Strawberry Fields Forever


I got this lovely bunch of strawberries from my CSA farm subscription. I knew they were picked by Brenda, the farmer, or her family. Not by laborers living in shacks or sleeping in their pickup trucks. Also, they are vine-ripened, not tasteless watery berries picked green for shipping and ripened with ethylene oxide. Each berry tasted DIFFERENT. Some were very sweet. Some were spicy. A wine connoisseur could analyze the hint of cinnamon and other notes. No need to chop these up and add sugar. They were made to be eaten one by one, savoring each one.

I am from the generation that picked strawberries. I grew up in the Dutch farming community around Verboort, Oregon. Our neighbors grew strawberries, pole beans, and cucumbers. In those days of the 60’s and 70’s, there was no lower age limit for agricultural work. My mom started taking us out to pick strawberries when I was 6. For the first couple of years I would earn just a few dollars a day. But by age 10, my sister and I were some of the top producers. I would earn more in a day of strawberry picking than my dad was making at his union factory job. We saved our money in our own bank savings accounts. We would use it to buy clothes and Christmas presents.

When I hear “child labor” I have difficulty in translating that into something negative. Yes, we worked out in the sun and sometimes the rain. But our bosses were our neighbors and most of their workforce were the children of their neighbors and cousins, almost all of them under age 16. Crew bosses in the field were usually the mothers of some of my schoolmates. Nobody was being forced to work, although they would “fire” some kids who threw berries and were disruptive. If you felt tired or hot or wet, you could go sit in the bus, or the crew bosses would arrange to take you home.

The alternative workforce was one the farmers hated to resort to. First, they would pick up day laborers in Portland. We called them “the winos.” This was an accurate, if impolite, label. The farmers did not mix the workforces. The locals would work one berry field while the day laborers were put in another field or as far from the locals as possible. The final resort was a work crew of “Mexicans,” seasonal migrant laborers from Mexico. When the age limit for working in the fields was established, many of the farmers turned to other crops. The difficulties of recruiting a crew and housing the migrant laborers was something they didn’t want to take on. Those who did would often end up on the evening news being cited for health violations or labor law violations.

Migrant labor conditions always looked to me like indentured servitude — a far cry from the mostly-happy kids who earned extra money picking strawberries. The nanny state destroyed a system that was working well for everyone and replaced it with a system prone to abuse and human suffering. Ours was a true “community supported agriculture” system. Family farms passed down the generations, with local people harvesting the crops.

One of the values of being a locavore is that those who harvest the crops are treated humanely. As a child laborer, I was treated humanely and amply rewarded for my labor. My take-home pay was paid by my production, not hourly. I was highly productive and it penciled out to more per hour than a union factory job at that time.

For a book that describes how strawberries are harvested today, I recommend: Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser. Knowing firsthand about harvesting strawberries, I choose not to eat strawberries I haven’t picked myself or bought from a small local farm. While most (if not all) other labor-intensive crops are also harvested by seasonal laborers, this is where I make my stand. I protest the destruction of wholesome community traditions in favor of a far more abusive system involving coyotes, company stores, inadequate housing, and work not suited for anybody over 5-foot tall.

Sunday Parkways – and Front Yard Gardens

My walking buddies and I enjoyed the Sunday Parkways car-free day in North Portland last Sunday. This event was held by the city of Portland to promote walking and biking. I am no stranger to North Portland. One set of my grandparents lived in St. Johns and we visited them each weekend. The University of Portland is my alma mater. And I’ve grunted my way through these streets 7 times for the Portland Marathon, let alone dozens of training walks.

It was nice to see the area when it isn’t mile 20 of the marathon and I just want to sit down and die. The walk started from Kaiser Interstate Clinic, near Overlook Park. Immediately I was struck by how many front yard gardens and even parking strip gardens we passed by. I guess this is a big trend for Portland. Last year I heard Mark and Dave on the radio complaining about them, Dave just thought that they made the neighborhood look less classy. I found an interesting selection on, Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community. Sounds like it’s a movement!

Personally, I don’t want my veggies growing where everybody’s dog can pee on them. I’ll keep my veggies out back where I have better control over access to them. We live in a new subdivision and have only a tiny patch of lawn out front anyway. I loved seeing this 10-foot high artichoke, along with other vegetables in one front yard. I can see why the neighbors might look askance!

Artichoke in front yard garden

Nobody Told Me About Bolting

Penne with Spinach or ChardMom never grew lettuce or spinach. My parents had a large garden, but neither was a fan of cooked greens, and lettuce other than iceberg was a foreign idea in our neck of the Tualatin Valley. And so, late in life, I finally have a sunny spot to have a container garden or raised beds. My first purchase was a pre-planted salad and herb bowl from Shorty’s Garden and Home in Vancouver. I was so tickled at being able to pick my own salad that I bought more lettuce and spinach starts and planted them in containers. Things went well through May. I plucked tender greens from my plants every other evening for our salad. But in early June, the spinach suddenly put out arrowhead-shaped leaves and sprang up in height. I am currently listening to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (P.S.) by Barbara Kingsolver and discovered this was bolting. When lettuce and spinach sense a higher temperature, they start sending up a bloom. When they do this, their leaves turn bitter as they make themselves less tasty to grazers like me. While it’s possible to quickly trim them back and keep the good-tasting leaves coming, often you just have to sprout new plants instead. I finally pulled up the spinach and used the remaining leaves in a batch of Penne with Spinach, Red Peppers and Feta. I also am growing my own red pepper plant, so eventually I can roast and freeze my own peppers for this dish. And I’ve ordered a home cheese making kit so I can replace the feta with fresh mozzarella. As for the container garden, I’ve replaced the spinach with some Swiss Chard starts I found at Shorty’s. And I’ve got seeds for a non-bolting spinach and mixed lettuce.

Maysara Willamette Valley Reserve 2001

Maysara Pinoit Noir 2001I joined the Maysara Winery “Tinoosh” wine club. Our first shipment arrived last week. It include two bottles of their first pinot noir, the 2001 Willamette Valley Reserve. It combined the fruit of three different vineyards. While it had the cherry elements I expect of the Yamhill Valley region, it definitely didn’t have as smooth of a finish as we like. My husband and I bought several bottles of their Jamsheed pinot noir vintage the past two years.

Maysara practices Biodynamic agriculture, which meets or exceeds organic standards. They do not use chemicals and fertilizers and minimize outside “inputs” into the farm by integrating livestock and insectory plants into the vineyard. We’ve seen free range turkeys grazing next to the winery on our visits.

But what attracted us to Maysara was their fantastic wine tasting events, held Memorial Day and Thanksgiving weekends. They pair their wines with samplings from a whole meal you could enjoy with each wine. You can nibble your way to heaven at these events. Maysara was founded by Moe and Flora Momtazi, emigrants from Iran. This family winery combines their ancient traditions and foods with a biodynamic vineyard set in the foothills of the Oregon Coast Range just south of McMinnville, Oregon. This is a longer drive for us than to visit our favorite Dundee wineries. But the food and the wine make it worth the trip.
Photo © 2008 Wendy Bumgardner

Battle Ground Farmer's Market

I’ve been visiting the Vancouver Farmer’s Market and wanted to see what other markets offered nearby. Battle Ground Farmer’s Market is located about 10 miles north of me, so it’s about four miles further than the Vancouver one. But my CSA farm, Rosemattel, has a booth there, so I thought I would see if there was more variety of produce. Alas, this is still early in the season, so I won’t judge it by what they had this weekend. The Battle Ground Farmer’s Market has moved to Battle Ground Village Courtyard, part of a complex still under construction. There seemed to be plenty of parking. I stopped by the booths selling plants and flowers and said hi to my CSA farmer. But the only produce vendors were her and a booth selling fresh local strawberries. These were part of my quest, so I happily bought 2 pints for $2 each.

I also noticed a prominent table for WIC and Senior farmers market checks. I had just learned that many farmers markets accept these support coupons.

My journey was not a disappointment. As I said, I think they are likely to have more produce by mid-July. Even better, along the way I passed u-pick fields for strawberries and a plant nursery. I stopped at the nursery and bought a hot pepper plant and seed for non-bolting spinach.

Local Wine and Cheese on the Patio

I haven’t let go of my hairdresser in Tualatin since moving to Vancouver, Washington. So, I combined a trip to get my roots disguised with a stop at Whole Foods to look for Willamette Valley Cheese. We enjoyed the gouda while wine tasting in the Yamhill Valley. I saw the Smoked Farmstead Gouda paired in a display with local wine, J. Christopher, from only about 10 miles away. You can’t get much more local than that.

Wine and Cheese

I did not locally source the crackers. But the smoked gouda was fantastic: creamy, smoky, impossible to stop eating until the wedge was gone. I was happy I didn’t buy the $101 half wheel! The Willamette Valley Cheese Company’s web site shows its happy jersey cows grazing freely in organic green fields near Salem, Oregon. The cows are given no hormones or antibiotics. They pasteurize their own raw milk to make the cheese. The cows look as contented as my favorite Swiss cows.

J. Christopher’s Cristo Misto Oregon Table Wine 2007 matched the description on its website, “aromatic quaffing wine.” It was fine for the purpose, fruity and crisp.

Eating local doesn’t mean giving up the fine life of wine and cheese on the patio.
Photo © 2008 Wendy Bumgardner