In July I had the fun and privilege of joining 30 farm women in a cooking experience at the Kansas City Culinary Center. In teams of six we cooked meals for low-income families and also heard how two farm women, Karmen and Kerri Mehman of MBS Family Farms make 40 freezer meals that feed a harvest crew of 14 employees. The Mehmans believe that keeping harvest workers well fed increases productivity and improves efficiency.
We had a farm worker who said the food at harvest was one of the key reasons he kept coming back to help! Retention of farm labour is a huge issue and cost to farmers. What are you doing with your tools for eating well for a happy farm crew?
Many of you may have a copy of Once-a-month Cooking by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg which outlines how to shop, prepare and cook a month’s worth of meals. I bought the book long before www.allrecipes.com even existed.
The Mehman women have lots of tips for feeding a large crew, and I’ve adapted some of them for our small crew of four. Having freezer meals in heavy-duty foil pans also is handy for the “ministry of the casserole dish” when you quickly need to take a meal to a grieving friend or neighbour. I bought foil pans in bulk along with some tight-lid plastic containers that are handy for soup. One farm woman uses the Starbucks ceramic coffee cups to serve soup to harvesters. Soup may not be the best food for high-speed eaters in combines, but it can work if folks are willing to take a 15-minute break. We all know that farmers eat fast at “combine speed!”
Here are some tips:
- Put your favourite freezer recipes on an Excel spreadsheet: This way you can manipulate the ingredients and categories of how you organize your cooking spree. For example — Beef recipes: meatloaf, cheeseburger soup, lasagna, chili, shredded Pepsi beef, stroganoff, stew, browned minute steak, shepherd’s pie, cheeseburger pie. Google “once-a-month freezer cooking.”
- Pork recipes: the BBQ ribs are a favourite. Employee meals at MBS cost about $2.75 per person, and the Mehmans have huge loyalty from their hard-working farm team because they are very well cared for during harvest. Other pork recipes are scalloped potatoes/ham, pork chop casserole, ham loaf, root beer pulled pork, slow-cooker apple cherry pork loin, upstate minestrone, pork and veggies.
- Slow-cooker liners save time in cleanup: The foil pans are heavy duty. As the team of cooks works, each person does one recipe and completes it. They cover foil pans with Saran wrap first and then tinfoil to prevent freezer burn. Each meal is marked with the date and reheating instructions. The Crock-Pot recipes that are meat only are started the night before cooking day. The meat is thawed the night before, i.e. take the meat out of the freezer the night before cooking day.
- Chicken is easy to purchase as frozen breasts on sale: The recipes are slow-cooker orange chicken, chicken soup, chicken chili, chicken pot pie, chicken tortilla soup, chicken bow tie pasta, creamy chicken biscuits, and wild rice chicken. Can you compile six of your favourite chicken recipes to freeze?
- Serve milk: As the nights get cooler quicker later into the fall, the Mehmans found that the men loved milk with their meals, and it provides more protein to sustain energy through long hours.
- Make idea lists of side dishes, soups and desserts on a spreadsheet or table: Some examples are baked beans, coleslaw, applesauce, mac and cheese, squash, garlic bread, loaded baked potatoes. You might want to compile a binder with page-protected recipes that is your idea bank for harvest meals.
- Bake ahead: Zucchini-everything recipes are baked and in my freezer. Try to lower the amount of sugar in your dessert options, and use lots of fresh fruit for dessert. The sign on the window in Kansas City said, “Pie makes me happy,” and farmers love pie! Serve it once a week, not every night!
- “Taco in a bag” recipe for a taco in a corn chip bag (find recipe at www.allrecipes.com), or in a plastic container with lid is easy to eat. I use the Tupperware divided dish for taking meals to the field, and have given these useful tools to new farm brides. A Rubbermaid dishwashing square tub also contains the meal, drinks, fruit, and desserts so that it transports easily between the trucks and machines. Each tub has the worker’s name on it.
- Wear long pants, socks and shoes to the field when making meal deliveries: Bring a jacket along, too. When you are delivering the meals to the field you may end up as the combine driver or a fuel truck person, so be prepared to stay in the field. It is also a good idea to eat before you deliver the meals, as you never know how long you might stay there. I also like to have a notepad and pen to write Grainews columns ideas (seriously!) or jot out plans while I am waiting. Facebook on the phone may be entertaining, but when you have some quiet time to think, that is a gift.
- Keep lawn chairs and picnic tablecloth or denim blanket with you in your delivery vehicle: It is a treat to be able to stop the machines and have a tailgate supper at the back of the pickup or sit in a circle of lawn chairs. This is especially important for families with young children who miss seeing Dad during the busy seasons. Thirty minutes of family eating time together will create a happy culture around agriculture and groom the next generation with excitement for harvest. I can still hear the metal pot lids clanging in my memory of going to the field in the late ‘50s with my mom and our 1957 lime-green Chevy station wagon. I was trained to deliver healthy warm meals at a young age!
- Warm meals are worth the effort: Food is a key source of energy and nourishment to weary bodies. Hot food staying hot and delivered straight to the machinery operators is key to enjoying the journey of harvest and staying productive and safe. Hungry, tired people tend to be cranky and accident prone in my opinion… don’t go there.