This week in Jewish farming: The deer threat and an electric solution


Countless anxieties attended the planning for my first season farming. Losing my entire crop to deer was not among them.

Neither of the Northeastern farms where I had worked previously worried much about these herbivores. One farm was large and could keep losses from deer to a minimum with a shotgun. The other was on a main street in a semi-suburban environment where the deer pressure was fairly low. In both cases, a sort of Cold War stalemate prevailed. There were occasional border skirmishes and the requisite resort to arms. Losses were incurred on both sides, but never at catastrophic levels. The balance of power always prevailed.

But from the moment I began working our fields, I’ve gotten hints that we shouldn’t be nearly so casual. Connecticut is deer country. One of our towns gave its name to a disease borne by deer ticks. Neighbors would shoot me dubious looks when I shrugged in response to questions about my deer control strategy. Nonspecific references were made to a lost pumpkin crop a few years back.

One farmer a few towns over advised me in May to stop my planting and focus all my energies on protecting what I already had. If I had to do it all over again, he told me, I would invest in some serious fencing. I ignored him.

Even the deer tracks I’d notice each morning in our freshly plowed beds weren’t enough to light a fire. The tracks would pass by beautiful, tender green leaves that were left entirely unmolested. They were toying with me, I would say, waiting for the moment of perfect delectability before they decimated the whole crop. I didn’t really believe it was so, but somewhere in back of my mind I feared it might be.

The turning point came when my Hare Krishna farmhand, Fred, went to pick up some composted manure at a nearby supply house. After making a few trips, the woman at the store asked what we were up to. When Fred explained we were growing vegetables, the woman leaned in conspiratorially. “Did they tell you about the deer?” she asked.

That was enough to scare me straight. A few weeks later, a truck pulled up to the farm and unloaded $2,000 worth of electrified fencing. Held aloft on fiberglass rods, three strands of tape now circle the field. At night, after closing the gate and arming the solar battery, 9,000 volts of electricity pulse through them every two seconds or so.

But here’s the crazy thing — deer can easily jump six feet or more. Our top strand of electrified tape is only five feet high. The system works by baiting the deer to approach the fence and then shocking them so badly they think better of getting too close. It sounded a little crazy when the salesman explained it to me, but so far it’s working. And I’m sleeping a lot easier just knowing it’s there.

As a small farm with barely an acre currently under cultivation, a serious deer infestation could be devastating. And having committed to supplying vegetables to CSA members for another 21 weeks (two down!), I can ill afford the kind of losses even a small herd of deer could inflict. The rabbits and worms and beetles are taking enough as it is.

Growing organically means achieving a sustainable detente with the various forms of life on the farm. It’s tempting to aim for total victory. What could be more desirable than a farm entirely free of predacious animals and weeds? A lot, actually. The fact that all this wildlife wants a piece of the action is clear evidence that the food we’re growing is worth eating.

As I tell my shareholders, if those kale leaves were entirely devoid of little holes from flea beetles, that would be worrisome. Our farm teems with manifold forms of life and it would be incredibly short-sighted to try to change that. Coexistence is key — both sides give a little and get to live a lot.

 

This week in Jewish farming: The pests arrive


Miracles pour forth daily from the earth. Each day — often several times a day — I’m momentarily overcome by something magical in the fields. Those tomato plants that seem to expand by the hour, some of them now reaching my chest with their dank stalks bursting with yellow flowers. The plump purple kohlrabi bulbs almost psychedelic in appearance. The tiny baby squash protruding from a plant still robust despite the nibblings of cucumber beetles.

Forget seeds. Did you know that if you cut a potato into quarters and drop it in some soft soil with a little fertilizer it will spawn a feisty little plant? I know it, but seeing it still blows my mind. We have 800 feet of potatoes reaching for the heavens and it’s impossible for me to walk by them without stopping for a moment just to enjoy the view.

As we ascend toward the year’s longest day, it’s as if some magnetic force is drawing the energy up from the earth, swelling roots, expanding foliage and filling our fields with luscious green. Everywhere I turn, things are growing. Our fully planted acre, now bursting with more than 30 kinds of plants, is nothing short of beautiful. It’s almost enough to make me forget about those still-struggling onions and beets.

With so much deliciousness approaching its peak, I’m not the only one salivating. This week the cucumber beetles arrived, picking their way through the melons, squash and, of course, cucumbers. Those incredibly precocious potato plants are beginning to contend with their own kind of beetle. Before that, I nearly lost a fat bed of Napa cabbage to worms, but I caught that one in time (I think).

There’s a full-on war unfolding in the fields, and having eschewed the chemical arsenals much beloved in other parts of the agricultural world, I’m left with some rudimentary tools: exclusion, biological pesticides of highly variable effectiveness and my own two hands.

Lately, I’ve been spending the last hour of the day on insect patrol. My first victims yesterday were a copulating pair of cucumber beetles shamelessly getting it on inside the moist growth tip of a squash plant. I confess to a sort of Game-of-Thrones-like delight in squeezing the two little bastards between my fingers. With less than a week till our first CSA delivery, I can ill afford to have beetles procreating in the squash.

I keep imagining there’s some hump I’m going to get over and the rest of the season will cruise to the finish. The pests will be under control, the weeds manageable, the routines established. But the horizon just keeps advancing. Each completed task begets two new ones. Fortunately, I’m starting to believe in miracles.

Growth spurt: More farms at Jewish buildings seeding food awareness


After the unexpected death of his 26-year-old daughter Jessica last August, Dane Kostin found himself searching for a fitting memorial, a project that would benefit the community and provide an appropriate tribute to a daughter who loved cooking with fresh, seasonal vegetables.

Thus was born Jessie’s Community Gardens, a nonprofit trying to set up small-scale gardening operations at community facilities throughout the Hartford, Conn. area.

This spring, the first garden will be dug on the grounds of the local Jewish federation. Another will be installed at
Kostin’s synagogue, Beth El Temple in West Hartford. Kostin also has held discussions with the local Jewish nursing home, assisted living facilities and the two local Jewish day schools, all of which have expressed interest in participating.

“It could gather volunteers to do mitzvah projects. It could provide food for the needy. It could do any number of things that we were thinking about,” Kostin told JTA.

Across the country, similar ideas have prompted synagogues, JCCs, day schools and camps to turn over hundreds of acres of land for growing vegetables in recent years.

The gardens are tangible manifestations of the exponential growth of Jewish community interest in contemporary food issues,
and most of the efforts combine growing vegetables with some opportunity for Jewish learning, social action or environmental awareness.

In Denver, a five-acre organic farm on the grounds of the Denver Academy of Torah called Ekar produced 8,000 pounds of vegetables last season for the local Jewish food pantry. In Toronto, Kavanah Garden donated 400 pounds to a local Jewish organization where volunteer chefs prepared food and distributed it the homeless. More than 1,200 people have visited the garden.

At Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia, a small garden started in 2003 has grown into an entire sustainability track that now sends campers to help out at a nearby organic farm during the summer. Beth Sholom Congregation in Philadelphia grows, among other things, flowers that are brought to patients in hospitals and nursing homes. And the JCC Grows program, run from the JCC Association in New York, provides grants to centers across the country to establish community gardens.

There is a growing network of more than 100 Community Supported Agriculture projects, or CSAs, housed at Jewish institutions.

“It’s only recently—I think in the last three to four years, even in the last two years—there’s been a little bit of a tipping point both in the Jewish community and in the mainstream,” said Daron Joffe, an organic farming entrepreneur in Atlanta who says he’s helped establish some 20 gardens at Jewish community facilities.

After the Marguiles family of Illinois moved its envelope factory to Geneva, Ill., in 1999, it found it had several acres of land at its disposal. So Fred Marguiles, a rabbi, found a farmer who planted corn and soybeans that he raised through conventional methods, employing chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

“That went on for about 10 years—until we went to a Hazon food conference,” Marguiles said.

Israelis develop a taste for goats’ and sheep’s milk cheeses



The people of Israel have a long history as shepherds. Many of our forefathers, among them Abraham, Moses and David, took care of their herds with the nurturing qualities that later proved crucial for leading the burgeoning Jewish nation.

While modern Israel today may lack the leaders of yore, they do not lack fine goat and sheep farmers.

As Israel becomes sophisticated gastronomically, consumers are favoring goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses over cow’s milk varieties. Unlike their bovine counterparts, most goats and sheep are free to roam and graze, antibiotics aren’t usually a part of their diet, the cheese and milk contain less lactose and the taste is unmistakably distinct.

As enthusiasm grows among consumers, Israeli cheesemakers have become more creative and also more hospitable, with many offering country dining with their delectable cheeses. Owned by some of Israel’s most interesting personalities, the following is a partial list of popular sheep and goat farms throughout Israel.

Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash (Land of Milk and Honey)

A favorite among locals and tourists is Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash, located on Moshav Nechalim in Petach Tikva, about 15 minutes from Ben-Gurion Airport. While it’s one of the most urban-tinged dairies, the atmosphere is quaint and relaxing, with Israeli background music mixing with chirping birds. A colorful, lush garden adorned with a fish pond opens to an outdoor patio with sheep grazing nearby.

Aharon Markovich, the personable founder who grew up on a religious-Zionist farm, decided to raise sheep rather than the more prevalent goats.

“Sheep milk doesn’t have the heavy aroma of goat cheese,” said Markovich, who is quick to offer a container of fresh sheep’s milk for customers to try. “Cow’s milk is flavorless.”

Markovich abides by the adage that rare is better. Sheep produce about half the amount of milk that goats produce, and the results truly are exquisite. The milk is sweet and creamy.

The Markovich dairy produces 40 different kinds of kosher cheeses — fresh, semihard, hard and ripened – but Markovich gets annoyed when people ask him to categorize his cheeses according to well-known kinds, such as Camembert, tomme or feta. While he has mostly taught himself traditional techniques, he refused to bow to European traditions. He makes original cheeses using unorthodox ingredients: wine, fig leaves, rosemary, bay leaves, to name a few additives and, of course, “lots of love and soul.”

The morning buffet brunch features flavored cheese balls, breads, Greek salad, roasted peppers, marinated eggplant and spicy carrots, but the highlight is the opportunity to create a cheese platter from among the dozens of cheeses sold at the deli.

Brunch: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. (Friday brunch is closed to children under 12); deli: 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Shabbat and holidays). Kosher certified. For more information, call (011) 972-3-933-2797 or visit http://www.2eat.co.il/eretz.

Zook Farm

Located near the Ela Valley, not far from Beith Shemesh, the Zook Farm offers a taste of rustic Israel. Reaching the farm is an experience in and of itself. A kilometer-long road leads to picturesque, delightfully landscaped outdoor seating areas adorned with roses and vines. At the Zook Farm cafe, open to the public on weekends, cheeses and homemade delicacies are served on red-and-white checkered picnic tablecloths at a site overlooking the barns and bushy hills.

The Zook brothers, Yiftach and Tomer, grew up on a farm and are now at the helm of a fraternal food dynasty. Their other brother is culinary star Nir Zook, the namesake of the famous Zook Compound in Jaffa, home to the exclusive Cordelia restaurant. The Zook Compound is the only venue aside from the Zook Farm where the Zook brothers’ cheeses are sold to the public.

A delightful brunch experience goes for NIS 100 ($24) per person, and it includes homemade merlot and high-grade cheeses made from whole goat’s milk: delicate tzfatit; brittle, aged Roquefort; and earthy tomme. Cheeses come with an array of dips and appetizers, including labane, feta cheese spread, eggplant in cream, artichokes, roasted peppers, fennel, hummus and tahina. Scrumptious gingerbread cookies and coffee top off the meal, which is best followed with a walk along the surrounding prairies.

Open Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. For information, call (011) 972-54-523-9117/8 or visit http://www.mitchatnim.co.il/mem/havat_tzuk/.

Goat Path

A new addition to the goat farm landscape of Israel, Goat Path, was founded about a year ago by the Saban and Einy families, who make a large variety of whole milk goat products: gouda, cheddar, emmental, labane, yogurts and yogurt drinks. A lovely country cafe in a wooden cabin is open on weekends. Visitors are welcome to visit the goat pens and tour the wineries and boutique shops in the Tal Shakhar farm, where the dairy is located not far from Beit Shemesh.

Fridays, holiday eves, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.; Shabbat and holidays: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sundays-Thursdays (limited menu): 8 a.m.-3 p.m. For more information, call (011) 972-52-258-9900 or (011) 972-8-949-5964.

Kornmehl Farm

Located in the Negev, overlooking ancient farm ruins, Kornmehl farm was founded in 1997 by husband-and-wife team Anat and Daniel Kornmehl, both graduates of the agricultural science department at Hebrew University. Daniel Kornmehl studied cheesemaking in both France and Israel, and the farm employs the French cheesemaking tradition, while preserving the unique flavors of the Israeli desert. Cheese varieties include their version of tomme, Camembert and Brie.
Visitors are welcome to watch the afternoon milking at 4:30 p.m. and learn about the cheesemaking process.

Cheeses are sold daily from10 a.m.-6 p.m. For more information, call (011) 972-8-655-5140 or 011-972-52-2788051.

Sataf: Shai Seltzer

Shai Seltzer, a fixture in the Israel cheesemaking community with his famous long, white beard, is certainly a candidate for the godfather of modern Israeli goat cheesemaking. This Israeli veteran and award-winning goat farmer and cheesemaker has been raising goats for the past 32 years in one of the most beautiful areas in Israel: Sataf in the Jerusalem hills. Following ancient tradition, the gourmet cheeses are aged in a dark cave, and they are sold only on-site on weekends, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

For more information, visit http://www.goat-cheese.co.il.