Valley Bounty: Ginger
Old Friends Farm has been a ginger-growing innovator in the region.
Casey Steinberg, who co-owns the Amherst business with Missy Bahret, explained that their experimentation with the crop began before they founded the farm in 2003, “just as house plants.”
Ginger went from a hobby to a commercial crop on the farm when the team was deciding how to use their propagation greenhouse during the hottest months of the year. “We don’t really start plants in there during the heat of the summer,” Steinberg said, “so we wanted to figure out, how can we best use this space that we’re already paying for?”
Growing greenhouse tomatoes was an obvious option, but Steinberg and Bahret felt like there were plenty of farms in the region already doing that. So, Steinberg explained, they asked themselves, “What is a crop that loves heat, that we love to eat, and that isn’t currently represented in the Valley?” Ginger was a perfect fit.
Ginger turned out to be an excellent choice and these days, the crop is a mainstay of Old Friends Farm.
The team plants their ginger in May. “It’s like potatoes in that you’re actually planting a piece of mature ginger rather than the seed,” Steinberg said.
When you buy a piece of ginger, what you’re typically getting is the plant’s rhizome. A rhizome is an underground stem. Plants use rhizomes to store starches and proteins, which can help it survive periods of poor conditions. A ginger rhizome can produce both the root system of the plant as well as the vegetative shoots, which is why a piece of mature ginger can be used to propagate the crop.
On Old Friends Farm, the ginger harvest begins in September and run through November. “It’s a little bit of a dilemma in that we’re in New England,” Steinberg explained. “It’s a short growing season compared to the climate that ginger is normally growing in. To get the most yield out of it, you’d want to wait as long as possible. But our markets can’t wait that long.” To harvest the rhizome, the Old Friends Farm team digs up the plant and cuts off the vegetation.
Over the years, Old Friends Farm has developed a line of specialty products that feature their ginger. “The goal of the products is to capture these amazing crops, because they’re so beautiful, flavorful, and powerful,” Steinberg said. “In their fresh form, they’re perishable, like most produce. Being able to eat locally year-round, having these seasonal crops span, is pretty important to us.”
One of Old Friends Farm’s specialty products is Ginger Syrup, which was recognized with a national honor in 2018, a Good Food Award.
Their Ginger Syrup pours like maple syrup, Steinberg explained. “It has a nice combination of that gingery spice-heat and has a warmth to it. There’s a little bit of lemon in there, so there’s a tang to it too.”
Steinberg uses the Ginger Syrup in his homemade salad dressings. “I don’t think it’s ever the same when I make it,” he said, but he often mixes the syrup with miso, tahini, olive oil, rice wine vinegar, and tamari.
Old Friends Farm also makes a Ginger Honey. Steinberg uses it as a sweetener on anything that he might put maple syrup on, including pancakes. He also mixes the honey in with drinks. “At the end of the day I’ll mix ginger honey in with a little salt, a little vinegar, and top it off with water, sometimes some lemon,” he said. “It feels like a natural, hydrating beverage. Kind of like a Gatorade that you don’t need to be afraid of.”
You can find Old Friends Farm’s specialty products at stores throughout the Valley, including River Valley Coop and Atlas Farm Store. In addition to their ginger products, the farms grows a wide diversity of certified Organic crops. Visit buylocalfood.org/farmguide for more information on finding Old Friends Farm products, and other farms that produce ginger in the region.
Growing ginger has been a success for Old Friends Farm. “These crops are important to us financially and identity-wise, they’ve helped put Old Friends Farm on the map,” Steinberg said. But beyond bringing in more sales to the farm, Steinberg points out that the ginger products have helped create better jobs for his employees.
“Before doing this, we didn’t have work for some of our employees over winter,” he said. “Having these products allows some of our crew to have year-round work, which is really important. It means that we can commit to them, and they can commit to us, as a part of a full-on year-round career at a real livable wage.”
Since its founding, the farm has grown well beyond the size where Steinberg and Bahret can run the whole enterprise on their own. “It feels really good to empower other people to do some of those tasks,” Steinberg said. But to truly hand over responsibility, he needs employees who are qualified and want to stick around. “I think in order to find those people, you really need to make it good for them.”
For Old Friends Farm, ginger has been one of the keys to making the business a good place to work.
Noah Baustin is the Communications Coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture)