How Small Farmers Preserve Produce to Add Value to Their Harvest
Lexi Harder is an aquaponics farmer in Brooklyn, New York. She works as the Operations Manager at Oko Farms, where she spends her days with plants and fish.
At the aquaponics farm where I work, we deal with the age-old problem that farmers and home gardeners everywhere are intimately acquainted with: what to do with the season’s bounty, when that bounty exceeds the capacity to be immediately consumed?
Just as home cooks can make pickles or jam to extend the shelf life of their produce, stretch their dollars and prevent food waste, farmers often do the same. I’m reminded of this during the out-of-season weeks at the farmers’ market, when fresh produce is limited, but last season’s bounty is nevertheless on offer in all its glory: jars of bright red tomato sauce and jewel-toned fruit jams and sweet apple cider for a dollar a cup.
For small farmers especially, preserving part of a season’s harvest and making a new product from it is a smart economic decision that goes beyond preventing waste. At our farm, preservation is as natural a part of our routine as sowing seeds and feeding fish. Our friends at NYC urban farms Brooklyn Grange and Hellgate Farm sell hot sauces they make out of peppers they grow every summer. After all, a bottle of hot sauce can sell for two or three times the amount a quart of peppers might, with the added benefit of being shelf stable. Not only do these products ensure that no peppers are wasted, but they are also marketing themselves every time a customer pulls a bottle of hot sauce out of the fridge and looks at the label. Farmers everywhere can stand out by having good produce, but also by making and selling these value-added products that customers can interact with.
So, for a fun behind-the-scenes look at what we do to make the seasons last a little longer, here’s what we’ve preserved:
Herbal Syrups, Teas and Hydrosols
As an aquaponics farmer, I have often wondered what makes the crops we grow special or different from those grown in soil. Although many aquaponics practitioners claim improved flavor over soil farming, I often can’t taste the difference between tomatoes grown in our aquaponics system and those grown in soil. The one instance in which I see a marked difference, however, is in the herbs we grow in our aquaponics system.
Every time I brush past the mint that’s growing in our aquaponics system, I’m assaulted with a strong, minty breeze. The smell of cilantro merely growing is so strong that I’ll sometimes sneeze when I’m near it. Compared to how I’m used to coaxing scent out of the herbs I’ve grown in soil, the power of aquaponics herbs is unparalleled.
Through preservation, the flavor and aroma of the summer’s herb harvest can be enjoyed for the entire year.
Basil, mint, shiso (often described as the Japanese basil) and sage are perfect aromatics for making syrups. Sugar is a natural preservative, and we make syrups by boiling herbs in a sugar solution. Often, people will ask me if we have a sugar-free version, but sugar really is the only way we can make syrup that is shelf stable. Herbal syrups can be used medicinally, added to tea, as a maple syrup substitute on pancakes, in salad dressing and even as a marinade.
When we have herbs left over from making syrup, we hang the rest to dry in our shed. After a few weeks hanging in the shed, the herbs are ready to be hand crushed into herbal teas. Compared to mint tea I’ve bought in the store, the mint tea from the farm is some of the strongest I’ve ever had, even a year or two after being dried.
Before last year, I had no idea what a hydrosol was. A friend of ours who runs a small apothecary in New York City asked if she could distill some of the herbs we grow on the farm. Distilling is how essential oils are derived from plants, and hydrosol can be thought of as these essential oils suspended in water instead of in a concentrate. Hydrosols, since they are diluted, are safe to use directly on skin or in food, as opposed to straight essential oils, which can burn. Since herbs are most potent immediately following harvest, we like to distill herbs right on the farm.
Other Products We’ve Made
Using lemongrass grown on the farm, our trainee from last year, Michael, made this delicious curry paste.
We also make the occasional fermented product. Michael, again, experimented with making different vinegars and pickled products with shiso and okra. Can you tell he is a chef by trade?
These are just some of the things that can be made by farmers and gardeners to extend the shelf life of hard-won produce. For tips on extending your produce’s bounty at home, check out these other blog posts: