Turnips turn up at great time for needy

Unusual winter harvest fills fresh produce gap

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter


photoPhoto courtesy Al Fischer Larry Grell helps process a surprise harvest of turnips Saturday. The turnips will go to the Clark County Food Bank.
photoJerry Hofer and Larry Grell wash turnips before the vegetables were sent to the Clark County Food Bank.



Urban Abundance will hold its first monthly workshop/social of the year 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Vancouver Community Library. The group will give away 200 pounds of donated vegetable seed. David Knaus will discuss “Get Growing: Wintertime in the Garden.”

Look what popped up in a local farm field: bonus bounty. Volunteers from several community groups harvested about 600 pounds of turnips Saturday at Clark County’s Heritage Farm in Hazel Dell.

It will provide food for hungry people in Clark County at a time when food banks don’t expect to stock fresh produce from local fields.

“It’s the middle of the winter,” marveled Al Fischer, one of the volunteers who picked, trimmed, cleaned and crated the turnips. “It was amazing. Some of the turnips were the size of small pumpkins.”

Fischer is with a partnership of three local churches -- First Presbyterian and Columbia Presbyterian in Vancouver and St. John’s Presbyterian in Camas -- that has been working with the Clark County Food Bank.

“The food bank leases land at Heritage Farm,” said Bill Coleman, secretary-treasurer of the food bank. “The last two years, the churches used one acre to grow a vegetable garden. This past year, they planted turnip seeds between rows of corn.

“It was a funny year, a slow year, and the turnips didn’t come up in time,” Coleman said. “They cut down the corn, and lo and behold, the turnips were still

growing. They harvested 20 crates of turnips, and they’re delightful.”

And quite a bonus, Fischer noted, since the turnip harvest came right in the middle of what would have been a six-month dry spell for the churches’ Heritage Farm operation.

“Our last crop was carrots in the middle of November,” Fischer said. “Our next probably will be early squash around June.”

Warren Neth is executive director of Urban Abundance, another local nonprofit that was part of Saturday’s event. He said the turnips are a good example of food that could be available during times that aren’t usually considered harvest season.

“We’re interested in putting the local food system to work with winter crops for the emergency food system,” Neth said.

It’s a concept the food bank supports, Coleman said.

“We’re trying to see how we can extend the harvest, plant later in the fall for a winter crop,” said Coleman. He’d already dropped off two crates of turnips at One Life, a food pantry near Hudson’s Bay High School, within 24 hours of harvest.

“We’re the only food pantry that’s open on Sundays,” said Andrea Walker.

While items like turnips, rutabagas and squash might not make the mouth water like sweet corn or fresh tomatoes, they are good food.

Neth said Urban Abundance did a gleaning project at Purple Rain, a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, almost three months ago. The Columbian carried a news brief about it. The owner of a local restaurant read the article, learned the farm had rutabagas, and “started to purchase rutabagas from the farm during the winter,” Neth said.

Education definitely can help, Coleman said.

“A lot of people getting emergency food are not familiar with winter squash,” Coleman said.

“Liz Beck, an AmeriCorps volunteer who works for the food bank, was at the Angels of God food bank (affiliated with the Lord’s Gym, 2410 Grand Blvd.) one Friday. Nobody was taking winter squash.

“The next Friday, she was there with a pot of squash soup and the recipe,” Coleman said. “They took the squash.”

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.