes can be virtually every color of the rainbow.  They are great for school gardens – you can grow enough cherry tomatoes to feed a whole class in a small amount of space. They are versatile – you can prepare them in so many ways that every kid is bound to find a recipe that appeals to them.  And, of course, tomatoes are abundant at the farm right now, so September is a great time to highlight them in local school cafeterias. 

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I don’t need to spend time extoling the benefits of farm and garden-based education, I’m sure anyone reading this knows how impactful our work is on the next generation of eaters.  And since kids are already familiar with tomatoes they make a great point of entry into the subject of growing and eating healthy foods.  Here are a few talking points from a veteran garden educator to spark a kid’s interest (or fun facts to share at your next dinner party as you serve up a dish featuring PFP tomatoes!):

  • The domestication of tomatoes can be traced back to 500 BC in Central America.  The word tomato comes from the Aztec word tomatl meaning “swelling fruit”.  The first tomatoes were small like cherry tomatoes and are thought to have been yellow in color. 
  • In 1893 the Supreme Court ruled that tomatoes should be categorized as a vegetable and not a fruit because of their use in savory cooking (we eat them for dinner, not dessert!).
  • Tomatoes are part of the plant family called nightshades, they are “plant cousins” to potatoes, eggplant, tomatillos, and peppers. 
  • The leaves and stems of the plant are toxic if eaten in large quantities. 
  • Tomatoes have many “friends” known as companion plants that help one another grow.  You can grow strongly scented plants such as onions, garlic, or mint near your tomatoes to naturally repel pests. 
  • Tomatoes are high in lycopene, a phytonutrient found in red fruits and vegetables that is thought to have a positive effect on cardiovascular health. 
  • The tomato horn worm is a bright green caterpillar that can devastate tomato crops by eating the unripe fruit. Some growers use a biological control to limit damage, they release parasitic wasps that lays eggs inside the worm!
  • There are approximately 7,500 varieties of tomato worldwide, and the PFP grows dozens right here in Poughkeepsie – including many heirloom tomatoes that have more variation in color, texture, and flavor. 

In case you are still doubting the educational power of the humble tomato, here’s an anecdote from a family cooking workshop we offered this year.  While brainstorming a list of the 5  food groups, I asked if a tomato was considered a fruit or a vegetable.  Kids who appeared unengaged quickly got pulled into a heated debate on the topic.  And in case you are pondering this same question, tomatoes are botanically classified as a fruit because they grow from a pollinated flower and have seeds inside (this category refers to the part on a plant).  In terms of food groups, they are classified as a vegetable because of how we use them in the kitchen and because of their nutritional content.   Here’s a simple kid-friendly answer: if you are a chef you call the tomato a vegetable, if you are a scientist you call it a fruit.  And one elementary school group resolved this debate with a compromise, coining a new term that I use all the time in teaching now – tomatoes are a fruit-vegetable! And as an educator, they are one of my favorite fall teaching tools.

I know this may sound over the top, but tomatoes can be like a magical gateway to healthy eating for young people.  I can’t count the times I’ve had a student tell me they hate vegetables but will gobble down cherry tomatoes by the handful on a farm visit or in a school garden.  And they especially go wild for them if they had a hand in growing, harvesting, or cooking them.  So next time you are picking cherry tomatoes for your CSA share or dicing them up for a fresh salsa, invite a young person in your life to join you.  You might just convert them to being a vegetable lover!