Rawlins County

Harvesting Winter Squash

Q: The RCES Garden Project planted Butternut Squash this year and none of us know when it’s ready! For anyone who planted a winter squash plant, we can all learn something this week!
A: Harvesting Winter Squash Summer squash such as zucchini and scallop are harvested while immature but winter squash such as acorn, hubbard and butternut are harvested later, in the mature stage, after the rind is tough and seeds have developed. We normally think September is the time that winter squash are harvested. Harvesting too early leads to fruit that shrivels and rots. There are two main characteristics that help tell us when winter squash are mature: color and rind toughness. Winter squash change color as they become mature. Butternut changes from light beige to deep tan. Acorn is a deep green color but has a ground spot that changes from yellow to orange when ripe. Gray or orange is the mature color for hubbard. A hard, tough rind is another characteristic of mature winter squash. This is easily checked by trying to puncture the rind with your thumbnail or fingernail. If it easily penetrates the skin, the squash is not yet mature and will lose water through the skin — causing the fruit to dry and shrivel. Also, immature fruit will be of low quality. The stem should also be dry enough that excessive water doesn’t drip from the stem. Winter squash should be stored cool with elevated humidity. Ideal conditions would be 55 to 60 degrees F and 50 to 70 percent relative humidity. Under such conditions, acorn squash will usually last about 5 to 8 weeks, butternuts 2 to 3 months and hubbards 5 to 6 months.

Time to Think about Fall Gardens

Q: I would like to plant something for a fall harvest, but this is my first time thinking about a fall garden. Do you have any suggestions?
A: This is the time of year we normally think of planting a fall garden. Crops that can be planted now include lettuce, radishes, spinach, and similar crops. There still is time to raise another crop of green beans along with some summer squash. If you can find plants, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower can also mature during the fall season.
Planting a fall garden is just like planting a spring garden with some big advantages. You will find the weed pressure to be much less and insect problems may be far fewer than in a spring garden. Seeds will germinate rapidly, so you will have crops up and growing in just a few days – compared to several weeks in the spring.
There are a few drawbacks to fall gardening, and one of those is that you must provide regular, frequent watering (possibly daily) until the crops are up and growing. It is best to plant seeds deeper than you do for a spring garden because soil is cooler and moister down a little deeper.
As far as soil preparation is concerned, don’t get too excited about deep tillage for a fall garden. Lightly work the soil enough to establish a seedbed; reserve your deep tillage for later in the fall. Also, don’t concentrate on adding a lot of organic matter and fertilizer for the fall garden. The organic matter can be added later in the fall with the deeper tillage, and excessive fertilizer application in hot weather is not a good idea. If you have some crop residue to remove from a previous crop, chop the residue with a lawn mower and lightly till the soil surface after the residue has had a chance to dry for 2 to 3 days.

Tomatoes Slow to Ripen?

Q: My tomatoes are not ripening! Do I have a problem with my soil or is there something I should be doing differently?
A: The extremely hot weather we have had recently not only interferes with flower pollination but also can affect how quickly fruit matures. The best temperature for tomato growth and fruit development is 85 to 90F. When temperatures exceed 100 degrees, the plant goes into survival mode and concentrates on moving water. Fruit development slows to a crawl. When temperatures moderate, even to the low to mid 90s, the fruit will ripen more quickly. Tomato color can also be affected by heat. When temperatures rise above 95 degrees F, red pigments don’t form properly though the orange and yellow pigments do. This results in orange fruit. This doesn’t affect the edibility of the tomato, but often gardeners want that deep red color back. So, can we do anything to help our tomatoes ripen and have good color during extreme heat? Sure, there is. We can pick tomatoes in the “breaker” stage. Breaker stage tomatoes are those that have started to turn color. At this point, the tomato has cut itself off from the vine and nothing will be gained by keeping it on the plant. If tomatoes are picked at this stage and brought into an air-conditioned house, they will ripen more quickly and develop a good, red color. A temperature of 75 to 85 degrees F will work well.

Are Pesticide Residues A Risk?

Q: I recently read a report on the produce that contains the highest pesticide residuals, and many were fruits/vegetables that I consume on a regular basis. Should I be concerned?
A: The issue of pesticide residue in food is quite controversial. Pesticides are used because they have beneficial properties in terms of crop production and yield. Pesticides are used by farmers to prevent fungal invasion, insect damage, and the growth of unwanted (and often poisonous) plants. This has a positive benefit in terms of public health because fungi, insects, and non-crop plants can contaminate crops with many natural toxins.
Pesticides are probably one of the most regulated chemical products used in the U.S. The EPA, FDA and USDA are among the fourteen separate regulatory bodies that govern pesticide use. Despite the many regulations, pesticide residues are found in our food supply. Because residues are an inevitable by-product of pesticide use, many of the current regulations are in place to address the public health implications of pesticide use. Therefore, there are very strict restrictions on the amount of pesticides residues that are allowed in food.
One of the regulations that is currently in place requires that pesticide manufacturers conduct toxicity testing on the pesticide before it can be permitted for use on products either directly or indirectly destined for human consumption (this includes animal feed). This toxicity testing not only determines the health effects of pesticides, but also the level at which there are no toxic effects on the most sensitive population (i.e. children and the elderly). This ‘No Toxic Effect Level’ (NOEL) becomes the basis for the permitted residue limit. The regulations set the permitted residue level at a level that is from 10 to 100 times lower than the NOEL. Furthermore, if a pesticide is tested and a NOEL cannot be determined, then it is unlikely to be permitted for use on food crops. This helps ensure that if a person, child or adult, eats a larger than normal amounts of a particular food, or several different foods with the same or similar pesticide residue, they will still not reach the level of exposure required for a toxic effect to occur, even if they are more sensitive than the general population.
Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes the “Dirty Dozen” report of foods that test positive for pesticide residues. While these foods may show pesticide residue is present, the risk is negligible. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tolerance levels for pesticide residues is protective of human health. Test results are at levels well below tolerances set by the EPA. Drs. Carl Winter and Josh Katz of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California-Davis are leading experts in the issue of pesticide residues. In a peer-reviewed, scientific article in the prestigious Journal of Toxicology (2011) they state the following conclusions: “Exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities pose negligible risks to consumers. Substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks. The methods used by the environmental advocacy group to rank commodities with respect to (potential) pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility.” To read the full article, please visit the following link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135239/.

Caring for Cast Iron

Q: I am needing to know how to care for my cast iron pans and skillets to keep them in good shape!
A: With proper care cast iron cookware can withstand a lifetime of use. As pans and dutch ovens are passed down from generation to generation, they can actually handle several lifetimes! However, taking care of your cast iron does require some additional considerations. First, rinse your warm (but not hot), cast iron pan in an empty sink under hot running water and use a clean cloth or brush to remove any traces of food. If there are stuck on or burned on foods, use coarse salt as an abrasive. Dry the pan with paper towels and let it sit until it is bone dry (if it is already seasoned) or you can place the pan on a heated burner for just a minute to dry it. After it is dry, very lightly oil the inside of the pan using a paper towel. Use any food grade oil and be sure to rub it into the pan. The pan should have a sheen, but not be greasy. If you leave too much oil in the pan it will become rancid.
You may wonder if your cast iron pans and dutch ovens are clean enough by just running them under very hot water and using a brush to clean them. Remember it will get blazing hot in the five minutes that you will preheat it before using it. This high heat this will kill any harmful microorganisms. If you really feel you must, you can briefly wash cast iron pans in water that has a very small amount of dish detergent and then rinse and dry them thoroughly. This is not the most acceptable method since the soap disintegrates the seasoning on the pans. Seasoning is the term for oil baked onto the iron at high temperature; it is not a chemical non-stick coating.
After cleaning and drying your cast iron pans and dutch ovens place a couple of paper towels inside the pans to absorb any moisture that might form while they are stored in your cupboard. Store your cast iron cookware with the lids off especially in humid weather. When cast iron is covered moisture can build up and rust the pans. If that should happen they can be easily seasoned.
There are some do’s and don’ts when using cast iron pans. Do heat the pan slowly to desired temperature instead of placing a cold pan on high heat and do put room temperature foods into a heated pan rather than cold food from the fridge. Do not store leftovers in cast iron cookware, food and moisture will deteriorate the seasoned surface and cause it to rust. Never put cast iron pans in the dishwasher or let them soak in a sink of water. Never put cold liquid into a very hot cast iron pan as it can easily crack or warp. Some foods may stick to new cookware (especially eggs), so use a little extra oil or butter until you’ve built up the seasoning. Acidic foods such as tomatoes or beans can damage seasoning and should be avoided until the seasoning is well established.

Vegetables Produce Flowers But No Fruit

Q: My neighbor has begun harvesting vegetables already and I don’t seem to have anything but blossoms yet. What’s going on?
A: If you have vegetables that are blooming but not setting fruit, you may have a problem with flower pollination. There are several possible reasons for this that usually vary by species. One condition that can affect several species at the same time is overfertilization. Too much nitrogen causes the plant to emphasize vegetative growth, often to the detriment of fruit production. Overfertilization can lead to a delay in flower production and a decrease in fruit set among the flowers produced. Tomatoes are very sensitive to this. If you have nice, large plants but no fruit, check your fertilization.
Squash, cucumbers, watermelon, and muskmelon can have a couple of other problems. First, the early flowers on these plants are usually all male. The production of both male and female flowers becomes more balanced as time passes. You can easily tell the difference between the two because only the female flower has a tiny fruit behind the blossom. If you have both, have not overfertilized. You still have a problem, so make sure you have pollinators. Look for the presence of bees visiting the plants. If you don’t see any, try hand-pollinating several flowers. Use a painter’s brush to transfer pollen from the anther of the male flower to the stigma of the female flower. If you get fruit on only those flowers you pollinated, you need more pollinators.
Make sure you aren’t killing the pollinators with overuse of insecticides. Tomatoes are wind pollinated and therefore not dependent on pollinators. Another possible problem is temperature. Tomatoes normally won’t set if the night temperature is below 50 due to sparse pollen production. This, of course, is only a problem early in the season. However, they also won’t set when nighttime temperatures are above 75 degrees F and daytime temperatures are above 95 degrees F with dry, hot winds.

Harvest Safety

Q: Harvest is nearly here, launching farmers into one of their busiest times of year. There are some common sense tips that all community members can follow to help keep us safe during this busy time.
A: Farm Safety affects us all and should be taken seriously year round, but becomes even more crucial as we gear up for harvest. Some workers may be young, new or inexperienced, so it’s always a good idea to review safety considerations and reinforce the importance of safety on the farm. In addition, not all drivers on our roadways are used to sharing the road with large equipment or grain trailers.
Safety Tips for Farmers:
• Stay alert. Take breaks — get out of the cab and walk around every few hours. Keep your cell phone charged so you can communicate as needed when you need wagons moved, etc.
• Shut down before working on a machine. If the combine becomes clogged, shut off the motor, not just the header, before attempting to unplug it by hand.
• Know where your co-workers and family members are. Visibility is poor around large machinery and at night. Many deaths are the result of bystanders or family members being run over or crushed between machines.
• Never trust hydraulic systems when working under a machine. Always use a safety prop if you must work under a header or other heavy machinery.
• Never step over a rotating PTO. A few extra steps to walk around the tractor aren’t worth losing your life over.
• Never stand on grain that is being moved. Every year people “drown” in grain carts and grain bins that are being emptied. Keep all kids away from grain hauling equipment.
• Keep grain auger grates and shields in place. Be sure your equipment is properly maintained to avoid breakdowns.
• If you must move machinery on a roadway after dark, have all necessary working headlights and flashing front and rear warning lights. The better you can be seen the less likely you are to be hit by a motorists.

Safety Tips for Rural Residents:
• Remember to be watchful on county roads during harvest. A car going 50 mph coming up behind a farm implement moving at 15 mph closes at a rate of over 50 feet per second.
• Don’t pull out in front of farm vehicles. Heavily loaded trucks and grain trailers can’t stop as quickly as a passenger car.
• Be aware of Slow Moving Vehicle (SMV) signs. Farmers place these triangular signs on the back of slow moving tractors and wagons. Know to slow down when you see them.
• Watch out! Trucks and farm equipment may be entering the roadway from field lanes in places where you wouldn’t normally expect them. Be extremely cautious when passing farm equipment as it could be making a left turn you are not expecting.
• Give them room. Combines, tractors, wagons, trucks and tillage equipment are big and wide and take up nearly all of a rural roadway. When overtaking a combine, give the farmer time to see you and to find a place where he/she can pull over and make room for you to pass. Never try to pass a combine or other implement on the shoulder of the road and never attempt to pass until the driver is aware of your presence.
• Harvest activity can disturb deer causing them to be on the move during times of the day they are usually lying down. Be especially alert for deer during harvest.

Jerky Recall

Q: In lieu of the recent recall of Beef Jerky, let’s make sure our homemade products would pass a food safety test!
A: One establishment is recalling nearly five hundred pounds of beef jerky due to under-processing and potential survival of bacterial pathogens in the products. For more information on this recall, please visit: http://1.usa.gov/1OiSoEZ.
Drying is the world’s oldest and most common method of food preservation. The scientific principle of food dehydration is to remove moisture to a point where microbial growth (bacteria, yeast, and mold) and chemical reactions (enzymatic deterioration) cannot change the food during storage. The food shrinks, becomes lightweight, and is easier to store. However, illnesses due to Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 from homemade jerky raise questions about the safety of traditional drying methods. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline recommends heating meat to 160°F and poultry to 165°F to destroy bacteria. A dehydrator may not reach these temperatures, and most dehydrator instructions do not include this step. Maintain a constant dehydrator temperature of 130°F to 140°F. This speeds the drying process, removing water that allows microorganisms to grow and spoil the food. Do not rush the drying process by raising the temperature during drying. High drying temperatures cause “case hardening” which traps moisture inside the food and cause spoilage.
Jerky can be made from almost any lean meat, including beef, pork, venison or smoked turkey breast. Raw poultry is not recommended for jerky because of the texture and flavor of the finished product. Two methods can be used to heat jerky to safe temperatures: heating meat strips in marinade before drying, or heat dried jerky strips in an oven after drying. Both methods are described below. Heating marinated meat before drying may reduce drying time, but color and texture will differ from traditional jerky.
Partially freeze meat to make slicing easier. The thickness of the meat strips affects the safety. Slice meat no thicker than ¼ inch. Trim and discard all fat from meat because it becomes rancid quickly. If a chewy jerky is desired, slice with the grain. Slice across the grain if a more tender, brittle jerky is preferred. A tenderizer can be used according to package directions, if desired.
When arranging strips on dehydrator trays or in oven (preheated to 140°F), place the slices close together but not touching or overlapping. Dry until a test piece cracks but does not break when it is bent (10 to 24 hours for samples not heated in marinade). Samples heated in marinade will dry faster. Begin checking samples after 3 hours. Once drying is completed, pat to remove excess oil and cool. If the strips were not heated in marinade before drying, heat them in an oven afterwards to be safe. Place strips on a baking sheet, close together, but not touching or overlapping. For strips originally cut ¼ inch thick or less, heat 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 275°F. (Thicker strips may take longer to reach 160°F.)
Package dried jerky in glass jars or heavy plastic food storage bags. Vacuum packaging is also a good option. Homemade jerky is best used within 1 to 2 months. Refrigerate or freeze homemade jerky for longer storage.

Sidedressing Annual Flowers

Q: I was told to add nitrogen to my annual flowers to make them bloom better. Is this true?
A: Modern annual flowers have been bred to flower early and over a long period of time. They are not as easily thrown off flowering by high nitrogen levels as vegetables are. As a matter of fact, providing nitrogen through the growing season (sidedressing) can help maintain an effective flower display for warm-season flowers. Apply a high nitrogen sidedressing four to six weeks after flowers have been set out. Additional fertilizations every three to four weeks can be helpful during a rainy summer, or if flower beds are irrigated. Common sources of nitrogen-only fertilizers include nitrate of soda, urea, and ammonium sulfate. Blood meal is an organic fertilizer that contains primarily, but not exclusively, nitrogen. Use only one of the listed fertilizers and apply at the rate given below. Nitrate of soda (16-0-0): Apply 1/3 pound (.75 cup) fertilizer per 100 square feet. Blood Meal (12-1.5-.6): Apply 7 ounces (7/8 cup) fertilizer per 100 square feet. Urea (46-0-0): Apply 2 ounces (1/4 cup) fertilizer per 100 square feet. Ammonium Sulfate (21-0-0): Apply 4 ounces (½ cup) fertilizer per 100 square feet. If you cannot find the above materials, you can use a lawn fertilizer that is about 30 percent nitrogen (nitrogen is the first number in the set of three) and apply it at the rate of 3 ounces (3/8 cup) per 100 square feet. Do not use a fertilizer that contains a weed killer or weed preventer.