Interview: Siggi Hilmarsson

For an upcoming story about yogurt in Edible Finger Lakes magazine, I had the opportunity to email 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 by Pablo Ravazzani

Photo by Pablo Ravazzani

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, boonieadjacent.com

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, boonieadjacent.com

**
Additional Info:
Bug Guide. Order Opiliones – Harvestmen, retrieved from www.bugguide.net/node/view/196

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

Wikipedia. Opiliones, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opiliones

Syrphidae and Cucurbits

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

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 http://www.bugguide.net/node/view/196

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

Shelton, A. Syrphid Flies, retrieved from http://www.biocontrol.entomology.cornell.edu/predators/syrphids.php

Shepherd, M. and Black, S. H. Flower Flies, retrieved from http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/flower_flies.shtml

Mothra

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

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 http://bugguide.net/node/view/4481

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

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

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 http://www.masnakes.org/snakes/scales.html

Why the Fly

Flies: the swarming associates of death, decay, and stinking piles of poo.

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly,
And then forgot to tell us why.
~ Ogden Nash

And yet we’ve decided to purchase 5,000 Bluebottle flies for the farm.

The isolation cage

The isolation cage

We just recently set up an isolation cage: a large metal frame covered by very fine mesh. The cage covers carrots and some other crops to prevent undesirable cross-pollination from pollinating insects. Why? Because carrots can easily cross with Queen Anne’s Lace – a wild carrot – and produce seeds that will grow into who-knows-what when planted in the future. Not cool. And the same is true for the other crops: they could cross in ways that would make their seed unreliable.

But carrots – and the other crops – still need to cross-pollinate with each other to produce seed. And they rely on insects to accomplish this. If we want to get any seed at all, we have to fill the cage with insects that will get the work done.

Hence the 5,000 Bluebottle flies.

Flies are incidental pollinators: they just like to sit on stuff and, as they buzz about sitting on different plants, they transfer pollen. Bees, on the other hand, are intentional pollinators: they’re actually moving from flower to flower looking for pollen. Why flies and not bees in the cage? Flies are way easier to manage.

I don’t know if this is what God had in mind when he made the fly. But it works for us.

Wolf Spider

Matt Kelly, boonieadjacent.com

Wolf Spider

This week I started pulling back the leaf mulch from the raised beds to prep them for another season of tomatoes. And out from beneath the leaves scurried a Wolf Spider. Not a big one – maybe an inch in total length – and tan.

Most of those giant spiders in the movies that creep out of the darkness to nab people and hobbits are based on Wolf Spiders, both in general appearance and behavior.

Egg sack

Egg sack

Wolf Spiders burrow into earth or garden detritus – like leaves – and wait to ambush passing insects. They’ll also lay their eggs in these burrows. Wolf Spiders don’t spin a web to capture prey but they do make a web sphere around their eggs. Some spiders of this variety even carry the sphere on their abdomens until their young hatch; the little spiders then ride on the mother’s back until they are mature enough to scurry off on their own

This is what I found while working in the high tunnel at the farm. I was relaying row fabric when a Wolf Spider – a big, honkin’ one – scurried out from underneath. Total length was about three inches. Dark brown and mottled. Yeeesh.

It doesn’t matter how big or small a spider is – or that I could crush it in a single blow – I always get this visceral skeeved-out feeling when one surprises me. Their motions and appearance are so different from bigger creatures.

But I’m happy to have them in any growing space I’m working. There are plenty of leaf-chewing, sap-sucking, stem-boring pests they can take care of.

Big, honkin' Wolf Spider

Big, honkin’ Wolf Spider