Conversation: Ruth Blackwell

Food waste has been on my radar for a while now. If we’re going to talk about food, we need to talk about the tragic amount that never makes it to someone’s plate.

The recent announcement by the USDA and EPA to reduce American food waste by 50% by 2030 is definitely welcome. But the devil is always in the details – or lack thereof. This new goal for the United States is based on a 2014 report that’s broad in scope and, in terms of farm-level food waste, sorely lacking in concrete numbers:

“Food losses begin on the farm even before a commodity moves into the marketing system. Although ERS was not able to quantify food losses that occur on the farm or between the farm and retail levels, anecdotal evidence suggests that such losses can be significant for some commodities.”

Other oft-quoted studies from the NRDC and the FAO are similarly limited in the detail they give us about the problem at a local level.

If we’re currently relying on anecdotal evidence to understand the amount of waste occurring on farms, then we need to get as much first-person input as possible. We need to talk to lots of different farmers.

Ruth Blackwell is the owner and farmer of Mudcreek Farm in Victor, NY. Here’s what she had to say during a recent conversation:

Does food waste occur on your farm? What are the sources?
One of the reasons why I want to farm in the CSA model as opposed to selling at market is to drastically reduce food waste. I don’t have to worry about market conditions, since my members have already purchased their share ahead of time. The cost of a share is based more on variety and quality than specific vegetables’ market costs.

I do lose a small amount of veggies to quality standards… I have pretty high standards in terms of health of my vegetables. But I don’t have to adhere to the ridiculous standards your typical grocery store would employ. I’m right there to explain to members that a carrot with two legs tastes just as good as a carrot with one. And the things I do discard either go to feeding our pigs and poultry, or gets turned into compost. Nothing is really “waste”.

Labor shortage isn’t a problem on my scale. And food safety scares don’t affect me, since everything is clean, organic, and transparent to my members. Food safety scares might actually help my business: sketchy bagged spinach from California might chase those scared customers right to me.

The only thing I have to worry about is weather and disease, and that’s a real worry. Especially with climate change rearing its ugly head. This June it rained 26 days out of 30, and we had about 75-80% crop loss in all our spring brassicas; they were essentially sitting in standing water and the roots just rotted away. I then lost a lot of direct seeded things that were planted in May and June – onions, carrots, beets, parsnips, etc. – because I couldn’t cultivate the wet soil and they got lost in weeds. Other transplanted crops couldn’t get planted on schedule and were late or stunted as a result.

A CSA relies on pretty specific timing to work properly, so an entire month of not getting on the ground can really screw you. This spring has made me adjust my plans for the future; I’m going to buy some equipment and change my practices around (raised beds with plastic mulch) to try and help protect future crops from the ravages of another rain event like this June. Raised beds can drain more easily and plastic mulch suppresses weeds when I can’t hand weed or cultivate. But climate change brings more drastic, unpredictable weather, including too hot or too cold weather for specific crops; an increase of diseases like late blight earlier in the season than usual; late and early frosts, etc. It’s impossible to plan around, so it makes my business more risky, and also puts the burden on me to explain to my members why the shares aren’t what was promised.

Any general thoughts about this food waste discussion?
The main thing that really bothers me about the food waste problem is the unrealistic standards that are placed on food. Every zucchini, every tomato, every cucumber going to the store has to look “perfect” and results in copious amounts of perfectly edible food getting tossed, while millions of people are starving or living in “food deserts” where they can’t get fresh produce. It’s insane. The standards for what’s salable have way more to do with looks than taste. The tomatoes you get in the store look perfect and taste like cardboard. I don’t give a shit what it looks like. I’m eating it, not putting it up on the wall.

I’m not sure where these decisions get made, and I’m sure it’s a slow, collective slide into the insane, not one higher-up’s decision. But people have become completely ignorant about food. Priorities are completely skewed. And to me, it seems like the most obvious and easily corrected reason for food waste, because there’s no good reason for it. It’s just a marketing problem.

Being a CSA is a good way to combat this attitude; I introduce members to ugly heirloom tomatoes, strange eggplant, weird carrots that taste way better than anything they can get in the store. But my resources to address the problem are way smaller than Wegman’s or the FDA.

Old Seed Photos: a Glimpse and a Vision

While doing research for an upcoming article in 585 Magazine, I had the opportunity to look through stacks of original photos from the Joseph Harris Seed Company. Thank you to Richard Chamberlin, current president of Harris Seed Company, for making this possible.

Matt Kelly,

In front of me are two cardboard boxes. Small boxes. Neatly filled with papers, pamphlets, and large envelopes. They sit waiting for me on the long table of a conference room, beneath the glare of fluorescent lights. There is nothing about these boxes to suggest they are special in any way.

Until I begin lifting out the envelopes.

They’re thick and heavy; they feel distinctly like glass. Photographic plates. I’m instantly attentive to my every movement as I set them on the table. Sandwiched between envelopes are photos. Black and white. Original images made from these plates. A photo of strawberries has a faded, hand-written note: “Superb (Everbearing) Oct 10, 1914.”

Along with the strawberries are images of tomatoes, cantaloupe, and beets. Images of crops growing, crops harvested, and seeds being processed. Farm fields, farmhouses and farm hands. Faces and people.

There is something very special here: a window into Rochester’s little-known but once-great history as the seed capital of the United States from 1870 until 1920.


The two boxes of photos in front of me are from the Harris Seed Company archives. In fact, they’re the entire archive. Which is a sad reminder of how few physical connections remain to this part of our local history.

Fortunately there are collections of various original catalogs and publications from Vick, Harris and other local seedsmen stored away in the libraries at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Rochester Civic Garden Center, and the University of Rochester. They contain a wealth of farming wisdom and advice from a time before heavy mechanization and chemical inputs became the standard for growing food.

As I carefully place the photos and plates back into the cardboard boxes, it occurs to me that these materials offer more than just a glimpse into the history of what Rochester once was. They also provide a vision for what we can become once again.

Photo credit: My watermark is on these photos because I shot them for use here. But full credit – along with immense gratitude – goes to the photographer who created the original images. Whoever you are, thank you.

Matt Kelly,

Matt Kelly,

Matt Kelly,

Conversation: Siggi Hilmarsson

For an upcoming story about yogurt in Edible Finger Lakes magazine, I had the opportunity to talk with Siggi Hilmarsson, the founder and CEO of siggi’s dairy. He had a lot of great things to say about skyr and yogurt, but only a small portion made it into the actual story. Here’s the complete interview:

Photo provided by siggi's dairy

Photo provided by siggi’s dairy

How do you explain the difference between skyr and yogurt?
Skyr is a type of yogurt that has been made in Iceland for over 1,000 years. The main difference is that skyr is strained. A strained yogurt begins with making some type of regular yogurt and then straining out the water (the whey) to make it thick and creamy. The Greek yogurt that is very well known in the United States is a strained yogurt like skyr. But there are also textural and other differences between strained yogurts. For example, Icelandic skyr is usually a bit thicker than Greek and therefore has a bit higher protein content.

What is “good” skyr? What is “good” yogurt?
I think any good fresh dairy product – whether it be skyr, regular yogurt or filmjölk – has to start with great milk. If you start with great milk and then culture it right, you will end up with a good product. After that some level of preference comes in.

Some people like their products more tart or less tart which then determines how long you incubate and what type of cultures you use. Also texture is important. I like a bit of “curdy” texture, which dictates a bit how we incubate and subsequently stir our yogurt during the process. I dislike the use of starches as thickeners of the actual yogurt.

If you are looking at flavored yogurt, then I think a good yogurt is about balancing the flavor of the fruit or the spice with that of the natural flavor of the yogurt. You want to know that you are eating yogurt while at the same time feel and savor the essence of the fruit. It also goes without saying that great flavored yogurt should be very lightly sweetened and include no artificial sweeteners or flavorings.

How important is the use of local milk?
For us it is very important. I made my first batch of yogurt in my New York City apartment, worked on test batches in Morrisville College NY, and began selling in downtown Manhattan. Our first manufacturing facility was in Chenango County. So our story is very much tied to New York State and we are very proud of it. I still live in New York. Currently the majority of our milk and manufacturing takes place in the Finger Lakes and we plan on keeping it that way as we grow.

How has customer interest changed since you started making and selling skyr?
The interest has definitely increased. When I started selling our skyr at an outdoor green market in downtown Manhattan in 2006, not a lot of people knew what thick or strained yogurt was, let alone what Icelandic style skyr yogurt was. With the growth of yogurt in general – and Greek yogurt in particular – consumers are much more into new types of yogurt and are seeking us out.

There is also a general trend towards eating less sugar. We had good interest in our product from the start since it was not very sweet. In some cases, our skyr had less than half the sugar of mainstream yogurts on the market. Even though the interest was strong there were also some consumers who weren’t used to the taste of yogurt that didn’t have over 20g of sugar in it. In the last two to three years, however, there has been a total breakthrough in the public understanding of the importance of reducing sugar in the diet; how sugar consumption is connected to obesity and the diseases related to obesity. This awareness has resulted in an unbelievable surge in the demand and interest for our product.

What are current customer preferences like regarding yogurt? Sweet vs. savory? Stand-alone snack vs. ingredient?
I would love to do more savory products. However I still think consumer preferences in general are more for fruit-type flavors, and we see that with our products too. Although I do think preferences are changing: we see consumers being very willing to try the more savory options. Our orange and ginger yogurt – although not hardcore savory – has been one of our bestsellers from the beginning.

I think both historically and for us, yogurt was first and foremost a stand-alone snack. But that has also changed dramatically in the past few years: people are using it as an ingredient – cooking with it – in increasingly creative ways. We see at least one new smoothie recipe a day from our consumers via social media or email, each one smarter than anything I could come up with.

Do customer preferences vary based on the different regions you sell in? Is there a particular “NY yogurt eater” profile?
They do vary and it is interesting to try to figure out why. New York has some clear trends: our coconut, orange and ginger, and plain do much better in New York than elsewhere. In the South, peach does better.

Is there a “busy season” for yogurt?
The busiest season is definitely the New Year when people want to refocus on their healthy eating habits after holiday indulgences. Back to school is also pretty big.

What’s your favorite way to eat skyr?
I go through phases and moods where some concoction or the other is my favorite. But I truly always come back to one: plain skyr with fresh blueberries and walnuts, and maybe a splash of heavy cream if it has been a long day.

Harvestmen in the Garden

Matt Kelly,

This was not a stellar year in the garden. Keeping things simple, I focused on just two crops: tomatoes and cucumbers. But in the past several weeks, the tomatoes got hammered with blight and the cucumbers finally succumbed to powdery mildew. By mid-August, any remaining hopes of even a minimal harvest were completely gone. When the syrphid flies that had filled the air finally moved on from the garden, I decided I should too; I began pulling dead plants from the ground and bagging them for destruction.

Which is when I saw the daddy long legs making a meal of a fly among the dead leaves. A pretty cool sight: how often do you get to see one of the world’s most poisonous spiders – whose fangs aren’t big enough to penetrate human skin – capturing and consuming prey?

Answer: you never get to see it. Harvestmen – aka “daddy long legs” – aren’t poisonous and don’t have fangs like other spiders. In fact, Harvestmen aren’t even spiders; same class of arthropods, completely different orders. They capture prey by ambush – not by web – and have been known to scavenge, feeding on small insects, plant matter, fungi, and the occasional bird poo. Harvestmen use their mouth parts to nibble little bits from their meal and consume it bite by bite; spiders use fangs to inject digestive fluids into their prey, tenderize it, and then ingest it like a milkshake through a straw.

What I saw in the garden detritus was most likely some opportunistic scavenging. The fly wasn’t moving at all; the Harvestmen had probably found the carcass and was figuring out the best way to start nibbling.

At least someone got a decent meal from the garden this year.

Matt Kelly,

Additional Info:
Bug Guide. Order Opiliones – Harvestmen, retrieved from

Cranshaw, W. (2004). Garden Insects of North America.

Wikipedia. Opiliones, retrieved from

Syrphidae and Cucurbits

Matt Kelly,

I harvested the first cucumbers of the season this week. I’ve seen them growing for a couple weeks now, seen the flowers even longer. But haven’t seen any bees.

This caused me a bit of concern for reasons both macro and micro. The lack of bees regularly buzzing during the summer months definitely bodes ill for our food system. But on a more selfish level: I want my damn cucumbers. Without the help of pollinators, they’re not going to happen.

Cucumbers – and cucurbits in general – have male and female flowers; they require something to transfer the pollen from one to the other. Ideally, this is insects. In a pinch, it can be a human with a Q tip. Which is a real drag.

But even with the lack of bees, the cucumbers are growing. That’s because there are plenty of hover flies. Diptera syrphidae, for the bug geeks.

There are thousands of types of syrphid flies world wide, all of them striped black and yellow like bees. On my cukes alone I’ve seen three different types, distinguishable by the variation in body and wing, eyes and mouth parts.

Diptera syphidae are not like Bluebottle flies (Diptera calliphorinaea) when it comes to pollination: hover flies are intentional pollinators actively seeking out pollen and nectar to consume, and transferring it from flower to flower in the process.

But that’s not all: syrphid fly larvae are predators of common garden pests. Voracious, badass little predators, according to Cornell University: “Most syrphid fly maggots feed on aphids, thrips, leafhoppers and other soft-bodied prey like small caterpillars. They move along plant surfaces, lift their heads to grope for prey, seize and suck them dry and then discard the exoskeleton.”

I like bees; I want them around. But show me a single bee species that sucks the life out of aphids and then tosses their broken, empty shells aside like a WWF wrestler, thumping it’s chest and shouting at the crowd.

Bring the thunder, syrphidae. And the cucumbers.

Additional Info:
Bug Guide. Syrphid Flies, retrieved from

Cranshaw, W. (2004). Garden Insects of North America.

Shelton, A. Syrphid Flies, retrieved from

Shepherd, M. and Black, S. H. Flower Flies, retrieved from


Matt Kelly,

And sometimes a big, ugly what-the-f*ck shows up on the front porch.

This is a Blinded Sphinx Moth.

I had no idea what to think when I first saw this thing hanging out. It was the size of the a small bird. Was it just relaxing in the warmth of the sun? Or getting ready to destroy Tokyo?

Sphinx moths – of which there are over 120 described species in North America – all start out as Hornworms. And two Hornworms in particular can be a pain in the ass: the Tomato Hornworm and the Tobacco Hornworm. They feed voraciously on the plants they are respectively named for. But all other types of Hornworms are of little to no concern. They live in trees, shrubs and woodland areas, doing little noticeable damage as they chew on the leaves. Some adult Sphinx Moths feed on nectar and help pollinate; the Blind Sphinx Moth apparently doesn’t feed at all.

The moth stayed in the same spot all day. It moved just enough to let me know it was actually alive when I prodded it with my finger. But other than that, it was as quiet and as still as the bark it’s trying to mimic.

Until the next morning, when it was gone as mysteriously as it had arrived.

Additional Info:
Bug Guide, Blinded Sphinx Moth, retrieved from

Cranshaw, W. (2004). Garden Insects of North America.

Matt Kelly,

Red-Bellied Snake

While moving some stone and bricks around back of the house, I found a snake. Not an uncommon find but always a favorite. It was a small snake, maybe ten inches long and about as fat around as my little finger.

Seems like every small snake gets called a Garter Snake. Which isn’t surprising since there are about a bazillion different varieties and it’s most widely-distributed snake in North America. But this was actually a Red-Bellied Snake. It took a little digging to identify correctly but the differences are interesting. And pretty obvious when you know what to pay attention to.

A great little snake to have around.

A great little snake to have around.

* Red-Bellied Snakes are typically 8 to 16 inches long, making them smaller than Garter Snakes which run 18 to 50 inches. This also means a Red-Bellied has fewer rows of scales along its body than a Garter.

* Red-Bellied Snakes tend to be plain brown, gray or black with – yes – a bright red belly. Or orange or yellow, sometimes black. Red-bellies also have faint stripes running along the ridge of their backs, with three light-colored spots on their collars. Color can vary so greatly in Garters that I won’t even try to sum it up. Ask Google, look at photos, much better.

* A Red-Belly’s head is more blunt and rounded. A Garter’s head tends to be a little more arrowhead-like.

* A Red-Bellied Snake has eyes that look like copper rivets whereas the round pupil and iris are obvious in the Garter’s eye.

And now for a fun Herpetology Geek Fact: Both snakes have keeled scales. Look really, really closely and you’ll see that most of their scales have a little ridge running up the middle. This gives both the Red-Bellied and the Garter a rougher look and feel than snakes with smooth scales.

Keeled scales

Keeled scales

I fully understand that many folks get the same visceral skeeved out feeling with snakes that I get with spiders. But both are great creatures to have around because they eat the critters that can cause damage and need to be kept in check. The Red-Bellied Snake in particular eats worms, insects, and slugs.

Which is excellent because the little bastard gastropods have been doing a number on my recently transplanted Lacinato kale. Not cool.

Additional Info:
National Audubon Society, Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians

UMass Extension, Snakes of Massachusetts: Scales, retrieved from