Kopp's Crops is a family-run business specializing in maple syrup, honey and fresh vegetables. We are located 45 miles north of Minneapolis in Bradford Township on our 65 acre farm.

*Now Selling at the Cambridge-Isanti Farmers Market!*

Local Orders: For pickup in Isanti, Cambridge, Brooklyn Park or Arden Hills, please email koppscrops@gmail.com or call 763-772-7057 to place your order and arrange payment & pickup. Available products are listed in the shopping cart below.

Outside the Twin Cities: Please use the online shopping cart below. USPS shipping charges will be calculated at checkout.

For questions, please email us at koppscrops@gmail.com


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Packing It Up for the Season

The garden isn’t completely toast, but it’s close.  Out of the roughly 25 total rows of veggies in the garden (some of which got replanted mid-season after the first crops petered out), only 3 remain.  We lost our last row of green beans when we failed to cover it before last week’s unexpected (at least by us) frost, along with our half row of eggplant.  The half-row of swiss chard is hanging tough & standing tall, along with the fall plantings of lettuce, spinach, and radishes that should be ready to start harvesting in a couple weeks if the weather holds out.  Our Brussels sprouts are still going strong, too.  Or as strong as we could hope – this is the 3rd year we’ve planted Brussels sprouts, and the first year we’ve actually gotten edible sprouts on the plants before the snow flies!  The funny thing about Brussels sprouts (aside from the fact that our family actually likes to eat them, unlike 95+% of the US population!) is that it takes a solid frost to really make them really good – once they survive a good frost, they get a little less bitter.  Unlike Michelle, who gets more bitter after the first frost (Really?  Winter’s coming already?).
Everything else has been harvested and put away for winter. What can be canned is canned, what can be frozen is frozen, and what can’t be kept at all has been eaten at every other meal until we’re completely sick of it (that would be you, eggplant) or put at the end of the driveway with a big “FREE!” sign (yep, a sure-fired way to get rid of anything in our neighborhood).  We hung a cylinder made out of chicken wire in the garage to contain all the onions, and tied our garlic bulbs together into a big keep-away-the-vampires bridal bouquet that hangs off the top, along with a few sprigs of rosemary.  The potatoes are all in a big burlap bag in the cellar where they’ll stay nice & cool.  The baby reds don’t keep as well, so we’ll eat them first, saving the white potatoes until their eyes start sprouting white tentacles.  At which point we’ll give them to the girls to play “octopus adventure” or practice braiding & macramé. The sweet potatoes, including the football-sized one you see pictured below, keep best in a big bucket of dry sand.  This year we’re using a wide, shallow one, because last year we never finished the sweet potatoes – we got to frustrated trying to dig down to the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket full of sand.  Which brings us to the butternut squash – they just sit in neat little rows on the shelves in the cellar like bowling pins. Oh, there was that sorry attempt to can spiced apple rings last weekend, which ended with a big pot of spiced apple mush and curlicues of spiced apple peel, but we’re trying to put that behind us.  Let’s just say that our compost bin has a faint but lovely smell of cinnamon, cloves and overcooked apples.

Monday, September 19, 2011

For the Love of Tomatoes - Part 2 (Preserving)

We consider tomatoes the jewels of our garden.  Not just because they’re a beautiful ruby red color and look nice surrounded by platinum and diamonds.  Tomatoes are our most versatile, most preservable vegetable (or technically, fruit).  Tomato-based recipes are easy to can because they’re so acidic – they can be hot water bathed instead of pressure canned.  But because the newer tomato varieties are less acidic than some of the heirloom varieties, we add a teaspoon of lemon juice to any tomato-based product to ensure the proper botulism-preventing ph level.  Hot water bathing is just about like it sounds – we get a big pot of water simmering on the stove, then gently place our full jars into the water, making sure they’re fully submerged.  We bring it to a rolling boil so it’s like a little jar Jacuzzi in there with all those bubbles, and keep it rolling for the allotted time.  Our trusted source of all things safely canned is the University of MN Extension service (http://www1.extension.umn.edu/food-safety/preserving/canning/).  They’ve got a handy-dandy chart that has the appropriate canning times & pressures for just about anything you’d ever want to put in a jar.  Anything edible, anyway.
A few weeks ago we juiced the first ripe fruits to can 15 quarts of juice for the winter’s chili and meatloaf, and made 7 quarts of Mexican chicken soup for those winter nights we’re just too lazy to cook.  We experimented with tomato paste, too – we made a “bowl” out of unbleached muslin by rubber-banding it over a big pot, then poured in a gallon or so of juice inside and let the water seep into the pot, leaving thick paste behind.  We didn’t really have enough to can, so we just froze it in an ice cube tray to create 2 tablespoon servings to thicken soups this winter (and tonight’s hot dog chili!).  Finally, it was time to go Italian – we recently finished our second 18-pint batch of pasta sauce – 50 pounds of tomatoes (juiced), 5 onions (diced), one giant sprig of basil (chopped), a bunch of branches of oregano, a few bay leaves (we cheated a little here – the bay leaves were purchased)  and garlic, more garlic, and even more garlic (minced). 
But it’s time to break out the trumpets and play “Taps” for the tomatoes.  In preparation for an unusually early Minnesota frost last week, we decided to pull off all the even-close-to-being-ripe tomatoes.  We’re keeping a few in the hopes that they ripen enough to eat before they rot, but with the blight we’ve had, the odds are not good.  This weekend, we pulled all the plants & stakes out of the ground – leaving a depressingly bare patch between our late green beans and the fall crop of spinach, just now starting to sprout.  <sniff>  We miss our tomatoes already.  But it’s just a short 6 months until we start planting seeds for next year’s tomato crop! 

Monday, August 29, 2011

For the Love of Tomatoes - Part 1 (Growing)

It’s tomato season!  It’s tomato season!  It’s finally, finally tomato season!  Tomatoes are about the last thing in the garden to reach maturity (other than some squash and our Brussels sprouts), and the most anticipated.  But throughout their long, long growing season they’re a ton of work.  You say toe-may-to, we say toe-way-too-much-work!  When the plants get about 16 inches high, it’s time to start tying them to stakes so they don’t fall over under the weight of the growing tomato clusters, and we have to keep tying the upper branches as the plant grows through the summer.  But as we’ve found out the hard way, staking alone doesn’t guarantee upright tomatoes. 
Our tomatoes (stakes & all) toppled in wind storms, two years in a row now.  The plants don’t break off, but it does cause blight, which is caused by a fungus that is almost always present in a garden, in the soil. The fungus only infects tomato plants through the leaves, when the leaves of a tipped-over plant come in contact with the ground, or when it rains and mud splashes on the leaves.  This is why we prune back 20% or so of the bottom leaves of the plants, so that there’s less chance of fungus splash-back.  And because it makes it that much easier for our preschooler to find tomatoes to munch on during her daily garden visit.  She can’t yet fit an entire Roma tomato in her mouth at once, but it’s not for lack of trying.
We also need to “sucker” the plants throughout the season, which means we pinch off the tiny branches that start forming at the intersection of larger branches.   This reduces the number of branches so that the plant puts less energy into growing braches, and more into growing the tomatoes themselves.  We get fewer, but much larger, tomatoes this way.  By this point in the year (at least up here in the soon-to-be-frozen-again Tundra), any blooms at the top of the plant won’t have time to grow fully ripe tomatoes, so we also lop off the tops of the plants.  This puts even more energy into the existing green tomatoes, helping them ripen faster.  So basically we act like the Tomato Electric Company, diverting energy to the areas of highest demand.  Too bad that pesky blight is giving us “rolling brownouts”! 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Source of the Sweetness

A couple weeks ago, we harvested the first honey of the 2011 season, our “Spring Flower” variety.  To determine what kind of honey we had, we took into account the color, flavor and known nectar sources within a two mile radius, which is the furthest bees will travel to find honey-making supplies.  We also noted what nectar was available at the time it was produced – nectar is the sugar source for honey.  The earliest nectar available to bees is from blooming maple trees in the early spring, but it’s usually too cold for bees to fly at that point.  So the first collectable nectar source for most bees is dandelions, and this was the main source for our spring flower honey.  Try not to let your hatred of lawn-dotting dandelions bias you against our honey – celebrate the fact that dandelions finally have a positive purpose in life!
After the dandelions are tapped out, there’s usually a lull in available nectar.  This is about the time of the year that they start thinking about swarming.  We can’t really blame them – if you suddenly cut off our food supply, we’d probably get ticked and leave, too.  Right now we’re in the thick of the main nectar flow, which typically runs from early July to mid-August.  During the prime season, it’s not uncommon for a strong colony to collect up to 30 pounds of honey each week - almost 4 gallons!  Our seven new hives aren’t producing quite this much because new colonies have to use their first nectar and honey to produce the wax to make their honeycomb.  The bees in our two older hives can recycle last year’s comb – very eco-chic of them.
We are eagerly awaiting our first taste of the mid-summer honey to find out what kind we’ve got.  Last year’s variety had what we delicately referred to as a “polarizing taste.”  Some less charitable tasters called it “reminiscent of dirty socks.”  It was a distinctly strong flavor that we couldn’t identify, and we had to reach out to one of our local honey experts to help us identify it.  Turns out we had buckwheat honey, which is highly prized by some (soiled laundry aftertaste notwithstanding) for its higher antioxidant content.  We still don’t know who within a 2 mile radius was growing the buckwheat our bees found, so we don’t know if we’ll end up with buckwheat honey again this year or not.  Hives are like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Keeping Out the Riffraff

We know a couple who puts up a fence to keep their kids out of the garden.  But we'd rather our girls spend as much time in the garden as possible, so they learn to love vegetables and appreciate where they come from.  However, that doesn’t mean we want our garden to be quite so open and welcoming to other species.  Our first line of defense is a foot-wide border of wildflowers around the perimeter that creates a habitat for “good” insects like ladybugs that feast on the “bad” insects like aphids that chew holes in leafy greens to make our Swiss chard look like Swiss cheese.
But a few weeks ago we saw that we had a bigger problem:  hoofprints in the garden.  Hence, a fence.  To keep the deer out, we string fishing line between metal fence posts, which doesn’t seem like it would be strong enough to keep a big doe from busting through.  But whatever it lacks in strength, it makes up for in deer confusion.  See, the deer only come into the garden at night (sneaky little devils), and they can’t see the fishing line in the dark.  When they run up against it, it stops them in their tracks.  Since they can’t see it, they don’t know how to get around it.  After a few tries, they usually give up, which means we can leave a strategically-placed section open so we humans can come & go without having to open a gate.  At least that’s how it worked last year.  But now we apparently have track-star deer on our property; at least one has already jumped the fence to nibble on the sweet potatoes and green beans. 
At the ground level we need a tighter barrier to keep out the woodchucks, so we use 18” high chicken wire.  They primarily like to munch on plants that are members of the brassica family like cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage (aka the "gas-producing vegetables").   How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a wood chuck could chuck wood?  We don’t know, but a he can really chuck up a garden!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Kopp's Crops in the Classroom - Saturday, July 30

Have our posts inspired you to start preserving your own food? Need more information on how to get started? Jason will be teaching a FREE introductory class in home canning, freezing and smoking at the Green Barn in Isanti on Saturday, July 30 at 10am.

The class is free, but preregistration is required and space is limited. Call the Green Barn directly at 763-444-5725 to register, or click on the link below for more information:  http://www.greenbarngardencenter.com/events-more/

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Great Bee Fake-Out

Last night we went to check on the bees, and found one hive almost ready to swarm, meaning that our queen had her little bee bags packed and was ready to kiss our hive goodbye, take roughly half the worker bees and settle a new colony.  Sometimes bees swarm because the hive is too “hot” or crowded.  Other bees are gypsies at heart – they just naturally want to swarm. And though the queen may rule the hive, it’s the workers who decide when she should lead them on a swarm.  The worker bees won’t swarm until a new queen is ready to take over the hive, and they can turn any egg into a future queen just by feeding it a protein called royal jelly.  In the hive we saw, there were eggs in eight queen cells, and they were all fully enclosed or capped.  That’s a lot of potential queens to duke it out for Head Honcho of the Honey Hive when they chew their way out of their cells in a few days.
The capped queen cells were the first sign that a swarm was evident.  The second indicator was the queen herself – when Jason found her, she was newly svelte and lean.  When the workers are really ready to go, they stop feeding their queen to put her on a crash diet, so she stops laying eggs and actually slims down enough to get airborne.  Normally those pampered royalty are so pleasantly plump that they can’t fly. 
But we’re selfish – we didn’t want to lose half our hive and the honey they would produce.  And we just so happened to have a vacant hive box in our beehive neighborhood (sadly, a previous colony of bees had been unable to pay their mortgage on time, so we had to foreclose on them).  But there was no way of knowing whether our nomadic queen would colonize in the empty hive or take her entourage to someone else’s property.  So we engaged in a little bee psychology and faked a swarm.  Jason found the queen, took her and half the colony to the empty hive, and basically made them all think it was their idea all along to colonize there.  In a couple of days, we’ll smush all the queen cells in before they hatch in the old hive, then reintroduce the remaining bees into the new hive.  If we just let the two half-colonies live apart, neither hive will produce enough honey for human consumption.  But if all goes well with the great bee fake-out, our reunited colony will produce plenty of what we affectionately refer to as “The Nectar of the Kopps.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Frozen Chosen

The weather may finally be heating up, but here at Kopp’s Crops we’re still freezing – freezing broccoli, that is.  The first sizable batch of broccoli crowns was ready to harvest this weekend.  With the Packman broccoli we grow, we always make sure to cut off the main crown of broccoli before it starts to flower.  Harvesting the first crown early enough means the plant will continue to grow smaller shoots of broccoli for most of the summer, providing a steady supply of the superfood for our dinner table.
After cleaning the broccoli & cutting it into Sacagawea-dollar-sized florets (and yes, we eat the “stumps” too), we blanch about a gallon at a time in boiling water for three minutes to kill any bacteria and stop the enzyme action that destroys that delicious fresh broccoli flavor.   We then quickly drop it in a sink full of ice water to stop the cooking process before the broccoli gets too mushy for anyone but the baby to enjoy.  Normally we soak our broccoli in salt water before processing to make sure to get all the bugs out.  But this year we seem to be vermin-free!  The nice thing about the blanching process is that even if we miss a bug or two, we find them before we bag & seal the vegetables – they wind up floating belly-up in the blanching water, like miniature Mafia snitches in the East River.
A couple of years ago we invested in a good quality vacuum sealer, which has paid for itself over & over in freezer burn prevention.  Freezer burn is caused when the outer layer of the frozen food loses its moisture and starts to dehydrate.  This can be caused by too much air in the freezer bag to begin with, or a small leak that lets the moisture out.  And today’s auto defrost freezers make it worse, because they are designed to remove moisture from the freezer (which is why you don’t get the ice buildup…solve one problem, create another).  The vacuum sealer solves both problems, by simultaneously sucking all the air out and melting the plastic together to get a truly airtight seal.  Which is a great improvement over the method Michelle can remember back in the “olden days,” freezing vegetables with her mom.  Back then, the process was as follows: put the veggies into thin plastic freezer bags bags, stick a straw inside, suck out all the air, try not to choke on the inevitably-inhaled broccoli bits, and then hope for the dexterity to quickly remove the straw and close the twist tie before all the air get back into the bag.  Repeat as necessary until all the bags are air-free or we pass out trying.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rare Finds – The Fungus Among Us

You know that famous saying:  April showers bring May Morel mushrooms (flowers, mushrooms… whatever).  The meaty texture & succulent flavor of Morels make them a favorite of mushroom aficionados, and Jason has a few top-secret hunting grounds around the county where he searches for the little brain-shaped delicacies.  But last spring we were surprised and delighted to find a single Morel mushroom growing in the bark chips in our landscaping, of all places.  After we washed off that Morel and the others he’d found, we “planted” some more by pouring the water (and hopefully some spores) into the same spot of the landscaping where the soil appears to be conducive to mushroom growth.  It worked… this year we picked a dozen Morels there! 
 This week we got another pleasant fungus surprise – a whole forest plot of Polyporus Umbellatus mushrooms (photo at left), just a dozen yards from our back door.  We first thought they were the more common Hen of the Woods that we’ve found and enjoyed in past years.  But these lacy mushrooms, sometimes referred to as Zhuling, are exceedingly rare and highly sought after in Chinese medicine.  They are reputed to have anti-tumor, antioxidant, anti-viral and anti-protozoal  effects, enhance the immune system, treat urological disorders and chlamydia, and grow hair.   Now you know how Papa Smurf got that luxurious beard!

To preserve the mushroom for future recipes (or anti-something-or-another treatment), we cut them up and put them in the dehydrator for about five hours, and now keep them in airtight glass jars to keep them nice & dry.  Our philosophy is that you can never play it too with wild mushrooms – even though Jason knows how to recognize the edible vs. inedible mushrooms, we still double-check online whenever we find a new variety to make sure there are no dangerous “look-alike” impostors lurking about, ready to slip us a mushroom mickey.  We also always cook them before eating them – if nothing else, it makes them easier to digest.  And of course, the ultimate test:  Jason is the official mushroom toxicity tester.   For each new variety we find, he eats some first.  If by the next day he’s not violently ill, we deem them safe for the rest of the family.  Tomorrow is testing day for the Zhulings…wish him luck!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Popeye Would Be Proud

We had our second big harvest at the end of last week– three garbage bags full spinach.  Lawn & leaf bags, actually – the really big ones.  Which made us really happy until we realized that a) we had to wash all that spinach at least twice before processing to get rid of all the non-spinach matter, and b) that it was going to cook down to nothing in the jar, and leave us with a significantly less impressive-looking yield.   
We did the initial washing in a big washtub outside to get rid of the bulk of the dirt and sand (and avoid making such a big mess inside!).  Then it was into the house for a more thoroughly-scrutinized wash.   We swished small batches of leaves in a sink full of water to get rid of the rest of the sand, and then did a quick visual scan of each leaf on its way to the stock pot to pick out the icky spots and other things that we don’t care to include in our jars.  A partial list of the goodies we pulled out of the spinach this week:  clover, pollen strings, grass, more clover, a small bee, various assorted non-spinach leafy weeds, still more clover and one dead daddy longlegs.  Mmmm! 
After the spinach was squeaky clean, we wilted it in a little water, then packed the leaves fairly tightly into clean pint jars.  We’ll write more about the canning process in upcoming posts, but the unique part of canning spinach is the processing time.  Spinach needs to spend 70 minutes in a pressure canner at 10lbs of pressure, which is longer than most other foods.  Botulism risk, which is the biggest concern for inappropriately-processed home canned goods, increases with the surface area of the food inside the jar.  And it’s hard to find anything with more surface area than a jar filled with hundreds, if not thousands of spinach leaves.  Did we mention how those leaves cook down to nothing?   So two batches of jars meant two hours and twenty minutes of hanging out in the kitchen, making sure that the canner kept the proper pressure, all for a mere 32 pints of canned spinach.  Yes, you read that correctly:  3 lawn & leaf bags of spinach = just 32 pints of canned spinach.  Makes that 40-to-1 maple sap to syrup ratio look downright generous, doesn’t it?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Relishing the Radishes

Hard to believe, but the first crop of the season is done – rest in peace, radishes.  Or pieces, I suppose (keep reading, it will make sense eventually).  We always get a little overzealous with our radishes and plant too many, simply because they have the shortest maturity time, and the seeds can withstand the coldest temperatures, so they’re always the first thing we can eat from the garden.   Frankly, if they weren’t the first edible vegetable, we probably wouldn’t bother.  After all, how many ways are there to eat radishes?  Raw with a little salt.  Sliced in a lettuce salad.  Sliced in a spinach salad.  And partially sliced in that oh-so-artistic way that turns them into rosettes for a platter of veggies and dip.  Apparently they’re “too pretty to eat” that way, because we’ve never been to a party where they weren’t the last thing left on the plate, even after the last celery sticks have been grudgingly used to scrape the last remnants of congealing dip from the bowl. 
But given their nice firm texture, radishes seem like a vegetable we could either freeze or can; something to preserve them long enough to let the memory of monotonous radish-garnished salads fade, and make us want to eat them again.  Surely someone has figured out a way to preserve these things, right?  Food.com delivered, with a recipe we just had to try:  http://www.food.com/recipe/pickled-radishes-118828.  Unfortunately, the recipe doesn’t call for a hot water bath, so the jars aren’t sealed and shelf-stable, and will therefore be taking up some valuable real estate in the refrigerator.  But the food processor made short work of the slicing, and the jars turned out the loveliest shade of pink.  Eight hours later we tentatively tried the first one, and… yum! This recipe is a keeper, and officially cements the formerly-maligned radishes’ right to take up two full rows in next summer’s garden.    

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Fowl Play

With the maple syrup and the bees and the big honkin’ garden, you’d think we have enough agricultural pursuits to keep us busy.  But then we thought, how about some animals?  Other than the sneaky squirrels that have been stealing all the birdseed from the bird feeders, that is.  We kind of think of chickens as “beginner livestock” – a nice way to ease into raising animals.  Several families we know raise chickens for eggs, but we don’t make a lot of omelets in our house.  However, we do eat a fair amount of chicken, so we thought it would be fun to raise some fryers (aka “meat birds”) to fill the freezer for winter. 
But our growing to-do list has been vastly outstripping our available hours lately, and we finally had to admit that we weren’t going to get a chicken coop built in time to buy and raise chicks this season.  We’d need to find business partner.  Thus was born our chicken joint venture with L&L Poultry Producers – our friends Lou & Larissa.  They’ve been raising layers for a couple of years now, and have all the infrastructure in place.  They even have a coop on wheels that they can move around the yard to give the chickens a little change of scenery (and keep from killing the grass)!  So they’ve agreed to raise our chicks for us until we’re ready to go out on our own.
Our baby chicks were born a week ago Friday, arrived at the airport on Saturday, and we got to visit them on Sunday.   Two-day-old chicks are just as cute and fuzzy as kids’ picture books would lead you to believe!  Twenty six fuzzy little puffballs were happily hanging out in their new home, called a breeder.  They’ll stay in the breeder for the first few weeks, munching on specially-formulated “starter feed,” with a heat lamp to keep them toasty warm, like Mama Hen would.  Which ironically, is quite similar the heat lamp at your friendly neighborhood fried chicken joint.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Wining and Dining the Garden

When one of us cooks dinner and the other one says “this tastes like poo,” that’s a bad thing.  Especially for the one of us that dared to pass judgment on the other’s meal, but that’s an issue for another day.  When we’re feeding the garden, hearing our plants say “this tastes like poo” would mean that we’re giving them the best possible nutrition.  Chicken poo, to be exact.  Composted chicken manure has nearly the perfect ratio of nitrogen, potassium, & phosphorus, the three macronutrients you need for optimal plant growth.  However, the manure needs to be spread on the garden several weeks before we’re ready to plant, so that some of the nitrogen can escape into the air and keep the garden from being to “hot.”  Thankfully that means the spreading happens when it’s still too cold to hang out outside, saving us from the overwhelming and oh-so-delightful aroma of decaying chicken poo.

So with the food taken care of, it was time to move on to the drink.  Our soil is really sandy, so when we used to turn the hose on the plants for a little hydration, we’d splash sand all up on the plants.  Which is fine, if you want to sand down your teeth a little with every salad you eat.  Not only that, but pathogens in the splashed-up soil can cause plant disease (hence the loss of our late tomato crop last year, when a wind storm blew down half our tomato plants!)  So last year, we started running drip tape through our rows of plants instead.  Drip tape is essentially a flattened hose with tiny holes every 10 inches to slowly release water.  The low pressure and low profile keeps the water close to the roots so it doesn’t splash up on the plant, and less is lost to evaporation.  Each row of drip tape is attached to the main hose with a valve that allows us to turn the water on for just the rows that need it.  We’re conserving water all over the place…only watering the rows we need, watering right at the root, and saving gallon upon gallon of water that we used to use to rinse the sand off our spinach.  Much to the chagrin of our lonely, salad spinner, alone with her memories of spinach salads past.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Getting In the Zone

After we know how much of what vegetable we want to plant, it’s time to decide on varieties.  Our main considerations are the colder weather & shorter growing season we have here.  In order to help farmers and gardeners plant the right varieties for their climates, the USDA publishes a Plant Hardiness Zone map that identifies 11 separate zones, based on their average annual minimum temperature.  Here in Minnesota, we live in Zone 3, which is the coldest in the contiguous 48 states (shocking, we know!).  Zones 1 & 2 are in Canada, which basically means they can grow popsicles and ice cubes.  And maybe radishes.  Seed catalogs and packages will usually list which zones each variety is suited for, and the number of days to maturity.
What we want to know is, who names these varieties?  This year we’re planting Georgia Jet sweet potatoes, Yukon Gold potatoes and Oregon Giant snow peas, which (ironically) grow well in Minnesota.  Snow Crown cauliflower, Early Frosty peas and Northern Lights swiss chard (with its bright pink & yellow stems) make a little more sense up here.  Hopefully, we’ll have a nice long season of Bloomsdale Long-Standing spinach, and nice straight rows of Arrow peas.  We’ll be watching our Packman broccoli to make sure it doesn’t turn yellow and eat up a dotted line of radishes to protect itself from ghosts.  The Celebrity tomatoes might or might not draw paparazzi to our front door.  And do you suppose we’re allowed to eat the Homemade Pickles cucumbers raw, or would we get cited for “Failure to Pickle”? 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

We've Got You Covered!

In an attempt to expand our growing season here in the northern tundra, we’re experimenting with row covers to protect a couple of our earliest crops.  You can buy row cover kits online, but that’s just not the Kopp’s Crops way.  Why buy a kit, when Jason can build them from scratch? J The first step was cutting a spool of nine-gauge fencing wire into half circles to form the frames of the row covers.  Then we lined up the metal arches over the plants and pushed them into the ground approximately two feet apart.  At this point, Michelle developed an inexplicable desire to bust out the croquet mallet and see if she could clear every arch with a single shot (umm… doubtful!).  Finally, we rolled out a long strip of floating row cover material over the frames, and used a continuous line of dirt to secure the edges and keep it from blowing away.  And to keep out any small critters who may find themselves unable to resist their cravings for tender young plants.
At this point, our croquet wicket field has morphed into a couple of long skinny igloos.  Which is somewhat apropos, since the row covers should theoretically protect plants to temperatures 4-5 degrees below freezing.  So on Friday, we planted broccoli & Brussels sprouts plants under the row covers, and on Sunday night Mother Nature obligingly sent us a hard freeze to test our new temperature-taming technology.  Our unprotected spinach was on life support after the overnight frost exposure, but the plants inside the row covers all survived!  And as the weather (hopefully!) continues to get warmer, the row covers will also create a microclimate that will accelerate growth and protect our baby plants from insects and pests… and the occasional curious toddler.   

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Annual Garden Plan

We’ve started planting the first few seeds in the garden, but that’s just the latest step in the plant planning process.  First came The Annual Garden Plan.  Which is a little like an annual plan for a business:  a ton of analysis goes into it, the various parties second-guess each other and negotiate compromises, the final decision mostly comes down to gut instinct, and oh, yeah…the plan changes 15 times between the “final plan” and the ultimate execution. 
This is our 3rd year of gardening here at the Kopp’s Crops homestead, so at least we have some past data to pull from.  We start by estimating how much of each vegetable we’ll want to eat fresh, which ones taste okay canned (we have lots of room for home canned goods), and how much room we have the freezer for the frozen ones.  After that, the thought process tends to go a little like this:  So, what did we run out of first last year?  Frozen peas.  So we definitely need more peas this year.  But just the shelled kind – the sugar snaps didn’t freeze too well; too mushy.  We only need enough of those for our fresh-eating needs.  What about beets?  We’ve got several jars left from last year, so we might be able to cut back a row or so.  Okra?  Believe it or not, it grows this far north.  But we didn’t try so much as one bite of okra from last year’s garden, so there’s no need to repeat that little experiment.  And finally:  the little bit of corn we were able to freeze last year was so super-sweet and tender – let’s plant a lot.  But this time can we try to find a variety that’s designed to be raccoon-proof?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Playing Chicken with Mother Nature

Last year we were fortunate to have an early spring, and planted the first seeds in the garden on March 28.  This year, the garden was still covered in snow on March 28 (This is the winter that never ends…it just goes on and on my friend…).  I’m not saying we were impatient or anything, but Jason actually considered using the snowplow on the garden to try to thaw it out a little faster. 
On April 9, we decided to take a big chance on Mother Nature’s mood, and planted the first seeds of spring:  spinach, radishes, swiss chard, green onions and pak choi.  Potatoes, bulb onions and peas followed the next weekend.   These are crops that can be planted “as soon as the soil can be worked.”  But in addition to being thawed out enough, the ground also has to be dry enough to keep the seeds from rotting before they sprout.  In practical terms, when you can squeeze a fistful of soil in your hand and have it break apart, it is dry enough. 
Last week we saw the first tiny green signs of life in the garden and for a while, it looked like we might be in the clear.  Sadly, the future is now looking white.  And cold.  Snow is in the forecast, so we’ve tucked the tender plants in for the night, under a thin “blanket” of woven material to hopefully protect them from the crazy weather.  Oh, merciful Mother Nature…please let our leafy greens live to see another sunrise!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Sun Sets on the Syrup Season

Less than a month after it began, the Kopp’s Crops maple syrup season has finished.  The “we’re so tired of boiling alone that it’s time to invite over some friends for pancakes” party has been hosted.  The buckets have all been collected, washed out, and are ready to store for the winter.  The taps have been removed from the trees, leaving the small holes to fill in throughout the summer (but still leaving a mark, much like those ill-advised piercings you got in high school).  The big blue storage tanks have returned to their former role as eyesores in the side yard, where we keep all the sizeable farm equipment.
The final tally is 9.3 gallons of syrup, bottled in 8 and 12 oz. bottles.  So we estimate that between the bottles, the ongoing sampling, and the one unfortunate boilover of the finishing pot, we probably processed an even 10 gallons of syrup this year.  Which means we boiled approximately 400 gallons of sap, or almost 4.5 gallons per tree.   Definitely a successful season.  And frankly, we’re glad the season didn’t last any longer; we’re a little tired of collecting & boiling.  I guess you could say we’re “tapped out”!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spindly Sprouts Springing Up for Spring

The snow still hasn’t melted, but it’s off the garden now!  We’re chomping at the bit, because this time last year, we’d already started planting some of the colder weather crops.  Yes, we know that last spring came absurdly early, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling like we’re already behind.  We have, however, been getting a head start on our summer bounty.  Since March 1st, Amanda has had to share some of her basement play space with six flats of seedlings that need the southern exposure – the sliding glass door provides the best sun source in the house.  Which means that we haven’t been able to let Amanda play in the basement without a very watchful eye.  Ooooh…dirt!  Better than fingerpaint! 
But no more – good bye basement sprawl, hello plant high-rise!  We just bought an indoor greenhouse – four wire shelves covered with a zip-up plastic cover that looks a little like a garment bag.  We wouldn’t call it “toddler proof,” but it’s at least toddler-resistant.  We should be able to hear the unzipping of the cover even if we’ve got our backs turned!  And there’s plenty of room for all of our veggies-to-be: sweet potatoes, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, green peppers, squash, broccoli, and cauliflower.   Now we just need spring to arrive in Minnesota.  Seriously.  Any day now.  Please?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fifteen Bottles of Syrup on the Wall...

Bottling is the moment of truth – when clear glass bottles offer the first glimpse of the true quality of the syrup.  Saturday was our first bottling day – we had over a gallon of syrup in our stock pot!  The final step to ensure clear, pure syrup is to filter it to get out all the last impurities.  Before the finishing step, we used a coarse filter to remove any bits of bark or other woodland goodies.  But as the water boiled away, minerals and nutrients in the sap concentrated to produce “sugar sand,” which feels just like real sand – which is to say, it turns your morning pancakes into sandpaper that grinds against your teeth if you don’t get it out of your syrup. 
Just before we ladled the syrup into the bottles, we poured it through a fine pre-filter (like a coffee filter) to strain out most of the impurities.  Finally, we poured the syrup through a cone-shaped Orlon (a felt-like fabric) filter, which looks a little like a big diaper.  How well does it filter out the sugar sand?  Eh, it Depends. 

To make sure the caps sealed properly, we soaked them in hot water to soften the seals while we reheated syrup to 200 degrees.  Then we ladled the hot syrup into clean bottles and twisted the plastic caps on. The result?  Fifteen 12-oz. bottles of the lightest, clearest syrup we’ve ever bottled – liquid gold!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Seven Degrees of Separation

Maple syrup is finished when it reaches at least 66% sugar (the sap starts at 2% sugar).  At that concentration of sugar, the syrup boils at 7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water – that’s how we can tell we’re getting close to the end.  Yes, that normally means 219 degrees, but altitude & atmospheric conditions can change the exact temperature.  So we calibrate the boiling temperature of water first, using a digital thermometer to get an exact reading.  Then we use the same thermometer to periodically check the syrup temperature in the boiling pan. 
The finishing step requires a more precise temperature control than the wood stove can provide, so when the sap gets to within a degree or two of the desired temperature, we drain it into a big stock pot and finish boiling it on the burner of our turkey deep fryer (outside!) so we can more closely control the temperature.  Don’t worry -  there’s no deep-fried-turkey aftertaste to our syrup!  To get a more precise estimate of the sugar content in this stage, we use a hydrometer to measure the specific gravity of the syrup.  As the sugar content gets higher, syrup gets thicker, and the hydrometer floats higher. 
Whatever you do, don’t try this on the kitchen stove.  A friend of ours tried it once, and spent less time boiling than she did cleaning maple syrup droplets off the stove, the counter, the floor, the microwave, the exhaust hood, the dog…

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Long Live the Queen (Bees)!

It’s been a long winter.  Really long.  Crazy long.  Remind-us-why-we-live-here long.  At least we’ve had a nice warm house and a steady supply of comfort food during these long months.  But our bees were facing their first Minnesota winter in the Kopp woods, with just drafty little wooden bungalows for shelter and a little honey to keep their bee bellies full.  More than a little honey, really – roughly 80-90 pounds, or 6-7 gallons per hive.  Even so, the long, long winter meant that one of the hives ran out of food.  So some emergency rations were required – 10 pounds of granulated sugar on a layer of wax paper.  And we’re happy to report that both hives have survived the winter! 
When we lived in the city limits dandelions were the enemy, to be hunted and obliterated by any means possible.  But now, we’re eagerly awaiting their first blooms; dandelions have a very large nectar flow and are among the first major nectar sources for bees in the spring.  Our hives desperately need to replenish their honey stores!  Plus, imagine how much fun it will be to teach Amanda how to blow the seeds off big white dandelion puffs.  Toward the neighbor’s yard, of course…

Monday, March 21, 2011

We’ve Reached the Boiling Point

Yesterday was our first really solid boiling day – approximately 70 gallons of sap.  Our boiling pan is a flat metal rectangle, 2 feet by 4 feet by 8 inches deep, with a 40 gallon capacity and a drain spigot in the corner.  Yes, that does mean it can double as a margarita dispenser in a pinch.  If you’re planning a really, really big Cinco de Mayo party.  The pan sits atop the wood stove, which has been carefully leveled to ensure even heating.
A pan with this surface area can evaporate off approximately 8-10 gallons of water per hour, but only after it reaches a full, rolling boil.  Hence the fancy pre-warming contraption, which reduces the time it takes the sap to really get going.  Once we start the fire and fill the pan, someone has to tend to the stove continuously, which is why we try to find willing friends & family to help keep us company or take over for a little while.  Now accepting volunteers… we’ll pay you in syrup!
The temperature control on the boiling stove is simple.  If the pan is boiling nicely, we stop putting wood in it.  If the pan stops boiling or slows down, we add more wood; preferably smaller pieces that burn fast.  As the water boils off and the sugar content in the pan rises, the bubbles get smaller – one of the first signs that we’re getting closer to the finishing stage.  That, and the fabulous scent of syrup in the air that makes all the neighbors suddenly, inexplicably crave a tall stack of pancakes.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Splitting Logs in Opals & Anne Taylor

Man plans; God & maple trees laugh.  Maple trees are a little like our infant, Rachel:  we go by their schedule, not the other way around.  The original plan had been to boil sap yesterday and take today off, but with the sap continuing its stubborn trickle until a late afternoon deluge, boiling was postponed until today.  No problem… since we were inviting 16 of our closest family members over to lunch after Rachel’s baptism this morning, we knew we’d have plenty of help with the sap collecting and fire tending. 
After a lunch delayed by a few non-tree-related unforeseen circumstances (namely, locking ourselves and all our guests out of the house!), the nieces & nephews were all pressed into service gathering sap.  In the mud.  By the time Michelle got her jeans & boots on, and Rachel bundled up in her baby snowsuit for a little jaunt outside, our toddler Amanda had coated the knees and seat of her snow pants with mud and her cousins were up to their elbows in sap (figuratively speaking). 

The five kids who were old enough to empty or carry buckets had brought back quite a bit of sap, but there was lots left to collect, so Jason & Dad Carr took the 4-wheeler out on another sap collection (and lid- and bucket-straightening) run.  Unfortunately, they had not split enough logs to keep the fire going and the sap boiling while they were gone.  Which is how, after handing Rachel over to Mom Carr safe-keeping, Michelle came to be splitting logs in her best opals and Anne Taylor sweater.  As Jason joked upon his return, “When I bought you those earrings for Christmas, I always pictured you chopping wood in them!”  
After a six hour shift that ended with Jason & Dad Carr boiling by the light of their headlamps, 70 gallons of sap had been reduced to a couple gallons of “nearly finished” syrup to store in the fridge until tomorrow’s finishing step.   Please note:  if there is no blog post tomorrow, it means that we’re too sore from chopping wood to lift our arms. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sweet Potato Science Project

While we wait for the sap to start flowing, we’re not just sitting around twiddling our thumbs.  Just because the snow’s not melted off the garden yet doesn’t mean we can’t go ahead and start growing this summer’s veggies!  Did anyone else try the sprouting sweet potato experiment in their elementary school science class?  You take a sweet potato, stick toothpicks into the sides so it can rest suspended in a jar of water, put it in a sunny window, and wait for it to sprout. 
Well, we’re reliving our childhoods!  Sweet potato plants are expensive (relatively speaking), and we still have several of last summer’s sweet potatoes nicely preserved in a five-gallon bucket full of dry sand in the cellar.  So we took two of them and put them in wide-mouth canning jars full of water.  Minus the toothpicks.  Toothpicks?  We don’t need no stinkin’ toothpicks.   And just like in school, the potatoes are sprouting roots & leaves and fascinating the youngsters in the house.  Every morning when Amanda wakes up, she checks on the “Seet Taytoes” to see how they’re growing.  If the leaves of the latest shoot are big enough, she helps Daddy clip them to start another plant.  We’ve already started fifteen plants this way, which should produce enough sweet potatoes to keep Baby Rachel in pureed sweet potatoes until…oh, her sophomore year of college. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Forty-to-One Odds

The sap is running!  The sap is running!  When it comes out of the tree, maple sap looks pretty much like water.  And it tastes pretty much like water – you can just barely taste the sugar.  Which makes you wonder – who was the first person to say “Hey, why don’t I try collecting the water out of this tree and boiling it for half the day to see if something fun happens to it?” 
Now that we’ve got some sap movement, we’ve loaded up the bright blue 55 gallon plastic collection tank in the trailer of the four-wheeler to start collecting.  It takes about an hour to get around to all the trees, empty the buckets and get them rehung.  On a good day, we could fill the tank four or five times.  But it’s early, so yesterday’s haul was only about 10 gallons, and today was just over 5 – hardly worth boiling.
Forty to one.  No, that’s not the odds of you winning your NCAA pool.  It’s the odds on “Maple Madness” - the ratio of fresh sap to finished syrup is 40 to 1.  Well, 40 to 1 for red maple trees, and 35 to 1 for sugar maples.  We’re collecting from both.  So for every time we fill the 55 gallon tank, we get a little more than a gallon of syrup.  For those who aren’t in the mood for math problems, that means the past two days’ sap collection will net us a measly quart and a half of syrup.  <sigh>

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Unclogging the Boiling Bottleneck

In our second year, we tapped 60 trees vs. the previous year’s 30.  Twice the taps brought twice the sap, which was fabulous for our inventory.  However, it also meant twice the boiling time, which got a little tedious toward the end of the season.   This year, Michelle put her foot down – no more taps until we solved the “Boiling Bottleneck” in the operation! 
So Jason devised a fancy new system to reduce the time it takes the sap to reach a full boil, which is when it really starts evaporating and turning into the syrup you love on your waffles.  The new operation involves a bright blue 55 gallon storage tank sitting on a scaffold behind the boiling stove.  From the tank, several feet of copper tubing wrap around the smokestack of the stove, warming the sap before it runs into the boiling pan.  The whole contraption ends up looking a bit like a moonshine still, but it definitely speeds up the process. 
And so we’ve opted to tap an additional 40 trees this year.   The tapping process went something like this:  Drill a hole in the tree with the cordless drill at a slight downward angle (no use letting all that gravity go to waste!).  Pound the tap into the tree with a hammer.   Hang a yellow plastic bucket from the tap.  Put a blue lid on the bucket to keep leaves, sticks, and small woodland creatures from falling in the bucket.  Repeat 99 times. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lost in the Woods with Scarface

If you someday find yourself recruited for sap bucket collection duty and get a little turned around out in the woods, it’s easy to find your way back to civilization.  Notice how all the buckets seem to be hanging on the same side of the tree?  They are – the south side (South Side, holla!)  As spring approaches, the sun heats up the south sides of the trees fastest, so the sap flows most freely on that side and that’s where all our taps & buckets are.
All, that is, except for the tree we call Scarface.  Scarface has a huge scar all up the south side of his trunk, so we put the bucket on his east side.  Sometimes the winter sun heats up a maple tree so hot that the bark splits all the way up the tree, which is why nurseries sell tree wrap for you to protect that prized maple in your front yard.  Such is the case with Scarface.  So aside from the fact that we can’t get a tap drilled into the south side with all that tree scar tissue, we’ve just decided that when dealing with a tree with a scar that bad-a$$, you put the bucket wherever he says it’s okay.  And thank him for his time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Maple Trees are Quintessential Minnesotans

It turns out that maple sap is a little like your average Minnesotan – the minute the temperature gets above freezing, it wants to run outside and get some fresh air.  But a good cold snap makes it hunker down inside with a bowl of soup and a hot toddy.   Maple sap moves the most when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night.  The warmth of the day draws the sap up the trunk to the limbs, but the cold at night sends it back down to the roots.  The syrup taps divert that flow into the bucket.  Once the nights get warm enough, the sap stops returning to the roots, and syrup season is over.
During a warm spell in February we tapped our first few trees: the ones at the edge of the woods, where it warms up earlier.  One of the trees gave up a good third of a bucket of sap before the daytime highs dropped below freezing again.  So now we have a third of a bucket of frozen sap.  Sap-cicle, anyone? 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Gearing Up for Syrup Season

Now that it looks like Spring might actually make an appearance in Minnesota this year (finally!), it’s time to gear up for maple syrup season.  Literally… we’ve been slowly collecting equipment over time.  In our first year we purchased 30 taps & buckets, and boiled sap in a borrowed boiling pan on a “stove” made of cinderblocks.  Yep, others in our neighborhood have cars up on blocks – we had a maple syrup pan.  Does that make us yuppie rednecks?  Pioneer rednecks?  Year 2 brought a second round of taps & buckets (running total: 60) and a finer filter to strain the sand out of our syrup.  Jason scrounged an old wood stove and did some welding and retrofitting to make it fit the borrowed pan, so we had a more efficient boiling operation.  Now year 3 is upon us, and the tap & bucket count is up to an even 100.  Earlier this week, Jason once again made the pilgrimage to Anderson’s Maple Syrup in Cumberland, WI to add to our collection.  We now own our own boiling pan and a supply of glass bottles that can only be described as “optimistic.”  Here’s hoping for a high-yield season!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Kopp’s Crops Kickoff

Welcome to the Kopp’s Crops blog!  We have just celebrated our second year on the farm and are preparing for our third growing & syrup seasons, second year of beekeeping and first year of product sales (coming soon to Facebook!).  First off, let us introduce you to the Kopp clan:
Jason, the Patriarch.  The brains, brawn, & agronomic expertise behind our operation.  Manages to fit a full-time job as a computer networking instructor in between agricultural pursuits.  Keeps the garden growing and the machinery moving.    
Michelle, the Matriarch.  Marketing Manager by day.  Kid wrangler, food preserver & chronicler of family farming adventures by night (and weekend). 
Amanda, the Toddler.  Just turned 2, and has the attitude to prove it.  Perfected her uneven surface walking skills between rows of peas and green beans early last summer.  Was harvesting her own broccoli, tomatoes, and swiss chard  by the end.
Rachel, the Baby.  Five months old.  Just ate her first solid food, in preparation for a feast of fresh (mushed up) veggies this summer.  
Our hope is that this blog will be somewhat educational, and a little bit entertaining.  We’re looking forward to sharing our agricultural adventures with you!