zj far,ZJ Farms: Everyone’s a farmhandI had the pleasure the other day of visiting ZJ Farms, the anchor of Local Harvest CSA, which is one of the biggest in the area. Farmer (and pillar of the local food scene hereabouts) Susan Jutz has been running this organic farm for all the years I’ve been buying food around here. A walk on her farm gives you an understanding of the paintings of Grant Wood.

In case you’re unfamiliar, CSA means community-supported agriculture –a new name for what family-scale farming used to be. These days it works very much like a magazine subscription. You pay up front, usually in the late winter when the farmer really needs it, and in return you share in the bounty throughout the season. In these parts the season lasts roughly 20 weeks, so for each of those weeks we’ll receive a box full of all the fresh goodness that’s in season right then, usually picked that same morning.

Even though it’s just me and my wife at home these days, I still buy a full “family share.” I take what I want to cook with at home, and the rest goes to my restaurant, where my crew uses it for specials and such. Every Wednesday the cooks are always excited to see what’s in the box – they unload it like kids on Christmas morning. The box, of course, gets returned to be used for the next week’s bounty.

farmerladyLaura Dowd of Local Foods Connection, left, and Susan Jutz of ZJ FarmsPhoto: Kurt Michael FrieseBuying a share of the bounty also means buying a share of the risk. It’s been a cold wet spring here in Iowa, so many plants aren’t even in the ground yet. I saw thousands of seedlings in Susan’s hoop house, each one yearning to breathe free sometime after Mother’s day – the traditional end of the danger of frost here. This means the season will start a little later this year, but all of us will gladly take that over last year’s disastrous storms and floods. ZJ Farms was high and dry, but some savage straight winds did take out her 100-year-old barn, sheeps and pigs still inside.

That barn is still being cleaned up a year later, but volunteers from Local Foods Connection, an organization Susan helped create, have been helping out. LFC is a charity that helps get fresh wholesome food to needy families. Volunteers do work on area farms, and in return farmers give CSA shares to the charity, which in turn gives them to the families. There is also a wonderful educational component too. Families are encouraged to learn about the foods, and how to cook them. They earn points that can be redeemed for kitchen tools.

Families are also required to visit one of the farms. Often they are reluctant, but LFC founder and president Laura Dowd says that the only thing harder than getting them to visit the farms is getting them to leave. Many of the families have never had the opportunity to see a working farm up close, and that is intrinsically rewarding for anyone.

So now we await our first box, expected the week of the 18th. I’ll be looking for asparagus, and radishes, and lots of baby greens. They’ll probably all end up in a salad topped with Devotay’s own balsamic vinaigrette.

Balsamic Vinaigrette
3 shallots
1/4 cup Boetje’s Dutch mustard (a Rock Island original)
1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup Iowa Natural Soy Oil (strictly non-GMO, & made right here in Iowa)

Mix the oils together. Place shallots, mustard, pepper and salt into food processor and chop fine. Add vinegar and pulse. While running the processor, slowly add the olive and soy oils to emulsify. It may not all fit, so mix in remaining oil in bowl with a whip.

Make plenty–this dressing will keep in the refrigerator for weeks.