Eat Your Vegetables
Consider the humble parsnip, the Thanksgiving staple with a strong piney taste that Algiere says some people find off-putting. The flavor is the product of chemical compounds called terpenoids, which give parsnips a superpower: the ability to fend off pests, which is reason alone to include them in a crop rotation.
What the average parsnip consumer might not know, though, is that a heavy pine flavor indicates that this carrot relative was harvested early. If you leave it in the ground until after the first frost, “It’s transformed — pure sugar,” says Algiere. An added bonus: It stores well, extending the window in which a grower can offer fresh produce to customers.
If you want to add parsnips to your own dietary rotation, buy them after temperatures have plummeted, when their sweetness is basically guaranteed.
The parsnip has yet another power. Thanks to its deep taproot, “It can break down into the really deep subsoil and bring minerals up” that can be accessed by the next crop in a rotation, says Algiere. At Stone Barns, that’s usually another super-vegetable, the honeynut squash.
This hardy heirloom is a relative of larger butternut squash; its smaller size means it takes up less space in the field and uses fewer resources. It’s also a tiny nutrition bomb that, when originally tested by Blue Hill at Stone Barns chef Dan Barber, was rich and sweet enough to eat straight-up, without gobs of milk and butter. It’s available in season at markets throughout the Northeast, as well as in Blue Apron meal kit boxes.
Have you been reading enthusiastic reports that kale’s heyday is over? That would be a pity, according to Sarah Ross, Director of the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History in Savannah, GA. Absolutely any kind of kale, she says (preferably organic), works to mitigate an big problem in agriculture fields: salinity, which is on the rise due to the use of mineral fertilizers. Kale actually removes salt from soil; it’s one of the reasons it was ever grown for human food in the first place, Ross says.
Another common crop that’s particularly well-suited to certain parts of Ross’s region is rice. In areas that are too wet to grow other foods, especially in prime locations adjacent to rivers, rice is a champ. This is especially pertinent as climate change causes an uptick in both storms and their severity in coastal regions. A rice field flooded by a surging adjacent river “is protected from winds, rains, all the effects of a storm, so 100 percent of your food supply is safe,” Ross says. And it has another important benefit: It removes nutrients that accumulate in a storm-ravaged river and keeps them out of the ocean, where Ross says, “we don’t want fertilization.” She recommends heirloom Carolina Gold rice grown by Anson Mills in Columbia, SC.
In the Northeast, grain-growing for human (rather than animal) consumption followed commodity mills to the Midwest several generations back. Reviving it has been the work of scientists, growers, bakers, millers, and brewers for over a decade. Such a system “creates opportunities for farmers to get higher value in local food markets rather than feed markets,” explains Ellen Mallory, associate professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of Maine in Orono. Importantly, it also boosts the number of crops a farmer can rotate to build soil health.
One of these is buckwheat, a pseudo-cereal you might recognize from your grandfather’s bowl of kasha. Or, if you’re a Mainer, you may have grown up eating it in the form of pancakes called ployes.
Farmers there use buckwheat as an early spring planting that sprouts and grows before the weeds have a chance to take hold. But buckwheat also shares a superpower with parsnips in that it “exudes acids that boost phosphorous in the soil that becomes available to the next crop,” says Mallory. “It also feeds bees like crazy”— just what you want next to a field of vegetables that requires pollinator services.