Alaska farmer raises chemical-free squash in geothermal soil

mdunham@adn.comOctober 16, 2012 

Vendors were trying to count change while wearing mittens as snow began falling at the last open air farmers market of the season Saturday. But there was no shortage of customers, particularly at the Dart-AM Farms stand where several exotic varieties of Alaska-grown squash were on display. Some weighed 35 pounds.

That's puny compared to the 569 pound green summer squash Dave Iles of North Pole (who regularly sets records at the Tanana Valley State Fair) showed at the Alaska State Fair in 2005, according to the fair website. But you probably don't have space for that on your table.

John Dart's family has been growing eating squash at Manley Hot Springs since the 1950s. He usually sells them at farmers markets in the Fairbanks area but spent part of October at markets in Anchorage, which is where we caught up with him.

Manley is an ideal spot for squash, which are warm season crops, Dart said. "They like warm soil but they don't mind cool heads. Our soil is geothermally heated." So is the water; in fact he has to spray the water in the air to cool it down before it reaches the plants. "If you want cold water, don't come to Manley Hot Springs," he said.

The long daylight encourages growth while lower air temperatures cause the plants to store more sugar, the way berries sweeten after a frost.

Dart doesn't use the term "organic" for his crop. "I don't believe the label is accurate anymore and you have to pay a man from Washington state to come and certify your farm," he said. "But these are as close to organic as you can get. In California they have to spray and spray and spray. We don't use any spray."

He uses "a little commercial fertilizer" in his greenhouse operation, but the squash are grown out of doors. He also raises sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and "a lot of exotic stuff. The big thing right now is asparagus and we're going for it because people will fight over it."

Back to squash, Dart brought down 8,000 pounds of green and blue Hubbards, spaghetti squashes, jumbo pink banana squashes and the heirloom Boston marrows, also known as autumnal squash and said to be particularly good for pies. He sold 1,500 pounds at the South Anchorage market Oct. 6, he said, and was hoping to move it all before going back to Fairbanks two days ago.

So if you want a Dart-AM squash now you'll need to call him (907-750-3287) and make arrangements for a long drive.

The good news is that on Saturday the Rempel Family Farm stand also had a bunch of squash as well as sugar pumpkins and they'll be at the Center Market inside The Mall at Sears, open this week and next from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

In addition to the big selection of local potatoes and beets, you'll find Brussels sprouts, fresh chicken and duck eggs, local cheese, beef, pork, mushrooms and seafood.

Speaking of the latter, Laine Welsh's fishing news column in Sunday's Daily News noted that supplies of cod are increasing in Alaska and elsewhere, causing a drop in prices. Good news for consumers; not so good for fishermen. Welsh reports that experts think higher ocean temperatures may lead to smaller individual fish, but the numbers should make up for it.

One thing that's not going down in price is king crab. FishEx is advertising fresh golden king crab, split legs, for $29.95 a pound. That's not counting the fast lane shipping needed to make sure the fresh crab arrives fresh. Shipment is Oct. 18 with future shipping dates to be announced, so act quickly by going online to fishex.com.

FishEx also has fresh boneless, skinless halibut filets for $28.95 a pound. Those shipments take place Thursdays as long as the boats keep bringing in the great flat fish.

 

Squash pie

The beauty of winter squash is that they can be kept for several months in a cool, dark, dry spot without special refrigeration -- and there are a lot of different ways to use them, from soup appetizers to sides to dessert.

Let's start with dessert.

John Dart told me that one of the Boston marrow squash I bought from him would suffice for one pie. In fact it supplied the key ingredient for two. I chunked and pressure cooked the sections, which let me easily scrape out every bit of meat with a spoon. (You can also bake or boil it to soften the meat.) It whipped up with a fork and I substituted it for sweet potato in this basic sweet potato pie recipe:

 

Ingredients:

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ginger

1 cup milk

2 cups mashed squash

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1 deep pie shell

w Combine dry ingredients and mix with squash. Mix milk and eggs and combine with squash mixture. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce to 350 degrees for 35 minutes longer.

-- source, cooks.com

 

Variations include adding butter, vanilla or rum.

The seeds were cleaned, sprinkled with olive oil and salt and baked at 350 degrees until dry. They came out like roasted pumpkin seeds. The skin, with blemishes cut out, was similarly oiled, sprinkled with sugar, and baked until it began to brown. The next morning, they were wrapped in aluminum foil with a slice of butter and reheated for breakfast.

Every bit of squash appears to be edible except the stem.

 

Canning clarification

Some readers expressed alarm at the idea of tightening rings on Mason jars after pressure cooking meats in last week's Market Fresh column. I've done this all my life -- insurance for keeping the lid on when bouncing in a fishing boat or a Piper Cub -- and never had a single failure. On the other hand, I have had seals without rings give way when jars got knocked around.

"You are lucky," wrote one reader, who cited instructions saying that tightening the rings can cause the seal of the lid to break. True, I'm lucky. I can also see how someone trying to play Hercules could crank down so hard as to cause the seal to give. I never screw on the ring tighter than I want it to be to loosen it with injured, arthritic fingers.

But the readers make a good point. If your jars are going to stand in a pantry until needed, leave the rings off. If you like leaving them on, like I do, don't over-apply torque. And in every circumstance, always check to make sure the seal has held before opening the jar and using the contents.

 

Daily News Arts and Entertainment editor Mike Dunham is filling in for regular Market Fresh reporter Steve Edwards this month. If you have suggestions for a future Market Fresh column or a really good recipe featuring Alaska-grown vegetables, seafood or game, please email mdunham@adn.com or sedwards@adn.com.

 

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