Thursday, November 05, 2009

Brussel Sprouts

I was a terrible eater when I was a kid.  In particular, I ate almost no vegetables at all until I went to college.  I ate tomato sauce, corn on the cob, and lettuce; that was about it.  I was always interested in food, though, and even as I started exploring the different worlds of cuisine and cooking in it took me a long time and many small steps to come to terms with most of the vegetables that I now enjoy and used to abhor.  Sometimes I wonder at my extreme pickiness contrasted with my somewhat adventurous eating now, but it also makes sense in a way: I think I just have a lot of sensitivity towards what I put in my mouth, which has slowly transformed from a source of fear to a place of interest or exploration.  Let’s not explore this psycho-babble anymore, however; what I really want to talk about are brussel sprouts. 

 

Brussel sprouts were one of the last vegetables to move from the ‘fear’ column into the ‘enjoy’ column, but now they are one of my very favorite things to eat.  They are one of the few vegetables that, done well, will actually distract me from whatever tasty piece of meat or starch is the primary focus of my meal.  I really like them. 

 

I haven’t really tried cooking them too many ways, because they are so good done very simply.  Browning/caramelizing vegetables in a black iron pan is almost always a sure shot, but brussel sprouts takes the move to another level.  I like to toss them with olive oil and salt and cook them in the pan on low-medium heat for something like a half-hour until they are mildly squishy and nicely browned with even a few crispy bits hanging out.  They get so nutty.  In fact, my other favorite way to cook them sort of takes this nuttiness inherent in these tiny cabbages and squares it: again in the cast-iron pan, toss the brussel sprouts (cut large ones in half) with a pat of butter and some salt, low-medium heat.  When they are maybe halfway there, throw in some pine nuts and let them brown up with the sprouts.  Between the caramelized sprouts, the toasted pine nuts and the browned butter, this is a dish of extreme nuttiness, and one that actually finds me making little irritating noises of pleasure to myself as I chew on them. 

 

On the farm, these are pretty much the last things that come into our shareroom, as we only distribute them in the last two weeks of our share (tomorrow is our last day of distribution!).  Before harvesting, we break off all of the leaves branching from the central stem, and then we clip them with long pruning shears at the base of the stalk.  We give the whole stalks out, and the actual sprouts are easily snapped off. 

 

I recommend that everybody go and eat some brussel sprouts. 

 

Peace and love.

 

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Last Tasks

All apologies for not writing more recently!

 

You know that you are nearing the end of the growing season when you can count the remaining major tasks you have to complete on one, or maybe two hands.  That’s not to say that there’s not an endless array of things you could do, many of them very helpful (if not necessary in the grand scheme of things), but there are only a few things of pressing importance that really need to be done before the truly cold weather hits. 

 

Before things wrap up, we need to:

Finish weeding the strawberries (almost done, maybe a half hour more with a crew of 4)

Mulch the strawberries (cover the plants with hay to protect them during the winter)

Plant the garlic

Mulch the garlic

Remove the rest of the plastic mulch and drip-irrigation tape from the fields

Clean the tractor implements and store in the barn cellar

One last swipe at cover-cropping the remaining open fields once major harvesting is done

 

That’s really just about it, ignoring for the moment the fact that we still have harvesting to do for the last week that we are open, the one-time winter share we are offering Thanksgiving week, and a few additional sales to restaurants and local farmstands.  Soon, in a couple of weeks, my hours will drop drastically and I will be able to focus on a combination of personal creative projects, farm study and travel with my greatly expanded amount of personal time.  I will continue to put in hours at the farm throughout the off-season, and hope to learn a lot and get some interesting projects accomplished. 

 

Some things that I will probably work on at Appleton during the off-season:

 

Some kind of information database organizing farming knowledge, procedures, schedules and checklists at Appleton.

Field scheduling for next year.

Seed ordering.

Equipment maintenance. 

Budget work.

Construction projects (such as a hoop house for tomatoes) and equipment/infrastructure maintenance.

 

Eventually, the weather will turn a bit milder around the beginning of March and we will begin to prepare the fields with plowing and we will start to plant seeds in the greenhouse.  I am looking forward to going through another season with this year’s experience under my belt and gaining whatever perspective and wisdom that will offer, as well as learning some new skills and taking on some more responsibility.  In particular I hope to do some of the primary field preparation and plowing with the Kubota tractor and participate in harvest management once the distribution starts up again next June. 

 

Have a Happy Halloweed, everybody.  Peace and love to all.

 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Greenwood

Here's streaming audio of a new song I recorded, called 'Greenwood':


Or, here's the link to download it to your computer:

http://www.box.net/shared/i63ybph8iq

Have a good day! Peace to everybody.

-Brian

Saturday, October 17, 2009

It's cold...

The first trees I saw that turned to their fall colors, a line of maples bordering a little creek on Appleton Farm, have now lost all of their leaves and stand barren in the chilly October wind. As our deciduous trees shed their colorful cloaks, I am putting mine on, every day a new layer it seems. Yesterday, I wore a full set of polypropilene long-johns, t-shirt, fleece sweater, thick hooded sweatshirt, hooded rainjacket, knit wool cap, also gloves, two pairs socks, boots, work pants, rain pants, gloves, etc. It is cold! We had a genuine frost two or three times this week; one of them was almost more of a freeze than a frost, the temperature having gotten down to (or very close to) 32 during the night. I have no real problem making myself comfortable with all of those layers except for my hands, which of course need to continue working, usually with more delicacy than a pair of thick mittens can afford. So I make do with fleece fingerless, or thin leather, rubber dishwasher, or even surgical, depending on the situation. None of them keep my hands warm. Oh well.

We have pretty much lost our pepper plants, our eggplants, our green beans, our basil, and a few various other things, but surprisingly (to myself at least) most of our stuff that is still in rotation has made it through these severe temperatures intact, including tender-seeming greens like lettuce, arugula and spinach. The heartier fare, like cabbage, collards, carrots and parsnips certainly have nothing to fear from these first cold nights.

My thoughts have turned, finally and after a season of slothful weekends, to putting some food up for the winter. The bulk of this will be simple storage of vegetables that should store well fore some time, either in the pantry, the cellar, or the refrigerator. Potatoes, onions, butternut squash, shallots, sugar pumpkins, carrots, beets, celeriac. I have already started the hoarding. I have also started a bit of blanching and freezing, which I will do mostly with broccoli, cauliflower and spinach (I have already done some broccoli, as well as strawberries and basil pureed in olive oil earlier in the season).

The hard stuff, that I hope to get started on today, is the pickling. I have chosen not to do traditional canning or pickling, but just a few choice recipes of lactic fermentation, which I will describe in more detail at some future post. It is essentially a type of preserving in salt or brine that encourages microbial organisms to flourish that turn the vegetable’s sugars into lactic acid, which sours them and creates an environment preventing spoilage. The most famous recipe of this sort is for sauerkraut. Kim chi is a spicy Korean pickle of this sort. It can also be done with a traditional cucumber-type pickle, dill and all. This method of pickling preserves more nutrients, so I’ve been told, than traditional canning or pickling, and creates a fizzy brine that is supposedly good for digestion.

Anyway, we’ll see how far I get. First I have to go to the Essex Co-op and get some jars.

Peace to everybody.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Cover Cropping

The farm is in an interesting place right now; we are steadily moving into Fall, with all the things that Fall brings: cold mornings, blustery, clear afternoons, jackets and gloves, red maple leaves, fields of brown, yellow and red grasses, flying V’s of honking geese, roadside pumpkins, early nightfall and late sunrise. The air makes it feel like the farm is winding down and winter is just around the corner, and in fact we only have four more weeks of distributing produce to our shareholders. Yet in many ways we are at the very peak of production; we have never had such a variety and plenitude of good food grown and harvested in our own fields here at Appleton Farms. This last week we gave out New England Pie Pumpkin, Spaghetti Squash, a variety of decorative gourds, white potatoes, yellow onions, red onions, heads of garlic, tomatillos, summer crisp lettuce, oak leaf lettuce, green peppers, colored peppers, Italian red peppers, toscano chard, red chard, collard greens, arugula, mustard greens, tatsoi, spinach, carrots, beets, chard, globe eggplants, purple eggplant, white eggplant, fennel, turnips, daikon radishes, bok choy…I know I’m missing a couple things, and of course that’s not including the pick-your-own fields, which are on the downswing but still offering green beans, basil, parlsey, dill, cilantro, perennial herbs and cut flowers.

Besides harvesting all of this bounty, however, we are firmly engaged in a lot of end-of-season work. One of the biggest projects for this time of year is cover cropping. This is not something that we can leave off until we finish our harvest, as it will be too cold by then to ensure good germination of the cover-crop seeds. On Thursday I got a chance to do some cover-cropping and learn a bit about this very important farming practice.

Cover cropping, in short, is planting a field with some kind of crop after you are done harvesting from that field. This crop will germinate and grow in the fall and the plants and network of roots left intact in the soil over the winter. This is done for two primary reasons, to protect the soil from erosion and to retain and bind nutrients and organic matter in the soil. Many cover crops, such as peas (and other leguminous plants) are able to fix nitrogen into the soil, helping to maintain high levels of this extremely important element available to plants. Strong networks of roots and plants prevent snowmelt, rain and wind from washing away top soil and leaching nutrients below the topsoil.

Sometimes we do very large swaths of land with our biggest tractor, but on Thursday I did just a few smaller patches, maybe an acre in total, with our mid-sized tractor and a hand-seeder. First off, the finished beds need to be mowed to cut down the plants and cut up the thicker weed stems. This had already been done to the fields I was working on. Then I came in with our John Deere High Crop tractor, fitted with a discing implement, which is a set of sharp metal discs that can be lowered into the soil and rolled along to break up the soil and weed/crop refuse. Each bed usually has to be gone over a couple of times to make sure that enough good topsoil is exposed and there is not a lot thick layers of green vegetable matter on top. Then, I went along with a hand seeder filled with rye seed, and with the help of a hand crank spinning a disc underneath the bag I flung seed out in all directions while walking down a disced bed. I was probably able to cover about forty feet from left to right, or about four beds or so, at a time. Then, the seed generously applied, I went back over the beds with the disc again, just once and with the discs set quite shallow, to make sure that there was good contact between the seed and the soil, to ensure good germination.

That’s it; now I am very interested to see the results of my efforts (though I’ve already seen plenty of fields come up in either rye or oats and peas, but this was my first adventure in cover-cropping and I always have propriety feelings over my own personal efforts).

Anyway, peace to everybody.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farming knowledge, farming futures

This week we topped brussels sprouts. We didn’t spend all week on it or anything; in fact it just took four of us maybe a half hour to and hour to do all eight or so rows that we have. We each took two rows at a time and moved between them, methodically reaching in to the newest growth of leaves and breaking it off. I guess that this stops the further growth of new leaves (and overall height) on the plant, and stimulates the development and size of the sprouts that we all enjoy. Brussels sprouts will be among the last things that we distribute, giving out a couple of stalks with the sprouts still attached to every shareholder during the last couple weeks of the share, as we come near to Thanksgiving.

Every plant is different, and every plant that we grow for food has slightly or greatly differing needs to ensure its healthy growth and harvest. Tomatoes seedlings should be planted deeply, almost up to their first branching, to encourage thick root growth. Potatoes should have soil mounded up around the base of the plants after they have gotten well started, to smother weeds, to provide loose, easy soil for the potatoes to grow in and for easy harvesting. Basil leaves (and flowers) should be harvested from the tops of the plants to encourage continued growth. Winter squash should be harvested at full size and cured for a couple of weeks before distribution so that the skins can harden and much of the starch converted to sugar for best flavor and texture. Lettuce likes it cool and wet. Eggplant likes it really hot, especially unbroken heat through the night. Carrots like two or three fingers of space between each plant, beets like a little bit more. Watermelons should be harvested when they have that hollow bongo sound, have brown and withered tendrils opposite the fruit stalk, and a bright yellow spot where they laid on the ground.

There are thousands of these little tips and pieces of information. Some of these things are out of our control. Some we have time for. Some we don’t quite have time for. There are plenty of things that we don’t know, and probably lots of things that nobody knows. Some information fits readily into a sensible scheme of common sense, some information is easy to understand with a general understanding of biology, botany and/or ecology, some stuff you just have to learn and remember. As the season winds down (and after it ends) I hope to work systematically through all the things I have learned over the season and make notes about how we did things. For every plant, for instance, I hope to list how we started them out, where we put them, what we did to them, how we weeded them, how we harvested them, etc. And also look at systems and procedures the same way – weeding, tilling, cover cropping, etc. It seems to me almost a little unnecessary right now; almost every task we’ve done this season we’ve done over and over at some point, until it seems almost second nature, but still surprises always show up, and reasons that we do something a particular way often don’t come to light until much later in the season when we are doing our harvest, or an intermediate weeding, or some other procedure that depends on us doing things a certain way when we put the seedlings into the ground.

I’m not sure why I’m talking about this right now, except that as the season nears its ending I am giving thought to what I’ve learned and how I can make the most of it, and make it stick, and build knowledge and experience upon it next year instead of just repeating tasks. To that end I’ve decided that I will probably work at Appleton for a second year, and also take the opportunity to work part-time there over the off-season as well. For the off-season, I think it will be invaluable to get a look at an entire year on the farm, to see the entire process from start to finish, and to get a glimpse into some of the ‘behind the scenes’ activities, so to speak, like budgeting, scheduling, ordering, infrastructure projects, and the like. As to a second season, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting deeper into the reasoning behind the decision making that made up all the tasks that we did this year, why this, when, and how. Also to get the opportunity for a little more responsibility regarding the farm operations, whether it be managing a particular aspect of the farm (like the greenhouse schedule, or daily harvesting, or shareroom distribution, or direct seeding) or just having more independence in doing the tasks that await. I also think it would be very good to see how one adjusts from one season to the next, in part because of what worked and what didn’t in previous years, and also in reaction to new conditions that arrive with every spring.

Though nothing is certain, I would think that for a third year of apprenticing, if I chose to do that and had no managing jobs or personal farming opportunities that I was pursuing, I would go to another farm, to learn a new piece of land and new skills. I think that on any given farm, you can only learn so much about its operations in any given year, hence my desire to work a second year. I also think, and it may be very obvious to say this, that you can only learn so much about farming on any one farm. Even with the exact same business model and crops, every piece of land is different, but I am mostly referring to some things which I just won’t have the opportunity to learn at Appleton, or at least not in any great depth or that I can see. Things such as soil management and composting (which is done at Appleton but not in a manner that apprentices are really a part of), or livestock management (once again, we have a dairy and a beef operation but they are separate departments), or certain techniques like no-till agriculture, or grain and dried bean agriculture, among many other things I might choose to learn about someday, either on my own or at another farm. I’m learning tons at Appleton, but every farm has only so many things they can really do, though I sometimes dream (perhaps unrealistically) of having a farm that at least dips its toes into a little bit of everything.

Well, enough rambling. Peace to all.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Remembering Ellen

If my family has an icon, it's my Aunt Ellen. She was a larger than life presence in all walks of life for me, and for all of us. She was a hilarious tale teller of her own adventures and misadventures, a lively, confident and gifted cook and organizer at our rambunctious Thanksgiving gatherings, an endlessly energetic host during wonderful weeks of fishing, sunbathing, eating and swimming up in Canada, a knowing and generous listener and giver of support, a powerful fighter with enormous strength, the eldest sister of a remarkably varied and gifted assortment of siblings, the pint-size (sorry, Ellen!) wife of 'the big fella' who nonetheless held sway wherever she was and who usually outshone the rest of the room, the loving mother and grandmother of another remarkable group of people. She was, of course, many more things, and I'm sure any one of us could go on and on as our memories visit and revisit all the vivid times we have spent with her. I have spent much of the last twenty-four hours, when I learned of her passing, smiling at her antics and the good times we had together, and feeling the love she continually spread amongst her family, even as I keenly feel her loss and a sadness welling within me. I hear her laugh more than anything else, a blessing as I can't help but feel my spirits lift whenever I remember it. Her last eight months were very difficult, and she showed an unbelievable resilience and strength throughout. If anybody was going to beat the odds, it was Ellen, and she did so several times, but dust to dust as they say, and all of us eventually make our way out of this world and into another. It is of great comfort to all of us that her last moments and days were peaceful, and I wish her the absolute best in her new journey, and I wish the rest of us and in particular her husband, children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters as much happiness and peace as possible in the days to come. I love you, Ellen!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A New Song

I've just finished recording a rough version of a new song, provisionally called 'Her Face'. It is, of course, about my sister Esme. I wish I could say that this is a positive look at good memories and shared love, but this one is more about the loss and confusion. I hope to do a better recording at some point, but I felt like getting it out there as I had kind of written it for the six-month's-out time. The link is

http://www.box.net/shared/cv36h9vgvm

where you can download it to your computer.

Like any artist of pretension, here are the lyrics:

Her Face

Kingfisher calls, flies past my bed
Wondering at the things it has said
Under the sun and midst the cold cold rain
Listening through the night for the train

Watching the marsh, clouds on the sea
Wishing that her love, her light will somehow follow me
The skies are bare, the crows keep their watch
Looking for the times we have lost

We wait and wait all year for signs
When we’re alone or thick with wine
We wait for faces in the weathered gate posts
Waiting for the things we love the most

I lie in bed, and turn my head
Hearing through the open window things that she once said
I strain my ears to hear her voice tonight
Saying something good to help me make it through this night

We wait and wait all year for signs
When we’re alone or thick with wine
We wait for faces in the weathered gate posts
Waiting for the things we love the most

Times we had are nothing, anymore
An empty road we drove down long before
Though they’re everything that’s left
The smiles that hide
Behind my eyes
I will never see her face again
I will never see her again

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fall Is Coming to Our Farm


Though it may technically still be Summer, it feels like Fall at Appleton Farms. We’ve had pleasant, breezy days with temperatures in the 60’s most of the last week, and jackets are now generally worn in the early mornings and evenings. I get the feeling that this is held by most of my fellow farmhands to be the nicest time of year to be out in the fields. We have left (probably) the heat of the Summer behind, yet the ground still gently holds the residual warmth of the sun, and it is just plain nice to be outside. Though there is tons still to do, and much that we should do that we will not find the time for, the crazy-busy period of plowing/seeding/planting/weeding/harvesting is over. We are still doing some weeding, and some end-of-season tractor work and plenty of various jobs here and there, but the bulk of our time now is spent harvesting, which of course is a pleasure and the end result we all seek (well…cooking and eating I guess, really). We can also now see the end of the season, and a well-deserved period of semi-dormancy where we can catch up on whatever personal projects and hobbies we might have ignored over the Spring and Summer.

I’ll tell you what really makes it feel like Fall, however, and that’s the winter squash that we have just begun to harvest. On Wednesday we harvested a few beds of a pumpkin variety called New England Pie, which as you might guess is highly recommended for pumpkin pie. Yesterday we harvested a couple beds of a smaller variety called Carnivale, a beautiful pumpkin of pixilated orange, green and cream that I am told is also quite delicious and sweet. The winter squashes are generally harvested en masse when the bulk of the crop has reached full size, but then are cured in the barn for a period of time, during which their skin hardens, they change to their final colors (pumpkins often go from green to orange) and much of the starch in their flesh is converted to sugar. Mmmmm.

Winter squash is an important crop for us, as it provides a lot of nutritious, tasty farm bounty that stores well for weeks or even months, thus extending the season of eating off of the farm well into the winter (carrots and other root crops like parsnips, turnips and celeriac also store well for quite a while). I love winter squash for its delicious flesh like anybody else, but I really really love it for two other reasons: toasted pumpkin (or squash) seeds, and the absolutely beautiful and stunning variety of shapes, sizes, textures and colors that they come in. Regarding the toasted seeds, my favorite salty snack of all time, I’ll share my recipe (which I’ve shared before) a little late, once we start digging into the properly cured and ripe fruits. As to their beauty, I’ve attached a poor picture of a couple of mutant Carnivales. I now wish I had grabbed a ‘normal’ one for reference; squash varieties intermix very easily with each other (I want to read more about this – I’m guessing that they are dependent on pollinators and if a flower is pollinated with pollen from a separate variety you get a genetic mixture of the two), but I thought these two were particularly interesting to look at.

We will, of course, be harvesting a lot of other varieties as the season progresses, including Blue Hubbard, my favorite of the last few years, popular varieties like Acorn and Butternut, as well as plenty others (spaghetti, buttercup. Delicata, Kubocha are some other names that come to mind – I want to try them all; we’ll see). Blue Hubbard is an interesting one: all the winter squashes are susceptible to ravaging by cucumber beetles (they are related to cucumbers) and Blue Hubbard are particularly attractive to these insects, so we plant them in a border around the entire field of winter squash as a ‘trap crop’, hoping that they’ll fall into the Blue Hubbards and enjoy their time so much there that they never move on to the rest of the field. Hopefully, however, we’ll have a few that survived the onslaught. Their seeds, in particular, are big and juicy.

Adios for now; I hope that everybody is doing well.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

More Stuff about Weeds

This is an interesting time to be on the farm. We are currently distributing the widest variety of vegetables so far, and probably that we will throughout the entire season. In our shareroom this week we have carrots, beets, red and yellow potatoes, chard, collards, mustard greens, arugula, tatsoi, summer crisp lettuce, summer squash, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, peppers, watermelon, canteloupe, tomatoes and no doubt a couple of other things I’m forgetting. Also, in the pick-your-own fields, we have hot peppers, green beans and all sorts of herbs, also flowers. Although maybe the diversity will get even broader if a few of these summer vegetables overlap with the fall brassicas, onions and winter squash which are all moving along quite well (we have harvested most of the onions, in fact, but will let them cure a couple of weeks before distributing them).

I also find it an interesting time of year because as so many crops come of age, so to speak, you can really see how different cultivation practices had their effect in the end result, in the vegetables that we are now harvesting. For instance, in one of our fields of cucumbers we had a couple of beds where we let the weeds get away from us, resulting in a thick, high assortment of grasses and tender annual weeds with rather stunted and hidden cucumbers plants vining half-heartedly in the jungle. We have been valiantly going through these beds looking for cucumbers, but they are few and far between, and are often scraggly little golf balls (that nonetheless are quite tasty), with an occasional jumbo pickler thrown in just to get one’s hopes up. They are probably one-fifth as productive as the beds that were thoroughly weeded at the right time.

Other fields the weeding doesn’t seem to make quite so large a difference, but that’s a dangerous assumption to make. We have three beds of celeriac which we really busted hard to get weeded this last week or so (they were really overgrown and in a spot where the wet soil from June had really compacted), but the celeriac plants seemed to be healthy and vibrant, often with good-sized root balls (which is the part of the plant that is eaten) already, though we won’t harvest them until October or so. Who knows what things will be like then, or how different they would have been if we hadn’t done this weeding. In many fields, we stop weeding once the crop is nearing harvesting, as they are already almost as big as they need to get, and we harvest amidst the weeds. Beets and carrots are like this, and they seem to do pretty well.

Other variables and their results will be of more interest to me next year, when I have one year already under my belt. But really, there are so many variables and so many things that change from one year to the next that it is next to impossible to draw straight-line conclusions from anything on a working farm like this. I suppose you would have to do side-by-side, same time, controlled experiments to really get to the bottom of some of these questions.

Anyway, peace and love to all.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Summer Flowers, Summer Bugs





One of my favorite things about summer is watching bees and other insects poke and prod amidst the various blooming flowers.  In a well-tended and diverse flower garden, I can sit for a long while just enjoying the hazy cloud of bees and bugs drifting from one little explosion of color to another.  This evening, the scene was not quite so extravagant, but in the mid-evening hours I came across a beautiful, large cluster of tall yellow flowers (I'm guessing some sort of goldenrod, but I really don't know) with several interesting and colorfully patterned insects within and without.  After watching for a few minutes I decided to get my camera.  Enjoy!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cooking from the Farm's Bounty

Though I am not cooking quite as much as I had hoped to before this whole farm thing began, bringing our bounty home and making something of it is certainly one of the great pleasures of the experience. Our days are long, and by the time I get home and have cleaned myself up, I can already see bedtime creeping up on me. So during the week there is very little looking through cookbooks for new, unusual and/or creative dishes to cook; I just don’t have the energy or will for it. Of course, I still have to eat and I certainly don’t want to waste the opportunity and just eat convenience food or take out, so I concentrate on quick and simple preparations. Luckily, these are often the best ways to experience fresh, high-quality produce. And there’s always the weekend for something a little more involved.

Of course, I do love to cook, and I’ve often found that what strikes me as a pretty simple, straightforward thing seems very involved to other people. But really, I only have my own perspective to go by.

From the last week, my peak experiment was a dish called leeks vinaigrette. As our fresh bulbed onions (ailsa craig variety) gave out a couple weeks ago, we started harvesting our leeks to fill in the gap until our big storage onions are ready (we started harvesting them this week but they have to cure for a while before they can be properly stored and distributed to our shareholders). I’ve cooked with leeks before and enjoyed them, but I’m getting a better sense of their own flavors and uses now that I'm trying to find a place for them in the absence of regular onions. But they really need to be cooked; that’s one big limitation compared to storage onions. In any case, leeks vinaigrette: cut off the roots and tops of a few leeks (keep maybe an inch or two of the pale green) and boil them in salted water until they are cooked (but short of mushy or falling apart; a fork should slide into the center without too much effort). Let them cool a bit and slice them in two lengthwise and place cut side up on a plate. Make a mustard vinaigrette – equal parts Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar, two or three parts olive oil, maybe a little water for an appropriately delicate flavor or texture, salt and pepper. Whisk and pour over the leeks. Finally, grate a hard-boiled egg over the leeks and eat. Very tasty; somehow it was just what I expected except better, with a fuller, more integrated flavor.

This week we have been delving into fresh salsa as well, one of my favorite things to do with fresh summer produce. Though our tomatoes have had and continue to have great difficulties due to the blight, we have still gotten a few good fruits off of the vine, often green, that have ripened up pretty nicely and have good flavor (though except for our sungold cherry tomatoes which are just as sweet and delicious as I could imagine, these fruits that are ripening off of the vine are not as good as the best tomatoes I have tried in other summers). And now that we are starting to get hot peppers in as well that means salsa. Frankly, this time of year, I rarely stray from that most traditional and ubiquitous of Mexican salsas, pico gallo. Diced onions, garlic, tomatoes, hot green chiles, cilantro, lime juice and salt. Mmmmm. It is such a pleasure to make and eat. This week has also seen a couple major pesto excursions as we have a couple of bed of basil that are going gangbusters (I also froze a bunch of basil pureed with olive oil to keep summer alive later in the fall and winter), and last weekend I indulged in a classic American meal of grilled steak (from our grass-fed jersey cows) with our own yellow potatoes and grilled escarole.

I guess grilled escarole might be a departure of sorts from that 'classic American meal'. Escarole and all the chicories are delicious grilled. For escarole, dunk it in water before dressing and grilling so that it doesn’t burn too easily. Halve it, and toss it with a balsamic vinaigrette, salt and pepper. Throw it on the grill. Keeping it to the sides seems best, to keep it from burning before it wilts nicely, though some char and grill marks are entirely appropriate. The escarole will usually keep some chew unless you get fancy and blanch it a bit first, but that seems unnecessary to me.

And lots of even simpler stuff has been cooked and consumed, salads, boiled beets, steamed greens, scrambled eggs with herbs, etc. It’s certainly a pleasurable time of year to eat, though it is often too hot to want to spend much time over the stove or with the oven on, but we get by alright. In any case, as I sit here writing this it is raining and probably only in the upper sixties, so maybe I should go get a chicken and put it in the oven.

Adios, friends.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dog Days of Summer

My deepest apologies for not having written for, what, three weeks? I was traveling, but then I wasn’t, I was back working at the farm, but I couldn’t seem to find the motivation to write. Why not? Don’t know. The weeks have been up and down, but that’s normal. There has been plenty going on.

The name of the game this past week has been survival. Surviving the heat. We had a heat wave, with temperatures in the low 90’s on Monday and Tuesday, very high 80’s on Wednesday and Friday, with Thursday a relatively mild 83 or something like that. As you can imagine, working very long days in this heat, under the sun, can be difficult. We are lucky, between the ocean’s proximity and the open fields around us, to have a good breeze much of the time, but there’s only so much it can do in extreme heat and humidity. Plus, many tasks take us down onto our knees and between rows of vegetables where there is often little wind. Weeding is definitely a challenge. I think the worse task this week, for me, has been harvesting cherry tomatoes. They are prickly and viney, full of mosquitoes, unfortunately full of rotting leaves and fruit due to the blight, dusty and hot with no wind. Though the sungold cherry tomatoes that we are still able to harvest are certainly wonderful. Let them go all the way to their deep orange, when they are ripest, and they are so sweet, so delicious. If you can wait, take a few home, cut them in two and put a pinch of salt on them and it is an awesome explosion of flavor.

Those are really some of the only tomatoes we are getting, along with a few other of the smaller cherry varieties. We have also harvest a number of green tomatoes, which are ripening in our barn, slowly. They are not quite as good, of course, as tomatoes gone to full ripeness on the vine, but it is what we can do this season. The blight is taking virtually our entire tomato crop, and anything of any size that approaches ripeness goes bad. Sad! Tomatoes are such a wonderful part of summer, in particular a summer on a farm.

But other exciting things are happening. We are harvesting cucumbers (including lots of little pickling cukes that I really enjoy), eggplant (one of the most beautiful of vegetables, in all of it’s many varieties), summer squash and zucchini, lots of peppers (including some purple peppers and hot peppers which are just starting to come in), leeks…lots of stuff. Though harvesting can be monotonous, I generally enjoy moving along a bed of vegetables, particularly things like squash, cucumbers and eggplant where it seems every plant holds a little (or big) treasure just a little different than all the others. I enjoy the mild anticipation, wondering if the next plant will have a lot of fruits or if it will be bare, and the little surprise at whatever it has. Surprise is maybe a bit extreme of a word for this, but you get the idea. Eggplant in particular, with its big soft leaves; poking around and looking, suddenly there’s this shiny black globe hiding against the earth below.

We are not the only ones affected by the heat. The heat, and in particular the lack of rain for the last two or three weeks is also difficult on the plants, the soil, and us as we start to worry about them and figure out ways to get water to them, and endless speculation about if and when it’s finally going to rain. I know I (and most of us) complained quite a bit about our rainy, cold June, but it just doesn’t take much temperature in the high 80’s with no water to make our plants very thirsty. Most of these vegetables are mostly water. So moving around and fixing our irrigation systems has been a daily task.

Our irrigation comes from a well that was dug on the farm expressly for the CSA’s use. We have three systems. One is a standard overhead sprinkler system, where a series of aluminum pipes with four foot rotating sprinkler heads are attached directly to the pipe. These can be moved, but are rigid once in place and take a couple of hours to reset for another set of beds. We also have something called the Traveller, which is a single hose with a sprinkler attached, which is slowly (slowly) drawn across the length of a bed by a contraption that is powered by the water pressure. Finally, we have a set of drip tubes, which is a hollow plastic tape attached to a header hose. The drip tapes are run along a row of vegetables, buried in the soil at root depth or just on top of the soil. They are perforated with tiny holes every couple of inches and essential drip water slowly directly into the soil. They lose far less water to evaporation and runoff than any other method that I’m aware of. I like them. We had a few lines that were torn up by the reggie weeder earlier in the season, and I spent a couple of hours today walking the lines, finding leaks or kinds that were preventing the water from traveling the entire length of the bed, and fixing them with fresh tape and connector attachments. It was kind of fun, a bit of problem solving, with noticeable, tangible improvements at the end and the added benefit of being sprayed by water frequently when working on the leaks.

That’s all I’m going to write for the moment; I’m getting hungry. But I’ll try to keep with it a bit more than I have the last couple of weeks.

Peace to all.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Off to the North Country

I’m off in a couple of hours to the airport, for a flight or two towards the north country, to meet my family for a week of vacation. I call it a dock vacation, as everything we do generally revolves around a dock, boating, fishing, swimming, sitting and reading, chatting, sunbathing, guitar strumming. If it’s not done on the dock itself it’s done within sight of it.

I am looking forward to this very much, and I think we all (my family) need to see each other. I could also use a break from the farmwork, to be honest, mostly from the physical side of things, give my limbs and hands and back time to rest and recuperate. Apart from that, I’m going to miss watching the farm grow this week, after these four months of watching and working so closely with the farm and all the plants we grow, the comings and goings of the birds, the constant change in the wild greenery around us. Though it’s a long growing season, a lot happens in just one week. By the time I get back to work in a week and two days, we will most likely be into our peppers, our eggplant and maybe cucumbers. The big question on the farm, regarding the health of our tomatoes, will probably be resolved one way or another (we are not optimistic right now – we have late blight in several of our beds; these are most likely going to die before their fruit can ripen and the blight may well spread to our other plants soon, if not already).

I am halfway, more or less, through the season, and now would be a good time for reflection on how things are going. As I still need to finish packing, I’m not going to go into any great detail right now, though I have a lot of things on my mind. We have had a great season so far. In particular, the weather of our first two months was spectacular and allowed us to get the farm into great shape for the first part of our distribution. Unfortunately, that period was followed by an unusually long stretch of wet and cold weather throughout June and early July, which has delayed the productivity of many of our summer crops. But hopefully this will just be a delay for the most part – instead of getting them in right now it will be another week or so for the meat of the harvest to really start coming in. We do have concerns about this delay for our winter squash, which have a very long growing season and potentially will back up into dicey weather.

Worst of all, this wet weather seems to have brought the late blight out in great force and much earlier than usual, and the tomato crop may well be a complete or near-complete bust for us and for almost every other organic farm in the northeast. We are contemplating building a hoop house for tomatoes over the winter, which would be a huge asset in the fight against blight. Fungicides would be even more helpful, but are restricted for organic growers. I would like to read more about the fungicides. I don’t think I will ever be interested in going down that road, but it is worthwhile noting that the main dividing line between products that are okay for organic and not okay is whether the product is synthesized or not synthesized. That in and of itself really says nothing about the harmful effects of a product. Residual contamination and harm to soil biota is also considered, but mostly as a way to restrict natural products; if a product is synthetic it is prohibited (note: I may be wrong on some of this; I need to research further) without much consideration for whether it is very harmful or not. In any case, I am interested in moving beyond even organic pesticides if possible, but running a business I would want to balance that with the need to be practical regarding the state of the land I have and, frankly, my own knowledge and capabilities. It is hard to see all of our beautiful tomato plants and not want to use every tool you can think of to save them, but such is the difference between long-term thinking and short term. But in some cases (not this one, thank goodness), what’s the use in long-term thinking when you lose the farm?

It’s a big world, with a lot of big questions and things to consider, and that’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in farming. All worries aside, I love this job and am already looking forward to getting back to it in several days time, but in the meantime, I’m overjoyed to be able to spend some time with my family, who I just don’t see enough of.

Peace to all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Green Summer

Your industrious blog host, sweaty, dirty and weary after a day on the farm.  Our last two days have really brought us into summer.  Today we hit the low 90's, and it felt hot.  But you can almost see the eggplant growing; they've been so patient, just waiting for some days like these.
Another portrait, this time with awesome farm hat.  It's certainly not the most fashionable, but this thing is lightweight, comfortable, relatively cool, keeps the sun out of my eyes and off of my neck.  It's crucial.
Some healthy bulbs of fennel.  
Ahhh, tomatoes.  If we can just hold off the blight a bit longer, we'll get some of these in.  Actually, late blight has come to our farm.  My boss found some on our potatoes over the weekend, and mowed all the plants down.  The potatoes, however, are still in there, and had reached harvestable size.  We'll let them sit in the soil for a couple of weeks to set the skin and hopefully let all the blight on the plant tissue above ground die, and then harvest and store them.
A beautiful little zephyr summer squash; the flower is still larger than the fruit.  I love these things.
A tiny watermelon, just starting out, still smaller than a golf ball.
We have started to see a lot of the asian eggplants get going.
A nice looking pepper.
These are the pick-your-own flower beds, a big hit with our shareholders, especially young children.  I don't really know much about the different flowers, and certainly wouldn't put them high on my personal list of priorities, but they sure are pretty, and even I will admit a room seems a bit brighter when there are some fresh flowers about.  We have a few with edible blossoms, such as borage (very bland), bee balm (sweet and spicy) and nasturtium (my favorite, peppery).
A sunflower.
An unopened sunflower.
Green beans in the jungle.
One of my favorite views of the farm, these are some of our tomato beds, staked and trellised, clover planted between the beds as a pathway and mulch.  Most of these are heirloom varieties and some cherry types.  Still keeping our fingers crossed.  We heard today that a sister farm down south just west of Boston is most likely going to lose all their tomatoes, largely due to the blight.
The crew zonked out after lunch.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Phytophthora and other worries

Farming is hard! Our Summer that has not really become a summer yet is still hanging on to its cold, rainy miserableness. Today, frankly, was kind of unreal. If it had just been another misty, cool day with drizzles, I would have moaned a bit but not taken much note of it. Instead I arrived at the farm this morning to a heavy, heavy rain that had been falling since late last night, driving winds sustained at 20-25 miles per hour and temperatures that never got above the mid-60’s. This is July! This was, essentially, a northeaster, and would certainly have been called such if it had happened in November. Our sunflowers were bent way over, past 45 degrees in most cases, and our tomatoes looked like they were struggling against the wind quite a bit as well. We had rain nearly every day in June, but this morning was the worst flooding of our fields yet. Several low-lying spots were under close to a foot of water, the young plants disappearing from view. Walking through the beds, harvesting (the show must go on), we had to constantly be careful not to sink too far into the soft spots and possibly lose a boot to the muck.

Truthfully, I have always been an appreciator of wild weather, and even after all this rain, I would probably have enjoyed today’s spectacle if not for my worries about the farm. I want the farm to do well! We have been doing very well so far, and have had great quality and abundance of everything that we have offered to our shareholders. But due to the colder weather and saturated conditions, many of the high summer crops are behind, still waiting for the heat and the sunlight. Still. I know that I’ve talked about this before, but it’s what is on everybody’s mind much of the time. We really, really want a good stretch of hot days, hot nights and sun! We would welcome a three-week (or more) drought, at this point, and would love the opportunity to run around with irrigation pipes and hoses if it came to that.

The cool and wet weather is also contributing to another huge worry this season, that of phytophthora. Phytophthora is a group of molds that affects a lot of commercial plants. In this case, it is phytophthora infestans, otherwise known as late blight, or potato blight. This is the thing that killed all the potato plants in Ireland, creating the potato famine. It also affects other plants related to potatoes, most notably tomatoes. It is always lurking, and is often the agent that finally kills off commercial tomato and potato plants towards the end of the season. This year, it has shown up in the northeast much earlier than usual. It was also unwittingly distributed through plant sales at a number of home improvement and garden centers. One of my co-workers went down to a farm conference the other night in Lincoln (a western suburb of Boston) and there were a cluster of farms there that were seeing mild to severe affects of the blight. They were, understandably, freaking out about it. It hasn’t shown up yet here on the north shore, but it could at any moment. It travels very easily and quickly through the air and once it gets going can wipe out an entire crop in just a couple of days. Organic growers like ourselves have fewer options than other farms, as there are no real fungicides that are organically approved. There is some kind of copper solution that can be sprayed on the plants that does provide some protection, but I don’t know a lot about it yet. I have to do some reading up. My boss really doesn’t want to go down that route but he ordered a backpack sprayer and some of the material in question and we will certainly use it if we think it necessary. We may also take steps such as harvesting most of our potatoes early and putting them in storage (they should last quite a long time if stored properly); unfortunately we cannot do that with tomatoes. Right now we are just hoping that, between some sunny, hot days and the blight holding off our tomatoes get a chance to ripen. I know that I am looking forward to a couple weeks (at least) of greek salads and fresh, spicy salsa, my two favorite things to do with good, ripe farm tomatoes (aside from sprinkling them with a bit of salt and just eating slices).

I suppose I could think of this from a personal perspective, and see that there’s a lot to be learned by going through difficulties like this. It’s definitely part of the big picture on a farm; there are always going to be worries like this lurking at the rear and fore of your mind, and some of them are going to come true. My own personal fortunes are not drawn up with this farm, though a good season could in some way affect future plans or the availability of certain options. We work so hard, though, and watch with such care and daily attention these plants that we are growing, and take such pleasure in the food that we gather and eat and make available to lots of other folks in our community, that it is hard to see things that are beyond our control have significant, deleterious effects. I want our farm to succeed, and do well, for my sake, for the farm’s sake, for my boss’s sake, for our customer’s sake, etc.

As I said before, though, the season has gone very well so far and there is no reason to think that we will not continue to offer plenty of good food. And come fall, we expect good harvests of cauliflower, broccoli, cabbages, all of the greens, carrots, beets and lettuce and more that we have been harvesting up to this point. But still, losing out on a significant portion of our eggplants, peppers and tomatoes would be a hard blow. And our winter squash, an important late-season crop for us (as it gives our shareholders a good amount of food that stores well into winter), is a couple of weeks behind and could easily run up against cold-weather before the fruits get big and sweet if we don’t get enough sun during the summer.

Worries, worries. I still have to hope that we’re going to have at least a couple weeks of summer at some point, and in any case, I am learning a lot and enjoying being part of this farm.

Love to all.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Enter Summer

I would say that we are in full swing now at the farm, except that we don’t have any tomatoes yet. Tomatoes really are the pinnacle of American farmstand produce (corn could be considered a contender but I really don’t think so) and I really don’t feel like we’ve seen all this farm has to offer until we start getting some juicy, ripe, sweet tomatoes in. It won’t be forever. The plants are full of blossoms and fruits are beginning to develop on many of them.

But we’ve got lots of other stuff coming in now. Not all of it has reached the shareroom yet (next week I think we’ll see a lot of smiles at the expanded variety) but we’ve now got green beans in the pick-your-own fields, broccoli, all sorts of tiny cabbages, golden beets, gobs of carrots (so sweet and crisp, I’ve never eaten so many of them before), and we’ve just harvested our first three beds of potatoes for next week’s share. Tiny to medium-sized delicate-skinned red ones. I took a few home last night and made a nice herbed potato salad with them, a favorite quick summer meal. Boil them until just tender (I leave the skins on but they are a little more enjoyable peeled) and toss, still warm, with olive oil, salt, pepper, and some selection of fresh herbs. Yesterday I did chives and thyme (and a touch of garlic). I ate it with a bit of local cheese, made from a combination of Appleton Farms cow milk and Nubian goat milk, from Valley View Farms down the road. I need to age it a bit further; it was a little chalky (it’s a soft-ripened style like camembert) but should be good in a couple more days. Maybe I’ll leave it out in the pantry (properly wrapped) so it’ll get soft and gooey quicker.

We also harvested some nice summer squash, the long little yellow ones that are my favorite. And we have tons of herbs going, now, including one of my all-time favorites, thai basil. That stuff is awesome. I was lazy the other night and got some take out fried rice from a local thai place, and this evening I jazzed up the leftovers by stir-frying it with some fresh thai basil, summer squash and green beans and adding some fish sauce steeped with a minced habanero pepper (store bought; our chiles aren’t in yet). Quite delicious.

Today we had what I think felt like our first real summer day. It was hot (mid-eighties) and very humid (just shy of 100% humidity), with blazing, intense sun. I am not the most heat-tolerant person in the world, and how I am going to cope with the next couple months has been a concern of mine, but today I did fine (it helps that the open space and proximity to the ocean gives us a pretty consistent breeze, also helpful with bugs). I did have a half-hour pulling up garlic in the late morning where I was feeling pretty miserable, but I took a five minute break for water and felt much, much better. Water is the key, and short breaks when you can’t stand it any more. And a hat. Hats are also key; that sun will get you otherwise. Plus, a hat you can drench in cold water, put on your head and enjoy those cool trickles down your spine. The hat I used today was perfect, it could hold a cup of water pretty securely on my head, and was good for about a minute and a half of nice sprinkling. I think I’m going to make it.

This weekend I am dog-sitting for my boss, and I am looking forward to using it as an excuse to do a lot of nothing and maybe watch a red sox game on television if it is raining (or maybe even if it isn’t). Some reading, some strumming, some contemplation and maybe a little fooling around with his Wii video game system. So bucolic.

I feel like I just wrote a lot of words about a lot of nothing, but I guess that’s where my head is. I hope everybody is doing well. Love, Brian

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Is it summer yet?

What’s going on at the farm right now?

My little welcome to the sun of two weeks ago was a bit premature. We had another almost full week of clouds, intermittent rain and cool weather (60’s) after that. This last week was better, sun on Monday, Thursday and Friday but surprisingly cool all week and heavy rain on Tuesday and Wednesday. Now it is starting to feel genuinely summery, that mix of sun and heat and occasional afternoon and evening showers, but we still haven’t had any really hot weather (I mean in the mid-80’s to 90 or so). Now I would normally welcome this, not being much of a lover of the heat and humidity, but many of our summer plants would really like more than we’re getting. My boss was talking about eggplant in particular, and how they don’t just like the heat but really prosper when there are sustained periods of high temperature, when the nights stay hot through until morning. But it felt very spiriting to work in the sun on Friday; the eggplant’s upper leaves were reaching upwards towards the sun and I felt that we could almost see them growing. There are many plants now with lovely deep blue, purple blossoms and some of our tomatoes are also full of yellow flowers. Some of our summer squash plants already have fruits growing on them; I really enjoy seeing all the produce in miniature.

We took advantage of the drier weather and got the tractors out for a lot of mechanical cultivation this week. Friday afternoon I used an implement I’d never tried before with the John Deere High Crop tractor. They’re called sweeps, and are a set of thin, bladed metal arrowheads about six inches across, and are set at the rear and center of the tractor so that they are lowered into the soil and can cut or uproot most of the weeds in the bed outside of the middle foot and a half or so. We use these just on one-row crops (one row of plants down the center of a five foot width bed – these would be plants that need a bit more space (nutrients and water) to prosper) which include peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, winter squash, summer squash, cucumbers and strawberries, amongst others. It is exciting to see some of these high summer foods developing so well, and makes us all think that our month of rain and clouds won’t end up hurting us too much.

Not that we are without some disappointments. In particular, we have one planting of cucumbers, several bed’s worth, that have all but disappeared. There are probably several factors at work here, but the excessive moisture, cool temperatures and lack of sun probably help them all along by making the plants generally weaker and less likely to survive things like rot and cucumber beetle damage. All of the cucurbits (including summer and winter squash) are very delicate; their stems, especially where they connect to the root growth, are moist and crisp, and break very easily, and if we plant them when they have grown a little too tall (we call it ‘leggy’) they often sustain some damage as well. Most of our other crops have done better, and if they haven’t exactly prospered they’ve held their ground and should now begin to grow in earnest.

We are also now into the stage of farming where we are not just bringing new crops in every week, we are also losing them. Spinach is over a week gone now, peas and strawberries are done, and we are into the very last days of radishes and salad turnips. I don’t think we’ll see much more kohlrabi either unless there is another planting I’m not aware of. We are in the heyday of the smaller cabbages, with beautiful softball (or even baseball) sized green and red cabbages, beautiful savoy cabbages, napa cabbages (my favorite), and a bit of lingering bok choy (I think we have some beds of smaller bok choy coming in soon). The perennial herbs we planted are mostly ready for picking now, mint and thyme and oregano and marjoram. Our shareholders are also harvesting our first plantings of basil, cilantro, dill and parsley.

I made my first batch of kim chi last weekend, and I think it has turned out nicely. I can’t verify exactly how much fermentation is actually going on, but I’m not sure I care as it was a pretty tasty pickled kind of thing even as soon as I had mixed all the ingredients together. I chopped up a napa cabbage into quarters and then into two-inch pieces, salted it with three tablespoons of salt, and let it sit for three or four hours. Then I rinsed and drained it, and mixed it up with minced garlic, red chile paste (I just mixed ground cayenne with some water) and fish sauce. I placed it all in a glass canning jar, and pushed it down, pushing all the air pockets out of the brew and making sure that the liquid covered all the vegetables (you could add a touch of water if necessary, but usually the salted vegetables should produce enough moisture if you squeeze and press them). I was a little unprepared to do the full recipe; next time I want to add pieces of scallion (I think I will salt it along with the cabbage?) and some ginger, and maybe use some chopped fillets of salted anchovy instead of the fish sauce. Once it’s all in the jar your put the lid on, loosely so as to allow any fermentaion gasses to escape, and put it in a cool, shaded place for a couple-few days, then into the fridge while you are eating it. I should get more and more sour and softer as time goes by, and in theory you can eat it indefinitely but I think most people, especially westerners, probably prefer on the fresher and crunchier side. One of my favorite quick, healthy things to eat is a meal of kim chi, rice, a fried egg or two and a steamed vegetable tossed with a little soy sauce, rice wine and sesame oil dressing.

Anyway, I hope everybody is doing well this summer. Adios!

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Patterned Light





A little over a month ago I had a somewhat extraordinary experience. Nothing really happened in particular but there was a startling convergence of weather and light at the house I’m living at, producing a moment of such startling and unexpected beauty that I will never, never forget it. Yet it was so eccentric and strange a moment, almost dreamlike, that I can’t really grasp it anymore, and even felt it slipping away moments after its passing.

I had stepped outside of the house I live at, called Greenwood, for no particular reason; the amazing view we have over the Great Marsh of coastal northern Massachusetts is never anything but stunning and is all the reason one would ever need. But even as my foot was crossing the threshold there was an unusual character to the light I was entering and my eyes perked up. I crossed the line of shrubs and trees that line the side of the house quickly to look over the marsh.

It was late afternoon, and had been a day of fitful winds, sun and high clouds, threatening rain and storms. To the southeast, just beyond the salt marsh and over the dunes and drumlins that border the open ocean was a dark band of clouds and rain, occasionally lit with an erratic line of lightning, rising high into the sky. From behind me the sun shone brightly, piercingly through the clouds, lighting up the new green growth of marsh grass. The grass was glowing, seemingly both from within itself and from the sun, an unearthly shade I felt I had never experienced before. This strange color and transmission of light had seeped even into the interior of the house, and two of my housemates had felt it and came running out to see it as well.

We all stood there, mostly unspeaking, watching the light emanating all around us. The moment stood, locked in time, lingering, my brain trying to absorb it, for what seemed a long period, but was probably just three or four minutes, before a sound came from behind us. I turned around, and saw that giant drops of rain were falling from the sky in the full sunlight, every long globe of water lit up and distinct from its many thousands, maybe millions, of brethren. The rain fell over a green meadow of tall grass a thousand shades of green, each swaying tip grasping the moisture and holding it a full moment before letting it run down its spine to the earth below.

At this point, though it created a rift in the full experience, I couldn’t help but think consciously to myself that it was simply too much, too much to fully absorb, that the beauty was well beyond my capacity to comprehend or even fully acknowledge. I thought of my lost sister, felt her close to me, and thanked her for her love and for sharing this moment with me. Though I have no idea where this kind of thing comes from, it was one of the only things, perhaps the first thing since Esme’s passing, which felt close to the kind of love we shared, and it seemed a gift, and true to Esme’s spirit.

I tried to capture some of what I experienced, visually, in a poem, but it’s a really bad poem. But because the whole point of a blog is to share stuff that nobody is really interested in, here it is:

Patterned LIght

rain,

rain,
patterned light
patterned light
green, green
GREEN

sky
light
LIGHT
grass, patterned light

oh
oh,
rain
again, rain
again,
falling

face,
face
by my face
MY
eyes
this
THIS

this is light
Patterned light.

The photographs are by my housemate Susan, and big thanks to her for them. They are nothing like the real thing, of course, but are very nice to have and I’m happy to share them here.

Love to all.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Here Comes the Sun

My apologies, I’ve been a little lax on my blog writing lately. We are in the real thick of it now. Farming, of course, is a very seasonal activity, particularly vegetable farming well up in the northern hemisphere. Even within the growing season, which lasts roughly from April through October, there are periods where an extra effort has to be made all over the farm, and of course the need to sell and market the produce. From mid-May through mid-July, in particular, everything is going gangbusters. Weeds are exploding, and every bed needs near-constant attention. The greenhouse is busy with seeding and plants are going into the ground every day. With the arrival of June we begin harvesting and distributing food to our shareholders.

Within a couple of weeks, we will be virtually done in the greenhouse, and the weed burden will start to lessen (slightly) as the days grow shorter. A week or so after that and most of our seedlings will have gone into the ground, leaving just a few plantings of late season greens and lettuce to go. At that point we will spend most of our time harvesting, managing the fields, working with the shareroom, etc. We will surely also still have a good deal of weeding to do until most of the crops are nearing their time of harvest, but the germination of new weeds will taper off dramatically, leaving us to deal with the billions that have already started growing.

Last week and the first part of this week were difficult for us, and for me. I suppose it’s inevitable that sooner or later any job becomes, well, a job, and loses at least some of its day to day newness and romance. And this is hard work; my alarm goes off at 4:50 am, I work from 6 to 5, I’m working physically the entire day and am often uncomfortable in one way or another and continue to be sore and creaky when I arrive home and when I wake up again in the morning. However, I think this time around I (and most of us here on the farm) were mostly feeling the effects of an extremely cool, cloudy and rainy June. We had about three weeks of deeply overcast days with frequent rain and temperatures in the low sixties (mornings in the fifties). Getting through the day in all types of weather is definitely part of the farming experience, but it takes a rare soul to make it through three weeks of that without some downturn in mood. In addition, we worry about our crops. Though that kind of weather is good for our early season stuff like spinach and chard and radishes and lettuce, our shareholders will be deeply disappointed if that’s still all they’re getting a month from now, and we’re going to need hot weather and bright sunny days to get our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, cucumbers and squash into gear. Luckily, we turned a corner on Thursday; we started the day out with still more rain but it was noticeably warmer, and by the end of the day we were gooping up with sunscreen and complaining about the heat. Friday was the same, despite a spectacular thunderstorm at dawn, and we can only hope that we transition into a normal summer now, with whatever acceptable mix of hot bright days and hot cloudy days and some rainy days and the occasional cooler day. I’ve regained my equilibrium, anyway, and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

Our shareroom has been expanding; this week we had some napa cabbage, garlic scapes, shelling peas, beets and some new varieties of kale. The spinach is almost gone; we’ll probably have one more week of it, as well as the strawberries (which have unfortunately gotten a little soft and watery tasting in the last week with so much rain and so little sun). Next week the big addition will be carrots; I’ve been pulling them out of the fields for a little snack now and then and they are delicious. The shelling peas are also fantastic; sugar snap peas and snow peas have gotten much more popular over the last few years because of the significantly lower amount of work to prepare them, but I think nothing beats the old-school taste of fresh sweet peas.

I have certain recipes with particular foods that I’ve been excited to prepare when we start getting them in. For instance, with peas, I’ve been planning on making a simple sweet pea risotto. I made it last night and it was delicious. Capping off the effort was a bit of excitement; I went out after eating my meal to put the pea pods in our compost bin, grabbed the lid and lifted it off of the bucket only to see a skunk staring up at me. I freaked out; I don’t know whether to be proud of my reaction time or to be ashamed for being such a fraidy-cat, but in any case I took off as fast as I could in a flash and got well clear of the immediate area, still holding the container of pea pods in my had. After calming down I carefully crept back, making sure I didn’t come across the escaping varmint, and of course was hit with a wall of stink when I got about thirty feet to the compost. That stuff is strong! I am very lucky I didn’t get sprayed directly (or bitten!), and the smell quickly drifted in through open windows throughout much of the house. I believe that I must have left the lid slightly ajar an hour or so before; I certainly won’t make that mistake again (the other possibility is that the skunk can pry it off; I think that’s less likely but I’m considering it – I will be very careful if I go out there and see that the lid is ajar again).

Other special dishes that I’ve looked forward to making and have done so are a chard gratin and garlic scape pesto. Both were delicious, though I think I made the gratin a little too rich, and the pesto is a great change but will never replace a classic basil pesto in my heart. I meant to make a spanakopita with the spinach but I have not done so yet and may have missed my window (emotionally if not actually; I love spinach but have been eating it almost daily for a month and a half now). Special dishes coming up are kim chee with the napa cabbage, a special beet, goat cheese, walnut, citrus and avocado salad and a Moroccan carrot and mint salad.

Anyway, talk to you all later! Peace and love to everyone.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Pictures from our Shareroom

Here are folks out in the pick-your-own fields, scrounging for sugar snap peas, snow peas, and strawberries.  I've made particularly fruitful visits myself to the strawberries, freezing a gallon or so for a few strawberry-less months in the future.  Also, with my new ice cream maker I made a batch of fresh strawberry ice cream this weekend, with one of those fancy european-style recipes with an egg-yolk custard base.  It's fantastic.  Next up, chocolate.
I think our chard might be the most beautiful vegetable out there.  We plant a variety called bright lights which comes up in many different colors, red and purple and yellow and white and pink ribs against yellow to green or dark green leaves.  The picture doesn't do them justice; I'll try again.  This was the vegetable of the weekend; I ate it simply blanched and dressed with butter and parmesan and also in a slightly too-rich but still tasty gratin.
I love scallions, particularly in salads, eggs and stir-fries.
Broccoli Rabe (last weekend's vegetable) and bok choy.
Kohlrabi and beets.  Kohlrabi is new to me.  I peeled one today and ate it raw, and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.  It tastes somewhere between a crisp turnip and cabbage, a little sweet and very crisp.  One of the other fellows I work with on the farm eats them like apples.
Our shareroom, which takes up the front third of our barn.  Lots of stuff goes on in here - construction projects, tractor storage and maintenance, farm talks...it's the hub.
A beautiful head of lettuce, a purple romaine.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stuff that happens on the farm

I actually had a positive experience on the reggie weeder this week, though still pretty intense. I sat on back this time, operating the discs and tines rather than driving, but we set it up differently, and more straightforwardly, in my opinion, so that we drive down the center of the bed and one disc gets the weeds on one side of the crops and the other gets the other. Mostly, it meant that there was much less likelihood that we would tear up the crops or run them over with a wheel. The main thing to worry about was throwing too much soil on top of the plants, but a little is good as it smothers a lot of the smaller weeds.

Things are falling into a bit more of a routine now with the shareholders coming most afternoons of the week. In the morning we usually spend our first few hours harvesting. This morning, for instance, we head down to the greens and got mustard greens, arugula, salad turnips, French breakfast radishes and scallions. Then one field over to get some kohlrabi and bok choy. Sometime around mid-morning, we start splitting up into a smaller group or two, some still harvesting, one person washing produce and packing it up in the cooler, and maybe another person or two or three getting onto some other jobs, such as hoe and hand weeding in the broccoli, pulling ups stakes and row cover in the cabbages, or tractor work such as cultivation (weeding) or preparing beds of soil for transplanting. There really are many things that could be going on, but these are representative and frequent choices.

At 11 am one person peels off for the kitchen to cook lunch, usually that’s Eric but he’s on vacation and today was my turn (black beans and rice with spinach, tomatoes (canned), garlic and onion, lettuce salad with radishes, salad turnips, scallions, avocade and lime juice dressing, and steamed rice – we generally eat pretty well and pretty healthily). At some point, we get the shareroom swept, set up and stocked with produce. One of us is always around to help out there, restocking the bins of produce – if it’s busy this can get pretty hectic – answering questions, cleaning up, and just helping out any way you can. My day is Tuesday, and I pretty much stay there all afternoon. I think I got about 15 questions on how to cook the broccoli rabe. There are many ways, but the other night I blanched it for 3 or 4 minutes, cut it up a bit and tossed it with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. Add some parmesan and a nice pasta and you’ve got dinner.

Apart from the shareroom, once again any number of tasks might be gotten to. We often do a round or two of transplanting in the afternoon (putting seedlings that have been started in the greenhouse into a prepared bed of soil outside). More tractor work, maybe some direct seeding (I did a round of beets, carrots and chard this afternoon before it started to rain), some more weeding (we could spend all of our time weeding and still not keep up if we wanted to), going out and harvesting more stuff that we are running low on (today it was chard), and all sorts of other things.

Okay, gotta go. Good night!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Birds of Appleton Farms: A Few Pictures

Mallards are pretty common in the sloughs and small ponds of Appleton Farms, as they are throughout much of the country.  I often see them flying over our fields as well.
Savannah sparrows make as much use of our fields as we do.  I often scare up a bunch of them rooting around in the weeds or furrows, at which point they often fly back to a small brushy area that surrounds an old foundation to perch and give the alarm.
Mockingbirds are conspicuous, aggressive and vocal residents, particularly around the habited parts of Appleton.
Red-tailed Hawks are a frequent and exciting sight in the skies, particularly over the Great Pasture, where one can often see two or three at a time.
I was lucky to get this shot!  It is often hard to get my binoculars on Pine Warblers, let alone my camera.  They are one of the more common warblers during migration, but choose to spend much of their time at the tops of pine trees.  This one came downstairs for a few minutes to say hello.
Bluebirds are almost always within sight, often standing at the top of a fencepost or another similarly conspicuous spot.  I enjoy their musical, conversational song.
Chipping sparrows are our most visible (and audible) sparrow, enjoying the open fields and lawns all over Appleton.
Glossy Ibis are an occasional treat, usually seen flying over our fields on their way from one marshy field to another.  They have a very distinctive silhouette in flight that is pretty much unmistakable.  This is the least common bird on our property that I have been able to get a picture of.

These pictures do not represent the most interesting, most photogenic, most distinctive or even most common birds of Appleton Farms, but just the ones that I have been able to get a usable picture of.  I will talk more at some other time about the birdlife of Appleton in a more meaningful context, but I thought people might enjoy a couple of pictures in the meantime.