By Hana Maaiah
WITH RAIN JACKETS ZIPPED UP and hori horis (weed knifes) in hand, “green soldiers” flood the Organic Growers Club on a rainy Sunday morning. This army of volunteers gathers once again to cultivate the land with all sorts of nutritious foods. Squash is a favorite, but we’ll come back to that.
After 18 years, you’d think the volunteers would surrender to the rain or heat, but just as it claims in every email, “rain or shine!!!” they report for duty. The momentum originated with pop star, soil professor and social entrepreneur James Cassidy at Oregon State University. Some weeks, “I’d be the only one who showed up!” he says. The farm has been sustained by student volunteers who are, as the club’s bumper sticker proudly exclaims, ready to “START SEEING SOIL!!!”
A lot happens in one week while I am indoors staring at a computer screen, immersed in my school work. Every time I visit the farm, I am impressed by how much the landscape changes. One day we plant seeds, and two weeks later, the plants quickly mature with thick stems and wide, flat leaves. Soon after they begin flowering, and in three months, I am eating different kinds of squash for every meal: butternut squash and fig bread, spaghetti squash noodles with veggies, butternut squash and chickpea soup, acorn squash as a side dish. At one point during this fall season, I am anticipating the morning when I would wake up and realize I had turned into a squash.
An Abundance of Squash
So, there was squash. A lot of squash. Staring out onto the fog-covered fields, I wonder: Where did all the seeds come from?
I search for the man in the fedora, the omnipotent green soldier. He is always able to feed my curiosity. “Cassidy! This is amazing, look at all this squash!” I yell, almost spinning around in circles trying to point it all out. “Where did all the seeds come from?” In this particular endeavor of this particular scale (that is, sustainably small organic farming), it can sometimes be a challenge to have the resources you need when you need them.
“They were donated to us. Alex Stone, look her up! She is a rad researcher at OSU,” he says. “She is all about squash storability. Never thought about it, right?!”
He is definitely right. I had never thought about the shelf life of a squash, and I didn’t think I cared. “When she was done doing all her cool science stuff, she offered us the seeds, and now we have all of this,” he adds, also almost spinning around in a circle too. “That’s how it is here. Everyone keeps everyone in mind, and we keep it going full circle!”
It goes full circle indeed. As I ask questions about these beautifully blooming, history-filled, delicious miracle vegetables, my curiosity intensifies. When Stone donated these seeds to the Organic Grower’s Club, I was to learn, her impact didn’t stop there.
Food from the farm either gets shared among the volunteers, donated to local food pantries or sold in a CSA (community-supported agriculture) box, where the profits help fund summer interns.
As I walk around the food pantry on the Oregon State campus one evening, I notice those beautiful orange squash I had seen earlier that week. The only difference is that they aren’t connected to a vine and laying on the earth. The squash were harvested, prepared and transported, now sitting in plastic bags cubed, or pureed, in a freezer of food that is shared with those in need.
Put the Winter Back in Winter Squash
Stone is a professor and vegetable crop researcher in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State. She works to identify squash capable of high yields and long-term storage. With 16 different squash varieties, she aims to popularize winter squash and help famers generate income during the slow winter months, while providing people with local produce options for cold days.
Stone says her goal is to “put the winter back in winter squash.” She has two objectives. First, she works with farmers to figure out why their squash are rotting in storage bins. The problem can consume a significant portion of the stored crop. Farmers go from growing the squash, putting it in a barn for storage and then throwing it away. They try different storage environments and consider applying foliar calcium. Nothing seemed to keep the squash from going bad.
“Farmers were embarrassed about their squash rotting. It made them feel like they didn’t know how to do their job and that they were bad farmers,” says Stone. But is isn’t the fault of the farmers. Here in the Willamette Valley, there seem to be some very virulent storage rots not found elsewhere. So what farmers need are squash varieties that don’t rot.
An answer may come from across the Pacific. Tetsukabuto (fondly called Tetsu) meaning “steel helmet” in Japanese, is what Stone describes as “some kind of miracle squash.” Tetsu is very high yielding, resistant to soil borne diseases and storage rot and stores all winter. The name seems fitting. It did sound like a miracle, so I questioned how it came to be, bracing myself for stories describing lots of data collection and eventually a squash birthed in a lab. This was not the case at all.
Stone’s colleague, Shinji Kawai, who works in the vegetable breeding program, has always eaten Tetsu. He told her that back in Japan where he grew up, Tetsu is commonly grown. Some Japanese people don’t like it because it is difficult to cut, but when Tetsu is grown in the Willamette Valley, the fruits don’t have the hard skin. Oregon-grown Tetsu is easier to cut.
I giggled at the thought of a dangerous squash, but Stone quickly confirms that it is a serious concern. “My mother had to be taken to the hospital when I was younger,” she says, “because she seriously cut her finger cutting squash.” After the accident, she starting opening up winter squash by throwing it out a second story window onto the driveway – a very effective method.
A Sustainable Vegetable
With issues in variety selection, hardness and storage problems, squash is a complex vegetable. However, once you figure out how to cure it of squash rot and soften its skin, the only tricky part is from the consumer’s perspective. Alex hopes that squash can change the farming game by introducing a winter crop that provides farmers with an income during the winter season as well as giving consumers a local product to purchase.
If you try surviving on locally raised produce in Oregon during the winter, you would surely starve. Stone and her group are getting the message out there: “Put the winter back in winter squash,” she says, which means that we should not eat it when it is harvested in September but, instead, later in the fall and even into the winter. “Starbucks has a pumpkin latte in August, when most squash isn’t ready until October, and then people are sick of it by October, which is when we should start eating it,” she adds.
Most squash can be harvested in mid September. If it stores well and is rot resistant (like Tetsu), it can last until April. Stone jokes about storing squash in the back of her truck and then eating it six months later. I soon found out this wasn’t a joke at all.
On her website, eatwintersquash.com, Stone introduces people to novel ways to eat squash — cut into a salad, wrapped in a quesadilla, or cut and roasted like french fries.
Or if you are lucky, she might leave three Tetsukabuto squash on your work tractor and encourage you to try one of her delicious recipes. I try the Gyoza wraps and tweak the recipe so that I could use up some vegetables in my fridge. The result is a deliciously sweet and healthy lunch that has me hooked on winter squash.
The size is perfect, the taste is unique and sweet and the main problem, like Stone says, is that I didn’t know that Tetsukabuto existed before this day. Surely, there is a need to develop a market for winter squash eaten in the winter.
There are a couple of take aways from this journey with squash. One is to be in constant dialogue with the environment and always ask questions. We must remember to put together the connections in the everyday patterns that reveal themselves to us, which helps us be conscious about our impact on our community. This also means becoming part of our surroundings by supporting the things we’d like to see more of in society, by either volunteering or other forms of support. Recognize the mighty purchasing power we all contain, and remember to vote with our dollars for things we would like to see more of in our communities.
Lastly, let’s give our food a few more moments of our day. Feeding ourselves can feel more like a burden than a celebration, but shortening the distance between farm and table will make each meal a bit more appetizing.
Note: Hana Maaiah is a senior in Environmental Sciences at Oregon State University.