Finding good, local sources for our food is a goal that People’s Food Co-op is rightly proud of, but the fact is, North America’s Upper Midwest grows disappointing bananas. Wisconsin and Minnesota are excellent regions for cabbages and other winter-hardy vegetables, however. The products that thrive and excel in the Driftless Region are our legacy from the land and the people who settled here.
One advocate of the local is Patrick Slattery of Slattery’s Family Farm. He’s been a supplier of People’s Food Co-op since the 1980s. At that time he supplied spinach to the Co-op. Patrick now specializes in cruciferous vegetables, a family which includes cabbages, turnips, kales, and Brussels sprouts, among others. “We are the perfect region to be growing Brussels sprouts,” Patrick says. “We have a cool-down in the fall here that California doesn’t have. And that drop in temperature imparts a sweet taste to the sprouts. We have a simply superior product to California’s.”
According to Patrick, the Brussels sprout has been poorly served by the Californian agribusiness model, which has turned a sweet-tasting, delicate vegetable into a bitter, foul-tasting sham—the castaway vegetable on every child’s plate. The californication of the sprout has made it probably the only vegetable disliked even more by kids than canned peas. Unlike peas, sprouts are too big to hide successfully under your mashed potatoes or to slip to the dog. Patrick Slattery hopes to see the Brussels sprout become the preferred vegetable of the region’s children and their parents.
It’s not only the climate
The Slattery farm is 20 miles east of La Crosse, across from St. Peter’s Church in Washington Township, Wisconsin. Patrick reports the architecture of the church is Bavarian, reflecting the German settlement of the region. “We’re newcomers to the area,” he says, “we moved in only 31 years ago.” According to Oxford University’s Food and Drink in America, Wisconsin is the nation’s leader in cabbage production. Perhaps the early German immigrants naturally migrated to the best place in the new country when it
was time to make sauerkraut. “I wish people didn’t eat so much broccoli as they do,” Patrick says. “Cabbages are far superior.”
Pat Slattery of Slattery Family Farm
The Slattery farm has a long-standing commitment to organic produce. The Slatterys attended the first Organic Valley meetings in 1988, and Patrick is an exuberant advocate for the local. “We can produce brilliant crops here. A third of the food grown in the U.S. is from one valley in California. Think about the trucking costs involved. The whole thing doesn’t make sense. Our soil is really good here: loam on top, clay below. We don’t need all the irrigation required in California.”
In addition to Wisconsin’s excellent climate for cold-hardy vegetables, Patrick also believes that local organizations such as Organic Valley have been key in sustaining local agriculture. He reports that in the years his family has lived in the area he’s seen many local dairy producers give up the business.
“I remember when there were four cheese factories in the neighborhood—all gone now.” He credits the organic movement, specifically Organic Valley, for saving what’s left. “They’re the salvation of dairy. We have cooperative relationships and knowledge-sharing we wouldn’t otherwise have. We don’t feel alone out here.”
Nonetheless, organic farming is still rare enough in the area: Patrick reports he’s a road hazard when he gets down on his hands and knees to cultivate in his field along Hwy 33. “People will stop to check that I’m okay. Nobody sees a farmer in the dirt anymore. So everybody stops to see if I’ve had a heart attack. I get a lot of that.”
The Slattery Family Farm is not a big operation. It has an acre of asparagus, some tomatoes, fall squash, rutabagas and sprouts. The current project, though, is Brussels sprouts and cabbages. The Slattery Farm has gone in with several other local growers to purchase a mechanical sprout stripper from Holland—used to strip the individual sprouts from the stalk. How does one go about finding a sprout stripper? “Oh, they’re on the Internet. Ours is antiquated—like a one-row corn picker—but it helped a lot.”
On the day of the interview, the stripper was at the farm of one of the other co-purchasers. Pat admits he’s not a mechanic and isn’t quite used to the working of the machine yet, noting that they can strip the sprouts from the stalk almost as fast by hand. Sprouts are labor-intensive. The farm transplants the stalks by hand in June and harvests in late fall.
“I’m a healthcare provider,” Patrick says. “This food is full of anti-cancer compounds and Vitamin K.” Websites will tell you that cruciferous vegetables are fantastic foods for a healthy diet. Brussels sprouts are a relatively new addition to the ancient cruciferous line. While cabbages appear in early Greek and Roman literature (the ancients too believed cabbage to have excellent medicinal value, perceiving, among other things, that cabbage eaten with a meal helps prevent drunkenness), sprouts were developed in Belgium only some 500 years ago. Brussels sprouts made their way to the U.S. early in the 19th century, and Thomas Jefferson was
planting them by 1812.
When we spoke with Patrick in early December, he reported the sprout harvest is ongoing. “I’ll be in this week to the [La Crosse] store with some sprouts. The harvest has brought 5,000–6,000 pounds of cabbage this year, shipping to Co-op Partners and People’s.” Patrick pauses for breath and then adds: “Thank you, People’s Food Co-op shoppers, for buying this food.”
Your local sprouts may not need much cooking. Simply shred them and toss with olive oil, a little pepper, and lemon juice; add a bit of Sartori parmesan and some toasted almonds or hazelnuts and you have a tasty fall salad.
If you decide cooking’s the way to go: you may steam your sprouts for five minutes, then fry for a minute in butter or bacon grease—though I’ve had good results skipping the steam and going directly to the frying pan. Add some sliced garlic or chopped almonds, salt and pepper and serve.
Finally, you should try roasting your sprouts. Cut them in half, toss them in olive oil, salt, and pepper, and place on a baking tray. Cook in a 400ºF oven for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. Any loose leaves should turn brown and crispy, sweet and delicious.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2015 issue of the Co-op Shopper.