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  • 5 Healthy After School Snack Ideas 5 Healthy After School Snack Ideas Lauren Wright | 08/22/2016 These healthy snack ideas are sure to please your child�۪s taste buds while fueling them for homework and play.

    5 Healthy After School Snack IdeasWe’ve already talked about healthy recipes to pack in your child’s lunch box, so now it’s time to turn our attention to snack time. Kids are bound to be hungry when they get home from school and will need a snack to tide them over until dinner. Because children’s bodies grow so fast, they require a lot of nutrition packed into their daily calories, meaning there isn’t room for much junk food in their diets.

    It’s important to offer snacks that provide whole grains, vitamins and minerals, fiber, and protein to fill your kids up after school and to prepare them for any extracurricular activities. It’s also important to try to cut back on the added sugar and sodium that are found in many processed snack foods.

    These healthy snack ideas are sure to please your child’s taste buds while fueling them for homework and play.

    1. Frozen yogurt bites Chop of your child’s favorite fruit and mix with a low-sugar yogurt. Spoon the mixture into an icecube tray and freeze. These bites are the perfect, popable treat that packs in fruit, protein, and calcium!
    2. Avocado toastAvocados are a great source of healthy fats. Toast whole-wheat bread and top with sliced avocado. Sprinkle with salt, a bit of lime juice, and maybe some herbs like oregano or red pepper flakes and snack away!
    3. Frozen grapes– Another easy, frosty treat; freeze grapes for refreshing snacking.
    4. Open faced apple sandwiches– Thinly slice apples into rounds and carefully cut out the center. Top the discs with nut butter and a sprinkle of granola, honey, or cinnamon. With both protein and fiber, these sandwiches will satisfy even the hungriest snacker.
    5. Zucchini pizza bites Instead of the frozen pizza rolls kids beg for at the grocery store, slice up a zucchini into thin rounds, brush with olive oil, and soften in the oven or toaster oven. Spoon a small amount of tomato sauce on top, sprinkle on low-fat mozzarella cheese, and a piece of turkey pepperoni. Pop them back in the oven until the cheese is melted. They barely take longer than the frozen pizza rolls to make, and kids will hardly notice they’re eating their vegetables!
  • Packed Lunch Ideas for Your Healthy Learner Packed Lunch Ideas for Your Healthy Learner Lauren Wright | 08/18/2016 Try these easy and healthy lunch recipes that your child won't want to trade.

    AdobeStock_88256092-800Summer has come to an end and it’s already time for kids to head back to school. You’ve probably already bought school supplies and picked out their first-day-of-school outfits, but have you given much thought to their lunches?

    Buying lunch from the cafeteria is one option for your child’s lunch this year. The National School Lunch Program Standards regulate lunches served in cafeterias, and they require that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are served every day; only fat-free and low-fat milk are available; calorie limits are observed according to the child’s age; and sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats are limited to acceptable levels. Therefore, buying lunch in the cafeteria can be a great option for many families.

    However, if you choose to pack your child’s lunch, it can be hard to get nutritious lunches packed as everyone rushes out the door in the morning, and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, packing the same old things every day. No matter what you pack, aim for a mix of whole grains, dairy, protein, and fruits and veggies to keep your child well fueled and ready to learn throughout the day.

    Try these easy and healthy lunch recipes that your child won’t want to trade.

    • Sandwich skewers Cut your child’s favorite sandwich ingredients into bite-sized pieces, push them onto a small skewer, and voila- you’ve transformed a boring turkey sandwich into a fun lunch! Mix and match your cheeses, meats, veggies, and breads for versatile lunch options.
    • Hardboiled eggs- A peeled, hardboiled egg will transport well in your child’s lunch box and packs protein to keep him or her fueled up throughout the day.
    • Peanut butter banana roll up Smear one side of tortilla or wrap with peanut butter, place a banana to one edge and roll it up in the tortilla. Cut the roll up into bite-sized pieces. You can also try drizzling on some honey or sprinkling on granola, raisins, or cinnamon before rolling everything up.
    • Freeze ahead PB&J- Save time in the morning by prepping sandwiches for the week on Sunday night. Make a whole stack of PB&Js on whole-wheat bread, wrap individual sandwiches in aluminum foil, and seal them all in a large plastic bag in the freezer. In the morning, simply grab one frozen sandwich and toss it in a lunchbox. By the time lunch rolls around, the sandwich will be thawed and perfectly soft and fresh. Prevent jelly from seeping into the bread by putting a thin layer of peanut butter on both pieces of bread to seal in the jelly.
    • Popcorn trail mix Store-bought trail mixes can be high in sugar and sodium, but it’s easy to make your own homemade version with a variety of ingredients. Mix lightly salted popcorn, nuts, and dried fruit together for a sweet and salty snack. It’s easy to change up the ingredients every week- switch up the type of nut or dried fruit, sometimes add pretzels or mini chocolate chips, etc. to keep your taste buds interested.
    • Homemade Lunchables Lunchables are always cool in the cafeteria, but they’re expensive and not that healthy. Instead, pack your child’s lunchbox with a stack of whole-wheat crackers, rolls of low-sodium sandwich meat, slices of cheese, and sliced fruits and veggies. Your kids will still have fun stacking their own lunch creations while you save money and keep it healthy. You can even prep several days’ worth of ingredients at the beginning of the week to save time on rushed mornings.

    Other tips:

    • Don’t forget a drink! Water, low-fat milk, and 100% fruit juice are good options for your child’s lunch. Children aged 4-8 need 2½ cups of dairy per day, and children aged 9-18 need 3 cups, so providing milk at lunch is a great way to fuel your child for the school day. You can send milk from home or you can have your child buy a carton of milk from the cafeteria every day. Juice can also be packed with lunch, but it’s important to choose wisely. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines count 1 cup of 100% fruit juice as 1 cup of fruit. However, many juices contain added sugars with artificial fruit flavorings, which don’t count towards daily fruit servings, so it’s important to carefully select only 100% fruit juice. The Guidelines also recommend that young children only consume 4-6oz of 100% fruit juice per day so it’s important not to over do it with juice.
    • Try the recipe together first. Afraid your child won’t eat the things you pack? Try making the recipe first on the weekend or as an after-school snack and see if they like it before packing it in his or her lunch.
    • Give your child options. Ask your son or daughter to choose what type of fruit or which sandwich meat they would like in their lunch to give them some control over what they’re eating.
    • Don’t get frustrated. If you’re packing healthy options and they return home uneaten at first, don’t give up. Sometimes a child must try a food several times before he or she starts to like it. So even if the cucumber slices come home uneaten, don’t stop packing them. It’s important to keep exposing your child to healthy foods, and eventually, they’ll hopefully come around to eating them.

    Show us what you’re packing for lunch! Tag us on Instagram @LetsGoSC or find us on Facebook!

  • 3 tips for a happy, healthy vacation 3 tips for a happy, healthy vacation Ken Immer | 08/10/2016 Maintain your healthy lifestyle, even when on vacation.

    AdobeStock_65148978-400While summer is starting to wane, many of us are still getting ready to hit the road for a little vacation time, or maybe even just that last getaway weekend before school starts back. One of the biggest concerns for travelers is often how to maintain a healthy diet and keep feeling fit and well-fueled while on vacation.

    A little bit of planning ahead can go a long way. You are already going to be in an unfamiliar place, but if you approach your trip as an opportunity to maintain your healthy lifestyle rather than a challenge, you will surely make the best of it. Here are some great tips to think about before you go:

    1. Since you’ll be out of your daily routine, make a little game out of looking for opportunities to try a new ‘healthy’ food that you can add to your daily meals when you get back home. If you leave thinking that your vacation will just be one big “temptation” then it probably will be.
    2. Do a little bit of research before leaving and identify places where you will be able to access some healthy options THAT YOU ALREADY ENJOY. This includes restaurants, grocery stores, or other specialty stores. Ask the resort what options they have available on their menus that are perhaps not listed on their brochure or website. Knowing what you are getting into ahead of time will help reduce the anxiety of having to figure it out while you are there. Don’t spend part of your vacation trying to figure out where the healthy options are. THAT is not fun or relaxing.
    3. Pack a bag of small apples (the kind you would put into a child’s lunchbox) in your suitcase, and keep one or two with you while you are out from the hotel. Eat one of the apples before a meal or before (over)indulging in a snack opportunity on the run. You’ll eat a little less and get the health benefits of eating several apples during your trip!

    Remember, you are going on your trip to enjoy yourself; however, don’t let your vacation become an excuse to let all of your good habits fall to the wayside. We’ve all heard the phrase “everything in moderation”, but how do you actually DO that? Well, if you have been working hard to improve your diet and be more active, a vacation is a good opportunity to maintain the progress you have achieved so far. You don’t have to pressure yourself to eat or exercise exactly the way you would have if you had stayed at home, but just remember the idea of moderation to help you make decisions about what and when to eat.

    Being on vacation does mean that you can have a few more calories here and there, but also think about your activity level. Walking is great exercise, and it is a great way to put your workout plan on “moderation” mode as well. Also, spend a little bit of your time reflecting on what is working in your healthy living plan while away from your daily grind, and give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done! Whatever you do, make the decision that you will not stress yourself out over any choices that you make while on vacation.

  • Pre & Probiotics- Promoting Gut Health Pre & Probiotics- Promoting Gut Health Lauren Wright | 08/08/2016 Ever heard about the gut microbiome wondered why you should care about bacteria?

    AdobeStock_99258772_620Ever heard about the gut microbiome in the news or seen yogurt commercials on TV and wondered why you should care about bacteria?

    What is your microbiome?

    According to a report from the American Society for Microbiology, the human microbiome contains bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in the body, but most commonly we focus on the body’s bacteria.  It’s estimated that the cells of your microbiome outnumber your body’s own cells 3:1.  That means that there are about 100 trillion bacteria cells, averaging about 2.5 pounds, in your body! Having that many bacteria in your body may sound scary, but really those bacteria are crucial to our health.1

    Many of the bacteria in our bodies are found in the large intestine, where they play important roles in our digestive processes. For example, there are some compounds in foods that our bodies alone cannot naturally break down and digest so we rely on the good bacteria in our guts to break them down for us.

    Additionally, the good bacteria in our guts can help keep any bad bacteria we may encounter in check. Normally the good bacteria outnumber potential pathogens in our digestive tract and keep us from getting sick. However, if the good bacteria die off, as is common when taking antibiotics, the good bacteria can no longer fight off the bad, which can cause illness and intestinal discomfort.

    Your gut microbiome can even play a role in weight management. One study examined the gut microbiome of female twins who were either lean or obese. The results showed that the lean participants tended to have more diverse gut microbiomes than the obese participants.2 Based on those results, another experiment found that injecting mice with different types of gut bacteria significantly impacted the mice’s ability to maintain and gain weight.3 This science is still very new and researchers are working to determine exactly how bacteria influence our weight, but it is clear that these tiny creatures are vital to our health.

    What are pre and probiotics?

    Because of all the good things our gut microbiota does for us, it’s important to keep it healthy! One way to do this is by incorporating both pre and probiotics into the diet.

    According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that your gut microbiota love to feed on and therefore encourage the growth of the good bacteria in your digestive tract. Think of prebiotics as the food that feeds your gut’s bacteria; therefore if you want them to be healthy, you need to be sure to feed your gut microbiome the right foods.

    Good sources of prebiotics are:

    • Bananas
    • Onions
    • Garlic
    • Leeks
    • Asparagus
    • Artichokes
    • Soybeans
    • Whole-wheat foods, such as whole-wheat bread, quinoa, oats, brown rice, etc.

    Probiotics, on the other hand, are the good bacteria themselves. Many foods naturally contain these good, live bacteria, so by adding probiotic foods into your diet, you can help increase the colonies of the good guys keeping you healthy.

    Good sources of probiotics are:

    • Yogurt
    • Kefir
    • Aged cheeses
    • Kimchi
    • Sauerkraut
    • Miso
    • Tempeh

    So the next time you go to the grocery store, don’t just pick out foods for yourself—choose foods to feed your gut microbiome as well

    Sources:

    1.  http://academy.asm.org/index.php/faq-series/5122-humanmicrobiome
    2. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v457/n7228/abs/nature07540.html
    3. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6150/1241214
  • Super-powered Blueberries Super-powered Blueberries Lauren Wright | 08/01/2016 Blueberries are one of summer's super foods! Time to fill up while they're in season!

    blueberries-690072_960_720Blueberries are one of summer's super foods! Time to fill up while they're in season!

    Blueberries are naturally low calorie with just 80 calories per cup. They are also high in vitamin C, which is an antioxidant vitamin, and manganese, which aids the body in processing cholesterol and other nutrients. One serving of blueberries contains 25% of your daily vitamin C!

    Blueberries are also a great source of dietary fiber. Fiber helps aid digestion and can help fight heart disease by regulating cholesterol. The fiber in blueberries can also make you feel full more quickly, and it takes longer to digest, meaning it can help curb hunger._

    Many human and animal studies have researched the health benefits from blueberries. Findings suggest that blueberries may assist in fighting some cancers2,3, insulin resistance4, and inflammation5 while improving gut health6, eye health7, memory8, and bone health.9 Other studies have shown that anthocyanin, the pigment that gives blueberries their blue color, aids in staving off memory loss and fighting other signs of aging.10

    When I think about eating blueberries, I immediately imagine blueberry pancakes. Here are some other ways to eat blueberries:

    •  On salad - Top off your favorite salad with a handful of blueberries for a sweet pop to your greens. Dress with a vinaigrette.
    • Dried in trail mix - Make your own trail mix by combining pretzels, plain cheerios, nuts, and dried blueberries for a sweet and salty snack.
    • As a sauce for grilled chicken - Boil blueberries until reduced to a thick sauce that makes the perfect sweet topping for summer grilled chicken. Check out this recipe!
    • In yogurt and smoothies - Fresh blueberries are great mixed into low-fat yogurt, and frozen blueberries blend perfectly into smoothies for a breakfast kids will love.
    • Pureed and frozen for popsicles - Blend fresh or frozen blueberries with a splash of milk, yogurt, or fruit juice; pour into popsicle molds; and freeze to make frozen treats for hot afternoons.

    Sources:

    1. http://www.blueberrycouncil.org/healthy-living/health-benefits-blueberries/
    2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24245576
    3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25734419
    4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20724487
    5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26477692
    6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26878787
    7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22018225
    8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22535616
    9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18328688
    10. http://www.blueberrycouncil.org/health-professionals/health-research/
  • Home-canning Heirloom Tomatoes Home-canning Heirloom Tomatoes Ciranna Bird | 07/19/2016 Make the most of summer's tomato by preserving them for later use.

    home-canned tomatoes2Originally published in The Sweet Potato, the sustainable farm and food blog of the Carolinas.

    Heirloom tomatoes are one of the many joys of summer. Learning to home-can extra tomatoes will allow you to enjoy your garden bounty all year long. This step-by-step guide will teach you how to do it.

    Seek the experts

    Home-canning expertise used to be handed down through generations. For example, my dad and uncles learned how to hunt deer with compound bows, shoot wild ducks and fish for rainbow trout in the Colorado River from my grandpa. My grandmother taught my Aunt Pat how to home-can trout, as well as the vegetables and fruit they grew in their yard. Unfortunately, I lost contact with my dad and his side of the family for fourteen years, after my parents’ divorced. Since I didn’t grow up with this culture of food self-sufficiency or even have the desire to learn how to be a home-canner at that time, I like many adults my age am looking for ways to learn these skills. Where can we start?

    Based on my excellent experience attending a class at the Chatham County North Carolina Cooperative Extension service, I would recommend your local Cooperative Extension Service county center. Visit https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/local-county-center/ if you live in North Carolina and http://www.clemson.edu/extension/county/index.html if you live in South Carolina to search for the office nearest your home. The Cooperative Extension Service offers free testing of your pressure canner gauges as well as affordable and informative courses.

    Research the process

    In the “Safely Preserving at Home” course, family and consumer sciences extension agent, Phyllis Smith, shared the most up-to-date, research based information on how to safely home-can vegetables and fruits. The participants of the workshop were a mix of newbies like myself and experienced home-canners. We walked away with copies of the 37thedition of Ball’s Blue Book Guide to preserving, handouts describing the parts of a typical pressure canner, frequently asked questions, and electronic resources that have the most current instructions and tested canning recipes. The interactions and questions during the class revealed that there was new information to learn even for those with prior years of hands-on experience.

    New scientific research, newer models of canners, and a better understanding of the ways to reduce foodborne illness, all have resulted in improved and safer recipes and methods over the years. To benefit from all the progress made, it is important to seek out the most up to date guidance from a trusted source. I emphasize the word trusted because I recently found a canning book for home-canners that was published in 2011, which prided itself on skipping vital safety steps.

    For my piece of mind, I encourage the readers of this article to use the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Complete Guide to Home Canning. Scientists and researchers at the USDA and Cooperative Extension Service universities, including Clemson University and North Carolina State University, have spent years developing the perfect the process of preserving tomatoes in glass jars.

    They have identified the bacteria, yeasts, and mold that cause spoilage in tomatoes and identified the exact temperature and amount of time needed for processing and cooling to destroy them. In their research laboratories, scientists use the same size canners and same size glass jars that are available to the public.

    These men and women from the USDA and Cooperative Extension services have tested thousands of variables (are the tomatoes packed into the jar raw or hot? Are there pieces of tomato in the jar or is it just the tomato juice? Are the tomatoes canned in a pint-sized jar or a quart-sized jar? Are you using a boiling-water canner or a pressure canner? Etc.) to identify the ideal conditions for home-canning our food safely..

    Follow the recipe

    Home-canning recipes must be followed exactly as written. Canning food is different than preparing a meal that you will eat within a few days. When you add the wrong ingredients or try out a new recipe for a meal you risk the chance that the food might not taste as good as you hoped it would.

    In the home-canning world, if you substitute ingredients, attempt to double or halve the recipe, fail to reach the target temperature for the exact time the stakes are higher. The jars may not seal properly which could lead to food spoilage and waste. Worse, if the bacterial spores that produce botulinum toxin aren’t destroyed, eating the canned food which may look and smell perfectly normal may lead to paralysis and death.

    At this point you might be saying “Wait a minute! My Aunt Pat (you can fill in the blank here) has been canning almost her whole life. She hasn’t ever used a recipe and she’s perfectly fine. Nobody has gotten sick from eating the canned food she prepares.” I don’t have a good response to this reasoning. I’m grateful that my Aunt Pat who still home-cans is alive and well in Colorado. I also feel passionate about sharing information with the readers of this article about the value of following up to date, trustworthy recipes exactly as they are written.

    A recipe for making crushed tomatoes with no added liquid

    To keep this recipe simple and provide the exact processing time, I have chosen the following options: The processing time listed below is specific for the use of a boiling-water canner. The processing pressure and time are different if you are using a pressure-canner. The processing time below is specific for the use of pint-sized jars with a boiling-water canner. The processing time for boiling-water canners is longer if you use quart-sized jars. A pint is equal to 2 cups; a quart is equal to 4 cups of food. The processing time below is specific for the use of pint-sized jars with a boiling-water canner in places where the elevation level is less than 1,000 feet above sea level. The processing time for boiling-water canners is longer if you live in mountainous regions. To find out the elevation level of your county view the North Carolina Topographic Map athttp://geology.com/topographic-physical-map/north-carolina.shtml or the South Carolina Topographic Map at http://geology.com/state-map/south-carolina.shtml.

    1. Harvest or buy 14 pounds of organic tomatoes from your local farmer:
      Size: medium to large
      Color: Any color (yellow, purple, pink, green, orange, striped, red, etc.)
      Shape: Any shape (Round, funny-looking, pumpkin shaped, pointy, etc.)
      Condition: Firm tomatoes picked from living tomato vines. It is tempting to think that it is okay to use soft over-ripe tomatoes since they are going to be softened by the canning process anyway. However over-ripe tomatoes are soft because of the enzymes, bacteria, yeast, and mold that are breaking them down. Choose plump, firm and good-smelling tomatoes to ensure the best taste and safest product.
    2. Gather your instructions, equipment and ingredients
      Visit your local Extension Service to get a hard copy or download the most recent version of the following USDA Home-Canning guidance material at  http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html. Download Guide 1 – Principles of Home Canning and Guide 3 – Selecting, Preparing and Canning Tomatoes and Tomato Products
      • Lemon juice (9 tablespoons) or citric acid (2 and ¼ teaspoons)
      • A boiling water canner (16 quarts or larger)
      • Nine mason jars – pint-sized, heat-tempered glass
      • A canning rack to hold the glass jars
      • Two-piece vacuum caps that fit the mason jars (1) unused metal lids with the sealing compound on the outer edge and (2) metal screw bands
      • Thermometer
      • Large cooking pots
      • Cutting board and knife
      • Wooden mallet or spoon
      • Clean dish clothes and paper towels
      • Jar lifter
      • Canning funnel
      • Plastic spatula or bubble remover
      • Headspace tool or measuring tape
      • A magnetic wand to remove and attach lids
    3. Prepare the jars, lids, and canner
      Follow the instructions in Guide 1, pages 14 and 15.
    4. Prepare the crushed tomatoes
      Follow the instructions in Guide 3, page 7.
    5. Fill one hot jar at a time:
      a)  Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or ¼ teaspoon of citric acid to the bottom of the hot pint-sized jar according to Guide 3 page 5.
      b)  Fill the hot jar with the hot tomatoes and leave exactly ½ inch of unfilled space in the jar between the food or liquid and the rim of the jar (Guide 3 page 7). This space is called the headspace and allows the food to expand and form a vacuum seal.
      c)  Remove air bubbles, food debris from the rim of jar, and add the lids. To see pictures and more detailed descriptions of how to do these steps refer to Guide 1 page 15-16.
      d)  Place the filled, sealed jar onto the canning rack that is elevated above the simmering 180 Fahrenheit degree water in the boiling-water canner.\
      e)  Repeat steps a – d until all the jars have been filled.
    6. Process the pint-sized jars with a boiling-water canner at an elevation of 1,000 feet or below sea level:
      a)   Lower the canning rack into the boiling-water canner which is already filled halfway with simmering water.
      b)   Follow the steps on Guide 1 page 18 to ensure a continuous time of 35 minutes of a rolling boil.
      c)   Follow the steps on Guide 1 page 18 to remove jars from the boiling-water canner.
    7. Cool the jars for 12-24 hours.
      Follow the instructions in Guide 1 page 25.
    8. Check the jar seals.
      Follow the instructions in Guide 1 pages 25-26.

    Enjoy your delicious, local, organic canned tomatoes

    Pop open a jar of your tomatoes, add your own seasonings, and use them to make lasagna, pizza sauces, stir-fry, stews and anything else you can think of. I’ll leave you with this quote from the NC Tomato Man, Craig LeHoullier: “I think that it is fair to say that we use our canned tomatoes in any cooked recipe – risotto, soups, stews – anything the commercial canned tomatoes goes into is improved if using our own home canned tomatoes.”

  • What is it about tomatoes, anyway? What is it about tomatoes, anyway? Craig LeHoullier | 07/12/2016 Summer's here, and so are tomatoes! Get 'em while they're fresh!

    tomato guest blog picOriginally published in The Sweet Potato, the sustainable farm and food blog of the Carolinas. Written bDr. Craig LeHoullier, the “NC Tomatoman” (the fellow who named Cherokee Purple in 1990).

    Summer eating conjures up so many feelings, thoughts, and cravings. Walks through a mid-summer farmers market brings us face to face with piles of peppers, stacks of summer squash, glossy, colorful eggplant, and succulent melons of all sorts. Then there are the peaches, blue- and blackberries, sweet corn, and green and yellow snap beans competing for our attention.

    And yet – as awesome and appetite stimulating and recipe searching as all of the above represents, for many, it is the large, often misshapen, rather humble looking tomato that draws us, sends us hunting stall to stall…then, later on, slicing and serving and making them the centerpiece of our warm weather meals.

    With literally thousands of varieties available to those who start their own seedlings, it is possible to grow completely different menus of tomatoes each summer for one’s entire life and never experience a repetition.

    Why do we love them so?

    I’ve thought a good bit about the attraction of this fleeting, perishable object – one that for many is best enjoyed seasonally, just like asparagus, strawberries and sugar snap peas. Perhaps it is just that – the ethereal nature of a “real” tomato creates deep longing during those months of unavailability. I believe that another important aspect is nostalgia. Along with locally grown sweet corn, tomatoes were often the target for those Sunday drives with parents, or grandparents, aimed at a nearby farm stand, carefully selected, and used as the centerpiece of a backyard picnic.

    Tomatoes have other admirable qualities for those who wish to explore beyond the culinary aspect. They are one of the easier crops for those who enjoy saving and sharing seeds. Many come with wonderful handed down stories, having truly passed the test of time; this is often reflected in their names (Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom, Mortgage Lifter, Aunt Ruby’s German Green – all of which sound a whole lot more enticing than “Big Boy,” at least to me).

    Not really hard to grow….yet they need love to thrive

    Anyone who has a few hours of sun should grow their own tomatoes. Thousands of varieties means not only choice, but flexibility – which allows the gardener to fit the tomato to the space and sun. The larger the tomato, the more sun it needs. The taller growing the variety, the more soil it needs.

    It is easier and easier to find a wide range of seedlings at local garden center for those who wish to start with plants. Those who want to start their own plants from seed should work back two months from the last frost date to determine when to begin.

    The tomato enthusiast has every choice imaginable for a planting location. Along with typical dirt gardens (in which good drainage is the key success factor), raised beds, containers and straw bales are all options that can be equally successful. The quality of the planting medium in the beds or containers is an important consideration. It is also important to water and feed the plants more often.

    I like to say that tomatoes are similar to roses in that every weather irregularity, critter and disease can play havoc with your venture. Cool weather means slower growth, but high heat and humidity can make the blossoms drop off, leading to reduced yields. Tomato diseases come in three flavors – bacterial, viral and fungal, with many examples in each category. Some are in the soil, some on the soil, some spread by insects. Deer, squirrels, birds, and various worms and beetles could be quite enticed by your efforts.

    Yet it is worth it. Good planning, good garden hygiene, and regular trouble shooting and monitoring of the plants help foster success.  Every year is different – and it can be hard to find the rhyme or reason why. I’ve grown tomatoes in Raleigh, NC, for 25 years, and I’ve had spectacular successes followed by grim disappointments. I expect to keep doing this for another 25 years, if I can – because it is indeed worth it.

    Colors, shapes, sizes, flavors, stories – choices!

    We are really lucky that the Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) came into being in 1975. We would not have the staggering number of options available if it were not for the preservation and sharing efforts that the SSE began, and continues to this day.

    When considering tomato diversity, there are simply so many aspects to choose from. Sizes range from pea-sized (Mexico Midget) to 2 plus pound monsters (Mortgage Lifter). The shapes can be flattened (Yellow Brandywine) to round (Eva Purple Ball) to a carbon copy of a big frying pepper (Speckled Roman). Colors range from red and pink of Aker’s West Virginia and German Johnson (one of the few true North Carolina heirlooms), respectively, to hues ranging from nearly white (Dwarf Mr. Snow) to yellow (Hugh’s) to pumpkin orange (Kellogg’s Breakfast). There are the stripes of Pink Berkeley Tie Dye and the swirls of Ruby Gold. Some of the best flavored of all have remarkably dark color (Cherokee Purple and Cherokee Chocolate), or don’t even budge when ripening, staying as green as can be (Green Giant).

    After growing more than 2,000 types, I can honestly say that flavor and color don’t necessarily correlate. There are sweet, tart, intense, bland, mild, complex and simple examples for each color. It’s all in the genes – the size, color, and shape – and my preference is to take each variety of tomato on its own merit – whether I am for it, or choose to avoid it.

    Finally, for those who are space-challenged and hope to grow great tasting, interestingly colored tomatoes on their deck or patio or (like me!) driveway, a selection of dwarf growing tomatoes created by a unique collaborative project co-led by me since 2005 just could be the answer. Fill a 5 gallon pot with good quality planting medium, find yourself a Dwarf Sweet Sue or Dwarf Wild Fred or Rosella Crimson (just 3 of our 60 new varieties), support the plant with a 4 foot stake or cage….and be amazed at what you will achieve.

  • Getting Ready for the Farmers' Market: Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Getting Ready for the Farmers' Market: Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Ciranna Bird | 07/07/2016 It's time to hit the farmers' market- let's come prepared!

    peppers guest postOriginally published in The Sweet Potato, the sustainable farm and food blog of the Carolinas.

    Spring is here and it’s time to get fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and dairy products from your local farmers’ market! Some of these products get sold out quickly in the day, so arrive early and bring a cooler to keep your items cold while you do the rest of your shopping. Learn about the types of markets, questions to ask your farmer and practical ways to support your local farmers to ensure they can stay in business for years to come.

    Market Type: What’s the percentage of growers vs resellers at your farmers’ market?

    The first thing you want to know is your market’s ratio of growers, resellers, artists, and value added product vendors. Growers are the farmers that are selling plants, fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and eggs they have grown, raised and harvested.  In contrast, resellers buy unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs from growers and resell these unprocessed products. Artists sell items they have created such as pottery, photography, flip flops, jewelry, candles, woodworking and soap.  Value added product vendors use ingredients bought from growers and transform them via processes such as baking, canning, or juicing. Baked goods, juice, jams, pickles, dog bones, and lamb’s wool dryer balls are all value added products.

    Each market has a different policy on the amount of booths occupied by non-growers. To learn about your market’s policy have a conversation with its market manager.  You can do this prior to attending, or in person at the market manager’s booth. For this article, I interviewed Adrienne Hawkins, the market manager of the Travelers Rest Farmers Market. At her market, which is the largest independent non-profit farmers market in South Carolina, 50% of the Travelers Rest Farmers Market vendors are growers, 0% are resellers, 20% are artists, and 30% are vendors that make value added products from scratch and have at least one ingredient sown, grown and harvested within a 100 mile radius of the town.  A market that has no resellers is great if you are looking to do your weekly grocery shopping and buy from local farmers.  In case you are shopping at a market that allows resellers, here are some questions to ask the vendors.

    Questions to ask your growers, more commonly known as your farmers:

    1. Which products at your stand are the ones that you grew/raised/harvested yourself?
    2. Where do you source these other products?
    3. How many of the ingredients for this jam, bread, jar of pickles were sown, grown and harvested within 100 miles of here?

    This past weekend, I field tested some of the following questions at my local farmers’ market. The best questions are open-ended rather than yes or no questions, because they allow the farmers’ expertise and passion to shine. When I mentioned my natural tendency to avoid making eye contact to the farmers I spoke with, I learned I’m not the only shopper who keeps their eyes glued on the fruit and vegetables until they know they are ready to make a purchase. The farmers reassured me that they enjoy the opportunity to share details about their work regardless of the customer’s ability to buy something from them on that particular day. Also, try to choose a time when your farmer isn’t swamped with customers; and remember that in order for them to stay in business, they must be able to attend to all the people at their booth.

    Are these fruits and vegetables organic?

    Organic produce certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the gold standard for shoppers concerned about soil fertility, the use of environmentally safe products, and the biodiversity of crops and animals. These vegetables and fruits are grown on soil that hasn’t been treated with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides for at least three years. The USDA certification assures you that your farmer has a written plan to cycle resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.  The farm is annually inspected and maintains the following records: soil and water test results, pest and disease monitoring logs, tillage and cultivation logs, planting and harvest records, post-harvest handling and storage reports, field activity records, and product sales records.

    It is important to note that there are not a lot of farmers at markets in the Carolinas that are organically certified by the USDA. In 2009, the North Carolina State University Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics conducted a Farmers’ Markets in Central North Carolina survey. Of the 75 farmers that responded only a small percentage certified organic produce (1). As of April 2016, the USDA Organic Integrity Database lists 133 farms in North Carolina, and 29 farms in South Carolina that are registered to grow organically certified vegetables and fruits (2). If the vegetables and fruits are not organically certified by the USDA, you can still ask the farmer about the following sustainability practices.

    4. How many of your vegetables and fruits are grown from certified organic seeds and transplants?
    5. How do you handle pests and weeds?
    6. What motivates you to handle the pests and weeds in this manner?

    Tips for buying eggs, dairy products, and meat at the farmer’s market.

    If you have forgotten your cooler, ask your farmer if they would be willing to keep your purchased items in their cooled space while you finish shopping, checking out cooking demonstrations, and soaking in the community atmosphere of the farmers market. To prevent cross-contamination use a separate bag to hold your eggs, from the bag that holds your vegetables and fruits. Insider tips: Eggs sold at market in NC may not be washed (which is a good thing!) and still have a natural protective coating on their shells. Remember to rinse the eggs with warm running drinking water from your sink right before you cook and eat them. USDA certified organic meat, dairy or eggs has come from livestock that have received at least 30% of their nutrition from pasture with a minimum of 120 days of grazing per year; have been fed organic and non-genetically modified food, and have not been treated with antibiotics (3). Even if the meat, dairy, or eggs are not USDA organically certified you can ask you farmer about their practices.

    7. What do you feed your chickens, pigs, lamb, goats, or cows?
    8. What is your policy on the use of antibiotics or hormones?
    9. How much access to the outdoors do your animals have?

    Support the farmers who follow the practices you value.

    Asking the questions above will help you find the farmers who maintain and improve soil fertility, conserve resources, manage pests in way that is safe for the environment, preserve and enhance biodiversity of crops and animals, and/or care for their livestock humanely. Here are follow-up questions to help them stay in business.

    10. What’s the best way to stay in contact with you? (Facebook, e-mail, website, Instagram)
    11. What farming associations or certification programs do you belong to?
    12. Aside from buying your products, are there other ways I can support your farm?    

    You’ll be surprised on what fun activities your farmer may suggest. It may include posting pictures and positive reviews on the social media channels they use. In response to this question, I got a few invitations to become a farm hand for a day from in exchange for a tour. You can also join, volunteer and read newsletters from farming associations they belong to, in order to stay current with the issues they face. Now that you have plenty of questions to ask, get out to your local farmers’ market and connect with your farmers. To find the market closest to you, visit the NC Farm Fresh website or the South Carolina Department of Agriculture website.

    References

    1. Renkow M, Georgiade, N. Farmer’s Markets in Central North Carolina: Who buys, who sells, and why. Dept. of Agricultural and Resource Economics, North Carolina State University; 2011.
    2. https://apps.ams.usda.gov/integrity/ Organic INTEGRITY Database. Search conducted on April 8, 2016.
    3. US Department of Agriculture. Organic Labeling at Farmers Markets. USDA National Organic Program, Marketing Service; 2015. Pg. 1 https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20at%20Farmers%20Markets.pdf
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