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VABF Conference Wrap

VABF John Boyd
John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association

Last weekend I got to attend my first Virginia Biological Farming Conference, not just as a participant, but as part of the team making it happen, the Tradeshow Coordinator. If you have any interest in organic farming/gardening, I highly recommend going next year. There were fascinating talks on a wide range of topics, great exhibits from a variety of vendors and organizations, and the food was unbelievable.

Some highlights:

  • Southern Exposure teamed up with Seed Savers Exchange for an all day special seed saving pre-conference workshop. I had to duck in and out while setting up for the exhibits, but I still learned so much!
  • Nazirakh Amen of Purple Mountain Organics gave a talk about his rice farming project on University of DC land. In addition to being a farmer and tool vendor, Nazirakh is a Chinese medical practitioner with extraordinary insights to impart.
  • Rodger Lenhardt of Norm’s Farms brought his fabulous elderberry products. He traded us some syrup (great against coughs and as an immune-booster) and jam, and I now have three little elderberry sticks on my windowsill happily sprouting roots. 

    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares
    Rodger Lenhardt with his elderberry wares 
  • Debbie Roos of the NC Cooperative Extension got me all fired up about pollinators and what we can do to attract and protect them. Look for pollinator blog posts soon!
  • Did I mention the food? The food alone was worth going to this conference for. There were contributions from local farms at every meal, but best of all was the giant pot luck lunch. Let’s just say I regretted that I was wearing a corset.

    So much yummy food!
    So much yummy food!

Underdog Tomatoes

At Southern Exposure we carry a lot of tomatoes  — 110 as of this year’s catalog!  We carry ones that we like and that grow well.  It’s always gratifying to see varieties that we’ve helped introduce, such as Cherokee Purple, OTV Brandywine, and Amy’s Apricot, go on to sell well and find their way to many other gardens.

Aug2014 (806) tomato assortment prcsd

But there are also some personal favorites of ours that never get as much appreciation as we’d like; this blog post spotlights a couple of them.

Green Grape is a cherry tomato that never gets as much attention as its more famous cousin, Green Zebra.  I’ve got more of a sweet tooth, so when it comes to tomatoes, one like Green Zebra is a bit too tart for me to really enjoy.  Green Grape is a sweeter variety and has an interesting flavor that’s described as being like muscatel.  (I don’t drink alcohol, so one of these days I’ll have to get around to sipping some muscatel to see if it reminds me of Green Grape!)  It’s got big, plump cherry fruits that ripen from green to green-yellow.  Since that’s an unusual color it’s hard to know when they’re ripe. To figure out when they’re ready to eat, feel the first fruits as they ripen. When they’re softening and plumping up, try a few.  Once you’ve figured it out, you’re good to go for the rest of the season.

Oct 2012 (59) Green Grape prcsd

Another great thing about Green Grape is that it’s a semi-determinate (bush type) plant.  Almost all the tomatoes we carry are indeterminates, so it’s a rare treat to find such a short plant with great tasting fruits.  (The Dwarf Tomato Project is working to improve this situation, and besides Rosella Purple, we hope to grow a few more dwarf varieties for seed this year.)

Folks often think Green Grape and Green Zebra are heirlooms because of their unusual color, but both of these are more recent; they were bred by Tom Wagner in the ’80s.  Tom is a passionate tomato breeder, and continues to this day working on all kinds of unusual new varieties. Besides being great for eating fresh, a great way to serve these is to serve sliced fruits with pesto pasta.

Yellow Bell is a Tennessee family heirloom.  It’s a sauce tomato — more juicy than a Roma tomato, so it needs more cooking to get a thick sauce.  But its juiciness means it has great flavor as a slicing tomato as well.

090507 615 prcsd

I first grew Yellow Bell when I was in southern Missouri, and was always super impressed with how well the plants held up.  By late September when most other tomatoes had given up, Yellow Bell was still chugging along — all the way up ‘til frost I’d be getting big handfuls of fruit off the plants.

090507 617 croppedYellow tomatoes like Yellow Bell make for really pretty salsa – wish we had a photo handy I could show off here! – and yellow tomato sauce with chunks of green and red pepper is gorgeous as well!

And to end this on a humorous note – a woman from southwest Virginia recently sent us seed for a tomato that sounds similar to Yellow Bell, but which their family called Bag tomato.   As she wrote, her mother-in-law “called it Bag tomato because its shape reminded her of a man’s scrotum. (No vulgarity intended.)”  We really liked her mother-in-law’s reassurance!  We haven’t had the chance yet, but hope to soon grow out both Bag and Yellow Bell next to each other to see if they’re similar.

Mighty Burdock

A Burdock—clawed my Gown—

Not Burdock’s—blame—
But mine—
Who went too near
The Burdock’s Den—

Emily Dickinson


My second date with Hildegard in the herb garden had us digging up burdock. This time, I had done lots of homework beforehand, including reading up on burdock in Susun Weed’s fantastic book ‘Healing Wise’, and locating and digging some up on our farm. ‘Mighty Burdock’ is Weed’s moniker and she includes a charming section where the burdock plant talks to you like some tough guy with a kindly heart.

You’ve seen burdock, even if you didn’t know it. Huge, oblong leaves spreading out in a rosette close to the ground, and in the second year producing a tall flower stalk with smaller leaves that then makes obnoxious burrs in the fall that are the bane of dog and sheep owners. Burdock likes moist, rocky soil, and plenty of sun, and is a likely suspect on roadsides and unkempt meadows. The first year plants (it’s a biennial) look a lot like rhubarb.

burdock plant

When I arrived in Hildegard’s burdock patch, I was surprised to find that the plants were quite different from the ones I had dug up on our farm. Much bigger leaves (as much as 3 feet long!) and thicker stems. Turns out there are two primary species, Arctium lappa and Arctium minus, as well as a bunch of cross-breeds, but they’re all basically the same thing.  Her patch was extensive and impressive, though a number of the plants had gotten too moist in recent rains and the roots were rotten.

As with many useful herbs, different parts of the burdock are best harvested at different times. The leaves and stalks are good in the spring (though I found some of the stalks sweet and tasty even this late), while the roots are best gotten in the fall from 1st year plants, and the seeds are only to be had from 2nd year plants in the fall. I was also fascinated to learn that burdock has a rhythmic pattern which follows the moon: at the full moon more of its energies travel to the stalks and leaves, while during the new moon the roots are more potent. Since we were harvesting roots, we waited for the new moon.

burdock burr and root

roots and seed pods

The roots we pulled out had a delicious, earthy, turnipy smell, and to my delight they were very tasty raw. Since we had a lot, we took some of them in and cooked them in a bit of water. Even yummier! This is definitely something to keep in mind for fall root veggie dishes.

burdock and squash ferment

stewed burdock root and summer squash ferment

But what about the medicinal qualities of burdock? Turns out this is one of the heroes of the herbal medicine cabinet. Susun Weed tells us that it works the most on the lymph, sweat, and oil glands, but also on the liver, lungs, kidneys, stomach, uterus, and joints. It’s a nourishing tonic, so it’s a great thing to take now and then just to keep your whole system running smoothly. And it’s chock full of vitamins and minerals. Burdock is also great for skin care and wound healing, as well as cooling, both physical fevers and emotional heat. It’s only not recommended for people who are already prone to fatigue and cold.

burdock root sliced

sliced roots – interestingly different colours from different plants

Burdock has been a standby in the herbal repertoire of healers since the Middle Ages in Europe, when it was especially used as a diuretic and blood purifier. Chinese and Indian doctors have traditionally used it for chest conditions, such as colds and flus and coughs. Some Native American tribes (it seems to have been introduced with the first European settlers) made burdock root candy for the winter and used it for rheumatism and as a blood purifier. And the inventor of velcro was inspired by the hooks of the burdock burr! (more Burdock history here)

opening burdock burr

opening a burr to get the seeds out

Hildegard gave me seeds from one of her 2nd year plants, which I look forward to trying, following this advice from Gardnersnet.

I leave you with this recipe from the blog of Meghan Telpner:

Burdock Root Soup

1/2 cup burdock root, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 sweet potato, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 broccoli stalks, coarsely chopped
3 celery stalks, sliced
1 cup or 1/4 cauliflower, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup fennel, sliced
2 beets, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 onion, chopped
1-2 inches of fresh ginger root, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp coriander, ground
2 tsp cumin seeds, ground
1 tsp cinnamon, ground
sea salt to taste

  • Dump all ingredients into a pot
  • Simmer for 30-45 mins
  • Leave chunky or blend. I left half chunky and blended the other half to make it creamy.