Using a mini cookie scoop to dollop the filling onto the tarts makes the job go quicker. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

I wrote my first story about farming in 1990 in western Massachusetts in the aftermath of the 1985 Farm Bill’s Dairy Termination Program. My weekly newspaper publisher was keen on attention-grabbing headlines. He had his eye on this one: “USDA Milk Program Kills Farmers,” even before I found my first source.

Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, a sustained milk glut put prices too low to cover dairy production costs. The USDA had started stockpiling cheese and giving it away to hungry Americans. Congress has passed the 1983 Dairy Stabilization Act, as well. But neither measure buoyed milk prices for very long. In a more drastic measure, the 1985 USDA program paid 15,000 American farmers to slaughter or export their entire herds and get out of dairying. For many reasons related to supply and demand economics, it didn’t work.

It was a complicated story for a cub reporter to handle. I never would have pulled it off without the help of a very patient farmer who had kept his herd but was still struggling to cover his production costs. I followed him around from the morning milkings to the evening ones for three days, taking in the sights, sounds and smells that would give me some flavor to weave around dry meat and bones of milk price regulation data in my story. As he worked, he explained and re-explained the history of dairy farming, the rationale of the measures, and the effects they had on his own livelihood. I wish I’d kept a clip of that story, as it also marked the first time I remember having an appreciation for farmers’ role in feeding me. My 22-year-old state of self-absorption, though, likely precluded me from thanking him properly.

According to a USDA census, only 2% of us here in the U.S. feed and sustain the rest of us. In Maine in 2020, there were just over 5,000 farmers working in Maine and 1.3 million mouths to feed. So locally, there is closer to 4% of us feeding the rest of us. That’s still a lot of work to get done before the sun goes down in a climate with a short growing season.

And yet, I need to tell you about how a few busy farmers recently dropped everything to help this middle-aged woman, herself both out of her element and in a bit of a jam. It was a Thursday morning and I’d arranged to pick up a bag of Fairwinds Farm’s Jacob’s Cattle Beans that were almost but not quite ready enough to be bagged for sale. I needed them for a photo shoot. I drove to what I thought was Field No. 2 on the farm in Bowdoinham. I stepped out of my vehicle to ask the farmers in the field where I might find my beans. Wrong farm, they explained. I was at Six Rivers Farm. Fairwinds was across the road. Thank you!

While I was talking to those helpful farmers, my daughter’s dog, a cute but clueless mini dachshund named Ulysses, stepped up on the passenger side armrest to give himself a better view of me and the farmers. In doing so, he locked the car doors. Inside with Ulysses, were my keys, my wallet with my AAA membership card, and my phone.

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“Mind if I leave my car here while I find my beans and figure out how I’m going to unlock my car?” I asked the farmers. Sure, no problem. Thank you!

I walk up one muddy driveway to cross the street and walk up a second muddy drive to what I think is a bustling crew of Fairwinds Farms farmers loading a truck. Nope. This is Harvest Tide Organics. “Can I borrow a phone to call my husband and admit what’s happened here?” Sure, no problem. Thank you!

As I’m dialing, another one of the farmers tells me he can help. “We lock keys in farm vehicles all the time,” says Jon, offering to go retrieve the necessary tools. I’m just going to walk the half mile down the road to get my beans, if you don’t mind, I said. It’s the red Jeep over at Six Rivers Farm. I’ll meet you there. Thank you!

After 1,500 steps, I meet Luke. He informs me: right farm, wrong field. But he gives me a ride in his well-used Gator to first collect my beans and then meet Jon. Thank you!

Luke and Jon spend the next 15 minutes placing foam blocks in the closed door and finding a wire long enough to press the right button. “Thank you!!” I shout, as I hear the tell-tale sound of electric locks lifting.

I’ve since made these farmers pies in appreciation for their time and effort. Blueberry because Jon said it was his favorite. They were hand pies, easier to share with their co-workers, as I knew they likely would.

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You don’t have to lock your keys in your car to find an opportunity appreciate your local farmers. You can do so at most meals. And you don’t have to bake them pies to show that appreciation. Just take the time shop at farmers markets, visit farms’ pick-your-own operations, invest in a CSA, and always opt for local products at the grocery store. Thank you!

Don’t skip the sprinkles on these hand tarts. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Blueberry Ginger Hand Tarts

These are homemade pop tarts that combines the pate brisee recipe from Joanne Chang’s “Flour” cookbook and an adaptation of the Blueberry Jam with Candied Ginger recipe from Marissa McClelland’s “Preserving by the Pint.” My advice: Don’t skip the sprinkles. The pastry dough needs to chill for four hours before you can roll it out.

Makes 8 hand tarts

FOR THE DOUGH:

1 3/4 cups (245 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out

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1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces

2 egg yolks

3 tablespoons cold milk

FOR THE FILLING:

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3 cups frozen Maine blueberries, thawed

1 ½ cups sugar

1 tablespoon grated ginger root

1 lemon, zested and juiced

1/4 cup chopped candied ginger

FOR THE GLAZE:

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1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Pinch of salt

FOR ASSEMBLY:

1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon warm water

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Rainbow sprinkles, optional

To make the dough, combine flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add butter and run the machine on low for 1 minute. In a small bowl, beat egg yolks with milk and add the mixture to the bowl. Mix on low to produce a shaggy dough. Dump the dough onto an unfloured work surface into a mound.  Bit by bit, use the palm of your hand to smear the dough from the top of the mound down to the counter. Repeat this process until the dough comes together.  Form the dough into a rectangle, wrap it, and refrigerate it for 4 hours.

To make the filling, mash the blueberries and combine with the sugar, grated ginger, and lemon zest and juice in medium pan. Let the mixture sit for at least an hour. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally until it thickens to the point where when you drag a spoon across the bottom of the pot, the jam doesn’t immediately fill the gap, 12-15 minutes. Stir in the candied ginger. Pour the jam into a bowl and cool to room temperature.

To assemble the tarts, first preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and cut it into 2 pieces. Flour two 11- by 17-inch silicone mats. Roll each piece out to the size of the mat. Use a knife to gently score one of the sheets into 8 rectangles, each about the size of an index card (do not cut all the way through). Brush the scored piece of dough all over with the egg wash. Place 2 tablespoons of cool jam in the middle of each rectangle, spreading it a bit, but not near the edges. Take the second piece of rolled out dough and gently place it over the top. Use your fingertips to carefully press down around the jam mounds so the pastry sheets adhere to each other. Use a knife or a pastry wheel to cut the tarts into neat rectangles, taking care not to cut the silicone mat underneath. Transfer the tarts to baking sheets, leaving an inch of room between them.

Bake until the tops of the pastries are evenly browned, 25-30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

As the pastries cool, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, 3 tablespoons warm water, vanilla, ginger and salt in a medium bowl. Spoon the glaze over the pastries and decorate them with sprinkles.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: [email protected]


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