What is food quality?

Defining quality for fresh food is not a simple task – because there are many perspectives to this.

For many the organic label has come to signify quality, but we’ve come to see this as a uni-dimensional viewpoint. There seems to be a lot more to quality, and its probably best measured at the point of our plates.

Variety is quality. The types of a vegetable that you to choose to grow determines quality – because not all tomatoes varieties were created equal taste-wise. Some are just better than others.

Freshness is quality. And the difference in freshness plays a major role in quality, especially for leafy vegetables and herbs. Loss of moisture over time accelerates the drop in quality. Other vegetables like brinjals, gourds, beans, tomatoes retain moisture much better.

Distance is quality. The less distance travelled by your vegetables, the fresher they are and the less chances there are for exposure to pollutants and other materials that aren’t very healthy.

Organic is quality. Food grown without the use of pesticides is definitely healthier, but growing organically is not the only measure of quality.

 

Growing Lettuce in Warmer Conditions

Heat is the primary concern for growing lettuce, and can affect your efforts from the germination stage through the harvest. Ideally, temperatures of about 18-22˚C is when lettuce grows well in the western coast of India, but with a little care you can compensate for conditions of approximately 25-30˚C which are predominant in the winter along India’s western coast.

Growing lettuce in cool temperate conditions is pretty easy, but when you are in warm humid conditions like Goa, this king of salad leaves needs some extra care

salad-bowl-lettuce

Figure 1: Lettuce can grow very well in Goa

 

CHOOSE THE RIGHT VARIETIES
First, select the right varieties of lettuce to grow – heading lettuces like iceberg are a very long shot. Instead focus your attention on the leaf lettuces and romaine lettuces. Some varieties are more heat tolerant than others and you will need to check that their seeds are easily available in India too.

We’ve found the following varieties more productive in Goa’s conditions and seeds possible to source too (check with Annadana Seed Savers, Bangalore)…

  1. Salad bowl (green)
  2. Red salad bowl
  3. Grenoble red (Rouge grenoblaise)
  4. Deer tongue
  5. Marvel of 4 seasons

To begin with, you should germinate your lettuce in semi shade conditions, so that germination is not badly affected by the hot sunlight. The optimum temperature for lettuce is less than 20˚C, so you should expect germination to be in the 60% range if you are planting early at about 25˚C (before the cooler weather occurs).

CAREFUL WITH YOUR NURSERIES
You need to take care that the soil in your nursery beds or pots is really well prepared – soft loamy soil, well drained by using sand or coco soil and old compost that is well decomposed should be used. Do not cover with too much soil, just 2-3mm is fine and do not over water. A fine layer of moss on the soil means that over watering is occurring, and cracks in the soil surface mean that it’s probably too clayey.

Usually the lettuce seeds take 3-5 days to germinate and will have light green leaves. Once the germination happens, the lettuce saplings need more sunlight for at least 3-4 hours in the morning. If they don’t get this, they will tend to become lanky and will tend to be weaker and susceptible to excessive shock while transplanting. Evening sunlight is usually harsher so try and plant in a way that your beds are protected then.

Regulate the sunlight availability for the saplings by either moving your pot nursery or by removing the shade net from beds (making your shade net flaps easily removable is a great idea. Purchase the 50% variant of shade net for use your lettuce bed nurseries and for when the final transplanting will happen in beds.

Figure 2: Lettuce saplings ready for transplant

 

PREPARE SAPLINGS FOR TRANSPLANT
Prepare the saplings for transplanting by reducing the watering by 20% from day 15 onwards, and then don’t water for 48 hours before the transplant. Just 30 minutes before you pull them out; water them very well so that they can stock up on water.

Transplanting should always be done about 21-25 days from sowing, at the 4-5 leaf stage and when the sun is low in the evenings (after 4 PM). This substantially increases the chances of the lettuce surviving the heat of the day without going limp. It’s a good idea to mulch your well manured raised beds with dry straw before transplanting, but make sure that you create a gap in the straw to prevent contact with the transplanted sapling.

Scoop out a shallow basin of soil in the beds, and put in a handful of manure before you transplant the sapling in. This allows water to be soaked in better into the roots without soaking the leaves excessively.

Provide shade with a shade net for the first 5-6 days until the transplanted saplings have recovered from the shock (leaves aren’t looking limp anymore and the plant is looking healthy). The kind of structure that you choose to use will depend on the direction of the sun.

Figure 3: Shade net can help protect newly transplanted saplings from heat

Once this stage has been passed the lettuce plants will usually grow well unless it gets unusually warm.

In case you have a problem with caterpillars or grasshoppers you can spray either a neem oil or cow urine spray (5% diluted solution in water). Make sure that this is done at least a week before you are harvesting.

To download this as a printable PDF, click here

(c) Prepared for Growing Vegetables Organically 2013 Edition by Miguel Braganza and Green Essentials.

Organic farms – to Certify or Not?

Organic certification seems to have recently become a very touchy topic amongst organic farmers across the world. There is an increasing sense that the certification standards applied by many commercial third-party certifications has been watered down too much from the original “sustainability oriented” ideals and practices of the 60s and 70s.

This has supposedly occurred to accommodate the interest of large scale (factory) organic growers and traders – a very powerful group. Several smaller organic farmers with strong local brands are actually choosing to de-certify their farms – partly because of the costs and partly because of the organic principles they believe in.

As relative newcomers, this presents an interesting choice – should we undertake the process to certify our produce as organic or not?

While there is still some time before we have our own farm and seriously consider certification, we’ve formed some views on this subject…

  1. Third-party certification agencies are just to expensive for us to approach for certifying small farms like ours (less than 2 acres)
  2. The PGS certification is a good option and makes a lot of sense if we can get at least 6 other farmers from nearby to join in and apply. Managed well it can be as effective and is recognised widely in India.
  3. If you are looking to export produce, only third-party certification seems to make sense. However, we have no intention of exporting.
  4. But if your customers are largely local, your practices transparent, and you keep your standards high – you don’t really need the certification.

As a result, we’ve decided to take a lot of effort to meet the PGS principles for organic farms and encourage our farm owners to prepare for certification with the help of the Botanical Society of Goa. At the same time, we maintain an open farm for customers to come and see our growing practices fisthand – which helps build a relationship of trust that certification usually provides.

In time, perhaps we will also look to raise our standards Beyond Organic – for real and not just implied sustainability.

Note: Here is another perspective on the reasons to go for Organic Certification – from Nisha and Raghu

Why food ingredients matter (and how)

As urban folk we’ve developed a wide range of tastes for different types of cuisine. As travellers to different countries and with access to different types of cuisines, we’ve developed extremely sophisticated preferences in food.

However, this sensitivity and sophistication has not developed (except in very rare cases) a higher sensitivity to the quality of ingredients. This is understandable with most Indian food, original aromas and tastes of the ingredients are highly modified by the uses of spices and other flavouring.

But as we adopt cuisines with more subtle flavouring, the poor quality of vegetables we have access to becomes more apparent. The flavours described so vividly on the many cooking shows now on TV seem miles apart from the herbs and vegetables we have in our kitchens. If quality, taste and authenticity are important to you – you will probably have to try much harder.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), we’ve found that most chefs at even well rated restaurants and high-star hotels have resigned themselves to ingredients that are are mediocre at best. Most have developed the ability to create great tasting (and looking) dishes from very poor ingredients (because they are sourced from far and wide).

Only the very rare chef seems to be interested in great quality, and we’ve had the pleasure to work with and learn from some of them.

Clearly what they value even more than our organic quality is the freshness of our produce, and this is because…

  1. The flavours of each fresh ingredient are much stronger in every type of vegetable, since loss of moisture hasn’t occurred. This directly impacts the taste of the dish immensely. (the organic nature help with creating stronger flavours as well).
  2. More subtlety in the use of external flavouring is possible since flavours don’t need to be specially enhanced for the dish to be as authentic as possible.
  3. The ingredients can be used whole to make the dish more attractive, and don’t need to be “masked” to disguise poor appearance in less fresh produce. Eg. lettuce leaves can be used while instead of breaking them finer.

If you’re really serious about how your food tastes, fresh and flavourful ingredients always matter. Just ask any truly great chef.

What to grow? Desi or exotic?

Much as we’d like to grow desi/heirloom varieties of veggies to preserve maintain the genetic diversity of Indian vegetables – the novelty of also growing exotic vegetables is irresistible. Thankfully tomatoes, broccoli, cabbages, lettuce, carrots and other crops aren’t the most comfortable in Goa’s climate, but can grow here.

Clearly we’ve been unable to overcome the temptation to experiment, and it works for us because it’s what our customers like too. Of course, it takes more effort to get things right and the chances of failure increase (like our tomato crop last year).

Trying to get the best of both worlds, we’ve decided that we should be Adventurous in the Winter (when a lot of exotics can succeed) and Conservative in the Summer, when the local vegetables and varieties clearly outperform.

Also See: What grows in Goa?

 

 

Growing Organic Vegetables – Top50@YogiFarms

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of growing organic vegetables ourselves, has been the experimental crops that we’ve had fun trying out. Several of these were things we were skeptical about and worked well, while some others that are considered easy to grow in Goa didn’t quite work out.

Here are some of the things that grew well in our home gardens and farm…

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